by Katie

An unnamed medical shelter outside Guillemont.  September, 1916.

At first, I had been stalwart enough not to make use of the rum ration.  It is a tolerable if fiery substance, but I had no taste for it, and preferred to fall onto my stiff-woven cot at night with my head clear.  I never knew when I might be roused again, after all.  Sunlight or starlight made no difference to fatal skirmishes, and the guns chattered away without ceasing.  But after a year had passed, the countryside around me at times changing but the blood always seeping the same thick red, I took advantage of it. 

I had a little tin cup without a handle, the sort which in London might be used by a St. Giles sharp in a trio to hide a coin or a bean from the unwary bet-maker.  And I set it by my elbow, filled with the sort of liquor I suppose privateers swill in the middle of the Atlantic, when I sat down to write the man who strode easily through my dreams at night, tall and elegant in a black hat and artfully cut tails.

My table was unsteady, for one leg was slightly too short.  I propped it with a flattened artillery shell box.  Had I been forced to write letters on the back of a rifle case, I should have been reminded harrowingly of Afghanistan and the act would have held a fraction of torment behind the keen pleasure.  But here there were woods and not sand, and trenches filled with pure rot rather than cleanly bleached bones, and I had a table with a matching three-legged stool.  And I had a Reader, who made my life worth continuing.  Sipping the rum, I raised my pen.

I did a small piece of good yesterday, for which I was grateful, for the men whom I treat are sick to despairing already of trench tools and wet boots and striking up against half-decomposing limbs when they set out to dig some of the filth up and over the sides of their wretched domiciles.  We are of course a little distant from those mouldering hellholes, how far I need not bother to say, for it will only be excised again.  But I had a sudden onrush of five poor fellows, the youngest not seventeen by the looks of him, torn up by a foray into the No Man’s Land over a rocky hill which in peacetime no sane man would ever dream of desiring.  I cannot help but think it was merely a scouting expedition or --- -------, perhaps, or else there would have been far more of them.  Two had suffered badly at the hands of German riflemen, but I do think they’ll pull through in the end.  Two others, including the young fellow I mentioned, had sustained moderate burns from an explosion of some godless chemical substance in a box barrage--similar, I think, to kerosene, although rather more viscous. 

But the good deed of which I speak was rather more whimsical in nature than cauterizing their wounds.  The fifth was a man in his late forties with a piece of shrapnel in his abdomen, which I removed with considerable care, for I thought at first it had grazed his spleen and was worried considerably over questions of hemorrhage and toxic shock.  But all went well, my dear fellow, and when I was nearly through stitching him up, he asked rather dazedly whether I had any access to hot water.

“Certainly,” I told him, “or I should despair of ever saving anyone, without clean medical tools.”

“Well, here’s the mucking bloody way of it,” he said to me.  He was a swarthy chap, Holmes, with a ragged moustache and an air of the dockyards about him, as if he had been a warehouse labourer or a stevedore in better days.  “The bleeding useless pillbox we was after spying out is ---- -- ----- and swarming with Jerrys, but damned if there weren’t a house we sheltered in on our way to have our guts handed to us.  Weren’t a soul left, of course, they'd have starved, but I found two things after a good thorough search, one a gift and one a bleeding miracle: a tin of first-rate, genuine, nice-as-you-please cut leaf tea.  And a woman’s gold necklace chain hid in the mud underfoot.  It weren't never looting, I swear on a Bible.  My wife, Doctor, ain’t had two farthings to rub agin’ one another since I shipped out, so here's what I propose: you seem a decent sort.  Mail that chain to my wife in Bethnel Green and you keep the tea.  Drink it in health."

I need hardly say that I agreed to do his mailing for him.  I refused the tea at first, but we reached a compromise and shared it.  He was right.  It was of a far superior sort to the variety of brackish brew I can generally lay hands on.

I stopped, scuffing the ground beneath me with my boot toe in thought.

Holmes knows that where storytelling is concerned, I am a rampant liar.  I am a liar of such spectacular order that I am grateful I lost the diary I had kept during my last war, for fear I might actually grow to believe its contents factual.  I am such a perfect weaver of untruths that even Holmes himself can barely recognize some of the cases he has appeared in, dashing through the Strand magazine like a knight in pinstriped trousers.  He knows me for one of the world's great liars.  With my pen only, and not with my lips, but nevertheless the man knows. 

So when I departed for the War and he was left to conduct intelligence work in London, the night before that ghastly parting on the train platform, he had propped himself on his elbow, covered my bare throat beneath him with his other hand, looked me square in the eye, and made one of his unequivocal orders.

"Do not lie to me," he had said.  "Vow that you will not."

I cannot help but mind him, when he delivers such commands.  So I tell him the truth.

But what can I tell him?  At times, it baffles me.  I took another sip of the heady spirits and felt it burn down my throat.  A shattering thud sounded a few miles away, somewhere in the woods.  I cannot write him the most important truth of all: that I love him, and life without him is hell.  I cannot write him a less important truth: that life here would be a hell even apart from his terrible absence.  So I must pen him careful truths. 

And of late, I have begun to tell him other stories.  Stories that do not take place in France.  Stories about England, and about the man I love.  They had been tiny anecdotes up to late 1916.  But on that day, I began to write him one of our actual cases, altered with an eye for gallows humour and the patently absurd.

If I remain idle in a literary sense for this entire War, I think I shall go quite mad.  And by the time I return, the editors of the Strand will want volumes of print about you.  So where shall I start?  Shall I write of your favourite case? 

"Mr. Sherlock Holmes was always of the opinion that I should publish the singular facts connected with Professor Presbury, if only to dispel once and for all the ugly rumours which some twenty years ago agitated the university and were echoed in the learned societies of London."

I have made you laugh at the very least, I hope.  And I can do it, you know.  I may be exhausted, and my feet may be perpetually blistered, but nevertheless I can still write down that ridiculous parody of a mystery.  I will end the account for now with this merest hint of an introduction, so that you will not know whether my threat to write down an alternate version--one in which you are enthusiastically in support of my retelling it, for instance--is a real one.

If you find you absolutely cannot convince your brother to try any Italian restaurant other than the
Ristorante di Trevori, at least be assured that I will join you at Marcini's the very evening I return.  If we find they have taken the agnoletti with lamb off the menu by then, or can no longer come by the exact mystical ingredients, we shall mourn briefly and then hasten directly to Florence.  And we shan't leave Florence, either, not until we miss Sussex and want a good English slice of bread with honey straight from the comb drizzled over it.

The thought has made me hungry enough to end this letter on a culinary note, a mistake I shall not soon repeat, I promise you, for tinned beef has grown to represent the Inferno itself to your humble servant.  I miss food cooked with more thought than simply eating it.  I miss much more than that.

Ever yours,
John Watson

London, Pall Mall.  December, 1916.

It was a calculated war waged against my own mind. 

My mind was my bitterest foe.  My soaringly imaginative, tactically brilliant, ever-practical mind.  Had I been able to exchange my brain with that of a half-witted factory girl, during the four years Watson was in France, I should have done so.  I should have traded it for a Dorset cow's in an instant.  Could I have slipped into a coma entirely, I should have chosen that, save that then I would not have been working every waking moment to end the War quickly.   

And God, how desperately I needed to end that bloody War.   

At the beginning, I could see everything.  Too much.  And there the information was, all at my disposal on my brother's desk.  Guns.  Troops movements.  Chemical weaponry.  Mustard gas.  God in Heaven, it drew and quartered me daily.  At the beginning, when I was less strict with myself and allowing flights of vividly pictured deductions, anything could tip my heart into a blind panic.  I glimpsed a wire in concert with a coded list, a grain manifest, a series of numerals, and a map on my brother's oak desk and nearly sent myself to the hospital.  I knew generally, within thirty miles, perhaps, where my friend was at any given time.  My brother saw to that.  And according to those seemingly innocuous papers in 1914, he would be dead in a week.  The odds were for a simple gunshot wound, but exploding debris was also possible. 

Looking up from the mad scratches in his commonplace war journal, Mycroft frowned at me from across the length of his entire office.  


I made no answer.  

"Sherlock," he said clearly, "I have seen what you have seen, but you have not seen all that I have.  In addition, I do not allow myself to actually see it.  Stop your mind's eye, and at once."  

"How can I help but see it?  I've always seen it.  All my life," I answered miserably, leaning back against his bookshelves and shoving my hands in my pockets.  

"Well, you are through now," my brother commanded, tidying papers.  "This is not you staring at carriage tracks in our drive and predicting the events of the next six hours verbatim.  I can allow you to know things, to employ your tireless energies on our behalf, but not to see them.  Do you mark me?  I will retrain your mind myself if I have to.  You are Sherlock Holmes, not Cassandra of ancient myth.  We shall unravel the work of sixty years."  

"I can't.  My mind doesn't work that way," I whispered in despair.  

"It's going to have to."  Rising, my brother approached me and placed a hand on my shoulder.  He left it there until I looked back at him, seeing my own eyes in a huge, sagging face of sixty-seven years.  

"He should not have done it," I said through a clenched jaw.  It was the only time I said it.  Ever.   

"No, but now he has," Mycroft said softly.  "Be logical.  You are not getting him back for a period of months or possibly even years.  You are thus presented with exactly two options.  Either stay as you are and see how long you can live like this before you break--I give it three months, myself, and if the War grows worse as swiftly as I think it will, no longer than two and a half--or stop seeing things.  Think them in the abstract, for I need you, but do not see them, petit frère.  Please stop seeing them.  Try for me."  

"All right," I gasped.  I had not been aware of how shallowly I was breathing, for I was watching him perish over and over again in a spray of gore and crossfire.  The moment I agreed, my brother slid back into his usual distant inertia.  

"Good man," he said absently, going back to his desk.  

"I can't do it alone," I added impulsively.  

"Of course not.  I've sent round to your hotel.  You're staying with me in Pall Mall for as long as this endures."  

Under most circumstances, I would have made at least some show of being outraged.  As it was, I tried.  But I found myself only achingly grateful.  Grateful to my brother for knowing me better than I knew myself, but still more grateful that he had not bothered asking me.  I might have refused.  I might have lost my mind entirely.  

"You can't bear to live with other people," I observed instead.  

"It wasn't you I couldn't bear to live with all those years ago," he countered with a note of impatience.  "I can live with you, I assure you.  I am about to, after all.  Provided you do not destroy my library or pilfer my tooth powder or ruin my curtains with shag smoke, I shall simply count my blessings and serve my country by keeping you in my house.  I am no less a patriot than you are, you see.  And I need not worry, now, that you will be inviting berouged deviants into my guest room.  What a blessing that will be."  

When I stood silent and stricken, his head snapped back at me, fast as my own could.  

"We are not spending however many years this conflict will prove pretending Dr. Watson does not exist, are we?" he asked severely.  

I shook my head.  

"Say his name, then."

He was not being cruel.  I knew it even then.  But it felt like cruelty, even though it was the most charitable order imaginable.  Mycroft waited for me to produce a miracle quietly, simply expecting the impossible of me, his eyes shimmering blade edges within the pouches of skin.  

"Watson exists.  And in France.  And we Holmeses will do the best we can," I answered with every scrap of courage I could muster.  

"Do you know, there are days I admire you," my brother said with a smile.  "Let us set about making them less few and far between, shall we?"

And that is exactly what we did.

By the time I received the first of what I came to think of as the Presbury Letters, I was very, very good at knowing things without visualizing them.  For example, I could crack an encoded German message and read its contents without actually gazing upon trench after trench of rotting men with maggots streaming out of their pockets, though I knew that would be the sure result of the intelligence.  I could look at a map, a very detailed map, and look at my brother's commonplace book on his desk (next to my desk, which was far, far less organized), and though I knew there would be a water shortage, I would not see men drinking befouled trench runoff and promptly dying of dysentery, though doubtless that is exactly what happened.  I am a remarkably fine chemist.  By the first Presbury Letter, in 1916, I could explain to a room full of men just precisely what a new development in chemical gas would do to a person, how long it would take to clear, from how far a distance it could be fired, and not hear screaming ninety-nine percent of the time.

When we arrived home that night, we had for once shared a cab.  There were stars out, and a hazy moon before them.  My brother and I would always divide our hansom fares if it were practicable, but it isn't: Mycroft all too often staggers in at dawn when I know him to be due again behind his desk and his telephone at nine.  And I all too often spend the night at Whitehall writing up the latest notes on a completed air bombardment study rather than going home again and finishing it in the morning. 

The single tic in my brain I absolutely cannot shut off, not for the very life of me, is that if I ever delay so much as a single instant in wrapping up intelligence reports, John Watson's death will be laid at my feet.  This ought not to happen, statistically.  But if I let up for a millisecond, it shall.  It know it.  

"Where the deuce are my keys?" I muttered, searching my pockets.  

My brother stood silent.  He stood silent because he had seen my keys bulging from my inner jacket pocket.  He thus knew me on the verge of finding them.  I threw open the door for him and stepped in, absently gripping the pile of mail awaiting us.  

One envelope distracted me.  

Mycroft and I receive a very great deal of mail.  Most of it is foriegn mail, some of it is plaintive appeals to me to find what I used to call "lost pencil cases," as if I have any time to spare for intellectual puzzles when I am busy ending a War, perhaps the War.  Some are notes from our far-flung acquaintances wondering just when we'll end said War.   

The rest are letters from Watson.  

They feel ordinary enough.  Not too thin, and neither are they a richer heft of fibre.  They are quite common.  But they are stamped oddly, and have a military smell, with seals and censorship marks.  They keep me strung up and living on four hours of sleep per night, like a marionette.  That is why I never give any indication of having just received one.  

We stamped upstairs and I flicked on the gas.  After dropping the mail on a table, I crossed to Mycroft's small sideboard, just to the right of his noble fireplace, and poured two neat whiskeys.  That is what I do.  If it is unusual and slightly disturbing for my brother to quarter me in his home, I can at least form habits.  He likes habits tremendously.  It is horribly painful for me to form habits, however.  So I only pretend to form them, for his sake. 

I handed him his drink and he took it, dropping into his cream coloured velvet armchair with a small huff of relief.  That brought a smile to my face, which I hid in my glass.  

"Aren't you going to read it?" he asked, with his scorching silver eyes placidly closed.  

I went back to the table and I fetched my letter and I read it.  At some point, I must have stirred atypically.  Mycroft said nothing.  But he opened his eyes, and then closed them once more.  

"What's wrong?" he asked a little while later, after having emptied his liquor glass and stood up to ready himself for bed.  

"Nothing," I murmured.  "He's only telling stories."  

"And that troubles you?"  

"No.  And yes."  

"Petit frère, I am fascinated by the nature of theatre, and there is much of the dramatic in your longtime companion, but--unless you grow rapidly more specific--I shall bid you good night."  

"When do you tell stories?" I returned rather harshly.  

Mycroft straightened, then sagged back to his normal stance.  He was wearing a dove grey frock coat over a black waistcoat, and he pulled out his watch to check the time.  He was not being rude, merely being him.  My brother snapped the timepiece closed again and nodded at me.  I am not often right in Mycroft's presence.  But when I am, he acknowledges it with a fairness that I will try to emulate to my dying day.  

"What shall you do with knowing the truth is too dark to write down?"  

I considered.  "Were I some blushing primrose, I should swallow it all whole."  

"Well, there you have your answer," he said with a grim smile on his way to his bedroom.  "You are a snapdragon."  

I waved goodnight with lazy fingers.  Then I went to the writing-desk, and set hands on a pen with a good nib, and cast hither and yon for some stationery.  Stretching my arms, for I had already written volumes of print that day, I laid out a sheet.  

My dear Watson,  

I told him several tales of buffoonery within Whitehall which were entirely factual but non-sensitive.  Mainly items regarding the filing girl, who had gone so far as to perfume her memos to me that week.  I am old enough to be her father, but inverted enough never to have so much as gazed upon her kind with lustful longing in my entire life, and so not old enough to be her father at all, for begetting offspring (so far as I have heard) begins with copulation.  I would never dream of trying to make Watson jealous.  But he knows I cannot physically be tempted by her ilk, and somehow my being irritated amuses him. 

Then I grew rather braver.  

Should you insist upon telling me the story of Professor Presbury, which I know all too well and beg you will refrain from doing, do you mean to imply that no other business lends your pen gravity enough to descend to the page?  I know about monkeys, and what mind-altering drugs can do to a ridiculous old man, I promise you.  Should you insist, I merely stipulate: make it matter, my dear fellow.  If you are to tell me a story I already know, I wish you would allow me to learn something new from it.  You can engage me like no other, but I wish to know what you see and what you think.  Not what you saw and what you thought.  Nothing about this is the same as any other circumstance.  Not even when I was in America, I think.  When I was in America I was trying to keep an avalanche from falling.  Now I am only trying to dig us all out again.

My brother has gone to bed at last, and I must follow his example.  My work on the morrow is sensitive and delicate and rather all-consuming when it comes to anyone duller than Mycroft (that is, everyone in England).  Do you know, I am ever torn between mailing these jottings as quickly as possible that I might receive more news, or delaying so as to tell you what happens next.  It is not the thorniest problem I have ever muddled through, but it is rather an awful one.  I think you understand what I mean.

There are Christmas boughs in doorways, and a modest show of spirit in Regent-street, though the lights are quite dimmed compared to other years.  Should you prefer I pass the season in my usual abhorrence of decorative notions, or torment my brother with their sudden appearance throughout his rooms?  My immediate preference is to retain my suavity if only from long practice, but I cannot help but wonder what he would do if he happened upon a flat wreathed entirely in mistletoe.  I leave it to you, my dear fellow: holly branches over his mantelpiece and a cupid statuette on his desk, or I remain stately and urbane. 

Your servant,
Sherlock Holmes

It was unfair to tell him I wished only for new stories and not old ones, perhaps.  I thought over the question as I tucked the papers in an envelope.  But he had been the one to leave, on this occasion, and I knew him, and I would not be turned into a modified version of myself.  Not in the middle of a War.  Not when he was in Death's harvesting fields.  Not when it was on purpose.

He was the one who left this time, after all. 

I have left John Watson twice.  The first time was to save his life.  The second time was to serve my country.  I detested every instant of both of them. Watson had left me for another reason. 

I did not know quite what it was.  It had something to do with very real honour and bravery and self-sacrifice.  It had something to do with reclaiming a bit of the blithe young man he had left in the desert, or perhaps finding out if that man yet existed, bleached by the sun but still intact and ready for anything.  It had something to do with sending other blithe young men home, whether whole or in pieces.  And it also had nothing to do with any of that. 

I cast my eyes over the row of perfect Strand magazines on my brother's bookshelf and sighed.

Perhaps he did not know.

Because I had trained my mind well by that time, I did not ask myself on that night whether I would be better off remaining in ignorance myself.      

An unnamed medical shelter outside Guillemont.  March, 1917.

I read through the precious letter twice before folding it carefully and placing it with the others inside a leather wallet I kept at the foot of my bed with my gun and my papers. 

The air was bitterly cold, but the wind was blowing in some miraculously cleanly, blessed direction.  I find cold easier to tolerate than heat, at any rate.  And so, walking out of my tent to watch the fireworks (or so I called them to myself) that night, my mind was lucid though tired, and I was very grateful for it.

Sherlock Holmes was right, I knew.  He was right to desire the truth of me, and right to fear we should grow apart somehow.  Nothing else had been able to manage it, but my friend would have to be more than human not to fear the War to end all other wars might do the job at last.

And my friend is very, very human, in my opinion the finest example of the species there is.

That night, with the rum at my elbow and my pen in my hand, staccato shells firing in the distance, I did the very best that I could.  He wanted the truth, and I wanted to serve him, which had ever been my greatest joy and privilege, and at times Holmes knows what he needs better than I know it.  I thought it a bad idea, personally.  But I did my best in spite of that.  

Every day I grow wearier trying to keep up with the tide of men passing through our humble garrison.  I see the reinforcements passing us, bound for the trenches  --- or ------- at times, to be certain, ---- ----- - ------- -- --- ---.  And they come back the same way, Holmes, always the same route now we are well placed.  They come back echoes.  It is worse than Afghanistan, worse by far than anything I have ever seen.  In Afghanistan, we were plagued by nightmares of raw savagery, of Ghazis draining our blood slowly through gut wounds.  I killed one, once.  Did I ever tell you that?  He was a captive, and he got hold of a knife through a soldier dying of thirst’s utter carelessness, and he was slitting a fellow called Collishan’s throat when I shot him through the eye.  I never told you that.  You must have guessed it.

Here they fear rotting to death while still alive.

I was in a trench, not two months ago.  Forgive me for not telling you, or else add it to my list of unresolved grievances.  There was an outbreak of typhus, and they wanted me to suggest improvements as they transported the sick.

I cannot explain it.  A London sewer left to fester, without the necessary rats to eat the refuse.  Water two feet deep in places.  In other stretches it could never be called water again, Holmes, not after fifty rainfalls, not if Christ touched it, not in millennia, not if you purified it a thousand times.

“Watch the wire there, sir,” my guide said helpfully, and I did.

“How much further?” I wondered, for I already had enough impossible sanitary suggestions to fill an almanac, and not a one of them could ever be introduced.  We have field dressings a-plenty, but that does not stop our boys living in privy swamps.  And I had sick men to tend to.  Many, many sick men, and every moment with them counted, for most of them would not last the night.  I wanted to be there.  If I tried hard enough, I thought, I might save two.  Two was my goal.  It was a very high one, my dear man.

“Just past Fritz’s arm, Doctor,” he replied.  “Then we’ll turn back.”

I asked him, of course, to explain.  We had taken over the trench on --- ---, from the German ------, and made our own use of it.  One of the soldiers the Hun had buried last year seemed to have an increasingly skeletal arm hanging into the trench.  A landmark.

When we did turn back at last, I saw something I had not before: a braided Christmas wreath, set over a little outcropping of rock.  There are poisonous red berries all over these woods, and whole handfuls were shoved into the circlet.  I cannot help but think of them.  I think of them very often, Holmes, and I can assure you, to think of your brother walking into an indoor holly forest without warning was no less pleasant. 

By the time this reaches you at last, of course, even were it to fly into your hands by tea-time, you would no longer be thinking of Christmas.  Damn this delay, it quite maddens me.

But I am all right, my dear fellow.  I promise you that.

I know that you can tell me less of your own affairs.  Should my letters go wrong, someone would know that a miserable army is fast losing its miserable lives near a miserable wood which looks like every other.  But should your letters go wrong...  You are unique.  I knew it from the moment I saw you.  I know that you are fighting harder than I am, my good man.  I am the lucky one.  I know it every day.

I must continue to tell you of Professor Presbury's simian dilemma.  I see you wincing even at my mentioning it again.  But thinking of that, selfishly, makes me smile, which I know you would never begrudge me.  And I both can and shall make the account matter.  That much I can swear to you.

If you would like me to make it relevant, I made the wrong choice of case, upon reflection, however.  That was characteristically dense of me.  After all, I have always done all I could do, my dear chap, to make it known how thoroughly you have come to rely on my presence.  And now I have taken my presence away.   

Have you forgiven me yet?  You never said you had done.  But I never asked.  

Shall I make my appearance by your side trivial?  Will that make you laugh?  I can make you laugh, I know, but have I since this hell-inspired conflict began?  I don't know that I believe anyone capable of laughing for much longer.  But here, I shall make a stalwart effort:

"The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. He was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me -- many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead -- but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject. If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance."

There is, you will see, a single sentence above which is entirely true.  Identify it for me, if you please.  It is buried quite in the depths, but I think you shall ferret it out.  And a reference to a bedstead to boot.

Ever yours,
John Watson

London, Whitehall.  June, 1917.

Cocking my head to the side, seated at the desk sitting at a right angle to my brother's, I began to chuckle silently at the letter in my fingers.

"Yes?" Mycroft drawled.

"Not the sort of joke you would appreciate, brother mine," I smiled.

Mycroft has a very tall window behind his desk, nearly eight feet, with brown curtains, and though it has been raised as a security concern that the entire British Government and the British Government's Brother ought not to be so exposed, we have scoffed the overcautious to shame.  On that afternoon, the sun was blazing through it.  It lit up the documents obscuring our work spaces in a very cheery fashion. 

And while I did not like hearing of trenches, not when Watson was seeing them firsthand, oh how grateful I was for an honest account.  Honesty in spades.  Honesty even in Afghanistan long ago, and in the middle of a ludicrous farce about bedsteads.  We had always been quite unseemly fond of bedsteads.

Heedless of what I had just been doing, for the letter had been delivered by midday post and I had just finished it, I reached for paper and my pen.

My dear Watson,

You do stimulate me.  And have thus made me laugh, and heartily too.

I cannot tell you of my daily doings, that is a sad fact.  But I can tell you that my brother’s bath facilities are unparalleled in Great Britain.  Every other day he spends an hour wreathed in steam clouds, with the most exquisite towels awaiting him, towels which put my supply in Sussex to shame despite my (very well documented) reverence for hygiene.  These of which I speak are the Golden Fleece compared to a raw muleskin, still attached to the live mule.  He apparently sends out for new ones every two years from Egypt.  All this time, I had supposed we lived well.  We do not, my dear chap.  You doubtless do not wish to hear this on the front lines, Watson, but we live very badly.  My brother has taught me what small fortunes ought to look like.  They look like miracles of modern plumbing.  When you come back to London, I shall correct my original error.  In Sussex, that is.

I saw a photograph of a trench, yesterday.  It was in Belgium, at the side of what seemed to have been a horse track once.  There was a rifleman staring out, trying to look purposefully brave, but looking quite blank.  A photograph is nothing to the actual scene and I know it, but you have always given my imagination its due credit.  That trench looked a creation of Dante’s.  It is no place for old men.  Or for men who feel forty and happen to be wrong, for that matter.  Thank Heaven you are neither, but a doctor of tremendous skill and fortitude.

I bit the tip of my pen, thinking better of what I was about to write.  Then I thought better of thinking better of it, and wrote the code quite clearly.

You recall the note about game-keeper Hudson?  The one Trevor showed me?  He claimed I often cannot love game birds you revere so madly.

"You are glowing quite unnaturally for a man of your advanced years.  Back to General Yudenich, my dear boy."

Sighing, I obeyed. But I kept his letter open, on my desk, next to a great pile of tedious Cyrillic. 

Mycroft was tactful enough not to mention it.

An unnamed medical shelter in the woods near Leuze.  Early August, 1917.

I was washing my hands that evening when a brother medico who owned the fortunate name of Franklin Bliss came up beside me, equally covered in human liquids. 

It was a balmy night, perfect for picnics and for rail travel and--so the world went in 1917--for rampant slaughter.  The bowl before me was already red, but I moved aside and made him some room, for Bliss is a first-rate physician and we were both needed back at the rows of groaning men.

"My hands used to look just like this, of a summer's eve, as a child," he said, winking at me.  "But it was strawberries."

I laughed readily.  Death forms its own cult of humour.  It had done at Maiwand, and I had been living with it in France for years by that time.  Besides, I enjoyed Bliss' company, with his slightly greying curls and his broad-shouldered air of methodical peace.  Nothing startled him.  Nothing startled me either, but Bliss seemed to take it all in with the depth of an ocean.  I thought him good and knew him steady.

"Mine too," I smiled.  "But it was raspberries, I think."

"Where were you a child, then?"

"Oh, several places," I shrugged, drying my fingers.  "Edinburgh, mainly."

"I thought so," he exclaimed, brown eyes lighting up with warmth.  "I don't think you can hear it any longer, more's the pity, for my parents moved along when I was five, after setting up a trading company.  But I'm a Glasgow man, myself."

"Now you mention it, I thought I liked you," I returned with a chuckle.

"Did you now?"

Bliss took the cloth from me, drying his own fingers with calm deliberation.  And I knew, because I had once been like him, that we had just gotten halfway to an arrangement.  More than halfway, in fact.  Ninety percent.  A word, one single word, and it would be a settled thing.  My heart quickened, because I had startled myself.  But the look must have appeared to be something else, for Bliss smiled.

"You're a likable man yourself, you know."

"I'm sorry," I said, kindly but firmly.

He drew his head back.  Then, with a look of annoyance or perhaps even offense, he dropped the cloth by the basin.  "Above that sort of thing, are you?"

"No," I said pointedly.  "Not at home, either."

When comprehension dawned on him, Bliss granted me a disappointed smile.  He tipped the bloody water into the grass.  We would need the bowl clean again within ten minutes.

"He's lucky, then," Bliss said with a nod as he turned away.

"He claims to think so," I whispered to myself.

When I wrote to Holmes that night, I felt singularly uninspired.

Can I mock my own dates?  Our disturbingly inaccurate Strand chronology?  In concert with Professor Presbury and his wretched addiction to laudanum laced with hallucinogenic chemicals?  Or shall I tease you about dates in my stead, when I am already notorious for altering the hard facts of calendars?

"'Thank goodness that something connects with something," said I. "At present we seem to be faced by a long series of inexplicable incidents with no bearing upon each other.  For example, what possible connection can there be between an angry wolfhound and a visit to Bohemia, or either of them with a man crawling down a passage at night?  As to your dates, that is the biggest mystification of all.'"

I set my pen down.

I missed him so deeply.

I was beginning to forget just how silver his hair had gone.  Partly because he had been in America for two years, and partly because I had been in France for three.

Can you think of a synonym for hollow? I wrote next.

I tore that letter to pieces before burning it.  But he can deduce Niagra Falls from a drop of water.  Perhaps the words reached him anyhow.

I hope that they did not.

London, Picadilly.  Late October, 1917

I walk through London to calm my mind.  Westminster, primarily, though I do foray elsewhere. 

That night the winds scattered the October leaves around my boots, sending them whirling like insects, and I lost track of where I had intended to go.  I was not going anywhere, perhaps.

Whenever I am not going anywhere, I walk towards Baker Street.

Oh, it is juvenile, I know.  And yet, the place possesses such a hold over me that I cannot even find it shameful.  I never pause, am never even tempted to do so.  Pausing in Baker Street before a particular house is not the primary goal.  The goal, instead, is to walk past that house, as if I still live there and he lives with me and we are living casual, venturesome, interesting lives, dotted with cases and never too dangerous.  If I can catch the proper angle while walking past the neat brick house without actually looking at it, I can feel thirty years old again.

I had not gotten there.  I was taking my time, or I had not yet admitted I was moving in that direction at all.  In fact, I was quite distant, having only just turned up Haymarket and entered Picadilly, when I saw a policeman wearing a bombing placard, his fleshy face quite pale, blowing a whistle with powerful lungs.

"Get inside, sir," he gasped as he ran past me, panting.  "The searchlights haven't fixed 'em, but there's a Zeppelin coming."

"God in Heaven," I murmured. 

It was not the first time we had been targeted.  1915 had seen Zeppelins, to be sure, and 1916, though lessened.  And at the beginning of the year, a bomb had fallen on an infant school.  16 children, dead in a heartbeat.

The PC ran off, whistling madly.  I, meanwhile, seemed to be in a square, which was hardly wise.  I had just run across Picadilly Circus, heading for the monumental strength of the London Pavillion, when I heard him whistling again.

My head turned in confusion.  A whistle, but no policeman.

That is the last thing that I can remember.

I did not actually awaken for several days afterward.  Here, in briefest fashion, is what I do recall: I remember pain of the sort I have never before experienced.  I have been beaten by thugs, been shot, been knifed in the leg.  This was like none of those things.  This was the sort of pain that, had I been aware of any desires whatsoever, would have made me long to stop existing. 

Apart from that, I can bring to my remembrance only two things: at one point I discovered, dry-mouthed and feverish, that my arms were immobilized, and wondered whether I still possessed arms at all.  The second, and far more serious, was a glowing sensation.  A sudden warm rush of energy and peace.  I should have thought I had died at last, save that it was ominous and very familiar.  Like a pursuer in the darkness who has finally caught one up.  Like a gentle touch from an utter villain. 

I did not understand it, however, of course.  And soon afterward, I fell into an abysmal sleep.

London, Charing Cross Hospital.  October 22nd, 1917.

When I awoke fully in fact and opened my eyes, nothing was there. 

Then I tried to move, and found I could not. 

Then, in lieu of panicking (which never avails a man anything save ridicule even in the worst of situations and is an option I always choose to bypass), I began to breathe a little more deeply.   

I was in the sort of pain which brings bile to the back of a man's throat.  The variety of distress which sets a man screaming.  But I was not screaming.  I do not ever allow myself such displays, but still, I did grant my mind a measure of idle curiosity: I was not screaming, and making no effort not to scream.   Why not?  

There was still a tingling in all my limbs above the agony--did I have limbs, then?--and my brain was strangely silken, and I felt the faintest trace of...of what almonds smell like, woody and sweet, but behind my sightless eyes, and I...

"Oh, bloody fucking hell," I rasped violently.

Someone was walking toward me.  I tried to bring my arms up to defend myself, or my instincts did, to no avail.  I fought harder.  If they had trussed me up to kill me, if would not be quite so easy as they had assumed.

"Hush.  It's all right, my dear boy.  Is it possible that you might consider spending a single day of your life not giving me the impression you were raised in the heart of Seven Dials rather than outside High Wycombe?"

"Mycroft," I gasped.  The panic was growing far more difficult to contain.   

"Petit frère."  

"You gave me morphine."

"Calm yourself, Sherlock.  Stop fidgeting and this will be far easier."

His hand, big as a giant's, was already on mine, unfastening...why had I been restrained?  Why was I still blindfolded?  Had we been taken, then?  Had London already fallen about our ears?  The straps round my wrists were soft, however, merely strips of flannel, purposefully designed to avoid bruising.  Had I set my mind to it, I could have gotten out of them in ten seconds. 

Something worse had happened than capture, then. 

"What's wrong with my eyes?" I demanded in a distressingly shaky tone.

"Nothing."  His voice was harsh as mine, I noted in surprise.  He must not have spoken in several hours either.  "That is, the explosion burned your corneas very slightly.  The doctor supposed their full recovery would be guaranteed if he took precautions."

"You gave me morphine, didn't you?" I asked cuttingly.  "Jesus sodding Christ, Mycroft, you know better than that."

"Yes."  He was being very short with me.  I suppose he'd a right to.  He was also through untying me, and had gently dropped my wrists back to the coverlet.  "I do."

"You are supposed to be intelligent.  You are supposed to be more intelligent than I am, as a matter of fact.  So why would an ostensibly intelligent man, the smartest man in London, in fact, do something so entirely--"

"Before you call me stupid to my face, I should like to make it abundantly clear to you that, when faced with the options of either watching you thrash your stitches out for the fourth time in a fever-induced delirium and die of closely impending infection, or else fasten you down and allow a doctor to give you morphine, I will give you morphine," he snapped at me, "and if I now have a morphine addict for a brother again, at least I have a brother.  John Watson is not the only man in the world who cares if you live or die, you know."

I was quiet for a time after this.  It was rather a great deal to take in. 

Now a silence had fallen, I could hear his pocketwatch ticking against the similar beat of the mantel clock.  The mantel clock was slow, noticeably.  Was I in hospital?  I could smell antiseptic, but that could have meant anything.   

What had he been through to sound like that?  I had never heard him sound like that.  That is, not since we were children.  Or I was a child, at any rate, and he was an underdeveloped adult with distant grey eyes and a loathing of the unpredictable.

"I'm sorry I frightened you," I whispered.

There was no reply.

"I'm sorry I nearly called you a blundering imbecile," I added twenty seconds later, with better humour and (thankfully) considerably less feeling.

I heard him sitting down, exhaustedly even for him, and then a chair scraping toward my bedside across...hardwood.  No carpeting.  I caught another whiff of carbolic.  Several dour wheeled carts had gone by just after I had awoken, I recalled.  A hospital, surely, or I was no judge of gallows atmosphere.

"And I would like to thank you for preventing me calling you a blundering imbecile.  You are very deft."

A sigh.  The spine-deep sort he was so fond of.  I was getting somewhere.  I decided to get down to brass tacks.

"Am I going to perish anytime soon?"

"Provided you take the morphine, and thus can stay more still, and therefore your stitches don't burst again and grow infected, and if the internal bleeding is quite handled, and you begin regaining a bit of the blood you lost, no."

This time it was I who needed a moment to gather my thoughts effectively.

"I'm sorry I frightened you," I said again.  "I suppose I fought the morphine?"

"Thankfully, you were incapable of protest by that time."

"Lucky.  I should have taken a swing at the attending physician."

"If only you weren't so buggering stubborn," he sighed.

"Language, Mycroft."

"Yes, you're right.  It sets you a very bad example."  

I wondered if I could sense the worst of it myself, despite the morphine.  It was very desirable suddenly to take stock of my injuries.  I tried my best.  But I could not manage to separate strands of hurt.  It seemed as if all of me had been compromised, every cell smashed individually.  But I could not very well query, Brother mine, why have I been stamped in a printing press?  I thought about asking my brother whether I should ever again box professionally, thought better of the joke, and clamped my teeth over my tongue as an experiment.   

It did not hurt.  

If that did not hurt, what in the name of hell itself was hurting so horribly?  

"Say something about me which has nothing to do with explosions," I murmured senselessly.  

He ruminated for a brief while.  "You are even more homosexual, if that is possible, while asleep than when awake."  

He was smiling at last.  I grinned back at him.  Or I tried to.  I have no notion of what it looked like, but I do believe my lips moved.

"Have you paid them off, then?  How much do I owe you?"  

I felt a hand brush up over my hair.  The thumb trailed along the vertical path between the top of my nose and the downsweep of my hair.  It should not have felt like a benediction, but I will swear it did.  Then it was gone again.  

"You needn't worry about it.  Apparently what this eccentric Dr. Freud calls your unconscious speaks only French."  

"I knew that already," I whispered.  "What did I want?"  

I never heard his reply.  I was slipping away again.  But I felt his reply.  And learning what I did thereafter, I can extrapolate that his response was:  

I have already written him.      

London, Pall Mall.  November 4th, 1917.  

My brother moved me the moment it was safe to do so.  It was not because I loathe hospitals, or because he wanted sole care of me, or because I did nothing in my waking moments save ask to be released, though all that was true.  He moved me for a much more important reason, as I discovered when I was being wheeled in a chair out toward a waiting motorcar I still could not see, being blindfolded.

Six different persons interrupted him on our way out the door.  As I recall it, they said, in this order:

"The response from Major Haversham has come in at last, sir.  The answer is sixty."

"Mr. Holmes, there is no way of being certain, but we have every reason to believe it will be Ypres."

"Belgium requires an answer as regards Agents Glass, Eleven, and Deadwood, Mr. Holmes."

"Can we be absolutely sure as to the new mask design's efficacy, sir?"

"Currency in America is holding steady, but we have not yet received an answer as to bonds.  I'm sorry, Mr. Holmes.  Shall I phone Willis again?"

"There are seven new encoded Italian communiques on your desk, sir--shall I have them sent round to your home?"

There was a wonderful moment of bright, cutting November air in my face.  I managed to do most of the work of climbing into the automobile myself, thank Heaven.  The leather seats were freezing, but I was well bundled and simply enjoyed feeling fresh air nip at my neck.  In a moment, when the sound of the pistons drowned out my lowest tones, I was going to have to ask my brother an excruciating question.  But for a few seconds, I simply absorbed the smells of wax polish and motor fuel.

"How far behind have we slipped since you have been with me in hospital?" I asked gravely when the driver set the engine in motion and the car growled to life.

"They gave me a private room with a telephone line and a desk a few doors down from you," Mycroft answered.

I have been inside automobiles any number of times, but I could always see out of them.  I was beginning to realize that traveling in them sightless produced a queer dizziness localized in the back of my neck.

"Very kind of them."

"Well, I am the British Government, in a sense," he said with an audible half-smile.

"Hire a nurse," I ordered.  "Forget about me.  You must get back to Whitehall."

"As to the first, I have done.  As to the second, you are out of your mind, but then you have been out of your mind for a great many years now, so I need not be surprised.  And as to the last, I will when I can."

"I am in deadly earnest."

"Yes, I know that by now."

"Not queer, Mycroft.  Determined.  They need you.  They need you today."

"That is more true than you know, and it is a very great shame," he sighed.  "For without exaggerating the sentiment--it is not a sentiment, but a fact, after all, or I shall state it as one because it will better convince you--I require your help.  Your hand has been in one of my gloves for three years now.  We shall make the best of it."

The dizziness was spreading.  It was not the car, perhaps, though the stops and starts and curves and motion did not help.  The old cobblestones of London did not help either, but that was not what was slithering up and down my spine, distracting me from the burning sensations and the tiny stabs of pain.  It was something rather more familiar to me.

"Then you cannot give me any more morphine," I said through my closed teeth.

"I know, petit frère," he replied.  He sounded as if he had one finger over his lips. 

Before I passed out of consciousness, I wondered if he knew quite as much as he thought he did. 

London, Pall Mall.  November 5th, 1917.

If I were my own brother, I should never have managed it.  To be a man of truly rigid and concentrated habits thrown first into the middle of a War, and then to have his home turned into not merely a lodging house but a convalescent home, must have been maddening.  And for the nurse to have quit within six hours could not have endeared me to him.  Another came, and went.  It was decided that I was better off with a rotating staff when nearly out of my senses with hurt and narcotics withdrawal.

I would write it down, but I recall very little.  To be quite clear, I know there are no snakes in the walls of Pall Mall homes, and I know that twisting and turning does not actually cause flesh wounds to heal more quickly.  But just as I have forgotten at least two days after arriving back at my brother's house, so then I forgot Mycroft owns no snakes and I ought to keep still.  In retrospect, I blame the lion's share of my confusion on the fact that my ears were still ringing and I still couldn't bloody see.

It was better after I convinced them that I required a very great deal of cocaine, at about 10%.  They did not believe me at first.  However, from what I understand, I spoke vehemently on the subject. 

When my brother next sat down at my bedside, slippers silent on his Turkey carpeting, I was in a much clearer sort of agony.

"I truly want to know," Mycroft mused.  I could hear him rifling through papers.  "Where did you pick up this sort of language?"

"First?" I rasped, kneading my fingers into and out of the bedclothes in what must have been a very, very annoying fashion.  But it hurt in a specific way, and was thus distracting me from more general hurting.  "From a chap called James Bultitude the Third.  He had very nice eyes.  I think that was him.  He was a spoiled toff with literary pretensions who slummed it to enhance his ghastly prose.  You never met.  I later expanded the collection."

"Thank you, I have always wondered.  And what on earth is a shanker?"

"Oh, Christ.  Tell me I didn't call you that," I said, fighting a half-formed smile.

"No, the nurse.  She didn't understand it either."


"Shall I read some of this to you?  It would help me."

He read it aloud.  It was about the Ottoman struggle, I know.  The horrid, deadly, calamitous Ottoman struggle.  And I said something about the Suez Canal, and something else about Edmund Allenby, but I cannot remember it.  I know I helped, however, because he fell silent.  When I say something brilliant to my brother, he very often allows himself to take that brilliance further without acknowledging me in any way.  I have done the same to Watson, so I forgave him while I drifted off again.  When I woke, however, it was with a barely-contained scream.  I managed to strangle it into something which probably gave the impression I was being garroted by an invisible force.

"I'm sorry, Sherlock," he said at once. 

"Never mind," I gasped. 

"When did you last have it, before I..."  He trailed off.

"Over ten years, I think.  Whenever Baron Gruner gave me a concussion."

"I'm sorry," he repeated in a numb tone.

"It isn't your fault.  Not exactly.  Had I never grown dependent on the stuff, my body should not be reacting this way.  And you were only--let us assume it's my fault."

My brother said nothing.  His silence, I would shortly discover, was an enormous blessing: after a minute or two of musing blankly and associatively, I remembered a piece of my childhood.  I had never quite put that piece together with all the other pieces before.  But it made sense, good logical sense, so soon enough I knew like a photograph of the inside of his skull what my brother was thinking so very silently and so very sadly.  And all too many parts of me seemed to be breaking at that moment without my heart going as well, so I made an announcement much more directly than is my usual habit.

"Yes, they first gave me morphine when I broke my arm," I stated with all the clearness I could.  "Yes, I never forgot it erased the pain.  Yes, I remembered that when I took it again without a broken arm.  No, my breaking my arm was not your fault."

Mycroft said nothing.  For several minutes, he said nothing.  And I could think of nothing else to say. 

"I'll be back in a moment," he breathed at last.

It was about eighty or ninety moments.  The door creaked as he came back in again.

"I've had enough work for the night, what about you?" he surmised idly.  "Here we are.  I'll read a bit longer, and then get some rest myself."

Read what, I wondered whilst concurrently wondering whether it was possible for a freezing man to drown in his own sweat.

My brother cleared his throat.

"'On glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace; for, working as he did rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic.  Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.'"

It bears mentioning again: my brother, God bless him, is the smartest man in London.  And with John Watson in France, I should like to add that--temporarily--he was also the kindest, and the best.

London, Pall Mall.  November 7th, 1917.

Two days later, I was better but still artificially blind.  I lay on the settee in the parlour with a blanket over me, not liking to move but desperately wanting to.  I fear the combination may have made me ill-tempered.

"I am never going to enjoy the benefit of having marginally injured eyes if you never allow me to see through them again," I complained.

"What a pity," Mycroft replied.  "Here, I've poured you more tea."

"What do you want?" I countered.  My brother gives me tea when he does not know how to phrase something.

"Nothing," he sighed.  "You've a letter.  And I've a confession.  I fear that this letter for you is rather more likely to be in response to a message I wrote than a message you wrote."

I was already reaching to tear off the blindfold when an unusually large hand gripped my wrist.

"I'll read it to you, if you permit me," my brother offered.  "I do not suppose he is capable of shocking me through a publicly censored channel."

"Go on then," I granted after considering.

This is what it said:  

My dear Holmes,  

I received your news with the greatest possible concern.  Thank your brother for me, do, with all my heart.  I am grateful to have heard quickly.  At the same time, word reached a fellow medic--a literate fellow, as fond of writing as am I--that his spouse has been injured in the attack.  They have been together for nigh on three decades, and the pain of his reaction is difficult for me to express to you calmly.  I reproduce here an excerpt from his own letter, for we are writing by shared candlelight and he makes no secret of his grief.  

"There is no surer way to wound me than to know of your suffering and not to be present.  Nothing compares, love.  And I thought I had known what it was to agonize over you.  I was wrong.  I cannot feel like the man I know myself to be without you as it is, and to find I am many miles away when seems no less than a desecration of everything I stand for.  I was so wrong, dear heart.  If only I were there, or I were you, or you were healed, or you were here.  If only I had never left you.  If you find this letter lacks coherency, it is because my entire will is dedicated to preventing my running in the direction of London and never looking back though they court martial me.  I was wrong about so many things."  

Heal quickly, my friend.  Please.  Should your brother find you are in more danger than he implied to me, let me know of it at once.  I was meant to be the one at risk, Holmes.  Not you.  Never you.  Not for all your wild daring.  Use every ounce of your great powers to mend yourself, my good man.  I could not bear to find London empty when I return.

Ever yours,
John Watson  

Mycroft paused thoughtfully.  I assume it was thoughtfully, for I heard a sip of tea being delicately slurped from the other end of the sofa.  

"A clumsy device, I admit, but he has not our ability to cipher ourselves," I offered when I thought my voice under sufficient control.  "I assure you he's not intending to get me sent up on buggery charges."  

"No, that would run counter to his own tastes, I think.  And for an inspiration of the moment, it was actually rather well done," my brother replied evenly.  

"It's terribly done," I sniffed.  "You ought to have seen the state he was in when he clapped eyes on the rather irritating labour of Baron Gruner's bruisers.  Brother mine, as I cannot see you, I have not the slightest notion what you are thinking."  

"Your seeing me is no guarantee of knowing my thoughts, my boy."  

"It's an aid nonetheless."

"I was thinking you're rather a fortunate fellow," he replied slowly.

My brother is very observant.  So he must have been repeating an earlier realization aloud.  Surely, of all the men in London, he had noticed before.    

London, Pall Mall.  Mid-November, 1917.

On the first day they allowed me to take the bandages off my eyes, I stood before the mirror in my guest bedroom.  Naked.  For far too long, even for an eccentric as profound as myself.  Had I been able to choose who would have found me there, the progression would have gone: first, no one.  Second, a maid of some anonymous, hysterical sort.  Third, John Watson, returned to me by miracle post.  Fourth, anyone in the world save Mycroft.  Never, never, never my own brother.  And so of course, he wandered in to tell me breakfast was ready and saw me glaring at myself, trying not to grow dizzy.  That is the sort of relationship I have with God.  When I die, and I am closer to that bond than I have ever been, we two shall have words on the subject of His jokes.

"What do you think of it?" I said tonelessly.  It seemed more dignified.

Mycroft walked slowly up behind me.  Even had I not been able to see him, I should have felt him in the gorgeous Pall Mall floorboards.  And this is what he saw...

My face has changed but little over the years, because it was dramatic to the point of poor taste in the first place.  My wickedly hawkish nose is the same.  My hair has gone silver, save for a few streaks of black.  (It ought to have been an improvement, but it came out a draw; I don't look as terribly pallid, but grey hair and pale grey eyes combined is frankly eerie.)  My jaw and my cheekbones and my brow are the same.  I've plentiful thoughtful wrinkles around my eyes, and vague smile lines, because I've never smiled nearly so much as Watson and thus they don't compare to his.  His count partly for mine anyhow, because I was the one making him smile seven times out of ten.  Or I would like to think I was.  But on the whole, I have seen men of fifty who appear older than do I.

That mitigated, when all was said and done, nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.

I have never been able to gain a scrap of weight in my life.  Nor tried very diligently.  So I found myself staring at a nude man with his hands cocked pensively on his hipbones, ribs quite visible, still a torso more wiry and muscular than wasted, and a great mass of craters.  Gashes.  Weblike burn marks.  Scorches.  Cuts.  A hole torn in, of all things, my left shoulder.  That ought to have been hilarious but was sickening instead.  Bits of my forearms were no longer with me.  The bruising was still purple and beginning to turn green.  I had not even noticed it before, but a tiny piece of my right ear lobe had gone missing.

Mycroft, looking at the same thing, seemed briefly as if his unflappable aplomb would be shaken at last.  Then he raised one brow at my reflection.

"It was far worse when last I viewed it," he said mildly.

"I can see why the morphine seemed such a splendid option."

"Put something on, child, you'll catch your death," he said softly, going to find a robe.

"I'm sixty-three years old," I shot back, squinting at myself.  There was a gouge on one thigh which might have been done with a cleaver.  "I'm hardly a child."

"And I turned seventy whilst you were unconscious.  Allow me my illusions."  He handed the dressing gown over pointedly.

"You did," I realized.  "Many happy returns.  I ought to have gotten you a token."

"You did.  You lived."

I put on the dressing gown.  It was the least I could do, I thought as I tied the belt round my waist and realized that I should have to put another log on my fire within twenty minutes to keep the room comfortable.  And I owed him.  I owe my brother my life, many times over.  And more than my life.  I do not tell him that very often.  Neither one of us has any desire to hear it.  But I do what I can.  So I put on the dressing gown, and ran a hand through my hair, and followed him into the parlour for breakfast.

That afternoon, I sat down with my pen.  I did not particularly want to see the words I was going to write, but I knew I must write them.  I had charged him with truth-telling as a sacred trust.  I could do no less myself, or I would not deserve him.  

My dear Watson,  

I paused.  This was not going to work.  I should simply think of it as writing to myself, and get the worst out of the way.  I had read enough letters in which he had spared me.  He had spared me so very often.  I knew what he spared me, and if I allowed myself, I saw it.  I could not put him through the same compensatory ritual.  

I fear I must confess myself badly scraped up.  Whether I ought to be saying "much altered" instead remains to be seen, but you ought to know the truth of it: I have never been so battered.  I think, from half-recalled hospital chatter, it required them a hundred and forty or more stitches, all told, and I kept weaseling out of them again.  I am past the fever now, thank Heaven.  And can see, and so write to you.  Much of my upper abdomen is damaged, and that is not the extent of it.  I shall live, I suppose, but differently.  

Had you grown used to my right ear at all?  It is marginally altered.  I feel I ought to apologize for that.  But I don't know why.

I wish I could tell you any number of things.  That I am not terribly, terribly scarred is impossible.  I do suppose, however, that you have seen so much of such things that it will not shock you when you return.  You have weathered storms in your life, my dear man, and so have I done.  You have seen other men through them.  Folk who are in grief come to you like birds to a light-house. 

But I can tell you honestly that I am glad you are not here.  Do not think I am prayerfully willing your return for my own sake.  Could I through some barter lift you from France and place you square in the heart of Sussex without me, I would give anything.  But I know how you have looked when I seemed to have been through an explosion.  Now I literally have, and you should look worse still.  Do not make yourself ill merely because I am.  I cannot find I want you here.

Then again, were our places reversed…

By the time you see me, I mean to say, I shall be quite well.  Altered, I know.  But not changed in anything you have ever seemed to find compelling.  I know you believe that at least. 

I grow weary.  Not of writing to you, never of writing to you, but of writing to you when you are many miles away.  How I wish you were in Sussex.  I shall stop this purposeless dictation and go back to ending this War.

Your servant,
Sherlock Holmes

London, Pall Mall.  August, 1918.

We exchanged other letters after that, of course, Watson and I.  All of them were tender, though none of them explicitly so.  I grew healthy by degrees, meanwhile, and I helped my brother in every way that I could, and we both returned to our lives at Whitehall. 

Thousands more people died.  We did what we could to stop it.  I with codebreaking, and languages, and chemistry, and spying instincts, and observation, and deduction, and pure will.  He with all of them codified and assembled within the vastness of his mind.

I did not receive what could qualify as one of the Presbury Letters again for a little over six months. 

Lestrade had been in our office in Whitehall a few hours earlier, looking grim.  He took a pair of cigarettes from his case, knowing Mycroft partial to snuff, and handed me one, lighting it before seeing to his own.

"It isn't the making him peach," he noted, sitting down on the opposite side of my desk. "He'll peach all right, sure as his name isn't actually Gas-Head Charlie.  It's the making him peach the truth and then separating it from his outrageous lies that'll take some time."

"We don't have time," I said even though none of us needed to hear it, rubbing a hand over my face.  "If the lies are outrageous, I can spot them."

"Shall I bring him round myself, or send you the transcript?" Lestrade questioned, his bright brown eyes teetering on the brink of utter exhaustion.

"I'll meet you at the Yard," I suggested.  "I'll walk over tomorrow before lunch and we'll sort him out."

"Good," my brother put in.  "You'll do better than I would have, Sherlock, and I haven't the energy to pretend interest while he waxes on."

"An argument could be made," Lestrade muttered under his breath, "that's how he came by the name Gas-Head Charlie, and he knows nothing about hexamethylene tetramine developments whatsoever."

I smiled at that, though it was a faint smile.

"Nothing more to be done today," Mycroft sighed, rising.

"How is the Doctor, then, Mr. Holmes?" Lestrade asked me while reaching for his hat.

"In France," I snapped cruelly.

An awful silence fell.

"Lestrade, please forgive me," I added an instant later. 

I don't think I had ever said that to him in my life.  At least, from his shocked eyebrows, I could not possibly have.  If I had ever begged Lestrade's forgiveness before then, at least I could not recall it.  The poor little terrier stood there with his brown bowler in his two slender rodent's hands, waiting for the words to enter his brain which would make the last ten seconds disappear.

"Sherlock," Mycroft said severely.

"No, it's all right, Mr. Holmes...and Mr. Holmes," Lestrade added to me in a strained voice. 

"It isn't all right," I protested.  "I cannot tell you how sor--"

"Don't apologize," he pleaded through an oddly compressed throat.  "Just don't apologize.  I can't take that, Mr. Holmes.  Pretend I never said anything, but for God's sake don't apologize.  I don't know how you do it day to day."

Lestrade made a quick little bow.  He hurried out.  He left a trace of badly ventilated fireplace and sweetly flavoured pipe smoke.

"It is just possible that I am at the very end of my wits," I confessed faintly to my brother.

"Possibly," he conceded.  "We shall find out soon enough."

Watson's letter arrived by the last post, I believe, for it was waiting for me in the hallway that night when Mycroft and I had just arrived home--at the same time, for once, having passed an abominable day, the final of which abominations I have just set down and authored myself.

I began reading it on my way up the stairs, by moonlight through the hall window.  I continued reading it after turning up the gas.  As I made headway, I managed to seat myself in a chair at the dining table, mindlessly setting my hat there, as opposed to falling to the floor in a dead heap.  It was a near thing, however.

My dear Holmes,

I treated a girl today, my friend.  She had come out of the woods seeking shelter.  She had been cruelly used.  Twigs and mud still in her hair, arms wrapped round herself like a straightjacket, so badly treated she was no longer even weeping.  There were marks from being thrown up against barbed wire on her forearms.  I gave her a private space to sleep in my own tent, a small supply of victuals, plenty of water.  She does not want any of us to minister to her.  If she persists in this view for longer than a day and still will not trust me, I shall have to force my scientific attentions on her despite both our desires.  I cannot allow her cuts to fester.  But for the moment, when anyone comes near and she snarls like a hurt animal, I force all benevolent visitors away.  Her eyes are so enraged, my dear fellow, so intelligent.  Had I forced bandages on her scrapes, she should never have trusted another living soul.  I know it.  I made certain she would survive first, Holmes, I swear to you.  And she now, ten hours later, suffers me to sit beside her and offer her hot broth.  But I could not treat her against her own will, as the others had destroyed her will entirely, knowing a little time might do so much.  I could not.   

Did I do wrong?  

I must apologize to you.  I know you want the truth.  But you make it so difficult, Holmes, and through no fault of your own.  You can know nothing of the depth of my moral choices, for they cannot be expressed, and even to relate them to you whilst you recover far away from me is a hard burden.  Not even monkey fantasies will serve to lighten this missive. 

Would the truth lighten it, I wonder?  

"'It's surely time that I disappeared into that little farm of my dreams.'"

You said that, after we left Presbury's blighted house.  It isn't a fiction.  I know you said it.  Privately whispered jokes about monkey serum on the train ride home or not, you said that, my dearest Holmes.

And then you watched me learn to be cruel.  

I will unlearn it, I swear to you.

I'll make us as we used to be.  Shall I make you cry, "'Come, Watson, come!'" and then steal through the bushes in the half-light?  Shall I bring moonlight into it, and ivy-covered walls?  Or shall it be a burlesque instead, with an ape-man swinging from branch to branch?  Shall I taunt myself as I deserve?

I know what I shall do.  I shall make you taunt us.  Taunt me, with my overwhelming desires.  I deserve that.  You wanted to do it at times, but you never did.  I needed my love affair to last forever so badly that I think I left my lifeblood behind with purposeful intent.  Like an assassin. 

Leaving something behind feels better than having it stolen from you.  Does it not?  Tossing a sixpence to a beggar versus having your pocket picked?  A gift versus a theft?  Does it feel better?  You know the answer, Holmes.  You were there, once.  In Switzerland.  I shall make you say what would never even occur to you in reality, on the eve of capturing a mad Professor obsessed with youth and maddened by monkeys:

"'Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?'"

You would never say such a thing.  You can see beauty even in cesspools.  Just as you see cesspools in beauty.

But is that what I was thinking, Holmes?

I believe it may well have been.

Not that my passions were less than...were not
better than anything else I have ever experienced.  They were sacred to me, my dear fellow.  It was only she and I, and the world could go hang.  This is about my cuffs on a polished wood floor next to a wine glass stained with Imperial Tokay, about synonyms for intangibles, and about a person I love more than eternal life telling me in French what she would never have dreamed of saying in English.  I know who encompasses my world, and I cling to my sphere like any mortal man.  But did I find myself grasping?  Weighted?  Frightened? 

I will lose all of this, Holmes, I will, and so will you, though the thought of a world without my grace in it is enough to stop me in my tracks.

And so I left it behind.

It doesn't hurt less, Holmes.  God, it doesn't.  Did you learn that?  In Switzerland?  Did you learn it on the Continent, my dear fellow?  When you were trying to save my life with your own?

Did you learn that it hurts more to leave something behind than to lose it?  Did you long to have it again?  The way I do?  Did you wonder how she could ever think you anything more than a fool again for the rest of your life?  How did you ever grow past such an act?  How did I?  Can you forgive your partner for all the synonyms she never thought of?  Can you forgive me for fictions?  For pronouns?  For fairy tales?  For running?

I no longer know what to say.

I hope at least a part of this was bravery.  I had thought it was.  Bravery of the genuine sort, the variety I once had.  Before they split me in half in the desert and I came home badly patched up, like a vase glued wrong, and you introduced me to myself once again.  Do you remember the Sarasate concert?

I want to come home, my dear boy.  I want to come home.  And I want her to want me there still more.

Please ask my wife to forgive me,
John Watson

When I was through reading that, my face descended into my hands.  They were not entirely steady themselves.  So I crossed my arms and let my brow land on them with my nose to the table. 

I heard my brother get up, and take the letter from the tablecloth.  I waited.  He read it through.  It is useless to have secrets from a man who can deduce the things you are going to do before you do them.  And who, come to that, can read your thoughts.  It is like living with God, if God were kind to me.

"Are you in fact married?" he asked me.

It was not the question I had expected.  Far from it.  Turning my face slightly, I blinked up at him.

"Mycroft, this may not have yet quite dawned on you, but the Doctor is in fact male.  And I, despite owning certain tastes which may seem to suggest otherwise, and having a regrettable pronoun appended to me for the sake of maintaining a few final shreds of precaution within his correspondence, am also a male."

"Your attempt at satire would doubtless be highly amusing had you not forgotten I am an avowed atheist," he replied suavely, folding the letter and putting it back on the table within my reach.  "Marriage contracts are what human beings make of them and nothing more.  Nothing less, come to that."

"Oh," I sighed.  "Then, yes."

"You ought to have told me."

"Why?  So you could buy me a butter dish?"

Mycroft laughed.  He leaned his head back and laughed as heartily and as long as I had heard him do in many grueling months.  Somewhere between the ages of nine and ten, I had stopped laughing aloud.  I had discovered that the things I found amusing (and I found countless things amusing) were not jokes likely to be shared by the household at large.  And rather than land myself in the sort of hot water that could lead to truly painful circumstances, I decided that from henceforth, if I found something funny, I should keep it bloody well to myself.  I laugh just as often as I please, but since 1864, no one has ever heard it from across a dining parlour.  Now I've forgotten how to do it any other way.  But I like to think that, if I still laughed audibly, it would sound like my brother's.  He has a rich, easy laugh, right from his sternum, warm as fresh bread.  

"No, no," he chuckled.  "Never mind."  

My brother, let it be said, never allows subjects to drop.  No, on second thought, it only feels that way.  He never allows relevant subjects to drop, which is worse.  I was concerned.  

"Never mind what?"  

"It only sounds like something I ought to know," he shrugged as he left the room, shutting his tall bedroom door behind him.  

It was the most innocuous thing he could have said.  And he was right, which ought to have made it better.  Of course he ought to have known.  Of course.  Of course, I could equally never have said it with any degree of civility.  It is difficult to say aloud (still less in writing) to your celibate and rather paternal-as-well-as-fraternal elder brother, "The chap I illegally sod day in and day out is looked upon as a spouse in our household.  Pass the marmalade, there's a good fellow?"  

It ought not to have made my shoulders start shaking.  I was not weeping.  Jesus Christ, how I wished I was weeping.  My eyes were dry, and so was my throat, wretchedly.  But I was very nearly as sad as I had ever been.  Wounded and angry and pained and sorrowful and broken are all unbearable in their own fashions.  I know hardly any emotion so difficult to thwart, however, as simple sadness.  It is not merely feeling that the world is wrong.  It is not merely seeing what is broken in mankind and knowing you shall never manage to fix it.  It is seeing yourself, trying as best you can, and failing.  It is knowing that everyone else falls just as low and can still despise you.  It is knowing that the version of yourself that you have been building for decades is a sand castle in the frozen polar ice caps or else an igloo in the middle of the desert.   

Not only transient.  Never what was required in the first place.  

It is knowing that you could have died, and nearly did, and your brother would never have known you were married.        

London, Whitehall.  August 8th, 1918.  

Men of sixty-four ought not to spend the night half-curled on tables in wooden chairs.  After I rose, I bathed, and some of the aching left my bones.

The flat was strangely empty.  Mycroft had already left for Whitehall.  And he needed me, so I followed him.

The office was empty when I arrived.  That was peculiar, but I supposed my brother had been summoned to meet with the PM or Home Secretary. 

My mess of a desk had something foreign on it.  Lestrade's pencil.  He had left it behind when he fled.  I pocketed it to return to him and walked the easy distance to the Yard.

When Lestrade saw me approaching, his narrow face flushed slightly with embarrassment, as though I might have--upon reflection--decided I was wrong to apologize and once more desired to verbally box his ears.

"You misplaced your pencil," I said with every ounce of gallantry still in my body.  "I have gone to great lengths, artful masterworks of logical inference, theories so heady you could never comprehend them, hypotheses too myriad to be named, and expended all my tireless energy and vast stores of knowledge in its pursuit.  At long last, I triumphed over the forces of darkness, and rescued your pencil from worse than death.  Here you are.  You're welcome."

Lestrade blinked at me, looking two parts touched, one part astonished, and one part--thank Heaven--annoyed.

"Sod off, Mr. Holmes," he said affectionately.

"If only I had the opportunity."

"Well," he muttered, blushing.  I think it was the most charming thing Lestrade has ever done in my presence.  He is a very boring little squirrel of a man.  But he means well.

"Take me at once to Gas-Head Charlie, and let us break him in perfect concert," I suggested, rescuing him.

"That would be my pleasure," he owned, setting off down the hall.

By the time I reached Whitehall again, it was evening.  And my first sight of our office was very disconcerting indeed.

None of the papers on my brother's desk had moved.  There were always stacks of them, mind, but I am a man who notices trifles and so could recognize which specific travesties of human conduct Mycroft was attempting to unravel at any given moment, and by noticing that the yellow binder with the red front sheet had grown by half an inch while the loose letters had shrunk, I could deduce what he needed me to do without ever receiving a single assignment throughout the course of the War.

Now they were all there, untouched.  And my brother was staring out of his window with his hands in his pockets.  He is so large a man, in width as well as in height, that he blocked much of the dying blue light.

His great grey head did not move, but he heard me come in and shut the door behind me.

"The Battle of Amiens," I said softly.  "God, Mycroft.  What happened?  It was to begin today."

He cleared his throat and then checked his watch.  I later supposed it was because he thought performing a cartwheel or bursting into tears less than stately.  I should have forgiven him either of those, however.  Any good younger brother would.

"We advanced eight miles," he whispered.  "With the Canadians, the Australians, the...the British Fourth.  More Americans are coming.  I've been briefed over the past few hours.  Eight miles."

It does not sound like much.  Eight miles.  But I had seen what my brother had seen.  I had not seen all, but I had seen enough.  Everything from grain manifests to armoured car statistics.  And a lump rose to my throat.

"You can see it," I gasped.  "You can see it.  It will end.  You have done it.  Oh, you've done it, you've done it.  Brother mine, you won the War."

"Perhaps," he admitted, pulling out his kerchief and coughing into it.  "In six months.  Yes, I have."

I walked over to the window and stood just behind him.  We are not the sort given to displays.  So I leaned my forearms on his broad back and stared out at London with him.  It was dirty, of course, but full of ancient stones and steadfast trees and courageous people.  My shoulder was stiff, and would be stiff forever, but I had forgotten what hope feels like.  It feels quite decadent.  So I leaned companionably on my brother, calculating when my husband would come home.

"I lied to you," my brother said in a choked voice.


"I always saw it," he whispered.  His shoulders started shaking slightly.  "My brain does not work that way either.  I saw all of it.  There was never a second when I did not see it happening.  I told you I had taught myself not to see it because you are a better master of your mind than I am.  Mine can perhaps encompass slightly more, but yours, for many reasons, is far better disciplined.  I lied to you.  I thought you could do it, you see, when I could not, and I didn't want you to see it.  Please tell me you didn't see it, petit frère."

I passed one arm around his collarbone and held him steady.

"I never saw it."

"Well," he sighed, pulling himself together, "that's a mercy, then."

We looked at London a while longer.  The edges of the sky were turning the orange of the leaves in Regent's Park.

"I need to go and visit the intelligence office.  I shan't be home for hours yet.  You're dreadfully underfoot, Sherlock," he informed me carelessly.

"I know," I assured him.      

London, Pall Mall.  August 8th, 1918.  

It had been so long since I had walked on paving stones, I was not used to it.  Afghanistan had been harrowing but very brief, never long enough for me to lose the feel of cities.  The crowds of people on the kerbs were once again alarmingly average.  I could smell a hundred things I had missed, roasted chestnuts and hot bread and vats of pressed hard cider, but was vaguely frightened of tasting them, for fear they could not taste as good as their scents. 

But I remembered what it was like to come home, this time.  Smiling, I glimpsed my reflection in a shop window.  I was older than I recalled.  But I was myself, entirely, never mind my age.  The things I had seen would give me sleepless nights, perhaps, but I no longer supposed that enough subsequent sleepless nights could kill a man.

My left hand hurt dully.  It had taken a bullet through the center two weeks before.  Bliss had patched it up, quite tenderly, I thought, for a man I had turned down in so offhand and ready a manner.  I ought to recover full use of it.  It had shattered no bones, and the muscles were healing abnormally well. Still, they had shaken their heads and sent me home on indefinite leave. 

What good is a doctor of sixty-six with one useful hand?

It was a damp summer's night.  The stars were visible, incredibly, though the moon hid her face. 

Pall Mall is a wide street, lined with trees, built to last.  Having not seen it in four long years, I was forced to stare up at the houses, reminding myself which of them belonged to a Holmes. 

Then I saw what was unmistakably a Holmes.  My Holmes.  Sherlock Holmes, the younger one.  The one blessed with an inexplicable magic.  And my heart stopped beating.

My friend wore a pale summer frock coat over a pearl-coloured waistcoat.  He was walking with a jaunty spring in his step, and his slim shoulders were thrown back cheerily.  I wondered what he could be thinking of to look so happy.  One shoulder was tilted at an angle I had never seen before, however, and his arms did not swing quite as they used to.

I would make that all right.  I knew I could.  I would spend the rest of my life trying, provided he forgave me.
Had he even received my letter yet?  I wished I knew.  I could easily have gotten to England ahead of it by sheer accident.  But if he had, had he forgiven me? 

Why did he look so happy?

"Sherlock," I called out when he was ten feet from me.

Sherlock Holmes froze.  His walking stick, which he will never abandon because he has many times used it as a weapon, fell to the ground.  His eyes were every bit as liquid a mercury as I remembered them.

Then suddenly they were altogether molten.

I was already moving, unable to stop myself.  And Sherlock Holmes has never, not in all the days I have known him, deliberately wasted time.  Within three steps apiece, we were in each other's arms, clinging so hard neither of us could breathe.

Never mind breathing, I thought, so long as he is still mine.

"John," said a hoarse voice in my ear, "if you swear to me you are real, I shall never call God cruel again for the rest of my life."    

London, Marcini's Restaurant.  August, 1918.

It may well have taken persuading.  In the end, I have not the faintest notion of how it came about exactly.  But the Friday night after I arrived home from the Great War, Mycroft Holmes insisted upon taking my friend and me to dinner at Marcini's.  It goes without saying that Mycroft's deviation from the norm was atypical.  But I found it simultaneously heartwarming that he should so indulge the two of us.  And so I thanked him as we went in, although I admit it was rather tiredly, as I had not yet gotten used to the notion of ceasing to talk with Sherlock Holmes for as many hours as are numbered in a day.  

"I have heard excellent recommendations," Mycroft Holmes said with a wave of his oversized hand.  "Think nothing of it."  

We sat down at equidistant points around a small circular table, covered in white cloth and gleaming with silverware.  I supposed that the Holmes brothers, accustomed as they were to actual silverware, would not care to discuss how remarkable it was.  I then reflected that growing used to society once more after so many years doing the business of War would be devastating.  But I quickly recalled that I was wrong.  The Afghan War had taken me by surprise, and I had not in the aftermath been absolutely guaranteed of the continuing presence of one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  And if he could not help me, by God I could help myself by now. 

I drew my eyes away from the tines of the polished fork and smiled very slightly at my friend.  He did not return it.  Instead, he drew an appetizer knife up before his keen grey eyes, examined it, and set it down again, satisfied.  Mimicking me so that I should not feel out of place.  

As for Mycroft Holmes, he coughed.  Afterward, he opened his dinner menu and perused it. 

This may sound like hubris, but I swear I should have known if the available selection displeased him: it did not.  

"I've a belated gift for the two of you," he said unconcernedly midway through the meal.  Very nearly everything Mycroft Holmes says is lacking in audible concern, I grant.  But nonetheless I saw the vaguest flourish in his fingers as he lifted an expensively wrapped box and dropped it in his brother's lap.  It sat there for nearly five seconds, gleaming within white paper and an electric blue bow.  

Holmes pulled it from his lap and set it on the table before us.   He threw a frown in my direction as if to say, "I don't know either."  Then my friend, his silver eyebrow quirked, opened the box with fingers that have never lost a single whit of their beauty.   

He pulled out an antique silver butter dish and set it on the table.  Confused, I smiled at him, asking an unspoken question, and my Holmes began laughing.

Mycroft's mouth fell open first.  Mine followed half an instant later.

As for Sherlock Holmes, he was too entirely amused by the butter dish to notice us at first.  So he did not see his brother's eyes fill with tears before he swiftly blinked them away again.  I had never witnessed such an expression on Mycroft Holmes' face before, and if it moved me, it would have decimated his brother.  But he missed it.  He missed my caught breath, my stunned silence, the hand that went to my lips and stayed there. 

When he did notice that I had changed colour, and that his brother's hand was frozen with an empty fork in it, my friend stopped laughing.

"What the devil is the matter with the pair of you?"

Turning to Mycroft, I could only look at him.  I had used to like Mycroft Holmes because he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, and he loved Sherlock Holmes, and he could have responded to my own presence in seventy ways more terrible and less welcoming than he did.  Now I like him because of who he is.  And I know I need not form words for Mycroft to understand me.  Mycroft Holmes never requires words while my friend seldom requires them.  So I said nothing, only wondered, with my heart hammering in my breast.

"Since...Heavens, eighteen sixty-four, I think," the elder Holmes murmured.

My Holmes was beginning to look alarmed.  "What on earth are you playing at?  This can have nothing to do with a butter dish."

In 1882, I fell in love with my fellow lodger and consummated the union following a Sarasate concert, in what was about to be dire poverty if he did not come up with fifty pounds.  I did not care in the slightest.  He was beautifully tailored and poor as a Spitalfields beauty, with some of the same notions of love and fiscal reprisal.  I was a spent artillery shell of a man, still wracked with strange fevers and seeing Ghazis lurking in cab stands.  But I loved him.  He loved me back.  We nearly ruined ourselves, and on a few terrible occasions each other, many times.   

We almost succeeded.  But we never did.  And in 1918, I heard him laugh for the first time.  It sounds much like his brother's--warmer by far than his voice, and simpler, though still cultured.  A polished pearl of a laugh.  

"See here," Sherlock Holmes expounded with clear confusion lurking at the back of his deep-set eyes, "there is almost nothing more amusing on earth than a butter dish.  Its very existence is certifiably droll.  Why should it not follow that I laugh at its appearance?"  

"Perfectly natural," I agreed breathlessly.

"Over fifty years, you see.  And you, you would never have heard...not once.  Well.  Was it worth the wait?" Mycroft wondered.   

Seeing his fork still in his hand, he cut a slice of beef, perfectly poised once more, never looking at me.  Or rather, never looking at me while pointedly ignoring his increasingly impatient brother.  The brother, I noticed, was growing angry without once seeming to mind being angered. 

"Yes," I answered.  "I would have waited another hundred years."   

"How gratifying."  Mycroft flashed Sherlock Holmes a smile.  "You have a question, I think?"  

It was my friend who opened his mouth, I grant.  But it was I who answered the inquiry.  

"Why have you given us a butter dish?" I questioned.