FIC: Impossibilities, Holmes/Watson, Holmes/Harold Stackhurst, R. For spacefall

Aug 04, 2012 09:54

Impossibilities

Author:tweedisgood

Pairings: Holmes/Watson; past Holmes/Harold Stackhurst (LION)

Rating R for fairly brief mention of goings on. They were shy.

Word count: ~4,000

Warnings: illness (minor character); Edwardian homophobic legal and social context.

Notes: written to a July prompt - sorry it's late - I still crave a fic in which Watson and Holmes didn't permit themselves a physical relationship in their London days, but Watson learns that Holmes had a long, post-1903 affair with Harold Stackhurst. That is, learns in a 'H&W are still in touch but now W is not quite sure what to think/do/feel about things' way rather than a 'he finds out ten years after all parties involved are dead' way from spacefall, with thanks for all the lovely art featuring the chaps. What do Holmes and Watson really look like? She knows.

Beta thanks to mad_with_july



The day I met Harold Stackhurst was the day I determined to cut Sherlock Holmes out of my life altogether. Not, though, for any of the reasons that may at first occur to you when you are presented with the bare facts. 'Bare': now there is an unfortunate, though... revealing adjective. Certain critics - I name no names - have chided me for overloading mere words with implications they should not be made to carry. Yet, I find they have always been willing workers.

Holmes has a plainer way of speaking, as of writing, than I: he would say one unvarnished by emotion or unnecessary elaboration, untrammelled by any sense of audience. That is, of course, nonsense: he always had a fine appreciation of audience, especially when it consisted of one John H Watson, MD. I will never be entirely sure that what I saw he did not , despite appearances, perfectly well wish me to see.

It began, as it so often had in the past, with a summons disguised as a telegram.

URGENTLY REQUEST YOUR ADVICE SUSSEX NEED TO KEEP OUR SOMETIME ALLIES IN BLUE OUT OF IT ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL YOU COME IMMEDIATELY

SH

He had been retired for five years. With the sole exception of the curious case of 'natural' death that he had submitted to The Strand (without informing me) under the title of The Lion's Mane, his life was dedicated to his hives and to producing a stream of increasingly obscure scientific papers. Oddly enough, he did send me copies of those. I may claim to know more about the synthesis of ammonia than any other layman who reads no German.

The break had come suddenly. One week, we were chasing down a gang of coin shavers - a case that will never find its way into print - the next, he summarily announced his departure for the country. He had bought the villa and smallholding two years before, with the proceeds of Lord Saltire's restoration, and let it out at once for an income. I only half-believed he would ever move in himself.

“Why, Holmes?”

“I am tired of it all, Watson. It is as simple as that. Tired of London; tired of life. Tired of living up to my reputation, of being the man in the stories. Away from here, I can be a different man: a private man, with a private life. You know that could never be possible here.”

I knew. Just as I knew my part in his brilliant and burdensome fame, my part in all the impossibilities of his London life.

Impossibility the first: that Sherlock Holmes could, despite every appearance, every protestation he made to the contrary, learn how to love and come to understand longing.

Impossibility the second: that he would be drawn to an ordinary man, and that man be myself.

Impossibility the third: that we should ever cross the line and act on the urging of every cell in our bodies.

You remark, perhaps, on a missing impossibility: that I speak of love and longing between two men. That is, with respect, your own narrow idea of what is possible and not my concern. You should have paid closer attention to my stories. Holmes was never going to chase Irene Norton across Europe. He admired the tint of Violet Hunter's hair but never dreamed for an instant of running his fingers through it. I loved, and married, a woman, it's true: but tell me, because you first drank milk, did you necessarily afterwards despise water?

It was my fault, the drawing back from the brink: the day he dared to kiss me and the nightfall of that same day when I turned him away at my bedroom door. Why? Why, when he offered himself, body and soul, did I not grab the precious, the long-awaited gift: tear at his clothes like wrapping paper, gorge myself on the gilded marchpane of his naked skin, wear him like a new garment fitted exactly to my form?

I told him I was afraid - that we would be betrayed, blackmailed, might be accused by an enemy of his and have no innocence to plead, that we associated with too many policemen for it to be safe.

“We know what we feel, Holmes. Is it necessary for you to show every piece of evidence in plain sight to prove your deductions are correct?”

In truth, I was afraid of being caught out, but the discovery I feared was less by others, of us, than by Holmes, of me. That he would grow tired of this novelty, be forced to conclude that I was indeed very ordinary but because of our long friendship and the real regard in he has always held me, even when he showed it least, not say so aloud. He would continue into the second act of the play of a life together, line-perfect, but as an actor, not a lover.

Something had flickered in his eyes that night which I was unable to interpret. It might well have been regret, but it could as easily have been relief. Nothing would have to change, and for all his delight in outward innovations - the telephone, the motor car, recorded music - when applied to himself, fundamental change meant existential discomfort and a detective thoroughly out of sorts.

Or so I thought then. In January of 1904, with barely a month's notice, he became a different man altogether, and moved to Sussex to keep bees without me. When I protested, he answered with quiet reason, dry as winter drought, casting my own words at my feet.

“You said it yourself, Watson. We 'know what we feel'. If it is unnecessary to bed down together, why need we even live in the same house? To hem affection in with four walls and keep it from running away?”

The worst of it was, he loved me still. It was plain in his face, turned aside though it was; plain in the stiffness of his hands as he willed them not to reach for me, to make one last plea. But pleading was not in his nature. He had made an honest offer once, and I was a coward and a wretch not to have trusted in him.

I missed him more than in the three years I thought him dead: another impossibility to add to my bag. Letters, the odd weekend - scattered punctuations of contact in the long text of separation - made it worse, not better. His country villa was so secluded that we might have lived there quietly without scandal, as Carpenter and his man Merrill did then at Millthorpe and do now near Guildford. Yet Holmes did not at any point invite me to join him, neither in so many words nor through those signs and portents that I had learned to interpret when he did not deign to be explicit, when he wished to be read as he read his clients or the dance of a worker on the honeycomb.

He had thought better of it, then, or having once been refused, his pride was pricked and would not allow him to make the offer again. Or perhaps it was only that I had stumbled in the dance, whose figures we had followed until we found ourselves embracing, one foggy night in Baker Street, and neither of us knew how to learn new steps.

That morning, as I stepped from the train at Fulworth onto a dirt road and a cart that would carry me to Shore House and Holmes, I decided that for the sake of my heart and my sanity if nothing else, I needed to make this our last meeting. The dance had ceased seven years before and I was weary of recalling it, of berating myself, of longing for him, of wishing I had not stumbled. Better to put him from my mind. Granted, I had yet to see if that was the greatest impossibility of all.

I was set down at the end of the narrow and overgrown lane leading to his gate. Elder, flowering bramble and Ragged Robin crowded my way; only the postman was a regular visitor here.

The postman, and Harold Stackhurst. The name was known to me only from that story about the jellyfish. At the time, I had thought that Holmes did not know how to write about friendship, for a man who needed no appointment but still greeted his friend as “Mr” seemed an odd intimate to me. Then I dismissed the thought as unworthy and cavilling. Holmes could write - could live - as he liked.

He was at the gate, waiting, looking out for me. The way my pulse leaped at the sight of his narrow, hawkish face, unlovely yet so dearly loved, reminded me what a slave I was. A freeborn Englishman should not, even for a fleeting second, want to kneel in the dust at another's feet and kiss his boots.

Without a word he beckoned me to the door and followed me through the low-ceilinged, cluttered parlour, its once fresh plaster a dull, greasy brown, books everywhere, holes in all the rugs, up the steep stairs and to the only bedroom. He had, at some expense, dedicated the other upstairs room as a laboratory for his researches with wide skylights illuminating every corner.

As soon as I crossed the threshold I understood his reference to the Police, and why he had not called a local doctor. In his bed - a wide, double-sized affair in satin walnut, finer than any Holmes had ever slept in in London - lay a tall, well-built man, face down and insensible, only the slight movement of his ribcage showing signs of life. The sheets were pulled down to his knees. From the disarray in the room and bed, someone had tried frantically to rouse him, then plied a wet sponge over him with little skill but much effort.

He was naked.

People speak idly of unwelcome news as being like a punch to the gut. A punch does not twist ones innards to ropes; does not, as a rule, feel like a stone lodged in the throat or pulverising one's bones to dust. As I turned back to Holmes my fists were clenched, true, as if to return a blow. Yet what I wanted was to grasp his lapels, pull his face to mine, demand “Why?”.

The reason I did not do it was that I did not want to know the answer. Did not want to know in what way the man lying there was superior to me, more courageous, more loving. Did not want to know that Holmes was capable of a casual dalliance, when he loved me. If he still did...

Science can be my refuge as well as his. No sign of head injury. Pulse fast; elevated temperature; nuchal ligament tense and tender. No rash as yet; still most likely to be meningitis.

“This could be very serious. He should be taken to hospital, Holmes: ought to have gone there already.”

“When I sent for you, it wasn't as bad. He was conscious an hour ago, told me he wanted to sleep, to leave him. I checked later and found him like this. I didn't dare move him even to dress him, in case it did some avoidable damage. I've sponged him to keep the fever down.”

I nodded. “ I will telephone. Get his clothes: together we should manage it.”

Holmes, already a shadow of his confident and airy self, became even more subdued. “He, er, didn't bring any.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Every morning, just after dawn, Harold swims in the pool near the shore - you read my story? It's at the bottom of the cliff, just that way.” His long, fine fingers, beginning to be spotted by the advancing years, gestured briefly, before he folded them again behind his back. “Sometimes, after, he comes up here by the path that comes right into the garden, wakes me, and...”

And strips you of your nightshirt - there it is, bundled in the corner of the room, flung away, torn off by eager hands - wrestles with you pleasantly in this bed for an hour or two, sucks you off perhaps, or lets you have him please not the other way about, please - yet why not, it is not as if he is your property, John Watson, lies sweating and sighing with you in the golden morning light, whispers your name and hears his own soft on your lips.

Harold.

That was the bitterest of it. Harold. In twenty-eight years, my closest friend had never addressed me by my Christian name. To be sure, it was not the custom, and even had we taken another road, seven years ago, I doubt we would have changed our habit. Privately, I considered his own given name to be ever-so-slightly ridiculous, so that I could not imagine speaking it in humour or passion. 'Holmes and Watson' had a kind of ring to it. A fine ring, a forever sound. 'Sherlock and Harold' sounded like a provision merchants'.

“This is Mr Harold Stackhurst, then? The crammer?”

“More than that,” Holmes protested quietly as he searched around for something to cover Stackhurst, coming up with a towel and some sandals from under the bed and a swimming costume from the windowsill. “A fine teacher and a sportsman, still in fair condition, a scholar in many disciplines. An honourable man.” He bit his lip, too aware, perhaps, that it sounded like an epitaph.

Of the two of us, why was I the one ashamed of myself?

Working together, we got him safely downstairs and decent, a distressed swimmer looking for help from the nearest house, who quite by good fortune had arrived just as I was visiting my old friend. By the time the ambulance arrived, Stackhurst had actually 'come to' once or twice, smiled dozily at Holmes and muttered “Doct'r Wats'n, I pr'sume” when he spotted me, before closing his eyes with a wince. His headache, no doubt, was frightful. I found myself patting his hand and making soothing sounds as Holmes paced about, rubbing the back of his own neck. An sharp arrow of anxiety struck me to see it, for fear he had been infected, but it was only nerves and helplessness.

I was assured by the crew that I need not come with them, that reports on Stackhurst's progress would be sent back, and then I was alone with Holmes in his sitting room. He made us some tea - “the housekeeper only comes for meals and to scold me for untidiness” - and we sat staring into our cups until the little brown pools went cold.

“If you would like an explanation, I have one,” he offered as he got up to take them back to the kitchen.

“You do not owe me any explanation of your private affairs, Holmes.” I had not wanted, not meant, to sound so harsh. He must be worried about his friend's welfare.

“No. Nevertheless, it is yours, if you wish.” He went to stand by the fireplace, leaving the crockery jumbled on the table, reaching for matches and a cigarette from the mantelpiece. I could not take my eyes off him, still, and found myself wishing it, agreeing that he tell me.

“What you saw, Watson, is all there is. He swims, he visits me, we satisfy a bodily itch, we sleep for a while, he leaves. Sometimes he swings by to talk, of an evening. We cover a great deal of ground - science, literature, the failings of the young - irony indeed, he is nearer the age of his pupils than I am to his. Yet, excepting the one time I extracted him from a dangerous temptation and near-blackmail, and offered him a discreet outlet, we have never talked about...that, at all.”

“If I asked a friend merely to scratch an itch, wherever it was, I am not sure it would entitle him to first-name terms.” A thought better kept in the head than let loose on the tongue, but Holmes seemed neither surprised nor offended.

“It is a game, Watson, a code: a joke, if you like.”

A man less likely to find such a subject amusing I could hardly imagine, but he chuckled, as if that indeed was the joke.

“His first teaching job was at Hastings; the headmaster, one William French. His own staff discovered it and took to calling him 'King Harold' behind his back. When I told him so, it tickled him. He's been 'Harold' ever since, between ourselves. A habit once formed is hard to break. I was distracted; I slipped.”

Of course he was distracted. Stackhurst was very ill, whatever else they were, they were friends, and I was a monster of pettiness.

“I...regret that it upset you,” he continued. “But it is only a word. Nothing can wipe out nearly thirty years of fellowship. Nothing can put all that we have had, all that we were... and are,” he held out his hand to me, casting into the empty space between us an invisible skein spun out of all those years, a golden thread of love running through it, “out of mind.”

I was overtaken, in a blue instant, by unmanly tears. I swallowed them down, but Holmes had already seen.

“Stay,” he said, gentle with tiredness and with affection for Stackhurst and for me. “Stay tonight, and in the morning we will see about your patient. You will be his doctor, and I his friend, and in due course we might see what else wants a proper definition, and the right name.”

An encouraging telegram reached us in the morning. My diagnosis of meningitis had been correct but it was the less serious form of the disease. With rest and good care, Harold Stackhurst would mend. He had to stay at the isolation hospital for a fortnight; visitors in person were not allowed. Holmes sent him newspaper cuttings and word games, books from his own library and honey from the larder; I read the progress reports and sunned myself on the lawn whilst Holmes busied himself indoors and out.

His gifts to Stackhurst did not trouble me, nor the letters he got in return, all of which Holmes read to me. His friend was a droll wit with a pleasingly acid tongue but no malice in him. He never failed to greet me by name. Yet hanging over us all was a future like a Japanese puzzle box. Find the secret lever, and unlock the start of a series of intricate movements, each depending upon the last, each capable of frustrating further solution.

How to start? Begin with me, with my mistake, my hurt feelings, and make it nothing more than self-indulgence. Begin with Holmes, and make him the jilting swain to be cross-questioned, accused of a breach of promise when no promise was made. Which left only one other.

“Does he know?” I asked Holmes one evening.

Holmes, who had been tinkering with the broken lock on his writing desk - his chief activity had been mending things about the place - straightened and put down his tools.

“Ah. I had wondered when you would hit upon exactly the right question.”

Not whether, but when. In matters of logic, he had sometimes despaired of me. In matters of the heart, he could grant me some skill. His confidence made me bold.

“Have you exactly the right answer? Is there one?”

He sighed, and came to sit by me, dropping to the floor beside my armchair and drawing up one knee.

“He knows he is safe from betrayal and from the law; but he does not imagine himself safe in my bed - or my life. I never pretended it could be so, never allowed him even by omission to assume it. Stackhurst is well-versed in reading others. He understood from the first that he might have use of my body, but my soul would remain out of reach. He has not offered me his heart, and I would not take it if he did. As I said, we did not talk. We did not give what we did the name of love because that would be theft.” He laid his face against the arm of the chair, his sleek head inches from my open hand, his face canted so I could see all its sharp planes, its mysteries of reason and emotion, all its eternal allure. “He knows, as well as I, to what, and to whom, that name properly belongs.”

An answer that was in its own way a question. What use a name that remains unsaid, a heart offered but not enjoyed, a soul on a shelf? Was it not high time to take it down?

With great care, I claimed it all, across those last few inches, my hand stroking his hair: the name, his heart and soul, our future - the pearl of great price in the heart of the puzzle box. He climbed awkwardly into my lap, a heavy jumble of legs and arms, and I kissed him for the second time in seven years.

We have not missed a day since.

I did not feel it right for us to go further, on nothing but presumption. Only Stackhurst knew precisely what he would be giving up, for all Holmes' confidence in his understanding and forbearance. We went to see him at his home the day he was let out of hospital, and I confess I found it hard to look him in the eye at first - not on account of what he and Holmes had done, but what Holmes and I wanted to do. In the event, he was as accurate an observer as Holmes had predicted. In the middle of a trivial conversation about hospital catering, Stackhurst abruptly fell silent,looked from one of us to the other for a long quarter-minute, then burst out laughing - not entirely merry, but the laugh of a man greeting a disappointment he expected and accepts and will learn to live with. With a brisk shake of his head he sobered and, handing a pile of books back to Holmes, addressed us both:

“Thank you for the loan.”

**************************************************************************

I have been to bed with a virgin or two in my time. Men are supposed to long for it, for the untouched, the unknowing unknown. As if they are afraid of comparison. As if it makes the least difference when you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that this moment is for you and you only. How much more when it is certain that the moment will become days, months, years, a lifetime.

I had seen the broad shoulders and trim waist, the strength, the youth, which Stackhurst represented. I had looked at my weary, sagging body in the mirror: at my paunch, my scars, my grey hairs. Yet when Holmes used his hands on me for the first time, I knew only glory and honour and power. There was no shame, no thought of anything but sensation, no words but those of love, the last remnants of self-doubt giving way like paper before a tempest. When he took me, rigid with joy and babbling from pleasure, in his mouth, I cared not one whit whom else he had tasted before me. However many dawns another man may have greeted wrapped in his bony arms and feeling that ship's prow of a nose snuffle eagerly at their neck, the coming dawn would be mine, and the next, and the next.

So we live in Sussex, where no-one minds us, growing old in obscurity. Stackhurst still drops in of an evening, when he feels so inclined, and the conversation is lively and stimulating. I wish him well; I hope that he finds his own companion, safe from the law, and from loneliness. I do not think he and I will easily come to be on first name terms: nevertheless, as a man who wakes up next to Sherlock Holmes every morning, there are a very small number of things I should still dare to say were impossible.

END

sherlock holmes, fic

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