"Have you considered the question of children?” Holmes asked, in a deliberately mild voice.
We were on the train, headed back to Sussex, newly betrothed. Our conversation thus far had covered our future living arrangements (essentially unchanged, at least for daylight hours), announcements (on hold), and the wedding ceremony itself (to be determined). As the question of whether any marriage between us would involve all the usual aspects of the wedded state required no further discussion (unfortunately; did he have to be so very Victorian about it? Surely the subject could bear a bit more exploration, in advance of the exchange of vows?), the topic of procreation was bound to come up eventually.
At least the asking of the question meant that, despite his Victorian upbringing, Holmes was aware that childbearing need not be the inescapable consequence of marriage.
I had, of course, considered the question of children, and long before I ever considered that the man with whom I'd need to have this conversation would be Holmes. Most of what I'd thought to say to an unknown, hypothetical husband was unlikely to be necessary. None the less, I chose my words carefully. “Holmes, surely you've noticed that I am . . . indisposed, less often than most women?”
He sniffed. “I'm not sure I've ever observed you to be indisposed, Russell.”
“You know very well what I mean,” I said, a touch sharply. “I'm happy to provide all the, shall we say 'gory' details, if you insist.”
“I am, of course, interested in all aspects of your wellbeing,” he replied. “Please do provide whatever information you believe pertinent.”
He'd flushed, despite the casual equanimity of his words. I studied his profile.
“You hadn't noticed,” I realized aloud.
He turned to scowl at me. “No, Russell, I have not been in the habit of tracking your menstrual cycles. What possible reason could I have had to do so, before now?”
“It never occurred to you that it might be a problem for Amir to start bleeding? I don't recall any of the necessities for such a possibility being included in our supplies.”
His expression went from utterly blank, to briefly horrified, to almost maniacally amused. “Oh, Russell, I would pay dearly to have seen Ali's face had you requested -”
“Yes, well.” I interrupted, though I couldn't control a small snort of laughter at the mental image. “There was no need. There generally isn't – not more than once or twice in a year, at most.”
“I . . see,” he said, sobering.
“The doctor I consulted in Oxford cannot say for certain if it is entirely due to the accident, or if there is some underlying physiological anomaly that would have been present regardless. In either case, he finds it doubtful that I will be able to conceive a child – though not hopeless, to use his words.”
I was aware of being studied, Holmes radiating a sort of thwarted tension that told me he very much wanted to ask any number of further questions but was, for once, controlling his curiosity. Nor did he make any expression of sympathy or concern, for which I was profoundly grateful.
“I have no great, primal longing for motherhood,” I told him, “But even so, it was a difficult thing to hear at the age of seventeen.”
“When you first went up to Oxford, then.”
“You did not wish to consult a doctor in Sussex?”
“And have my aunt learn of it?” I snorted. “No.”
“As to your initial question -” I took a steadying breath. “Holmes, would you be willing to leave it, if you'll excuse the expression, in the hands of God? It is doubtful, very doubtful, that any such thing will occur, but – when I think of children, I think of my brother, of what he might have done with the extraordinary intelligence he possessed. And now that is gone from the world.”
Holmes was silent and very still, and I knew that he was thinking of a different gifted young man, also lost. After what seemed like a very long time, he drew in a shuddering breath.
“Do you know, Russell,” he said, and took my hand, studying it – my right hand, with its scars. “I had expected you to tell me that you did not wish to interrupt your studies. I would then have pointed out that by the time you had established yourself academically to your satisfaction, an endeavor likely to take up the next decade, if not two, I would be at an age where I would be unlikely to see a child reach adulthood. We would then conclude, in an entirely rational fashion, that our lives are full enough without the complication of parenthood, and the conversation would progress into discussion of the most convenient and reliable means by which it might be avoided.”
“We had an entire conversation on the matter in my absence, did we?” I asked, brow raised.
His lips quirked. “Do not pretend you have never done the same, Russell.”
“You do wish to take precautions, then,” I said, side-stepping that question. “To avoid my becoming pregnant.”
He turned my hand over in his, exploring its callouses. The sensation was simultaneously soothing and arousing, but rather than distracting me from the conversation, I felt that he was adding to it - communicating something with his hands that could not be fit into words.
“In light of this new data,” he said, at length, “I find that I don't.”
“You're certain?” He would have returned my hand to me, but I turned it in his grasp and held on so that both our hands settled on my knee.
It took me several seconds, feeling raw with the newness of this changed bond between us, to say, “Thank you.”
I thought he might refuse the thanks, but instead he just raised my hand to his lips, his kiss barely brushing my knuckles. At your service, my lady, said this kiss, which ought to have been absurd, considering the service in question. Why, then, did I feel closer to weeping than laughter?
I leaned cautiously into Holmes' side; was this an acceptable degree of intimacy for our present state, and the questionable privacy of a train compartment? After a brief hesitation, both of us tense with uncertainty, he released my hand and wrapped an arm around me. I relaxed against him, my body seeming to melt into relieved contentment. My head fit well in the hollow of his shoulder. I closed my eyes, suddenly exhausted.
Had I been whole and healthy, physically, as likely to fall pregnant as any other woman, I suspect the conversation would have gone very much as Holmes had envisioned it. I valued my academic career; we both valued our freedom. We were, frankly, completely unsuited to the task of caring for an utterly helpless, fragile, demanding new person; any attempt at responsible parenthood would require a fundamental re-ordering of our lives.
But between my prior injuries and, yes, his age, the entire question was likely to be moot.
As unlikely as my stumbling over Holmes on the Downs; as unlikely as my survival of the accident that had killed my family. It would be – I felt absurd, and exposed, just thinking it – nothing short of a miracle.
It was not a miracle I sought, not really - but I needed, for reasons I could not then name, to permit the possibility. Blame my recent captivity, or the influence of Margery Childe, or those endless minutes when I'd thought Holmes dead – blame his blow to my head. Whatever the cause, however illogical the decision might be, it brought me peace.