I burst into the bathroom with pique enough behind the gesture to send the door slamming into the wall. The mirror above the vanity shakes at the impact; luck alone keeps it aloft and uncracked. As I twist the tap to start the flow of tepid water into the basin, I also grab a white cloth from the stack by the sink and wet one corner. Despite myself, I wince at the first touch of wet cotton to my split knuckles.
Anne is quick on my heels, her small medical kit in hand. It is better stocked than those kept by mere mortal aunts or landladies. Anne’s boasts items only a former nurse would consider necessary or know to include. Her suturing supplies received more than passing use when Mycroft and I were younger.
“I told you to show a bit of restraint, Charlotte,” she says, tugging the cloth from one hand and reaching for the other. “You don’t know the amount of trouble you likely just caused yourself. Punching a former Under-Secretary!”
I offer over my abused appendage with a snort. “The only form of restraint that man deserved involved grabbing the wide end of Sir Robert the Pompous’ cravat and strangling him with – ow!” I try to pull my hand back from the free-flowing stream of fairly cheap whisky being poured over it, but Anne’s grip on my wrist is tight. “That stings!”
“Many things have that ability. Like discovering your new bride already has a husband. On your wedding day.” She lifts my hand, turning it this way and that and squinting at it. “I should have grabbed my glasses. Does it protest much when you try to move the fingers?”
I gingerly curl and uncurl the digits, wincing slightly. “Not really. It hurts, but there’s no structural resistance.” I look at the bottle as Anne sets it aside and briefly consider a less directly medicinal use for its contents. Not entirely non-medicinal, really, since the swig I’m tempted to take would be to chase off the pain. “Hatty Moulton didn’t have many options available to her, you know. We never do.”
“We?” The question is accompanied by a raised eyebrow.
“Women. Sir Robert could bed every woman, of good bearing or ill, from here to Antarctica and no one would fault him for it. Some would likely praise his virility! Miss Miller, on the other hand, now branded a harlot and an accused murderess, will have mud slung at her for years for being the other participant in several of those acts that earn Sir Robert kudos from his brethren. And poor Hatty…”
“…has a husband who seems to have a good head on his shoulders and seems an understanding sort. He’d have to be, considering he’s equally to blame for it all. If they’re at all smart, they’ll return to America.”
“Yes,” I say with an exaggerated roll of my eyes. “Because the Americans are so much more civilized than we are and they never, ever read the newspaper.”
Anne clucks her tongue and shakes her head. It is her usual response to rantings of this sort. “It is an unfortunate situation. I do not envy her position. Nor can I blame her for it. I still do not support your need to punch the man.”
“He called me a hysterical woman and suggested several doctors in the area might know the proper treatment for the problems with my ‘disposition,’ before saying I should find a husband to keep me in line.” I hiss again as she dabs at the two breaks in the skin with the dry end of the cloth in preparation of sticking gauze and a strip of adhesive over the wound. “Even if he hadn’t, he deserved it for dismissing Hatty out of hand as he did.”
“Well, I can’t exactly say he didn’t earn it. Perhaps you should learn better how to throw a punch before assaulting a member of the gentry again, though.” I laugh. Anne suppresses a smile as she presses on several places surrounding the bandage, where the swelling has already begun. Then, she gently manipulates each of my fingers, testing their movement and my reaction to it. I hiss here and there, but the pain is minimal. Satisfaction at the act that caused the pain itself dulls some of it, perhaps. “Well, I don’t think anything is broken,” she finally proclaims in relief. “Doctor Watson may wish to examine them himself to confirm, of course. Doctors usually do.”
A sound, much like that of someone clearing their throat as discreetly as possible, comes from behind us. Not in the direction of the door, as one would expect, but from the bath. “I will gladly take a look if you’d like, Mrs. Hudson, though I’m sure you’ve come to a thorough enough diagnosis. Can the patient wait, perhaps, until I’m through my soak?”
Anne and I both turn to face the iron monstrosity in the center of the room. Watson reclines within it, half-submerged and surrounded by gently wafting steam. The water is remarkably clear, something I note with a shy curiosity. Feet, legs, arms, chest, all are on display beneath the wavering surface; more interesting views are interrupted by the wooden tray stretched vertically across the middle of the tub, holding a thick medical textbook and a glass of what I presume to be scotch (for non-medicinal purposes, of course). I am both cursing and glad for the tray’s presence and position. Some forms of improper curiosity should not be quenched when one’s aunt is in the room, after all.
“I am so sorry,” Anne says, looking away as if the view itself might scald her eyes. She focuses instead on putting items back into her kit with all the precision of a child tying their shoes in wool mittens tied together at the wrists. “We didn’t see you there.”
“Were busy otherwise, by the sound of it.” Watson nods to my hand; I alone see the gesture, since I’m the only one still staring at him. He, in return, cocks one eyebrow in that silent, slightly amused curiosity he does so well. “I think we’ll forgive the breech of propriety just this once, given the circumstances.”
“Thank you for being so understanding, Doctor. Excuse us, please. Come along, Charlotte.” Anne heads for the door without looking back, either at Watson or to ensure I’m behind her. I only maintain the façade of following until I reach the door. There I stop, closing it silently and leaning against it with a casual air I don’t entirely feel. I order myself not to blush and expect every blood cell within my body to acquiesce to the demand that they avoid my face at all costs. Illogical, surely, but I feel secure in the knowledge that I can somehow force body processes to operate as I wish.
Watson rests his elbows on the side of the tub facing my position and leans there, smirking. “You, my dear Holmes, are a brazen and unrepentant creature.”
“I’m curious that you still manage to sound shocked at all by the fact. And that you sound infinitely more amused.” I rest my injured hand in my good one and hold both in front of me in a loose, almost demure clasp. “If your modesty feels at all violated, I can excuse myself.”
“You should, you know. I should request you do precisely that. Your aunt is going to realize you didn’t follow her out and come bashing through that door any second, likely after my head. Even if I’m innocent in this debauchery.” His gaze drops to my hand and a frown tugs at the corners of his lips. “I should take a look at that hand, though. If you struck him full force with the joints, there might be damage. Professional integrity above propriety, I suppose.” He unfolds his arms and rests his hands on the tray instead, prepared to shove it back. “Turn about, please. I’d like to try to preserve some of that modesty you just mocked.”
I arch an eyebrow in response, but do as requested so that I face the far less intriguing door. There is only so much interest one can find in chipped white paint, after all. Behind me, I hear the shrill scrape of wood across metal as the tray is repositioned, then the slosh of water as, I presume, Watson emerges from it. My neck begins to crane, driven more by instinct than a conscious choice to peek, and Watson clucks his tongue.
“Eyes front, young lady.”
“You continue to operate under the ridiculous notion that there’s anything at all ladylike about me. I’m afraid it’s a misinformed assumption, as most assumptions are.” I hear the dull wet slap of wet skin on dry wood, the shuffle of thin material being unfolded, shaken out; the sound of clothes being pulled into place. The click of buttons manipulated by long fingers well acquainted with the task – or any delicate task, as a doctor might be. “One cannot formulate a theory without the requisite facts that support it, and I’ve provided you precious few that point at all towards your chosen presumption.” Cotton against cotton, the pluck of something drawn tight, like a belt. A robe? Likely a robe. I steal a glance toward the mirror – I should have thought to look there before – and spy enough of an image to confirm my deduction.
“Has anyone ever told you that you ramble incessantly when you’re nervous?”
I make a choked sound just shy of a chuckle. “Of course not. Because I don’t ramble and have never been nervous a day in my life. That’s a silly thing to say.” Stuttered footsteps herald his approach. I want to turn around, but a spontaneous paralysis, born of anticipation of the unknown (because it cannot be defined as simple nerves, of course), seems to keep me rooted in place. I feel his chuckle as an uneven exhale against my nape.
“How silly of me. Of course I’m mistaken.” His hand finds my elbow and gives it a gentle tug. I turn and find myself in the familiar but not unpleasant predicament of being too close – too temptingly close – to John Watson. A night-clothed John Watson, modesty fully restored by the typical arrangement of pajamas and robe, though I’m acutely aware of how little barrier either of those things truly are. His skin was still damp when he dressed and material clings just so to him because of it. He forgot – or simply was too hurried – to fasten the top two buttons, revealing a sliver of bare throat. “As your personal physician,” he says, his voice little more than a rough whisper, “I think I must first insist on a general examination.” He clears his throat. “Of your hand, of course.”
“Of course.” I withhold the disappointment lingering at the edges of my tone and offer my hand, palm down, instead. Something in his eyes gives me hope that that particular feeling may be eventually unwarranted.
“Sir Robert took the news badly, I assume?”
“Like a spoiled, petulant toddler. He’s lucky I only hit him the once. And that I was unarmed.”
“If you’d had a pistol, his jaw would have been safer. Your aim with your fists is far superior to your aim with a firearm.” I try to tug my hand free, intending to demonstrate the skill of that aim he mentioned, but he stills it with a cluck of his tongue. “It’s always risky punching members of the aristocracy, Holmes. Their stubborn refusal to believe they aren’t actually superior beings causes an unfortunate thickening of the skull that both prevents contradictory information from being absorbed and makes them painful targets of well-intentioned fists.”
“So, they are hard headed, in layman’s terms, then?”
Watson laughs. His breath fans my eyelashes. “Precisely. Luckily, I believe your aunt is correct. You came out of the event with your hand in the same number of pieces you went in with. It may be a bit sore, and there may be some swelling and bruising, but I think fine, in general. I reserve the right to reassess it in a day or two.” Without telegraphing a single a hint at his intention, he lifts the aforementioned hand just enough to bring it to his lips and leave a soft kiss on the bandaged knuckles. His nascent mustache, still a faint copper shell of its former self, tickles my skin. I draw in a quick breath, intending to use it for a giggle. Before I can exhale, however, those same lips are on mine and his hand is in my hair. A desperate hunger lurks at the edges of the kiss, held back by some inhuman restraint I both loathe and wish I possessed. My free hand curls in the lapel of his robe; the other finds itself crushed between us, as I am similarly crushed between Watson and the door, close enough I can feel his low growl against my chest before I hear it. My hand is the only thing, save his pajamas and my clothes, between us. He hasn’t left room for air. I can only recall once before we’ve ever been so close, and under much different circumstances. Mowing him down in the hallway on our first meeting does not count in comparison.
A harsh rapping shakes the door at my back; a harsher shriek from beyond it pulls our lips apart. “Charlotte Elizabeth Holmes! You come out of there this instant. I demand it!”
“Coming, Anne,” I say. Watson chokes on a laugh. I do not get the joke. “The doctor is just finishing up his examination.”
“More like just starting it,” he mutters lowly. His forehead settles against mine. He’s too close for me to see what might be brewing in those deep blue eyes of his. “You are a test of my gallant nature, Charlotte, and I do not think it is a test I can pass.”
“Some tests we’re meant to fail.” I lean up to steal just one more kiss, but the rapping continues, sharper this time. I smooth my hair in an attempt to make myself presentable instead. Watson adjusts his robe, which I appear to have rumpled, and steps away to the sink. When all is as it should be, I open the door. Anne fills the doorway, her hand raised for another knock and her jaw set at a hard, determined angle.
“I’ve confirmed your diagnosis, Mrs. Hudson. A paracetamol for the pain, as needed. Ice will help with the swelling, as will-“
“-a snug wrap. Yes, doctor, I know.” Anne glares at Watson in a way I’ve never seen from her before, and I am well-acquainted with her glares. A more familiar one is turned on me a moment later – the disappointed one – before she takes my elbow in hand and guides me out the door. “I’m sure I’ve something suitable for the job. Thank you, Dr. Watson. Don’t let us keep you any longer from your bath.” She slams the door sharply behind us.
This time, I think I do hear the mirror crack.