(As the funeral march plays softly in the background, a lone figure steals into view, slips the package into the mailbox labeled "Foxhound," and, furtively glancing around, darts quickly back into the shadows to avoid any notice.)
Not Even The Best Of Them
by Deirdre Muir
The ceremony was basic and direct, with little frivolity and only a few witnesses. Our hasty request for a wedding and the lack of the giddiness that is usually displayed by eloping couples had led the judge to believe that ours was a marriage of convenience. It had surprised him evidently, the simple but heartfelt sincerity with which we spoke our vows. Curious but with too much sense of propriety to inquire, he fruitlessly tried hiding his confusion. Stumbling through instructions to the clerk, he bid us well. Holmes and I laughed at his reaction once we were in the car on our way to dine.
We shared a delicious dinner and retired to our room at the small hotel in Sussex. The rain continued outside as we stoked the fireplace and opened a bottle of rather good wine. Holmes tasted it and poured for us.
I paused for a moment in thought and offered, "To Holmes."
"And to Russell and the continuation of a successful partnership." I nodded my agreement with his sentiment and touched my glass to his to seal the toast. We settled into the chairs in front of the fire and sipped appreciatively, content in our familiar comfortableness that did not require conversation.
"I must say, Russell," he broke the silence. "Now that you have me bound by law, whatever shall you do with me?" He cocked an eyebrow at me, as flashes of quicksilver humour danced within his grey eyes.
I let out a dramatic sigh. "I will do same as I always have, Holmes-- suffer your odious shag tobacco and your imperious temperament." I added another piece of wood to the fire and watched as it caught. "It seems that we share common habits of clutter, chemistry, and unusual lifestyles," I mused, "so it is good that Mrs. Hudson will continue to tolerate us both."
His mouth quirked a brief, wry smile.
"So," I went on, " as long as you do not go unexpectedly mad and start believing that I should become a domestic wife, I would say that things will go on as they always have."
"I have no need for that sort of wife. Mrs. Hudson's domestic capabilities already fill that particular necessity most admirably. I do have need of a partner such as yourself." He took a long pull on his pipe and shook his head in mock sadness. " However, I will hear no end of this from Mycroft."
We both knew that to be only partly true, as Holmes' older brother had naught but the highest regard for me. It had been thus ever since that evening when I had arrived at the door of the Diogenes Club, and, I found out later, even before then. While I did not doubt that Holmes would be due some good-natured chiding over the loss of his own bachelorhood, Mycroft had offered us just days earlier a trip to Europe in the near future to do some "errands" for him.
The night grew later and, the wine gone, we both decided that it was time to retire. The fire had reduced itself to smoldering embers and I excused myself to go rinse out the wine glasses. I placed a note on the door indicating that we did not wish disturbance, anticipating the chance to sleep late.
My dress jacket lay where I had placed it earlier, when we had arrived. I yawned, picked it up, and padded in my stockinged feet into the adjoining bedroom.
A soft lamp illuminated the room, and I saw that Holmes had finished removing his tie and was proceeding to work on his cuff-links. I hung up my jacket and turned around.
The bed stood between us and my stomach did a small leap. I had thought myself past the point of uncomfortable nerves at the idea and was surprised to find that I was not.
This was not the same desperate confusion that had possessed me months ago when, atop a hansom cab in London, Holmes abruptly claimed that I had tracked him down to propose to him and had sarcastically spoken of the pleasures of the marriage bed. Shocked, unsure, and rather angry, I had fled the scene and the conversation. I had run from the thought for weeks till my solitary captivity forced me to come to terms with it and myself.
Since our subsequent engagement on the conclusion of that case, the unease between us had evaporated. We were as comfortable as we ever had been, merely with a new dimension added. Both of us were very solitary individuals and now there was a fresh thread woven into the existing one that connected us, one that signified that while we may be aloof, neither of us were alone any longer.
I had ceased feeling apprehensive at him touching my shoulder or holding me in his arms. We were not very demonstrative persons and that was understood. I had a clear focus now of his feelings and my own.
No, this hesitation was born of the sensation of taking an irrevocable plunge, knowing that things may be changed once one resurfaces. That I felt desire for this man was not in doubt, and I was aware that it was fueled by the meeting of our minds and lives and not by merely physical reactions. We had faced life, death, sorrow and triumph side-by-side and now I found myself wondering if this circumstance might cause more distance than any of our past arguments.
A deliberate cough broke into my apprehensive thoughts and I looked up into those steady, observant eyes. I felt suddenly foolish, not knowing how long he had been studying me as I was lost in my reflections.
"Yes, Holmes?" I inquired, vainly attempting to mask my thoughts.
He slowly crossed the room, his gaze still unwavering in its intensity, and came to stand in front of me.
"Russell," he said quietly. "I had no difficulty in reading you when I first met you. In the last six years, my faculties have not faltered that greatly." He reached up a hand and very gently brushed my jawline with his fingertips.
I drew in a breath and closed my eyes, wishing that his attention was somewhere, anywhere other than focused on me. I could feel his presence, solid and unmoving and his dry lips as they touched my forehead lightly, not unlike when they had briefly met my own during the ceremony earlier.
His arms came around me and I was enfolded in the scent of him and his linen shirt, aftershave and pipe smoke. Hesitant but comforted, I let myself return the gesture.
"I don't wish to cause you pain," he whispered to me, in a voice so uncharacteristically gentle and low that it caught me by surprise. The knot within slowly began to loosen and unwind.
He spoke again, with a faint trace of pensive amusement. "Ah, my dear, we are a pair, are we not?" I could picture his pleased expression as his light words provoked me into a smile. He drew slightly back, removed my spectacles, and placed them on the bedside table.
I took a deep breath and released it before opening my eyes to look up. He returned my smile and, his hand at the small of my back, guided me over to the chair by the window. Then he perched himself on the edge of the bed, facing me , the wistful look still playing on his features.
"Have I told you, Russell, that you looked very beautiful today?"
"I doubt that it's what my mother would have approved of," I replied flippantly. I looked pointedly at my tailored dress suit of tweed and cotton in an ivory tone and stockings, my hat having been removed upon arrival. I felt his gaze linger on me and then suddenly, the agitation rose. "Or is that comment just because this is a change from my normal suit and trousers?"
"That is irrelevant, although you are visibly more at ease in clothing that you like wearing. Yes, even in cap, trousers, and jacket, you can be a damnably attractive woman, or hadn't you noticed?"
"I'm usually trying not to be," I scowled, insulted at the criticism of my daily appearance.
"Others see, but they do not perceive."
I could not explain why I felt so defensive, but my voice dropped into a tone of flat disdain. "Is this sudden praise an obligation that you feel necessary now that your name is tied to mine on a legal document?"
His smile fled, his expression shifting slightly, his jaw twitched, and he shot back with no small amount of irritation "No, damn you! For all the knowledge and ability that you have, you still refuse to see your own worth too often. I had meant to express my observations to you earlier and now that I see how they are received, I shall refrain from offering them in the future."
"Holmes--" I felt my indignation grow until my rationality reigned it in. I made myself stop and review everything that had just been said, and found myself, for once, in no mood to argue. I put my hand wearily to my face and conceded defeat. "Holmes," I began again, calmer, "I'm sorry."
There was no recognition of victory in his expression, nor prideful haughtiness. Instead, there was a trace of something unreadable in the way he looked at me. "Is it so wrong for me to compliment you?"
"No, it's not, I just-- oh God, I don't know." I turned my face to stare past the draperies at the downpour outside. The tightness crept up on me again, knotting my insides, and I inwardly trembled. I felt that if he had chosen that moment to touch me again, I might shatter like a china teacup.
He did not in fact touch me, but instead did something which shook me to the core: he called me a name that he had only once, upon having heard it.
"Mary," his strained voice caressed it, "please talk to me. I may ask that only rarely, so grant me the favour of it when I do."
I swallowed hard, stunned by his tone. "I'll try."
"Right, then. Do you wish for me to secure another room for myself tonight? I do not want to compound your discomfort."
I considered his offer for a fleeting moment and discarded it. This was a matter that was inevitable, and addressing it was the only solution. "Thank you, but that is not necessary."
"Then please tell me what is necessary," he replied patiently. "I must admit that I do not have a full knowledge of all aspects of your past. While you were at university, I have no doubt that you had some contact with young men. The extent of that experience is not known to me, but I judge that it was not serious, nor very advanced, and likely confined to a single individual." Unexpectedly flushed at the mention of my past, I nodded my acknowledgment of his observations. Unwilling to speak, I turned and watched the rain traced a watercolor of grey and black on the pane.
I felt him sigh and gather himself to continue. "You know me better than any living person and, while I am not a stranger to physical love, it has been many years," he paused with an almost embarrassed cough, "and even then, for a brief point in time." I turned to look at him. He was studying the carpet, as if trying to find some suitable words in its pattern.
"I do not require that of you, no matter what the law may dictate. You are a woman of the twentieth century, as you have so often put it, and I, for one, will not lord over you a requirement for so-called 'wifely duties'. It is your decision in this matter and I can abide with any choice that you make."
This knowledge registered with my mind, though my physical trembling still persisted. Finally, I found the voice to ask, "Do I interest you?"
Holmes snorted a laugh. "Of course, you 'interest' me or else I'd be somewhere else right now." He shook his head in disbelief as he looked up at me. "You have such a remarkable intellect and yet ask such an obvious question. You more than 'interest' me, Russ, or I would not be hoping that you will grant me an affirmative response."
"You mean that you--"
"Yes." He then reached over and took my shaking right hand and kissed the tips of my fingers lightly. I drew a sharp intake of breath again.
"I feel like I'm drowning," I confessed, awash in the crushing tension that filled me.
Still holding my hand, he took the other, and held me in his gaze as his voice and grip anchored me so that I did not draw away or within. "I won't let go of you," he assured me firmly.
It was not the issue of my virginity, I rationalised to myself. It was actually the difference between a young, enjoyable curiosity with a charming undergraduate and something far greater. This was a meeting of two intellects who recognised each other and were not subject to the floral fantasies of romantic love. There were things that drew and bound us on countless levels.
My mind reached back to that faraway April day. Having met only hours before and sharing honey wine in the cottage garden, he had asked for my observations on him.
I recalled my words and repeated them to him now. "I suspect that someone such as yourself would find it impossible to have an other than all-inclusive relationship with a woman, one that totally integrated all parts of your lives." The gripping anxiety loosened its hold on me as I spoke.
He broke into laughter. "By God, you remember that. You did not realise at the time how close to the mark that came."
"I am giving you my answer," I squeezed his hands.
My abruptness caught him, for once, off guard. "Are you sure?"
Now, I chuckled softly. "After all this, you ask me that. Not entirely, but I know that if you do not kiss me before I change my mind, I'll never forgive you."
He obliged my request and I returned in kind. Then he drew away and stood, helping me to my feet. He removed my hair-pins one by one, loosened my hair from its captivity, and let it fall about my shoulders.
Brushing a lock of it from my forehead, he touched his lips to where it had been, then to my cheek, my jaw, along my ear, and his right arm went around me, holding me steadily.
The last was very fortunate, as my knees became weaker and I shuddered for an entirely different reason than before. With his left hand, he tilted my head back just as I arched from his touch as it reached my throat and neck. I jerked for a moment self-consciously as he unbuttoned my collar and reached the scars.
"It's alright," he whispered reassuringly to me and I believed him. I was divested of my blouse after a time and he his shirt, the first of other articles. The brush of our exposed skin was intoxicating to me. Every movement of his touch was patient and incredibly gentle. I lost track of the time and his long, graceful hands moved as smoothly as if he were playing his violin, effortlessly drawing a soaring melody out of my body.
I asked, finally, for a moment to rest. He lay next to me as I let my ragged breath calm, and he softly touched my face. "How do you feel?" he asked of me when I could speak.
I licked my parched lips as I found my breathing still frayed. "I- no one's ever done that to me before." The white heat he had summoned still tingled in my extremities.
He put a finger to my lips and silently got up. I heard the sound of running water and he returned, offering me the glass. I drank it and he lay down beside me once more, drawing a blanket over us. My temperature had cooled enough that the warmth of his proximity was welcome. There was no need for words, as a look sent our thoughts to the other. I reflected on my reaction as he had encountered the scar tissue. True, he had seen me wounded and in the hospital afterwards. We had dressed one another's injuries. Yet, though they held no physical pain, the last of my anxiety was swept away by his acceptance of me in this intimate context. I noted for the first time the multitude and degree of scars that his own body bore from a lifetime of activity.
"Internal and external, they heal," he said to me, reading my train of thought as always.
I gazed back at him in wonder and gratitude. Then I kissed him and began to show him what experience I had. Regardless, my enthusiasm helped make up for my lack of skill. At a few points, however, I was afraid that I had done something wrong, only to be assured to the contrary and that it was now his turn to catch his breath.
The heat between us flared and consumed but, rather than burning to ash, cleansed and transmuted. Entwined in the warm glow afterwards, I lay my head against his shoulder, and he stroked my hair.
"My dear Russell," he murmured. "You will be the death of me."
"Nonsense," I retorted. "Don't pull that 'old man' routine on me. I know you too well."
He cocked an amused eyebrow and laughed. "That you do," he agreed. Then a touch of concern entered his voice. "Are you alright?"
"What? Oh, you mean-- yes, I'm fine. A little uncomfortable, but I'm told that it passes." It had been one of the most intense experiences when we were fully joined, I mused, as a revelation came to me and I voiced it aloud. "I was afraid of being that close to you. Not just physically. That is what was happening to me earlier, why I acted as I did."
"I know." The simplicity and tone of his response sparked a second realisation for me. He had not spoken based solely on my reaction, but had been dealing with something similar; he had needed my trust and reassurance as much as I had relied on his.
The tiredness began to claim us both. I felt his hand clasp my own, his fingers interlacing with mine. I had just begun to drift into slumber when I heard him say quietly, "Goodnight, Russell."
I sleepily opened my eyes and saw his face. It occurred to me that this was one of the calmest, most tranquil moments I could ever remember. Smiling at my husband, my companion, my partner, and my friend, I responded, "Goodnight, Holmes."
I slipped into a peaceful rest as the rain pattered outside the window.
In the years to come, this event would be an infrequent one; I confess that this was not due to any lack of enjoyment from either of us. Having crossed the threshold to that level of trust and intimacy, physically and mentally, later occurrence were free from undue awkwardness. He knew unerringly what was required to bring me to a keen level of response, and I, as I had been in all matters in my life, a quick study. Rather, it was that so much of our lives were occupied by other interests and activities and more cerebral pursuits. We shared many things, some dangerous, some challenging, as we had always done. We were most often content with other forms of companionship, and when those rare instances did occur, they were all the more meaningful and unique.
This story is property of Deirdre Muir, with permission for public view on Foxhound's Holmes Page. This story is a pastiche based by the author on the "Mary Russell" books, the rights of which characters are L.R. King's. This is intended solely for non-profit reading. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Thanks and love to A.G.H., for the proof-reading and encouragement."