CAULDRON: A Love Story

by Katie

Dr. Watson sat next to me in a hansom cab rattling through London in the dull light of evening, making an effort not to tilt his head in my direction often enough that I would take note of his mood. As it ever was for him in those days, it proved a losing battle. I shifted my weight and made a prisoner of the hand which had been lying dormant at my side.

"What is troubling you?"

"Nothing," he answered. "Nothing that can be mended, in any event. I was just thinking of Mr. John Turner."

"I confess that he had passed from my thoughts," I replied. "Not without effort, mind."

I watched as he made an effort to organize his ideas.  The day had been a trying, albeit an arresting one--a complex problem, a compelling drama, and a conclusion less dire than might have been anticipated.  Turner's plight had struck me briefly, as it must have done to any man with a remotely functional heart and mind, but I have always been many degrees further detached from the world than is my companion.  I rely upon this detachment for many things.  I realize, however, that the Doctor cannot feign indifference even if he tries.  It must be a tempestuous existence, I reflected, not for the first time.
"I realize that there is nothing to be done about it, but I cannot help but think that an unfortunate mistake of moral judgment made when the fellow was quite young ought not to prove cause for a lifetime of suffering."

"As I said at Boscombe Valley, 'there, but for the grace of God....'"

"I know it. It is all too true. Still, it is small enough comfort to be aware that such unfair fortunes could equally befall any of us." He looked out the window as the featureless brick streets blended into one another.

"Mistakes are all too like their Biblical metaphors--objects thrown into water will ripple whether we desire them to or no. Such laws are akin to the laws of physics. They are not cognizant of individual intentions."

"Universal indifference is hardly a desirable trait in a Deity."

"You never speak of God," I remarked, "and seldom enough even of philosophy."

"It isn't very flattering for you to be surprised by it, for all your depth," he smiled. "I am a very complicated man."

"Yes, you are." I commenced smoothing out a muscle in his palm with my thumb. "Are you coming back with me?"

"I should like to, very much," he answered cautiously. "Anstruther has promised to see to my practice through tomorrow afternoon."

"And you have no other pressing affairs to see to this evening?"

It was once a regrettable habit of mine to avoid mention of his wife at every possible opportunity, perambulating around her existence as if she were a relation who had been irrevocably disowned, save for the rare instances when I was forced to be more direct. Then I took particular care to refer to her in such explicit terms that I fear the deficit on other occasions was more than met.  I had grown so skilled in this quirk of nature that I once managed to spend the better part of two months periodically in and out of Watson's presence without once acknowledging that he was married at all. This practice was one of which he was beginning to tire, although he also knew full well it was hardly fair of him to be irked by it.

"Mary insisted I accompany you in the first place. I look pale, apparently. She told me so."

"How alarming," I exclaimed. 

Astonishing what the merest deliberate mention of her name could do to me, and after years of exposure.  It was an arena in which my legendary detachment failed me utterly.  I am not proud of the fact.

"It is nothing of the kind."

"Are you feeling better?"

"I am fine."

"Thank Heaven.  I am glad to hear it. And yet, as serious a matter as your health may be, surely you detect the compliment to myself. Do you really sicken when away from me?"

"Holmes," he warned me. I ignored him.  He could have expected a sudden descent into a black mood when he mentioned her name, but preferred, stubbornly, to be surprised by what ought to have been rote cause-and-effect. I had once imagined that my impossible situation would grow more possible with the passage of time. Instead, it had grown less.  This development angered as much as it saddened me. Whether I was more angry at myself for a blind fool or at the world for a bitter joke I could not say. It was difficult to be angry at Watson for any appreciable length of time.

"Or is it the other way 'round? Are you perfectly well when at home with the estimable Mrs. Watson, until a fit of evil blood strikes you and you are pulled inexplicably to my side, as if I were some sort of recurring disease?"

"I have made a considerable study of disease. You must concede my superior training in that arena. You are nothing like it."  He offered me a cigarette as he gazed placatingly at me in the near-darkness.  I ignored this as well.

"I am not a detriment to your leading a hale middle-class British life?"

To clarify, I have nothing whatever against the middle-class British lifestyle.  But I loathed the notion of the Doctor living one--without art, without chaos, without tempests or triumphs or eccentricities or passions.  In short, without me. 

"Am I really meant to make any sort of reply to that?"

"Surely if you are suffering from an aberrant condition, it would be wise to have it seen to."

"Aberrance and disease have very little in common," he said, beginning to rise to his own defense.  "You've a capital example of such in your own family; some men join special clubs in order to sit in perfect silence for hours on end."

I made a show of checking my pocket-watch in the fading light through the window.  "And some men join special clubs in order to commit deviant acts with the same gender. I only wish I had taken up with such a person."

His face froze in a mask of hurt as he sat there, evidently trying to work out a way for my statement not to have meant what it very obviously did mean. I make monstrous pronouncements at times, but at the very least I regret them.  After a moment's consideration, I placed an arm around his shoulders and buried my nose in his brown hair. I remained so until his eyes closed and he relaxed back against the seat.

"That was rather horrid of me," I said, making an effort to sound charming.  I don't imagine I succeeded.

"Yes, it was."

"It is my way, you know. I seduce men into my rooms thus. You said you would like to accompany me back to Baker Street, but sounded unsure. I then took the unprecedented step of insulting the fellow I would very much like to take home. It is that shocking counter-intuitiveness which has led to so many past successes."

He rubbed at one temple wearily.  "You have hoodwinked other men into sleeping with you by accusing them of not being homosexuals?"

I laughed against the top of his head. "I have a great many tricks up my sleeve, as you can see."

"They are not all particularly effective," he pointed out.

"No," I agreed.  "What would it take to convince you to come back with me?"

He stared at the floor of the cab, resignation and a sort of mournful culpability chasing one another across his face. "I didn't need convincing. I never do, and you know it.  I was thinking of an appropriate lie."

Dr. Watson lied to his wife a great deal, but he cannot lie to me and has very wisely never tried.  If he had been able to prevaricate with me, it would have been different.  Perhaps I would not have been able to stand it.  Perhaps we would have enjoyed far more peaceful relations.  I cannot say.  I can say for a fact that the ever-present knowledge that I was hurting him merely by being alive was a difficult cross to bear.

"My poor fellow," I said after a pause.  "I'll go over the case notes for an hour with you, shall I?"

"That would be helpful," he conceded.

"I do care about your health, you know," I added softly. He searched within for traces of anger at me--I could see him do it--but as was usually the case, they had paled all too quickly. "I fear that I wish I were the only one who paid it any mind."

"I know," he said. "Mistakes create ripples. I know it all too well."

"My mistakes reverberate as much as anyone's, my boy."

"But mine more than most," he stated flatly. "Mine more than most."

I devoted the remainder of the cab ride to the warmth of his head as it lay against my face.  It would not be there for long, after all.

The drama of the following tale speaks for itself, for there are deaths, intrigues, sacrifices and one miracle.  It was a tragedy in many senses, a morality play in others.  But I shall let my friend begin it, for his other life was the spark which set off Mt. Vesuvius.

Dr. Watson has recently placed in my possession a brown leather diary which contains the daily accounts of his existence just before I disappeared, and bears every sign of having been under near-continuous lock and key.  He said he wanted me to have it.  I cannot think why he wants such a thing, for I spend as little time as possible dwelling upon my life before I died, but I cannot deny it touched me he should trust me so far.  There is no better way of commencing the story than to quote it, for if there is one thing the Doctor can do with verve and atmosphere, it is begin a story.  It is the middle and the end where one usually runs into trouble.  He wrote in 1891:

"If it is unusual for Holmes to make any mention of my wife, it is far more unusual for her to interrogate me regarding my activities while in his company. Mary possesses, in a far more advanced degree than any I have ever seen, the desire to help others be happy, and it is this quality more than anything else which worries me like a chain around my ankle when she merrily desires me to tell her the tales of my latest exploits with 'Mr. Holmes.' She has never pressed me, never acknowledged the slightest suspicion, which maddens even as it relieves me. For Mary is not stupid. She is less stupid even than she is malicious, which is to say not at all. But she seemingly enjoys my accounts, greatly abridged, of my adventures with Holmes so innocently that I cannot but think her an unwitting pawn.  My friend, meanwhile, would prefer a week in the stocks to speaking of my wife at all.  The fires of my guilt thus stoked from both directions, I pass a weary week without even attempting to see Holmes, then succumb to my desires and begin the heinous cycle afresh whenever an unrepentantly demanding telegram recalls me to his side. This downward spiral has continued uninterrupted until last Tuesday morning.  But I've had the most extraordinary news, and I cannot but think that the significance of the event will somehow shake me from my placidly sinful existence. Coincidentally, that very day also happened to merit an unannounced visit from Holmes.

He strode with easy grace into my consulting room last night as I sat at my desk staring before me, wondering what on earth I was to do. That Holmes would be injured somehow was certain; that it would alter our lives together, even more certain.  Most certain of all was that he would find it out one way or another, but these considerations senselessly paled before the image in my mind of how he would react when I broke it to him. Then suddenly there stood the man himself, looking for all the world as if he had not slept more than three hours since I had last seen him a fortnight previous, and had lost five pounds he could ill afford to have misplaced."

Let us take note of three items in particular in the above account.  First, the Doctor liked and admired his wife.  He was not in love with her, but there are far worse marriages in the British Isles.  Second, I was making his days a misery.  And third, logical considerations paled for the Doctor when in my immediate presence.  In other words, he was little able to look out for his own best interests when in my company.  These are salient points.

To resume the narrative, I did indeed arrive as he has written, looking less than my best.

"Holmes, whatever is the matter?" he exclaimed, pushing back his chair.

"Yes, I have been using myself up a little too freely of late," I replied, making my way very slowly around the walls of the room. "Have you any objection to my closing your shutters?"

He stopped me as I advanced and pushed me into a chair. Exhausted as I was, I made less protest than I would have otherwise.  He then turned his back on me and fastened all the shutters himself.  He bolted them as he did so, and drew the blinds.  When he had finished, he returned and stood anxiously before me, his warm, capable hands situated behind his back judiciously.

"You are afraid of something."

"Of course not," I scoffed.

"You never come here. You consider this house Hell upon Earth; what is more, you were treating my windows just now as if they were dire hazards. You are afraid of something," he repeated.  It was a nice piece of reasoning, and I could say nothing against it.

"Well, I am." I shrugged nonchalantly.

"Of what?" he asked, beginning to lose his patience. I cannot blame the dear fellow.  There I sat resembling nothing so much as a fugitive from justice, with an expression on my face of utter calm.  It must have been maddening.

"Of air-guns," I said shortly.

"Air-guns.  Whose air-guns?"

"Colonel Sebastian Moran's, to be precise."

"Holmes, you are bleeding," he said in distress, taking my hand and looking over the battered and bloody knuckles. He made at once for a drawer in which I surmised he kept a number of emergency supplies.  He hates when I am injured, at least until he can determine I'll come right in the end.  I equally hate to see him fuss over me, for I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, but it is very difficult to remain terse with such a person.

"I apologize for calling so late," I murmured when he had returned and set about putting my hand to rights.

He kissed my fingers. "Never mind that."

This was surprising.  I do not know any of them intimately, but I believe that housewives tend not to go in for that sort of thing.  I raised a single brow at him. "Is Mrs. Watson in?"

"She is away on a visit," he replied.  He flushed slightly in spite of himself.

"Indeed! A walk to see the neighbors, perhaps, or to take in the air, or--"

"She is in Hampshire."

"Is she?" I retained my dispassionate tone. "You are alone?"

"Not any longer," he returned dryly. "You are here."
"A touch!" I laughed in spite of myself.  Watson is not the cleverest man I have ever encountered, but his timing is impeccable. "And a perfectly factual observation, to boot. I am here."
"Holmes, what does this mean?" he asked as he sponged away the semi-coagulated blood from my two burst knuckles.
It had been a difficult day.  The day before that had been nearly as bad.  I could not allow my vigilance to falter much, I knew.  But while I watched him cleanse my hand, something like peace and rather more like exhaustion washed over me.  Finding I could not speak for some moments, I closed my eyes.

"It is no airy nothing, as you can see," I reflected at length. I'd no desire to talk of it--any of it.  "When will she return?"
He glared at me. "I recall having asked you what this all meant in the not long distant past."

"You are avoiding the question."

"You are changing the subject."
I was too tired to argue.  "Do you remember Professor Moriarty of the manuscript you titled somewhat hysterically, 'The Valley of Fear?'"
"The criminal mastermind or the mathematics professor? For God's sake, Holmes, tell me what has happened!"
"Nothing, as yet. He is making an effort to end my life."
He sat back, his impossibly blue eyes wide with concern. "You've completed your investigations? You have him in your power? Or is this a preemptory measure?"
"No, not preemptory by any means. Merely the next logical step. They set fire to our rooms--to my rooms," I corrected myself.  It had not been intentional, so I carried on, hoping he had not noticed.  "You may have seen a note of it. No doubt they imagined that either some of the papers or your humble servant were contained within. They were mistaken on both counts, and I am deeply gratified to report that Mrs. Hudson is perfectly sound, and in a ghastly rage over the event."

The moment I told him, I wished I had not.  He had to know, of course.  But he looked quite grey with worry.

"Holmes, this is outrageous," he stated at length, applying disinfectant to my hand. "You must have them arrested."
"Not before my plans mature."
"Your plans are worth more than your life?"
"My plans are very important indeed, and my life safe enough for the time being."

He regarded me pensively as he began to wrap a bandage around my fingers. Distracting him would be no easy task, but I relish a challenge.  "What is she doing in Hampshire?"
"She is remaining there for a fortnight," he sighed.  "Holmes, permit us to remain on the topic of--"
"That is very intriguing indeed."

"Actually, my dear chap, it isn't nearly so intriguing as the topic of your planned assassination."

"Do I recall your having once told me you had comfortable bachelor accommodations for one? I could fill a vacant peg, with your permission, as you have no gentleman visitor at present. Your hat-stand proclaims as much."
"What are we going to do?" he demanded, rising and returning his materials to their case.

I must here interject that, whatever impression has been previously given of our relations during Dr. Watson's marriage to the admirable if infrequently mentioned Mary Morstan, we were very seldom alone.  That is, we were seldom so very alone that Watson and I managed to lose track of the sense of sand through the hourglass.  We had used to spend six or seven hours at a stretch without a word exchanged between us in the sitting room, and the time felt like the barest minute.  This was when we were friends.  Before I had ruined it, and very nearly ruined him.  Before he'd abandoned me in a fit of misplaced morality.  Before my time with him was marked like the minutes before a hanging.  But I had already determined that we were now so very alone that I might make an effort to forget the clock.
"I have several ideas," I assured him, rising as well.  I undid the knot of his cravat with two slight tugs, a trick mastered as an undergraduate, and tossed it behind him. I then commenced ridding him of waistcoat and collar.
"What are we going to do about the danger you are running?" he asked, stilling my hands emphatically.
"We are going to the Continent." It was going to prove more arduous than I had anticipated.  I picked up his clothing and strode toward the staircase which I knew full well housed the guest bedroom although I had never once occupied it.   This maneuver left Watson with the choice of either following behind me and continuing the conversation or remaining alone in his own sitting room. He did not take long to think about it.
I reached the top of the stairs and then paused in the hallway.  It was not difficult, by perusing the carpet, to identify the sewing room, and by process of elimination the guest bedroom.  I threw the door open with complete confidence and stepped inside.  I could feel Watson trying to work out how I knew which room it was from behind me, and knew my task was nearly at an end.  Having deduced that the deductions themselves were of no small value when it came to seducing the Doctor, I occasionally indulged in quite inexcusable parlour tricks.

"But where on the Continent?"

Once he had joined me in the room, I shrugged diffidently.  "It is all one to me. How often is this aired?"
"Once a week. Holmes, do be serious--can you have led any of them here?"
"The men who attacked me are, without exception, both gaoled and unconscious. There are three Yard men guarding your home."
"What?" he asked, startled.
"I put them in place before I began any of these risky undertakings." This was quite correct; it had been the very first task to which I'd attended. I could not see any of them, of course, for there were quite luckily no windows in the Doctor's guest room.  Seeing his posture was still unyielding, I began removing articles of my own clothing, one at a time, until the fact that I stood before him clad only in my shirt and trousers prompted Watson to do what I had intended all along--that is, to shut the door.
"I am glad to see you making yourself comfor--"

He was not permitted to finish the sentence, I am afraid.  I'd employed my favourite method of interrupting him.  An instant after he had shut the door I had also, quite purposefully I admit, turned the conveniently placed key in the lock.

It may occur to one to question the wisdom of collecting the Doctor and parading him over Europe, making him, effectively, as marked a man as I was.  My simple answer to this is that he was universally known to be my closest confidant, and if Moriarty's henchmen had spirited him away or questioned him or tortured him or any number of other measures, I could do nothing about it if we were on separate land masses.  I am self-confident enough to pronounce he was far safer two feet away from me.  The more complicated answer, of course, is obvious.  But I maintain that the simple answer was more than reason to bring him along.  It was meant to be a mere three-day jaunt, after all.

Running from the world's foremost criminal mastermind ought to have been a harrowing experience from the very outset, but spending two days completely alone with John Watson in Brussels, watching the slow progression of the Senne and sitting in pleasantly situated French cafes under whimsical stone buildings, is hardly the worst event which can befall a person.  Particularly not a person of my tastes.  There was one unfortunate incident upon the Rue Haute when a spot of quick thinking on my part prevented the designs of an agent of evil with a pistol, but I was still in the phase in which danger merely heightened my appreciation.  It was the same for the Doctor, or so I surmise from the attentions he showed me later that afternoon.  Taken all in all, despite the constant low anxiety, it was a perfectly marvelous situation.

We were in Strasbourg when that situation altered.  Strasbourg is a charming city, no doubt, but I had spent that day in such a state of nervous anticipation that I fear Watson had abandoned the project of getting any sense out of me.  I'd wired the London constabulary that morning, and was quite preoccupied wondering whether we should the next day depart for home, and what steps I would be required to take against the gang legally when we arrived there.  We walked through the city arm in arm for several hours, as we were wont to do in London before the appalling interruption of marriage, and when we returned to our snug little hotel, there the telegram lay waiting for me.

I tore it open when we'd reached our room and read it.  Then I said something worthy of a Thames dockworker and threw it in the grate before sitting on the settee with my head in my hands.

"What is it, Holmes?"

"I might have known it," I lamented.

"Whatever has happened, we shall manage."  He sat beside me.  "Has the gang been secured?"

"Oh, certainly."

"Then what is troubling you?"

"Professor Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran have escaped."

He grasped my shoulder, his face grim.  "He of the air-gun?"

"The very same."

Letting out a slow breath, he allowed, "That is bad news indeed.  Of course, when you left the country there was no one to cope with either of them.  I had not expected them to prevail once you had laid your nets, but we can hardly be surprised."

I stared at the window numbly.  I had to find them, of course.  But I'd little doubt finding them would prove the least of my concerns.

"Where shall we go now?" Watson inquired with that blithely courageous look he adopts when we've been dealt a considerable blow.  It is a very endearing expression, but I was far too chagrined to appreciate it.

"I shall continue on to Switzerland, I imagine," I said slowly.

"Then let us pack."  He squeezed my shoulder affectionately and made for his bag.

"You, my dear fellow, are returning to London as soon as is possible."

He stopped, looking back at me in surprise.  "Surely you know I shall do nothing of the sort."

"Allow me to explain something to you," I sighed.  "These men, before I crushed their criminal organization, were after me in an effort to prevent that very occurrence.  They were distracted, laying their traps, battling my own.  They were beset with a thousand equally essential tasks.  There were legions to command, measures to be taken.  Now, my dear Watson, they have nothing.  No distractions, no plans, no empire to run.  There will be one thing on their minds, and one thing only, and that is doing me grave bodily harm."

"And this is the moment you imagine I shall return to London?" he asked with a look resembling amusement.  He stopped to light a cigarette and leaned easily against the mantelpiece.

"Yes, it is."

"Well, you are mistaken.  It does not happen very frequently, but may I say when you do happen to be wrong, you are very wrong indeed."

This would never do, I reflected.  Running from appreciable danger for a finite period is one thing, and dragging one's dearest friend (among other things) through a veritable sea of trouble is quite another.  I assumed a stern expression, and employed the last ounce of truth I thought might make a difference.

"I have no desire that you should accompany me.  I shall be very put out if anything happens to you."

"Nothing will happen to me, and I intend to guarantee the same for you."

"I'll travel much more fleetly alone."

"It is a shame, then, that you will be burdened with a companion."

"I do not know who gave you the impression this was a democracy, but it is not, nor is it a debate or discussion."  I was beginning to see that far stronger measures would be required to convince him to return to the relative safety of England--or rather, anywhere that was not in my immediate vicinity--and I dreaded the tactics I would be forced to employ.  But convince him I would, one way or another.

"And neither is it goodbye, for I'll have none of it."

There was nothing for it.  I shifted tones immediately.  "You are hardly my ideal choice at this juncture, in any event," I continued harshly.  "You will do nothing but hinder me.  If you were blessed with even the most intuitive skills at observation and deduction, you might be of some use, but sadly you are not.  Nor do you possess any other qualities likely to aid in preserving my life."

"I am a doctor, you absurd fellow," he insisted.

"You are a half-pay army surgeon with mediocre qualifications whose experience treating life-threatening injuries lasted all of what?  A week?  Two?  How many lives did you save before you got yourself shot, Doctor?"

"Mocking my army record may be a creative way of convincing me to leave you, but it is not going to work." 

Damn the fellow and damn his serene self-assurance, I reflected.  His voice was strained, but steady.  He threw the cigarette stub in the grate with an air of casual finality that was so endearing I felt my pulse quicken slightly.  I considered briefly whether saving his life was worth being cruel to him and found my answer all too quickly.

"I cannot think why you desire to slow me down so effectively, but doubtless the end result will prove much to your satisfaction."

"Whatever do you mean?"

"I will be dead, and you can return to that paragon of English virtue, Mary Watson, and live your pedestrian little lives in peace.  Go home now, save yourself a week or a month of trouble, and allow me at least to live if I cannot live with you."

He looked as if I was physically hammering away at him.  I very nearly caved at that moment, but clenched my teeth and held my tongue.

"I cannot leave.  You know full well I cannot," he said heatedly.

"Go back to your wife.  At least to her, you can serve some purpose.  I have heard that the marital act occasionally produces the most fantastic results."

"Holmes, please spare me your remarks upon the institution of marriage even if you are to spare me nothing else."

"For the last time, go back to your wife," I growled at him.  "Leave me.  It isn't as if you don't know how it's done.  It will be all the more enjoyable the second time, I assure you."

This remark landed where I intended it to, and his kindly face twisted as if I'd plunged a dagger into him.  How I loathed myself at that moment, but how I enjoyed saying it.  I may well be cold, but I am not cruel.  After his return, I had made every effort not to punish him.  But I lived a miserable half-life at times, and we both knew it.  It was far easier to spit venom at Watson than it should have been, I realized at that moment.  The words had emerged as naturally as breathing.

Still his resolve remained in place, though he had paled slightly and his brows taken on the expression he gets when his shoulder will not permit him to move in any direction without pain.  "I will not abandon you."

"Don't you understand?" I snarled, standing and approaching him threateningly.  "I don't want you here!  I am sick to death of the weakling who is so blind to his own mind that he has spent the last three years married to a fool while sodding his former partner.  Can't you leave me in peace?"

He had placed a stalling hand on my chest when I stalked toward him, and as he gazed at his own appendage holding me back, his eyes slowly closed with the weight of my abuse.  At long last, without opening them, he spoke once more, his voice more stricken than I care to recall.

"If you wanted me gone, you would simply have left me.  I am not capable of tracking you.  Your performance was excellent, I assure you, and no more than I deserve.  You ought to be sick to death of me."  He looked up at me.  "I am sick to death of myself.  But you and I are going to see this through.  After, when we return to London, you may rail at me however you like, or leave me if that is the only solution.  But if you truly wish me gone, you are going to have to disappear, Holmes.  I will not depart of my own volition."

What was I to do?  I held him to me fiercely and silently cursed myself for the imbecile that I was.  I am in entirely over my head where John Watson is concerned.

"How could I have been more convincing?" I asked at length, my fingers in his hair.

"If you actually desired to be alone at this moment, you would be alone," he repeated.  "I am no match for you."
It occurred to me that teaching the Doctor logic may not have been entirely in my own best interests.  Of course, I could not take full credit--he was always shrewd enough on his own.

"You are the most damnably stubborn wretch I've ever known.  Why can you not listen to reason?  Now I've upset you, and all for nothing."

"I shall survive it, I imagine.  I am an old campaigner, as well as an old friend."

"I am sorry I called you a weakling."  I turned his face up and I kissed him.  How the devil I was to get us out alive, I could not even think.  But I was so relieved it hadn't worked, and so touched by his loyalty, I was very nearly happy.

"Yes, that was one of your more unforgivable moments," he conceded.  "I must remind myself that you were making an effort to protect me.  That is what you were doing, is it not?"
"That is what I was failing to do, certainly."
"It is not so ignoble a goal," he granted.  "For that, as well as for several other things,  I love you."

"You love a coward," I whispered.  For he had been right all along.  If I sincerely wished to protect him, why had it not dawned on me simply to depart?

"I love the best and wisest man in England," he said.  "Come along--help me gather our things."

And so we packed our bags, left in the night, and fled to Basle.  The coward and the weakling, running for their lives.

Switzerland was rather less beautiful than it could have been, as I spent much of our time scanning crowds, taking subtle precautions, and attempting not to picture one or both of us lying cold in a wooden box.  Still, I am forced to admit it was highly invigorating.  We hiked over snow-drenched trails, stopping at rustic inns to seize cups of hot tea between our fingers, watching as the first buds bloomed below us in the valleys of the Alps.  We had been traveling for nearly a fortnight all told when we approached the village of Meiringen, and my life as I knew it came to an abrupt halt.  It was a day I am exceedingly reluctant to recall, but one cannot leave out key elements of plot due to mere distaste.

We had been largely silent that morning, preferring to walk side by side in the crisp mountain air.  Dr. Watson drank in the atmosphere of springtime, surprised on occasion by a profusion of young wildflowers pushing up through inhospitable ground, appreciating his immersion in nature even as he watched me failing to appreciate it.  I, in turn, having been newly energized by the inevitability of the challenge, strode forward determinedly.  I could take our foes down still, I was sure of it.  And once I had, we would return home.

That notion struck me with a very unexpected pang of dismay.  Since our relations had altered, I had never once possessed him for such a lengthy, continuous period.  I was growing quite accustomed to waking up with a flood of warm satisfaction, his leg over mine or my arm tucked about his waist.  We would return home, he to his wife and I to my dead fireplace. 

"Have you ever wondered what it would be like to keep going?" I asked without thinking.

Dr. Watson turned to look at me quickly, for I had not spoken a word for over an hour.  "Whatever do you mean, my dear fellow?"

I berated myself silently.  I already regretted the question, but I could not very well back out.  Choosing instead to make light of it, I selected my words carefully.  "It is nothing of importance, my boy.  It is merely an intriguing proposition: what would befall us if we spent a year abroad?  Or five?  Or failed to return, substituting wanderlust for stability?  It is the merest fantasy, of course, but not devoid of interest.  Lands in which fountains of youth spring and rivers flow with gold are not very likely either, but they are still considered admirable topics for reflection."

My companion remained silent, his eyes upon the path we were treading.  I was greatly relieved.  I had never once asked John Watson to abandon his wife in favour of his friend for two very excellent reasons.  One, he could say no.  Two, he could say yes, and he would no longer be the paragon of decency I admired so wholeheartedly.  The former would wound me bitterly; the latter would likely bury us both.

When we had reached the town and then the most suitable inn, I engaged us a room under a pair of false identities.  There were two beds, the proprietor assured me, so that we might both rest in perfect comfort.  I was duly appreciative of this consideration. 

After I turned the heavy key in the lock, I dropped the satchel I had been carrying with a sigh of relief.  I had wished for a likely place to think, and the comfortable, well-appointed little room seemed ideally suited.  Then I felt Watson's arm twining round my waist.

I locked my fingers with his.  "Which bed would you prefer?  The smaller, so as to repose in peace?  Or the larger, which entails an element of risk?  I intend to spend five or six hours smoking, but that does not imply you will pass an uneventful night."

"The larger then, certainly," he replied.  "I am a sporting man.  Holmes, may I speak with you for a moment?"

"I would be honoured," I said absently, digging through my pack to find a small black pipe and a pouch of tobacco.

"The topic concerns the proposition you made me earlier, when we had nearly reached the village."

Having located the pipe, I shifted my attention to the Doctor's eyes.  They were deeply careworn, and no less apprehensive.  They were not unlike the lakes we had observed at a distance, shockingly blue and mist-obscured.  Stuffing the pipe with shag, I shook my head.

"There is nothing to discuss.  The remark was not made under due consideration." 

"I understand that," he said gently.  "However, due consideration or no, I feel I must speak with you upon the subject."

"Whatever for?" I protested irritably.  "I am infrequently given to flights of romance as it is, so it seems most uncivil to hold me to the one statement I've made in weeks which was free of reflection."

"I know, my dear fellow, but free of reflection or no, you meant it all the same.  Did you not?"

I narrowed my eyes at him, for something about his pressing me seemed very disquieting.  "I should drop it if I were you."

"But I would like nothing better than to travel the world with you," he said hoarsely.  "That is what I must speak to you about.  It is not a viable proposal."

My unease was rising, for I had only hitherto survived as Watson's paramour by failing to press any of the points which worried me like a stone in my chest.  I abhorred thinking of his other life.  I loathed that I saw him three and four times in a month.  But of the matters which needled me incessantly, I very practically kept my peace.  He was clearly about to discuss one of them.  He or I would give ground.  The other would take it.  The precarious balance would be upset.  One would be slighted, the other appeased.  It was bad all round, and I gripped the stem of my pipe the way I clung to ignorance and indifference as the only sure way to keep him.

"Not only was it not a viable proposal, my dear chap, but it was never a serious proposal.  If you are finished, I should like a little peace."

"You don't understand," he said.  His hands were shaking ever so slightly, which caused a cold sensation to strike my spine.  "I love you more than anything.  But there is a very good reason why I cannot simply run away with you."

"Yes, you are married.  I assure you that I had already noticed," I snapped, growing unexpectedly impatient.  My saying it was better than him saying it, after all.  I sat down behind the desk.  It was an animal's instinct of placing a large, solid object between itself and danger.  Smoking would be a comfort, I thought, and proceeded to strike a lucifer.  "If that is the confession of which you must purge yourself, I grant it is a considerable one.  I will have you back in London with the week, I assure you."

"My wife and I are expecting a child."

I ceased the effort to light my pipe and simply held it in my hands.  Words escaped me for a time.  I simply could not think of any.

"Congratulations," I said at last.

Here I must make a small detour and confess something which I have never confided to any living creature.  It is not for nothing that I spent years schooling my mind into strictly regimented obedience to order, for when it gets away from me it is a far worse experience than I can easily describe.  Such interludes happened often when I was young, and it was a supreme effort to train myself to keep my own imagination under control.  As a child, it seemed as if I was seeing visions--whether they were based in practical fact, such as looking at the flour upon the floor in the kitchen and suddenly hearing the argument between the cook and the scullery maid, or something as absurd as waking in the night absolutely assured that not one but several highly aggressive hydra were stalking our grounds, the results were the same.  I could see nothing and hear no one until the vision had ended, and due to one or two trying but irrelevant circumstances, the monsters were more frequent visitors than I should have liked.  Grecian phasma notwithstanding, it is a terrifying thing when your mind gets away from you, and that is precisely what happened immediately after I congratulated the Doctor.

The first image flooded my brain with the force of a supernatural torrent: Watson was in his consulting room, at his desk, light from the window striking the papers he was shuffling.  His child had been born; I could not see the infant, but I knew it all the same.  The maid poked her head round the door to inform him that his wife was taking tea, and to deliver a telegram I had sent to him.  When he saw what it was, his brows tilted curiously as a fond smile touched his lips.  He looked pensive, tapping it against his palm for a moment.  He opened and read it.  Folding it in half twice, he slowly dropped it in the dustbin.

No, I thought forcefully, and blinked my eyes.  The vision was gone.

"Holmes, are you all right?" he asked me.

Now I was walking down a street in London on an errand having to do with a case.  I was focused, purposeful.  Turning a corner, I suddenly found myself nearly face to face with the Doctor, who was accompanied by a young lad of seven or eight.  His hair was flaxen like his mother's, but his face was the perfect mold of that which evidenced a startled smile at the sight of me.  Watson's eyes shone for a brief moment, and then dimmed when he remembered himself.  At first he merely assumed an air of pleased surprise, but a flash of panic crossed his face when he glanced at the observant young boy next to him, hoping he had seen nothing, or that if he had seen something, it would not occur to him to question his father about it.  He nodded at me and pressed my hand, and then they both walked away.

Stop this, I ordered myself.  My heart was pounding.  All was lost, and I knew it.

"Of course I am all right.  I am well aware of the many miracles of the human anatomy.  It isn't as if I assumed...."

I lost my train of thought.

I was in the drawing room of Watson's home.  I was standing before Mary Morstan Watson, whose plain, genial, expressive little face was twisted as if it had been made of wax and I had melted it.  She was all in black, a colour I had never once seen her wear before that day.  She insisted on knowing how it was done.  I wanted to comfort her, but I stood there as if carved out of wood.  She needn't worry, I told her.  She needn't be anxious about her home, her finances, the practice.  I would see to everything.  But she would want no assistance of mine.  I could hardly blame her, under the circumstances.  She would sell the house, sell everything, and begin a new life far from London.  As I walked out into the cold afternoon air, I knew I would never see his child.  I was nothing to them.  Worse than nothing.  I could send them funds, perhaps, if they were not returned with a cold note of thanks and a dismissal, but I would never know what his boy or girl looked like.  I adjusted the mourning band tight against my arm. 

No, no, no, no, ten thousand times no.

"Holmes, please say something.  Anything you like, only speak to me."
I looked down at the pipe in my hands and realized I had snapped the thin stem in half.  I dropped it and closed my eyes once more.

"I would not have informed you this way, so suddenly and without warning, but when you spoke of us leaving..." he said.  He looked relieved to have told me, wracked with sympathetic concern, but not ashamed of the news.  I was glad of that, though I didn't know it at the time.

He would live an extravagantly fuller life without Baker Street, without the burdens of a twisted passion which stabbed as often as it soothed him.  He would live in every way better without me, and I would prefer to die than to be without him.

There was a thought.

"You are right, of course.  You must go back to London eventually.  Sooner rather than later, I should think."

Although I could hear my own voice, I had no idea why it rang out so icily cold.  It often sounds so, even to me.  But not generally when I am speaking to the Doctor.

"Well, naturally, my dear fellow--we will be through with this blasted business soon, and back in Baker Street.  But that has nothing to do with what I've just said to you."

"I will be back in Baker Street," I corrected him dully.  "Alone, or so I imagine."

"Not alone," he said firmly.  He was very pale.  A part of me pitied him. 

"I suppose Mrs. Hudson will be there."

He clenched his hands briefly in frustration and chagrin.  It struck me that I was not making it any easier than he'd imagined I would.  "I will join the two of you as often as I can, if you will allow me."

"Very well.  As you wish."

"I do wish it," he protested, flushing.  "I have always, save for one grave misjudgment, desired to be near you.  But I have been given to understand it is also as you wish, Holmes.  If you crave my company, it is yours for the asking."

"But not mine for the taking." 
I wondered if it were possible to feel worse than I did at that moment.  Then I realized that I had been quite unbearably unhappy for a very, very long time.

"You are right to blame me for this, but it has happened nevertheless and we will try to make the best of it." 

"Forgive me, my dear fellow," I murmured, "but the best of it isn't any damn good."

I managed to startle him with that observation.  He drew a deep breath.  "Holmes, you know the way I feel about you.  If I hadn't told you, you might have deduced it from the mere fact of my being here.  Please believe me when I tell you that I knew you would be deeply affected by this news."

"Not as affected as you are going to be.  How would you prefer I introduce myself to the child?  As an odd student you once took digs with would be best, I suppose."

"Holmes, please--"

"My dear fellow, it would behoove you not to mark me just now.  In fact, I suggest that you feign ignorance I am even here."

"Why must you be this way?" he demanded.  He was asking about my hatefully clinical tone of voice, not my actual speech.

"Distant and misanthropic?"  The wind rattled the shutters outside our rooms and set the tree boughs dancing.  I stood up and retrieved my overcoat.  "I am always so. I manage to disguise it from time to time."

"That isn't true.  You are charming and sympathetic, at least one or two days in the week."  He attempted to smile at me, but I was miles away from him already.

"Yes, I am," I hissed.  "Coincidentally, you are in my presence one or two days in the week.  Doubtless there is some hidden connection.  Be that as it may, I am terribly sorry to be acting the part of the slighted courtesan--you must excuse me for it.  I cannot imagine anything more tedious, but after all it comes of long study.  It is no easy affair being John Watson's literary muse by day and kept concubine by night."

"Stop it," he snarled at me.

"Why?  I should not like to.  I am quite admirably suited to both."

"Can you truly imagine I don't care what it is like for you?" he cried.  "It is forever occupying my mind.  I eat, sleep and breathe it, and on your behalf."

"How touching," I said frigidly.  "Is it on your mind while you are pleasuring your wife?"

I regretted it nearly the moment I said it.  Nearly.  Not precisely, however.  I turned away from him.

"Where are you going?" he asked, masking his distress as best he could.

"I have one or two little matters to attend to, if you would consent to remain here."

I had nearly made my escape when he reached out and grasped me by the hand.  He pulled me closer to him, and I allowed it.  His hands were cold, which was unusual, and there were deep circles under his eyes.  I knew why I had not deduced it, of course.  Watson was an anxious wreck, had been so for the majority of our journey, but I had imagined he was so haggard because armed men desired to murder us in cold blood.  That there could have been something else on his mind never even occurred to me.  I placed my hand at the back of his neck and kissed him briefly.

"I never meant to hurt you," he whispered. 

I believed him.  After all, he cannot lie to me.  I broke away from him and opened the door.

"I know," I said.  "But you've quite a talent for it all the same, haven't you?"

I cannot recall very clearly what I did that afternoon and evening.  I determined to check up on one or two snares I had set in place as we traveled, to determine how far ahead of trouble we were.  There were telegrams waiting for me at the office and I retrieved them; Moriarty, Moran, and perhaps other agents would catch up to us the next day.  This news, taken in stride with other news, was almost heartening.  I sat in a dingy little public house of sorts over several glasses of whiskey and forced my brain back into submission.  I wandered about outdoors after that, without object, simply leaving prints in the snowy woods.  The sky was clear and my tracks sharp.  I could not have lost myself out there, no matter how hard I tried.  I made a number of decisions about the way I would act when presented with several scenarios regarding our enemies.  I made still more decisions regarding my friend.  When I heard the distant bells toll nine, I had finally erased the feeling of the mourning band strapped around my arm.  By this time it was dark, and on my way back through the town, I stopped by a chemist's just as he was closing up shop.  I purchased a vial of morphine and a tiny syringe and put them to their ultimate use.  Throwing them away immediately after, I returned to our lodgings and made my way back to our room.

There were no lights.  I found my way in the dark.  Watson had taken the larger four-poster, the smaller cot unoccupied.  I stood over him for a time, my head finally succumbing to waves of otherness--it was not peace, not happiness, it never had been, but neither was it pain and it was that otherness I had needed so very badly.  When he noticed I was there, he looked up at me.  Then he pulled me down into his arms.

He didn't say anything.

What was there to say?

Our decision to leave the next morning was mutual, but I admit it required a measure of orchestration.  I handled it carefully, for Watson was observing me even more closely than was usual.  But he soon fell in with my plans.

The breeze on the undulating ridges and vales was cold, but the air bright with sun.  When the lad approached us with the message from Steiler regarding a sick Englishwoman at the hotel, I confess I had initial doubts as to the wisdom of allowing the scheme to play out.  The note was so perfectly tailored to appeal to Watson's good nature that I at first feared a trap for him rather than for me.  But I very soon realized that could not be the case.  For one, it would be known that I was at his side, and capable of seeing through any such ruses.  And more importantly, I was the important one.  I always had been.  To Moriarty, in any event.  He wanted a dramatic conclusion to the story, a duel to the death with a wildly tempestuous backdrop, a battle worthy of his ego.  Watson would figure nowhere in the picture.  And what is more, Moriarty was never a man for a fair fight.  With Watson gone, and Moran present, my chances were still slimmer.

So be it, I determined. 

Watson read the note through twice before looking up at me.  It was my decision.  When I took it from him, it was with a steady hand.  The village boy stood waiting at a distance.

"What do you think of it?" he asked.

"I think that, as a doctor, you can hardly say no," I replied. 

To this day I can hear myself saying it and to this day I do not know how I could have brought myself to say such an impossible thing.

"I am not entirely sure what to make of this," he stated slowly.

I nudged a rock from the path with the toe of my boot.  "It seems perfectly clear to me--some invalid Englishwoman who has been advised to take in as much Swiss air as is possible has taken a turn for the worse due to an overabundance of traveling.  Not a case worthy of your skills, my dear fellow, but for charity's sake I am willing to forfeit your company so long as you promise not to take more than two hours."

"The sacrifice is on your part, then?" he asked, no longer worried, only amused.

"Of course it is.  You are my doctor, not hers."

"You have never once accepted an iota of medical advice from me," he laughed.

"I did not mean to imply that you were my doctor.  Only that you are mine, and she will be keeping you from me.  I certainly have no intention of treating her, or of observing your admirable techniques."

"I suppose you will want to go on ahead and I will catch you up," he reflected.  "I do not pretend to be the master of deductive arts that you are, Holmes, nor do I profess any skills at single-stick, but will you be quite safe if I return to Meiringen?"

I drove my Alpine-stock into the earth with a smile.  "I have seen nothing but goats for these three days, and if they turn hostile, I promise you I shall seek out adequate cover."

"If deadly mountain creatures do manifest themselves, I would much prefer to be with you."

"Well, if any birds or jackrabbits give themselves away with suspicious behavior, I shall return at once to fetch you.  In any event, I believe I saw the lady in question's baggage arrive last night.  Either she is a particularly burdensome traveler or she is very ill indeed."

He shook his head at me indulgently.  "I will not be long.  I shall see you at Rosenlaui, and if you've already begun your supper by the time I arrive, I will be quite put out.  Very well, my boy!" he called out.  "I will go with you."

When he actually turned to walk away, something snapped which I had not known even existed.  I am a very unsentimental person.  But it could not be like that.  It could not be so casual.  Every part of me protested against what I had already done.  I could not go through with it without some sort of farewell.  But I could not say goodbye to him either.  I never had been able to do that with any success.

"Watson, wait a moment!" I called out.  "Go on, lad.  I require a moment of the doctor's time."

The child shrugged and disappeared over the hilltop.  He was not an agent, I knew.  Merely a pawn.

"What is it, Holmes?" Watson asked me when we were once more face to face.

Oh, the things I could have said.  But I sought safety in simplicity.

"I would have had a very bleak time of it if you had gone over that ridge without the knowledge that I regret the majority of my actions yesterday.  I have been searching my memory for a good turn or two, and they are nowhere to be found.  I would be very grateful if you would forgive me."

"Holmes," he said softly.  There was no one nearby and he grasped me by both arms.  "Of course I forgive you." 

"Thank Heaven," I sighed.  "I do not know that, in your position, I would be so generous.  I was altogether inexcusable."

"But you were only telling me the truth."

"Sometimes the truth is ugly," I said.  "And that is not the way I think of you.  Please understand that, my dear Watson.  You are never ugly."

I stared at him as I would stare at a specimen under a microscope.  I was seeking out anything I had missed.  A wisp of his hair, a quirk of expression.  But I had missed nothing.  I knew it all by heart.

"Dearest fellow, why ever are you studying me like that?" he asked.  "What is the matter?"

"Nothing," I said softly.  "I cannot believe you are here."

He kissed me then, and he meant it to be brief, but I returned it with absolutely everything I had.  At last, he broke away from me.  He still possessed a measure of calm caution, after all, while I had none left.

"Do you believe it now?" he asked me with a slight glimmer of humour.

"Be safe," I whispered.  "Please.  For me.  If there is a single hair on your head out of place when I see you again, I will call upon the highest resources of the British government to enact terrible and swift justice."

"Would you prefer to accompany me?"

"No," I said.  "Go on.  Someone needs you."

He turned to go for the second time.  When he had nearly reached the top of the hill, I turned around so that I could not see him any longer.  And then it was done.

Absurdly simple.

I did not die at the Falls.  But I did die a little on the hill above the path which led back down to them.

I have been accused by many parties of staging my own death.  I did nothing of the kind.  There is a difference between never intending to return and staging a death.  There is also a difference between walking into mortal peril with the intention of using the event as a way to disappear and walking into mortal peril not caring one way or the other who would survive it.

When I saw the Professor standing by the Falls, I registered no surprise whatever.  Presumably, my anticipation of his arrival did not startle him much either.  He stood there with a tight little smile upon his lips, his head slowly swiveling, his hands twitching ever so slightly with rage.

It all felt perfect, somehow.  Like an elegant parable or a Renaissance painting.

"Well done, Mr. Holmes," he hissed at me.  "Well done indeed."

"Thank you," I said.  "It was quite an effort, but I pride myself it was thoroughly done."

"One or two small loose ends may present themselves in time," he pointed out.  "For example, you are not very likely to survive this conversation."

"Danger is part of my trade," I said smoothly.  However, my muscles tensed in spite of myself.

"I almost believe you!" he cried.  "Can you truly be so careless with your own existence?  It is nearly at an end, you must realize.  In the unlikely event I do not kill you, Colonel Moran certainly shall.  And even apart from Moran, your destruction is inevitable.  Have you any idea how many connections I have made through many years of careful toil?  How many men long for the end of your career?  I have alerted every brother criminal organization in Europe of your appearance, your tactics, your measurements, your voice--and it may not surprise you to learn that these bodies of men were only too eager to offer me their wholehearted assistance.  Some of them even appeared to harbour a personal grudge against you.  It is almost as if it is in the best interests of every such company to end your life as swiftly as is possible."

The sound of the spray dashing against the rock walls in no way impaired my ability to understand this grim fact.  But perhaps it acted as a natural buffer of sorts.  In any event, I had deduced it all before.  Whatever his domestic entanglements, I do not honestly think myself man enough to have left the Doctor without the assurance I was about to be the death of him.  In any event, the setting was superb, and rendered aforementioned grim facts bearable.  The Falls of Reichenbach are elemental, extraordinary, the sort of Nature even I am unable to ignore.  It is a hellish cauldron hewn from bare rock with such violent force that one cannot imagine it.  From a single drop of its water I could, if a pure logician, have deduced its existence. 

It ought to be perfectly clear to all concerned by now that I am not a pure logician.

"I grow weary of this," I sighed. 

"Never fear, for it is nearly over.  Have you any other matters to settle?  Any instructions to leave behind?" he queried with an evil glint in his eye. 

"If I had, would you escort me back to the inn?"

"Do not imagine I don't appreciate your courage," he sneered.  "I do.  I admire many things about you, Mr. Holmes." 

"Not enough to preserve them, of course."

"Mr. Holmes, your aplomb in the face of certain death is very impressive indeed.  I might almost wish your friends could see it.  It verges on the unfeeling, for your star was still rising, after all.  You could have been a triumph, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, in many arenas.  You know that as well as I do.  It is a pity, undoubtedly.  But you, sir, will never set foot in London again."

"Be it so, then," I stated.  "I am ready."

Madly, he rushed at me, and I--well, I cannot say that I retained any conscious thought.

When he threw his long arms around me, clutching at me with ego-maniacal vengeance in his fingers, there was a moment when I could have fallen, indeed should have fallen.  But I discovered that the will to survive is not like a feeling or a decision or even a passion--it is something built into us, as simple as breathing, and before I quite knew what had happened, my superior knowledge of fighting meant that I was alone on a cliff edge with a horrifying scream ringing in my ears.

I stared into the Falls in shock.  There could be no surviving that dreadful descent.  The cauldron had taken him; my nemesis was dead.

I had done it, then.

But it would only be a matter of time before the air-guns presented themselves.

My hands were shaking and my breath coming in ragged gasps.  I took a moment to pull myself together.  I stood staring up at the cliff face for some time, judging my prospects.  They were just a shade better than hopeless.  I had already placed my hand on the wet stone when a queer sensation stopped me.

It could have been ego, or vanity, wanting to leave something behind for posterity.  It could have been a desire to comfort him.  It could simply have been the punctuation at the end of the sentence, the closing of the dramatic curtain which I have so often (justifiably) been accused of manipulating.  Perhaps Moriarty himself had put it into my head.

I don't know what it was.  I found I could not, however, take so much as another glance at that cliff wall without writing John Watson a note--slightly fictionalized, of course, and more detached in tone than I would have liked, as I had no idea who would find the object. 

But I signed it very carefully, so that he could not help but understand:

Believe me to be, my dear fellow,
Very sincerely yours, Sherlock Holmes

I placed it under my cigarette box and leaned my stick against the rock.  And then I began to climb.

After I climbed, I ran.  The air-guns arrived in due course.  Along with falling rocks and other such pleasant traps.  But they were nothing to me. 

It is very difficult to kill a man who doesn't care if he lives or dies.

Initially, I felt a new being, as light and as elemental as the rawest newborn child first exposed to a breath of fresh air.  I was not myself anymore, but alone, and whole, and utterly free.  It was glorious there in the woods, even running from death, and it was still more ethereal as I made my way down the mountains, drinking from streams and stealing bread from deserted hostelry kitchens.  I had not been so happy in years, so purely at peace.  On the third day I determined I was a least far enough from Moran to justify the use of the few Swiss francs in my pockets to engage a room and so, endeavoring to be as presentable as I could make myself, I washed in a stream, smoothed back my hair, straightened my collar and set foot upon the streets of a minuscule town. 

My buoyant bliss lasted until the very moment I set eyes upon a fellow human being again (an aged cobbler by the looks of his hands and shoulders) and realized he was not the Doctor. 
Not only was he not the Doctor, but I would never see the Doctor again.  This was not a new realization, but it was enough to force me to catch my breath in an effort to keep my features free of the blinding, wrenching pain of it.
It is impossible for me to set down what it meant to lose him once more, and of my own choosing.  I am no poet.  But there was a part of me that only he had ever seen, and that I knew no one would ever lay eyes on again, for it belonged to him, and I acknowledged from that moment I could only ever be a stranger.  I was no one's lover, no one's brother or son or friend.  It would improve, I knew abstractly, but only by degrees.  The rift would never be breached.  I was, at last, alone.

It might have been completely intolerable, but I am an adaptable creature.  I have certain advantages which aid me in this--it is a simple trick for me to focus upon one thing so as not to focus upon another, for compartmentalization of mind has been a habit of mine for many years.  I can very easily distract myself, for there was still a good deal in the world which was of interest to me, even as a dead man.  Two weeks into my new life I purchased the first vial of cocaine.  It was six months before I resorted once more to the morphine.  But I treated it with care and it did me little harm.

What did I do? I have been asked.  I did a number of things.  Some of them were things I have been trained to do, such as musicianship or chemistry or studying ancient documents.  Others were less likely.  My time in Tibet, for example, was very unlikely indeed.  I solved seven crimes in three years, not because I desired to do so but because I could not help myself.  I explored mountains and deserts.  Most of the time, of course, what I was ostensibly doing was secondary to what I actually doing: that is, running for my life.

I slept with other men, of course.  I'd no intention of ever returning home, after all, and I could not quite accept the notion that my years of discovery at University and my years of passion with Watson would comprise the entire narrative of my love life.

Love life.  It was no such thing, of course.  In many respects, it was the very opposite.  But I am less a saint even than I am a poet, and no one was burning a torch for me back in England.  Mortals are not faithful to dead men, and he'd been unfaithful on countless occasions whilst I was still very vividly alive.  This was precisely the opposite way I ought to have labeled the situation, and I knew it, but no one was harmed by my own backward terminology.  When struck by such dour moods, I allowed myself to picture him, in London, and happy.  I never doubted he was happy.  When I visualized it, he was walking with those easy military strides down a cobbled street after seeing a client, his hat bulging with his stethoscope and his gallant face roughened by a brisk wind.  His shoulder wasn't troubling him, and his gaze was clear and expectant.  He was alone too, in my mind's eye.  I allowed myself that much.  But he was happy.
The other fellows were pleasant enough in their own way.  With my eye for detail, they were absurdly easy to spot, which made the task of conquest far safer than it ever is for most men.  There was a young brother-violinist when I was filling in for an orchestra of some note in Florence, an Italian musical savant with a taste for rough handling.  We were involved for two months before the web caught up with me and I at length fled to Tibet.  During my travels there, I had but scant time to see to such needs, but when I reached Norway and changed my name once again, there was a brilliant under-chemist whom I both amused and infuriated for a time.  And there were other men, in Montpellier, in Khartoum of all places, in every city I cared to find them.  Men for whom love meant nothing beyond a nod, a tilt of the head, an appointed time and place, and then a hasty coupling in a filthy hotel room or against a brick wall or behind a pile of warehouse crates, deeds which could leave one aching and sick at the ways of the world.
They none of them touched me.  I was a ghost, to all of them.  How can you harm someone who isn't there?

I have never worked out through any system of logic the exact relationship between God and man, and as several far wiser men already failed in the task long before I was born, the admission holds scant shame.  But I have seen one miracle in my life.  It happened in 1894 in a bizarrely appointed garret room just beyond the busiest suburbs of Prague.  The universe may exhibit tendencies towards the chaotic, but these eddies are a means to an end, I am sure of it.  I must be sure of it.  There is simply no other explanation for an occurrence so infinitely improbable.

I must make clear that my brother was sent occasional instructions to wire me funds, but as I am capable of supporting myself in a number of fashions, such requests were very rare.  I never once gave him any means of contacting me.  These few and far-between notes, in which I had conscience enough to send him assurances of my good health, were a communion which moved only in one direction; I received no news of England and desired none.  Indeed, could not have stood it.  Mycroft could no doubt have traced me if he had set his mind to the task, but this would have required him leaving his lodgings and asking questions of living human beings, a venture to which he is very poorly adapted.  No doubt he also recognized that if anyone in London knew of my whereabouts, no matter if that person was my own brother, I could far more easily be killed.  When I asked for money, he sent it.  Such was my communication with mother England.  Then the miracle took place.
I was lying on a disheveled bed at the time, on my side, having tucked my lower body under a quilt in an effort to ward off the chill.  The gentleman sharing the bed with me was a typesetter, a penniless aristocrat, a bibliophile, and an artist to boot, whose lengthy poetic masterwork was unfinished, uninteresting, and unintelligible.  His walls were lined with stacks of newspapers from every country upon the globe, dates as arbitrary as their places of origin.  Eccentrically enough, he desired them solely for the typesetting, and for the details of the printer's trade.  He was very good looking in a blue-blooded, diminutive, active sort of way, at least a foot shorter than I, eager to please, having in fact already pleased me to the point that I had lost all interest in him.
"Are you all right?" he asked me, in Hungarian.
"Certainly," I told him. 

My Hungarian is not very fluent, but whenever I could not speak like a true native, I had developed the habit of drawing the French part of my brain to the surface and riding roughshod over the tongue of the realm in the Gallic fashion.  Thus my Danish, Flemish, Romanian, and Hungarian selves all spoke with decidedly French accents.  This was far safer, I had decided, and in any event, more amusing.  It had also--to my surprise--increased my success rate among my own gender by several degrees.  But I digress.
"I have not offended you in any way?"
"By no means.  What do you intend to do with these?" I asked him.  I rolled to the edge of the bed and gathered up a sack tied with twine.
"They are examples.  I look at them, I learn.  I could discard them, but they make excellent kindling."
"No doubt."  I opened the front page of the first newspaper, dated 1877.  It was German, and thus perfectly comprehensible to me.  I skimmed through it in a desultory fashion.  I adore newspapers.
"Are you cold?" he asked me.
"No."  The next edition was an Italian daily, 1882, smothered in violently black headlines.  I read the first article, then skipped ahead to the personal columns.  Several coded messages leapt to my eyes.  I smiled and threw the paper to the floor.
"You can read German and Italian?"  He sounded quite unduly impressed.
"Not well," I lied.  The next was an evening edition of a liberal Lucerne paper from 1892, executed in French.  It was amusing, in its own fashion. 
"You are a man of great talent," he said seriously.  "A man of hidden depths."
It flitted across my mind that perhaps I was being entirely uncouth in ignoring a fellow who had just very graciously put my cock in his mouth.  I decided, unfortunately, that I did not care.  I flipped to the marriage announcements in silence.  The would-be Casanova knew me as an itinerant fiddler.  Musical men may indeed have hidden depths, but I knew perfectly well the depths he desired to plumb.  I tossed the Swiss paper aside and picked up another.
"I am only a musician," I told him.  Then I drew in a quick breath, and slowly let it out again.
"What is wrong, dearest?"
I was holding an English newspaper.  I did not allow myself such objects, ever.  It was a copy of the Times, 1891, and it was like holding a piece of British soil, letting it sift through my fingers.  I knew the bloody typeset like I knew my own face in the mirror.  I could feel a hot surge of pain, there, of all places, in that horrible little room shared with a trite little man.  My anger at discovering a British newspaper could still wound me so was profound, but my chagrin at being caught in my distress was a far more immediate concern.
"It is nothing.  I am well," I said, my voice quite careless once more.
"You must tell me," he insisted.  "Do not shut me out."
Entertaining the notion of throttling the creature managed to take the place of actually doing so.  Livid at myself, I threw open the edition and read it in defiance of the damage I knew it would cause.

There were financial reports, and a lurid murder in Cheapside.  I thumbed past the usual political posturing, the society gossip, the fashionable cant of three years previous.  It was dated mere months after I had been killed at the Falls.  A robbery had occurred.  Silver, coins, plate.  The Yard knew nothing, but felt assured of their future success.  An engagement had taken place between Lady Helena St. Stephens and a nobleman I knew slightly.  There was unrest in South Africa, and a dispute over tea prices.  There was work continuing on the underground.  The wretched fellow was speaking to me again.

"What?" I demanded.

"Nothing, dearest, nothing.  I only am gratified the paper interests you so.  I hope when you are through with it, I can interest you once more myself."  He ran a hand over my bare shoulder. 

I determined that if he employed one more repellent term of endearment, I would take a passionate French offense at nothing and storm out.  Then I saw it, and the paper fell from my hands as the world took a sickening revolution.

It was an obituary notice for one Mary Elizabeth Watson, formerly Morstan, who had died in childbirth along with her infant.  She was survived by her husband John Hamish Watson, a physician and the biographer of the late Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

"Oh, no.  No, please, not that," I said in perfect English, and then snatched up the column once more.  My hands were trembling violently.

"For Heaven's sake, what is going on?" my companion inquired, urgently this time.

I read the print three more times before I could convince myself it was true.

"She's dead.  And all this time.  He lost everything.  Dear God, I didn't know.  I never meant for--I must leave.  At once, this instant.  I didn't know, I didn't know."

When he stared at me in utter dismay, I realized first that I was babbling incoherently, and second that I continued to do so in English.  It was not my most phlegmatic moment.  I bounded out of the bed and into my clothing.

"What has happened to you?" he cried.  "Are you all right?  You are frightening me!  It is an old newspaper, a very old newspaper."

"Of course it is," I gasped, one more in Hungarian.

"You spoke English a moment ago," he accused me angrily.  "Just how many languages--"

"Six passably, and four fluently," I snapped.  "What is it to you, may I ask?"

"Did you learn something from the paper?  You have acquaintances there?"

"Yes, I have," I admitted.  He was not a paid informant, I knew, for I was very careful, but at that moment I would not have cared if he were.  No one could stop me from reaching London.  Not Moran, not his web of spies, not the agents of hell itself.

"Your family--or a friend? Perhaps a lover?"

"He is all of those things," I managed breathlessly as my fingers flew over buttons.  "I must leave you.  I am sorry."

"Do you need assistance?"  He seemed to be in earnest, and I spared him a grateful look.
"No.  Thank you."  I pulled on my boots, my mind wheeling to and fro.  How fast could I reach England?  What precautions need I take?  Would I live for longer than a week once I arrived?  None of it mattered.  I was going, and as quickly as steam could take me.  I draped my cravat around my neck and threw on my frock coat.

"Will I see you again?"

I stopped on my way to the door.  "No."  I managed to say it kindly.  "But thank you.  Thank you a thousand times.  I am very grateful."

I shook his hand as he gaped at me, and then I ran as fast as I could for the nearest train depot.

The journey home was a terrible blur.  I took precautions, but fewer than I ought to have.  I raced from train to train.  I caught an express from Berlin to Lille, but was delayed for two days at the coast due to viciously poor spring weather.  I would have shaken a baleful fist at the heavens, but I had only to recall the newspaper to still my impatience at Providence.  Nevertheless, every second I was not at home proved more excruciating than the last, for I happen to be blessed with a very vivid imagination where John Watson is concerned.  He had loved me.  I had never truly doubted it.  He had also loved her.  He would have loved his child, had it lived.   And he has the largest heart of any man I've ever known.

For such a man to have lost all three within a matter of six months could have been no less than the blackest pit of hell.

I maintained my urbane mannerisms with clerks and with ticket agents, but turned quickly away from them when they caught the haunted look in my eye.  I had never felt so open, so raw and scrutinized.  Once I had gained the ship, I could at least attribute my ghastly appearance to seasickness.  There was little I could do, in the absence of morphine.  And morphine I would not stoop to, no matter that I--like the coward I felt--longed to be a ghost again when my fear and regret seemed more than one man could bear.  I had cared for nothing and no one for three years, and suddenly the floodgates were open.  My mask cracked further every moment. 

It was a difficult journey.  But no more than I deserved, or less than I expected.  Men do not rise from the dead unscathed.

When I landed at Dover, I invested in a suitable disguise, for actually sighting the cliffs again had impressed upon me the difficulties I would encounter in staying alive.  I slept for an hour, fitfully.  And then, for the first time in three years, I boarded a train bound for London.

The newspaper under the Hungarian's bed in Prague was a miracle.  London is where Dr. Watson resides, so it is no miracle that I bumped into his very leg upon the street as I made for a suitably shabby hotel.  But it was a considerable surprise, nonetheless.

I had registered that I was being followed, and was in the act of taking the necessary steps to lose my shadow.  Then some clumsy fool knocked all the books out of my hands and I looked up in a fury.

He was thinner than I recalled, almost resembling himself when we had first met, when the fever had robbed him of all health.  His skin was pale but still darker than mine, his hair full and glinting nut-brown in the sunlight.  One glance into those blue eyes convinced me all my prevarications were in vain.

"I am terribly sorry," he said affably.  He bent down to pick up my books.

I was not prepared to believe he had not recognized me.  I soon remembered that when in disguise he almost never recognized me.  Then I recalled that I was dead.  If there was any piece of my heart left to shatter, it occurred there, watching him lean down to pick up a deformed old gentleman's books without knowing who I was.

He straightened and handed them to me.  "I ought to have looked where I was going," he added when I stood there dumb, "but I do not think any of your books have been harmed."  He smiled.  It was the same smile I had cursed for being branded upon my brain.

I hadn't the time to think.  In the supreme acting moment of my entire life, without question, I snarled something vicious at him.  Then I turned hastily away, limping at the top of my reduced speed down the street.

I hailed a hansom, escaped out the other side while tossing a coin to the driver and silently urging him onward, and was hidden behind a cart in time to observe my follower hail his own cab and take flight after the empty vehicle.  When I rushed back to the intersection, I could just make out the Doctor's back as he made for Park Lane.  I followed him.  No doubt I could have discovered where he lived in a medical directory.  But that would not have been my style.

He spent some time staring up at an unknown dwelling before heading for home.  He led me at last to Kensington.  When he entered his practice and shut the door behind him, I stood upon the pavement for some moments without the smallest semblance of a plan.  In fact, all I could register was feeling dreadfully ill.  I had returned to London to see he was all right.  I had seen him, and now must speak to him.  I attempted to visualize what I would say.  Each option seemed equally absurd.  While I was considering the problem, my feet began moving unconsciously, and in another moment I had rapped upon the door and communicated my desire to see the Doctor to the maid.

One must grasp the nettle, after all.

There he was, in his study, in a perfectly tailored brown tweed suit.  He was surprised to see me.

"You are surprised to see me, sir," I croaked.  I felt as if my heart would stop at any moment.  I was prepared to be very gratified if it held out longer than five minutes.

"I am indeed," he said with concern in his warm voice.  "Have I inadvertently damaged one of your books?"

I put it to the world whether there has ever been born a more superlative example of the British gentleman than Dr. John Watson. 

"Certainly not," I denied, stalling for time.  "But I've a conscience, sir, and I thought to tell you that if I was a bit gruff in my manner, there was not any harm meant, and I am very grateful you picked up my books."

A change came over his face--not a shadow, but the set, intent look he adopts when his interest has been arrested.  He regarded me more closely, and then drew back with a slightly pained expression.

"Are you all right, sir?" I whispered.

"Yes, I am sorry.  You reminded me of someone."  He shook his head and turned away toward his bookshelf.

I removed the wig.  It made no sound.  I stood up straight, my back aching, my breath arrested and contained tight within my chest.  I dropped the gloves and the scarf which had been muffled around my face, and they fell to the floor.

"Of who, may I ask?"

When he turned back to respond, I watched as a look of complete disbelief washed over his face.  And then it appears I must have fainted, regrettably not for the first time in my life.

When I awoke, I was lying upon the settee in my friend's consulting room.  My collar ends were undone, my shirt unbuttoned.  I could taste brandy, and see the whitewashed ceiling.  And once I was able to focus, I could see the Doctor.

He was sitting on a footstool next to my head, his face a chalky white.  I felt tears spring to my eyes, and did nothing to prevent them.  I opened my mouth to speak to him.

"Stop," he said hoarsely.  "Whatever you are, stop.  Do not speak to me."  He closed his eyes, opened them again, and continued.  "I have spent the last half an hour labouring under the profound delusion that a very great friend of mine fainted in my study and is lying on my sofa.  I know this cannot be true.  I know that when you speak to me, it will be with someone else's voice, the illusion will crumble, and he will be dead once more.  For heaven's sake, don't speak to me and prove that you are not Sherlock Holmes.  If I am mad, let me be mad a while longer."

The Doctor claims that I am eloquent, but this left me absolutely speechless.  I reached for his hand, and he took it, pressing it hard.

"If you are Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand," he added, "you have a very great deal to answer for."

He was not mistaken in this.  I still have a very great deal to answer for.

"You aren't mad," I told him.

He winced as if I had struck him, and then emitted a sound that resembled both a laugh and a sob.  What had I been thinking, to shock him so?  I struggled to sit up, and quickly realized it was not yet possible.  I satisfied myself with regarding the Doctor.  If Alexander the Great had wandered into his consulting room, he could not have looked more staggered.

"Holmes," he said at last, "you are dead.  What are you doing here?"

"I've come home." 

"Never in my wildest..." he murmured.  "I prayed for so many things.  I prayed to find your body and bring it back to London.  But to see you again, and after--"

"I didn't know.  I swear to you I didn't know," I said, the words catching in my throat.

"What do you mean?"  He was clutching my hand as if it would disappear.

"Your family.  I did not know." 

"Wait.  Stop a moment," he pleaded.  "How did you come alive out of that awful abyss?"

"I never was in it," I confessed. 

As the terrible realization dawned upon his face, he leaned closer to me.  I took his hand in both of mine and pressed it against my chest in a medievally superstitious effort to keep the necessary life functions operating.  I don't know when I have felt so ill.

"I must understand this," he said slowly.  "You staged your own death."

"Not exactly, but that was the final result."  The tears were flowing silently now.  I wondered how long they had been there, waiting.  I have not wept since I was five.  I was close to it when the Doctor left me, and when he came back, but this was different.
"You allowed me to think you were dead, in order to leave me.  Because of the danger you were running.  Because I refused to be sent away."

"It was one thing when you were mine, when you were my friend, before I abandoned logic for senseless, futile devotion, before any of it, but I had to face facts, my dear fellow.  It was impossible, ludicrous.  I could not continue risking your life.  Not when you were to be a--"  I halted.

"Because of my child," he finished.  "Because we could not go on as before.  And in the all or nothing fashion I know so well in you, you left every part of your former life behind."

It had been so long since I had shared a moment with a man who knew me well that I choked back a new wave of feeling.  "I can do nothing by halves, as you have learned."

"And now you are here, because...."

"Because of a miracle."

"I beg your pardon?"

"A miracle in a Hungarian's lodgings."

"I am listening," he said patiently.  I tried to sit up again.  It was, once more, a losing battle.

"He had a newspaper," I managed.  "An English newspaper."

"I see.  What was the date?"

"September twentieth, 1891."

I have always been able to read Dr. Watson's thoughts upon his countenance.  But in this case, whether it was my own self-doubt or he himself did not know what he was feeling, I could discern nothing.  This was very disquieting, not to say disturbing.

"And so you returned, after reading the obituary column from nearly three years ago," he said softly.  He narrowed his eyes at me appraisingly.  "Why?"

"Because I could not bear to think of you alone."  I finally managed to sit up, and I swung my legs to the floor.  There was a short silence.

"You are here to pick up where you left off, then?  Now that she is dead?"

"No!" I exclaimed.  "My dear--no, never, I only thought that if you were not in fact leading the idyllic life I had pictured for you, that perhaps I...."  I stopped, for it would be better to begin afresh.  "I am not expecting anything.  You must believe me.  But not knowing whether you were all right was more than I could stand."

Dr. Watson stared back at me, his nobly formed features a perfect blank.

"You are still being hunted, aren't you?" he asked me, seeing no further avenues of the previous topic he cared to explore.  "I could do nothing against Moran on my return, for he was most often abroad.  You must know that I tried.  They were pathetic efforts, no doubt.  I had him hounded in every way I could think of, but to no avail.  He did nothing to stop me--he must have enjoyed it, knowing you were alive and that I was ignorant of it.  He was the only living soul I could hold responsible for your death.  I even threatened his life once, in one of my madder periods.  There were a number of those."

I waited for him to elaborate.  His temples were greying very slightly, and there were lines around his eyes from care and grief.  Absurdly, I held myself responsible for all of them.

"What are you staring at?" he asked evenly.

"Nothing.  At you.  You have changed."

"Three years is a long time," he replied.  "But you must know that as well as I do."

This prompted terrible new thoughts.  What if three years was sufficiently long for him not to need me at all?  It struck me that my former practice of thinking everything through meticulously before acting would have served me very well in this venture.  I had never intended to waltz back into his life and demand my former place in it, but I am forced to confess that neither had I ruled out he still might want me.  Now I reconsidered.  He could easily have found someone else.  I had been possessed with the desperate urge to ascertain that he was well, and there he sat before me, perfectly sound.  What if that was the end of it, and I had risen from the dead only to fade back into my ghost life again?  I wondered whether I would not prefer to throw myself off the nearest bridge.

"I had to know you were well," I said.  "And to express my condolences.  I would not wish on my worst enemy what my friend has suffered."  The tears were rising again and I rubbed at my eyes wearily.

"Are your expressing condolences for the loss of my wife and child?  Or of my dearest friend?"

"Watson," I exclaimed, horrified.

"It was not easy," he admitted quietly.  "I was responsible, indirectly of course, for both of your deaths."

"How can you think that?" I cried.

"The madder periods were difficult," was his vague yet very sensible answer.

"You did not deserve this.  Any of it," I told him fervently.

"I know that now," he said with a small smile.  "I took some convincing, but I have come to feel the same way."

If I am a prideful fellow, and I have been told more than once that I am, it is because I possess certain finely honed skills which others do not, the result not only of natural aptitude but of arduous study.  I here admit that, regrettably, pride does not disturb me so much as it ought.  I have never counted humility among the virtues, in any event.  But there are consequence for such indulgences.  I had allowed myself, on the boat, to picture what it would be like to see Dr. Watson once more, and in those daydreams I had comported myself with more poise than the scene which I have just set down.  In other words, I had not arrived, promptly lost consciousness, and then allowed three years of pent-up emotion to be released at once.  I had retained control of both my wits and my headlong feelings.  As I slowly regained my strength, the difference between the daydream and the reality grew rather mortifying.

"I should not have interrupted you this way.  I ought to be going," I said.

"Where do you intend to go?" he inquired.  He looked quite touchingly curious, but he hadn't contradicted me.

"I've a hotel."

"What would you need with a hotel?" he asked.  It was not an invitation, I knew at once, merely a question, and it struck me as a vicious question.  But I was swiftly gaining the upper hand of myself, in spite of the circumstances.

"I can see to it no one knows I've been here, and I will not be observed when I leave, that I can assure you.  I've no doubt I can make it to my lodgings unmolested.  And then I shall...." 

I stopped, for I hadn't the faintest notion how to end the sentence, and placed my face in my hands so as to prevent my caring what was displayed upon it.

"My God," the Doctor whispered.  "It can't be true."

"What is it?" I asked, startled enough to look back up at him.  Something had shocked him as badly as my ill-conceived reappearance, yet we remained the only ones in the room.

"I don't believe it," he muttered, as if to himself.  "You really haven't any plans, have you?"

"You have observed already the pitiable extent of my plans," I snapped, wondering what cause he had to needle me thus.

"When I saw you," he said, growing more and more agitated, "as I told you, I thought myself mad.  Afterward, a number of things fell into place."

"You will have to elucidate them for me over oysters some day when we can find the time," I returned bitingly, but he appeared not even to hear me.  He had regained his colour, indeed far more of it than was usual for him, for he was blushing furiously and his closely cropped military moustache fairly twitched with urgency.

"I tell you, Holmes, I assumed I understood.  I imagined I knew what you were after.  I am sorry.  But to think that you truly did return, at great personal risk, on the mere chance that I was unhappy...."

"Forgive the element of self-flattery, my dear fellow, but I did imagine the odds you were unhappy to be fairly high for a number of reasons," I pointed out bitterly.  I made a motion as if to stand.  He grasped me by the wrist and continued passionately.

"Holmes, please listen to me!  You are not here to reclaim your old life, and to move back into Baker Street.  It's still furnished--exactly as it was.  But not at your behest.  I can see you knew nothing of your brother's optimistic fancy.  It was not part of your designs.  So you are not here to begin your practice anew--to take revenge on Moran, who has likewise only recently returned to London.  To solve the murder of Ronald Adair.  That is all a complete coincidence.  It isn't opportunistic at all.  You were telling me the truth.  You are here only because of a newspaper you read in Prague."

"Who the devil is Ronald Adair?" I asked, standing up at last.  Then I stumbled and would have fallen again if Watson had not reached out and steadied me.  Suddenly I was leaning nearly half my weight against his body, my forearms resting on his shoulders, and my head quite naturally fell forward until it came to rest against his.  Surely there was something severely wrong with me at this point, for I found myself once more forcing back the lump in my throat.  I discovered that if I shut my eyes hard enough, I could retain some semblance of dignity.

"When did you last eat something, Holmes?"

I considered for several seconds.  "I think I was in Prague."

"What about water?"

"I don't know."

His arms were around my waist, preventing me from swaying.  I imagine our faces were inches apart, but I kept my eyes tenaciously closed that I might sense his form against mine all the better.  For that reason, and so that I might not fall to pieces again like some gin-soaked half-wit.

"It feels wonderful to pose that question again," he said at last. 

"Does it?" I asked desperately. 

"Yes," he told me.  "It does."



"Will you do something for me, please?"

He had reached up to cradle my face in his hand.  "I am at your service, Holmes."

"Tell me not to go.  Whatever the danger, which you clearly are better apprised of than I, we can manage it, can we not?  I deserve nothing, and I know it.  Only please tell me not to go."

"Do not go," he said. 

I was only too happy to do as he asked.

"You are entirely dehydrated, and half-starved," he declared later, in his bedroom, as he put the stethoscope in a drawer.  "But let us not allow that to distract us from the equally serious points that you are running a fever, and that your nerves are all in shreds."  He was sitting on the coverlet next to me.  I was lying on top of it. 

"And what prescription do you suggest?"

"A little food, and some water, which we have seen to already, followed by many hours of uninterrupted sleep."

It had been, to be truthful, years since I had partaken of what could be termed "many" hours of sleep at one go, for my mind if not my body had been ever on alert.

"I am not sleeping here for long.  You will run too great a risk," I said at once.

"As you like," he shrugged.  "Contract pneumonia or tuberculosis or brain fever.  You are skirting the edges of a complete breakdown as it is."
"Forgive me for mentioning it, Watson, but you sound almost happy to report these unhealthful developments."
"I am more pleased about them than I can easily express," he replied amusedly.  "It means that you are alive.  Corpses do not develop illnesses."

I had been so very anxious about him that the question of whether or not he would be glad to see me had not truly entered my mind until I was standing terrified outside his dwelling.  For my death had been a monstrously cruel trick, whatever practical motives impelled it.  Yet here I was, in his room, a ghastly wreck of a man and deliriously happy.  I still had very little notion of what to say to him, but the fact that he had not chucked me out onto the street in a rage was deeply encouraging.
"Believe it or not, I am far more alive than I have been in years.  I did not expect to be so alive again, in fact.  I am quite taken aback by it."
He smiled at this remark.  "You are not the only one taken aback.  I have always had the greatest respect for your capacity to surprise me, but I think you have reached your limit this time.  We are going to take care you are not given the opportunity to surprise me in this particular manner again."

"And have you really worked out the threads of a mystery which might help lead me out of this morass?" I inquired.

"Moran returned to London some four months ago," he replied slowly, his brows contracting at the memory.  "No doubt he had previously been tormenting you from the Continent, but finding himself in need of funds, he resumed those underhanded card-sharping activities of which you had informed me already.  I will not bore you with my early efforts to enact justice upon him, but short of setting a gun to his head in the street--which was tempting, I admit to you--I was forced to bide my time.  I knew of the air-gun, of course, for he has used it for many years, and the peculiar soft-nosed revolver bullet discovered at the scene of young Ronald Adair's murder could have come from nothing else.  All signs pointed to Moran, for they played cards at the same club, and the sniper's methods employed were certainly his.  In addition, the murder room was undisturbed, Adair had not been robbed, and the window was unmolested, pointing to the air-gun yet again.  Why had Adair been killed?  The answer was clear enough.  I imagined he'd discovered Moran had been cheating at cards, and the threat of such exposure was enough to warrant a death sentence from such as Moran, who had little else in the way of livelihood.  This morning, when you followed me--I did not see you, but I suppose you followed me?"

I nodded.  My head was aching.  In addition, it was a serious shock to be lying in London on the Doctor's bed listening to him expound upon a series of deductions.  He sat there with a somber visage, worn with many trials but fit and sound, failing completely to see the irony of it.  Despite my ill health and many deeply founded inhibitions, the desire to pounce on the poor fellow was growing startlingly strong.

"When you followed me, I was taking a look at the window to ascertain Moran's possible vantage points.  I was thinking over the case as I returned home.  I had nearly all the pieces in my hands, and had fit them together well enough, but I was working out whether to call in Lestrade.  I am no lawyer, and could not have known whether my case would have stood up in court.  Besides, as Lestrade well knows, I'd a very personal vendetta with the man."

The idea that anyone, let alone Watson, would have sought vengeance at my supposed demise had literally never crossed my mind.  It was, taken all in all, profoundly touching.  I placed my hand over his and left it there.  If he wished it gone, he was going to have to remove it himself.

"What do you think of a wax model?" I asked.

"Whatever do you mean?"

"I mean a decoy--if your theory is correct, and I can prove Moran killed Adair, the mastermind behind all my tormentors will be rendered quite impotent.  But would it not make for a touch of the dramatic if I could, at the same time, have him arrested for the attempted murder of Sherlock Holmes?"

He regarded me with blank surprise.  "You have never once, in all the years I have known you, confided in me your schemes regarding a case."

"Relish the moment while it is yours," I suggested.  "I am not well, as you have very astutely noted."
"It is nearly enough to make me suspect you some invidious impostor," he smiled.  He looked nearer to his old self than I had yet seen him.
"Well, really, Watson, with the evidence you've furnished, I could say the same of you."

He caught my meaning at once, and his eyes regained still more of the thoughtful sparkle I remembered.  "It was a very simple matter, my dear Holmes.  In any event, I may not be the same fellow I was before, but I can assure you I am no impostor."

"You are the same fellow," I told him.  I was growing more and more exhausted as we spoke, but did not so much as dream of abandoning the activity.  "I was wrong when I said you had changed.  And you were always clever, you are simply being more visible about it today.  It was your world which changed, my dear fellow, not you.  Your world grew quite unbearably dark, but you are as constant as the North Star."

"You aren't making a great deal of sense," he said gently.

"Perhaps not.  But you are the one fixed point in a changing age."

"That does not leave much room for self-improvement," he observed dryly.

"No," I agreed.  "Quite superfluous, I assure you.  Was I having an especially visceral dream earlier, or did you say that Baker Street was equally unchanged?"

"It is just as it was," he grinned.  "I thought your brother mad, but now I see he was merely exceptionally wistful.  Mrs. Hudson must have thought him a lunatic, but she went along with him nevertheless.  The bearskin rug is there, the Persian slipper, the table and the basket chair and the window and the bullet-scarred wall.  To wander into it, one might have thought it a particularly immaculate museum.  No less is your room the same, your wardrobe, your rogues' gallery covering the walls..."
I fear that I did not hear the remainder of Watson's speech regarding our former residence, for I lost the tenuous hold I'd had on consciousness.  Doubtless this was for the best.  I cannot be certain that it was anything more than a long wished-for dream, but I had the very vivid impression that while I was asleep, someone kissed me, and that person was possessed of a moustache, a pair of very warm, gentle lips, and an unaccountably comforting presence.  I never sought to determine if this was a fancy of my overwrought brain or no, but neither have I ruled out that it was real, and that is the way I prefer to think of it.  I could always ask him, I suppose.  But there is no reason to risk ruining one of life's perfect moments, even if it occurred whilst I was sound asleep.

When I awoke, a number of things surprised me.  I was in England, for one.  It was clearly the next day, for the sunlight seemed to have run backward rather than forward and there was all the freshness of morning about the air drifting through the crack in the window.  I was thinking quite longingly of food, which does not happen very often.  And in addition, there was a set of my own clothing, three years old, pressed and quite clean, lying on the chair next to me.  Tailored black cutaway frock coat, pinstriped grey trousers, a clean white shirt, fine black woolen waistcoat, silk tie, cuffs and collar.  This was bizarre, but soon enough I recalled that I had left a change of attire at the Englisher Hoff when I had died.  I had not thought I would ever need it again.  It had evidently not been thrown away.

It sounds very queer to say such a thing, but after I'd washed and dressed and smoothed back my hair, I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass, and was absolutely dumbfounded.  It was Sherlock Holmes looking back at me.  I was Sherlock Holmes again.  I hadn't seen the fellow in years.

I did not see the Doctor downstairs, and his consulting room door was shut.  This fell into my plans, for I was beginning to see my way clear out of the mess I'd been in for so long.  I placed an apple in each pocket from a bowl in his hallway, and slipped out the front door into broad daylight.  The top hat from the old bookseller's costume was shabby and completely out of place, and so I set off down the street for a haberdasher's I knew of down the road.  I would be entirely myself again, and within half an hour, I thought fervently.  All the world would know I was there.  And then I would see what was to be done.

I did a number of errands that day.  I stopped by Baker Street and sent Mrs. Hudson into violent hysterics.  It was marvelous.  I visited a designer of wax models I've known for years, quite an artist in his way, and remained there for some few hours as he worked.  I discovered I was being watched, and for the first time in three years, I did not care.  The spies were finally irrelevant.  I purchased several necessary items, as I hadn't packed when I left Prague.  I also looked in on my brother.

"What do you intend to do, Sherlock?" he asked me after our familial greeting had been accomplished.  We stood in the Stranger's Room of the Diogenes Club, exactly where I knew he would be at the time.  It was terribly good to see him.

I told him.  He looked worried, then approving, and then amused.

"The world has missed you, you know," he smiled.  "England has missed you.  It has been far too sensible since your demise.  A great deal too few dramatic captures, elaborately wrought traps, impenetrable mysteries solved by observation of a stray wisp of dust."

"I have missed England as well.  And it will have to deal with me again, like it or no.  I will not live as I have lived all this time ever again."

"I should hope not," he sniffed.

"Mycroft..." I said hesitantly.

"What is it, my dear boy?"

"Thank you.  For Baker Street.  It is...."  I struggled to express myself, for there was far too much to say.  "It is the best thing you could have possibly done for me.  You have always done a great deal for me, but this--I cannot tell you what it means."

"I thought it would be of use sooner or later," he smiled.  "But what do you intend to do?"

"You've already asked me that, and I recall having answered you."

"Not about Moran," he stated.  "About the other matter."

"I shall wait," I said softly.  "I don't know what else to do.  I shall wait, and I shall observe.  Those observations will either lead to more waiting, or to something else, or to something else entirely.  But the worst is over, isn't it?  It must be.  Now I must wait, for good or for ill."

He nodded, and clapped a large hand to my arm.  "Don't run your head into danger.  Be very cautious.  You are right, my boy--the worst is over.  But for God's sake, don't let that go to your head."

There is one other great love in my life.  I have not yet spoken of it, and that is the city of London.  It could have taken me thirty minutes to reach the Doctor's practice from my brother's club, and I saw to it that it took me two hours.  I dove in and out of streets and alleyways, breathing in the air, listening to the crowds, recording what had changed.  I memorize the things I love and London is no exception.  Here was a new butcher shop, there a florist, a building damaged by fire, a new fence, a gate where there had once been a door.  I strode through obscure corridors utterly thrilled that the names still fell through my mind in perfect order.  This was home.  This was London.  It had changed too, of course, but not so that I could not navigate it.  When I neared Baker Street, a series of mews and stables brought a sudden flash of inspiration to my mind.  I looked up at the unoccupied old house and smiled.  It had been the offices of a factory when I'd left.  There it stood, empty and quite marvelously abandoned.  I reversed my direction, having drunk my fill of the city, and was hanging my new hat in Dr. Watson's entryway a quarter of an hour later.


I turned swiftly to regard the Doctor, standing in a doorway having just heard me enter.  He was very agitated and attempting not to look it.  When he does this, he purposefully slows his breathing and presses his hands together, and then drops them casually to his sides once more.  It fools many people, but it does not fool me.

"My dear Watson, how are you?" I asked, deeply concerned.  I approached him.  "Who has been here?  What has happened?"

Greetings between men are a strange thing.  If I had been his friend, I would have pressed a hand to his shoulder and left it there for appreciably too long, as I had done in the eighties.  If I had been his lover, I would have kissed him.  If I had been an acquaintance, I'd have shaken his hand.  As it was, I stood there like an imbecile.

"Nothing," he said more calmly.  "Nothing has happened.  And you--are you all right?"

"I am far better, thank you.  Your cure has been a marvelously effective one."

"That is excellent news," he said.  He was taking me in, dressed in my new attire--or I ought to say, my old attire.  He seemed every bit as struck by it as I had been.  "You look...better." 

"It is astonishing how fast a fellow can recover when placed in the right hands."

"I am very glad."

"Watson, what is wrong?" I asked him gently.  I wanted very badly to touch him, but I did not.


"There is something, I think."

"It was quite foolish, no doubt.  Let it be."

"Tell me what it was."

"It was the merest trifle, my dear fellow."

"I happen to think trifles tremendously important," I pointed out.

He sighed and shook his head slightly in resignation.  "Well, I concede that I am very fanciful, but when I could not find you this afternoon, and I could find no trace of the old bookseller, and your clothes were gone, and--it was foolish.  You will laugh at me, I trust."

"I will do nothing of the kind," I told him softly.  "I had several matters to see to today, and I had determined to see to them as myself.  Thank you for the clothing.  It was very thoughtful.  I threw the old bookseller in your dustbin, and no doubt that imaginary chap's gear was burned after breakfast.  The books are under your bed where you would never think to look for them."

"No, I did not.  And you were gone again."

I willed myself to stay still.  I waited.

"It was absurd," he shrugged.  "I could not force myself to understand that yesterday had been real--that you had truly returned, that you were alive and relatively well and had been sleeping in my room some few minutes earlier.  The maid had already seen to the bed, you see, and everything was just as it was before you came back."

"Except that my clothing was gone, and you've two fewer apples in your hallway," I said kindly.

"I did not observe the apples," he said, smiling a little.  "But Holmes, the thought that I'd dreamed it all--"

I nodded.  "I ought to have left you a note.  It must have been rather horrifying to wonder if you'd temporarily lost your mind."

"I don't give a damn whether or not I lose my mind," he cried.  "I tell you, I have lost it before this.  It wasn't me.  It was you--to think you were still dead, and that I had--"

"I am not dead," I said instantly.  One more statement like that from him and I would lose all self-control.  "I wish I never had been dead.  I shall not be dead again for a very long time."

"I am delighted to hear you say so," he told me.  The wretched fellow was so impossibly beautiful, standing there willing himself into calm.  "I shall make an effort to believe it."

"Watson," I vowed, "I give you my word of honour not only am I alive, but I have no immediate desire to relocate myself in a geographical sense.  I am here with you.  You are distressing yourself over the wrong issue entirely, in my opinion.  I think you ought to worry about the lengths you may have to go to get rid of me.  That is your present conundrum, friend Watson, and not the other.  Of course, if you tell me to go, I shall do it with all possible speed.  But you need not wonder whether the fancy will strike me of my own accord."

"I am sorry if I appear to be forcing you to repeat yourself," he said breathlessly, "but it you leave, if you ever leave me again, I don't know that I would survive it."

There are limits to a man's self-control, every man's, and that statement happens to have been mine.  My mouth was on his an instant later, my heart pounding in my throat, and his hands hesitantly removing the clothes he'd kept hidden away during three years of suffering.  I did not say anything, and neither did he.  But he pulled me backward into his consulting room and locked the door and I set about learning every inch of him all over again.  The fire was blazing, the carpet rather worn, the settee impossibly narrow, so many salient details, but I could pay nothing any mind except for him.  I had him, all to myself.  He was mine again.  I finally had the only thing I had ever wanted. 

I didn't deserve it.  But I've learned very few of us indeed get precisely what they deserve.

"What was this one?" he asked later. 

It was a good while later, actually.  We had at long last repaired to his bedroom, then into our attire and back downstairs when he insisted we both partake of some refreshment, then up the stairs again to remove said attire for the third time and continue with what we'd been doing.  I was now lying on my stomach, the Doctor sitting next to me, limbs rather pleasantly tangled, having the sort of desultorily intimate conversation other men have many times attempted with me to absolutely no avail.

"That was a knife," I answered, twisting so that I could see what he was looking at.  It happened to be the back of my rather fleshless left arm.  "From a hired brute in Egypt.  Sadly, he is no longer with us.  His betters were quite distraught to learn he had not killed me."

"The poor soul," he said wryly.  "What did you do in Egypt?  What possessed you to go there?"

"I was part of a team engaged by a scientist in Mecca to investigate the theft of a priceless Muslim artifact.  The Khalifa was very helpful, in his own way.  I communicated what I could of my stay to the Foreign Office, anonymously of course."

"How did they know you were a criminal investigator?" he asked incredulously.

"They didn't.  I was a French scholar of ancient documents."

He shook his head at me, smiling.  "And this?"

"That?" I asked, swiveling again.  "That was my own fault.  I was thrown from my horse and gashed the back of my leg on a stick."

"How was it your own fault you were thrown from a horse?"

"That is a very, very long story, my dear fellow."

"But you will tell it to me?"

"If you insist upon it, certainly.  With all my heart.  It involves a Norwegian damsel in distress, so I know it will appeal to your finely honed British chivalry.  But it will take at least an hour to do it any justice."

"Perhaps another time.  Tell me about this one."

I peered at the mark on my hip which Dr. Watson's fingers were exploring with fresh interest.  "That happened at the Falls, actually.  I was scaling the rock wall, and at one point I fell several feet onto an outcropping.  I hadn't the proper tools for climbing.  I don't imagine it would have scarred, but I couldn't dress it properly for days."

"That is because you had left your doctor behind," he said.  I glanced quickly up at him, but he was only hectoring me, one side of his mouth vaguely amused.  "This faint mark, over your shoulder and down your back.  What did this to you?"

I reached up for him and pulled him down on top of me, but he quickly freed himself enough to continue his perusal of my collection of scars.  "You've seen that a hundred times, Watson."

"I know," he said quietly.  "I never asked you about it."

I sighed and rolled onto my side.  "I was in a fight with two of the village lads, and one of them had a horsewhip.  You will be gratified to learn that I won the battle, but I was young enough for it to scar.  I convinced my parents to let me add fencing to my usual boxing studies after that, and the situation has not repeated itself."

"Why did two of the village boys come after you with a horsewhip?" he asked, appalled.

"Because I'd advised them to discontinue beating our stable-boy senseless.  They were a pair of cretinous wretches.  I haven't thought of them in years." 

"How old were you?"

"Twelve.  Really, Watson, my childhood was far, far less interesting than you imagine it, I assure you."

"If that were the case, you'd have told me of it by now," he corrected me, but he was laughing as he said it.

His preoccupation with my body caused me to glance down once myself and take stock of matters.  I looked just as I always had--every muscle defined, every bone visible.  I am far more like an anatomical diagram than a person, so it was only fit I should be studied so.  I returned my attention to the worthier form, for Dr. John Watson is broad-shouldered, muscular, perpetually tanned, and in every way a fitter subject for the eye.  How a creature like me managed to endear himself to a man who is very, very visibly an ex-rugby player as well as an ex-soldier is utterly beyond my powers of comprehension.

"What happened there?" I asked him teasingly.

"I was shot in the Afghan campaign, actually."

"When you were a soldier," I added languidly, solely for my own benefit.  I had made no secret of my admiration, after he'd learned my true nature.  Soldiers are no uncommon weakness, after all.  "You haven't a military photograph, have you?"

"Holmes, do be quiet," he smiled.

"If such an object existed, I would go to very great lengths to obtain it.  That would be the Holy Grail of my existence, friend Watson."

"The object does exist," he admitted.  "It's in a trunk somewhere."

"And you never thought to tell me of it?" I cried.  "That is one of the cruelest omissions I have ever heard tell of, and perpetrated on me, no less.  How could you keep such a treasure from me?  It is monstrous.  I demand you hand it over."

"I shall, if I can find it," he laughed.

"And so, let us return to the scar.  When did you obtain it?"

"The Battle of Maiwand, I believe it was."

"And you developed a fever, and nearly died, and were sent back to England, and I am very glad of it, for you would never have come to London otherwise," I recited, yawning.

"What on earth is this?" he asked, tracing a white line which now ran down my lower back.

"Watson, if you want me to recite every event which has befallen me in three years time, you cannot expect it all at one go."

"I can expect whatever I like," he corrected me, crawling into the crook of my arm.  "I expect a great deal, if you want to know the truth."

"Ah.  Well, then, it was the end of a sword-stick hidden in a cane."

"And how did it come to seek out your spine?" he asked me.  I was running my hand down his shoulder, reflecting that I ought to be rather more surprised to be alive, in a physical sense.

"I let something slip, and there was a hired tough within earshot.  He followed me to a river embankment, made his little effort, and wound up in the current.  I am very lucky to be alive, my dear fellow.  It was rather a constant exertion, and for a very long time."

"Yes, a very long time," I heard him say softly.  "Far longer than my wife's struggle, for instance.  And you won.  I cannot tell you how glad I am you won."

Not knowing whether he wished to say a thing about it, I only held him to me.  Finally I said, "If you wish to tell me, I am here."

For a long time, I thought he would ignore my offer.  In fact, I began to believe him asleep.  He stirred slightly at long last.  "There is little to tell," he said.  "She developed complications, at the end.  She could not survive them, and neither could my son.  There was nothing we could do but ease her pain.  It is a very painful way to die, you know."

I said nothing.  What could I have told him that would have made such a thing any more bearable?

"I did not think it could happen that way.  You were already dead, after all.  I did not think it possible for life to be so consistently heartless.  You were dead, so one or both of them would live.  That was what I imagined.  But I was wrong."

"I would have saved them if I'd the power--I would save them now, if I could," I told him.  "I imagined you safe, and happy, with them.  It kept me sane.  You have to know that, whatever else I've done to you."

"I believe you.  But they are dead now, and there is no undoing it.  As much a miracle as you are, they are beyond my reach.  I saw them buried, in the same grave.  A small cedar coffin and a smaller wrapped bundle inside it."

He did not sound emotional at all, or even grieving.  He was merely reciting facts.  The part of him that had mourned he had buried somewhere, and I wondered if even he knew where it was hidden. 

"There is something I never told you," I said slowly.  "There wasn't an opportunity, and I was a damnable villain at the end.  But you would have made a wonderful father."

He was silent for some time.  "Thank you," he said at last.  "May I return the compliment?"

"You may not," I laughed. 

"Why not?"

"There are several splendid reasons.  For one, the thought of making love to a female, any female, even the most exceptional example of feminine kind, is utterly repugnant to me."

"So I have observed.  In fact, your opinions on the subject could not possibly be more clear.  Have you really never known a woman?"

"I made an effort at it once, as an experiment.  I don't think two people have ever felt so mutually unsatisfactory.  The project was aborted forthwith."

"Perhaps she was simply ill-prepared for such an elemental force," he pointed out equitably.  "But I don't concede your argument.  Simply because you would never engage in procreation doesn't mean you wouldn't make an admirable father."

"Watson, don't be ghastly.  I would be an utter disaster.  I am designed so to prevent my making a complete hash of a fellow human being."

He sat up on one elbow and looked sternly into my eyes.  "We will neither of us be parents.  But I have seen you with the Irregulars--they idolized you.  More than half of them loved you.  You are commanding, and sympathetic, and amusing, and brilliant, and you listened to them, Holmes.  They were all at your memorial.  You would have made a wonderful father.  And a wonderful godfather, if--if given the opportunity."

I cleared my throat, which appeared to have tightened in a curious manner.  I did not like to think of the Irregulars.  They would be a collective thirty feet taller and would all have forgotten me by then, I was certain.

"Tell me about this one," I said instead, when I could speak effectively.

"Here?" he asked.  "I was shaving, and the candle was guttering."

"How very shocking.  What did you do then?"  I grasped the edge of the quilt and pulled it over us. 

The plan went every bit as effortlessly as I'd expected.

There it was, its perfectly sculpted head marred with a single hole, the window a wreck of shattered glass.  I am accustomed to my schemes working out well.  But I don't know when I have been so gratified.  It was over.  Moran would hang, and the rest of them would cease.  And I could go back to being me again.

I don't know how long it had been since the Doctor had seen Mrs. Hudson, but they embraced as if it had been an age.  Indeed, both of them were acting fairly peculiarly, and I soon determined the fault was probably mine.  They would suddenly gaze at an object there in our old sitting room, or lose themselves in thought, and I would be once more forced to reflect that my existence was only unsurprising to myself.

"Did you observe where the bullet went?" I asked Mrs. Hudson eagerly.

"Yes, sir.  I picked it up from the carpet.  Such a noise the window made when it shattered, but I never heard a gunshot at all.  But see for yourself--here it is."

I took it from her and held it out to Watson.  He did not take it, only looked down at my hand.  "There's genius in that, Watson, for who would expect to find such a thing fired from an air-gun?"  He nodded but made no reply.  When I looked at him curiously, he turned away toward the window.

"All right, Mrs. Hudson," I said.  "I am much obliged for your assistance."

"It was nothing, Mr. Holmes," she replied, her eyes shining.  "I was that glad to do it--I can't even say.  Welcome home, sir."

When she had left us, I threw my old dressing gown from the dummy over my shoulders with yet another sigh of relief.  I was still exhausted, but profoundly content.  The world had never seemed such a wondrous place.  Indeed, my mental life had been so full of the Doctor for so long that I was shocked at how good it was to see everyone else--Mrs. Hudson, Billy, who had grown distressingly tall, even Inspector Lestrade.  I had not even realized I'd missed him.  I hadn't missed him, I suppose.  But that did not make the sight of him any less pleasurable.

"I must congratulate you, my dear Watson," I smiled, reaching for my pipe.  "A very complete case, and the credit is entirely yours.  Of course, I rather rashly gave it to Lestrade.  But if you like, I shall wire him and see that your praises are sung from the morning dailies."

"No, thank you," he replied.  He was still staring out the window.  "I have quite enough to think about without such distractions."

He had been quite inscrutable for some time now.  I traced back in my mind to find the moment his mood had changed, and the path led me to Moran's capture.  I weighed the benefits of approaching him and decided to stay where I was for the time being.

"Surely you are rather proud of it," I suggested gently.  "I could not have worked it out better myself, and the case was a singular one."

"It was far simpler than any case you have ever termed 'singular' in the past."

"But I've you to thank for resolving it," I insisted.  "You wrapped it up splendidly, my boy." 

"I am very happy you are so pleased."

"How could I not be pleased?  I am quite safe, and all because of you."

"He had his hands on your throat," he said quietly.

This was curious.  It was true enough, but the Doctor isn't one to shirk physical danger.  In fact, he derives a certain visceral thrill from it.  It makes him the single best fellow in a tight spot that I have ever known.

"Of course he did," I shrugged, lighting my pipe.  "His dream of seeing me dead was fading rather quickly.  But now that you mention it, I've reason to thank you yet again.  I have never seen anyone beaten about the head with a pistol who deserved it so very thoroughly."

"I have been considering doing rather more businesslike things to Moran with a pistol for some time," he said through his teeth.

This, I surmised, was more to the point.

"Have you?" I asked him softly. 

"Yes, I have."

It was beginning to grow clearer, and still my mind rather balked at it.  Here was yet another thing for which I was responsible, yet another thing which had hurt the Doctor and his fine sensibilities, another grief placed squarely upon my shoulders.  He had mentioned his desire for revenge upon Moran, but there was still a part of me that would not believe I could inspire such an emotion.  And if I had, as seemed obvious, how does one go about convincing a fundamentally good man of his own nature?  Good men are far harder on themselves than we rogues can imagine.

"And earlier, this evening," I continued hesitantly, "you felt so again, perhaps."  I watched him very carefully.

"I cannot deny that shooting him would have brought me considerable joy.  It is a terrible thing, perhaps, Holmes, but there it is.  When one is left with nothing, one creates ways to fill the void.  I have already told you that Moran was very frequently in my thoughts."

I wondered briefly whether, even if I managed to make up to Watson what I had done to him, I could ever forgive myself.  My intentions had always been to protect him.  What I had done, in essence, was prevent a creature from exposing itself to the harms of the wild by breaking all of its limbs.  How does one apologize for such an act?

"You needn't avenge me any longer," I pointed out.  "I am alive and well and in your debt.  You needn't harm anyone, my dear fellow.  You would not have done so, in any event."

"Would I not?" he snapped.  "No, perhaps not, but that does not mean I never entertained the notion.  It also, I have discovered, does not mean the desires have disappeared." 
"A desire to do something is a very different matter from actually acting upon the impulse," I argued. 
"That is also true.  Why didn't I, then?" he cried.  I do not think I have ever heard him sound so strained.  "I had every cause to hunt him down the same way he'd hunted you, but I failed completely.  For a very long time, it was all that I wanted and I did nothing.  I am a miserable weakling, that much seems quite clear." 
"Watson, that is the most ridiculous remark I have ever heard you make," I exclaimed, setting my pipe down.  He was beginning to worry me.  "Self-control and weakness do not even resemble one another."
"He took you away from me, and I wasn't even man enough to punish him for it." 

"You aren't listening!  I am standing right in front of you, and you have seen to it he'll hang.  You can't kill him more than once, Watson."

"That changes nothing whatever.  You are the one who caught him at last."  He looked down at the wax model I'd commissioned and a small spasm crossed his features.  "Look at this," he snarled, clenching his hands.

"I have.  It worked perfectly," I began to say, but before I could finish, Dr. Watson had picked up what remained of the bust and thrown it savagely to the ground. 

In another moment, he was beating it violently with his weighted stick.  The head fell to pieces at once, for it was hollow, and my features shattered into smaller and smaller fragments on the floor.  There went my eyes, and then my brow, and then my neck, smashed into malformed bits.  There went my angular jawline and my widow's peak and my high cheekbones and my arched nose.

"Watson," I said, by now very alarmed. 

I did not care about the model.  In fact, I thought he might be better off in the long run thrashing an effigy of me to pieces.  It was a perfectly valid activity.  I should certainly have done so with aplomb, if our positions were reversed.  But when he threw the bulk of it out the broken window, and then proceeded to sweep up the broken shards in his hands and jettison them as well, I dove toward him.

"Watson, stop."

He did not hear me.  Or perhaps he did, and simply failed to pay me any mind.  When I put a hand on his shoulder, he twisted away in a rage and picked up another handful of glass and wax.  I had him by the arms in another instant and was wrestling him away from the window.

He is a strong fellow, Watson, but I have a certain kind of wiry tenacity which makes my grip very powerful indeed.  In fact, my main concern was not that he would escape me but that in his struggles against me I would somehow hurt him.  He was gripping the wreck of my head so tightly that blood was dripping to the ground from the splinters of glass.

"Watson, drop the glass.  Drop it, and I'll let you go.  You are hurting yourself.  Watson?  Drop the glass, my dear fellow.  Please."

At last he relaxed, and allowed the bits to fall from his hands.  He had cut himself rather badly in several places, I could see at once.  But instead of escaping me, he simply turned his face to my shoulder helplessly. 

I had been expecting something of the kind.  How could I not?  John Watson is a very feeling individual, and his lover had just risen from the dead.  To be frank, I had expected storms of outrage, bitter arguments humbly conceded on my part, furious recriminations, and all before he would consent to take me back.  Nothing of the sort had happened, and I was grateful only a waxen version of myself had been duly abused.  But I knew when his head sought out the edge of my collar the crux of the matter was at hand.  I held him very close.  Needless to say, it was nothing like a hardship to me.  He smells of cigarettes and wool and a sweet, clean scent not unlike paper.  I love him more than anything and I always shall.

"What is it, my dear fellow?"

He took a moment to respond.  "Why did you not simply leave me?" he asked at last.  "I would have accepted it, I promise you.  You cannot know what it was like, Holmes.  Why did you make me believe you were dead?"

This was not the phraseology I had expected, for it nowhere contained the word "callous" or "heartless" or "monster."  It was a valid question, however, and an easily answerable one.

"That is very simple, love," I told him.

"Well, one day I hope you can make it clear to me."

"I shall make it clear to you at once.  I died because I could never have left you while I lived."

The statement does not bear up well under the scrutiny of pure logic, but the Doctor understood me.  And for all its nonsensical veneer, it was perfectly true.  I could never have left Watson as a living man.  It required a ghost to manage such a feat.

He was gripping me by the shirt, and eventually raised his head. 

"I've covered you with blood," he said a little ruefully.

"I've been covered with blood several times for less worthy causes," I shrugged.  "Let me see your hands."

"Don't worry about them, I can see to it."

"Watson, give me your hands or I shall lose my patience," I said firmly.  I turned them over.  I pulled a vicious shard of glass out of his right, and threw it in the fireplace.  "Sit down," I ordered.  I strode towards the desk and retrieved the small medical kit we had always kept there.  Then I poured a large glass of brandy and returned to seat myself next to the Doctor.

"Which hand would you prefer I deal with first?" I inquired, handing him the tumbler.  "The other will be employed to provide you some refreshment."

"I am sorry I lost control of myself," he sighed.  "I don't know what came over me."

"Nonsense.  You've every right to be distressed.  I have subjected you to a number of serious shocks by my unnecessarily dramatic reappearance.  I am only glad you threw the bust out the window and not me."
"Forgive me, my dear fellow--that must have been an exceptionally bizarre spectacle."
I busied myself cleaning the cuts.  They were bleeding freely, but none of them were jagged, which was helpful.  He wouldn't be able to lift anything heavy for several days.  There were four I could see on his right hand, and more on his left, but only one was deep enough for any concern.  "As a matter of fact, it was rather unprecedented, but I hope it proved beneficial.  You are welcome to take a swing at the genuine article if you like, provided you don't employ your walking stick.  Fists only, and not the right one.  This is a nasty gash, my boy."
"I have no desire whatever to strike the genuine article," he smiled.
"I can't think why not.  But thank you."
"That needs stitches," he mused thoughtfully.  "The others will be fine on their own."
"Agreed.  Where is your bag?"
"There, by the door."  I retrieved the bag and began rummaging around for a needle and thread.  When I found it, I cauterized the needle and tied a small knot at the end of the slender line.
"You realize, of course, that if you were any other man, we would be seeking out a doctor," he laughed.  "I happen to know that you are exceptionally dexterous with your fingers, and it isn't as if the principle is difficult.  But be aware that your talent for mastering practically everything is the sole reason I am not rather nervous just now."
"It is true.  I am a very convenient sort of chap to have around the house.  How many?" I asked.
"Four ought to do it, I think.  Holmes?"
He hesitated, watching me sew him back together.  "That Hungarian in Prague with the newspaper."
That was not a conversation I desired to engage in.  "What about him?"
"I was thinking...."
"Yes?" I repeated.
"I was only wondering," he said slowly.  "You had no plans.  You raced here on impulse." 


"On a whim, in fact."

"It was a particularly compelling whim."

"So you left everyone and everything very suddenly.  Without warning or reflection."

I expressed a short and silent prayer of thanks that I possess exceptionally steady hands, for my friend was doing a very poor job of keeping perfectly still.  The second stitch went quite well, however, in spite of this difficulty.

"Yes, I did.  You might go so far as to say I disappeared."

"Was it...."  He stopped abruptly.  "Was he important to you?"

"Watson, please don't ask me questions of this nature.  You will not find my answers reflect well upon myself.  Nothing was important to me."

He began again.  "Holmes, you must have had a life of some sort all this time, even if it was a very dangerous one.  I am not demanding you tell me your secrets.  But now that you are back, and that damnable bastard will hang, what are you going to do?" 

I knew what he was asking me then, and it had nothing to do with jealousy.  It was rather touching, not to mention a relief.  But I pretended not to understand him. 

"Do you mean, am I returning to Prague to enact bittersweet farewells with all my beloved acquaintances?  Or to resume my blissful existence as a fiddler?  I have not purchased any Channel tickets, if that is what you are wondering."

"I am merely interested in your plans."

I shrugged nonchalantly.  "My dear Watson, you know already that my plans are quite minimal."

He nodded.  "What happened between us when you returned occurred without any sort of consideration.  But now, surely you see that you've a great many choices to make, my dear fellow.  I have done a number of things to you over the years of which I am not proud.  Still, I am very anxious to hear whether you intend to...."
He appeared to lose his focus.  I smiled to myself.  I have never stitched up a gash before, but I reflected as I finished the task that it was one more thing I could now consider myself rather good at.  I took the brandy out of the Doctor's other hand and had a self-congratulatory sip.
"Well, I have not had long to consider the question.  But this is what I propose."  I was quite finished with his hand, but I kept it anyway.  I did not think he would begrudge it to me much.  "I have decided to reside in London.  I am going to live here, in Baker Street.  It is a very comfortable suite of rooms, I know where everything is, and Mrs. Hudson is hardly ever startled when questionable characters pay me calls.  Of course, I shall need some money, and that requires an occupation.  I rather think I might try my hand at being an independent consulting detective.  Scotland Yard does not appear capable of solving every problem on their own, so it is only right that someone should assist them.  I am going to purchase some fresh shag, because I will need to smoke if people are approaching me with conundrums.  And I will need a partner, of course."
"Will you indeed?"
"I must find a chap who is also interested in the study of crime, an intelligent, courageous sort of fellow, but not so very skilled at deduction that I pale in proximity."
"You could not possibly pale in proximity to anyone."

"My blushes, Watson."

"No doubt there would be a large number of candidates for such a position," he continued quietly.  His eyes were still glimmering.  "Surely there are many such qualified individuals.  You may even have met some on your travels.  A great deal depends on you, of course.  I am not being possessive, Holmes, far from it, in fact--but I must know what it is you want.  We were not on exceptionally good terms when you left, and I am too battered not to look at this sensibly."

I think it was my lighthearted tone which prompted this speech.  I adjusted accordingly.

"Would you like to know what I want more than anything I have ever wanted in my life?" I asked him, encasing his hand lightly with both my own.

"That would certainly interest me."

"I want my friend back," I said. 

He smiled guilelessly at this, and then cleared his throat, and nodded his head.

"This partner you speak of, where will he reside?"
"I think I might enjoy the company of a medical sort of fellow.  He is going to sell his practice, and all unnecessary belongings, and move into his old room upstairs.  At least, he is going to distribute his belongings in such a way that it appears he lives in his old room upstairs.  In fact, rather more is going to be required of him than of a typical business partner."
"How intriguing.  Where will he live, in actuality?"
"I'll show you," I said, standing up.  "My bedroom is just through here.  I require a change of clothing, in any event."

"Then by all means lead the way."

"Watson," I added gravely, "if you like it, along with my other little proposals, it is yours.  All of it is yours.  I have a great many shortcomings of which I am well aware, but there is only one thing in this world I want and that is you.  I will not say it enough, I shall remain utterly incorrigible, I will neglect any number of things you no doubt consider important, and I will prove distant, abrupt, and cold when I least wish to do so.  But if you consent to be with me again, that exasperating fellow will be yours body and soul for as long as you want him.  Do you think you might be happy with such an arrangement?"
He set his glass down and stood up to join me.  "We shall find out, won't we?"
"You must let me know what you think of it, periodically.  When you've had time to reflect," I murmured.  I kissed him. 
"I shall do just that, periodically.  Over the years."
"Good," I said.  "Then come with me."

By now, no doubt, you will have realized that I wrote this for you.  It was an admirable notion to give me your diary, and I thank you for it, but surely you know you were not the only resident of the house longing for confession.  I hope this makes all clear to you.  It includes more information than you desire, no doubt, and I apologize if any of it hurts you.  I am very afraid some of it will, which is not my intention.  But I was never one for half-measures.  I can only appeal to you to forgive me my debts as I forgive my debtors.  For I most heartily do, my dear boy, I assure you. I am very preoccupied in my efforts to bring the murderer of Robert Jamison to task just now, and you have doubtless felt it.  But rest assured I read your volume through, and I understand you perfectly. 

I am returning you your diary, with this wedged into it, so that you may burn them, and good riddance to them both. 

If you are loath to burn them as a precautionary measure, then burn them as a funeral pyre.  You deserve a measure of peace, and I flatter myself I deserve at least an easing of the burden.  You are too hard on yourself, and too good a man.  I am too much preoccupied with myself, and too culpable for our troubles.  Burn them.  Be done with it.  I am not asking you to forget, but to lay our pasts to rest.  If you will do so for my sake, I will do so for yours.

Let us turn our minds to better matters.

Sherlock Holmes, 1894

P.S.  I have not forgotten that a military photograph of you in your late twenties exists, and that it belongs to me.  The next time you find a spare moment, I strongly suggest you hie yourself to the lumber room and locate it.  You have quite a nerve to have put the task off for so long.  I am not made of stone.  --S.H.