Colour rose in my cheeks as I crept cautiously down the stairs and peered around the edge of the wall. There was Holmes, sitting on the sofa, just as he had been earlier, when, due to my lack of sleep over the past three weeks because of nightmares, my subsequent irritation with everything in general, and the infuriating knowledge that, once again, he was right, I had childishly and unreasonably struck out at him and hit him in the face. Now, an hour later, I still had no idea what had come over me. Things of this sort simply did not affect me in so dramatic a way as this. At least, not until today.
His physical pain, while a definite factor in my guilt, was not the issue. No, the emotion that was causing me to sneak down in such a fashion to apologise was, as yet, unidentified, although for some reason it kept occurring to me that it was the same emotion which had caused me to hit him in the first place. I remembered the look in his eyes as we had stared at each other for a long moment afterwards. That look had said that this was not something easily forgotten, and it had been this which had prompted me to flee the room. Of course I began to regret my actions, and eventually I gave in to the need to reconcile.
And here I was, several minutes after this decision, peeping around a corner at him like a spy. I squared my shoulders, hoped desperately that my mortification would not be enough to make my blush visible, and, gathering my resolve, stepped out of my hiding spot and marched up to him.
He didn't look up as I stopped in front of him. I stood there awkwardly, unsure of how to begin, until finally his voice reached me, frigid as an Arctic winter.
"I…" I twitched, scratched, and then decided that nervous fidgeting would get me nowhere. Taking a deep breath, I said, "Holmes, I…"
He cut me off, still without looking at me. "If this is another insult, you'd best save your breath, Russell." Somehow he managed to make my name sound like the lowest of the low—and that particular tone of voice was familiar. I gasped, suddenly horrified. What had I done with this sudden loss of temper? What unspeakable damage must I have caused to make him pronounce my name with the same pitch, the same fury as he put into Moriarty's?
At my sharp intake of air, he finally looked at me. His eyes were as hard and cold as his voice, but they seemed to melt slightly when they met mine. He waited silently.
"I came to—to say…" I struggled to keep my voice under control, keep the hurt and the resurfacing anger out of it. "To say that I'm sorry. What I did was inexcusable, and I deeply regret it." There. I'd done it. I started to leave, feeling rather flattened by the confrontation, but a sound from him stopped me. Turning, I saw that the chill was gone from his face, replaced by relief, pain, and something that I didn't recognise. "Did you need something?" I asked, succeeding, by some miracle, in not stuttering.
The use of the nickname banished my fear. Without further hesitation, I moved over to sit beside him and awkwardly put my arms around him. He stiffened, and I started to let go, but was pulled closer and held tightly.
"I'm sorry, too," he murmured into my ear after a second. "My anger was more than it ought to have been."
I closed my eyes with a sigh, exhausted by my violent emotions. His fingers began to move through my hair, soothing me, and continued doing so for several minutes.
At last I sat up, and, as a final token of apology, asked in a businesslike manner, "Shall we get back to where we were, then?"
He smiled, acknowledging the gesture. "You know, Russell, if you are truly sure of your understanding in this area, there is no need to pursue the subject."
I thought for a moment, and then cast my eyes downwards. "Er…Holmes…"
"Yes?" His voice was amused.
"I believe that, with all the excitement, I've forgotten what exactly it is we were studying."
"Newton's third law of motion," he reminded me.
"Oh, yes." I snorted. "Holmes, I've known Newton's laws since I was seven."
"Really? Tell me."
I obeyed the command without thinking. "First seen in full, along with two related concepts, in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, an informative book comprising three volumes and published on July 5, 1687, Newton's third law of motion…"
He dismissed the rest of what might have become a monologue with a wave of his hand. "Of course you know that much! My question is, do you really understand the laws?"
"Hmm." I pondered this for a short time. "Yes, I think so."
"Right, then: give me an example of the third law. An obscure example, mind you, not one so obvious that even a fool could see it."
I grinned at his unsubtle scorn, and then turned my mind to the task at hand. I wracked my brains, but, annoyingly enough, could not come up with a single thing.
"All right, Holmes," I said at last. "I admit defeat. You give me an example."
"I, Russell?" At my nod, he frowned. "Well…"
I snickered and raised my hand as if to hit him again. "Holmes, I have not had any extra sleep since I last lost control of my temper, and my emotions are still rather feverish," I said, attempting to feign forced calm and failing miserably because of a sudden inability to keep the laughter out of my voice. "I would suggest that you answer my question before I become too impatient. Otherwise…" I leaned forward in order to more accurately imitate a punch—and stopped cold, noticing that the tip of my nose was nearly touching his.
It was a frozen moment. Neither of us seemed capable of motion, or of anything except staring woodenly into the other's eyes. Then Holmes came to life.
"A perfect example," he murmured, and closed the distance between our faces, pressing his lips to mine.
The kiss must only have lasted a few seconds, although to me, it felt like an eternity. I had ample time before it ended to notice the way I had naturally tilted my head one way and he another so that our noses didn't interfere, feel the warmth of his hands, which had somehow moved to my shoulders, and to wonder at the quick replacement of all the blood in my body with fire, which ran through my veins just as effectively as the original substance.
It did end, however, and we sat goggling at one another as if we were two people from different planets who had only just met.
Finally I regained some of my senses. "That…that was…" I couldn't find the words. "So that's how kissing feels," I said at last.
The look of astonished exultation on his face changed to confusion. "What, hasn't it been like that before?" he asked.
It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, most likely owing to the absence of his customary coherence. When it dawned on me, however, I averted my eyes and began twisting a strand of hair around my finger. "Well…um…" I mumbled, shifting uncomfortably.
"What?" he said, sounding rather too curious for my liking.
"I…that is…" I looked up into his face, disconcerted, and recognised that I was being foolish. He might laugh at me, but only if I didn't mind. This was Holmes, after all, who had been my friend and mentor for nearly six years now, and had, in fact, just demonstrated his affection in a rather unexpected manner. With that thought, I was brought back to the present, and continued my sentence, abashed but determined. "You see, Holmes, I…I've never been kissed before."
He blinked. "Haven't you?"
"Well, no…" I hesitated, and then sighed. "I only really began to meet boys my own age at Oxford, and because of my…rather overly studious tendencies, they mostly stayed away. Those who did express interest were…" A smile pulled at my mouth. "…not my type," I finished.
Holmes raised an eyebrow. "Indeed? I shall be interested in hearing stories at some point."
"Well, there was one who was horribly clingy. I went to dinner with him once, and he tried to kiss me—and in the middle of the restaurant, too!"
"Oh, so someone did try, then. I'd been wondering why they hadn't. And as for attempting a kiss on the first date…I can't say that I entirely blame him," Holmes murmured.
I glanced sharply at him. "Holmes, was that a compliment?"
"Perhaps." His eyes gleamed with uncharacteristic mischief as he cut off any response I might have had with another kiss. When he let me go a few moments later, all recollection of such a response was gone.
I shook my head at him in mock annoyance. "Holmes, you made me forget what we were talking about."
"Well…I believe we were discussing your previous romantic experience, or lack of it."
"Yes?" he asked innocently. I rolled my eyes.
"I give up!" I announced, pretending exasperation, and spouted the first subject change I could think of. "Let's just go back to the lesson."
"All right, then. Newton's third law…"
"Holmes…" I sighed and abandoned my argument. "Never mind," I added, when he continued to watch me questioningly.
"Russell, if you can now comprehend the subject enough to give me a relevant example, then please, be my guest."
I narrowed my eyes, suspicious, but he showed no sign of plotting or sarcasm. "All right, then," I said dubiously. "Newton's third law of motion: 'To every action there is an equal and opposite...'" Suddenly something clicked. "Oh," I said sheepishly. "That's why you said it was a perfect example."
"Exactly," he replied, a hint of smugness in his tone. "I knew it would come to you eventually."
I shrugged. "As I was saying: 'To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction'. To take your example, a slap"—I reached over and dealt him a very gentle blow—"and a kiss." Leaning forward, I brushed my lips against his. Then I smiled, continuing innocently, "Or one could use a more conventional model of this situation, such as the difference in personality between two people. Case in point: you, the head"—I held out one hand, palm up, and pointed the fingertips at him, displaying him to an imaginary audience—"and Dr. Watson, the heart." Here I extended the other hand, pointing to the door behind him.
He whirled with a strangled noise, obviously expecting to see the good doctor watching us. When no such vision appeared, he turned to face me again.
"Russell," he said, with slight asperity, "you are hallucinating."
"No," I answered calmly, "I am jesting."
"You? Never!" There was laughter in his voice again.
"Well, then, perhaps you have gone blind, and cannot see Dr. Watson because you cannot see anything at all."
"I can see enough to do this," he retorted, and kissed me emphatically. We were interrupted, however, by another voice.
"Or maybe," it said, "neither of you can see Dr. Watson, or Mrs. Hudson, because you are looking in the wrong direction. Were looking in the wrong direction, that is, until you began looking at nothing at all."
We broke apart guiltily and looked towards the kitchen. There they both stood, wearing identical expressions of amusement.
"Is there an explanation for this behaviour?" continued the doctor, raising an eyebrow and reminding me eerily of Holmes.
Said detective now looked back at me. "Russell, I believe we've been caught," he said, sounding slightly rueful, and then, eyes twinkling, added, "Perhaps you should tell them about our plans." He put just enough stress on the word to ensure that we all knew what he meant.
"Are you getting married?" exclaimed Mrs. Hudson, as Uncle John choked and my jaw dropped.
"Holmes," I managed after a moment, "you haven't mentioned anything of the sort."
"Haven't I?" he asked, his voice trembling slightly with suppressed laughter. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry. The pain from my rheumatism must have made me forget…"
I smacked him lightly in the arm before he could finish, but he quickly responded with a, "For every action…" He didn't even worry about the rest of the sentence before rapidly touching his lips to mine and pulling away again.
I felt my face heating up. Knowing that it would begin to colour soon, and considering the demonstrations the other two had already seen, I gave in to temptation and buried my face in Holmes' shoulder, hiding the blush.
He held me for a moment and then said, "You're going to have to let me stand now, Russell."
"Why is that?" My voice was muffled, but I didn't care; I was comfortable here.
"How do you expect me to get down on one knee if I cannot move for fear of knocking you over?"
My head came up, and I stared, trying to decide if he was telling the truth. That was all he needed, however. With the utmost sense of normalcy, as if his actions were the most ordinary thing in the world, he moved off the sofa and down to the ground. I was interested to see that, rheumatism or no rheumatism, he did actually get onto one knee, and then took my hands in his.
"Mary Judith Russell—my dear, dear, Russ—I…" Here he hesitated, apparently becoming fully aware of the presence of our two onlookers. However, his determination appeared to win out, and he went on after a second. "I love you, and I would be most wonderfully pleased if you would consent to marry me."
I must have gawked at him for a full minute. The idea of Holmes in this setting was really quite ludicrous. Not only was he proposing marriage after years of bachelorhood—to me, my mind added incredulously—but he was doing it in his own living room, with both Watson and Mrs. Hudson watching. And he had said, in quite plain words, that he—that he loved me.
This, I suspect, was what finally convinced me that I was not simply having an incredibly strange dream, a vision brought on by overwork or something of that sort. Somehow, the absurdity and complete discord between Holmes' character and those words coming out of his mouth made the words the only aspects of the entire situation that seemed real.
Finally I was able to gather my wits enough to realise that he was still waiting for an answer. For that matter, I discovered, so were the others. Both were trying to look as though they were not hanging on every word we said, and failing miserably.
"I…" How on earth had Holmes managed to say a thing? My tongue couldn't have stuck to the roof of my mouth more if I'd just eaten an entire jar of the new treat called peanut butter. "Um…" I took a breath, trying to think clearly. How did one respond to a marriage proposal? I had heard of many sorts of proposals, of course, from long, flowery speeches to casual questions which didn't really mean anything anyway. But the sort of ardent, poetic address that many of my Oxford friends had sighed over seeing in pictures or cheap romance novels was normally followed by a passionate monologue which boiled down to a plain 'yes.' Besides, I wouldn't have cared for that sort of thing even if Holmes had gone temporarily mad and delivered it, and I most certainly would not have responded in kind. As for the easy, "So, wanna get hitched?" that was most girls' nightmare, this didn't seem to fit that category either. If it had, it wouldn't mean a thing, and it was obvious to me by now that Holmes meant what he said.
What to do, then? I was becoming rather frustrated, and I knew I was keeping them waiting. I opened my mouth, still undecided but needing to say something, and was cut off by Holmes, acting much more like himself now by reading my thoughts exactly. "A simple 'yes' or 'no' will do quite well, Russ," he said with a smile.
I looked at him for a second, thinking. Then I made up my mind. Detaching my tongue (I could almost taste the peanut butter—concentrate, Russell, I told myself fiercely), I took a breath and tried to remember how to work my vocal chords. "Erk," I croaked, and, having succeeded in making a noise, added determinedly, "I…that is...y-yes."
The word was hardly out of my mouth before Holmes' arms were out to me. I slid off the couch and landed on my knees on the floor next to him, with a loud thump. It was rather painful, and in another situation I might have checked to see if I had broken anything. Given the circumstances, however, I simply fell into his embrace, my cheek pressed to his chest and my arms around him, holding him as tightly as I could. His hands found my hair and began to stroke it, while his face rested on the top of my head.
After a few minutes he pulled away slightly, enough to put two fingers under my chin and look into my eyes. "Are you happy, Russ?" he asked intently. "Did you mean what you said? I suppose, asking like that…I don't want it to feel like an obligation. I want the answer to come from your heart."
I gazed at him incredulously. "Holmes, do you really think that I would agree to marry you without truly wanting it simply because you proposed in front of Uncle John and Mrs. Hudson?"
"Honestly, Russell. You looked quite strained, and it took you such a long time to answer…"
I cut him off by kissing him fervently. When I pulled back, he looked rather dazed.
"Holmes," I said earnestly, "when you asked me to marry you, you told me that you loved me. That in itself ensured that I could not, in good conscience, accept unless I meant it. Furthermore…" At this point, my voice broke slightly. Uncharacteristic as it was for me to become emotional over such things, this was, after all, an offer of marriage. I continued in a somewhat hoarse whisper. "Furthermore…oh, drat it all! I love you, too, you dolt!" I made a noise that was half-laugh, half-sob, and he pulled me to him again and kissed the top of my head.
"Russ, as flattered as I am by your confession, I am not a dolt," he said thickly, and I looked up to see the suggestions of tears in his eyes as well.
"I believe that, despite all our denials, we must be a pair of hopelessly sentimental idiots, as much as anyone else," I said, and he laughed quietly and kissed me again.
It was at least five minutes later that we finally noticed that our originally unexpected observers had gone once again, and although they both deny it, I am convinced to this day that, listening hard, I heard faint cheering from the garden.