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[personal profile] holmesticemods posting in [community profile] holmestice
Title: The Question
Recipient: [personal profile] graycardinal
Author: [personal profile] trobadora
Verse: Sherlock Holmes - ACD
Characters: Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty (with appearances by Lestrade, Watson, and Moran)
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: none
Summary: Of all the unanswered questions I had collected over the course of my career, none weighed upon me as much as that posed by the inexplicable inaction of Professor Moriarty.
A/N: Many thanks to C and M for all their help!

Also at AO3: "The Question"


"Mr Holmes, if you'll forgive the question - is Doctor Watson safe?"

It was Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard who asked me, toward the end of my campaign against Professor Moriarty and his gang, in which endeavour the official forces had joined me but recently. In those last days before all the pieces were aligned and arrests could be made, the criminal gang Moriarty had sponsored and fostered and turned into a finely honed law-breaking machine had turned its full efforts against me.

"I have made arrangements for his safety," I assured Lestrade, which was not an answer to the question he was truly posing: why Moriarty's men attempted my life at every turn, yet had made no move against either my friend and closest associate, or my brother.

The latter question was, by far, the easier: My brother was not exactly vulnerable, being accustomed to the protection afforded by his unofficial and unorthodox role in the British government, and it was to him I had turned for Watson's protection. Even so, I was far from certain our precautions were sufficient.

Lestrade was, as I have had occasion to mention, one of the best the Yard had to offer, and though the competition was not exactly daunting, he on occasion managed to rise to a level of competence even I could not criticise. His current perspicacity, however, was most inopportune. For once, I lacked an answer, and therefore was forced to brush him off by answering him in letter, rather than in spirit.

He allowed himself to be distracted, and did not bring the subject up again. Yet the question remained.


If, as has been claimed, constant danger has a tendency to sharpen one's faculties, danger from the sharpest of minds is surely the most efficient of strops. I felt that truth keenly in those days. Death hung over me daily; I survived only by maintaining the highest alertness at all times, never once allowing the slightest observation to slip from my mind, nor permitting myself to rely on superficial deductions. Everything had to be questioned; everything had to be doubted; everything had to be tested. I was racing to the finish line, every sense and sensibility heightened and amplified, and I had never felt more alive.

I could see with greater clarity than ever the strands of the web through which I was about to slice, the threads my opponent must tread on as he retreated and the ways I could cut them under his feet. The trap was sprung; Moriarty must fall.

Yet a mind equal to mine must surely see my blade coming. I had no doubt of it. If Moriarty had honed my mind to its finest, surely the threat of Sherlock Holmes had whetted his just as keenly.

Therefore his next move should have been obvious, if perhaps obscure to the less perceptive eye. I waited daily for news of the attempt to reach me. It did not. Finally I had to admit to being, as they say, at a loss.


I never mentioned the question to Watson, nor did he ever bring it up himself, though he may well have wondered. My friendship with the good Doctor was, of course, public knowledge. Even had it been otherwise, the fact still could not possibly have failed to come to the professor's knowledge.

Why, then, had Moriarty not acted, nor even threatened to do so?

He had visited me in my rooms, had offered me the unwanted chance to change my stance against him, and then, unsurprised by my answer, had left. He had never attempted threats against my associates. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, had he attempted to blackmail any of them into turning against me. It might have been possible, with the correct leverage, for such a strategy to succeed. Not that it was a ploy without risk - but not without the potential for success, either. For a man in the increasingly desperate straits in which Moriarty had found himself by then, as my long-honed blade cut short his web at every turn, threatening my allies should have been an obvious move. If it failed, what had he to lose?

Yet he did not attempt it, and I did not understand.

When Watson took it upon himself to chronicle - and embellish - my work for the sake of the public, he quite rightly found it more congenial to dwell on my successes rather than my failures, and on the dramatic presentation of the answer rather than the many hours, days, nay, often weeks or months spent asking questions, many of which would never be answered to the detective's satisfaction. I fear he may have given something of a false impression of my work.

Even so, of all the unanswered questions I had collected over the course of my career, ranging from the simple to the complex, from mere minutiae with no bearing on the outcome of the investigation to truths of the highest international importance, none weighed upon me as much as that posed by the inexplicable inaction of Professor Moriarty.

By the time things came to a head between us, I was certain that my understanding of him was as complete as it could be. His actions, his thoughts, his inclinations - by the end all these were entirely transparent to me, each as clear and obvious as if it had originated in my own mind.

Yet what he did not do, the action he did not take, remained a mystery to me for years.


When the time came for me to leave London, I hesitated only briefly. Visiting Watson could surely put him in no more danger than he already was, and his wife had already been encouraged to absent herself from the city, visiting friends. Could asking him along on my escape to the continent prove a greater risk than leaving him behind?

What decided me was the constant awareness that Moriarty had not acted in accordance with my expectations. At least, not yet, my instincts insisted - but my instincts had been wrong about this before. That, more than anything, worried me. I wanted my own eyes upon my friend. I would not leave him behind and find myself helpless to interfere.

There was another reason, of course, but I would hardly have allowed my own desire for company to influence me, had it not been for the other, prime motivator. I will admit Watson has, upon occasion, been ill used at my hand, but I would not treat him so cavalierly as to disregard the danger into which his association with me had put - and was putting - him.

Therefore, take him with me I would.


On top of the Reichenbach Falls, where the path ended, offering the visitor a glorious view and a dead end, I stood and waited. I had not warned Watson when the messenger had come to lead him away, and I was not at all certain I had chosen correctly.

It was not long until Moriarty himself arrived. I had expected it, of course. But I had expected other things from Moriarty, and he had not complied. Once again I found myself waiting for the threat I was sure he must attempt, but for all his detail in explaining that his evasion of the police and his hunt upon my trail, the words I expected never came.

Hesitant to press the matter, to mention the name Moriarty had not brought up, I nonetheless requested permission to leave a note for my friend. He allowed it, gracious and unperturbed, not in the least distracted from his purpose.

Our purpose. Inevitable destruction: it was entirely mutual, by then.

I wrote quickly, pencil on paper, knowing what awaited me afterwards. But there was still the question that lacked an answer. As I stood there by the Reichenbach Falls, water roaring into the abyss mere steps away, my mind would not let it be.

I secured the note for Watson with my cigarette-case and turned to Moriarty. "A question, if you please."

Moriarty's eyebrows rose, and his head moved in that strange, lizard-like undulation characteristic of him. "I was not aware any questions remained open."

Whatever the answer, then, he thought I already knew it. The sting of failure, and the urge to rise to the challenge, burned briefly. But no answers presented themselves.

"Your attempts to remove me have been repeated and insistent," I began. "My destruction has been and remains your goal."

"As mine has been and remains yours."

I acknowledged the truth of it with a nod and continued. "Your determination cannot be in question. Yet there is an approach you have not taken." My eyes flickered toward the path, where Watson had left only minutes ago with the boy Moriarty had sent. Then I met Moriarty's eyes again. "Even now, you have not. Opportunities have abounded, and I cannot allow the possibility that such a course of action never occurred."

A brief smile flickered over his lips. "You have dismissed, then, the theory that I have not done so because I do not believe it would alter your response?"

I took his meaning immediately, and felt my chin tighten. "You judge me by your own standards, as I do you. We have little other measure, that is true. But whether or not you are capable of such sentiment yourself, I cannot doubt you are aware that I have risked my own life for less."

"Capable?" His eyes wandered up the sheer cliff face beside us, almost melancholically. "No, you're quite right, of course. I am aware. And yes - I do judge you by my own standards."

That was all he said before he rushed me. A moment later we were grappling for life or death at the edge of the chasm, until finally I watched him fall into the abyss, my question unanswered.


The answer would not be brought home to me until three years later, standing in front of a different man, watching a different downfall.

The trap I had set for Colonel Moran, the last of Moriarty's men still at large, had sprung.

"You fiend!" Moran repeated, sounding almost broken now that his revenge against me, the cause of Moriarty's demise, had obviously failed. He no longer lunged for me in futile fury, yet his speech ran on, unchecked. "You cunning, cunning fiend!"

A man of his background, experience and proclivities surely had stronger words at his disposal, yet "fiend" was all he could seem to keep muttering. I had to reassess my opinions of him, I realised then. I'd known Moran had not been reduced to cheating at whist for a living due to a lack of other abilities; his faculties were considerable. But his single-minded focus on revenge was not, it seemed, due to his violent and vindictive nature. He hadn't had the will to turn to other pursuits; vengeance was all he'd clung to.

However criminal and repulsive both these men might have been, there had obviously been genuine fondness between Moran and Moriarty. And that was why.

Suddenly, I understood.

Had his friend been threatened or attacked as a strike at Moriarty himself, Moriarty must have known what his own reaction would be. Once I thought of it, it was obvious and clear: his determination would only have increased tenfold, a hundredfold. His wrath would have been unstoppable.

Judging me by his own standard, he therefore had not attempted such a strategy.

I did not allow my reaction to show. Moran was a murderer, and a criminal mind of a vileness second only to Moriarty himself, and yet for a moment I could not help the feeling of sympathy that stirred in my chest, the kindred feeling of a man who had been graced with such devoted friendship.

I put it aside firmly, along with the shameful admission of posthumous defeat.

For in that moment I had to admit, if only to myself, that in at least one sense, Professor Moriarty had understood friendship better than I. Where I had seen a weakness to exploit, he had recognised a force he knew better than to provoke.


Date: 2017-06-16 06:22 am (UTC)
graycardinal: Shadow on asphalt (Default)
From: [personal profile] graycardinal


[woozily climbs back into chair]

[pauses, frowns]

[glances back at signup post]

[SFX: KLUNK!!!!]

[long pause]

[rubs head, climbs woozily back into chair again]


Let me say that again.


This is (1) an extraordinarily well-written and brilliantly reasoned narrative, (2) in a direction that hadn't occurred to me to anticipate, and yet (3) is clearly and utterly ingeniously derived from -- of all things -- the title of my signup post for this round.

The level of craft here is first-rate; in particular, the rendering of Holmes' narrative voice is fully authentic and convincing. More, Holmes' character comes through here very much as it does in ACD's own renderings -- this is a Holmesian manuscript, not one from Watson's pen.

And the central conceit of the manuscript -- Holmes' own puzzlement at the matter of Watson not being threatened -- is one that makes complete, perfect sense in the context of canon. Pre-Reichenbach Holmes has not had occasion to look closely enough at his bond with Watson to see what Moriarty would indeed have seen. By contrast, post-Hiatus Holmes has learned enough (both from Moran and from the self-examination that's necessarily been a component of his exile) to realize what his earlier self had failed to see.

And yet -- Holmes insists on framing this revelation as a "posthumous defeat" at Moriarty's hand, rather than any sort of emotional breakthrough on his own part. It's entirely the wrong moral for the story Holmes is relating...except that it's exactly the sort of wrong moral that ACD-canon Holmes would take from this particular insight. I am reminded of the line from Merchant of Venice: "But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies they themselves commit." That's certainly Holmes here....

Bottom line: I could roll out three or four paragraphs of adjectives going on about just how beautifully done this is, but all it would demonstrate is that my anonymous gift-giver is way better at controlling their narrative instincts than I am right now. I am honored -- and, indeed, stunned -- to have been the inspiration for this piece. Bravo cubed!

Date: 2017-06-27 09:21 pm (UTC)
trobadora: (Sherlock/Moriarty - in the darkness)
From: [personal profile] trobadora
Hee! *blushes*

As you may have found out by now, your story is by a complete [community profile] holmestice novice who'd never written (or at least, never finished) anything Holmes-related before, and so I was pretty damn nervous about the whole thing. Your reaction to my story seriously made my day - hell, my whole month.

I'm incredibly happy you enjoyed this, and that the characterisation and the narrative voice rang true to you. Trying to capture Holmes's voice was a lot of fun, though I owe a great deal to the fabulous [personal profile] wojelah as well, who helped me polish it to its present state.

The title of your sign-up post did indeed set this off! And the question at the centre of this story is an obvious one, and I'm sure someone somewhere must have answered it in a way that would have satisfied me, but I've never seen it, so I came up with one of my own. Character development for Holmes, and a Moriarty who is Holmes's mirror in more ways than merely a dark version - just my thing. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write this!

It's entirely the wrong moral for the story Holmes is relating...except that it's exactly the sort of wrong moral that ACD-canon Holmes would take from this particular insight.

Yes! I'm so glad that came across well.

Honestly, I don't have the words to explain just how happy your comment made me, but you couldn't possibly have given me a better first Holmestice experience, so thank you again! I'm definitely going to come back for more. :D

Date: 2017-06-16 04:34 pm (UTC)
gardnerhill: (Default)
From: [personal profile] gardnerhill
Marvellous story of that perilous moment at Reichenbach, and a great answer to that question so many of us have had for so long ("Because he's an English Gentleman" only holds so much water).

Date: 2017-06-27 09:22 pm (UTC)
trobadora: (Sherlock/Moriarty - in the darkness)
From: [personal profile] trobadora
Thank you very much! Yes, I don't think I've ever seen an answer to that question that fully satisfied me ...

Date: 2017-06-19 08:26 am (UTC)
pipmer1: (Default)
From: [personal profile] pipmer1
Wow. This was ingenious. Very well done Holmes point of view. It was eerie the way Holmes kept conflating his and Moriarty's mindset and ways of thinking, almost as if Holmes believed them to be the same sort of person. And at the end, just another confirmation of that belief.

Date: 2017-06-27 09:24 pm (UTC)
trobadora: (Sherlock/Moriarty - in the darkness)
From: [personal profile] trobadora
In some ways, they are the same - they certainly have the same kind of mind. And other than Mycroft, I don't think either of them has any frame of reference to understand the other by but himself ...

I'm very glad the Holmes POV worked for you!

Date: 2017-06-21 03:26 am (UTC)
starfishstar: (Default)
From: [personal profile] starfishstar
Oh, that was a lovely, long-slow-dawning realization – both for Holmes and for the reader. I really thought I knew where this was going, that what Holmes would come to realize was that Moriarty discounted the idea of an attack on Watson because he couldn't fathom caring about a friend that much – and then instead it turned out to be precisely the opposite. I appreciate having my assumptions upended like that, and I was impressed by Holmes who has the grace to acknowledge when he's misjudged.

I also noticed the way the whole piece was structured around questions, from the opening line to the delivering of an answer in the final section. And I agree with other commenters on what an excellent Holmes narrative voice this is!

Date: 2017-06-27 09:29 pm (UTC)
trobadora: (Sherlock/Moriarty - in the darkness)
From: [personal profile] trobadora
Hee! Thank you, I'm very happy you enjoyed this, and that the narrative voice worked well. Yes, "he doesn't understand friendship" would have been the obvious answer, wouldn't it? I do like playing with that kind of thing. Andt if Holmes and Moriarty are in some ways mirrors of each other, so if Holmes is allowed negative traits, then surely that must mean Moriarty must have some positive ones as well.

For all that Holmes can be pretty damn arrogant at times, he's also surprisingly gracious, and I always liked that he didn't shy away at all from admitting his errors. :)

Date: 2017-06-27 09:59 pm (UTC)
starfishstar: (Default)
From: [personal profile] starfishstar
And if Holmes and Moriarty are in some ways mirrors of each other, so if Holmes is allowed negative traits, then surely that must mean Moriarty must have some positive ones as well.

That's really insightful. As much as we all presumably admire Holmes if we're in this fandom in the first place, I'd say generally we remember to write him as a flawed and complex human; but it's so easy to simplify Moriarty into Just Evil. But hardly anyone is just evil, right? Or even if they are, they might still have their own particular loyalties that they honor even while doing terrible things... Hm, lots to think about!

Date: 2017-06-27 09:12 am (UTC)
navaan: (books)
From: [personal profile] navaan
Okay, I've been holding off on commenting here after commenting on AO3, because I had so many things on my mind that even coming up with words for this comment, didn't seem to do the fic justice! But I just came back to reread it and I just need to praise you again.

This is just wonderfully written and Holmes POV is just perfect as is him realizing that "Moriarty understood friendship better than I". I really envy you ability to write such a perfect ACD pastiche, too!

Date: 2017-06-27 09:38 pm (UTC)
trobadora: (Sherlock/Moriarty - in the darkness)
From: [personal profile] trobadora
Awww. ♥

Writing pastiche is fun, but you know how nervous I was about the whole thing, so I'm really glad everyone seems to think I managed to pull the Holmes voice off well. And you know me, I just can't resist complicating the black-and-white, good-and-evil Holmes-Moriarty dichotomy. *g*

Date: 2017-06-30 07:58 am (UTC)
navaan: (Fox)
From: [personal profile] navaan
Yeah, I remember! But it turned out so great!!

Date: 2017-06-28 07:14 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] fridaythegowerstreetcat
This is such an assured piece which completely gripped me.Bravo.

Date: 2017-07-08 08:19 pm (UTC)
trobadora: (Sherlock/Moriarty - in the darkness)
From: [personal profile] trobadora
Thank you very much, I'm very happy to hear it! I was a bit nervous since it was my first attempt at ACD fic. :)

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