by Katie

I stared up at the beautiful brick building considerably longer than was necessary, for all I hadn't seen it in a month.  I could not for the life of me help myself.  A part of me shivered to dive within, while another part clung to the anticipation I'd inadvertently built to a fever pitch, for a sweet pain had accumulated in my chest that I could almost not bring myself to ease.  Thus I stood on the pavement like one of my friend's clients, indeterminate and flushed with nerves, although mine resulted from far different motivations than--I devoutly hoped--the other sidewalk vacillators.  Perhaps I cherished the moment so because I am not given to such displays.  For all the utterly aloof and self-composed Sherlock Holmes' remarks to the contrary, I do not wear my heart on my sleeve.  Perhaps it meant all the more to me that I had never felt so helpless before a building and that building's chief resident after a month away, that for most of my life I have been steady and self-assured.

A pedestrian glanced at me oddly while purchasing a newspaper.  I started awake again.  Reminding myself that it would never do to draw attention to my entrance, I gave up my fantasies and marched toward the reality, turning my key in the door.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I entered.  It was almost enough of a thrill to see the seventeen steps and Mrs. Hudson's fern and the crack in the third banister rail.  Then I heard his voice, strident and forceful when necessary but now easy and suave, a mellow, warm, lush, sophisticated tenor that has hypnotized countless strangers who would have otherwise fallen to pieces on our settee.

He was leaning against the frame of the sitting room door with his arms crossed in front of him, wearing shirtsleeves without any waistcoat, his feet tucked into house slippers, his mouse coloured dressing gown over all.  Mrs. Hudson stood before him, and they chatted of some domestic matter.  When Holmes heard my footsteps on the stair, his eyes flicked over to me as he listened to our landlady, and a surge of pride overwhelmed me when a very brief, affectless smile flooded his wonderfully expressive face.

"Look who's returned," he said casually.

"Doctor!" Mrs Hudson exclaimed, turning on me as I crested the top of the staircase.  She pressed my arm affectionately.  "It's so lovely to have you back."

"Thank you very much, Mrs. Hudson."

"All went as it ought to have, I hope?  And your return journey was a pleasant one?"

Tearing my eyes painfully away from my flat mate, I said warmly, "It was perfectly comfortable.  And how have the two of you been faring?"

"No different from the usual.  Men and women in and out of here at all hours as if it were an Underground station," she said contentedly.

"That business with Miss Smith and her solitary cycling was the last matter I recall before leaving.  You've taken on several cases, then?" I asked Holmes, setting my heavy bag down.

"Oh, hardly that," he replied smoothly.  "One or two pending problems may ultimately present features of interest, to be sure.  Seven trifling matters wrapped up in your absence, and early this morning one solved from the comfort of the sitting room."

I wondered, as the three of us stood in a familiar domestic triangle, whether Sherlock Holmes was enjoying himself watching me try not to stare at him voraciously, and whether Mrs. Hudson could hear my heart pounding from three feet away.  My friend's arms remained crossed over his muscled breast, and the sultry, angular posture he'd adopted was so maddeningly welcome and familiar that I could scarcely breathe.

"Is anything on hand tonight, then?  Or are you staying in?"  I asked Mrs. Hudson as much as I asked Holmes, having caught snatches of their talk as I ascended and recalling it had something to do with curry.

"Apparently he's staying put for once," Mrs. Hudson replied.  "Well, dinner will be at eight, Doctor.  We've just decided it.  Do please ring if you want a bit of tea, or anything else to rest you after your travels."

"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson."

I knew precisely what I wanted following my travels, and he was standing in front of me with a mischievous smile playing over his lips.  Mrs. Hudson turned and walked back to her kitchen, a fond expression lingering on her face.

"How are you?" Holmes inquired.  He made no move to enter the sitting room, staying propped against the door frame with his head at a delectably languid angle.  The man's ability to control himself is often altogether inhuman.

"Better now," I replied meaningfully.

"You look well."

"I happen to feel quite energized just at the moment."

"I think you've lost three pounds," he remarked.

"Have I?  I hadn't noticed.  I've been walking a great deal, of course."

"Your pensive variety, or the more recreational rambles?" he inquired.  Without a waistcoat, and yet with his black hair smoothed hastily back for his early morning visitor, he looked the worst sort of affluent hedonist.  I do not believe any other man of my acquaintance would have countenanced greeting a client while in such a state of deshabille.

"I should think a good deal of both.  And how are you?"

"I'm in fine fettle, thank you.  It is impossible not to feel pleased when one manages to solve a crime without so much as leaving the house, as I did this morning."

"I congratulate you."  Glancing into the parlour, I remarked, "No one in there with you, is there?"

He peered behind his shoulder, and then his mercury eyes flashed back at me innocently.  "I shouldn't think so.  Did you encounter much difficulty over your uncle's estate?"

"Less than there could have been, I suppose.  His papers were a ghastly mess, but then ghastly messes of paper no longer daunt me as they once did."

"I cannot think what you mean by that remark," he said airily, looking down at his slim fingers, "unless it's to illustrate that you are older and more stoic in the face of tedious tasks than you were as a boy."

"Actually, I'd meant that the not infrequently alarming state of our sitting room had inured me to such petty trials.  How bad is it today?"

"The sitting room?"  He glanced behind him a second time.  "It's perfectly passable."

"I think I will just see for myself."

I picked up my bag again and walked through the door to set it under our hat-stand.  Holmes' long, pale hand still lingered sensually on the doorknob when I dropped it with a bang and forced the door shut behind him, turning the key as I covered his body with my own.

His mouth parted and he drew a quick, violent breath when I kissed him, his head pinned against the wood as his hands came up and settled at my waist.  He tasted of tea and tobacco and of his own beautiful self, his tongue meeting mine eagerly as I tore at the buttons of his shirt.  His body was wiry and aesthetic beneath his tailored clothing, his lungs struggling vainly for the necessary air as he tasted me ardently in return.  He was smiling.  Then he stopped smiling and one hand came up to the side of my face.  I could feel achingly gentle, sensitive fingers at my temple and the edge of my eye.

"God, I've missed you," I gasped, pressing into him hard when his other hand pushed against the base of my spine.

"I could have deduced as much."

"Could you?  What were the more obvious indications?"  Parting his shirt, I allowed myself a long, hungry look at his chest before burying my face in his neck.

"It does not, as a general thing, take this brief a time for me to lose my shirt when you arrive home."  I'd removed his cuffs and shoved the garment back off his sculpted shoulders and he shrugged out of it in one fluid movement, shivering when my hands traced his pectorals and his collarbone.

"Occasionally it does."

"Well, yes, but--"

"Any other clues?"

"You are apparently not satisfied with remaining in our sitting room."  I was dragging him to the other set of stairs, and out of the sightline of the bow window.  "I assumed you wanted to examine it."

"I longed for you so," I laughed with reckless happiness.

"I'm at your disposal.  I ought to--" he hissed sharply when I bit one of his nipples, his head falling forward.  My mouth traced low and then lower, stopping just below his navel where the muscles tightened into visible cords.  I fell backward when my boot hit the staircase, and I landed in a seated position, undoing the fastenings of his trousers.  "You ought to know that--"  He stopped again, breathing audibly, when my tongue explored the very base of his stomach.  "My dear--"

"Are you trying to tell me something?"  I was still laughing, but it emerged low and growling.

"I saw to your pension, and--dear God, man."

"Is that all?"

His hands carded through my hair as he also laughed silently.  "You are making it confounded difficult to concentrate."

"Concentrate on me."

Rising to my feet, I gripped his torso and commenced leading him up the stairs once more, his fingers flying over my own buttons.  Our progress was slow and stilted, interrupted by intoxicating kisses and the occasional check for balance on my part.  They did not embarrass me.  I was climbing backwards after all, and Sherlock Holmes walks like a cat even during very distracting circumstances.  We left a trail like a hurricane through a laundry room behind us.  Pieces of my attire fell from my body to litter the steps.

I had nearly reached the top when he knelt on a step below me, with one knee up and one prone, tugging nimbly at my bootlaces.  I took this opportunity to shed my undershirt and unfasten my own trousers.

"I even dreamed about you."

"Dreamed of me?"  He looked up quickly, his lips flushed.  "Was I performing a surgery, or robbing a bank, or--"

"Oddly enough, we were both on bicycles.  It was ten times worse when I awoke."  I stepped from the remainder of my clothing, naked at the day I was born.  "I wrote you a wire the next morning.  I was half mad for you."

"The one about the weather in Scotland?" he asked with a wry smile.  "I'm afraid it was not very interest--"  The instant he rose, I had him by the arms and pulled him down into the stairwell, making short work of his trousers.

"I had thought we were going to your room," he breathed when he was on his back and I'd dived over him, supporting myself by my elbows as my mouth traced his lips and the spreading colour on his cheekbones.  His calf hooked over my back.

"Are you uncomfortable?"

"No, not precisely."

"I've had you in my room.  I've never had you in this stairwell."

"You've never had me in the other stairwell either, but that does not make it a good idea," he managed to state through other less coherent breaths.

I smoothed his hair back from his brow as my other hand traced the contours I'd been imagining for many long days.  "Tell me you missed me."

"I didn't say that already?"  A low moan escaped him and the mere sound pushed me nearly to the edge.

"No.  You've said nothing of the kind."

"How inconsiderate of me."

There was a drop of sweat in the hollow of his throat and I licked it clean, thinking how much I would have loved to devour him whole.  He was baiting me, for he was never one to endure sentiment untempered with irony.  He barely endured sentiment flooded with irony, at that.  He was also enjoying himself immensely.  I was glad of it.  The one thing he loved more than flattery was heartfelt affection.  But I was past the point of taking it well.

"Tell me you pined for me, or I am leaving you in this stairwell."

"I don't think you can make good on that threat in your condition."  It was my own fault, of course, and what was done could not be undone, I reflected sadly.  I had fallen madly in love with the most devious conversationalist in a country full of supremely clever men.  "In fact, I'm certain it's an undiluted bluff."

An expression struck him I loved to see, almost a wince, a contraction of his features which had nothing whatever to do with pain.  The first time I'd seen it, I had barely survived a flash of panic, thinking I had actually hurt him, before I realized that the look was simply an effort to keep from shouting our walls down.  It was rarely in evidence for all his tempestuous passions, and positively breathtaking.  If I had been a poet, I would have composed odes over it.  As it was, I only kissed him once more, my heart pounding in my ears.

"Suppose I bribe you into expressing your regard?" I gasped, laughing when his teeth caught my lip.

"What's the asking price?"

"I'll spend a week entire in your bed."

"Oh, you are already going to do that," he hissed, his dark lashes fluttering when I amplified my ministrations.

"I'll compose an erotic memoir in your honour."

"That would be very--for God's sake, my dear boy--very unsafe.  Wherever did you pick that up?"

"I'll worship this beautiful...."  I punctuated my speech with other tasks for my tongue.  "...Beautiful...beautiful body of yours, in very imaginative and immoral fashions."

"That's hardly a reward exclusively for me.  You would be reaping--Jesus Christ."

I was so pleased and so utterly distracted by the half-muttered profanity that I could not object when he suddenly and deftly rolled me onto my back and sat up, brushing his hair from his eyes.  I ran my hands up his spread knees and speech disintegrated into writhing and twisting and shifting of shape, as we half-wrestled and half caressed one another into the floor.  For all his pretension, he was mad for me, and that certain knowledge only further deteriorated my own senses.  I think the Queen of England could have walked into our parlour that afternoon and we would have finished before giving her a second thought.  It was a danger I hadn't anticipated when we began it.  I had loved other men before him, but none of them made me question whether or not I could live without them.

When it was finally over, I sat with my back to the wall and my knees drawn in, my friend sitting in my lap with his brilliant head resting against mine, his back against my legs, both his hands still wandering over my form as if they had not yet realized that it was finished for the moment.

"I am not one to advocate that you often spend a month in Scotland, but that was...."

"I know."

He traced a line of sweat which had trickled down the nape of my neck with one impossibly graceful finger.  "I didn't know you liked hunting."

"I do," I smiled.  My breathing was beginning to settle, my pulse to slow.  "Doubtless some element of the clothing littering my stairs indicated as much."


"That proves you haven't yet learned quite everything.  Perhaps I've a few secrets left, for all that you know me intellectually, and spiritually, and--"

"Biblically," he interrupted me.

"Yes, Biblically.  That was precisely the aspect I have been missing these four weeks.  I felt half of myself, if you can stomach the endearment."

Smiling until wrinkles formed at the edges of his grey eyes, he replied, "I'll overlook it for your sake."

"In fact, I should like to know you Biblically again," I whispered, trailing my hands over his thighs.

"I can deny you nothing," he murmured, his head falling over mine once more, "and I am happy to indulge in your taste for theological studies.  It's an ancient and lofty pursuit, after all.  But if you'd like another round of David and Jonathan, you are going to have to give me ten minutes.  I'm not sixteen years old."

"Ten minutes sounds reasonable," I conceded, still not having completely caught my breath.  "I wonder, which of us is the monarch in these circumstances?"

"That is grossly apparent."

I allowed my thumbs to dip into the hollows of his lean stomach, feeling that if no task were presented to me ever again other than sitting on a landing with the world's only independent consulting detective straddling me with his hands in my hair, I would gladly accept the vocation for the rest of my days.  "You are right, of course.  You're quite the master of all that you see.  Including all that you see in this stairwell."  I smiled up at him.

"You could not be further from the truth.  I have never fancied myself a warrior of any sort.  I have never, in fact, brought back any trophies from any battlefields whatever."

"I didn't carry back hundreds of enemy foreskins in Afghanistan," I retorted evenly.  "Neither did I kill any giants with a slung shot.  I tended the wounded."

"Well, I don't see the point in arguing the subject.  In either case, do you suppose the Spirit of the Lord shall be between us and our descendants, forever?"

"Between us, I cannot guess.  I don't believe so.  Setting the men we were speaking of aside, I fear His feelings on the subject of inversion are rather...wrathful.  But in any case, it doesn't matter--since I met you, I don't plan on ever having any descendants," I murmured.

I truly hadn't meant to catch him off his guard, the remark having been made casually if accompanied by complete sincerity, but his eyes dimmed briefly and his lips parted.  He blinked, and drew a breath, and the look was gone.  Standing up, he offered me a hand and as I rose he opened my bedroom door.

"As fond as I have grown of your landing in the last half hour, I am going to do a number of things to you shortly that are far more comfortable when enacted on a mattress."

I scarcely heard him.  I stood rooted to my floor, staring at my bed in mute disbelief.  The blankets were thrown over it, but the object had clearly been slept in.

"Whatever is the matter?"

"You slept in my bed."

"Does that irk you?"

I lay back on it, sighing deeply.  I was home.  I could see the plane tree in our area, the mirror with the small chip in the corner, the painting of a battlefield from the American Civil War.  My sheets were the kind I preferred, and they had recently been used.  It was a moment of utter contentedness.  My friend crawled onto the coverlet with me and wrapped his whole long frame around my body, his head tucked into my neck.

"You did miss me," I said.  I made every effort to say it dryly, without beaming like a child.  I very likely failed miserably.

"But we'd exhausted that topic, I thought," he whispered, "and moved on to classical Hebrew texts.  How does it go again?"  His face adopted the abstracted look he gets when he is calling to mind a fact from his mental encyclopedia of arcane misdeeds.  "'I love you as I love my own soul.'"

"First Book of Samuel.  Chapter Twenty, Verse Seventeen."  I cleared my throat, staving off a swell of emotion, for if I fell too far into sentiment he would snap at once back into sarcasm and I would have wasted a vulnerable mood more precious than all the money in the world.  "Of course, it took us rather longer to come round than the man you're quoting.  David and Jonathan fell in love at first sight.  I don't recall you having stripped all your garments off for me when we were first introduced."

He laughed against my skin.  "I hadn't any weapons to give you, and Stamford would have been rather startled.  Poor chap.  As a matter of fact, you would likely have been startled as well, and I wanted very much to share a flat with you."

"You wanted very much to share a flat with someone, you mean."

"Is that what I mean?" he murmured, stifling a yawn.

Running my hand idly across the muscles of his back, I commented, "Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but if what you say is true, you went the wrong way about it.  Seeing you in the flesh would have clinched the business instantly."


My friend Sherlock Holmes possesses an insatiable appetite for newspapers.  So far as I know, he always has done.  They are secret paths for him through our vast city, byways which lead him to puzzles and conundrums both trivial and extraordinary, and indeed the metaphor is an apt one, for they are his most efficient means of seeking out his natural game.  He will sit in his dressing gown, his long legs curled beneath him and his pale face keenly focused, reading voraciously until he is satisfied he knows every recent occurrence throughout all of London.  On occasion, when he is impatient or vexed by inactivity, he has been known to hurl newspapers from him in disgust, and at others I have seen him dissect them into fluttering scraps of data, to be pasted carefully in his commonplace book and preserved for future reference.  At no time, however, had I ever seen him treat one of the beloved objects as he did nearly a month after the scene I've just--for reasons which will become evident at length--described, on the morning that news of Oscar Wilde's conviction blazed forth from the front page of the Times.

His brow had been furrowed in thought, the lips I knew so well pressed together with the disgust he was making a supreme effort to contain.  It was the identical expression he'd adopted when other news of the trial's proceedings had trickled forth, and I had watched him with steadily increasing concern since Wilde had first brought suit against the Marquis of Queensberry in April.  Holmes and I were exceedingly busy men in the year 1895, but that did not stop him devouring whatever fresh data he could find on the matter, and consequently scowling for an hour or two until a new topic could be introduced to his overactive mind.

He'd been reacting with such increase of severity, in fact, that without his knowledge I had already taken secret steps to circumvent the impending attack of black humour I knew to be threatening us.  But as it happened, before I could venture my distraction, all at once he took the front page in both hands, crushed it into a ball, opened the window of our sitting room, and flung the tidings of Wilde's painful incarceration into the filth of Baker Street below.  He then returned to the sofa, sat down, and calmly resumed reading, this time favouring the latest edition of the Echo.

My own heart ached in quiet sympathy.  I was every bit as chagrined as he, but--knowing there was nothing to be done about the wretched affair--I was exceedingly loath to speak of what I knew to be on his mind.  At last I inquired hesitantly, "Are you all right, my dear fellow?"

He looked up, wintry grey irises contrasting with the mildness of the May day without.  "Entirely," he said tersely, and returned his eyes to the page.

"I am inclined to think--"

"How very novel," he snapped.  Then, realizing the remark was beyond the pale, he granted me a halfhearted and wistful little smile.

Quelling my anger, I rubbed wearily at my temples.  Either it would do immediate good, I reflected as I considered telling him my new plans, or in his current mood it would provoke a rousing argument.  I had the advantage of him in that particular instant, however, for Sherlock Holmes does make an effort to avoid committing more than one act of inexcusable rudeness per hour.  I pushed to my feet, my hands striking my knees with an air of decision as I quit my armchair.

"Holmes," I said, standing before him, "we require a change of scene.  I have written to accept the invitation we received last Tuesday."

My friend and I are both guilty of making unilateral decisions from time to time, but suffice it to say that my own occur with far less frequency, which prevents my partner from growing accustomed to them.  Predictably, Holmes scowled at me.

"What invitation can you mean?"

"The invitation to Bournemouth to attend the marriage celebration of Mr. Cyril Morton and Miss Violet Smith."

The newspaper he held was designated to the floor in his supreme distaste at this suggestion.  He leaned back against the cushions of the settee, putting his hands behind his head and scrutinizing me as if I were a not particularly savoury criminal relic.

"Why would you do such a thing?"

"I thought it would stretch the bounds of courtesy to attend without forewarning," I replied evenly.

"Darling, bear with me," he said, moving his fingertips to his eyes, "for I confess my intellect may well be dulled in the wake of so much work of late, but what on earth led you to believe I would accompany you on such an absurd outing?"

"Even apart from its taking place in a charming seaside town, it will be a very pleasant affair," I pointed out, determined to hide my annoyance.

"I loathe weddings."

"I love weddings," I countered.

"Yes, you do, don't you?"  He sighed tragically, black brows slanting downward.  The casual acquaintance may well have been offended by the air of martyred melancholy he had assumed, but I knew enough about the man to recognize that I was the last man in the world at whom he was, in fact, angry in that moment.  "My dear boy, it will be an occasion rife with mediocre people who carry on mediocre conversations about topics that do not interest me in the slightest."

"I shouldn't think that conversation is the only activity to be found at a ball," I retorted.

"A ball!"  His legs swung off the sofa and landed squarely before him as he glared at me with considerable choler.

"Certainly, a ball," I smiled.  "Miss Smith is now tremendously wealthy, thanks in no small part to you.  Upon reflection, she and her fiance determined that a joyful celebration to commemorate their vows would not go amiss, and have arranged for a splendid affair by the ocean."

"In an effort to be perfectly clear and at the risk of repeating myself, I shall tell you something of which you are already well aware: I loathe balls."

"I love balls," I observed.

Holmes clutched at his hair momentarily in a dramatic show of frustration, and then slumped back against the cushions.  "What is the fool woman doing asking me in the first place?" he demanded, leaving me quite out of the equation.

"She is not a fool woman, and you know it full well."

"Then why would the creature desire two near-strangers to--"

"Holmes," I said, with some asperity at last creeping into my voice, "if you must insist upon going about rescuing women from evil designs, thwarting attempts to force them into abhorrent matches against their wills, and in Miss Smith's case almost certainly preventing her imminent rape by one or more brutes, you are going to have to accept the fact that they may feel inclined to express a degree of gratitude towards you."

He eyed me suspiciously.  "Hmmph."  His gaze slid into a more reflective strata as he realized I was correct.  My friend is not an easy man to live with, but neither is he an unyielding one.

"I see you are not going to argue that," I could not help but note.

"Now you mention it, I confess Mr. Woodley's character leaves me in the gravest possible doubt whether there is any atrocity he would not commit," he replied reluctantly.

"Well, then," I smiled, "we are going to the reception."

"Mr. Woodley's character has no bearing whatever on the topic at hand, to wit: you shall be attending this function alone."

"You are not being given that choice, I'm afraid.  We leave at nine twenty-seven tomorrow morning from King's Cross."

"But I've no wish to do anything of the kind."

"Perhaps you could find it in your heart to make a sacrifice."  I approached him where he sat and placed my knees on either side of his thighs, perching quite comfortably on his lap.

"Could it not be an easier sacrifice?" he pleaded softly, his sculpted face regaining a trace of good humour as I rested my arms on his wiry shoulders.  With an effort, he affected an air of gallantry, a conceit which unfortunately suits him all too well.  "Shall I win a boxing tourney for you under an assumed name, with your kerchief in my pocket?"

"Tempting," I owned when his nimble hands slid round my waist.  I knew better than to think the offer mere banter, for Holmes' boasts often take on the status of self-dares, and the thought of his spare, flawless body stripped to the waist and grappling in some seedy gin house was a delightfully severe threat to my composure.  "I think not, however."

"Fencing, then, and under my own name, with a lock of your hair secretly tied to the hilt of my blade," he begged, eyes glinting roguishly at me.  "Be reasonable, man.  I will indulge your childish and unbecoming desire for romance, I swear it, only spare me the indignity of making small talk with self-important businessmen.  I'll win an archery contest, a jousting match, name your price.  Anything is preferable to a ball."

"You will simply have to suffer through it.  And in future, calling one of my traits childish and unbecoming is not the best way to insinuate your argument."

"Please?" he essayed again.  This time he sat forward and placed his generous lips ever so tenderly against my throat, inhaling as he did so.  I was beginning to heartily enjoy tormenting him, and thought distractedly through a sudden fog of desire that it was perhaps only the third or fourth time he'd ever said "please" to me.  "I shall compose you a heartbreaking ode upon the violin."

I arched slightly as his lips drifted lazily down the hollows of my neck, sliding forward until I pressed against him without any space between us.  "That would take you ten minutes, if so long.  I am not so easily satisfied."

His hands were tugging my shirt free of my trousers so that he could trace his musician's fingertips over my lower back.  One hand commenced caressing as the other dealt with the restricting fabric.  "And here I supposed myself something of a habit where you are concerned," he murmured lowly, "when all the while you were simply awaiting my next token of courtship.  How mortifying.  What am I to do, then?  Shall I paint you recumbent on the bearskin rug in the style of Vernet?"

"Too dangerous, and involving not a whit of self-sacrifice," I refused him, hissing slightly as one of his hands plunged lower and I left off his shirt buttons to bury my hands in his thick black hair.  "In any event, you can't paint."

"Can't I?" he asked, laughing mysteriously.

"I'm also growing rather concerned."

"Why is that?"

"Are you so very hesitant to give something up for me?"

I was only teasing him, but his lightning-quick eyes darted up to mine with a pained expression, and in them I once more saw reflected clear as day the abhorrent contents of his morning newspaper.

"That isn't fair," he said sharply.

Sherlock Holmes and I have known one another for years, cherished one another for nearly that span of time, and have loved one another physically for a very long while, culminating in a bond so profoundly instinctual that I shudder to recall how I ever passed a day in his presence without touching him, but that does not mean we never misunderstand one another.  On the contrary.  We misunderstand one another with vigour and frequency.  At times, as this account will make clear, we misunderstand each other to painful and damaging degrees.

"I intended it in sport," I assured him gently.  I confess I was surprised, for I had foolishly supposed the contents of the article forgotten.  "I flatter myself you would be willing to give up even slightly more for me than attendance at a wedding reception."

"My right arm, my life, a king's ransom," he insisted, eyes glowing strangely.

"Love, I never meant to--"

"I've already sacrificed my immortal soul for you, after all.  Need I truly purchase you with better currency than that?"

Leaning forward with my lips parted, I kissed him.  When we broke apart, my palms were at the level of his sculpted cheekbones and my friend turned his head to kiss that crevice gypsies call the lifeline.  I had not understood the term before.  But with his lips against it, it truly deserved the name.

"You may coerce me into a ball," he whispered, "but you will not force me into a wedding ceremony.  I can't bear churches.  My soul, as I've pointed out already, I have defiled by fornicating with a terribly demanding ex-Army surgeon."

"We aren't attending the ceremony," I said, laughing.  "Only the reception.  I've as little taste for churches as you have, I think.  No man desires to spend time in a place where he is considered an abomination, after all."

"And you are certain you'll not be satiated with a bottle of Imperial Tokay?" he murmured shrewdly, narrowing his eyes.  "Nor will you reconsider any of my other suggestions, each of which would be vastly superior to the ungodly tedium of the event you've chosen?"

"No, I don't think think so."

"May I make another, unrelated suggestion, then?" he inquired lazily.

"By all means."

"Might we," he said in a lower tone, "replicate this posture, but in my bedroom, with the door locked, and rather more casually attired than we are now?"

I smiled down at him.  One corner of his lips had quirked in a sultry little smirk, and the mental image of him with flesh bared, sweating feverishly, pieces of his fine dark hair lying black against the pillow as we forgot where he ended and I began, was sufficient to send all the blood in my body rushing to one location.  It was in just such situations that Sherlock Holmes ceased to be the self-possessed theorist, and I could glimpse the vulnerable man behind the delicate clockwork.  It was at other times, as anyone who reads my accounts of his life could probably guess all too easily, that his utterly aloof character nearly threatened to undo us both.

Our journey to the southernmost edge of England was unremarkable, the hours filled with lazy chatter and views of the countryside streaming past our windows.  It was wonderful, for me at any rate, to be out of the great metropolis for an overnight stay, and more than once my friend caught me smiling aimlessly at the verdant trees visible beyond the glass and shook his head with a fondly indulgent expression.

We brought with us relatively little in the way of luggage, being practiced and ready travellers, and carried our bags ourselves from the station through the bustling, quaint little town, breathing in the smell of the ocean and Holmes squinting his unparalled eyes at the shafts of lingering sun.  The waves dashed lazily against the shoreline as children and their guardians chased the gulls or searched for bits of shell in the sand.  The hotel itself was newly built and very pleasantly appointed, with four stories, the first of which I could see at a distance housed the great ballroom where the night's festivities would take place.

Setting my bag before the counter, I nodded to the clerk.  "Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, arriving," I said cordially.

"Are you really?  I mean to say, welcome, gentlemen," the young uniformed man replied, flushing slightly.  "The porter will show you up at once.  Both of your rooms are on the second floor, at either end of the west hallway."

"Quite a crowd you've garnered," Holmes remarked, looking about him at the idle pleasure-seekers and the white columns as he lit a cigarette.

"We're entirely booked, sir, for the next fortnight at the very least.  You wouldn't believe the appeals I've been getting from holidaymakers, for the weather has been so unexpectedly pleasant of late.  Of course, most of the people you see before you are attending the ball this evening.  It's quite an honour to have you here, sir," the fellow added, his brown eyes glowing.  "Might I say that the trick you pulled in that story about the horse, when you left the creature painted and allowed it to run--well, that gave my wife and I quite a merry hour, Mr. Holmes."

"Delighted to hear it," my friend replied, fixing me with a look which quite clearly instructed me to throw away all my pens on the moment we arrived home.

"And that one about the deadly snake, sir!" the clerk exclaimed, growing yet more animated.  "When I think back on how you knew, just from the bell-pull, mind, that--"

"My friend Dr. Watson weaves a brisk bedtime story, that I'll grant," he sighed.  "My good man, I gather from the fact that you were up very late last night with your newborn child--and I do congratulate you--you are somewhat distracted, but might I suggest you call the porter you mentioned earlier?"

"Certainly, sir," the clerk replied, puffing his chest out and beaming with pride that he'd been the basis of an actual, voiced logical inference.  "Might I ask--"

"No, but thank you very much for the thought."  The porter hurried up to us and, with a nod to the grinning clerk, we headed for the staircase and climbed the carpeted steps to the upper floors.

"I suppose we had better have a wash and then dress," Holmes said on arriving in our designated hallway, glancing at his pocketwatch.  "We've only an hour, after all.  I shall see you at the reception."

It was an awkward annoyance that, when traveling, Holmes and I were required to be duly appreciative of separate sleeping arrangements, when at our residence our nights passed either in the comfort of my small bed or the more substantial expanse of my friend's.  Resolving to invade his room even if I had to leave it at five in the morning, I nodded.  "Might I ask what you intend to wear this evening?"

"No," he said in the same tone of tired patience he had used upon the clerk, as he handed the porter a coin and the lad flew away to tend to the other guests.  Then he quirked his lips and winked at me.  "That would quite ruin the effect, as you well know."

"Well, I do imagine that whatever it is, I have seen it before," I observed, confused.

"Do you?" he inquired, smiling down at his room key.  "I really must be off, my dear chap.  Leave some champagne for me, there's a good fellow."

It was, as promised, a splendid affair.  The lights glimmered from chandeliers and candelabra, men and women sheathed in silks and satins and velvets of every colour and pattern paraded through the room like a host of merry peacocks, and behind it all was the sure knowledge of the glorious early summer night beyond the walls.  But that was not the only boon granted us; I was gratified to note after a half hour's meandering through the lavishly decorated rooms that the majority of the guests, belonging to that emerging group of individuals beginning to be called the middle class, were frank, open people of good nature and good cheer, and neither the simpering aristocrats nor the callous tradesmen that my friend so abhorred entertaining.  Indeed, the few times I'd glimpsed a distant quarter profile of Holmes in the last ten minutes--for we had not yet approached one another--he had been either listening with genuine interest or expounding over one the thousand topics upon which he could be considered an expert.

Standing perfectly content with the world with a glass of champagne in one hand, a new and interesting acquaintance having just quit me to seek out a dance partner, I regarded the waltz before me in considerable high spirits.  In fact, I had scarcely begun tapping the polished floor absently with my foot when a voice spun from raw silk carried softly over my shoulder.

"Do make an effort to conceal your admiration of the ladies so as to fit within the bounds of propriety, my dear fellow."

I stifled a laugh, refusing to look behind me.  "I shall make my best effort."

"It borders on the revolting," the sophisticated tones continued.  There was a smile in his voice, I could hear as much.  "With your pardon, there are far more interesting things to look at in this wide venue."

"Correct, but if I look at you, I shall very likely get us arrested," I pointed out.  It was not a wholly frivolous remark.

The posture of the man behind me altered slightly so that I could feel his elbow barely brush against my ribcage.  "But really, must I observe you observing them with this degree of enthusiasm?"

"Well, no, you needn't observe me.  But I find them charming and you do not, so one of us must make an altruistic attempt to recognize their graces."

"When set in that light, you appear quite the martyr to a noble cause."

"You'd prefer I scrutinize the men?" I asked calmly.  "As you wish."

A sharp scoffing sound sent a tiny gust of disdainful breath past my left ear.  "Do as you like as far as they are concerned, for I will readily own that six or seven ladies of the party at least possess some grace in movement.  There isn't a man on that vast floor worthy of dancing with them."

I turned around in surprise so as to see him clearly.  I should not have been so foolish, for he was quite literally breathtaking.  He was wearing a waistcoat shot through with silver and darkest midnight blue, with a sapphire cravat, his raven hair smoothed back impeccably above a pale, aesthetic, maddeningly beautiful face which at that moment appeared highly amused.  The cut of his evening dress was rendered with the same absolute attention to detail upon which he built his career, so I could only guess that the tailor who had so perfectly outlined the slender, tapering musculature of my lover was also, in his own way, a single-minded savant.  I could see the muscles of his breast moving silently as he laughed.  I deliberately turned round once more.

I was not ready to concede his abominably vain point, whether he was the most vibrant, alluring man in the world or no, so I set about the task of contradicting him.  I had a subject in view within ten seconds.

"Well, for goodness sake, Holmes, what about that fellow?" I asked triumphantly, trusting he would follow the line of my sight.

"Good lord, my dear boy," came the exasperated reply from behind me.  "Am I to commence fretting that you have taken a rapt interest in golden-haired farm hands of sixteen?"


"Spare my nerves further damage, I beg you.  His resemblance to a young Samson notwithstanding, watch him more closely for a moment or two.  He never looks at his partner.  He is half listening to her, eyes eagerly searching the room for his next conquest.  Really, Watson, with all your affection for simplicity, you can do better."

Lifting my chin in determination, I resolved to do just that.  Soon a tall, elegant man something above forty years of age drifted into the open, laughing easily, his movements lovely and economical and his temples shot through with endearing streaks of white.

"There you are," I announced.  "You will have to concede he is a fine dancer."

"I concede nothing of the sort.  I'll concede he is deuced attractive, but he leads with his head."

And of course, as was to be expected, Sherlock Holmes was correct.  The finely built gentleman did indeed lead with his head.

"Why don't you make an effort to relieve one or the other of these hapless young females of the burden of an inferior partner?" he inquired next, nudging me with his forearm.

"I may well do just that," I returned with hearty good cheer.  "Let me see whether I can spy one who is unoccupied at present.  Why don't you do the same?"

"I think not."

"It would please me greatly."

"I am sorry to disappoint you, then."

"How can you possibly expect me to believe that you are in any position to criticize these poor fellows without demonstrating your prowess to me in turn?"  I demanded, exasperated.

"I suppose you shall be forced to take my word for it.  Now, return to the task at hand, Watson.  Select your conquest."

"There," I said after a brief study of the room.  "In the corner near the coffee urn, with the silk turquoise gown and small train."

"Of course you chose that one."  He was turning away as he laughed freely, I noted, and had doubtless drawn a cigarette from his case, for I heard a match strike as he lit it.  Picturing his lips upon it, I closed my eyes and then opened them again.

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Her decolletage must be impeding her windpipe, and I have observed no fewer than six men approach her--obliquely and directly--since she left the floor.  Perhaps that is due to her fortunate combination of good humour, large fortune, chestnut curls, perfect complexion, and even-tempered disposition."

I did not bother to ask that these traits be explained, for they were all apparent to me as well.  "You think I'll fail to win a dance?"

"No," he replied, as a slender hand fell to my shoulder and gripped it affectionately.  "I think you'll show me you're the only man worthy of dancing with her in the room."  As my mouth fell open, he continued, "Do stop short of winning her hand, my boy.  I cannot abide crowds."  He clapped me lightly upon the back and walked away.

I danced--and very enjoyably, I might add--with Miss Sabrina Hamilton-James four times that evening.  I was the envy of fully half the company, it seemed.  I learned that her mind was bright and charming, that she'd a secret beau who belonged to an absent regiment, and that I reminded her of him, and that her mother would do her best to break the match off if she knew of it.  Within an hour, we were fast friends.  During our last dance, however, I realized that however reckless his untamed beauty made me feel, I could not bear to be apart from my friend for that entire glittering evening, and so parted from Miss Hamilton-James on very cordial terms and set off in search of Holmes.

I found him settled comfortably upon a settee in a large, grandly appointed smoking room, chatting with several other men of the party including our newly wed host.  An empty glass of champagne rested at his elbow, and he smiled so warmly at me when I appeared before him that my breath caught slightly.  Mr. Cyril Morton, a small-statured but very clever and friendly young man with red-hued hair and a ready laugh, nodded enthusiastically to me as I entered.

"We have been learning how one can determine a librarian by his index finger," he declared teasingly.  "Your friend Mr. Holmes is the most appallingly intelligent man to whom I have ever been introduced, Dr. Watson.  What say you, Colonel?"

My friend, while seemingly distant and thoughtful, was pleased by the compliment, for I could see a finely rendered blush below his eyes which had nothing to do with the fire crackling in the hearth.  The man I took to be the Colonel, characterized by neatly cropped grey hair and sloping brows, nodded readily.

"To be sure, you are a credit to your country, sir.  I find it surprising that I see your name so seldom in the newspapers, come to that.  I am sure your skills are called upon very often, and to great effect, if what Morton here tells me is true."

"I am very grateful to Mr. Holmes," Mr. Morton said with a serious expression on his face.  "He saved the thing most precious in all the world to me, so I assure you I would not do him the dishonour of exaggerating his prowess.  Why do you not appear more often in print, my dear sir?"

Holmes shrugged amiably and slung his long, elegant arm over the back of the settee.  "I require myself to solve crimes, not to take credit for their solutions.  Taking credit is a very tedious exercise, and I should much prefer to find a new conundrum than to preen before the popular press."

"Admirable," drawled a man from the corner of the room, a primly rakish fellow with a goatee on his chin and a monocle perched on his cheek.  "Being in the papers is not always a position to be envied."

"All too true," I put in, seating myself near Holmes.  He passed me a cigarette without looking at me, and for some senseless reason the gesture touched me deeply.

"Take these godless carnation-wearers, for instance," the man continued with a cynical laugh.  "They wanted attention, and now they have it.  Well, I should think they are very sorry for it, if Wilde's case can be taken as a precedent for how they will be treated in courts.  Now these queers have crawled out into the open, they will be made to understand they will not be tolerated in polite society."

"An unfortunate business, to be sure, Mr. Ambrose," the Colonel observed, drawing upon his cigar.  "And also a criminal one, come to that."

"Rightfully so," remarked Mr. Ambrose.  "The very purpose of the law is to enforce morality upon the weak-willed or the weak-minded.  Is that not so, Mr. Morton?"

"I could not say," our host replied with a troubled glance about the room.  "I certainly cannot easily agree that Oscar Wilde is weak-minded, of all things."

"Depraved, then," shrugged Mr. Ambrose.  "But I cannot claim to be an expert.  Only an interested citizen.  What say you, Dr. Watson?"

"I am no alienist," I replied dismissively.  "Only a general practitioner."

It was not the first such conversation I had ever suffered.  However, it was the first such conversation I had ever endured with Sherlock Holmes not a foot away from me, smoking intently and seeming to be very judiciously weighing the points set before him.  I wanted to strike the smug, suave Mr. Ambrose, who seemed heartily to enjoy the new topic.

"Even a general practitioner surely keeps abreast of the latest discoveries in the realm of mental illness," he suggested with a sly smile.  "I find the whole matter very intriguing--I heard a most compelling argument that this new-found boldness among degenerates is a sign of the virulent progression of the disease.  Where once they hid their heads in shame, now they fight back in public courts for God and all the world to see.  Surely that could well be an indication of mental disintegration."

"I agree with Mr. Morton," I said, attempting to remain casual while seething inwardly.  "It is difficult to credit that Oscar Wilde has lost his considerable faculties."

"Perhaps I am wrong."  Mr. Ambrose polished his monocle on his kerchief thoughtfully.  "I only wish something could be done to cure these sodomites before their hedonistic and affected posturing becomes the merest commonplace of a modern Babylon.  Or Sodom, for that matter."  He laughed at his own joke, while the Colonel did the same, although more quietly.  "If we commenced burning them again, or breaking them on a wheel, the spread should halt again quickly enough."

"You believe homosexuality a disease, and yet consider that such a serious affliction should be punished further?" I demanded.  I do not consider myself diseased in mind or in body, I must vehemently add.  I meant only to point out the illogical nature of the argument.  However, I could not manage to disguise the fact that the sentiment made me ill.

"Well said, Doctor," announced Cyril Morton.

"He has you there," the Colonel added appreciatively.  I dared not so much as glance at Holmes.

"Perhaps I was too impassioned," Mr. Ambrose said with a smirk.  "But what says the only real representative of the law in this room?  Doubtless you've profound insight into such affairs, Mr. Holmes, knowing the criminal world as you do."

I have never in my life doubted my friend's discretion, nor his ability to be glibly calm when necessary.  I confess, however, I was deeply worried.  The topic itself had been cause for enough concern without his being singled out for questioning.  Holmes only raised one supercilious eyebrow, however, and replied, "Only the same insight of any man who keeps well apprised of criminal news."

"You are too modest."

"On the contrary," he smiled.  His eyes were gleaming like twin daggers.  "You appear much better informed than I.  I feel myself at a disadvantage, in fact.  I am a man of logic.  I'll own I was at boarding school as you all were, but practices there did not retain my interest as they seem to have done with you."

Mr. Ambrose tossed his head back, as if my friend had directly insulted him instead of merely teasingly questioning his motives.  The Colonel laughed heartily, while Cyril Morton peered at Ambrose expectantly.

"In any event," my friend continued, "I take only those cases which challenge me, which serve as a catalyst for the higher faculties.  Oscar Wilde, if we look at him plainly, is far more interesting for his admirable artistic muse than he is for his lurid sexual practices.  He is a genius who possesses profound vices, but where is the intellectual scope for the detective in that?  I solve the unsolvable for a living.  Sordid offenses against the person provide no such stimulus."

"I would have thought that, as a champion of right, you would have done better by the law," Ambrose said curtly.  "These people are asking for a reckoning.  They will be given one, if they do not see reason."

"Did they ask you directly, Mr. Ambrose?" my friend inquired frostily.  "In the matter of my own personal life, if I ever met one of these green-carnationed youths, I can promise you most sincerely that I should steer well clear of him.  However, you appear so very consumed by the topic that I cannot help but deduce you are acquainted with amoral sybarites personally.  Wherever did you come across them, may I ask?"

I think that Mr. Ambrose might well have leapt from his chair and demanded satisfaction following this query; however, at that moment, the beautiful Mrs. Violet Morton, nee Smith, entered the room.  She looked quite breathtaking in a gown of delicate silver satin, and my friend had been perfectly correct all those many weeks ago to have said she had a spiritual air about her, for her blonde hair and her pale hazel eyes, in combination with sweetly delicate features, proclaimed her every inch both a philosophical woman and an admirable music teacher.  She took her new husband's arm affectionately as Holmes smiled at her in greeting.

"I cannot tell you how glad I am you are here, Mr. Holmes," she announced blithely.  "And you as well, of course, Dr. Watson.  I should have considered the day, though the best of my life, very incomplete indeed without you."

"You flatter me, Madam," Holmes said courteously.

"I do not," she replied, and there was something shadowed in her lovely eyes, the eyes that had bewitched Carruthers as well as Woodley and Mr. Morton, that made me think she was well aware of just what ghastly violence to her person might have transpired had Holmes and I not arrived when we did.  But soon enough she looked up at her bridegroom, and her brow cleared, and she smiled at the room.  "What has my cousin been saying to you?  He is scowling dreadfully.  Have you been pestering my guests with politics, Vincent?"

"Merely providing us with a lively debate, Mrs. Morton," Holmes said smoothly, rising to his feet.  "I fear for my ability to continue at such staggering heights of wit, and so must leave you for the time being.  My warmest congratulations to you both."  He shook hands with Cyril Morton, kissed the bride's hand, and swept from the room without wasting a glance upon the furious Vincent Ambrose.

I knew better than to rush after him, but I confess I feared greatly for the aftereffects of that appalling conversation.  I finished my cigarette in a bit of a daze, breathless and anxious and scrutinized by the bride's cousin.  As soon as I could manage it without suspicion, I left the room, looking here, there and everywhere for my friend.

I grew still more worried at once.  He was not in the ballroom, nor the dining area.  He was not in his own room, and neither was he in mine.  After fifteen minutes of searching, I found him standing on a small balcony that hovered a few steps below the ground floor terrace window, smoking in silence as he looked up at the stars.

"I am terribly sorry about that," I breathed.

"And what have you done, precisely?" he queried dryly.  The almost imperceptible flush had faded from his prominent cheekbones.  He had turned quite pale, as a matter of fact.

"Nothing, but--that was not something to which I would have wished to subject you."

"No?"  His pale eyes were a perfect blank.  "It was nothing more than I should have expected.  Most of our fellow Britishers, I will own, are merely dull, but some of them are certainly malicious and others irrevocably stupid.  It was no very great surprise to meet an example."

"You fared splendidly against him, in any event."

"Forgive me for not offering my thanks for what you may suppose was a compliment, but having won an argument against that man is hardly a feather in my cap; it is along the lines of crushing an ant, rather, or outsmarting a garden beetle.  Had I lost, I would have taken a blind leap off a balcony.  An upper storey balcony.  Hadn't you better be getting back?" he inquired quietly, lighting another cigarette.  I could see three other stubs at his feet.

"I needn't," I replied softly, "if you--"

"Dr. Watson, men unwittingly abused me long before I met you, and they will continue to do so until the day I am dead, and probably beyond.  Just what service do you think you are providing me?"

"I'd only wanted to see whether you were--"

"Prostrate with self-loathing?  Hysterical over unintentional slights?  Dead of shame?  If you spare me nothing else tonight, spare me this suffocating concern."

Shaking my head, I stepped back.  He was lost to me, and for the remainder of the night if not longer.  He stood before me living, breathing, running his eyes over me coldly to gauge my reactions, but his soul was no longer present.  It had burrowed into a hidden compartment, perhaps had flown altogether, and I could no more have drawn him out again that evening than I could commune with the contents of a broken grandfather clock.

"I don't wish to see you like this," I said miserably.

"The take your leave of me, and gladly," he returned.  There was nothing save ice in his elegantly modulated voice.

"You would do better to save your displays of invulnerability for when they are needed.  I am not the antagonist in this situation," I snapped at last, turning to go whilst feeling as if my heart were being wrenched within my ribcage.

"Neither are you the solution."

I stopped on the second step back to the terrace window to look down at him.  He betrayed no outward sign of chagrin, but that was not the dilemma I faced with an increasingly discomfiting anxiety.  The dilemma was that he betrayed nothing at all, and that it often happened thus, and that I hated nothing more than to see the man I loved above all others turn himself of his own considerable will into a wax figure before my very eyes.

"There are moments when I wish I had the power to hurt you in turn," I confessed before I could catch myself.

It was a horrible admission, and one I was shocked to hear emerging from my own lips.  I could not even find it true; I flushed instantly with the shame of it.  When had I ever wished to hurt him?  For an instant I feared I actually had done so, but then he tossed the lit cigarette into a potted fern, granting me only the lift of one eyebrow.

"That wish shan't be granted this evening, in any event.  Good night, old fellow."

He left me, striding easily past me up the steps.

There are not many nights on which I can recall being glad to be rid of Sherlock Holmes, but as I stumbled wearily away from the lights of the hotel, aching at the merest thought of what I had said to him and he to me, I thanked God for the solitude.  I had not truly expected the unprecedented excursion to an overwhelming success, for I am not an incurable optimist, but neither had I anticipated wholesale failure.  It was my friend who had seen to that, and in spite of his own success in the smoking room.

I had walked half a mile from the hotel and then nearly back to it again, sick at the turn my night had taken and not paying the slightest attention to my poorly lit surroundings, when I encountered a man who stood staring thoughtfully at the lit windows of the ballroom above us.  His back was bowed with sorrow and I thought he was shivering.  I slowed my pace.  There was something familiar about him, and when I had come close enough to see his face, I was very startled indeed to see Bob Carruthers, whose sentence had been a mere month and two weeks' imprisonment, gazing mournfully at the distant festivities.

"Carruthers," I said cautiously.  "I am very surprised to see you, sir."

He started and blanched at the sight of me, and then he drew in a shuddering sigh.  He had lost nearly ten pounds from what I could see, and his eyes were red and haunted.

"You'll tell them I'm watching, I suppose, and I shall have to flee so as to avoid upsetting them," he growled.

"Perhaps not, if you tell me what you're doing here."

"I only wanted to be where she was," he whispered.  "One last time, Dr. Watson."

I looked up at the golden window.  It was impossible to see Violet Morton from that distance, or to identify anyone at all, for that matter, but Bob Carruthers did not seem to care.

"I'm going back to South Africa," he said tonelessly.  "If I live to see it.  I truly do love her, you know.  Since the moment I saw her.  Have you ever felt as if your heart was physically tied to a person, Dr. Watson, tied so tight and so true that if you went on a voyage long enough, your heart would literally break from the strain?"

"Yes," I said brokenly.

He turned to look at me briefly and then resumed staring upward.  "Well, then.  You sound as if you have, all right.  And do you also feel as if, no matter how ungodly painful it might be for you to endure it, you would ten thousand times rather suffer and love her than never to have met her, and be contented alone?  I mean to say, that you would not cure yourself even if you could?"

"I'm also aware of that feeling."

"My life ends here tonight," he said.  His face was so bleakly haunted it was almost difficult to recognize him.  "Don't worry, Doctor.  I'll do nothing foolish.  But it is such a weight being forty yards away from her, being across an ocean may well crush me.  And yet, I've no choice.  You'll be telling me to be off now, I imagine, or you'll report to her husband I'm spying."

I wondered for a moment whether he truly had fallen in love with Miss Smith at first sight--as seemed a rather unlikely condition--or if all his memories of her had merely become entangled irrevocably, as for me were the notions of Holmes and love and bliss and heartache.

"Stay as long as you like, Mr. Carruthers," I replied quietly, setting off for the hotel once more.  "They shall none of them hear of it from me."

Returning to my own room seemed far wiser than seeking out Holmes in his tin soldier state.  I washed, undressed, and stared into the mirror trying to make some sense of myself.  I considered packing early and departing, then realized that such a step might well be an irretrievable one, then wondered with tears in my eyes whether that might not be just what I wanted.  When I lay back on the coverlet of my bed, watching the leaves cast their early morning shadows, I could be certain of only two things: I knew that I loved him ravenously, as soul-deep as Bob Carruthers loved Violet Morton, and despite acts which would have forced me to leave any other man.  I am not unforgiving, but neither do I enjoy repeated, undeserved punishment.  As small as it made me to face it, I felt in my heart I could never depart from his side.  And I also knew for a bitter fact that he had no notion at all of how very close I had come to doing just that.

I passed a restless, guilty, angry night.  The next morning, I gathered my things together, returning my clothing and toiletries to my traveling bag and sipping at a cup of hot coffee as I did so, for a headache slowed my thoughts and movements and I wished to be certain I left nothing behind.  When all was in order, I returned my key to the front desk, and, as the designated time for departure had arrived, I walked up the staircase and down the hall to join Holmes as we took our leave.  Knocking reluctantly, I waited with shoulders squared to face my friend's approach.

To my boundless surprise, when Sherlock Holmes opened the door, he stood before me unshaven, drinking a cup of tea, dressed in dark trousers and his shirtsleeves without collar or cuffs, the neck partially unbuttoned and his dressing gown over all.  He smiled easily at me.

"Good morning, my dear fellow."

"Good morning," I returned slowly.  "Holmes, I realize that you are not particularly enthusiastic about early rising, but if you do not get dressed and ready extremely quickly, the hotel will be very put out."

"And we shall miss our train," he added cheerily.  "Come in, come in."

I did so, quite visibly vexed and confused.  My friend's belongings were still scattered throughout the pretty chamber, and he appeared to have halfway finished a plate of eggs and buttered toast.

"Holmes, I did mean to apologize for last night."

"Don't waste a thought on the matter.  Tea?" he asked cordially, splashing a second cup with milk and then pouring what smelled like Darjeeling without sugar, as he knew I took it.

"Holmes, have you a reason in mind for missing our train?" I asked tiredly, in no mood to play guessing games with the cleverest man of my acquaintance.  I did not expect an apology from him in return, but his purposeless high spirits were inexpressibly abrasive.

"Bournemouth suits me in this weather," he replied, returning to his breakfast and applying himself vigourously.  "I contemplated leaving it, and returning to the smoke and fog of London, and could not bring myself to do so.  I shall return tomorrow instead.  The fields are lush, the sparrows gleeful, and I hear tell the fishing in the stream half a mile from here is the stuff of local legend."

I walked to the breakfast table and lifted my tea.  Tea is a comforting substance, and my friend was exposing me to serious multiple shocks.

"You are telling me that you have suddenly developed a taste for the out of doors?"

"You have always attempted to cultivate one in me.  Perhaps your hard work is paying off," he said innocently.

"You overlook the fact that this establishment is entirely booked."

"Ah, but you see, I don't."  Depositing his fork on his empty plate with an air of finality, Holmes lit a cigarette as he stretched his long legs out in front of him.  "After some considerable eloquence, and a not inconsiderable bribe, the desk clerk came round to my way of thinking on the subject."

"You truly do desire an extra day of recreation?"

I must have sounded very suspicious indeed, for he laughed at me quite affectionately.  "Why should I not?"

I smiled in spite of myself, for the thought of remaining in Bournemouth for another day was far from unpleasant.  "I'll just return my bags to my room, then, after I retrieve my key."

"Oh, dear me," he exclaimed, his dark brows lifting.

"What is it now?"

"Well, I trust you'll forgive me, Watson, for my forgetfulness, but I'm afraid when I was bargaining over this room, I failed to mention anything of yours.  It's quite too late now, I imagine.  Your things are cleared out, and you have already given the clerk your key?  I am terribly sorry, my dear fellow, but it seems engaging your old room now is entirely out of the question.  I could attempt a word with them, I suppose, but as you've already pointed out, the hotel is quite fully booked."

The rogue's grey eyes were gleaming at me in the pale, buttery light from the window, and one hand was languidly clasped behind his sable head as he pretended to puzzle over this fresh conundrum.  He had smoothed back his hair, but quite imperfectly, and a lock of it was falling from his window's peak over the right side of his pale brow.  I reflected, not for the first time, that when Sherlock Holmes sets his mind on something, I am utterly incapable of denying him.  I was staring back at him evenly, my face as exasperated as I could manage to make it, but the smile playing over the corners of his mouth was devastatingly infectious.

"So you have finally come round to my liking for the countryside, and you are leaving me out of it," I sighed.  "I suppose I've no choice but to return to London."

"Wait a moment, though," he said thoughtfully, drawing in draughts of contemplative smoke.  "I wonder--and this is pure conjecture, but do please bear with me--whether the proprietor would be very put out if I asked him for an extra cot to be placed in this room.  That is, of course, if you also have a mind to stay."

"There's no harm in asking," I smiled.

"Very well put, my dear fellow," he grinned, rising from his chair.  "Where is the harm in asking?  I shall just cast about for a waistcoat and tie, and then see whether I can persuade him.  I apologize again for the mistake, darling."

It was more than an apology, and better than amends--it was an obvious gift.  I caught him by one of his perfect wrists and ran my thumb over the pulse point.  He stopped in mid-stride and added his left hand to the sensual tangle, softly encasing my palms in both sets of his flawless fingers as he looked at me quizzically.

"There is just one small favour I require before you finish dressing."

"Name it, my boy.  I have put you out by forgetting to engage your room, I know, so I am quite willing to extend the olive branch."  He looked so coolly pleased with himself, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.

"Thank you."  I kissed the inside of his wrist, lingering over the delicate bones.  "I think for this favour, you had better close your curtains."

We passed a beautiful day, rambling in silence over the hillsides and listening to the birds as they flitted from branch to branch.  As the evening drew on apace and the warmth of the sun faded, we returned to the hotel for a lingering repast, heightened with good wine and good brandy and my friend's sparkling mood.  When he turned the key in the lock of our room at perhaps half past ten that night, I sat down upon the bed to remove my shoes.  To my considerable surprise, he reached down and stopped me.

"I fear, my dear Watson, that the agenda for the evening has not quite reached its completion."

"Whatever do you mean?"

"I've one more item on our schedule, you see."

"I congratulate you on a glorious afternoon," I objected doubtfully, "but I cannot imagine anything more pleasant than retiring.  With you.  Very, very early."

"I thank you," he smiled, "but I hope that your natural curiosity will persuade you to re-tie your left shoe and accompany me on a small mission."

"Is this your way of breaking it to me that we actually remained in Bournemouth because of a case?" I inquired darkly, doing as he had asked.

"Oh, ye of little faith."  He glanced at his pocketwatch suavely.  "All should be safe by now.  He swore to me it would be in readiness by ten.  Watson, would you be so kind as to reach behind you into that side table drawer and hand me the burgling kit you will find there?"

My jaw fell slightly.  "You are joking."

"Do I appear to be joking?"

"No, but you appear to be visibly suppressing a great deal of unexplainable mirth."

"Your usual blend of keen wit and acute observation have found me out," he said with a laugh, "but no, I am certainly not joking.  Do hand me the tools, like a good fellow."

"Holmes, forgive me, but I must insist on knowing what we intend to burgle," I declared, the beautiful visions of Holmes undressing before me fleeing my mind as they were replaced by images of our imminent incarceration.

He reached out a hand for the kit, which I passed to him, and he deposited the jemmy and other small tools in an inner pocket.  Then he adjusted his cuffs demurely, straightened his waistcoat, and ran a hand through his dark locks.  "You may well insist, but it would be far simpler and quicker for me to reveal my intentions by carrying them out.  Come along, Watson.  You know that the effects I can occasionally render are far more deserving of praise when you allow me to show first, and tell afterward."

So saying, he lifted a small bag that had been sitting in the corner, threw open the door, and exited the room.  He did not glance back at me.  I followed him, as beside myself with confusion and curiosity as is possible for a man constantly exposed to the twin sensations.

We did not, as I had thought we would, leave the hotel.  Instead Holmes took my arm and we proceeded down a series of corridors and up a staircase until we stood at what I recognized as the back entrance to the ballroom we had spent so many hours in the night before.  Sherlock Holmes selected a sinister-looking flat blade from his tool case and knelt before the door.

"Would you mind looking behind us, Watson, so as to ensure that no one is coming?"

I folded my arms dourly as I turned.  The long passage was dimly lit and empty, but there was no guarantee it would remain so.

"Should anyone arrive, how shall I signal you?  Ought we to establish a secret word?" 

"As you like."

"Or perhaps I could pretend to be preventing you, and thus escape sharing your prison term?"

"Never mind," he said cheerily as the heavy door swung open.  "After you, my dear fellow."

The ballroom was empty, all evidence of the previous night's revelries having disappeared.  I could just see the huge chandelier glimmering eerily in the pale grey light through the window.  Holmes thrust a hand into his bag as we entered the darkened room and pulled out a thick candle, lighting it and then setting it on the floor.  He at once produced a second candle, repeating the process, and then nodded at the curtained window spilling moonlight onto the highly polished floor.

"I suggest that you close that curtain, my dear chap, for while moonlight is charming, is it also rather too revealing for our purposes.  I shall just light the rest of these candles while you do so."

I found myself shaking my head as I crossed the room, carefully drawing the velvet over the cold glass.  By the time I returned, Holmes had lit nine candles, placing them at short distances apart from one another and pulling still more from his bag.  His features stood out sharply in the scant light, as he made short work of forming a great arc of candlelight near the fireplace.

"Are we conducting a seance?" I queried dryly.  "Or still better--a Satanic ritual?"

"You know me rather better than that," he chided me.  "I do not believe in spirits contacting the living, and I flirt quite enough with rampant immorality.  I shall continue with the vices I have grown fond of without adding egregious new ones--that is to say housebreaking, commuting felonies, and sharing carnal relations with a male doctor."

"The male doctor to whom you refer is curious why we aren't conducting aforementioned carnal relations at this very moment."

"Because I am about to win an argument."  He levered to his feet and walked to the corner of the room, where a shadowy object I had not previously noticed rested in a corner.  I lost sight of him in the gloom, and started in astonishment when the strains of a waltz suddenly reached my ears, a beautiful recording of strings and wind instruments which quavered ethereally in the air.  My friend appeared once more as he strode into the candlelight, an expression on his handsome face of the utmost seriousness.

"May I have this dance?" he asked.

The words quite unmanned me.  I could scarcely draw enough breath to reply.  When I managed to speak at all, it was not to answer his question.

"You paid that rather simple-minded clerk to put a gramophone in here."

"Yes," he acknowledged, holding out a slender and shapely hand.

"It was safe, because you told him it had something to do with why you are here, I presume.  Some terribly complex case or other.  And he could not contain his enthusiasm."

"You have grasped it exactly."

"You ascertained that there would be no one occupying the ballroom tonight."

"Correct."  He thrust his hand at me, affecting to be miffed by my breathless questioning.

"You arranged to stay the extra night for this."  My diaphragm still did not seem to be functioning.

"How else could I be expected to win this particular argument?"  The impatience was beginning to sound rather less feigned.  "I do not care for losing, as you know, and as you have seen, I am a very stubborn fellow.  If I cannot dance with you, I do not intend to dance with anyone."

"You went out and purchased a bag of candles and a jemmy.  I know you did not bring your own from home.  Incredible."

"John Watson, for a man as taken with the Terpsichorean arts as you appeared to be last night, you seem less pleased than I imagined you might be," he said, his brow quirking slightly.

"I am not pleased at all," I agreed quietly, clearing my throat.  "I am very, very moved.  And I am heartily, completely, wholly yours."

"Oh, for Heaven's sake, are you going to dance with me or not?" he smiled, closing the gap between us and taking my hand as he rested his other palm on my waist.  The pale light had drained the colour in the room to faint yellowed sepia tones, and his eyes when I looked up at him glinted sparks of golden reflected flame.

"I would consider it the highest honour," I said. 

"I warn you, I intend to lead," he announced gravely.

"Of course you do."

He laughed, and tightened his grip on my waist, and away we flew. 

I do not wish to expend too many words on the three hours we spent in that darkened ballroom, for while Holmes may rightly accuse me of harbouring a sentimental streak, I have never wished to sound maudlin.  It was, however, one of the most magical nights of my life.  He had managed to scrounge up five different recordings, and while most of them were waltzes, there were occasional minuets, polkas, and gavottes.  And of course, as I had theorized and longingly contemplated the night before, the man was a breathtakingly graceful dancer.  There is nothing which is not graceful about Sherlock Holmes.  I ought to have assumed he'd been justified in his remarks, having watched him fence, but the sight of him fencing was nothing compared to the power in his long, lean legs, the subtle guiding of his hands, the way his slim waist twirled and turned, and above all the look of delight which had entirely filled that beloved face.  It took me far, far less time to grow accustomed to following than I imagined it would, because following Holmes is second nature to me and my friend leads on a dance floor as effortlessly as he leads criminal investigations.  We danced until would could no longer breathe, and then we sat down on the bare floor for five minutes until we could dance again.  We danced the Viennese waltz spinning with furious determination, and we danced tenderly at a third of that tempo when the candles had burned down and the darkness threatened.  We danced until weak in the legs.  We danced until our hands began to wander of their own accord, and then we blew out the candles, replaced them in the bag, and spent the rest of that sleepless night in Holmes' room.  And that is the story of how Sherlock Holmes chose to win the argument that he was a far superior dancer to any of the men we had witnessed the night before, and how I wholeheartedly came to agree with him.

We were exhausted on the train ride home again, but too happy to care.  At one point an hour into our trip, after our tickets had been taken and I locked the door and rested my head on my friend's shoulder, I recalled the odd event which I had been forgetting to tell Holmes of for two days.

"I saw Bob Carruthers at the wedding, watching from the grounds," I informed him sleepily. 

"Did you indeed?"  The angle of his neck changed as he looked down at me. 

"He is a broken man--my heart quite went out to him.  He claims to have loved Violet Smith at first sight.  You'll call that nonsense, of course, and rightly so, but the poor fellow was greatly changed."

Holmes was silent for several minutes, absently playing with my fingers.

"I didn't tell anyone," I continued.  "Did I do wrong by it?"

"I don't think so," he responded.  "If Carruthers was willing to kill for Violet Smith, I cannot see him harming Violet Morton."

"He was more than willing to kill for her.  He was willing to hang for her."

I wondered if Carruthers had yet departed.  I wished him well, with his new ventures and his new life, and almost as an afterthought I wished that he could find a new love.  But by that time I knew well enough that no wish of mine could provide him that impossible commodity--not with his heart in the condition I'd seen it.

"She is beautiful, and kindhearted, and wise," my friend said at length, wistfully, staring out the window.  "Men are often willing to hang for such creatures."

All I wanted when we stepped off the train in London was to walk with my friend in the sunshine back to our rooms and then crawl into bed.  I had no conscious thought, of course, of the last thing I wanted, until the last thing I wanted befell me.  We had not walked thirty steps away from the station, Holmes' arm linked in mine and our bags gone on ahead with an obliging porter of our acquaintance for delivery at Baker Street, when a news vendor approached us.

His headline, which he proceeded to shout obligingly, was that Oscar Wilde had been dragged off from Wandsworth prison in London and was now incarcerated at Reading performing hard labour.

My friend stiffened very suddenly and then relaxed just as quickly with an odd little shrug of his shoulders.  He quickened his pace.  Then he slowed it again.  All the while I was looking cautiously up at him, wondering frantically whether it was better to say something or nothing.  Half a block later, the set of his lips lost some of it rigour and he began to recover himself.

"He'll be out soon enough and start afresh," I said impulsively.  "He must, Holmes, or there is no justice in God's creation."

"What?" Holmes answered, seeming not to have heard me.

"Oscar Wilde will be released in two years.  He is strong-willed, my dear fellow, and brilliant, and stubborn.  He will emerge and continue on with his life."

"Whyever are you speaking of that wretched man?" he asked with a sigh.

"Wretched?" I repeated, completely perplexed.  "But he is--on the contrary--you defended him so eloquently night before last!"

"That is not due to any affection I owe to the blackguard.  I was simply defending the principle.  They could hang Wilde from the highest tree in England so far as I am concerned, with no one the worse for it."

"But," I stammered, "he is...that is to say, his crimes are crimes in law only, as you must entirely agree!"

"His crimes may well be in law only, but had I the opportunity, I should tie him to the treadmill myself."

I stopped short, my eyes wide and my heart pounding with disbelief at this terrifying assertion.  It was in every sense beyond my capacity to comprehend, let alone condone.  Holmes, quite naturally, seemed unaware he had just said anything monstrous.  In fact, he seemed to believe that I was acting rather oddly, and shifted the angle of his head to indicate as much as we stepped over a kerb.

"But why?" I cried.

"I do not wish to speak of it.  Look out," he said suddenly, pulling me from the path of a swiftly moving hansom. 

I followed beside him in a daze as we resumed walking.  My mind was working frantically.  "Do you know Oscar Wilde?" I attempted in desperation.  "Of course!  Has he wronged you, is that it?  Has he done something personally to warrant your ire?  Perhaps the two of you were once--"

"I have never seen him before in my life, and neither do I wish to.  When we arrive home--"

"Tell me the reason you could possibly wish a good man sentenced to hard labour or I am going not one step further," I demanded angrily, once again coming to a halt.  We had arrived at an intersection of tall residences, iron-shuttered, not ten minutes from our own dwelling.

"I hate Oscar Wilde," he said coolly.  "Detest him, in fact.  Are you satisfied now?" 

This time he set off without waiting to see if I would follow.  I did, in spite of my growing rage, both at Holmes for his cruel remarks and myself for tagging along after him like a trained dog.  We passed our apothecary, our telegraph office, while all the while I made a last-ditch effort to find some sense in the assertion that my lover would gladly see his spiritual kin broken by hard labour out of pure malice.  None seemed forthcoming.  Catching him hard by the arm I demanded, "How can you hate a man who, by your own admission, you have never met?"

"I have my reasons.  Are you hungry at all?"

"No, thank you.  I would, however, like to hear an explanation for your disdain for a thoroughly decent man who has fallen upon hard times."

"Let it alone," he suggested, the distance in his voice growing ever more apparent.  "I do not intend to conduct an argument with you regarding Oscar Wilde in a public street.  Now, do be still."

I was so vexed by this time, I never noticed the crippled lad who habitually huddled under the antiques window several blocks from our home, to whom I usually threw whatever small coin I had with me.  Holmes stopped deliberately, shook himself free of me, drew half a crown from his pocket and flipped it to the boy, and continued walking with another ironic glance in my direction.

"I would have supposed you sympathetic to the plight of a man with whom you have so much in common," I said frigidly, in a sufficiently low tone.  "I do not expect goodwill toward all men from you, but neither do I expect cold-bloodedness."

"Don't you expect goodwill?" he snapped in return.  "How very interesting.  The man to whom you refer and I have nothing whatsoever in common.  Why the devil you should be angry at me for saying so I cannot understand."

"You may have noticed by now that anger is my natural reaction when you are behaving as if made of clockwork."

"Dear me, that is an old tune," he returned, his eyes flashing behind angry brows.  "And one best discussed at home, I might add."

"I've half a mind to allow you the full freedom of our home, for good and all."  With a shock of piercing pain, I realized that for the first time I actually meant it.

"Oh, for God's sake," he hissed, grasping me so firmly by the elbow that I nearly stumbled.  "If you won't let me be, then come along and at the very least hold your peace until we're off the street."

Fuming but far too cautious to shrug myself out of his grip, I allowed him to lead me through an alley, past several stone courtyards, and finally into what seemed to be the back entrance to a churchyard.  Although only a few blocks from our home, I had never seen it before; and while I wasn't the least surprised that Holmes knew of it, I was far too angry to fully appreciate the summer ivy climbing the walls, the angels and demons whose stone faces peered down at us from weather-worn archways, and the idyllic nature of the dome-ceilinged corridor through which he propelled me, finally seating me on an ancient granite bench and standing before me to be cross-examined.

"Thank you for your very prudent, if late in arriving, period of silence," he growled.  "You may commence telling me I am heartless and mechanical and cold and inhuman.  Leave nothing out--I am so very glad to know such sentiments will forever remain in your repertoire."

"I've no wish to accuse you falsely," I replied, glaring daggers at him, "but I cannot fathom your remarks."

"Very well, then.  Shall I tell you why I hate Oscar Wilde?  There are three salient points, and I shall enumerate them chronologically, so as not to cause any confusion.  Then you may pronounce me soulless and flee Baker Street never to return, with my blessing."

"Do proceed," I snapped, my eyes tearing at the words.

"The first reason I hate Oscar Wilde is that he brought charges of libel against a man for calling him a sodomite."

"He is to be admired for it," I cried, my voice shaking slightly.  "It was an act of uncommon bravery!"

"It was a lie!" he raged.  "He is a sodomite!  Do you really imagine that he is not?  Look at me: I am every bit as enthusiastic a sodomite as is Oscar Wilde, and have been since my youth.  Call me whatever filthy name you like--call me a buggerer, or an invert, or a queer, or a Uranian, and you would be speaking a simple fact.  You of all people ought to have taken this point to heart by now.  When has a week gone by since we commenced this affair without my sodding you, or being sodded by you perhaps, and more than once, and to transcendent effect?  You'll own that I am a sodomite, I suppose?"

"All the evidence seems to suggest it."

"Well, I am not ashamed of it, and I will be damned if I ever bring charges against someone for calling me what I am.  I pray every day never to be put in such a situation, but for all my subterfuges in my professional life, I am not a liar.  I did not even lie to that abominable worm in the smoking room, if you noticed.  I refuse to lie about what constitutes my very being.  The only view of you I love more than the top of your head is that glorious backside of yours, and the only one I love more than that is the one I am looking at right now." 

His hand drifted toward my face, but he was far too incensed to complete such a lover-like gesture and the appendage was viciously thrust in his pocket as I gaped at him.  He rocked back on his heels in distraction.  "Shall I continue?"

"Please," I requested.  I had already forgiven him, but I knew better than to stand in his way when I had driven him into such a frenzy.  I prayed that it would grow no worse and assumed a look of rapt attention.

"The second reason I hate Oscar Wilde is because he dragged all who know him into litigation out of an affection for his own ego."  I began to fear for what I had started; my friend's eyes were glowing quite wildly, and his thin hands were clenched into fists.  "I do not know if he loves Lord Alfred Douglas, or if he does not love him.  But I would prefer to exchange places with Wilde this very instant than ever to subject you to my sodomy trial.  Setting aside the revolting invasion of privacy that such a trial engenders, the crime by its very nature necessitates a partner, and may God strike me dead if I would ever even consider placing you in such a position.  Confinement, treadmills, scant food, and beatings I can manage, but alone, for I would never hurt you so.  Do you understand me?"

"Of course I understand--I know you would not," I protested, by now thoroughly alarmed.

"And it needn't end at the trial!" he raved at me.  "Suppose I were imprisoned, and you allowed to go free, your life unchanged save that your reputation was tarnished.  Do you think such people are never the targets of assault?  Granted, our fellow citizens are for the most part tolerant of crimes which do not affect them.  But suppose you were attacked by one of our more vicious breeds of peasant monomaniac, and I could do nothing to prevent it.  Can you imagine a worse punishment for the sin of sodomy than that would be?"

"Nothing of the sort is ever going to happen," I said firmly.  I was by now failing mightily to contain my own emotions, but I had gotten us into this mess, and I considered it my duty to get us out of it, whatever the price.  "I comprehend you perfectly, and your feelings are more than justified.  You need not tell me the third reason you hate--"

"The third reason I hate Oscar Wilde is one of semantics," he snarled.


"I do not love you Platonically, or Socratically, or any of his other asinine terms for it," he stated in a tone so scathing that I was suddenly very glad Oscar Wilde was not present.  "I do not love you with 'the love that dare not speak its name.'  Damn his prevarications, and his pretenses.  I love you.  That is all.  I love you.  It makes me positively furious the way he has mystified it, and sanctified it, and called it spiritual in order to serve his tortuous arguments.  The manner in which he has couched his innocence makes me ill.  My love for you is not divine, it is wholly human, and I suffer for it every day."

"I love you just as badly," I managed to choke out.  "Please, let me--" 

"And while we are on the subject, which you know perfectly well is a difficult one for me, I should appreciate it if in future you would do me the honour of listening to me a little more carefully," he snarled.  "The reason you speak so very ignorantly on the subject of love at first sight is that you have never suffered from the affliction.  I'm heartily happy for you, come to that, for it's wretched.  I said I wanted very badly to take digs with you the day I met you because I could not think of a way to seduce a complete stranger without a little time and a great deal of proximity, and even still it took me until bloody--do you know what happens to me every time I look at--and for the record, I can paint very well indeed, by the way--damn it, sod Oscar Wilde and his--"

It was a lucky thing for Sherlock Holmes that an ancient pillar supporting the archway stood a few inches behind him, for I am afraid I kissed him so ardently that his back struck against the stones.  I was desperate for him.  With my friend in such an impassioned state, I considered it even odds that I would be accepted or coldly rebuffed; as it happened, he kissed me every bit as madly and we both clung to one another when it was over, entirely heedless of the birds who witnessed us or the time that passed in that beautifully deserted place.

"I'm sorry," he said at length, my face still in his neck and his hand in my hair.  "I lost my head for a moment."

"Think nothing of it."  I felt slightly ridiculous addressing his cravat, but continual dignity is not something my partner requires of me, thank Heaven.  I gently disengaged myself so that I could look up into his face.  "I think you are wrong in one regard, however."

"What regard might that be?" he whispered, tracing my jaw with his thumb.

"You do not hate Oscar Wilde."

"On the contrary."

"Oscar Wilde is a wholly admirable man," I said to the best and wisest man I have ever known.  "You hate what this world has done to him.  You hate what it has made him do."

He began to deny it, but his parted lips stilled and his eyes slid to the side as he adjusted his grip on my waist.  I can count the times I have scored an intellectual point over Holmes on one hand, and I firmly believe he begrudged me none of them.  This particular instance, of course, was as much soul-searching as logic, and thus I felt no triumph in it.  I knew that he had needed me to clarify his thoughts for him.  But oh, how great was the pain which pierced my heart when he realized I was right.

"I do hate it."  There was actually moisture in his eyes, though he blinked it back fiercely, and I could have cut off my tongue.  "It terrifies me.  I'll face up to it like a man, however, that I will swear to you," he said, clearing his throat willfully.  "What else do you think?"

I began setting his cravat to rights, for I couldn't bear to look at him.  "I think I don't deserve you," I confessed.

"You don't--"  He laughed, then scowled, then drew my face back up with an expression of amused disbelief.  It was the quickest progression of his reactions when he finds something I say outrageous that I had ever seen.  "John Watson, if you truly think that, you are a complete idiot."

"If I am a complete idiot, then I certainly don't deserve you."

"That isn't--oh, bugger all, I never--"

I can still, when I recall it, feel the chill that struck every nerve in my body when we heard the creaking of rusted iron hinges and the heavy oak door behind us swung open.  By the time the little priest stepped out of it, smiling absently and blinking behind his spectacles, we were two feet apart with our hands in our pockets; however, we could not allow ourselves the luxury of supposing that our entire criminal conversation had not been overheard through the mullioned window by the brown-cassocked man who stood rubbing his hands in a friendly manner before us.  He was entirely bald, bent in the back, and he could not possibly have been younger than eighty years of age.

"I'm terribly sorry," Holmes began tightly, taking a rigid step forward.  "I thought this chapel closed for repairs."

"Oh, it is, my son.  It is.  It has been quite unoccupied for a week now, but I am the organist, you see, and I was making certain that my instrument is well protected against harm.  My name is Father Flint, and I have just completed my inspection.  The organ is quite secure," he finished, his eyes twinkling at us as he cleaned his spectacles on his sleeve.  He had a rasping, birdlike voice and his hands trembled with the palsy of the very old.

"I am very glad to hear it.  But there are no footmarks in this corridor," my friend pointed out.  At times, Sherlock Holmes is almost too much like himself to be believed.

"How clever of you to notice," the priest said, sounding pleasantly surprised.  "Yes, I came through the front, but this is the way to my home," he explained with a brief indication of his arm. 

"I see.  Please accept my apologies for any disturbance we may have caused."

"Your apology is not accepted, sir," the Father Flint replied calmly, then laughed at the dismay which crossed our faces.  "You need not apologize at all, you see--if two of my brothers wish to make use of the chapel's current solitude, who am I to say they should not?  But I fear I may have startled you, if you thought yourselves alone.  Do forgive me, for you are most welcome here.  I cannot think either of you would ever visit harm on our place of worship, you both appear so kind." 

"We wouldn't dream of it," Holmes assured him.

"I imagine you live in the neighborhood.  What a fine coincidence to have met you.  I do so love making new acquaintances.  Do you care for baroque music, sir?" he asked of Holmes.

"Very much," my stunned friend replied as readily as he could.

"Oh, how splendid.  Really, this is very gratifying, as I have been a pipe organist for nearly all my life.  Do you play?"

"No.  That is to say, I play the violin," Holmes corrected himself.

"I adore the violin, and should consider it an honour to hear you one day.  You have quite a spiritual air about you, if I may make the observation, sir, and it does not surprise me in the least that you play the violin.  And you, sir?" he added, turning his clever eyes on me.

"I fear I haven't any talent in that direction," I answered.

"But you've other talents that make up for it, I am sure.  I can see you're both artists," he observed, quite unconsciously returning my friend and I to a state nearing panic over what he was implying. 

"I do write a little," I admitted hastily.

"How wonderful.  I am an avid reader, and I congratulate you, my son.  Is he a good writer?" he inquired of Holmes, smoothing his hand over his wrinkled brow.

My friend took far longer in responding than I would have liked.  "He is a brilliant physician."

"Well, medicine is an art as well.  And what about him, sir?  Is he adept at the violin?" Father Flint asked me merrily.

"To tell the truth, he's masterful," I owned with a dark look at Holmes.

"Very fine.  Well, gentlemen, I will not keep you any longer; nor will I ask you your names, as I have very rudely interrupted your conversation.  My sister expects me for tea, you know, and our home is quite a ten minute walk.  I'm terribly pleased to have met two such amiable young men.  Should you wish to avail yourself of the chapel's privacy again, I have no intention of returning now my organ is safe, and the workmen do not begin until Monday.  Should you tire of privacy and wish to avail yourself of the chapel in public, I would be very glad to see you both again.  We resume services in two months, and I should find your opinion of our pipe organ most welcome.  It is considered the finest in Westminster by several knowledgeable parties."

"I am sure they are correct," I managed.

"Very good of you to say so, my son, and I will presume to hope we meet again one day.  Oh, and might I beg a favour of you?  No, you, sir--yes, the taller, and I do beg your pardon.  I wonder if you might consider making me a small promise, if you do not mind indulging the whims of a priest who is terribly old, and quite abominably old-fashioned, not to mention set in his ways."

"If it is in my power to do so," Holmes replied, turning a shade paler.

Father Flint laughed once more, shaking his head.  "Forgive me once again--you do not know me, and I forgot that you do not know me, and might have imagined I would ask you to perform a task of which you are not capable.  I do not believe that God asks such things of us, and if God does not make demands of us beyond our power, that leaves men--generally speaking, and perhaps you agree with me, sirs--who make unreasonable requests of us.  No, I assure you I have utter faith in your ability to perform this little favour.  I am so very old, you see, and so very set against the use of profanity on hallowed ground."

"It shan't happen again," my friend replied quickly. 

"I am grateful for your courtesy, my son," Father Flint said contentedly.  He smiled, his face forming a great web of wrinkles.  "God bless you, lads, have a pleasant afternoon, and I am very pleased to have met you both.  Good day!"

We stared after the departing form of the priest, watching his robes swirl around his ankles as he made surprisingly rapid progress through the courtyard and out of sight.  The birds seemed to twitter again, and the sun's warmth slowly returned.

"Did that priest just bless us?" Holmes inquired hesitantly, staring blankly after the prelate.

"I believe he did," I replied, not in fact prepared to believe it at all.

"Do you have your--"

"It's here."  I pulled out my notebook. 

"Two months from now is the...."

"Seventh of October," I replied, jotting it down in pencil.  I then returned the slim volume to my inner pocket.

"Shall we go home?" my friend said softly, offering his arm.

I watched my boots as we crossed the cracked and ancient stones, then raised my eyes to the street beyond.  The wind rustled the leaves above us as we stepped onto the pavement.  Guilt was burning in my chest like a wound, and I thought if I did not give voice to it straight away, it might do me physical harm.  "I beg you to forgive me for calling you cold-blooded.  I am heartily ashamed of myself.  It is further evidence of my complete idiocy."

"Never mind, darling," he sighed, turning toward Baker Street.  "It's my own fault.  I don't know why it vexes me so.  I am cold-blooded."

"I should never have said such a thing to you."

"Why not?  You are the one who most often suffers by it."

His words struck a strange chord in me, and then I knew the truth of the matter.  It was a revelation, and one I chastised myself for not having seen before.  "Holmes," I said slowly.  I pulled back on his arm and stopped our progress toward the road.  I was thinking very carefully of what I wished to express to him, and I believed I saw my way clear so long as he was willing to hear me out.

"Whatever is the matter?" he asked me tenderly, grey eyes searching my face.

"Holmes," I continued, "if what you say is at least partially true, and it does not offend you to hear it, then...."

"Tell me," he said softly when I stopped once more.

"Well, I--I only meant to say that if you are a little cold-blooded..." I explained, doing my best not to meander around the point like a shy schoolboy.  "I do not mean to repeat a slight--I spoke in anger before.  I would not hurt you for worlds, and I know it pains you deeply to be called cold, and distant, and calculating, and mechanical, if it's by me.  But if you possess all those traits, in some small measure, then I am very glad of it.  Indeed, I am grateful for it.  No, don't--you must let me finish.  I am trying to say that if all the things in that enormous heart of yours, even a tiny fraction of them, Holmes, were visible on your face, then--then we should be in a very great deal of trouble."

He was silent for a terribly long while and when he finally opened his lips, he hesitated just as I had.  By the time he spoke at last, his voice was quite hoarse.

"Do you mean to tell me," he questioned, "that it keeps you safe?"

"Yes," I said, very much relieved, "and it is a necessary defense, in your case."

"Why is that?"

"Because I used to be terribly blind," I confessed, "and I hope you can forgive me for it.  You do not feel things less than most men.  You feel them more."

"Do you know," he remarked, after some thought upon that subject, "I don't believe I deserve you."

When I scoffed in good-natured indignation at having my words thrown back at me so readily, he smiled and set off down the street humming a lilting tune, his hands deep in his pockets.  I followed in his stride, my legs moving slightly faster to keep pace with him.  When we had made half a block's progress, he glanced back at me, his eyes lit with the sun and the easy happiness I see only very rarely.

"You and I are going to last," he commented with a boyish grin.

"Whatever are you saying?" I returned, quite thoroughly staggered at the sentiment.  "I do not know if I ought to be glad you think so or hurt that you did not before."

"I had not supposed that we would not," he corrected himself with his usual affection for meandering precision.  "I am rather monstrous occasionally, which makes matters more difficult.  But I have just been granted the overwhelming sensation that, under a merciful Providence, we shall." 

"Well, then thank God for that," I said, meaning it with all my heart.

"Thank God, indeed.  One of us is quite full of His grace, after all." 

I could not see him as he said it, for he had turned his face to the street once more and I could view only the back of that proud head as he stepped down into the road.  I like to think, however, that I know what he looked like when he delivered the most memorable and touching tribute I have ever received in my lifetime.  He does not often say that he loves me, or state openly that he desires me, or that he missed my companionship after a separation.  But when I am low or he is absent and I strive to recall tender words, as a man with a childish and unbecoming affinity for romance will occasionally do, I do not think of him the day he first owned he cared for me, or picture him at the apex of his passions murmuring my name.  I think of that afternoon in the sunlight, walking back to our home under the plane trees, wondering that love could transform a man's opinion to the extent that he could think of me as possessing any measure of the Divine--as I am, after all, a very ordinary man.