January 1, 2008
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The Carol of the Bees

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by nlr alicia
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<< This story is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>

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On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.

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Content Warnings: Mildly-graphic Slash. Surprise angst.

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Intelligibility Warning: This story takes place between the Body and the Epilogue of The Case of the Missing Flat Mate. You can read it alone, but…
well, you get the idea.

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“Holmes,” I said, setting down the pen that had scarce left my hand all day, “Have you ever heard of bees singing hymns?”

“You have been at the honey wine again, old boy,” he said from his chair by the fire. “I recommend a course of Aspirin and a cold compress.”

It was Christmas Eve and we were ensconced in our small cottage on the Sussex Downs. I was wiling away the hours of a long winter night by starting on a new work of fiction. The first step was to assemble my thoughts in coherent order. I glanced up from the welter of notes on my desk to find my companion of years bent over an ancient volume of Catullus.

Rational thought fled. Time had never altered my fascination with the beauty of his finely sculpted features and his lean, graceful limbs. That such a creature as Sherlock Holmes could love me as completely as I loved him defied logic. As I watched, the dancing light on the hearth behind him limned his sculpted features creating a most remarkable fiery silhouette and I felt the familiar swell of desire.

“I am attempting a supernatural story with a seasonal bent,” I said distractedly.

Holmes licked the tip of his index finger and flicked over a yellowing page of the volume in his lap. “If it contains a ghost of Christmas past,” he said, “I’m afraid another fellow has beaten you off the mark.”

“It’s a bit different from my recent work,” I explained, warming to the subject. “It’s rather more fanciful.”

“Given your record of romanticizing our most minor investigations into a fair approximation of tales of Camelot, that is difficult to credit. Does it involve fairies at the bottom of our garden?” Holmes asked stretching his long legs out toward the fire.

“It involves a well-known folk belief,” I went on doggedly. The habitual dig at my career was hardly worth notice. “Legend has it that on Christmas Eve night bees hum in unison. According to the story, they sing Christmas carols.”

“Honestly, Watson,” Holmes said, shutting his book with an audible snap. “If you wish to distract me you can surely come up with a more rational topic of discussion. Inform me that old Saint Nick is lodged in our chimney, for example.”

I slid back my worn leather chair and stood. “I believe I shall go out of doors to see what it is like to listen to a beehive in the dead of winter. The break will do me good,” I said. “Would you care to join me?”

“As to the first proposition I believe I can save you a walk, old fellow,” he said, making a show of reopening his book and thumbing through the pages to find his place. “The experience will be very quiet and very cold. As to the second, I can’t imagine that a walk in the snow will have any felicitous benefit whatever.”

“May I borrow the new scarf I gave you this morning?” I asked. “Mine has worn rather thin.”

“All right, Watson,” he said shutting his book once again and placing it deliberately on the carpet by his feet. “I will go with you if only to avoid the necessity of digging you out of a snow bank in the morning. I have no desire to launch a second career as Saint Bernard.”

“I’ll wait for you on the porch,” I said.

His only response was a heavy and long-suffering sigh.

.o0o.
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We stood in a small declivity some five minutes walk from the front door of our small cottage. The full moon leant the snow-covered meadow a glow like candle light behind frosted glass.

A light wind brushed through nearby yew trees, causing ice-crusted limbs to creak and groan under their burden. It gave the air a bite that pinked the tip of my nose. I shrugged the folds of my worn tartan scarf higher toward my chin.

Snow was not a common feature of winter on the Sussex Downs. Swaddled as they are by warm waters running North from sunny Mediterranean shores and shielding promontories along the coast, the Downs are spared from the more profound manifestations of winter although the evidence of glacial winters past is all around in the frost-heaved stones that surge through the green skin of the earth.

In one of those exceptions that Holmes would say disproved the rule, that year had been marked by a sudden and early blast of cold. As a diligent custodian of his bees, in early November Holmes had been forced to winterize the several hives that dotted our meadow. Now the small creatures were nearly dormant and, I was forced to concede, very quiet.

On the felt-wrapped hive frame before us a lone sentinel bee wandered sluggishly across the black baffling. Holmes stood staring down at the hive for a long and pointed minute. Then with a brisk clap of his gloved hands he said, “Well, that’s done. I suggest we adjourn to the barn and wait for a horse to recite Shakespeare.”

I turned my eyes upward and beheld the arching dome of heavens above us, bedecked with a thousand glittering lights. “Holmes,” I said tracing the glowing swath of the Milky Way with a sweeping gesture, “It’s a lovely winter’s night. Does it not speak to the poet in your soul?”

“Dear boy,” Holmes said staring upward with a look of profound stoicism he believed passed for patience, “I regret to say that my soul, whatever it contains, is woefully bereft of poetry. I trust you to manage that particularly sphere for both of us.”

“Tosh,” I said, smiling as I exhaled a visible puff of air. “I know better than that. After all, didn’t you once write a paean to love that changed the course of our lives?”

He continued to stare upward with a stolidly bland expression.

“Holmes?” I said, wondering if he had heard me.

“After all this time,” he said as though to himself. “How strange that I never anticipated a direct question.”

His sudden gravity was disquieting. “Holmes,” I said, “What on earth are you talking about?”

For a moment he stood perfectly still. Then he drew in a long breath and began to speak. His clear, strong voice seemed almost to echo against the walls of the night.

“You will recall,” he said, “The Christmastime you told me that you were leaving our rooms in Baker Street to start a new life in Canada.”

“That Christmas Eve you opened your heart to me in such moving words that my resolution came quite undone,” I answered, bewildered. “We have been partners in life and love since that night.”

“Admirably and succinctly put,” Holmes said, and glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “With one correction. They were not, strictly speaking, my words.”

He looked over and must have seen my confusion. “Oh, the sentiment was mine,” he said quickly, “Only the text was not my own.”

He attempted an ingratiating smile and ventured, “Perhaps we should continue this conversation in the warm. A glass of brandy might–”

“I am quite warm enough, thank you,” I said, making as I think a passable attempt at keeping my voice even. “Please go on with your story.”

He cleared his throat and thrust his hands deeper into the pockets of his fading black ulster. “Yes, well,” he said with a note of hesitancy creeping into his tone. “You will recall that I absented myself from our rooms for several days.”

“Four.”

“Indeed,” he said, nodding, “Well, the first day, as I think I said at the time, I spent smoking incessantly. I wandered London, going through cigarettes at an alarming rate in an attempt to calm my nerves after your pronouncement. I wandered my way down to the river and along dockside streets. I can’t remember my route. My distraction was so profound I’m convinced that I owe my safe passage to the cold rain driving the local toughs indoors.”

He glanced at me again and whatever he had hoped to see in my face he did not find. He hurried on.

“I was attempting to convince myself that it was for the best,” he said. “Unfortunately, no matter how far I walked, there you were. Every square patch of London reminded me of you from cobblestone to shingle. At last I had to give it up as a bad job. I knew I must do something to convince you to stay or resign myself to the inconceivable – life without you. In desperation I went to Mycroft.”

“Mycroft is a voluptuary,” he went on. As he spoke his eyes seemed to lose focus and he gazed into space, the words coming as though from a distance. “De Quincy described Byron as, ‘A person whose life is given over to luxury and sensual pleasures.’ In Mycroft’s case that urge is manifested in less extravagant forms, but includes a highly developed appreciation for the romantic form. So I stamped down my pride, which is not an inconsiderable achievement as you know, and presented my dilemma to him. Being Mycroft, he was only surprised that the crisis had come so late. He underestimated your patience and my idiocy.”

“Mycroft put forward that, being a man of letters, it was words that would woo you best. In no time he installed me in a room equipped with desk, pen, paper, and copious amounts of strong tobacco. My task was to express my feelings for you. It was, in short, a disaster.”

“In your written account of the affair of that stolen naval treaty,” he said, “You had me give vent to a soliloquy on the beauty of a rose. In the actual sequence of events, as far as I recall, I muttered something along the lines of ‘Hum. Roses.’ and stared into space for several minutes considering the architecture of Percy Phelps’s sick room. That episode neatly sums up my ability to turn a poetic phrase.”

“On Christmas Eve, after three days of sweat and swearing that I blush to recall, I put the paltry fruits of my labors before Mycroft. He, quite fairly, called me an emotionally stunted mental deficient. I, with my customary tact, called him a self-isolating dilettante and fraud of the first water. I stormed out and cabbed back to Baker Street in a fine state of misplaced bravado. You were nowhere to be found, but on your chair there sat a new Canadian travel guide.”

“My nerve crumbled in an instant. In the wild hope that a few hours would do what days could not, I scribbled down a note asking you to come with me to Simpson’s that night. I thrust it into your book and ran back to Mycroft. Literally. I came within an ace of ending up under the wheels of a post carriage at the corner of Haymarket.”

“Mycroft was, of course, calmly awaiting my return. He produced a passage of text that he warranted would both capture my sentiments (rudimentary as my grasp of the finer emotions might be) and appeal to your romantic nature. The use of my own monograph as the framework was no doubt terribly amusing to him.”

“In retrospect I believe he had prepared the text days earlier and withheld it for dramatic effect, but I was pathetically grateful. I dutifully copied it out and, with Mycroft’s injunction to never to darken his door again unless it was to invite him to our wedding breakfast or the equivalent as far as societal strictures would allow still ringing in my ears, I pelted back to our rooms. I arrived, as smug as Dick Whittington’s cat, to find you napping before the fire.”

He slid a glance in my direction and quickly looked away.

“The rest you can surmise. All through supper I was buzzing with excited anticipation of the tender scene to follow. Then you mentioned Mycroft and my insecurity burst forth ten-fold. I became certain that not even his best efforts were up to the task. How could words capture emotions that were beyond my understanding? At the fatal moment my courage deserted me utterly. We reached Baker Street and I saw you marching up the stairs and out of my life forever.”

“It was like a nightmare. The cycle of the previous four days repeat itself in microcosm. I paced the floor, smoked dozens of cigarettes and despaired. Finally I took myself in hand. I had to at least make the effort and if Mycroft’s words weren’t up to the task, at least I would know I had tried.”

“Gingered up, if you will excuse the tortured metaphor, with copious amounts of our best claret, I knocked you up at an ungodly hour and put my trust in Mycroft’s command of the language of love. I don’t remember the precise text. Something about rivers and fate– ”

I quoted from memory: “Mystics say that two mated hearts will beat in sympathy though their owners have never met. As the waters of Niagara are drawn down to the shores of the Atlantic, a man is drawn to the side of his true partner.”

“Really?” he said, turning to face me. He must have seen the pallor of my face in the moonlight for he rushed on, the words tumbling over one another. “Well, the central fact is that it worked. You stayed in England and here we are. All’s well that ends well to coin a phrase. And it is all very romantic, don’t you agree? Shades of Cousin Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.”

“You will recall,” I said with a deadly calm I certainly did not feel, “The tragedy of that story is that it is Cyrano who truly loves Roxane. Christian only mouths his words.”

“Ah,” Holmes said, attempting one of his quirked grins. “A poor analogy certainly. Mycroft doesn’t care tuppence for you.”

At the sight of my stony expression his grin collapsed.

“Your pardon,” he said quickly. “I take it from the reference to tragedy that the story does not end happily? I really should know better than to cite books I have not read. Certainly not when I have seen them open on your nightstand. Really this evening does threaten to shake my formerly profound faith in my own intelligence. And it’s been most instructive in highlighting certain gaps in my moral fiber. My dear boy, please say something.”

My chest felt tight with the effort of reigning in my seething emotions. I spoke as evenly as I could manage.

“I would like clarification on one point, if you’d be so kind,” I said.

“Anything,” he said hastily.

“Why,” I said, enunciating each word very clearly, “Did you not see fit to unburden yourself of this deception before now?”

“I never intended it should go unsaid so long,” he said simply. “But days passed, then weeks, then years and I always thought there would be a ‘right’ time. I see that I should have made a clean breast of things long ago. I’ll own that it’s clearly a sin of omission. Though now it’s all come out I’m sure you must see that the end justified the means.”

That sent a pang through my chest that stopped the breath in my throat. “I recall,” I said at last. “You said something very similar in the course of the Milverton affair. It is an apt comparison.”

He raised his eyebrows in confusion. “What comparison?”

“You may not remember because it meant so little to you at the time,” I answered through clenched teeth, “But you wooed and won Milverton’s little housemaid in the guise of a tradesman. You even promised her marriage to win her confidence, in which craven effort I’m sad to say, you succeeded. Deception as a means to an end is second nature to you. Why should I think it would be any different between you and I?”

I saw his eyes flash in the moonlight. “That was an entirely different circumstance,” he said briskly. “See here, my boy, this tactic of using past events as a bludgeon against me is unworthy of you.”

At that instant the cord restraining my emotions snapped.

“Do be so good,” I growled in a voice thick with unspent rage, “As to spare me feigned protestations of righteous indignation.”

“They are not feigned,” he snapped. “It is true I have in the past found myself at the crux between a greater and lesser sin. I’ll allow that, in the instance you name, I misled a trusting girl. But I must, and do, stand behind the decisions I have made and were time reversed I would take the same course again in each case. Not because I believe myself to be faultless but because I know myself to be right according to my own lights. In our case, yes, I misrepresented the authorship of those words to you, but I did not lie in the intention and I do not regret it.”

“I did what I had to do to keep you,” he railed on, raising a hand to stop my interruption. “Listen to me. You have long labored under the illusion that I have an untapped core of romanticism. It is not untapped. It is not there. I have many talents but I do not number an ability to express emotion among them. It surely must be hard for someone as gifted in that regard as you to understand but I have not that skill and at the moment when I would have given anything to have it–”

He broke off abruptly and took a deep breath.

“I can’t paint,” he said and his eyes were wide and fixed on mine. “I can’t compose music that makes any sense to you. And I can’t command pretty words to describe my emotions. That does not mean they weren’t – aren’t –real.”

He moved very close. I could feel his warm breath on my cheek as he said, “Damn it, John, I love you with everything I am.”

Flecks of snow drifted down and settled on his gray-flecked hair. A low throbbing, humming sound broke the stillness. For a moment I thought it was the blood rushing in my ears. I looked up.

A column of bees spiraled up from the nearby hive, silver spots in the moonlight. They drifted through and merged with the canopy of stars. All around us tiny wings whirred. We stood, shoulders touching, staring up into the night.

“There is another legend about bees,” I murmured, “In Scotland they believe that bees fly from their hives in a cloud on Christmas morning and return again to wait for springtime.”

Holmes continued to stare upward. “Our voices disturbed them,” he said. “The drones are investigating a possible threat to the colony.” He went on, “John, bees do not recognize Christmas and they do not sing. They work very hard in accordance with their nature and something astonishing and strange is the result. I am what I am. I hope that you can love me all the same.”

I stood with him and watched the bees perform their miracle. “I do,” I said into the night sky. Beside me he exhaled a long breath. It hung as a white cloud before us.

“John,” he said at last, as the bees began to spiral back toward the hive, “I hesitate to interrupt this moment, but I am poorly adapted for the cold.”

Without a word I reached out and pulled him to my side turning us both toward the cottage. He stumbled against me on stiff legs as I half pushed him toward the door that was visible as a thin line of gold.

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Holmes sat huddled in his chair by the fire. I knelt at his feet and spread a second quilt across his knees. I had persuaded him to shed his snow-damp outer clothes in the face of a great deal of half-hearted protest. The shivering in his long legs had ceased but the mug clasped in his slender hands still vibrated. He held the warm cup against his lips and the steam curled up to touch his nose. I tucked the quilt in around his hips and sat back on my heels.

I huffed a breath into my hands, rubbed them together briskly, and reached up to cup his ears. They were still icy to the touch but the bright red color was fading. “Better?” I asked when he had taken another sip of warm brandy and lemon. He nodded once, sniffed and scrubbed the corner of the quilt across his nose.

I let my hand rest on his cool cheek. He turned his head and pressed a light kiss to my palm. I shifted his long forgotten volume of Catullus aside and settled down on the floor by his feet. I leaned against his knee as we watched the firelight.

“Your leg?” he said.

“It is not too stiff tonight,” I said truthfully.

“Then I will join you on the rug,” he said and with a rustle of sheeted cotton he slipped from the chair.

He tucked up his lean legs and sat curled by my side, for all the world like a cat settling in for a nap by the fire. We sat like that for a time before I spoke quietly.

“That night– morning,” I began.

“Yes,” he said.

“When we sat before the fire, I asked you about the four days you were missing,” I said. “And you–”

“Made every effort to distract you,” he finished.

“It was masterfully done,” I said and tugged the edge of the topmost blanket so that it covered us to the chin.

“All my own work, Doctor,” he said.

I felt his arm move around my waist and I half-turned to find his fog gray eyes regarding me. Flecks of silver shone in the firelight. I felt the familiar flame of desire kindle.

“I do not wish to be distracted this Christmas morning,” I said. My voice was husky.

Holmes blinked and his lips parted in a small sigh.

“I wish to kiss you,” I went on, “Resolutely and without distraction.”

We leant forward at the same instant. I felt his lips open under mine, tasted brandy on his tongue, and heat blazed through me. In the space of a thought I had pushed him back to the floor.

I kicked the blankets aside and shifted so my leg straddled his hips. I caught the collar of his undershirt in a one-handed grip as I rose to kneel astride him. He was fumbling with the fastenings of my trousers with fingers still numb from the cold. I batted his hands away, tugged aside my underclothes and freed myself. His eyes were half-closed now, his face flushed and his lips moist and parted. In an instant I had one hand braced against the floor by his shoulder, the other working between us. My skin felt tight and slick to the touch. His was the same.

I arched my spine and felt his stomach tremble. His breath was coming in short gasps. I uttered a hoarse growl as I rocked forward. His hips churned under mine. Sweat glistened on his collarbone. His eyes rolled back and he gave a groan that ended in a small animal cry.

His strong fingers gripped my thighs convulsively. My hips surged forward twice more and light exploded behind my eyes. Over the rushing in my ears I thought I heard my own voice but I didn’t recognize words. At last the room wavered back into focus.

I held there until hurtling pressure gave way to slow spasms and to ragged peace. I felt the heat of the fire on my back and the heat of my lover, my love, under my hands. I bent forward and slid to the side, brushing my lips against his neck. The sheen of sweat there was cooling rapidly in the pre-dawn chill. My searching hand touched the pile of blankets and I tugged them up and over us.

We lay before the fire, warm and still for what seemed a very long time. I found myself moving through a shadowy doorway. A glimmer of light played on the floor and I followed it into a cavernous room. I looked up to find myself before the most marvelous stained glass window I had ever beheld. Amber light hummed behind its panes as though slices of the sun had been mounted in the wall. The thrumming of the light took on a slow and regular rhythm. It came upon my mind that it was the gentle susurration of breath. While I was wondering whether the sensation of warmth on my skin was from the light or the sound, the room shimmered and drifted apart. I blinked up at the fire in the hearth, now burned down to pulsing red light in the heart of the wood. A log shattered with a dull crack and a spray of white sparks flew up the chimney. Holmes stirred beside me.

The room was turning gray in the morning light as I braved the chill to cross our small sitting room to the washroom. I stepped on my toes across the sections of floor bare of the faded oriental rugs we’d brought from Baker Street. When I reached the hearth clutching my burden of toweling, I found Holmes gazing up at me from under the rumpled blankets. It was strange to see the face I knew so well turned wrong side up. I shuffled under the covers and set to work with the brushed wool cloths. I finished the job by turning the blankets just as Holmes spoke.

“John,” he said. “We shall have to adjourn to the bed soon. We’re both rather past the age to sleep on floors no matter how comfortably made up. And I saw you limping as you crossed the floor.”

I observed that he made no move to rise and said so. He relapsed into silence at this, apparently not judging it to be worth argument. It was several minutes before he spoke again.

“Are you aware,” he gazing up at the bare beams that crossed the ceiling, “That you have moments in which you are quite inarticulate?”

I shifted so that my head rested in the crook of his shoulder. “I am,” I said, “And yet I feel that I am still rather expressive.”

“Oh, decidedly so,” he agreed. “It is a definite talent. I would like to explore your gifts further. After a decent interval of course.”

“Certainly,” I said. “I believe we can enjoy a healthy give and take of views in our inarticulate fashion. In fact, your last argument was extremely nuanced.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I felt inspired by the forceful way you stated your proposition.”

We lay there quietly for a long moment. I ventured, “Holmes, would you agree that this constituted a decent interval?”

I felt him nod. “Wholeheartedly,” he said. “Allow me to present my evidence.”

And so it was that I did not return to my writing desk for some time. When I finally sat down to work again, I found that the legend of the singing bees was not, in fact, a subject I could do justice in words. It was a thing to be felt, experienced and savored. I did not interrupt Holmes’s reading to tell him this. I was certain that it went without saying.

fin.

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