May 23, 2008
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The Taste of Love

from the Sussex Chronicles series

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by nlr alicia
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<< These stories are 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: Slashy sensations.

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This story exists in the universe established by Intimations.
It has some pretty significant Spoilers for Intimations so
if you were thinking about reading that one…
well, you get the idea.

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The rhythmic scritch-scritch of the relish spoon across the toast stopped. There was a pause. Morning sounds drifted up from the street below. A distant jangle of harness bells was transmuted into a woman’s laughter. A dog barked once. The scritch-scritch began again.

Sherlock Holmes ground the stem of his pipe between his teeth and stared at the newspaper he had propped against the teapot. It was a useless endeavor. The letters formed words, the words formed sentences, the sentences formed ideas yet none of it could penetrate the cacophony from the other end of the breakfast table.

But the sound was not the worst part, he decided. Worse still was the sticky, pungent, pickled, sour fruit smell of the stuff. He pushed the paper to the side in tacit admission of defeat and stared down the length of the table.

“Chutney,” he said flatly.

His breakfast companion paused, relish spoon suspended over the already laden toast point held in his fingertips. His broad smile was reflected in the corners of his blue eyes and the fine lines there, incised by exposure to the high desert sun.

“Not just any chutney,” Doctor John Watson said. He popped the toast and its cargo into his mouth and chewed vigorously.

Sherlock Holmes worked the pipe stem between his teeth as the sound of crunching toast was replaced by the smack of a fingertip being scrupulously swabbed.

“The real thing,” Watson went on. He scooped up a small jar. It was of thick, clear glass and the approximate size and shape of a persimmon. He held it, the mouth cradled in a circle made by this thumb and middle finger.

Upon the occasion of their first meeting some weeks before, Holmes had observed Watson had surprising hands for a doctor. The ball of his thumb bore a ragged, white trace of a scar, undoubtedly cut by a leather knife held in the unsure grip of a too young boy. The strength of the fingers and a set of calluses, almost as old as the scar, could come only from early years on a farm.

A divot of flesh missing from the corner of the palm near to the small finger was such a perfect triangle it might have been cut by a scalpel, but the edges were too raw to admit of such a tool. A bit of shrapnel was more likely the culprit.

As if in direct challenge to those outrages against the skin, the touch of the hand was light, with an effortless grace that spoke of a fineness of spirit to equal his open countenance.

Watson moved the jar into a ray of sunlight that had found its way through the greasy air of a London Sunday morning to splash across the breakfast table.

“See the bits of pepper skin? And look here.” He turned the jar again and the sunlight glinted through yellow and orange and sunset colored slivers suspended in sticky syrup. “Tamarindo seeds. You can’t get this outside of India. I’ve only one more jar when this is gone, but I can’t bring myself to ration it out.”

He flashed another bright smile as he admired the jar. “Always been a bit profligate when it come to pleasures, I suppose.”

Enough light escaped the viscous slurry of fruit and vinegars to shine on Doctor Watson’s hair. Like his mustache, it was bleached nearly white by the Eastern sun but hints of gold reflected the sunlight.

In the privacy of his thoughts, Sherlock Holmes observed the hues of sunlight and sky blue presented by his curious breakfast companion. The inherent beauty of the scene was one that asked to be rendered in Italian glass. It was unfortunate, he considered as he returned to his newspaper, the sense memory would be forever marred by the cloying smell of Indian chutney.

.o0o.
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John Watson made a genuine effort at a grateful smile as Mr. Martini himself reverently lowered the bone china plate onto the tablecloth and stepped back with the air of a high priest awaiting the verdict of a particularly capricious god.

Watson stole a glance at his dinner companion. If he’d hoped to glean some inkling as to which of the array of silver arranged, to all appearances, decoratively around the dish, he should make a sortie toward, he was disappointed.

Sherlock Holmes sat in all the unashamed hauteur of benevolent majesty. The corner table by the large picture window overlooking the Strand was his kingdom. The encircling troupe of maitre d’hotel, staff and eponymous proprietor of Martini’s restaurant seemed grateful beyond measure to number as his subjects. And John Watson marveled that this was the same man who had that morning been snuffling through a pile of damp leaves like an undernourished foxhound.

Watson’s tight smile broke into a broad grin. “The official food taster seems to be out on call,” he offered under his breath. “Perhaps Martini can find a terrier of advanced years to try them out on first.”

He saw Holmes’s gaze shift to meet his own.

“They are truffles, Doctor,” he said. “And very fine ones. From the midwinter harvest at Richerenches. They were cleaned and prepared only moments ago to ensure the most full bodied flavor and are presented in the Maccheroncini alla Boscaiuola style. These particular truffles were transported by special messenger to London at the behest of a Marquis in gratitude for some trifling services rendered in a rather sensitive matter of state. I anticipate that they will be both exceptional and non-lethal. You are not obligated to enjoy them, of course.”

“Oh, no, no,” Watson offered hastily, straightening in his seat and studying his plate with unfeigned interest. “I’m sure they’re…” He rotated his dish by a quarter degree with the tip of his finger. “Ah, they look…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Holmes took up a fork, undistinguished from two other of the same size and shape except by its distance from the center and sat with it poised over his plate for a long moment of deliberation.

The fork descended. The room seemed to go perfectly still. With a single tine he pierced and lifted a thin sliver. It was porous and grayish brown. To Watson’s eye it looked like nothing so much as a cross-section of diseased lung.

He attempted to ignore the unsettling appearance of the purported delicacy and instead appreciate his friend’s enjoyment of it. Holmes paused for just an instant as the flake of truffle neared his lips. By the evidence of a slight flare of his nostrils, Watson knew he was gathering a thousand fine details from the scent of the soil in which it was found to the blend of butter with which it was brushed.

Holmes’s lips parted and the hovering slice of truffle touched his tongue. He inhaled a short breath as one would when tasting a fine vintage wine and his lips closed, imparting a brief caress to the fork before he lowered it.

He was perfectly motionless, seeming to exist in a suspended state, waiting for the truffle to release its magic. After an instant’s pause that seemed to last a day, his eyes drifted closed.

His jaw moved in the tiniest of motions as he chewed twice then swallowed. His eyes opened.

He did not look at the hovering maitre d’hotel, the palpitating Mr. Martini, or any of the dozen diners who had turned to admire the theatre of the moment.

John Watson saw his friend’s slate gray eyes open and meet his own and the fulfillment he saw in them conjured a fleeting mirage. He imagined admiring that same look of pleasurable contentment, couched in rumpled linen and separated only by the distance of a kiss.

In instant betrayal of the thought he felt a flush start in his cheeks. Before it could flame to the full-blown embarrassment that can only be cooled by turning quickly in search of a glass of champagne, a matching wash of color flared on his friend’s sculpted cheekbones and brushed across the bridge of his nose.

As Mr. Martini and his reanimated wait staff shared entirely unsophisticated grins and exclamations of delight punctuated by handshakes and claps on the back Watson stared into the eyes of his dearest friend and felt the first, startling bloom of an unsought and undreamt of revelation.

.o0o.
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“Martini would be beside himself to know he missed this moment,” John Watson remarked from his recumbent position amid a confusion of rumpled linen.

He took in the vision of Sherlock Holmes sitting cross-legged on the bed beside him clad only in a trailing swath of the same sheets, looking like a particularly ascetic Hindustani monk.

Like an ascetic and debauched Hindustani monk, Watson amended in the privacy of his own thoughts. He felt his smile widen as he admired the disarray of his friend’s raven black hair and the single curling strand, slick with perspiration, that clung to his flushed cheek.

The flickering light of the candle on the nightstand reflected the thin sheen of sweat on his friend’s lean muscled chest. Watson felt his fingers inexorably drawn to the tangle of dark hair that graced the sculpted breastbone.

Holmes batted his hand away.

“Mr. Martini,” he said. “Was most decidedly not invited to witness this particular event, which is not unfortunate only partly because I don’t believe he’d consider it an ornament to his hectic social calendar. Now,” he said. “You have a choice of butter or the raw, unadorned variety.”

Watson propped himself up on one elbow and pondered the manifold wonders of his friend’s gray eyes under the pretext of considering his choices.

“I like butter,” he remarked at last, drawing a gratifying snort of derision from his companion.

“Yes, I’m aware of that fact,” Holmes said. “I had predicted your answer, of course, but one does hope for the occasional surprise.”

He turned to lean toward the nightstand just as Watson volunteered, “On second thought, I’ll try both.”

Holmes looked back over his angular shoulder before turning back slowly. “Really?”

Watson cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t recommend you give me a chance to reconsider. How long have you waited for this chance?”

He heard Holmes draw in a short breath as he thought. “Seven years and three months,” he said, turning back to the nightstand.

Watson realized his mouth was gaping open and he was powerless to amend the situation without recourse to speech. “You’re serious?”

“Several days short of three months, but the count is otherwise accurate,” Holmes said over his shoulder.

“Why…” Watson struggled with a phrasing that might convey his astonishment without drawing undue attention to it and by his hesitation did both.

“Why have you been so recalcitrant or why would I recall the date with such precision? I have no answer to the first question apart from your native obstinacy. To the second question… Ah, I seem to have neglected the– well, no matter.” He turned back long enough to deposit a serviette on the bedclothes and went back to his work. “I remember it because that is the night I discovered the truth in the words of Brillat-Savarin.”

Holmes turned again, holding a small china plate, and met Watson’s gaze. “’Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erotic and gastronomic ideas.’ It was a moment of startling clarity in a lifetime of thought I had wrongly imagined to be quite clear already.”

“Oh,” Watson said, fully aware that the word both did and didn’t do justice to the upwelling of emotion that suffused his chest and warmed his bare skin.

Holmes held his gaze for a moment longer then cleared his throat and looked down at the dessert plate in his hand. He lifted the knife shaped like a tiny scimitar resting on the edge and gestured with it.

“The butter has gone a bit soft, but that shouldn’t affect the taste,” he said. “Mixing the shaved truffle into butter is the best way to preserve the flavor while making it palatable to the less, shall we say, discerning palate. This,” he went on in tacit denial of Watson’s quirked eyebrow, “Is the truffle itself. It is, unfortunately, no longer at the full flower of its taste as I was unable, not to say, forcefully discouraged from offering it earlier in the evening.” He shot a quick glance at Watson. “It is a very small shaving.”

“I shall face it bravely,” Watson said moving to sit up.

Holmes gave a sharp “tsk” and waved the tiny knife in a gesture Watson was not sure he viewed as amusing or alarming, but he reclined back on his elbow and watched as Holmes positioned the plate on the bedclothes then moved to scoop up a very small portion of the butter on the blade of the knife

He observed Holmes’s movements in the shadows out of the direct light of the flickering candle were oddly unsure and he filed the knowledge away among the small supply gathering weight in the corner of his mind.

“It’s the bread I forgot, you see,” Holmes said, quirking his lips in a half smile. “It’s just as well. I can’t envision you managing to keep crumbs from the bedclothes.”

“No, neither can I,” Watson remarked honestly as he took the small knife from his friend’s long, gracefully tapered fingers. He gave the butter an inquisitive sniff, only partly because he guessed he was expected to, then touched it to his tongue.

He considered the flavor. It was, quite possibly, the most offensive butter not past its natural lifespan, he had ever tasted. The flavor was something like dirt by way of wet dog with a bit of cigar ash mixed in.

He licked his lips and drew in a breath. As he opened his mouth in hopes of finding something not entirely dishonest to say, Holmes interrupted him by taking the knife from his hand and depositing it on the plate with a clatter.

“Well,” he said, moving to return the plate to the nightstand. “That’s an experiment completed. I’ll–”

“Not so fast,” Watson said and rested his hand on his friend’s knee. “I haven’t tried the truffle itself yet.”

Holmes turned back, one expressive eyebrow quirked. He made no remark as he settled the plate on the sheet, carefully lifted the single small fragment in his fingertips and held it out.

Watson opened his mouth to accept it on his tongue and drew in a breath not because he thought he was expected to, but because the tip of Holmes’s finger brushed his lip and the sensation was frank confirmation of the wisdom of Brillat-Savarin.

As he carefully chewed the morsel he considered that he would gladly endure three or four such ordeals for the simple pleasure of experiencing that entirely unselfconscious touch again.

This time Holmes waited for his verdict though Watson could see he considered it a foregone conclusion. He gave his response all the deliberation it deserved.

“I didn’t like it very much,” he said at last. As an answer it was blatant understatement of his considerable loathing of the diseased lung shaped thing, but it was also honest. He was pleased with it.

As if in recognition of the art of his response, Holmes’s lips curled in a genuine smile, one that touched his eyes. They were the color of mercury in the flickering candlelight, Watson observed, and considered the knowledge a surfeit of recompense for his recent trial.

“Would you like some claret?” Holmes said as he cleared away the plate and serviette.

“Very much,” Watson said attempting to modulate his enthusiasm with only mixed success.

Holmes snorted a laugh and shifted to rise.

“Wait.” Watson reached out on sudden impulse and caught Holmes by the elbow then looped his arm around his back and drew him down.

As their lips met Holmes inhaled as one would when sampling a particularly fine vintage of wine and Watson found that he was, once again, completely undone.

With vague, half-conscious movements he kicked the bedclothes aside and pulled Holmes down, lost in the sensation of his warm skin and tangles of dark hair and the sultry, rich taste of his lips and tongue that was so much infinitely more satisfying than food or wine or air or life itself.

.o0o.
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There was no need for the blaze that churned in the rough-hewn stone hearth. There was only the faintest chill in air that April evening. Holmes recognized that even older bones, as his certainly were, grinding as they did with the first twinges of rheumatism, had no need of such an extravagant use of firewood.

It would have been foolish to retain his jumper in the face of that radiating heat, certainly for the sake of show, so he stripped it off and dropped it on the rug by his chair. He had not lit the fire for warmth and he saw no reason to dissemble about it to his companion.

He knew Watson would not find anything worthy of comment in the heat or the fire. Watson never fussed or prevaricated or pretended things were other than what they were.

Holmes did not have to explain why he stared into the reds and golds and glowing whites of the flames. He did not have to say the only light that still penetrated the dust-gray fog that shrouded his eyes was fire and sunlight and, more rarely still, the glint of sunlight on moving water when they’d take their long and rambling walks along the coast.

It was clear that having time to prepare oneself mentally had made all the difference. He could, by and large, face the inevitable darkness with equanimity.

Of course, he would have liked to have seen the sky blue of Watson’s eyes just once more. None of the rest seemed particularly important.

The memory of gazing into those eyes across the space of a breath lingered. He imagined it would linger, long after he’d forgotten what it was like to know the dawn by more than settling dew and birdsong.

Watson was doing something in the kitchen. He heard the rattle of a dish on the metal edge of the table. It sounded like the ring of china rather than the thud of ceramic.

The likelihood was that Watson had pulled out the mint green sandwich plate he favored for his tea. Offering to clear away the dishes would be a good opportunity to test his theory. He could feel for the tiny chip at the edge and not have to trouble Watson to correct him if he was wrong.

It occurred to him that Watson was taking a long time to accomplish whatever it was he was doing in the kitchen. Tea was a simple affair in their cottage on the Downs. It was a rare occasion when they partook of anything as outré as a ginger biscuit to enliven the usual repast of French bread and cheese.

From time to time Mrs. Wickes, in a fit of what could only be described as misplaced exuberance, would arrive with a tin of sugar-encrusted currant bread from her sister “over Cornwall way.” Watson generally contrived to make it disappear within a few days. Holmes suspected the local wildlife had been the greatest beneficiary of the harvest from Cornwall.

The door to the garden opened and closed. By that sign, Holmes gathered that they would be taking their tea under the oak.

He settled down deeper into his chair. He couldn’t begrudge Watson for wanting to enjoy what to all indications would be a fine spring evening out of doors. But until he was called, he would continue to soak in the apparition of the leaping flames.

It was several more minutes before he heard Watson’s sure tread on the boards behind his chair. He sat still and waited for his summons.

A hand brushed his arm before Watson’s mustache grazed his cheek. The feeling still started a flicker of pleasure in his belly even after so very many years.

Watson’s parted lips touched his skin and he felt the shape of the words, “Come into the garden.”

He no longer needed the additional cue of the pattern of Watson’s exhaled breath, but he never commented on it any more than he commented on the fact that most of what Watson said could be communicated without need of words at all. It was certainly no hardship to feel Watson’s lips against his skin.

And no great sensitivity of understanding was required to know that Watson preferred to exercise this form of speech than to go through life in complete silence, a perpetual victim of that one stray shot that had taken his voice away.

It would have been nice to hear Watson’s fine, deep voice again. But the memory of it still rang in his mind even when the words were no more than the kiss of breath. And life was full of such accommodations.

He nodded and rose, grateful as ever that Watson did not wait, but moved on ahead. He made his way out to the garden and found his seat under the pergola with a modicum of bother.

As he settled into his chair he heard the lid of a jar twist open and a pungent, sickly, pickled scent assailed his nostrils.

“Chutney,” he said. “Where on Earth did you get that? And, moreover, why?”

He felt the touch of lips against his cheek. “Miss Grayson.”

“That’s why you needed a secretary? To supply your filthy habit?” he said, listening to the crackle of bread being torn. “If she brings it with her twice weekly from now on I shall have to insist on another conversation about why you believe you’re too busy to answer your own correspondences.”

The scritch-scritch of a relish spoon on bread paused then lips touched his skin. “Try it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “If I had wanted to taste chutney, I assure you, I would have done so years ago. The smell is quite enough of an assault on my senses, thank you.”

Scritch-scritch. “You don’t know you don’t like it.”

“I do know it,” he answered even as he heard the distinct sound of bread being chewed. “And if you’re going to sit there and calmly consume that noxious substance, I’m going to take my cheese and–”

His words were stilled by the rough-soft feel of a mustache against his upper lip. Before he could draw away, strong fingers laced through the fine hair at the back of his neck and pulled him close.

Watson’s lips were slightly sticky. He tasted of pepper and sugared fruits and the bite of strong vinegar. His deepening kiss and the caress of his tongue brought notes of tamarind and anise and a bright tang of lemon. Each flavor was an individual spark and together they were a tapestry of interweaving sensations of bitter and warm and sharp and sweet.

The kiss was, Holmes considered, quite devastating and he found, as ever, when presented with Watson’s never ending capacity for surprises he was completely undone.The kiss went on and drifted by turns through a series of shared caresses and mingled breath and freshening breezes that cooled sweat-slicked skin and finally the sound of water running over stones far away under the trees.

As he lay with his lover in the cool of the evening, Holmes remembered a sun-hardened man captured forever in slanting rays of morning light. He remembered golds and reds and sunrise colors that cried out to be rendered in Italian glass and he remembered bright, sky blue eyes.

He held his lover of so many years close and remembered the first lingering taste of unending love. He felt Watson’s lips touch his cheek. He closed his eyes and smiled.

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fin.