by Katie

"I apologize," he said at once, "but you didn't seem overly fond of your staircase a few hours ago."

I think from the sensation in my cheekbones that I must have blushed, for memory was swiftly returning to me.  "Then it is I who ought to apologize to you, for robbing you of your bed."

"Why should you think I object?" he inquired, one brow tilting toward his cigarette.

"Because you are not sleeping," I ventured sadly.  "And neither are you attempting to do so."

"Ah."  He set the still-smouldering cigarette on a saucer resting on his windowsill.  "Perhaps I am not tired.  And perhaps I am not in my bed because it impedes my seeing you in it."

There, that was the feeling--and it seemed now that only he could produce it in me--the blissful conviction that all the world would come right in the end so long as I was within the sight of his form and the sound of his voice.  It is all well and good to claim that I am not a naive young boy, that I in fact have loved before and have seen too much of life, but the joy he engendered in me was impossible to stifle.  When he viewed the smile breaking across my features, I saw him laugh briefly, for I had never once heard it aloud.

"You really are an extraordinary fellow, do you know that?" he murmured.  "I don't understand you at all."

"Why do you say such a thing?"

"You are quite simply the hardest knot I have ever attempted to unravel.  One moment you are so formal I suppose you desire me to confine our relations to discussing cricket scores over sherry and cucumber sandwiches, and the next moment you are joining me racing down alleyways, or fronting me the price of our digs without any conceivable motivation.  It's exhausting," he finished fondly.

"You are a very formal sort yourself, you know, my dear chap."

"Yes, but I mean it.  I cannot trust men on first sight, and I am cold and abrasive and deucedly arrogant.  You are not.  When you do it, you are hiding something."  He appeared genuinely puzzled, but no more than I was--for upon considering the remark, it did seem that the majority of the times I had been the most careful in etiquette with Holmes were the times when I was preventing myself crushing his mouth to my own.

"You're right.  And that is why you were smiling this afternoon, is it not?" I whispered, recalling it.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Smiling--before the violin concert, and then afterwards all through it.  You did not understand me.  But when John Clay thought I was a stranger to him and I reacted the way I did, you deduced...well, you understood me rather better.  And you determined to do something about it."

"Bravo," he congratulated me.  He walked over to my side of the bed.  "You scintillate this morning.  Because I was the only person so close within your immediate sphere, I had no basis for comparative analysis of your behavior--and believe me, I would not have offended you for the world.  I have inferred you treat your friends very affectionately indeed.  And I suspect you would treat a stranger as well as you treat me.  I was a stranger, after all, when you commenced such ridiculously steadfast acts.  It could have been disastrous for me to assume your regard was in any way sexual."

"My regard was not, for that was based on our friendship, but my desires are," I confessed, breathing in the nearness of him.  "Are you going to kiss me at all this morning?"

I was sitting cross-legged by this time, still entirely unclothed, with the sheet draped over one thigh.  My friend climbed forward on his hand and knees, surrounding me as his mouth sought out mine, forcing me backward while my legs straightened and my heart surged, until I was lying on my back with my lips tangling against his, enfolded in a beautiful crouched prison of Sherlock Holmes' limbs.  Reaching up, I pulled his dressing gown down from his shoulders and he shrugged out of it obligingly, afterward leaning down again on his forearms.  It was then that I noticed that his left was marred by a tiny pinprick of blood.

Pushing his shoulders up and away from me gently, I looked into his eyes.  They were keen but glimmering slightly, an unnatural electricity.  When he noticed what was disturbing me he frowned and sat back, landing to my right on his tangled quilt and dressing gown.

"It sickens you, I suppose," he surmised icily, "as a man who has already shaken such habits off."

"No," I protested, reaching for him.  "But as one who knows the dangers, I cannot bear to see you this way."

"You will have to get used to it," he said shortly.  "It is not a practice I can stop.  When I am without it, things are far worse."

I wanted to point out to him that he spoke of a time before he had me, whether I was an effective palliative or not, but the thought was so terribly narcissistic that I remained silent.  To my dismay, he laughed morbidly, another soundless chuckle that told me he had once again seen into my mind without my speaking it.

"I did not expect this, I confess, from we two taking digs together...did not expect you to be the man you are.  I have had scores of other men, and have been many things to many people, for my own sport or pleasure or even during very bad periods for the keeping of me if I liked them well enough to begin with, but I have never before been this.  I have always found equilibrium a far more difficult thing to achieve than many of my fellows, and perhaps that has prevented my forming such attachments in the past."

"My dear fellow," I said, trying not to sound appalled, "you did not think, when I offered to cover our rent money--"

"No," he smiled.  "But if you had done, I would have found the gesture more usual."

"And suppose I had.  Would you have complied?"

"Of course I would," he shrugged, "if you had asked.  However, you did not.  Watson, I haven't done such a thing in years, I promise you, and the sort of rakes I am talking of possess so many rooms that having a young fellow ensconced in one means nothing to them one way or the other, so long as they have his attention when they wish for it.  Being a kept lover is no worse than some rental agreements, and far better than others.  It suited their tastes that I be exactly as I am, and I have never made such an arrangement with a benefactor I didn't find alluring, if that is what troubles you, nor serviced three mandrakes at a go as a rent boy in a rookery.  You are turning quite green.  If you would sleep with a man for the sensation, why not for the bed itself simultaneously?"

He was correct, and I had no right to judge him, so I steered the conversation back on its rightful tracks.  "Did the high-living sort you speak of first introduce you to the morphine?"

"Heavens, no.  We need not speak of them further, in fact.  But in any case, I wished you to know that you are a singular occurrence for me.  The drugs have nothing to do with you, and to take them personally would be very foolish--however, if you wish to have nothing to do with the drugs, or with me because of them, then I cannot answer you the way you wish me to."

"You are unwilling to make an effort?"

"I am unable to succeed.  The two notions are quite different."

I stared at him, sprawled on his chaotic bedclothes bare-chested, the man I had wanted so badly my own chest ached at the sight of him.  I longed to be angry at his pessimism, but I found I could not.  For I knew the feeling myself, and there was nothing worse in the world.  Sighing, I asked the most invasive question of my life.

"If not due to your company, why did you commence taking it?"

"Why did you commence taking it yourself?"

"I was in terrible pain," I answered.

"Well.  There you are, then," he concluded absently.

In the silence that followed, I longed for him to say something more.  I knew that we had not been long acquainted, that we had grown close in such shaky starts and stops that he could not possibly fully trust me as of yet even if he did love me, but that did not stop my yearning to know what had cracked within him, who had fractured it, and where that man lived so I could rip him to pieces.  Something told me, and I accepted it even as I thought it, that I would never know the answer.  Or if he did tell me, he would tell me in shades of grey metaphor, in the sort of shadowy fables at which he was so adept.  Whatever had happened, it had been done long ago.  Impulsively, I held out my own arm.  It was scarred, as his was, though the marks had accumulated over much less long a period and were therefore fainter.

"Give me a dose of your morphine."

He pulled back from me, aghast.  "No."

"Go on.  Do it."

"Whatever are you playing at?" he snarled, his metallic eyes flashing.

"It is bound to happen sooner or later," I insisted.  "I'll have an attack of pain and grow desperate enough to take the stuff, and it will be at my fingertips, and the fight with be over.  I may as well skip the struggle and fall back into the habit now."

"You are out of your mind," he lashed out.  "Your health, your recovery--"

"Will be severely compromised.  I'll quickly return to high doses and damage my digestive system, my cardiovascular system--I could very likely suffer a stroke or a heart attack.  Provided I fail to overdose in the beginning, of course.  If I start taking so much it becomes dangerous once more and I fear for my life, I could stop dosing myself and go through withdrawal again--the muscle spasms, cold sweats, the black fits of despair, the blinding pain of it.  I could easily kill myself ridding my body of the stuff.  Even if I survived the process, my current paranoia and depression would deepen."

"Why are you doing this to me?" he pleaded, crawling forward and taking my face in his hands.  "Please stop.  You know what I want to be to you--the sort of life I wish you to have.  You have grown stronger and stronger here, and I have watched all the while, and I--"

"Get the syringe."


"Give me the morphine, and do it now."

"I would as soon give you a syringe full of arsenic!"

Reaching up, I covered the hand cradling my jaw.  "Then can you conceive of the way I feel when you take it yourself?"

He flinched, but even as he did so he shook his head, a piece of ebony hair falling over his brow.  His grip on me tightened slightly, as if he needed some way to anchor himself and had never yet found an object steady enough to do the job.  I suddenly doubted, for the first time, whether I could ever be sufficiently strong to manage it.

"You must break yourself of this habit," I insisted.  "You are burning the candle at both ends, and the game itself is hardly worth it."

"You don't understand at all.  It isn't a game," he whispered.  "And the candle itself is hardly a very valuable one."

"It is to me," I cried.

"I know, though I cannot think why.  You don't even know me--I've told you that, countless times.  You didn't know that I had sodded men for my upkeep, and see how that affected you."

"That affected me for the identical reason this does--the thought of keeping you safe from harm.  Not to mention myself.  If you cannot shed the morphine--"

"I can never promise you want you want," he said shakily.  His eyes were actually tearing, and he moved in still closer to me, his lips only a breath away from my own.  His hands were still at my face, stroking the skin.  "You have asked as the first favour from me the only thing I cannot grant.  I cannot stop being Sherlock Holmes, my dear fellow.  I wish I could, believe me.  I can promise you other things.  I can try--if having morphine in the flat will harm you, I'll get rid of it this very night.  I want nothing but good for you.  There have been relatively happy periods of my life when a ten or eleven percent solution of cocaine has been enough.  I can try that, and keep it hidden.  If I hid it, you would never be able to find it, I promise you.  If you only could have viewed the reasons for my vices, you would take pity on me, I know it.  You said you loved me.  Possibly that was an effect of the moment, the aftermath of passion, an echo of something else--if you need to take it back, I would not be at all offended, under the circumstances.  It would not even be the first time such has happened.  But if you were telling me the truth--"

"I love you," I repeated, blinking back the moisture in my own eyes.  "Whoever claimed he loved you and lied is a worthless blackguard.  I love you with everything I am, and ever shall be."

"Then let me try," he whispered.  He pressed forward and I fell back to the pillows as he covered my badly used body with his own nearly perfect one, curling against me with his head on my neck.  "Only let me try.  I shan't succeed, I warn you, but I can destroy the morphine and keep the rest where you shall never lay eyes on it.  I'll make every effort and pretend to be besting it, whatever sacrifice is enough for you save what you asked."


"Everything I have told you is true, but living with other men and living with you are separate universes.  You have been horribly lonely, I have seen it, but never in the same way I have.  I know what another loneliness is.  Loneliness while within another man, his bed, his life, but never his soul, that is solitude of a different kind.  I have never been granted a position where I could truly live to make someone happy.  Don't send me away."

I enfolded him in my arms.  I had not understood, I realized.  He was right.  I had supposed that his shining empathy, his ability to comprehend the woes of other men, would lead him to abandon the habit once he knew how precious he was to me.  But such was not the case.  If I loved all of him--his pride, his scorn, his brilliance, his gentility--I would have to love the addict too.  I could help him to fight it in every way I knew, but I could not alter his past any more than I could erase my own.  He had already finished constructing the man he was before I came to him, and nothing would ever change that.  I nestled him into me, one of my hands round his back and the other resting against his svelte hip bone.

"When have I ever been even remotely tempted to send you away?" I murmured.  "Even before I loved you, I couldn't bear to be away from you.  And in any case, you are a kept man again: I need half the rent for next month, and you are about to earn us fifty pounds."

When I awoke for the second time four hours later, the cold autumn sun was blazing through the window and my friend was gone again.  Rising, I took advantage of his absence to draw a much-needed bath and to shave carefully, my breath catching every time my mind lit on him and my blood humming in my fingertips.  I was ravenously hungry and, knowing Holmes to be but a slight eater even on the best of occasions, when I arrived downstairs in our empty sitting room I rang at once for a hearty breakfast.

I had not been long over my plate of eggs and toast when I heard the ringing of the downstairs bell.  It could only be a client, I supposed, for Holmes himself had a key and I had commerce with distressingly few human beings.  For an instant, I suspected fearfully that it could be John Clay come to thrash me soundly--or attempt it, rather--but when Mrs. Hudson appeared, she looked far more dour than I had ever seen her, and John Clay despite his faults looks and behaves like a gentleman.

"There's a man downstairs who claims he's business with Mr. Holmes and will not be put off," she announced, worriedly smoothing her apron.  "I would not trouble you, Doctor, for Mr. Holmes' affairs are none of yours, of course, but he is most insistent, and I--in the absence of Mr. Holmes, I wonder if you would consent to deal with the matter."

"Mrs. Hudson, of course I will," I exclaimed, rising.  "And please, in the future, never hesitate to request such a thing."

"Thank you," she said, relieved.  "Mr. Holmes seems to me a--well, a capable enough man if you catch my meaning, and a clever one, and a strong one, for all the airs he puts on.  But I confess I'm grateful your condition is so much improved that when this sort of thing--"

She was interrupted my the pounding of boots and the half-closed door swinging open behind her.  When the intruder stepped into the sitting room, Mrs. Hudson grimaced with a look of outraged decency of which I heartily approved.

"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson," I said quietly.  "If you would go downstairs, I shall deal with this fellow."

The fellow was built like a bear, with a shiny bowler hat on his head and a menacing grin on his face, dressed in the shabby attempt at respectability which characterized the more affluent breed of bruisers employed by unscrupulous moneylenders.  From brown checked trousers to badly tied cravat, he was the very image of a hired thug.

"Do state your business, sir, for as has already been made clear to you, Sherlock Holmes is not in," I declared.

"Oh, he ain't in," the brute nodded.  "I'm coming round to believing it, but that's a right shame, that.  I've not traveled clear cross the bridge after the money what he owes my employer just to be told he ain't in, there's the gist of it, sir."

"He'll pay you when it suits him.  Whether or not you are inconvenienced is none of our concern."

"But you see," he said, walking on cheap factory boots further into the room, "it is your concern, guv.  I takes my responsibilities serious like, you savvy, for we'd none of us working men keep our billets otherwise.  If he'd been here, with the notes in his hand, there would be an end to it and all on our merry way.  Like as not you wouldn't have been no worser off even if he'd bilked us, for he'd have taken the brunt of my temper, no two ways about that.  But seeing as you're here and he ain't, as you say, you're going to have to improve my mood all on your own."

"I don't agree."

"Oh-ho!  You don't agree!  Well, whether you agree or not, I'll have broken a few of your bones before that scarecrow of a great mincing toff gets back from his tailor."

"Get out," I ordered.

"Get out, he says," sneered the ruffian.  "Bugger this idle talk--"

I heartily agreed with his sentiment.  We held no further discourse that late morning, for I have no patience with men who barge into private residences and then ignore an order to depart again.  And as I have stated before, I may well have fled at the sound of crackling paper, but the lessons of survival have not left my body no matter how badly my mind rebelled against them.  I fear that in my displeasure at some of his phrasing, I may have been more harsh than I intended, but the man's character had not seemed to me to be stamped with mercy, and in any event one errs on the side of caution when rendering street roughs unconscious.

Mrs. Hudson, the poor soul, flew through the door with an expression of tearful horror on her face, which froze when she realized who had been punched several times in the jaw and who had delivered the blows.  Gasping in disbelief, she smiled at me.

"I heartily apologize, Mrs. Hudson, for any alarm I've caused you, but this cad was growing quite intolerable.  Have you any objection to my dragging him downstairs?"

She drew herself upright, settled her limbs into an attitude of demure calm, and cleared her throat.  "Shall I ring for the commissionaire to help you, Doctor?"

"Thank you, my dear lady.  That would be much appreciated."

I had never previously met Commissionaire Peterson, but he seemed a good sort all round, having gone a bit wide-eyed at the sight of the wretch on our carpet but readily assenting to assist me in getting rid of him.  In fact, we were just depositing the rogue in the downstairs area where the vegetables were delivered when Sherlock Holmes strode past us on the pavement.  He caught our movements in the corner of his eye and stopped short.

"Watson, what the devil are you doing?" he cried.

"Taking out the rubbish."  My shoulder ached a little, and I stretched the arm as far back as I could manage.

"I--you--hullo, Peterson," my friend managed at last, settling on courtesy as an escape from incoherence.  "You had a part in this, did you?"

"No, sir."  Peterson shook his head.  "Carried my fair share of the load, but the making of it was the Doctor's doing."

"Doctor, what on God's earth are you thinking of?  Who is this man?"

I shrugged.  "I have not the first notion of who he is."

"Well, then what did he want?" my friend demanded in considerable vexation.

"He wanted fifty pounds or a chance at your skin.  He was most uncivil, and I fell into an argument with him."

My friend's expression of wonder turned to one of rage when his eyes fell on my unknown victim.  "You could have been--"

"No," I interrupted firmly, "I could not have been.  Not by the likes of him."

Sherlock Holmes spent several seconds deciding whether he wanted to be furious at me for provoking a professional bruiser, or thankful that said bruiser still slept.  Finally, he reached into his waistcoat and tossed a shilling to Commissionaire Peterson.

"My good Peterson, thank you for your willingness to assist us in a spot of manual labour.  I suggest for your health that you never fall into the bad graces of the Doctor here, for it seems an unlucky pursuit."

Smiling, Peterson pocketed the coin and bid us farewell.  When we were inside once more with the outer door locked and bolted, and had crossed up the stairs and into the empty sitting room, my friend turned back to me with a look of mixed anger, affection and pride.

"Pray confine your gallantries to occasions when I am present to provide assistance if needed, there's a good fellow?  You may consider it henceforth, if not a rule, then a heartfelt recommendation."

He leaned down to kiss me and the assured calm I had felt when in physical danger was replaced by a sensation of intoxicated weightlessness.  But just as quickly he broke the contact and made as if to examine the scene of the crime, looking ruefully at the scattered spots of blood upon the carpet.

"Considering your profession, it was bound to happen sooner or later," I observed slyly.

"I do not dare to contradict you," he teased me.  "I do not dare presume to offend you in any way, now I have seen the swift and inevitable consequences.  I dare only to thank you for your pains, and for the other sorts of pains that the unknown ruffian downstairs shall shortly be suffering.  And I dare to say that Mrs. Hudson, upon laying eyes on her carpet--"

"She has not yet noticed them.  In order to remain in her good graces, I shall see to it myself in a moment."

"Her good graces?" Holmes repeated.  "I congratulate you.  I fear I am myself yet well out of them.  Let me see to it, you've done enough for one day."

So saying, he draped his frock coat over a chair and rolled up his sleeves, disappearing into his bedroom and returning with a rag dampened at his basin.  He went to his chemical table and pulled out a drawer of powders, selecting one and sprinkling it over the cloth.  I had no reason to suspect otherwise, for he was a brilliant chemist, but it seemed that my friend was a man who knew how to remove bloodstains, not merely identify them.  He promptly knelt on the carpet and set to work with a good-natured little frown.

"Watson, I need to exchange a few words with you," he said softly.

Such statements rarely lead to any good, and when he looked up at me he saw what I was thinking.  "No, no, dear fellow, nothing like that.  But I have been out making all necessary arrangements for our criminal prevention undertaking this evening, and as I want you with me, I must regretfully inform you that your erstwhile beau John Clay--"

"Is a scoundrel and an utter villain," I agreed, so relieved that I sat down on the settee next to my friend's domestic chores.  "And it only remains for you to tell me what atrocity he is about on this occasion."

"Ah, good," he smiled, his sinewy forearm flexing at the effort of scrubbing our carpet clean.  "I had not known whether you harboured any sympathy for him."

"I am not a bitter man, but I would be mad to spare him any regard whatever," I sighed.

"Tell me about it," he requested, "and you need spare him nothing.  It was in Scotland, I suppose?"

"How could you know that?" I murmured in astonishment, drawing my hand over my brow.

"I know something of John Clay, you see--the invert, murderer, thief, smasher and forger.  Watson, will you fetch me a bit more water from that pitcher?  Thank you.  He is, as you said, a young man just as we are, but he's at the head of his profession, and I should rather lay my hand on him than any other criminal in London.  He's a remarkable man, is young John Clay," he drawled.  "His grandfather was a royal Duke, as you doubtless know, he himself has been to Eton and Oxford, his brain is as cunning as his fingers, and he has cracked several cribs in Scotland, for he knows the country intimately.  Of course, he'd a tendency to be off raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the following week."

I was not concentrating on John Clay's criminal career by then, however.  "When you said," I ventured slowly, "about his brain--"

"No, I have never experienced John Clay's cunning fingers firsthand, but I have heard tell," he smiled.  "The world of London inverts is hardly limitless, more's the pity, and some of them talk more than they ought.  Now, my dear fellow, I do desire to know what took place for safety's sake, but rest assured I will not force the issue if you say the word."

"It was in 1870," I confessed.  "I was eighteen, not yet through with my studies in Edinburgh.  I had long before taken an interest in the medical world, for my grandfather was a doctor, but I was also a keen sportsman, and the rugby..."  Here I hesitated, for to reflect on the days when I could still consider myself a danger to the opposing team in any sport was painful, but I pressed on.  "John Clay played for Eton, you see."

"Of course."

"We never met on the field, but that was the way we were introduced," I recalled.  "He was visiting a cousin in our form on a weeklong spring holiday, and he seemed to develop an interest in me.  At first, we talked of nothing but sport, but one night when we were chatting alone and altogether too late in one of the abandoned corridors..."

"Go on," he urged.  He had largely cleaned the smaller stains and was moving on to the darker, the one which was likely engendered by my crushing the brute's nose.

"I was not inexperienced," I coughed.  "I have always been attracted to a certain type--quick-witted, sublimely intelligent in fact, of a refined, imperious mien, and not the sort of man you would term a queer upon sight, for they are far too dominant and sophisticated.  Perhaps you have noticed the preference."

"I have," he owned with a wry smile, "but I fear I cannot enjoy the comparison.  Pray continue."

"You are nothing like him," I agreed readily, "for his gentility is merely a paper facade, but what I falsely admired in him was an imitation of the qualities you possess in truth."  For example, I knew John Clay would prefer to have died rather than to scrub a blood stain out of a carpet, but my seemingly blue-blooded friend made the task look so natural that John Clay appeared a mere fraction of a man.  "In any case, that night I was willing to begin something with him, if purely as a lark.  I was very careful at school, you must understand, but that does not mean that I did not..."

"Enjoy all aspects of boarding school social life," he suggested.

"Well, yes," I said, blushing.  "I have been like this all my life, you see.  So that night, when he wanted intimacy of me--and he was very persuasive, Holmes, rather masterful even at that age, and a dashing fellow rugby man at that--I offered him something.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a matter of fact.  But on the following night, we met again, and he wanted more.  What I had been willing to give him the previous day, he said, was not enough."

"I see."  My friend's voice had taken on a cutting, dangerous edge.

"No, he would not have been able to compel me into anything even had he tried," I said rapidly.  "We both returned to our rooms, he very haughtily and I reluctantly a few minutes later.  But you see, the next day he privately told his cousin, along with everyone else he had met in my entire form, that if any of them fancied a ride, I had expressed myself more than willing to be sodded by all comers before the holiday was out, not to mention thereafter, and that he had tasted as much the night before, and that I liked to pretend I was being forced."

Holmes paled within half a second, his busy hands freezing, eyes raking over me urgently, his fine lips parting in sympathetic horror.  When he did, and I recalled some of the brutes at school in those days, and what the admission sounded like to my friend, I could only thank Heaven once more for how lucky I had been in truth.  I dove down to the carpet to kneel before him on the other side of the blood, for to be a foot away on the sofa was considerably too distant--he looked quite ghostly with alarm.

"Nothing came of it, love," I interrupted before he could ask devastating questions.

"That is not possible," he snapped.

"Five rather serious fistfights came of it," I admitted, "but after word spread that a thrashing would follow close upon the heels of hounding me, they left me alone.  And I myself departed for the University of London soon after.  But that is not the entire story.  Shall I go on?" I asked, for my friend's knuckles were beginning to appear very eager to be used upon something other than a slop rag.

He nodded wordlessly.

"When three days had gone by and I remained yet undefiled--or undefiled by the likes of Clay's cousin's friends, in any event, for I was admittedly no virgin, the cousin himself made an effort.  He was a chap by the name of Robert Clay, another snobbish, self-important blackguard, and I fractured his jaw.  I thought there was an end to it, but one final incident took place thereafter, and the one I think will most interest you.  The next day when I was all alone in the library, thinking to avoid everyone if they would not avoid me, Clay came in with a little flask.  I stood up on my guard on the instant I saw him coming, and made a lunge for whatever he held in his hand.  He hadn't anticipated my reacting so quickly, so the bottle was still stoppered, but between our both grappling at it, the loosely plugged cork fell out, and a bit of the stuff splashed across his brow."

It was not a memory to which I returned often--he had screamed, and dropped the vial, and I had reacted rather predictably by rushing for water and a cloth.  We had soon determined that it would not be a serious wound, only a painful and permanent one, and because John Clay could not begin to fathom why my instinct had been to help him despite his despicable intentions when he had entered that room, he never troubled me again in spite of the fact I had forever scarred his countenance.  In fact, he left the following afternoon for Eton, and shortly thereafter when the term ended I myself departed for London--still every bit as confused as he had been that I had helped the man who wanted to see me humiliated and abused.  But I never forgot that terrible day, and I never shall--the idea that an object of desire scorned would stoop to such base levels of vengeance was horrifying to me in the first place, and the justice in his device's reversal of victims overly perfect to seem quite real.

As for Holmes, he was too shocked by the news that it was I who had forever altered John Clay's face to dwell on his vile behavior.  I was glad of it, for I did not relish the picture of Sherlock Holmes ever laying eyes on John Clay again.

"He wanted to destroy your greatest charm, and so he thought to throw oil of vitriol in your face," he remarked in awe.

I confess I wilted at this, for I had expected vituperation heaped on Clay and not whimsical references to my former assets.  "I was then, by some accounts, considered to be--"

"What an imbecile," he laughed.  "As if everything else about you does not at once declare you a superior creature in every way.  The moment you open your lips, everyone around you stops to listen, and when others are speaking, they seek you out to be sure you mark them.  Have you noticed Lestrade doing it?  His version is simply priceless.  I confess from your current dangerously striking appearance, I had assumed before the war you must have been a being seldom seen since the days of ancient Greece, saving the fact you're far too blond for the classical climate, my dear fellow, but only a rank fool could have thought your beauty your foremost attraction.  Of course that shallow scrap of a soulless coward failed to recognize you yesterday--he never once saw you in the first place."

There have been times in my life when I have supposed it is not possible for me to love my friend any more ardently, and on all such occasions I have been proven dead wrong.  Leaning forward over a dark wet bloodstain, I kissed him with my hand at the back of his head and the scant moisture in my eyes safely retreating back from whence it had come.  When I made to pull away I found I could not and so lingered, just brushing my softened lips over his own.



"My hands are covered in another man's blood at the moment, which I confess dampening to the escalation of ardor."

It was a poor excuse to stop kissing a fellow in spite of his obsession with hygiene, I thought, and thus continued, only resorting to speech when I was out of breath entirely.  "You thought to escalate it?  In what fashion?"

"The main of it has to do with draping you over that footstool there," he replied, nodding casually at the piece of furniture as he reapplied himself to the rapidly diminishing spot.  "But in the meanwhile, I shall tell you of our plans so that none of this night's events can go wrong for lack of preparation."

So he told me everything--about the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, about the scheduled arrival of our stupid but tenacious acquaintance, Detective Peter Jones, about his earlier meeting with the nervy and straight-laced banking professional Mr. Merryweather, and about the tunnel which had been constructed all the while Mr. Jabez Wilson was copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I did my level best to listen to him attentively, for he kept shooting me amused glances from beneath his black brows--but I confess that my focus did not fully return to me until after he had dropped the rag in the pile to be laundered and had thoroughly washed his immaculate hands.

The independent consulting detective, calm and competent through all of the questions put to us by Mr. Merryweather, deftly buttoned his peajacket and selected a heavy riding crop from the hall rack before waving the banker and Peter Jones into a waiting cab that night.  We two followed in the second hansom.  Holmes hummed snatches of the Carmen Fantasy, leaning back in the cab with his knee resting companionably against my own as we rattled through an endless labyrinth of gas-lit streets.

The huge vault or cellar beneath the bank, lined with crates, was as earth-smelling as the underground.  Mr. Merryweather perched on a box, Peter Jones' eyes roving with placid care over the surface of the floor where my friend had examined the stone with his lens.  I was hidden behind a crate with Holmes, my revolver cocked upon the top of the wooden case, just before my friend shuttered the dark lantern.

"If they fire, Watson," he said to me, his features grim, "have no compunction about shooting them down."

The words chilled my blood a little, though I could not think him capable of murder.  I convinced myself that I knew what he meant to say, calling the admonition mere caution in face of a dangerous foe--but I wondered what Merryweather and Jones must have thought of Holmes as they waited in the darkness, our nostrils full of the smell of hot metal from the lamp.  I confess that knowledge of who was coming to us from the other end of that passage was enough to work my nerves up to a very pitch of expectancy, for all the depression of the cold dank air of the vault.

And what a time it seemed!  From comparing notes afterwards it was but an hour and a quarter, yet it appeared to me awaiting John Clay's approach that the night must have almost gone.  My nerves were worked up to the highest pitch of tension, but when small sounds in the darkness began to disturb me--the shift of a boot sole, the scrape of a trouser leg--I forced them from my mind by listening to Holmes, the gentle and wonderfully familiar breathing of my companion.  Then suddenly my eyes caught on a glint of light.

At first it was but a lurid spark upon the stone pavement.  Then it lengthened out until it became a yellow line, and then, without any warning or sound, a gash seemed to open and a hand appeared; a white, almost womanly hand, sickeningly familiar to me, which felt about in the center of the little area of light.

When--with a rending, tearing sound--one of the broad white stones turned fully over on its side, the light of a lantern streamed out and a perfectly clean-cut, youthful, altogether amoral face appeared.  He drew himself out with a hand on either side of the aperture until one knee rested upon the edge.  In another instant he stood at the side of the hole and was assisting his decidedly red-headed companion through it.

"It's all clear," John Clay whispered.

But it was not all clear, for Sherlock Holmes had sprung out and seized Clay by the collar.  Clay shouted a violent alarm to his friend, who vanished like a rat back down the hole save for the coat-tails Jones clutched in his hands.  Jones, for his part, dropped into the tunnel after his quarry, his gun now in his hand, while Mr. Merryweather cowered behind a wooden box.  Clay jerked himself round to grapple with Holmes, their arms straining against one another, and in a moment unequaled for agony I found my own weapon's sights trained on the two of them together.

Then Clay twisted out of Holmes' grasp, thrashing like a trapped snake.  And worst of all, mine was not the only weapon.  John Clay thrust one of his white hands into his coat and the light flashed upon the barrel of a revolver.  In another instant I would have shot him dead with a glad heart, but Holmes' hunting crop came viciously down on Clay's wrist and he dropped the gun with a sharp yell, a line of blood appearing.  Relentless in his desperate desire to escape our trap, he dove once more for the underground passage.

My friend caught his wrist, pivoting his weight in a spin to bring Clay to his knees.  And then Holmes' crop came down on the man's back.

The first strike would have done it, for the scoundrel gasped in agonized shock and bowed his head.  But then my friend raised his arm again, his face grim but tight with precision, and the whip fell soundly across Clay's shoulders for the second time.  I saw his coat tear, and that blow produced a cry as loud as he had keened over his bleeding hand.

Prior to that moment I had not had time to be afraid--least of all, afraid of Holmes.  But just as my wildly reeling thoughts were growing too much for me, Holmes tucked the weapon under his arm again and looked scornfully down at the shivering coward he had produced with three blows from a riding crop, however meticulously savage they had been.

Peter Jones reappeared, within the hole.  He looked pensive.  Even if he had not seen what was taking place, surely he had heard it.  There is no sound in the world like a whip across a man's shoulders.

"It's no use, John Clay," Holmes said blandly, still peering down his long nose as Mr. Merryweather emerged, shaking.

"So I see, you brute," the villain sneered.  Now he was no longer being actively beaten, his head was up and his eyes flashed.  They took in both me and my revolver trained on him without a hint of recognition.  "Though I fancy my pal is all right."

"He's not," Peter Jones coughed, hopping out of the hole.  "There are three men waiting for him at the door."

"Oh, indeed!  You seem to have done the thing very completely," Clay commented, flinching.  He had raised his torso entirely, though it looked to me to be hardly worth the effort on behalf of his infernal, despicable pride--for few chaps can appear dignified whilst on their knees before the man who has caused them to begin bleeding through their dinner jackets.

Jones looked at Holmes, and Holmes raised an eyebrow in reply.  Neither spoke, for I do not believe either wished to do so.  Then Peter Jones pulled his handcuffs from his coat and stepped forward.

"You'll see your pal again presently," he said.  "Just hold out while I fix the derbies."

"I beg that you will not touch me with your flithy hands," Clay shuddered as the handcuffs clattered upon his wrists.  "You may not be aware that I have royal blood in my veins.  Have the goodness, also, when you address me always to say 'sir' and 'please.'"

"Allow me to put it another way," Holmes suggested frigidly, lifting Clay's jaw with the tip of the crop.  "If you do not get to your miserable feet and accompany my friend Jones here upstairs and into a cab waiting to take you to the police station, you filthy little wretch, I shall consider it a request for six more strokes, and less kindly ones."

Clay staggered to his feet.  I had seen him in severe pain before, but never had I seen anyone in such a towering, vicious rage.  Stumbling on his first step but turning the error into a hateful bow to Holmes, Clay walked quietly off in the custody of the detective.

Mr. Merryweather approached us, his eyes wide and shining with awe.  I noticed that he stood closer to me, and gave my patently dangerous friend a wide berth.

"Really, Mr. Holmes," he simpered, "I do not know how the bank can thank or repay you.  There is no doubt but that you have expended every effort possible, physical and mental alike, in the apprehension of this fiend."

"I have had one or two little scores of my own to settle with Mr. John Clay," said Holmes, his eyes glinting icily.  "I have been at some small expense over this matter, which I shall expect the bank to refund, but beyond that I am amply repaid."

"What would cover your expenses, Mr. Holmes?" Mr. Merryweather desired to know.

"Fifty pounds," he replied.

Mr. Merryweather's jaw dropped, but then he very furtively glanced at the hunting crop.  After that, he peered back at me.  My eyes remained neutral--how, I cannot fathom.

"You can take gold for your pains now, Mr. Holmes, although that can be rather heavy," he offered with a smile.  "Or a cheque tomorrow, if you should prefer that."

I was, I will admit it freely, in a daze as we quit the doors of the bank.  Fifty pounds in French gold now resided in my friend's inner frock coat pocket, which was surprising enough, but that was nothing like the cause of my utter bemusement.  There are acts which explain themselves, and other acts which demand speech.  Holmes and I had walked together in silence for several blocks away from the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank and Mr. Merryweather when I could stand the suspense no longer.  I pulled my friend into an alleyway between a pair of dingy red brick buildings.  Once out of the light, he leaned into me, resting his elbows weightlessly over my shoulders with his forearms against the rough wall.  His empty hand was soon cradling my face.

"I am sorry.  I would stop walking with a crop or cane entirely if you requested it, and carry my revolver for safety instead."  The object in question he had rested against the brick.  It took me a moment to comprehend him, and then I did know what he thought to be wrong, and I loved him for it.

"It was not the crop.  At times you dragged it along surfaces idly before, but not since I asked you to stop.  Holmes," I said slowly, "those blows you delivered Clay...after he dropped the gun..."

"You are most welcome," he responded, "although I cannot gauge my contribution to your cause as being sufficient in light of the initial injury."

It was true, then.  I could not comprehend it.  I had informed a lover of some two days' standing that John Clay had once tried to see me abused and maimed, and that same barely established lover had horsewhipped him for it.  My heart was beginning to pound with a sort of animal pride, for men of modern England do not behave in such a fashion.  That sort of brutal chivalry hardly seemed possible in the early 1880s, and my face must have reflected as much, for my friend shifted a brow at me.  He stood back a little, leaning against the bricks with his palms instead of his arms.

"Do you recall, dear fellow, that business with Mary Sutherland--which, although the law could not touch James Windibank, prompted me to remark that if the lady had a brother, he ought to lay a whip across his shoulders?"

I did remember, for that had been one of the most arousing sights I had ever been privy to in a life of considerable experience, Holmes tense with fury gripping that selfsame crop in his hand, but remained stunned and silent nevertheless.

"Well, you didn't think I was advising a course I was not capable of taking myself, did you?" he demanded, smiling a little.  "And if worse had befallen you, Clay would have gotten far worse from me, that I can promise."

"I--but--you are not my brother," I finished lamely.

"No," he said, drawing the word out to lengths which a single syllable had never before dreamed possible, "I am not your brother.  And although I confess slight shades of fraternal attachment in your company, I will never be a brother to you.  That does not mean your defense is not my sole business."

"I am not--"

"Just as you proved this morning that my defense is yours," he pointed out.  He had me there, I realized.

"But Holmes, there was a policeman present--he could easily have brought assault charges against you!"

"I am known to Peter Jones," he shrugged.  "We have worked together, and he is familiar with my character.  I appreciate your concern, but I do not find the possibility of assault charges weighs very heavily against a question of honour."

"Well," I murmured, still utterly shocked but slowly recovering, "I suppose now that you have defended my honour--after the fact, granted, but with much more the romantic motivation than the fraternal, as you yourself have made clear..."

"Yes?" he queried, again giving the word far greater space than it deserved.

"I suppose that I shall have to reward you."

"I don't think--"

"In the traditional manner, of course.  I believe it tends towards the erotic."

It was nigh incomprehensible, but he actually flushed.  Then he dropped his head a little with his lips parted, hovering over mine at an angle I was beginning to recognize as the most perfect mathematical coordinate in all the world, and he waited until my mouth raised up to meet his--in the darkness of an alleyway, in the heart of London.

"I use every man according to his deserts," he reminded me, his eyes glowing brighter than the gas lamps when the kiss had ended--over and done for in our time, but glowing in my memory to this day.  I would have liked to say Eternity recalls it just as well, but such notions do not exist.  "You did tell me that such standards all too often warrant a sound whipping.  You need not reward me for being who I am."

"I know.  That happens to be precisely the reason I wish to reward you.  Apart from your sense of justice, neither are you passion's slave, and so I will wear you in my heart's core--indeed, in my heart of hearts," I answered him.  "I am slowly growing to know you, you see.  That is why I am going to reward you."

As the hansom pulled up in front of 221 Baker Street that night, I felt such a depth of contentment as I had never experienced in all my days.  Holmes looked quite as pleased as I did, the now barely visible flush nevertheless brightening his face in the lamplight.  I descended from the cab, and then helped him out of it.  While my friend paid the driver I stood on the pavement waiting for him, staring up at the window of our sitting room, the place that now seemed in every way my home.

"Ours," I said when Holmes returned to my elbow.

"Ours," he agreed, smiling, "although Mrs. Hudson does retain some title to it."

We walked up to the front door, my friend's set of keys already in his hand.  "Our doorknob," he quipped, gripping it.

The hallway was darkened and unmistakably rather drab, but I did not care in the slightest.  I wiped my boots on the little brown carpet in the foyer our landlady had left there for the purpose.  The standing clock chimed the quarter hour--soon it would be morning.

"Our clock," said I.

Holmes dropped his crop into the umbrella bin, hanging his scarf and hat on the stand.  Glancing into the dim depths of the upright mirror, he meticulously palmed a strand of his hair back into place.  "Our mirror," he remarked, adjusting the collar of his peajacket.

"Our carpet," I agreed.

"Our foyer, come to that."

I began climbing the staircase.  When I reached the sitting room with him and we had locked the doors, I would kiss him as he had never been kissed in his young life, I thought happily.  I would put my soul in my mouth and give him the keeping of it, as we stumbled back to his bedroom shedding our clothing all the while.  I would grasp him to me like a lifeline and make him understand that nothing he could do in all our lives could ever cause me to send him away.  He would vex me at times, I supposed, but what a small price to pay that would be for being owned by the best man in London--and in any event, no matter how badly we wounded one another, we would never be lonely again save when we were apart.  And rewards would follow.  Kneeling down, I would peel away the last of his clothing and take him in my mouth.  He would make love to me with the slow, inexorable rhythm of a concert violinist, though in my weariness I rather hoped he may have forgotten his oath of the previous evening, for the details of that arrangement were proving deliciously exhausting.  And the next day, provided we could keep one another from harm, we would do it all over again, and it would be the best pairing in the history of Great Britain.

"Our steps," I called back.  "I wonder how many there are."

"Seventeen," his voice floated up, articulate and silken.  "We have seventeen steps, my dear fellow."