by Katie

It might be supposed--if only by those few intimates of Sherlock Holmes and myself who are privy to a more precise picture of our relations than I have afforded the general public--that the events I recorded in "The Adventure of the Empty House" were some of the most joyous of my life.  It would surprise all but one of them to learn that such was not the case at all.  Far from it, in fact.  Concessions had to be made before a clamoring public, ever gratifyingly eager for new tales of my friend, and thus I am afraid that the events I recorded under the aforementioned title are rather more heart-warming than they are factual.  The arc of the drama, if you will, undoubtedly peaked during a peculiar little investigation I have archived, equally foreshortened and riddled with deliberate error, under the prosaic heading "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder."  Although I wish now to set it down in its entirety, even if secretly, I find myself at a loss over how to do so.  It is difficult to know where to begin such a convoluted tale, for I do not think, as Holmes so often caustically suggests, that I would be best served by starting with the beginning.  Perhaps I would do better to commence with the telegrams.

The Norwood affair took place at the end of a period of some two months during which time I was the recipient of thrice daily telegrams.  The first would arrive anywhere between six in the morning, when he had not been to bed, and eleven, when he had.  The second almost always made its appearance during the hours of three or four in the afternoon, and the third shortly before ten.

To do him justice, they were posted from at least twenty different locations in Westminster.  I do not think that even in his severely over-wrought state, he ever sent one twice daily from the same office.  Some of them inquired rather charmingly after my health.  Some were dinner invitations, or notices that he had reserved a box at the opera.  Others were terse and frankly exceedingly droll accounts of deductions made regarding acquaintances of ours at the Yard, or minor reflections upon passages in books, or ironic descriptions of how the plane tree visible from my old room was faring.  I would calculate that a quarter of them were variously worded apologies, some amusing and others abject though never inappropriate.  Finally, a further ten percent, perhaps, were summons to accompany him on cases of varying interest.  I discarded each and every one of them, save the last.

I will not pretend that I did not read them.  I threw one in a public dustbin without glancing at its contents and in a fit of unreasoning panic some two hours later returned to find it had already been incinerated.  After that, I took care to read them through, whether they brought a horribly painful constriction to my chest or no, before I destroyed them.  The less efficacious of them were crumpled and consigned to the nearest receptacle, and his more effective efforts I deliberately burned.  Finally, at long last and after having received 196 telegrams from the same party, I jotted down a furious reply:

Cease writing me telegrams.  You must give it up.

I had already received my quota for the day and was preparing for bed when a fourth was delivered to me, shortly before midnight:

I do not intend ever to give it up, even if the only beneficiary is the London postal service.  Sleep well.

It slipped from my fingers onto my desk as I shook my head exhaustedly, and I vaguely wondered as I drifted off what I had done to deserve any of it, and what I ought to wear when I arrived at Baker Street the next morning to throttle the life out of Sherlock Holmes.

"Would you care for a drink?"

The appalling man looked well enough, I thought, registering a relief I had not anticipated.  To be sure, he looked as he did when he was not eating above once a day, consuming more shag than ought to be humanly possible, and sleeping only when dropping dead from exhaustion.  That is to say, he was pale, distracted, svelte, eager, and his eyes had faded to that pale silver colour which ought never to be combined with shining black hair.  It is an unfair combination of physical attributes which even Darwin could never have foreseen.

"Yes," I said shortly.  "A small one.  I am not staying.  Holmes, you really must stop this...this...."

"Campaign," he said smoothly, handing me a glass with far too much whiskey in it.

"Is that what it is?" I sighed.  

"Well, it is difficult to say precisely," he continued evenly, pouring a drink for himself with hatefully elegant fingers.  "It may be a campaign, but that is rather too casual a term, I think.  It is not a mission.  Perhaps a crusade.  No, no, a crusade has far too many noble connotations.  I would term it a quest."

"And why is it a quest and not a crusade?" I asked him, loathing him for having sparked my interest and loathing myself all the more for having fallen into one of Holmes' witticisms.

"That is very simple.  A crusade is the pursuit of a goal or object in a selfless effort to glorify God.  A quest is the passionate pursuit of the one person, object, or place which means more than anything else in this wide world to the seeker, and is enacted selfishly, because the protagonist cannot live withou--"

"Yes, yes, I see," I said testily, draining my glass far more quickly than I intended to.  "Your choice of terms is inapt.  You can live without me.  You can live without me for a number of years, it seems."

"Oh, I can live without you," he conceded, smiling ironically.  "The exercise simply does not seem to be worth my time."

"Well, forgive me, but what you do with your time is no longer any of my concern," I returned bitterly.

"Ah," said Holmes in a very soft voice.  "That is all too true."  He busied himself refilling our glasses.  The arm which snaked out of his dressing gown was thin and pale, but steady.  He was not using cocaine, I thought.  I wondered immediately after why the devil I should care if he were.  Then it became very clear to me that I needed to depart from his presence with all possible speed.

"I must ask you to come to the point, Holmes," I declared, checking my pocket watch.  "The events of the past few years have taken their toll, and my practice is not what it once was.  I would be loath to lose another client, if only because I require the funds.  I have not been able to have the facade of the building seen to in two years, and my offices are beginning to resemble the tradesman's entrance of a warehouse.  Regarding these incessant telegrams--"

"You needn't worry about your client or your practice, if you would rather not.  You can live here."  His voice was strident and deliberately cheerful, the voice of a man who knows all too well that his request is about to be denied.  "That would solve two of your problems, my dear fellow, for your financial doldrums would end just as swiftly as the undesired telegrams.  If you remain where you are, those twin worries will doubtless continue to plague you."

I rose to go, and he thrust a refilled glass into my hand.  The man was intolerable, I thought as I cast about for a response to this monstrous proposal.  "Simply for my amusement, why don't you outline for me one reason why I might ever, even in my darkest nightmares, inhabit these rooms again."

He shrugged, and took a swallow of spirits.  "I love you.  That is one reason."

I laughed so hard at this that a tiny splash of whiskey leapt from my glass onto the bearskin rug.  "Excuse me, Holmes," I said, setting it down.  "I've no quarrel with your rug.  But that really is extremely funny."

"Why?" he asked.

"Because you don't love me.  You use me."

"Is that the case?" he inquired cordially, though I could see by the tension in his temples he was exerting considerable effort to remain at ease.  "I cannot deny that you are a very useful person."

"Yes, I have many functions for you.  You use me for publicity, for backup, for information-gathering--"

"Physical pleasure, companionship, a second opinion, a reason to live..." he finished with some asperity.

"That is very charming, although not quite the last item on the list.  What of my capacity as eulogist?"  I am not a hard man, though I have seen a great deal of danger and sorrow in my life.  I cannot cut another man apart with arguments that slice like a honed dagger, the way Holmes can.  I will say, however, that when I posed that rhetorical question, my words appeared to form themselves magically into solid matter and strike him a blow in the solar plexus.  The fact that I once would have given everything I owned to hear Holmes refer to me as a reason to live I pushed back into the furthest corner of my mind.

"I have told you already," he protested vehemently, "that it was the only way.  The only way, Watson.  You had to write it.  You are a very intelligent man, and you have often given me the same compliment.  Do you imagine that when I mentioned 'the only way,' I was in fact referring to one of three ways?  One of seven?  Are you quite cognizant what the word itself implies?  Perhaps if I had said it was the 'sole' way, or the 'exclusive' course, it would have been clearer to you.  My dear fellow, are you out of your mind?  Do you think I enjoyed it?  Lying there wedged between boulders while my--"

"Stop it," I snarled at him.  "Stop it now."

"I mean that--"

"You don't mean it."  I was battling an overpowering desire to beat him to the ground, though a far-off part of me knew full well that such an exercise would not go my way for long.  "It is impossible that a person who has falsified their own death to a second party could have ever loved that same party, and I would be more than happy to fight you if dare to suggest it again."

"I am beginning to wonder whether your grasp of the English language is quite sufficient for a side career as a professional biographer," he snapped in return.  "First you show a vaunted ignorance of the word 'only,' and now you bandy about the term 'impossible' quite shamefully.  I convinced you I was dead, and I love you.  Therefore it is not an impossibility for such an event to take--"

"I am leaving," I said desperately.  "I am leaving this instant.  "

"Why on earth would you leave in the midst of such a scintillating discussion of vocabulary?"

I stared him straight in the eye.  "I have no desire to see you again."

He took it better than he had the time before, following the capture of Colonel Sebastian Moran.  Then I had wondered briefly if mere words could in fact kill, and if they could, could they kill a man who was supposed to be dead already?  This time he merely shook his head very slightly.

"That is not a statement I intend to accept."

"For the love of--why not?" I cried out, half crazed with the frustration of making a perfectly clear declaration and then having it discarded as if it were irrelevant.  "God in heaven, Holmes, why not?  It is perfectly true."

"It isn't true."

By this time I was waving one fist in the air in silent protest at the gods for having ever allowed such a maddening creature to be born.  "You are the most arrogant, stubborn, self-obsessed being I have ever encountered.  You actually have the gall to suggest that you know my own thoughts better than I do?"

"Well, of course I do.  I pay far closer attention to them than you ever have."

"It is a wonder to me that I ever consented to share digs with you in the first place."

"Nevertheless, historically speaking, you did so, and the pitiable results lie before you," he shot back caustically.  

"Believe me, if there were a method of magically reversing--"

"I think you had better kiss me."

This was one too many for me, and to my later embarrassment, I sent the whiskey glass flying into the fireplace, where it shattered very satisfactorily.

"Why would I take such an insane action?" I asked more calmly.  He took several steps in my direction until his nose was at the level of my brow.

"Don't you dare touch me," I whispered fiercely, but to my surprise he stopped and stood quite still.

"I will offer you a deal," he said in a precise little murmur, his eyes very bright.  "If you can kiss me for the first time in over three years and then look me in the face and still say I do not love you, I will stop sending you telegrams.  What I may do in the way of letters and perhaps packages is another matter, to say nothing of hired messengers, but the wires will be a thing of the past."

"You are out of your senses."  His entire posture was vibrating with suppressed impulse.  I hated him more than anyone I had ever hated in my life, even including the late Professor Moriarty, and still I wanted him so.  He had not yet shaved, for I had given no notice of my visit, and the shadow only heightened the strength of his impossibly masculine jaw.

"Yes, no doubt I am out of my senses," he acknowledged with a tiny smile.  "I will not venture to tell you why I am out of my senses, for I do not wish to risk losing more glassware.  Do you accept my terms?"

"Your terms are a ludicrous charade invented to make me ridiculous."  There was still an enraged tremor in my voice which I found impossible to hide.  

"When have you known me ever to engage in a charade which lacked practical value?"

There he had me, though I would have cut off my hand before admitting it.  "What do you stand to gain if I lose?"

"Nothing," he said, putting up his palms defensively.  We stood so close that they both brushed my waistcoat on their way.  "Such are my terms.  You gain peace over the wireless, and I gain nothing."

"And all I have to do is kiss you, however horrifying that may be, and then reiterate that you do not love me?"

He nodded.  "Absurdly simple, is it not?"

"Open mouthed or closed?"

His eyes twitched in amusement at this query.  "Well, perhaps if we began with the first, and migrated to the second if it is not too terribly ghastly for you."

I considered his offer once more.  Upon reflection, I was mad to even consider it.  And yet, upon further reflection, I was mad to be standing in Baker Street with the morning sun striking the desk, the basket chair, the mantelpiece, the violin--

"Well?" Holmes asked quietly.

It would be a wonderful thing, I thought grimly, a deeply satisfying and heartwarming thing, to prove myself free of him. 

"Do your worst," I said at last, and closed my eyes.

I had expected his mouth on mine in an instant. Instead, I felt a shivering hand at the back of my neck, and another tracing the side of my face with the backs of delicate fingers.  These fingers at length turned over and cradled my cheek within their palm, while an excruciatingly sensitive thumb ran over my lips and then tilted my head up to an angle I remembered, in a flash of searingly painful longing, all too well.  Then he kissed me.  

There are no words to describe what it feels like to kiss someone who is that desperate to be close to you.  My heart was pounding in a matter of seconds, I had thoughtlessly allowed his entire lean body to curve against mine a moment later, and then in a terrible spark of rational thought I realized that our mouths were indeed open, and that I was kissing him back.  I am under few illusions as to what would have happened if that kiss had continued any longer, but all at once I registered footsteps on the stair.

Holmes and I still possessed, through deeply ingrained habit and despite years of inaction, a very accurate sense of how far apart we could get from one another once the sound of a visitor's tread made itself known upon Baker Street's sitting room staircase (the steps of which Holmes very prudently once went so far as to count, to my everlasting amusement).  We had always depended, however, upon a brief knock.  I have not the first idea of who broke that kiss, but we had not gotten two feet from one another before a fair-haired young man tumbled into Holmes' rooms and stood there wheezing at us from the door.

"I am the unhappy John Hector McFarlane," he declared in despair.

"You certainly are," replied Holmes coldly, who was perfectly calm despite a dash of colour across his high cheekbones.  "Though whether you are unhappy in life or merely unhappy in timing and in etiquette when entering closed doors, I cannot tell."

The lad recognized his mistake at once.  "I am sorry, Mr. Holmes," he cried.  He truly was a piteous sight, standing there shivering from head to foot though the room was warm enough.  "I am nearly mad."

"Well, then you have come to the right place," Holmes sighed.  "This is a repository for the nearly mad, as it happens.  Have a cigarette, and then tell us very slowly and quietly who you are, for beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you."

His new client, for I knew he could not be otherwise, stood gaping at Holmes in amazement, and my heart went out to the poor wretch.

"It isn't anything to speak of," I said dryly.  "He is drawing conclusions based on your general untidiness, watch charm, legal papers, and laboured breathing.  However, I assure you, despite his penchant for cheap showmanship, he is an admirable investigator.  I wish you both all the luck in the world.  If you will excuse me--"

"You are Dr. Watson, are you not?" demanded the unfortunate Mr. McFarlane.  "Can you not remain and bear witness to what I have to say?  It would mean the world to me.  For heaven's sake, gentlemen, don't abandon me!  If they come to arrest me before I have finished my story, make them give me time, so that I may tell you the whole truth." 

"Arrest you?" Holmes exclaimed.  "On what charge?"

"Upon the charge of murdering Mr. Jonas Oldacre, of Lower Norwood.  You must hear me, gentlemen, for the evidence is of such a peculiar nature that I very much fear I would be lost otherwise." 

I confess myself taken aback by the young man's plea, and the sincerity with which he uttered it.  Nevertheless, I had been plunged into a even deeper confusion than that which had vexed me previously, and the thought of remaining at Baker Street an instant longer was frankly terrifying.  At that moment, we were interrupted by a knock at the door.

I had not seen our old friend Lestrade since the night I had agreed to help hunt down Colonel Moran, an action I took less because Holmes was fairly bursting with enthusiasm than because I knew Colonel Moran to be exceedingly dangerous, and whatever my feelings towards Sherlock Holmes, I had no wish to see him die twice in three years.  We had sprung our trap, Holmes puzzled and anxious and I silent as the grave, and Lestrade had carted off the prisoner with his usual pedestrian conviction shortly before my own laconic departure.  He was as sallow, dapper, and sharp-featured as ever, and the sight of him in the sitting room did nothing to ease my sensation of choking upon bitter nostalgia.

"Dr. Watson!" he exclaimed.  "I did not expect--that is to say, it is a pleasure to see you, sir.  How are you, Mr. Holmes?" he added, then cleared his throat abruptly.  "Mr. John Hector McFarlane?  I arrest you for the wilful murder of Mr. Jonas Oldacre, of Lower Norwood." 

It was terrible to see the collapse of Mr. McFarlane's features despite his knowledge that the blow would come sooner rather than later.  Holmes lifted a hand.

"I beg your pardon, Lestrade, but Mr. McFarlane has urged Dr. Watson and myself in the most stringent fashion to listen to his own account of the crime."

"I was just leaving," I stated, moving to collect my things.  Holmes took a step after me, then stopped himself.

"You may be of material assistance in clearing the matter up."

"I think you will have no difficulty in clearing the matter up.  Mr. McFarlane is here to see Mr. Holmes, and whether or not I am present can make little difference to his case," I said to no one in particular.

"Mr. McFarlane would benefit greatly by having an additional sympathetic ear present amidst so many officers of the law.  With your permission, Inspector, we shall all hear his explanation, and then you may take him back with you to the Yard.  Come, Lestrade, you see that it would be most unfeeling of us to refuse his request, and a half hour can make no difference to you either way."

Lestrade looked at me, doing my level best not to appear agitated or incensed, and then at Holmes, whose face was completely unreadable, and his obstinate expression slowly softened.  He glanced casually at his watch.

"I'll give you half an hour."

When I at last turned the key in my own front door and entered the tasteful but hardly opulent entryway to my home and practice, I stopped dead in the middle of the rug without the slightest notion of what to do with myself.  It is possible that I stood there for ten minutes, the events of the days chasing one another through my mind like so many foxhounds.  I had listened to McFarlane's tale of woe, which not been, as Holmes would have put it, without points of interest.  I had then fled, refusing Holmes' invitation to Blackheath with civility if not warmth in the presence of the Yard men.  Finding myself at home, and alone once more, was far more startling than I had ever anticipated.

I made my way to my office, such as it was, and seating myself in the chair lay my head down upon the desk.  I wished, with that fervent echo of grief which strikes one when one least expects it, that Mary were there to talk to.  Holmes had agreed, in that supremely logical way of his, that it would be better if I were married.  Had I been head over heels in love with my wife, no doubt he would caused a series of minor catastrophes, but he knew full well in what arena my passions lay.  She was the dearest of friends, kind, charming, and deeply sympathetic, much more domestic than she was ardent, and he had no fear of her.  He had only to see my face whenever he happened to enter a room to know who mastered my attention.

I had been plunged into such an abyss at Holmes' supposed death that Mary's had changed me but little, no matter that I loved her dearly, and had fought for her tooth and nail.  There is a great deal of difference between a man standing on dry land and a man drowning in a wide lake.  There is very little difference between a man drowning in a wide lake and a man drowning in the ocean, for the effect is the same.

I believe I fell asleep there, my head upon my arm, and was awoken by the ringing of my front bell.  I knew it to be my client, and rose to my feet stiffly.  My client...Holmes had insisted, as was his habit, that McFarlane was our client and not his.  He had done so for many years.  He wished to share everything with me, as he had before we had gone to Switzerland.  And he had kissed me as I had never been kissed in my life, even by him.

I could not even think on it without the old constrictive feeling winding around my chest.  Holmes pretended to have died in order that I might write the story of his death.  There are some crimes which run deeper even than murder.  I located my medical bag and briefly, before my client was shown into the consultation room, tried to stop the trembling of my hands.

The next morning I awoke to a sound I imagined to be street sweepers, although it was not the time of day for such activity and the sound was far too loud.  When I ventured downstairs from my first floor bedroom, I found the housekeeper, with a very pleased expression on her face, overseeing a workman who was busily painting my front door.  

"Mrs. Garrison," I said, "whatever is going on?  Did you open the door for this fellow?"

"Oh, yes, Doctor," she replied with a smile.  "You were still asleep, so when they explained the matter, I let them begin."


"Well, yes," she said, puzzled.  "They have been hired to restore the front of the building, sir.  Did you not give the order?"

"No," I sighed, "but never fear, Mrs. Garrison.  I know who did.  They are cleaning the brickwork, I imagine, repairing the cracked windowsill, that sort of thing?"

"Yes, Doctor.  A fine job they are doing, too.  When they have done with the brick and the sills, they have said that they intend also to replace all the ironwork on the front steps, for the rails are rather old, sir, and beginning to rust.  And see, here is the new brass number for the door.  It is very elegant, sir.  You chose it very well."

 Peering down at the shapely numerals, I made an effort to be angry.  I managed only an irritated sort of resignation.

"I will be in my office, Mrs. Garrison.  Will you have my breakfast sent in, please?  Many thanks." 

I had not been flipping through the medical files of that day's appointments for ten minutes when the maid, Sally, arrived with my breakfast on a tray.

"Thank you, my dear."

"Doctor, Mrs. Garrison has asked me to tell you that the new rug for the entryway has just arrived."  The pretty young girl's blue eyes were sparkling with excitement at all the activity.  "The deliverymen would like to know if you wish to retain the old one, or if you would rather they take it away for charity."

I blinked at her for a moment, then recovered myself.  "Well, Sally, I suppose we must be generous with our fellow men.  Have them take it away, by all means."

"Yes, thank you, sir.  And there's a message for you, sir."  

"A telegram?"

"No, sir, a note.  It came by messenger."  She handed it to me, and made a graceful exit.

I opened the note gingerly, for the flowing, slightly angular handwriting was all too familiar to me.  It was written on Holmes' stationary and read as follows:

My dear fellow, when you have finished with your appointments, might I suggest you join me in Norwood.  The case is black against our client, and though I see some light through the darkness, I require your help.  All my instincts are on one side, and all the facts on the other.  I would consider it a great favour, and so would Mr. McFarlane, I have no doubt.  

                                                          Sherlock Holmes

I tore up the note in long ribbons and promptly threw it in the dustbin.  Taking a leisurely half hour to go through the remainder of my files and correspondence, I at last finished my eggs, replaced my notes in their respective folders, and then slammed the flat of my hand against my desktop in impatience.  I canceled my appointments and set off for Lower Norwood in the mellow gleam of the haze-softened sun.

I found Inspector Lestrade at the scene of the crime, standing in the front hallway.  An expression of surprised pleasure darted across his sharp features when he lay eyes on me, and he quickly finished giving instructions to the two constables present, who then made their way in a businesslike manner to the grounds at the rear of the house.

"Welcome to Deep Dene House, Dr. Watson," Lestrade smiled.  "I suppose you'll want to know where Mr. Holmes is."

"A pleasure to see you, Lestrade.  Where is he, then?" I asked, perhaps without the degree of enthusiasm the good inspector had anticipated.

"Well," the little fellow said thoughtfully, in his didactic manner, "for this last hour, he has been wasting his time crawling about the lawn on his hands and knees.  I don't mind telling you, Doctor, Mr. Holmes has put his foot in it this time.  The facts of the case could not be clearer.  If I did not know him better, I would say he was inventing a mystery out of sheer stubbornness."

"Sherlock Holmes is, indeed, the world's most stubborn individual.  I ought to know," I sighed.  "How is your case progressing, Inspector?"

"Couldn't be better," he shrugged.  The gesture was two parts officiousness and one part attempted humility, and I was astonished to be so gratified at seeing it again.  "We have all the evidence we could possibly wish.  More, in fact, which happens seldom enough.  But here, I will take you to Mr. Holmes.  How are you, Dr. Watson?  We have seen little enough of you of late."

"I have been exceedingly pressed, professionally speaking," I replied as we exited the house.  There was an inquisitive gleam in the detective's clear brown eyes which I did not often see there, but he merely nodded affably.  

"I am glad to hear it,  Ah.  Here we are.  Mr. Holmes, if you would do me the courtesy of leaving the evidence intact..." he added heatedly.

Sherlock Holmes, his face flushed with sunlight, had thrown off his tweed jacket and was standing with his sleeves rolled up in the midst of a burned woodpile going through the charred cinders.  His did not do his friend of the Yard the courtesy of looking up.

"Lestrade, the remains, whatever they happened to be, were dragged here and tossed on the woodpile.  I am doing not the slightest harm to your evidence.  We are not dealing with blood spatters or bullet trajectories."

"Of all the--" the inspector muttered.  Just then a constable approached him with a question, and the pair of officials retreated around the side of the house to discuss I knew not what.

I cleared my throat.  "Then what are we dealing with?"

Holmes' eyes flew up to meet mine, startled and joyful, and whatever he was holding fell back into the ashes.

"Dr. John Watson," he said as a smile spread across his angular features.  "As I live and breathe.  I mean--I do beg your pardon, my dear fellow, unfortunate choice of words," he corrected himself hastily.  "That is to say, you are here.  Which is an unforgivably obvious observation, and yet a startling enough--"

I interrupted him, less out of a desire to help him than due to the fact that I had never seen him quite so speechless, I had no notion of what I was doing in his presence once more, and his discomfiture was far too charming to be allowed to continue.

"Mr. McFarlane elicited a promise from both of us that we would do all we could," I said coldly.  "Now, if you wouldn't mind telling me what I can do which would not be beyond my powers."

"Of course," he said, though he had not yet regained his usual detachment.  In fact, he was staring at me with a look of such undisguised affection that I was heartily glad the Yard men were not present.  "Just at the moment, if you wouldn't mind going through the papers of the deceased, I should be obliged to you.  I am hardly in a position to begin work on them myself," he murmured, looking down at his sooty forearms.  Then he added, "Naturally you need not do so if you are not here to work on the case," in a tone which was no doubt engineered masterfully to appear neutral.

"Nonsense.  I am here to be used.  It is my particular skill in this life," I retorted.  I had meant the statement to be jocular and it had emerged cutting.  Holmes' face fell still further.  "I will be inside until such time as I am finished, or you require a report."

I turned on my heel and escaped around the side of the house, running headlong into Inspector Lestrade.

"Where were Jonas Oldacre's private papers kept?" I asked breathlessly.

"Through the side entrance and second door on your left," he replied, looking at me far too intently.  I wondered briefly what he had heard.  I had not been in the position of musing anxiously upon what a third person had overheard since Sherlock Holmes had died, I thought with an inescapable pang.

"Thank you," I said, and then fled the grounds as if they housed a menagerie of wild jungle carnivores and not merely London's foremost criminal investigator.

Though the victim's study was small, it was not uncomfortable, and the room boasted a window through which I could glimpse the pines on the far edge of the lawn.  Fortunately for me, the papers which Holmes had asked me to peruse were financial in nature, and thus negotiable to a doctor equally as well as a criminal expert.  I had been some two hours over them, Holmes sniffing about I knew not where, when I began work on the final box.  A gentle knock at the door interrupted me, however, and I looked up to see Lestrade approaching the desk where I laboured over figures, a pensive expression on his curious, rodent-like face.  Without preamble, he sat down in the chair opposite me and folded his hands in his lap.

"You're being a little hard on him, aren't you, Doctor?"

It was in all likelihood the last question I would ever have expected to emerge from the lips of Inspector Lestrade, and in tribute to the enormity of the event, I dropped what I was doing to stare at him in blank unease.

"I haven't the slightest notion of what you mean," I replied.

He merely shrugged equitably.  "I may well have the wrong end of the stick, Dr. Watson, and I'll be the first to admit it if it's true.  If I am barging in where I don't belong, you have only to say so.  I assure you I meant no offense."

"None taken," I replied, but the inspector had not finished.

"The fact remains, it seems clear enough that you and Mr. Holmes have been at odds since his...unexpected reappearance.  Perhaps I am mistaken."

As he stared at me, I realized uncomfortably that neither was I capable of lying to Lestrade, nor was I inclined to.  Without a thought of steering such a volatile conversation in another direction, I rested my chin in my hand exhaustedly.

"You are not wrong."

"Would it trouble you if I asked a personal question, Doctor?"

"That would greatly depend on what it is."

He chuckled at this and shook his head.  "No, no, Dr. Watson.  I mean to ask whether you are angry at Mr. Holmes for the obvious reason, or for some other reason."

I could think of nothing inherently unsafe about this query.  "It is the obvious reason, if by the obvious reason you mean that he pretended to be dead for three years."

The little inspector nodded sagely, as if many people pretend to be dead for lengthy periods of time.  "It was hardest on you, of course," he said quietly.  "We all of us were grieved, do not mistake me, but you worked more closely together than Mr. Holmes ever worked with anyone at the Yard.  A terrible blow, I always said, but for you--It must have been monstrous, Doctor.  I do not think even Mr. Holmes' brother was as deeply affected.  To have lived for three years imagining him dead would naturally bring about--"

"I did not imagine him dead for three years," I said in a hoarse undertone, and then let my hand slide up over my eyes.

"No?" Lestrade asked.  He regarded me with frank sympathy which now mingled with curiosity.  "I am afraid I don't know what you mean by that, Dr. Watson.  Of course, we all hoped he was alive--"

"I knew he was alive," I said, expecting my eyes to blur as they did every time I thought of it.  To my relief, there was only a long-dead tone to my voice.  "I thought him dead for two weeks, until the memorial service here in London.  Afterwards, I knew.  I knew it all along."

Lestrade was now staring at me in appalled shock.  "He told you?  He sent you a letter, or--"

"His brother."  I could not identify the voice which spoke, for it was not my own.  It sounded like the voice of a ghost.  "His brother told me.  After the service."

"Dear God in heaven," Lestrade whispered.  "So all the time he meant us to think him dead, you knew him to be...."

"Yes, I did."

"Dr. Watson, I am afraid that is one of the worst things I have ever heard."

"It is certainly one of the worst things I have ever experienced."

His eyes narrowed at me.  "Does Mr. Holmes know that you were aware his death was a sham?"

"No, indeed," I replied with bitter mock enthusiasm.  "He is convinced that his plans were enacted superbly, as ever."

"Small wonder you have not gone back to Baker Street."

When I shot him a horrified glance, the inspector had the decency to look down at his boots, brushing a speck of ash off one of them, returning it to its former high polish.  Then he scrutinized the other as if to reassure himself it was equally spotless.  When he gazed back at me again, I had recovered much of my composure.

"Lestrade," I said slowly, "I must ask you what you mean by--"

"No," the diminutive official said firmly, "you mustn't.  I am, as you are well aware, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector.  You may also have realized by now that I joined the Force in an effort to do some good in the world.  It remains my goal to this day.  In that light, therefore, I assure you that you must not ask me what I mean by that."

It was this statement, and not the recounting of my own bitter struggle, which brought a sheen of moisture to my eyes.  I took a deep breath immediately and managed to bring myself back to the brink of normalcy.

"It can hardly matter now," I began, but Lestrade interrupted me at once.

"You must ask him about Moran."

"I beg your pardon?" I asked, already dazed.

"Dr. Watson," he said softly, all the eager, grasping qualities having somehow drained from his face, "you are, I have always thought, an admirable gentleman in every way.  Mr. Holmes is halfway to a lunatic and will no doubt end his life in an asylum.  I have little notion of how you tolerate him, and no notion at all why I tolerate him.  Be that as it may," he continued calmly, "you and I are both reasonably clever men, even if we do not know when a man works as a costermonger or to what degree salt water affects false teeth.  There must be some reason we grant him our company.  If you can recall such a reason, if you have any desire to, you must ask him about Colonel Moran."

"Why should you know such a thing?" I demanded ungratefully.  "Why should you be privy to what he keeps from me, and if you are, why should I stoop to ask him about it?"

Lestrade rose and crossed to the door, his normally impatient features still infused with an inexplicable kindness.

"I know because, as you will recall, I arrested the Colonel.  If you manage to learn of the matter, you will do so from the other side of the fence, if you will.  The information is not mine to dispose, but it is worth knowing, I assure you.  In fact, I must insist that, however it may distress you, if you value anything about the madman currently running roughshod over my evidence, you will ask him about Colonel Moran," he finished.  Lestrade then gently shut the door behind him.

I agreed to share a cab back to Westminster with Holmes that evening.  That such an action went against everything I had once promised myself appeared to matter less and less.  As some sort of initial rite, we shared our findings, hesitantly at first, as if we had forgotten how to do it.  The conversation, after a disgracefully brief five minutes, blossomed into a hearty and full-blown discourse.

"...and despite all of this," I finished perplexedly, "I can find no such valuable deeds amongst his belongings."

"That, my dear Watson, is peculiar in the most deeply gratifying sense," he replied.  "You are certain that they were not present?"

"Not only were they not present, but as I have said before, it is shocking they were not accounted for, as many significant payments had been made over to this Mr. Cornelius fellow."

"Large sums, each and all, you said?"

I nodded.  "It is a wonder no one seems to know who this man is, for it is quite astonishing that a retired builder should make over so many hefty figures to a stranger.  Perhaps he was being blackmailed," I added as a quick flash of inspiration struck.

"Perhaps," Holmes conceded.  "And yet, perhaps there are fewer players in this game than we imagine."

I would have questioned him further about this odd pronouncement, but realized to my dismay that we had already drawn up to the very door of 221 Baker Street.  Holmes promptly descended the cab, then extended a hand to help me out of it.  It was a vaguely risky gesture, though not an overt one.

"I had better be getting back to my practice," I said, knowing as I did so it was futile.

"Come in and finish relating Mr. Oldacre's financial data, and you will be a free man," he said easily.

"I am not kissing you again, and neither am I going to indulge in any other of your whims," I pointed out.

He smiled, though it was meant for my benefit and not because he wished to do so.  "I have not asked you to.  I am not such a hedonist, after all.  What care I the number of months--nay, years--are you going to get out of that cab, or would you prefer I lose the use of my right hand?" he finished impatiently.

There was nothing for it, I thought glumly.  I took his hand and before I knew it I stood in the darkened sitting room, pitch-black due to the lack of necessity for fire in the month of August, at a complete loss over what to do with the slightly sunburned, ferociously energetic man before me.

I regarded him as if I had never seen him before, realizing that I had not truly allowed myself to look at him since his dramatic return.  He was thinner even than was usual, and several hairs in his temples had faded to a shimmering grey in his absence.  After turning up the gas, he talked only of the case, although I must own I scarcely took in a single word he said.  As he spoke, he busied himself sifting through correspondence, though he never opened a single letter, and then settled himself enthusiastically in his armchair, throwing me his cigarette case as he lit one of his own.

"Well?" he exhaled at length.  "What do you think of it?"

"Holmes," I replied, making my voice as even as was possible, "I am meant to ask you about Colonel Moran."

He did not react in any instantly telling fashion.  I had not expected him to.  But he did draw slowly upon his cigarette, stating, "I have not the vaguest idea how you came to make that remark, which will no doubt be deeply gratifying to you."

"Lestrade told me."

"Lestrade?" he exclaimed.  "Oh, I see it," he said an instant later, his panicked brow clearing.  "Of course he did.  I ought to have anticipated as much...."  Holmes stopped abruptly, then glared at me without intending to, as he often had before.  "Has Lestrade expressed an interest in our former regard?"

It was a mark of the man's appreciation for the ironic that he posed the question in such a manner.  "Not precisely," I replied with care, "although I would be remiss in implying he is unaware of it."

"Bloody hell," he muttered, the first time I had ever known him to employ the phrase.

"I am equally obliged to tell you that Lestrade betrayed no interest in the affair whatsoever."

"If he did not," Holmes replied dryly, "it is the first lucky event to have befallen me in over three years time."

"Holmes," I said, swallowing hard, "if it helps in any way, I am willing to tell you something of which you are unaware before you embark upon an explication of the Colonel."

My erstwhile friend's eyes narrowed at me in stately suspicion, but he soon made an effort to clear himself of all expression.  "I cannot think what you could possibly have to tell me which could justify my speaking at any length about the manifestly despicable Colonel Moran."

"I knew you were alive," I said.  I said it before I could think twice about it, before the myriad reasons for not saying it could fly across my mind like so many geese.

Holmes made no reply.  It seemed he could not, for many seconds.  Finally he requested, "My dear Watson, for God's sake, please tell me that is not true."

The words flew out of my mouth far faster than they had for Lestrade. Small wonder, for Lestrade had never been as close to me as I liked to imagine Holmes had.  "We had a memorial service here, in London.  No doubt you heard of it.  There were countless Yard men in attendance, former clients of yours, relatives of former clients, those who had read of you in my accounts, in the papers.  There were so many that the ceremony was held in a public square.  We didn't need to worry about the actual burial, for there was no--" I stopped myself before I lost the thread of my narrative.  Holmes' face was gratifyingly drained of blood.  "Many people spoke.  They spoke of your courage, and your love of justice.  They asked me to say a few words--they said it would only be right, but I did not find myself up to the task."  I drew a deep breath.  "At length, the crowds dispersed.  There was a memorial stone, Holmes, entirely buried under the flowers.  Rich and poor alike brought them--bouquets of white orchids and tuppence violets all mingled together.  Perhaps you didn't realize that.  It was quite deluged by them all.

"I was one of the last ones there.  When you brother approached me, he was very sympathetic.  I felt for him deeply, knowing you had no other kin.  When he kindly inquired how I felt, I thought it the most natural thing in the world.

"'I will not speak of how I feel,' I said, for there we stood in an open square.  'But the one thing I know for certain is that I will never write again.'

"He looked shocked at my words.  Too shocked for a grieving brother.  He asked me to say again what I had just sworn, and when I did so, he shook his head slowly.  He asked me to give you a proper send-off, implored me to do you justice in one final, spectacular problem.  Your brother said you would have wanted me to write, for all your jests and epigrams at my expense.  He even said it was one of the things you loved about me--that I could capture you so fluidly.  At last I apologized and told him that my pen had died with you."

Holmes stared back at me as if I were slowly twisting a knife into his chest, but what I had started, I reasoned, I had best finish.  

"He admitted it.  I believe he saw that there was nothing else to do.  He told me you were alive, and he said it was an integral part of the plan to bring you back that I write an account of your death."

My friend winced as I had never seen him do before, and like a flash of lightning I experienced the old, familiar, urgent desire to keep him from pain.  I ignored it and went on with my story.

"I could not do it," I said flatly.  "Knowing you were alive, that any moment you may come back to me, to write of your death?  It was inhuman, Holmes.  I wrote of your forgiveness in the matter of the identical geese.  I wrote of your heroism at Stoke Moran, your defiant Bohemianism in the Lord St. Simon affair, even of your earlier cases, the ones I was not privy to directly.  I wrote of your cleverness, and your nobility, and every second I was writing them I thought madly that one of those phrases, if I could craft it well enough, would bring you back to me."

"But none of them did," he finished for me.  I was beginning to wish desperately that I could stop.  I had seen Sherlock Holmes seconds after one of his clients had been killed, and moments after he'd received a telegram regarding the death of his father.  I had never seen him look as he did now.

"At length, I considered your brother's request.  I knew you must be in danger, after all, and I had no desire to ruin your schemes.  But I could not, simply could not think you capable of such--it was as if, once I wrote of your death, I would at once find myself diminished to a pawn in one of your games.  I could not make such a thing come true.  I am a very poor actor, I know, but I am a good writer, Holmes.  I could have done it without the deception.  I did do it without the deception.  I could not think you would inflict those two hellish weeks on me.  To say nothing of three years...and every time I left my practice, I found myself the object of condolences, often from perfect strangers.  They were kindly meant, but they only reinforced...."  I stopped lamely, arresting a narrative which had begun chronologically and ended a ramble of convoluted distress.  "I ought to have told you before the Camden House matter, but by then I--"

"Despised me," he said.  He nodded slowly.  

"I am sorry, Holmes, but--"

"What have you to be sorry about?  You are in the majority, though your conviction is not of the first water.  You cannot despise me half as much as I despise myself."

"That was not my intent," I said humbly.

"Of course it was not.  You are everything that is sympathetic in this broken world.  Watson," he added almost inaudibly, drawing both his long legs up to his chest, "do please leave me.  Do not think me angry, but I fear cannot prolong this interview."

I wished more than anything at that moment to see his face, but he had rested his high forehead on his knees.  "What of Moran?"

"It will not excuse me.  Do not imagine it will.  I ought to have thrown myself over the edge before I allowed this to happen."

"Do not say that," I cried.

"Why on earth not?  Now, if you would only go home to bed, my dear fellow, my already staggering gratitude for your kindness will double."

"I do not wish to leave you like this," I said helplessly.  I was more than a little shocked to find that it was true.

"Watson, please," he said.  Tilting his head a little, I could barely make out the edge of his left eye.  "You have many things to forgive me for already, but while you are at it, forgive me for saying I would give half my fortune for you to be somewhere else just now.  I do not deserve your mercy, but please get out."

"Holmes, I cannot simply--"

"As you are a gentlemen," came the muffled voice.  "Get out."

I numbly collected my hat and stick and opened the sitting room door.  I thought of looking back at him, but I knew that if I did so, I could never obey his request.  My feet made no sound as I walked down the carpeted stairs to the front door.  Indeed, from the time I left his rooms to the time I arrived at my nearly renovated offices, ironwork pried out to be collected by street scavengers, all the teeming world was silence in my ears.

When I awoke the next morning--I say awoke out of convention, but as I did not sleep, perhaps it would be better to say I arose--I knew what had to be done.  Two men other than Sherlock Holmes knew more of Colonel Moran than I did.  Mycroft Holmes, I had no doubt, would take a bullet through his wide head before he revealed a fact his younger brother had deemed a secret, now that he was alive once more.  Lestrade, on the other hand, had already proven himself vulnerable upon the side of altruism.  It was the inspector, slight of stature and superior of demeanor, to whom I would apply.

I dressed hastily and descended the stairs, narrowly avoiding a collision with the three workmen who were, under the supervision of Mrs. Garrison, replacing my old, battered desk with one which looked under the wrappings to be finest mahogany.  I had not the time to spare them more than a glance, but when I reached my doorstep, I nearly trod upon a bundle of flowers.  It took me a mere instant to realize that they were white orchids cut quite close, then encircled entirely with a riotous profusion of twopenny violets.  I hurried back into the house.

"Will you put these in water, Mrs. Garrison, at once?" I asked my long-suffering housekeeper.

"Of course, Doctor," she said gaily.  "What a delightfully unusual design.  Is it a new style?"

I very much fear that she received no reply, but Mrs. Garrison was never overly attentive to my words, in any event.

"Make for Whitehall, my good man," I called up to the driver when I had procured a cab.  I thus rode directly toward  Scotland Yard in the bright glare of the summer morning.  Lestrade considered his Lower Norwood case closed.  If he was not in his offices, they would at least have some idea of where he was.

"I am really not at liberty to discuss it with you, Doctor," the good inspector said with exaggerated long-suffering in the cool dim of his Scotland Yard office.  His desk was, as ever, meticulously neat, every paper carefully filed and each lead pencil lying in a row.  "Did you approach Mr. Holmes?"

"There I made a tactical error," I admitted grimly.  "I told him of my secret before I elicited his."

"No, you are right there," Lestrade mused, running a finger over his sharp chin.  "It is best to have leverage when dealing with that fellow."

I very nearly laughed aloud at this but diverted my mirth into a sudden wracking cough.  "Precisely, Inspector."

"How did he take it?"

Thinking back upon the night before, I considered drawing a veil over the truth, and then realized that I was far more likely to get what I wanted if I did not.  "He looked as if I had broken him in half."

"Oh," said the inspector.  "That is...well, a raving Bedlamite he may well be, but...I am sorry to hear that, Doctor."

I smiled back at him tentatively.  Lestrade, I thought, was an ally of Holmes an an ally of myself.  He had done a clever job of disguising the fact under perpetual pompous annoyance, but his allegiance was growing ever more obvious.  I decided to be obvious in return.

"He threw me out of his rooms in a fit of self-loathing.  I asked him once more about Moran, but he insisted it could in no way affect my judgement of him.  You, however, feel differently.  What is it that I need to know?"

Lestrade drummed the tips of his fingers together, looking for all the world like Sherlock Holmes when he is considering the better of two evils.  Finally he said, "I am doing this with your positive assurance that Mr. Holmes will not cast us both off like two old boots when he learns of it."

"I promise you he will not.  I will see to it."

"Are you certain?"

"I am certain, I swear to you."

Lestrade sighed and rearranged the pencils on his desk so that they formed the same rigid formation on the opposite angle.  "I have certain facts, Doctor, but they lead into the realm of theory.  I am not fond of unfounded theory, but I will tell you the facts, and see if you draw the same conclusion from them."

I accepted his proposal and begged him to continue.

"Colonel Moran was most distraught when he was arrested.  He insisted, for lack of a better word, that he was most affected by having been bested by two godless sodomites."

My jaw dropped open in sheer terror at this admission, but Lestrade quickly held up a hand.

"Slander by those who have been taken into custody is a well-documented phenomenon.  There was nothing in it, and we have made no reports of his revolting accusations.  You, Doctor, are after all a grieving widower.  But it made me wonder certain things," he mused, his shrewd brown eyes on his desk.  "It made me wonder where Colonel Moran could have heard such sordid rumours.  It made me wonder, after he escaped our best-laid nets, what Professor Moriarty intended to do for revenge other than to kill Mr. Holmes.  It made me wonder why Mr. Holmes would have pretended to be dead for all that time when Moran knew full well he was alive.  And it made me notice, Dr. Watson, that Moran only let his guard down enough to be caught for a hanging offense after you had written Mr. Holmes was dead."  

I was by now two steps ahead of the dear little inspector, and the old constriction in my breast tightened violently as I realized what I had mistaken for egotistical machinations.

"If he was dead to you, he was clearly dead to all of England, let alone London," Lestrade continued.  "So much is clear.  You are an open person, if I may say so, Doctor, and no one would expect you to write such a thing unless you thought it was true.  You fooled me, and my cap is off to you for it.  But let us suppose Sherlock Holmes knew nothing of your talent for fiction," he added.  He had picked up a pencil and was beating its end softly against his desk.  "You realize, of course, that this is all theory, and theory is as good as rubbish to the methodical man, but never mind that now.  Remembering that Mr. Holmes admits to a conversation with the Professor before they fought, let us suppose that the Professor referred to certain habits of yours and Mr. Holmes--gambling, let us say," he added hastily as my colour rose.  "And let us say that it was Moran's task to expose those habits when Mr. Holmes returned to London.  What if Mr. Holmes, in order to keep his love of gambling--or, better still, your love of gambling--a secret, decided in a split second not to return."

Lestrade stopped in some confusion.  I have no notion of what my face must have looked like at that moment, but I recall my cheeks were damp and that I did not care.  "Go on," I whispered.  "Please, continue with your...theory."

"Well," the fastidious fellow faltered, "if he could not return then, he must have wanted to return...eventually.  But perhaps he had to be cautious, because if this rumour of gambling were made public, it would have ruined you, Dr. Watson, as well as himself.  It is interesting that Moran only let his guard down enough to commit a hanging crime after you published the account of Mr. Holmes' death.  It is as if, after you acknowledged the fact, Moran thought Mr. Holmes had fled England forever.  That's when he shot Ronald Adair.  And I assure you," he added emphatically, "Mr. Holmes has the thing sewn up.  He will be hung, make no mistake.  And we none of us are much inclined to heed insults flung by such...scum.  Dr. Watson, are you quite all right?" he finished in some distress.

"I am," I said.  For a single moment, I loved everything about Inspector Lestrade, from his polished boots to to his supercilious eyebrows.  "I have been terribly faithless, and remarkably blind, that is all.  Lestrade, I do not know how I can ever thank you for having delved into the realm of theory."

"You needn't thank me," Lestrade said hastily.  "And you needn't tell Mr. Holmes, either.  Or Gregson.  For God's sake, don't tell Gregson," he added with a tiny roll of his eyes.

"I won't," I promised, standing and shaking his hand solemnly.  "You have my word.  But I fear that Holmes will work the thing out on his own."

"Will he?" Lestrade replied apprehensively.  "Of course he will.  In any event, I--oh, to hell with it all. He has tormented me with theories long enough.  I may as well get a little of my own back.  He is a fair enough fellow, and even he will admit it's only just.  Good morning to you, then, Doctor.  And best of luck."  Lestrade then turned are replaced the displaced pencil back into its accustomed formation.

Standing outside the headquarters of Scotland Yard, I momentarily considered hailing a cab and making straight for Baker Street.  When I had admonished myself to be calm and think it through, I saw that such was not the most likely road to success, as I had dealt with Sherlock Holmes in the midst of his black humours before.  With my goal in clear view and prudence in my designs, I made for the nearest telegraph office before returning home.

"Mrs. Garrison," I said, as the impossibly large team of men finished installing elaborately wrought iron railings upon my doorstep, "please take the rest of the afternoon off, and Sally as well."

"Oh, Dr. Watson," she exclaimed, her fat hand flying to her breast.  "How generous!  But--"

"I cannot brook any delay, Mrs. Garrison, for I have a client who greatly desires to maintain his privacy in the throes of a monstrously compromising ailment."

Mrs. Garrison, though foolish, was kind-hearted, which was the reason I tolerated her.  "Of course, Doctor," she said firmly.  "At once.  The poor soul.  Shall I get rid of all these workmen and tell them to return first thing tomorrow?"

"Mrs. Garrison, I would be most grateful if you would do exactly that," I replied.  

The admirable matron nodded as if she had been ordered to command a battalion.  "Right, Doctor.  I will see to it that no one is left to interrupt you within these ten minutes."

"Thank you, my dear lady," I replied.  I hastened to my office and shut the door.

Swiftly enough, the sounds of work being carried out faded.  Rather later came the stringent instructions to the maid to behave herself, not to speak to men without a chaperon, and to return by nine.  Moments after this I heard Mrs. Garrison shut the front door soundly behind her and I emerged from my office to pace the length of my recently refurbished entryway.  I had not long to wait.  Within another thirty minutes, Sherlock Holmes flew through the door without knocking and came to a confused halt upon my new rug, which he had obviously chosen with great care.

"You sent me a telegram," he said.

"Yes," I acknowledged.

He recovered his composure at once, or at least he pretended to do so.  "This little yellow scrap of paper reads, if my eyesight does not fail me, 'I need you most urgently; there is no time to be lost; meet me at once in my offices.'  The matter sounds pressing if not dangerous, does it not?"

"Yes, it does," I assented, attempting to betray nothing of what I felt.  I gave it up as a bad job then and there, for I was not, nor could I ever be, Sherlock Holmes.

"Watson," he said breathlessly, "if you do not explain yourself at once, I shall draw my own conclusions, and I very much fear that they will prove unwelcome."

"Draw away," I said happily.  I felt a new man, and yet more like myself than I had been in three years time.

"You must be a trifle more explicit," he said with touching urgency.

"You may reach any conclusion you like," I obliged him.  "I know everything, and Lestrade is wholly right.  He has always been right about you, and I never had the sense to see it.  You are a lunatic."  I was by this time so moved that an occasional tear betrayed itself, but there was such a smile on my face that I dismissed them as a fluke.  "You are a lunatic for ever having made such an absurdly self-sacrificing gesture, and three times a lunatic for having thought it would not matter to--"

I fear I did not get any further, for suddenly there were very strong, wiry arms encircling me and a raven-haired head resting on my shoulder, sending tiny jolts of pain through my ancient scar.  After a long moment, he lifted his head and then kissed the old wound through my frock coat. 

"I did not think I would ever see it again."  He let go of me and then stepped back some three feet for a better vantage point of my features.  "I do not deserve it, you know.  You must be aware of the fact already, but still, I reiterate--"

"We neither of us deserve it," I returned as gently as I could.  "I ought to have trusted your definition of the word 'only,' and you ought to have afforded my literary skills slightly higher praise."

He laughed at this assessment, a laugh I had not heard properly since 1891, and drew me into his arms again.  "It was a mad scheme, I admit it.  I could think of no other way.  I ought to have, but my intellect failed me entirely."

"No," I corrected him, "it did not.  You could think of no other way which delegated the danger solely upon your own shoulders.  The grief on mine, the danger on yours.  Be advised," I finished, taking his face in my hands, "that I prefer a mixture of both danger and grief to either factor when isolated."

"Understood," he said softly.  "You will decide such affairs henceforth, for I wash my hands of them."

"Do you?" I asked, for I had become aware that he was slowly, as if I would not notice, unbuttoning my shirtfront.  "Does that mean you wish us to work once more in tandem?"

"If you will allow it," he replied, making an effort to look into my eyes while his own kept darting down to my exposed collarbone.

"I will certainly allow it, but I am suddenly at a loss as to where I should live.  My offices have recently become far more habitable thanks to an anonymous benefactor."

"Dear me," he said sympathetically, throwing my cravat upon the ground.  "Surely you can bring yourself to part with them?  They will fetch you a far higher price now, after all."

"Holmes!" I exclaimed indignantly.  "Is that what you intended all along?"

"No, no," he protested, letting go of me once more as if prolonged exposure to his touch might harm or in some way offend me.  "Nothing of the kind.  You were concerned about it, however, and I was moved to relieve your anxiety.  Still," he added impishly, "you can now command a tidy sum for the place."

He had never appeared so clever, so fearful, and so courageous all at once, and when he approached me once more I pushed him away just so that I could look at him properly, the way I had used to.

"Holmes," I said falteringly, "I never stopped--"

"No," he said at once.  He placed two thin fingers over my lips and shook his head.  "I know you did not.  You don't have to tell me.  Please, don't tell me."  

He laughed once more, though his grey eyes were infinitely serious.  

"Of course I knew you had not stopped.  Why do you think I sent you so many telegrams?"

It is now a matter of public record that I returned to live with Sherlock Holmes, and that he located a buyer for my newly extravagant medical practice and then funded the purchase with his own money, a fact I was only made aware of in 1901.  This newly revealed secret, I will admit, led to a brief but heated argument between us.  I was angry for a period of five minutes, and then concluded for the hundredth time that I ought not to set myself against Holmes once his mind is made up, and left it at that.  There are secrets, after all, and then there are secrets.  Lestrade, for his part, was mistaken about John Hector McFarlane, as Holmes and I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the afternoon following my telegram.  This did not make the slightest difference to us.  The inspector had been right about enough far more important things to endear him to me--and, I may add without fear of perjuring myself, Holmes--for the remainder of our acquaintance.  I will not say that we did not often enough find ourselves at cross purposes.  But there are some favours, like some crimes, which run deeper than life or death.  His was one of them.  My forgiveness of Sherlock Holmes, I can say without unwarranted pride, was another.  And his of me was a last, infinitely blessed, third.