by Katie

I once left both Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes because of an illicit affair he was conducting with a fellow called Hastings.  I could almost bring myself to wish that no such ghastly occurrence had ever taken place, but I have come to believe it is through just such crises that our loved ones' true characters are revealed, and that if I had not stormed out that day I would not now posses a fraction of the blessings to which I am privy.  Indeed, I was myself to blame for the lion's share of the trouble, and as a great contributor to the event, I cannot be ungrateful for the lesson it taught me.  If such an outlook appears overly optimistic, or even simplistic, in the light of day, I fear it is not in my nature to dwell upon the past's small tragedies except to see in what ways they have aided me since; and thus, in an attitude of instruction I am taking it upon myself to record the events as they unfolded.  In any event, the story was so exceedingly dramatic that it bears a second look on the merit of adventure alone.

The facts of the matter were so convoluted in their presentation to me that it is difficult to know where the wretched business truly commenced.  I suppose it began when I arrived home to our flat at Baker Street one frigid winter's day a few weeks before Christmas to discover Holmes perusing a letter.  The scene was perfectly domestic, even dull if any room could be called dull which housed Sherlock Holmes, but his expression as I entered was most peculiar.  He was reading with a look of wonderment mixed with a large degree of affection (which was hardly typical of the man) and that even contained, if I admitted it to myself, a trace of fear.  It was the oddest sight I had ever been subjected to on reaching our flat, and my mouth dropped open in shock when I realized that he, the man whose senses rivaled those of the most agile predator, had not even heard me come in. 

"Afternoon, Holmes," I said to him.  I set the bags I was carrying on the floor.

He dropped the letter in surprise and then quickly picked it up again, folding the writing over upon itself and stuffing it in the inside pocket of his coat.

"Watson.  How are you?" he said shortly.

"I am well."  He still was not looking at me.  Instead, his grey eyes now wandered freely and pensively over the carpet.  I approached him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  I was beginning to fear something, and could not even say what.  It was an eerie sensation, as if I had broken into a private sanctuary or eavesdropped on a sordid conversation.  "Are you quite all right, my dear fellow?"

"Me?  I am fine," he smiled.  Rising, he kissed me briefly on the mouth, and then advanced toward the fire and began to resurrect the dying blaze.

"I am glad to hear it."  I fought the impulse to touch my lip with my fingertips.  The kiss had been more than welcome, but I had not expected it.  Sherlock Holmes was not a fellow who thought lightly of bestowing physical affections; or rather, and I had not yet worked out which, such expressions were so trivial to him that it did not occur to him to distribute them more frequently.  "May I ask what you were doing when I arrived?"

"I was reading," he said, and raised his brows as if asking why I should make such an obvious query.

"I know.  You appeared preoccupied."  I do not now know why I was pressing the matter.  It was unprecedented on my part--as unprecedented, perhaps, as his expression had been.

"Did I?" he asked more impatiently.  "What do I look like when I am, as you term it, preoccupied?"

"Your brows grow rather unruly, and you set your mouth as if in the face of a cold wind."

"A very vivid, if unnecessarily poetic, account," he said dryly.  "Do let me know when you have thought up more such stirring literary epigrams to describe my features when I am distracted."

"I did not mean anything by it, my dear fellow," I said hastily.  I regarded him with even more curiosity than previously.  Sherlock Holmes had an alarming temper, and my own relationship with the man was--at the time, in the winter of the year 1884--an object so bizarre it could have easily qualified as an exhibit in the London Zoo, but I did not usually need to tread lightly where he was concerned.  We knew one another far too well.

"If you did not mean anything by it, why are you asking?  In any event, I was reading a letter written by a new client of ours.  We are to investigate the fellow who is making her life a misery.  I know but little of the blackguard thus far, but enough to assure you that it is an endeavor worthy of our attention.  She is not the first poor soul to fall victim to his designs."

"Oh, I see," I replied. 

"No, you don't," he sighed.  "But I shall make it clear to you soon enough.  Now.  What have you been about these past hours?"

I was accustomed to my friend's high-handedness, and even to his dismissive affectations, but they did not put me in a communicative humour.  In any event, the subject had been altered purposefully and with no very great skill.  I seated myself in the basket chair and rubbed at my shoulder, which ached naggingly in cold weather.  "I followed my professional hours with a few errands around town," I said rather distantly.

"You've stopped by Covent Garden."

"How on earth did you know that?"

"I can smell the contents of your parcels, and at least one of them is brimful with pine," he returned amusedly.  He seemed to have pulled himself back from the edge, for which I was grateful, for once Holmes has fallen into a black humour, it is devilishly difficult to haul him out again.

"You are a man of keen discernment."

"One cannot afford to ignore any one of the senses, even if it may seem a peripheral one.  Our very lives have depended upon that maxim, and on more than one occasion.  An alert sense of smell is essential to the criminal investigator."

"I give in.  I have purchased pine."

"I know you have.  Now, what shall you do with it?"

"I shall distribute it about the room, my good man," I smiled at him.  "Unless, of course, you prefer to burn it, or build a table, or perform mystic rites with it, or put it to some even less orthodox purpose."

"No, I am quite content with orthodoxy as regards seasonal decor," he smiled in return. He strode to the bag and began tearing off strings which bound various limbs of foliage into bundles.  Whistling to himself, he selected two boughs of nearly the same weight and tucked them behind glass frames on either side of the mantel. Then he proceeded to find similar homes for other sprays of needles. 

"I can do it myself if you'd rather not," I pointed out, though I felt at that moment far too contented to leave the chair.  A cloud of peacefulness seemed to have settled over me.  Holmes had done an excellent job of re-kindling the fire, and his mysterious letter was quickly fading from my mind as I watched his slim, muscled form wander the room with scraps of conifers.

"Do I look as if I'd rather not," he asked wryly, "or do you delude yourself you could produce a more artistic effect?"

There was nothing for it; the gauntlet had been thrown.  "I realize you've more justification for the sin of pride than any man living, but do try not to fly too close to the sun," I retorted teasingly.  Rising, I opened the second bag and drew out a branch.  "I am a very skillful decorator."

"As a matter of fact, you are only a doctor of medicine.  I have art in the blood," he shrugged as he wound a spray into a wall fixture.  The incorrigible fellow was right, of course.  Within five minutes, the room had already taken on the atmosphere of a winter's woodland glade.

For twenty minutes or more, we circled the room, fighting over materials and insulting one another's efforts good-naturedly.  I could hear the ringing of many bells through the frosted glass of our window, and the muffled clatter of hooves over mud and sleet.  The quips flew nearly as thick and fast as the snow had the day before.

"That pine branch is altogether too near the painting."

"You have degraded a holiday wreath into a circular stick."

"Were you raised in a barn, or do you merely prefer such agrarian effects?"

"Oh, very well, my dear fellow, hang a piece of dead wood over a gas lamp.  I thought you'd adventure enough in your life."

Before half an hour had passed, the room was a thing of beauty indeed.  We were nearly through our stock of supplies when I extracted a little spray of leaves and approached Holmes with it, looking up pointedly at our ceiling.

"You are far taller than I, and much better qualified to hang this."

"Why the devil should I hang it?" he inquired innocently.  "It ought to go just there, and fill in the gap between the books on the third shelf.  Put it next to the Almanac."

"But you never stand below the Almanac, or the third shelf," I protested, moving even closer to him.

"Well, that is obvious, my dear fellow.  I tower above it, in fact.  Here," he directed, twirling the stem in his elegant fingers before returning it to me, "if you've no love lost on the bookshelf, put it in that vase on the sideboard."

"But that will still not accomplish anything."

"Put it above my chemical table."

"You are missing the point," I said fondly, putting my arms around his neck. 

"No, you are missing the point," he argued, his arms twining around my waist.  "That isn't mistletoe--it is common English holly, and I'd like to know what you think you'll gain by it."

"Of course it's mistletoe," I protested.  "Holmes, the two look nothing alike.  Don't you think I can tell--"

I did not get any further, for he kissed me.  It was warm, and slow, and breathtaking, and when he stopped, it took me a moment to realize my eyes ought to be open.

"--what mistletoe looks like?" I finished breathlessly.

He squinted at it as he returned to the business of trimming an unruly branch.  "Right you are.  My mistake, my boy.  Hang it above my door frame and see if anyone thinks it amiss."

As I laughed happily, I reflected he was perfectly right to remind me of the necessity of caution.  I busied myself with the finishing touches on our side table, never looking up until I had completed the task, for I knew my feelings were at that moment loudly represented on my countenance.  Holmes and I had been indulging ourselves in the release of what I can only call unnatural urges for over a year at that time, and we'd been friends for years longer; but that day he had kissed me twice, in the middle of the sitting room, as if it were nothing--not in the context of a seduction, before languidly ordering me out of my clothing, or even after the act, sweat-soaked and heavy-lidded, a token reward--but simply to kiss me.  As if my presence were reason enough.

I could not have felt more satisfied with my afternoon or with my eccentric friend under any circumstances.  I was just turning to the fire to burn the mistletoe by way of discretion when I saw a flutter of chalky ash drift up toward the flue.  It was what remained of Holmes' letter.  I knew it at once.  His back was turned toward me when my eyes flew to him, and I swallowed hard.  Whatever it was, he had not even wanted me in the same room with it.  He preferred it to be burned.  I added the mistletoe to the scrap of cream paper noiselessly, and ran a weary hand over my eyes.

I was not afforded any fresh clue to the matter until three or four days later, just after Holmes and I had returned from one of our walks about town.  It was a perpetual delight for me to wander the city with my friend, his arm linked with mine in an easy, companionable manner, and I was in such a pleasant mood when we arrived home that I did not immediately connect the letter lying on our table with the incident a few days previous.  I merely glanced at it casually, and was in the act up picking up the calling card resting upon it when Holmes pounced on both objects and removed them from my grasp.

"Holmes, what are earth are you doing?" I asked irritably.  "Who has called while we were out?"

He slid the letter inside his jacket without reading it and read the card with an expression of great disgust, throwing it to the floor when he had finished.  I picked it up again.

"Who is Charles Augustus Milverton?" I asked.

"The worst man in London."  My friend lit his pipe and then began wandering about the room distractedly.  "Is anything on the back of the card?"

"He is to call at six thirty," I replied.  "What is the letter?"

He glanced at me quickly.  "It is a facsimile of one of the missives with which he intends to blackmail our client."

"Indeed?  He is a blackmailer?  Small wonder you hold him in such regard," I nodded.  "I cannot myself think of any lower vocation.  And who is our client?"

"Lady Eva Blackwell."  He fell into his chair, his eyes unfocused and his expression pensive.  "She is to be married to the Earl of Dovercourt.  This fiend has several imprudent letters--imprudent, Watson, nothing more--but they would suffice to break off the match.  He is nearly due, and I am to make her the best terms that I can."  He looked up at me.  "Are you staying?"

This was not a question which I had ever before been asked, and I was at a loss how to respond.  In the past, Holmes had demanded my assistance even when clients questioned trusting their delicate information to another party.  I could not tell if he desired my enthusiastic support, or my discreet exit; in fact, I could hardly fathom the query at all.  I only knew I did not like it.

"It is up to you, of course, Holmes," I said.  "Can I be of assistance?"

"Yes, perhaps.  I cannot say whether--"  He cut himself off at the sound of the downstairs bell.

I had only a moment to wonder why Holmes should have hidden the copy of Lady Eva's letter from me, for almost immediately we heard someone ascending the stairs.  When the door opened, it revealed a very short man with a large, benevolent bald head and sparkling eyes behind little gold-rimmed glasses.  He approached Holmes with his hand outstretched, which my friend stonily ignored.

Milverton laughed and removed his coat.  "This gentleman," he said in reference to me, "is it discreet?  It is right?"

Holmes hesitated, but replied firmly, "Dr. Watson is my friend and partner."

I stared at Holmes, for while his response had been entirely in character, his brief pause had not.  Milverton, his eyes equally fixed upon my friend, paid me not the slightest attention.

"Very good, Mr. Holmes. It is only in your--"

"Lady Eva's situation is already known to the Doctor," Holmes interrupted.

"Lady Eva's?" Milverton asked with a malicious smile.  "Ah, of course, the Lady Eva Blackwell, on whose behalf you are engaged.  I only wished to be certain.  I was going to say it was for your sake I inquired, Mr. Holmes.  The matter is so very delicate, after all."

"Dr. Watson has already heard of it," Holmes insisted.

"Then we can proceed to business. You say that you are acting for Lady Eva."

"Yes," my friend replied coldly.

"Has she empowered you to accept my terms?"
There was a form of communication taking place between the two men which did not match their speech.  Though they were yet early days for us, I had already been partner to Sherlock Holmes for far too long not to notice when he was deeply distressed.  I knew that bandying prices with a scoundrel must have been terribly degrading for him, but I was convinced before any more words were spoken that something was being purposefully hidden from me.  I watched the two of them argue in icy tones as a strange discomfort seeped into my breast.  That discomfort was replaced by fear when an appalling new thought struck me, regarding both the hidden letter and the client, and I struggled to concentrate upon what the two men were actually saying.

"I have eight or ten similar cases maturing," Milverton purred.  "You may, in fact, be aware of one or two of them.  Possibly the details are known to you.  In any event, I assure you that Lady Eva--or any other client who should fall under your care, for that matter--would do well to seek every opportunity to settle the matter quietly, for exposure indirectly is of the greatest use to me."

Holmes was grey with anger and mortification.  "It is impossible," he said.

"But surely you see if it was circulated that I made a severe example of Lady Eva--for example, though there are other possibilities for such a purpose--then I should find my new contacts much more open to reason."

"Get behind him, Watson!" my friend cried.  "Don't let him out!  Now, sir, let us see the contents of that notebook."

I sprang into action at once, barring the door with a chair in easy reach.  Holmes had long known me ready to do whatever was required of me, for I trusted his judgment wholeheartedly, and in any event whatever dark evidence Milverton appeared to possess I knew could be no trivial matter.  It was written all over my dearest friend's face.

"Really, Mr. Holmes," Milverton smiled, having darted to the wall and opened his coat to expose a large revolver.  "What an amateurish effort.  I have been expecting you to do something original, but this...you appear to be deeply unsettled.  My apologies for any undue distress I may have caused you.  And now, with your permission, I shall take my leave of you.  I have one or two little interviews this evening, and it is a long drive to Hampstead."  He exited, shutting the door behind him.  I could hear his little feet descending the stairs and resisted an urge to fly after him and make my opinion of him known in a more physical manner.

My friend clenched and unclenched his fists several times and then finally leaned with both hands against our mantelpiece.  I approached him apprehensively and put my own hand upon his shoulder.

"Holmes," I said, "you must tell me one thing."

He made no reply, but neither did he move away from me.  "My dear fellow, you are clearly deeply moved by this affair."  I hesitated yet again, for I little knew how to pose such an unthinkable question.  "I have begun to fear that.... Milverton has not--he has not found out anything about--"

"About what, for Heaven's sake, Watson?"  He turned around and rested his long forearms lightly on my shoulders.

"About us?"

Raising his dark brows, he replied gently,  "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"You are upset.  You are far more upset than I can recall seeing you in the presence of an antagonist.  I have made every effort to be as cautious and as circumspect as is humanly possible in regards to our...."

"Our what?" he prompted, his expression one of honest curiosity.

"Our activities," I swallowed.  That Holmes was a great deal more than a mere activity to me I thought manifestly obvious, but there was such an authority about him, an air of command coupled with a blinding intellect, that the thought of saying more shook me to the center of my being.  "As I say, I cannot imagine any way in which he could have discovered us, but if something of the kind has happened, I believe I deserve to know of it."

"Of course you would," he said distantly.  He stopped touching me and reached for his pipe.  "If our activities, as you so aptly term them, had been exposed, I would certainly tell you.  It would be most ignoble of me to do otherwise.  You will be delighted to learn they have not."

"Then what is the matter?" I asked him.  His even reply had done nothing whatever to calm me.  "And why have you hidden the letters?"

He glared at me.  "They are from our client.  They are compromising.  Are you truly so prurient that you would wish to see them?"

"I am not prurient," I insisted.  "You know that I am not.  There is more to this affair than you have made clear, for why else would you take the trouble to hide from me what I would not usually concern myself with?  Can you not see that if you are in trouble, then I am in trouble as well?  What distresses you vexes me equally, particularly where a professional blackmailer is concerned.  My dear fellow, you must show them to me."

"I am not at all certain what you are driving at, or what fanciful notion has flitted into that head of yours, but the letters were entrusted to me and you are not laying a single finger on them," he said in a very frigid tone.  "Do not ask me again.  That is according to the express wishes of our client."

I think I must have looked as if I had been struck.  That Holmes was amused by me I knew and that he was attracted to me seemed clear; and hitherto, it had been equally apparent that he implicitly trusted me.  He trusted me with everything, and what is more, he required others--perfect strangers in the throes of pitiable distress--to trust me as he did.  He demanded scullery maids trust me, and prime ministers, and crown princes.  At times, his trust felt nearly as good as love would have.  That trust was the closest thing to intimacy I had of him, closer even than his body, on the occasions I was granted it, and the feeling of it being withdrawn was unspeakably painful.

"I understand," I said numbly.  "I am sorry to have pressed you.  Do you require anything further of me, or have my services been rendered for the afternoon?"

"Watson, please," he sighed, catching my hand as I turned to go.  "Don't take on so.  I haven't any choice in the matter.  And I am far more repulsed by this Milverton rascal than any of the fifty murderers I've had to do with in my career.  I realize my reactions may appear extreme, but I swear to you neither my life, nor yours by proxy has been compromised."

I looked into his eyes, but could see nothing there except grey clouds.  Holmes is an exceptional actor.  That he could lie to me I knew, but would he?

"I have never lied to you," he growled, dropping my hand as if it had burned him.

"I didn't say anything," I protested, startled. 

"No.  You thought it without saying it, which is worse." 

He stalked away from me, making for his bedroom.  I could think of nothing to say, for the fact he was hiding something significant was so monstrously obvious I could not bring myself to apologize to him, even if I had done him a wrong.

When he emerged, he was no longer Sherlock Holmes, but a rakish young workman with a goatee and a swagger.  I stood precisely where he had left me, deep in thought.  He stopped to look at me intently, but when I still said nothing, he lit his clay pipe at the lamp and strode to the door.

"I'll be back some time, Watson," he said.  Then he vanished into the night.

Over the course of the following week, stormy and snow-flecked as a child's toy globe, I saw very little of my friend and soon came to regret the line I had taken in interrogating him.  As for Holmes, he had taken such a slight at my implied mistrust that his long absences seemed to me, left at Baker Street to brood, to be deliberate and personal, rather than, as I knew them to be, professional and directed wholly at Milverton.  I asked him with genuine concern where he had been one evening, and after replying, "Hampstead," he took himself off to his bedroom. The next night, when I proffered the same conciliatory interest, he assured me his time had not been wasted and would not speak another word for the two hours I dared to remain in the sitting room before retiring in despair.  From this lack of communication, I could only conclude that my friend was either still in such a rage he would not consider speaking to me on any subject, or that his case was going badly and he had no desire to commiserate with me.  Either scenario was depressing, and soon enough my own mood had dropped as far below sea level as my friend's, despite my earnest attempts to remain in good spirits.

The wind was blowing at gale strength against our windows and the shutters protesting loudly against the driving sleet three nights before Christmas when Holmes arrived home in his labourer's attire, gently tugged his goatee away from his chin with the aid of a little jar of cream resting on the mantelpiece, removed his soaked overcoat, and sat down before the fire laughing silently to himself as he rubbed his face with a clean handkerchief from his pocket.

I was reading a book in my armchair when he arrived.  I did not ask him where he had been.  After the same question has been rebuffed upwards of three times, one grows less willing to pose it.  But I did raise my eyebrows at his mirth.

"How are you, my dear fellow?" he asked at length, after his laugher had subsided slightly.

"Fit as a fiddle," I replied dryly.  "May I inquire after your own state of affairs?"

"Of course.  I have been hard at work, but we have made some progress."

"Have we?" I asked, merely to repeat the pronoun. 

"Yes, we have," he insisted merrily.  He tugged at an ancient kerchief he had tied round his neck, and placed it on the table.  In his heavy work boots, woolen trousers, and rough cotton shirt buttoned only so far as was absolutely necessary, he was unconsciously devilishly attractive.  The rough waistcoat he had not bothered to button at all.  His hair, which was usually brushed back meticulously, had fallen in damp, tousled waves, which smelled all the more strongly of pipe tobacco and that faint, languid scent which was all his own for being wet.  I could see the hollow where his neck met his breastbone, and the mole which perched just below his collar.  When I realized I was staring at it, I stopped.

"Well, what have we been accomplishing?" I inquired.

"Give me a moment to change out of this disreputable attire, and you will command my full attention," he said, winking at me unmistakably.  "My apologies for keeping you waiting--I would not take the time, but my trouser legs are soaked through.  If you will excuse me."  He disappeared into his bedroom, the door of which, I immediately noted, he did not shut entirely.  When he reappeared, he was his usual soberly dressed self, although he had not taken the time to run a comb through his hair. He ran a palm over his head in an effort to subdue it on his way to the sideboard.

"Have a whiskey," he said affably, pouring one for each of us.  "I've missed you."

"You have?" I replied in shock.

"Certainly.  Hard work is tedious when enacted solo.  I much prefer to investigate with a partner."

I felt myself blushing, though there was little enough I could do to stop it.  "Then why have you imposed solitude upon yourself in this instance?"

He laughed again and approached me with the tumbler, which I gratefully took.  "You would have been unbearably in the way.  My recent investigations could not have been effected in tandem.  I was obliged, for the sake of the case, to act alone."

"Really?" I asked with interest.  "And what have you been doing?"

Raising his own glass to his lips lazily, he reached out and brushed an imaginary speck of dust from my shoulder and then proceeded, quite unnecessarily, to straighten my cravat.  "You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?"

"Ah...no."  I watched his hand as it left my cravat and commenced running lightly down my chest.  "No, indeed."

"You will be interested to hear that I am engaged."

I could not prevent a shout of laughter from escaping me.  "You are engaged?"  He had slipped his hand under my waistcoat in the back and was now gently brushing my spine through my shirt with the tip of his thumb.

"Yes, I am."

"Well, if you are engaged, I must congratulate you," I said with a disbelieving smile.  "Tell me, to whom are you engaged?"

"To Milverton's housemaid."

If he had been looking at my features and not at the curve of my shoulder at that moment, he would have seen the expression of utter dismay which at once swept over my face.  I have since that time grown even better accustomed to Holmes' outrageous acts when in pursuit of a villain--including self-poisoning, living in a cave, and even feigning infection by tropical disease--but on that night of all nights his disregard seemed intolerable.  I had never believed Holmes a sentimental man, but this was entirely beyond my capacity for endurance.  I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth--that he had left me after a painful argument to seduce a young girl under false pretenses, using the considerable assets at his disposal until he had procured what he wanted, whatever it was that he wanted.  I wondered, dazed, what he had been after, and then realized that the fact that I did not even know what he desired of her was worst of all.

"What in God's name do you think you are doing?" I demanded. 

He looked at me, startled.  "Watson--"

"Do you mean to tell me that for the past several days, every time I inquired after your activities, you were fresh back from Hampstead and your newly fledged affaire de coeur?"

He took a step back in confusion at my vehemence.  "I would not put it so.  In fact, to put it so is rather farcical, as I told you exactly what I was doing in Hampstead.  I was working on the case."

"You told me nothing of Hampstead," I snarled.  "You said the word Hampstead, mentioned your time was well-spent, and then you told me precisely nothing.  At least, nothing of relevance, such as the fact that you have foolishly exposed yourself to blackmail, or a horsewhipping by her father or brother, or a stint in Reading for breach of contract.  I suppose in light of the severity of the other consequences, we must hope for the thrashing."

"I am more appreciative of your concern for my person than I can say, my dear boy, but none of those events are remotely possible," he pointed out coolly.  "As a matter of fact, they are each of them equally absurd."

"It was unspeakably dangerous."  I was shaking with anger, but I strove to control it.

"I beg to differ.  It may have been a trifle risky, but it was undoubtedly necessary."

"But the girl, Holmes!" I cried out in a rage.  It was not the cause of my anguish, but it was a valid point.  "You have taken advantage of a young woman's affectionate nature for purely mercenary reasons.  It is downright cruel."

He was beginning to lose his temper, which was not an event which boded well for either of us.  "If I am cruel, I beg you to inform me of the other, spectacular qualities which compel you to remain in my company.  I would not tolerate associating with men of cruel characters myself, and thus marvel at your ability to overlook such a significant flaw."

"You are not cruel," I conceded grudgingly.  "You are unfeeling."

"I, unfeeling!" he snapped in return.  "Very well, just as you like.  I would not presume to contradict you." 


"No, what you will!  I am cold, I am tantamount to mechanical, but think of the client!  She'll be ruined, Watson, her life torn to shreds, and in an effort to prevent this occurrence I have courted a woman whose advances are of the most selfish variety."

"An empty justification--"

"It is nothing of the sort!" he cried.  "I know little enough of womankind, I grant you, but I am not so callow that I cannot tell when one person is using another person as a bargaining ploy.  I would never have begun it otherwise.  She only ever looks at me when her other suitor is within sneering distance, and I've twice overheard her remark to him what a difference it would make if he, like me, had the gumption to start his own business.  Imagine it!  I am pursuing a female whose sole thought of me is to gain fiscal leverage over her beau!  I had expected an ounce of--"

"Of what?" I demanded.  "Of sympathy?  When, without a word to me, you have commenced 'pursuing' a girl of questionable designs?  For God's sake, man, you are engaged to her!  Which of your many talents have you employed to get so far, Holmes?"

"Any of them which were necessary at the time," he replied with a dash of additional venom.

"I expected no less from a man so dedicated to his craft.  Tell me, what is her name, this female who is using you as an example of ideal manhood?  Which, by the way, is a perfectly reasonable role for you to play," I added bitterly.

His entire face altered at this.  "Her name is Liz," he replied.  His eyes took on a far kinder expression.  "Watson, I do beg your pardon for posing the question, but--please assure me, you cannot be jealous of the creature?"

"Jealously is the furthest thing from my mind," I asserted coldly, "although I should certainly have appreciated being made aware of your intentions.  As, no doubt, would she."

"Watson," he said gravely.  He moved back to me so that we were nearly touching and looked me full in the face.  "You needn't ever be jealous of anyone.  Do you understand me?  Any human being in this world.  Not where I am concerned."

I drew a deep breath and made a supreme effort to calm myself.  He seemed to speak in earnest.  He had never said as much, and my distress did appear to have an effect on him.

"I am not jealous," I repeated. 

His face changed at once to a neutral interest in my response; and may I state for the record, I wish I had not said so.  It seems a lie when I look at the denial, but I believed it to be true.  What I wanted from him was too deep to express, and simply because Milverton's parlor maid did not claim his heart did not make my situation any more bearable.  It existed outside of her--it lay in the fact that it had not even occurred to him to tell me, that he kept letters hidden in his inner pockets, that I wished to tell him everything that had ever happened in my life just to watch his expressions as I said it, and that he did not even love me.  It was as simple as that.

Holmes took a swallow of spirits, walked past me, and rested his weight against his desk, regarding me with a gently amused expression.  "My dear fellow, you have never met my fiancée, but if you ever are subjected to the experience, you will concede that she is not worth our breath.  To say nothing of my feelings, which are of course negligible, yours are far too valuable to be touched by the likes of her.  It is my fault, of course.  I ought to have told you.  I ought to have told you, and in addition I have been very, very preoccupied with the case of late, which has exacerbated the problem."

It was as close to an apology as I was going to get, and far more than I had expected.  I do not ask the impossible, only the improbable.  "Then let us not argue."

"Indeed, no," he smiled.  "Let us do something else."

I had intended to return weary and dispirited to my book and my armchair, but his tone rooted me to the floor.

"What have you in mind?" I asked slowly.

"Let us play a game," he suggested. 

What game he had in mind I dared not ask, but I knew at once that it would be of his own devising and reflected for a moment upon my friend's aptitude for invention.  I desired simply to say no, and was incapable of doing so for a number of reasons.  But however many reasons I had for being compelled to obey Sherlock Holmes, a single factor would have more than sufficed and that factor was his voice.  His voice, when entreating, was positively mesmerizing--I say so by virtue of long experience, for I have had the opportunity to observe its effects at close quarters and upon many subjects.  It could hold a person like a bird in the thrall of a voracious cat, and no one succumbed more quickly or completely to it than I did.  The fact that this was embarrassing did not make it any less true.

"Holmes, I am hardly in the mood for games," I sighed.  "This evening has already proven a great strain."

"Oh, I think you will enjoy this game immensely.  I would even go so far as to suggest that it will alter your mood for the better."

He had the full force of his eyes upon me, and I had not been with him in any degree of intimacy for the week that he had been brooding over Milverton and doing God knows what with his maid.  In short, I knew it was hopeless.

"Please?" he said with charming self-deprecation.  "You appear to be under some strain, and I have been having a despicable time of it with Liz, after all, if you will forgive my mentioning her.  It will do us both good, I assure you, my dear fellow."

I wondered briefly how far a woman of her designs would go to procure an engagement from a rising tradesman.  The thought of her hands on him made me want to tear his shirt from his back and have my way with him.  This was a goal which would never be realized, I knew.  The acts were irrelevant.  No matter the content of the indecency, I knew full well the conductor of the orchestra.  No man has ever had his way with Sherlock Holmes.  I made one final effort to escape his clutches.

"I cannot imagine any game you could propose that will improve my mood."

He twisted his lithe torso and reached behind him for a lead pencil which lay on his desk.  Then he pulled his left sleeve up a few inches and rested his right hand over his cuff to take notes.

"I require you to answer a series of questions, without your attempting to elicit further information from me, and I shall record your responses."


"Trust me," he purred.  "Now, then.  Your bedroom, or mine?"

Damn the man, I reflected, for his ingenuity, and damn him for using ploys guaranteed to pin me like a butterfly to a card.

I cleared my throat, for it seemed to have constricted slightly.  "Mine," I answered.  We had never used mine, and the notion of doing so was intimate and somehow deeply heartwarming.  He may even fall asleep there, I thought, as I had never once dared to do in his bedroom.  It was not an opportunity to be thrown away.

He recorded my reply on his cuff.  "Light, or no light?"

"Light," I said.  I never missed a chance to see him in the light.

"You, or me?"

"In regards to--"

"Watson," he said with a patience that was somehow overwhelmingly alluring, "it is a game.  I cannot tell you."

"I have to choose you, or me, without knowing what I am deciding to do?" I clarified.

"That is the general idea."

"But I can assume that the endeavor, whatever it is, is likely to be sordid in the extreme, and perpetrated upon the other."

"You have grasped it exactly."

"Very well, then."  I fear that the effects the game was having on me were already profound.  "You."

"Oh, capital," he smiled, writing it down.  "You won't regret that, I promise you.  Bound, or blindfolded?"

It was becoming very difficult to appear nonchalant.  "To which of us are you referring?"

"Watson, really."  His exasperation was entirely feigned.  In fact, he was looking at me with undisguised affection.  "How many times do I have to explain the sole rule of this game?  Ask me again and I shall have to invent undisclosed consequences."

"I beg your pardon," I said stoutly.  "Bound."

"Interesting.  Fast or slow?"

I did not know what on earth he meant by this, only that it could not have been the obvious.  Holmes was never obvious.  Nevertheless, I trusted my instincts and replied, "Slow."

"Delighted to hear it.  Candle or wall?"

"I beg your pardon?" I choked.

"You are going to have to decide," he said sweetly.  He tapped the tip of his pencil against his sleeve.

"But I don't actually understand the question."

"That is irrelevant.  We are nearly through, and you are not required to understand the question."

"I--if you--wall," I told him.

"As you wish.  Now, or later?"

This question may seem like another tease, but it was asked in earnest, I believe.  On the many occasions that Holmes and I did indulge in completely inexcusable conduct, we each deemed it amusing to torture the other for as long as it was possible and safe to do so.  That evening, however, I had reached the limits of my capacity for suffering.

"Now, please," I declared.

"Very well, then."  He jumped up and strode towards his bedroom.  "I shall meet you upstairs in ten minutes.  Then in another hour or two, or perhaps just slightly longer, you can tell me whether the game was a success." He waved cheerily at me from his doorway.

I do not think I have ever experienced such a complete reversal.  I was so startled by the evening's events by that time, I could scarcely recall whether or not I'd had supper, or what I had been doing when he'd arrived, or whether I needed to put out any pipes or cigars.  I made my way up the stairs to my room alone, my heart pounding rapidly and forcefully at the thought of what I had gotten myself into.

My dream of waking up next to Sherlock Holmes was realized that glorious morning, two days before Christmas, on December 23rd 1884.  I am, in general, a light sleeper, for combat had the effect of heightening my senses even if I would never register the minutia my friend was able to discern.  I was very surprised, therefore, to awaken before the sun, with the icy rain still hammering against our roof, and realize Holmes had been lying on his side watching me in the near-darkness for Lord only knows how long.  I reached out for him sleepily.

"What is the matter?"

"Nothing whatever," he said.  We had neither of us bothered to replace any clothing and I grasped his bare arm below the blankets.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

"What is the time?"

"I don't know.  I should make a guess at five, but the skies are too stormy to tell." 

"What are you doing?"

"You are very inquisitive in the early morning," he smiled.  "You are lucky that it is rather charming.  I was thinking what a splendid night this is."

"Why were you thinking that?" I whispered, opening my eyes a little.

"Dear me, another question.  The elements are greatly to my satisfaction, for one.  I do hope it holds throughout the day."

"You like this weather?" I inquired skeptically.

"It suits my purpose.  Watson, I mean to burgle Milverton's house tonight."

So that was it.  The seduction of the maid held no more mysteries.  He had required a mental floor plan and had procured a fiancée in order to obtain it.  It was not the oddest thing Sherlock Holmes has ever done.  I opened my eyes fully and edged closer to him.  The charcoal skies behind the plane tree outside my window were flecked with occasional lightning. 

"For Heaven's sake, Holmes, think what you are doing."

"My dear fellow, I have given it every consideration," he assured me, reaching out and smoothing back a strand of my hair.  "You will admit, I suppose, the action is morally justifiable.  You yourself were willing to help me take his pocketbook."

"Well, yes.  It is morally justifiable so long as our object is to take no articles save those which are used for an illegal purpose."

"You have put it perfectly, as I knew you would."

"In fact, it is far more morally justifiable than seducing a parlor maid."

"No more of that, if you please," he said amusedly.  "Our time has run out.  I must act regardless of risk, for Lady Eva's period of grace is at an end."

"When do we start?" I asked.  I rolled into him and lay with my back curled contently against his chest.  I could feel him tense slightly behind me.

"You are not coming."

"Then you are not going."

"Watson," he said, encircling me with his arm,  "you can't help me."

"You don't know that."

"Of course I know that." 

"You don't know everything--you can't tell what may happen."

"I know that I am leaving without you, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."

"Actually, there is a great deal I can do to stop you," I replied drowsily.

"My dear boy, I have no wish for you to place yourself in such a false position."

"Neither do I, but if it must be so, I am ready and able.  I shall wire Lestrade and give you away at once if you protest a moment longer.  I give you my word of honour."

He had raised himself on one elbow, but I felt him recline once more in resignation.  "Well, then, be it so.  I can deny you nothing," he added sardonically.

No man can make a term of endearment sound more like a scathing satire than Holmes, but for once it did not pain me.  "Thank you," I said contentedly.  "Now, get some rest."

I was nearly asleep again when a subtle movement of Holmes' chest awakened me, and I felt his breath in my hair.  It took me a moment to discern he was laughing.

"What is it now, my dear fellow?"

"Nothing.  I was only reflecting that we have shared the same room for a number of years." 

"And so?"

"It would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell."

I laughed, and then lay still again.  I should not have minded prison nearly so much if I were to share a cell with Holmes.  At that moment, I was happy nearly to the point of delirium to be sharing a bed.  I could have been bounded in a nutshell with him, and counted myself a king of infinite space.  When I awoke for the second time that morning, he was gone, but that did not matter.  He was making preparations, I was sure of it.  I could only assume we would have great need of them.

In regards to the most painful part of my tale, I will be brief.  I have already written of the storm, the masks, the theatre attire, the breaking and entering, the silent shoes, the safe.  We made our way into Milverton's chambers as quietly as ghosts, and when I looked about me, I could almost believe our worries, whatever they were, were nearly at an end.  It was richly yet tastefully decorated, gilded with the suffering of others.  I watched as Holmes opened the door of the silver box.  When he heard footsteps, my eyes were scanning a number of documents on Milverton's desk, and he forcefully pulled me by the arm behind the curtain with him.  Only I could see that the safe door hadn't swung to.

I resolved to care nothing of consequences.  If Milverton's gaze fixed on the door, I would pin him down and Holmes would see to the rest, of that I was certain.  When the mysterious woman arrived, I felt Holmes start, but in another moment he linked his hand with mine to assure me all was well.  As, indeed, it was until that point.

When she killed Milverton, I began to walk forward, I admit.  It was an unthinking reaction.  Holmes pulled me back and held me to him fiercely.  He was right, of course.  It was too late, and she was killing a vile being.  Had already killed him, in fact. 

The instant she disappeared, Holmes leapt out from behind the curtain like a bullet from a gun and began carrying armfuls of papers to the blazing fire.  I returned to the desk in the interests of thoroughness.  Small good it would have done us to burn all the letters save the ones he'd been examining.

There the paper lay on the table, the words scribbled plainly.  It was headed, "Pending Accounts."   A series of dashes below indicated people from whom Milverton expected money within the course of the month of December, the victims marked with a star:

*Blackwell and Hamilton (letters)  ---  7000 pounds
Camberfield and *Smythe (letters, one telegram duplicate)  --  12000 pounds
*Holmes and Hastings (letters)  ---  6000  pounds
*Waring and Greaves (witness)  ---  3000 pounds

I stared at it in horror.  That the notation referred to my friend I never doubted, for his behavior had been that of barely restrained panic all along.  This line of print explained everything--his hidden letters, his helpless worry, his newly acquired fiancée, the felonious housebreaking itself.  It only remained to discover what it was about.  Holmes had been far from virginal when we met.  He had even told me of one or two past sexual partners, in an anecdotal fashion, and would never have thought to hide another from me--I was certain of this, no matter how sordid the letters proved.  God knows, Holmes had enacted enough sordid deeds upon me, to my lasting satisfaction, that I could not imagine being shocked by their contents.  No man ought ever to censure another for the acts which take place before ties have been formed, after all.  As for the acts which take place after....

This affair was current; I was not his sole lover.  It was the only explanation.  I knew it as surely as I knew our address.

My next coherent memory was that of Holmes crying out to me from the fireplace.  I looked up in confusion.

"What is it, man?  Quick, they are coming!" he shouted.

I handed it to him dumbly.  He did not even glance at it, but put it on the fire with the others.  Then he grasped my arm and pulled me bodily from the room.

We ran like the wind that night.  Once, in the garden, a servant nearly caught up to me, but at the sound of his footsteps, Holmes turned around and struck him so hard he fell to the ground.  We continued on over the wall, panting, our thoughts riveted to freedom and the outside world.  I think we ran two miles over the outer grounds before I stopped, my shoulder throbbing as if it had been newly injured.  I embraced the pain.  It distracted me from my thoughts.  It did not distract me much, but it was a welcome sensation.

When my friend noticed I had stopped, he turned back to me, his chest heaving in frost-accented gasps.  I hadn't noticed the cold.  Now I welcomed that as well.

"Watson," he said when he was able.  He grasped my good shoulder firmly, but my eyes were cast resolutely downward.  "Can you make it much further?"

"Not much," I admitted.

"This way," he said, taking my hand and setting off once more, walking this time.  I followed him.  After all, I'd no idea where I was.

I retired immediately that night.  Our cab ride had been a silent one.  Holmes looked relieved, and more at peace than he had in a week, but also struck by the shock of the night's events.  I did not speak to him.  Indeed, I could not.  The thought of speaking at all was loathsome to me.  When we arrived home, I made at once for my stairs.

"Watson?" he called out to me, still at the sitting room door.  "Is your arm all right?"

"Yes," I told him. 

"The events of the evening have upset you," he added with discernible kindness in his usually steely eyes.  "I am very sorry for it.  I would not have had you witness a cold-blooded murder, no matter the cause."

"I know you would not."  I would not, could not look at him for any length of time.  I kept my eyes on the banister.  It was a blessing indeed he thought me affected by Milverton's death. 

"I wish to be alone.  Good night, Holmes," I said. 

I know he watched me ascend the stairs, though I did not glance back, for the room below me remained silent and still.  I could not have looked at him, for if I had, he would have been witness to a face as marred by grief as the widow who had killed our adversary. 

When I reached my room, I locked the door.  Then I sat on my bed and determined to face facts.  That I loved Holmes was, I was sure, obvious to us both.  Therein lay the crux of the matter.

We had never treated our relations like a contractual obligation, and indeed men of our sort at times dashed from partner to anonymous partner with total aplomb.  This I knew from experience, for we had both done it ourselves in our youth.  But that had been before the night he'd invited me to his room, long before he'd fallen asleep in my bed.  My thoughts were in a state of total confusion, memories piling upon memories, a series of whirling images of our lives together.  I religiously waited up at night until my friend was home, and safe.  Holmes often picked me instantaneously out of crowds.  I had lent him cuff-links.  He had thrown blankets over me when I fell asleep on the settee.  When I could not fall asleep on the settee, he played wistful airs on the violin.  I had once left our rooms late one night while he was deep in thought and he had called out that if any men of my former acquaintance encountered me, I was to inform them I was a kept man.  I had laughed, and then cherished the memory, marginally insulting though it was.  We had never said anything.  But if I was not enough for him, he could not have me.

The very thought made me sick.  I quailed at once.  Was I being unreasonable?  Was I, as Holmes had suggested, a jealous person, and unnecessarily so?  Was that the very reason he had not revealed his dilemma?  Had my feelings grown so unwieldy because of my passionate obsession with my friend, or had the flaw been there all along? 

I thought of Hastings, whoever he was, and the sickness morphed into a fever.  The fact that he could have been anyone enraged me still further.  Perhaps he was an intelligent, admiring young inspector, learning both the art of detection as well as other more tangible arts from my friend, grateful as much for the pleasure as the enhancement of his career.  Or perhaps he was a former client, a lawyer or landowner, struck irrevocably by Holmes' comprehensive charms.  Or more probably a fine-featured, elegant aristocrat, generous with his time and his funds, as amusing, as subtle and as glimmering as Holmes himself.  I would kill him, I thought.  But I could not kill him, whoever he was.  I couldn't even claim any grievance.  I had no right, for we had never said anything.  I hadn't a leg to stand on.

Then I recalled that Holmes had lied to me throughout and I buried my face in my quilt. 

It was not my bravest moment.  But I recovered.  By the time the dawn had risen, and I had bathed and shaved, I was nearly myself again, or looked like myself save for the gaping hollow I could feel in my chest.

He heard me descend the stairs that morning, and looked up with some phrase upon his lips which I shall never be privy to, for it died there at once.

"Watson, you've a valise and carpetbag in your hands," he said.  The morning sun was streaming coldly through the window, doubtless doubly refracted due to the fresh fall of snow which had ended the storm.  Holmes was sitting in his armchair in his slippers and dressing-gown, reading a newspaper, every crease and detail in its proper place, eyes sparking under shimmering black hair.  The sight turned my knees to jelly.

"Yes."  I gripped the handles even tighter, as if they might lend me the strength to speak to him.  "I am leaving."

"I had worked through that step," he said easily, but I could see he was exceedingly surprised.  "Where are you going, and when will you return?  I should be very grateful if you were back by New Year's, for--"

"I am not returning, Holmes."  I was as shaken as I had ever been following a battle, but I was determined to see it through.

Holmes paled, which I confess I had not expected.  "What sort of appalling jest is this, my dear fellow?"

That, I will own, was what sent me over the edge.  Knowing what I knew of him and what he had done, for him to have posed such a monstrous question was more than I could bear.  I had allowed him to toy with me for long enough, I reflected, without allowing him to cheapen the shred of dignity I was fleeing to maintain.

"Don't," I snapped at him.  "Don't try anything of the kind.  It is not a jest, and you know it full well."

His eyes widened at my anger.  "Yes, now I know it is not a jest.  It would not have been in your style, in any event.  It does not fall into your usual vein of pawky humour."

"There is nothing whatever humourous about it," I said icily.

"I wholly agree with you," he assented swiftly, rising from his chair.  "In fact, that is a vast understatement.  It lands squarely upon the side of tragedy.  Now, tell me what it is about."

"I think you can work it out on your own if you cast your mind back over the past few weeks."

"Can I?" he demanded, seemingly stunned.  "My dear Watson, if breaking and entering has ruined your conceptions of--but you were willing to do it, I had thought, I was sure of it!  I'd little enough desire for you to endanger yourself in the first place, but I would never ask you to perform an act which you consider morally repugnant."

I glared at him, utterly disgusted.  "The morally repugnant acts of which I am thinking have nothing whatever to do with housebreaking."

Holmes sat down heavily and leaned forward over his knees.  "Watson, I told you, I thought I made it clear she was only a stepping stone for me, and I equally for her.  You must believe me, my dear fellow, she thought nothing of it, and I less than nothing.  I am heartily sorry not to have told you beforehand.  It was a matter of such little moment to me that it escaped my attention, I swear to you, as I would forget to tell you whether I had taken tea or coffee that morning.  I kissed her.  Twice.  It was horrifying the first time, and doubly so the second, for then the act was compounded by dread.  Surely you realize she was the wrong gender entirely to inspire the treasure of my regard.  Can you honestly believe I spared her a moment's thought when dwelling upon--"

"Upon whom?" I growled dangerously.

I do not think I have ever seen Sherlock Holmes appear so hurt and so confused.  I had often wondered what it would be like, and in my darkest moments desired to see it, but now the expression was before me I derived no satisfaction from it whatever.

"Upon you," he whispered.  "Who else would I think about?  Who else do I ever think about?"

"I am not inclined to remain here as audience to a litany of lies," I pronounced shakily.  "I was there with you last night, and all is known to me.  I can certainly see why you'd no desire for me to accompany you."

"What the devil are you talking about?" he cried, standing up once more and approaching me looking rather terrified.

"You are a heartless, cold, selfish being," I told him.  His eyes looked like the polished silver of our coffee urn, glistening and bright, but I hurried on.  "I cannot fathom why you continue to prevaricate, but I despise your attempt at duplicity.  I could have--" My voice broke, but I carried on.  "I could have been something to you.  I think I could have, in time.  But that's ended now."

"Could have been something to me?" he repeated incredulously.  "What in God's name--Watson, are you quite mad?  Or is this some elaborate method of forcing my hand?  Very well, I'll own it and gladly--you are everything to me.  Now drop those bags and stop tormenting me so.  It isn't like you."

"Give me one good reason why I should stay with you," I whispered.  I turned and walked toward the door.  It was festooned with a holly branch he had placed there with great precision.  He pounced in front of it and barred my way.

"I can very easily give you seven," he said frantically.  "It is economical.  It is far less trouble than sending for your furniture.  Your mail will not have to be re-directed.  Baker Street is convenient to St. Bart's.  Mrs. Hudson is already well aware you loathe rabbit.  I am desperately in love with you.  And if you leave, I--"

"You will be fine," I said furiously, stunned by his words yet feeling violently manipulated.  "You will use someone else.  Step out of my way.  It is over."

"Watson, please..." he pleaded vehemently, leaving the door to grasp me by the arms.  "Don't do this.  You cannot."

"It is your own doing, not mine."

"In the name of Heaven, tell me why, at least!  I could begin to solve it if only--"

I took one final look into his eyes, and it nearly ended me.  "There will be no solving it.  We are finished.  You and Hastings have seen to that," I managed.  I broke away from him and fled from the room.

It took me several deep breaths of freezing air once I had closed the front door behind me to feel presentable enough to hail a cab.  There were several proceeding down our street, and I whistled for one after I had pulled myself together.  Then, as I did so, I thought of the man in the room above, who had just said with a mad gleam in his eyes he was in love with me, and I was undone all over again.

I had just settled myself in the cab when a very thin, tall figure came flying out of the front door adjacent without his hat and strode through the damp snow in slippers and dressing gown for my newly procured hansom.

"Paddington Station, driver!" I called out.

"You will go no such place!" Holmes declared ringingly, physically grasping the side window.  "Watson, get out of that cab and listen to me."

"You have forfeited the right to command my attention."

"I have done nothing of the kind!" he exclaimed.  "Now, come back upstairs and I shall make all clear to you."

"Driver, please proceed!" I attempted.  I was in a very dangerous position, for there was such a power in Holmes' stricken face that I was actually beginning to entertain the lunatic notion of allowing him to explain himself.

"Driver, remain where you are.  Watson, I have never before seen you act an unfair, half-considered role before, but it does not well befit your nature.  Come with me and--"

"Go back upstairs," I told him more gently.  It would all have been so very much easier if I hadn't loved him so.  His feet were buried in sleet.  "You'll catch your death of cold."

"I don't care!" he cried. 

"You never think of your health, but I warn you--"

"I don't give a tinker's damn what you have to say about my health.  You are not my doctor.   You are--if you would only listen for--"

"I cannot listen," I whispered, wracked with pain.  "Can't you see that?  You'll win.  There will be no contest.  I will have to share you with him, and I'll hate myself even more than I hate you.  If I listen, you'll convince me, and what will I have left?  Drive on!"

"Remain here!" he said imperiously.  "Watson--"

From high above, I heard a series of expletives delivered by the cabby, the gist of which implied that my friend was a lunatic who had best step back from the cab or risk being either trampled or beaten, or more probably both.  The horse began to walk forward.

"You will do as I say, damn you!"   Sherlock Holmes drew a half-sovereign from his waistcoat and threw it at the man contemptuously.  The horse stopped.

"Watson," he said breathlessly, low enough so that the cabby could not hear, "I know why you are angry now, and I understand the cause.  I am as much preoccupied by you, I assure you.   You mustn't feel alone in that respect.  Everything reminds me of you.  Tweed suits, cravats of a certain shade of brown, magazines, coffee pots, fountain pens, soldiers, stethoscopes, syringes, fine weather, bad weather, blue eyes, blue dressing-gowns, bearskin rugs.  It is absurd, I grant, but I suffer from it equally.  There are now very few things in England which do not remind me of you.  If I saw the name Watson, I would think of you at once.  But that does not mean you are the only one in the world."

I had felt disgusted before, but now I was revolted at his ludicrous effort to absolve himself of blame.  "Do you mean to excuse yourself," I scoffed, "by claiming to have been worried sick over letters--letters which you went so far as to burn at great personal risk--which, while written by a man named Holmes, were not written by--"

I stopped.  He looked at me, his brows at their fullest height.  I swallowed, for my throat was suddenly very dry.  And then I saw it all, and I knew which of us had been heartless.

"Watson," he said softly, "please do me the very great favour of getting out of that cab."

I descended slowly.  He waved the cabman on.  We walked together back to the door of our flat.  I felt ill, and numb, as if I had convicted an innocent man to torment.  As, in fact, I had done.  I proceeded blindly through the door.  When it had shut behind us, I reached for Holmes' hand and collapsed upon the stairs, holding it lightly in mine and staring at it in a mortified daze.

"When were they written?" I asked.

"Ten years ago," he said. 

"And your brother imagined they had disappeared entirely?"

He knelt with a single knee on the step below the one on which I was seated so that we were almost two pieces interlocking.   "Yes, he did.  It was a terrible blow to know they had not."

"And he consulted the best man in London to assist him.  As did Lady Eva."

"I flatter myself their trust was not unfounded," he returned without expression.

"Mycroft forwarded you the copies of the letters being used to blackmail him.  And I wanted to see them."

"Eventually, you demanded to see them," he corrected bitingly, "which placed me in a very vexing position, you must know.  Mycroft had elicited my oath not to show them to anyone.  He is even more private a fellow than I am myself, which as you well know is an astonishing feat.  Of course, I'd little notion that you'd hatched such a depraved theory over the matter or I would have told you at once.  I will not say that there were not certain points in your hypothesis' favour, but confound it, Doctor..." he trailed off sadly.  He did not appear enraged--only profoundly isolated. 

"Don't be this way," I murmured, pressing his hand.  "Please.  Be angry, be formidably, terribly angry at me, for that is what I deserve for calling you a liar, but do not be forlorn and understanding."

"You think I can decide, as if I had a chessboard laid out in front of me and I was deliberating a move!" he snapped at me, standing up and drawing his gown more tightly around his shivering form.  "As if my body were some grotesquely elongated marionette, my sensibilities dictated to by the mastermind above!  What in hell do you think I am made of?  I do not decide how I feel any more than you do, Doctor."  He stopped, calming himself with an effort. "You don't know me at all, do you?"

"No," I agreed, my eyes brimming once again, "but I should like to.  With your permission.  Very much."

"Why?" he questioned dully, leaning back against the wall.  "There would be no excitement in it, you know.  Reasoning machines are a rare and glorious thing, and I desire nothing in the world at this moment so much as to be one in truth, but in fact I am nothing to speak of.  I am only a man.  That was your error, I think.  I am a very pedestrian fellow when all is said and done."

I stumbled forward to where he stood flat against the wall and I kissed him as hard as I could.  He fought me for a moment and then succumbed, his lips frigid and the folds of his dressing gown icily cold.

"Holmes," I said at last, "I am so deeply and terribly sorry."

"I have tried many times to make clear to you before that it is a cardinal error to theorize in advance of data."   He still looked stricken.  I would make it up to him, I thought, if it was the last thing I did.

I managed a tiny smile at his admonition.  "I had a great deal of data, but I am far too stupid to be allowed to theorize over anything."

"Don't be absurd," he sniffed. 

"I think it's clear enough I haven't the brains for it."

"Your theory fit the facts moderately well.  It had none of it occurred to me, but I can see how it looked."

We stood there staring at one another for a moment, at a complete loss over what to say.

"My God, Holmes, you must be freezing," I exclaimed, startled out of my confusion.  "Come upstairs at once, and dry your feet."

He made no answer, but turned and walked up the stairs.  I followed in his wake wondering whether anything I could say would ever begin to make it up to him, and if I were in his position, whether I would not feel inclined to tell myself to send for my things later and to take full advantage of my packed bags.  When we had reached the sitting room, he stopped before the fire and kicked off his slippers.

"Holmes," I said softly, "I am willing to take any steps necessary if only you will forgive me.  But you are the most intelligent man I have ever encountered.  Why did it never occur to you that I would think--"

"It was simple enough.  Before my engagement, it hadn't struck me you could be jealous of my attentions."

I stared at him, at an utter loss for words.  His face was flushed from having darted between freezing and warm temperatures, one lock of black hair had fallen over his forehead, and he still was struggling to regain that composure which was his natural manner.  He was the single most desirable man I had ever seen, and also the most inexplicable.

"Can you tell me why?" I asked him at last.

"You treated me so gingerly," he said slowly.  "As if I were a courtesan, or a pet." 

My heart nearly stopped.  When I viewed it from his perspective, he was perfectly correct. 

"You were so circumspect.  I watched you, constantly editing yourself--I came to believe you saw me as rather more an erotic pastime than a spiritual one.  And there were the cases, of course, which accounted for our day-to-day relations."

And before my eyes, at last, was the truth of the matter.  The most otherworldly part of the whole event was that, the instant Holmes explained himself to me, I at once saw the way my manner had affected him.  I felt an instantaneous sympathy, far too late, that he should have spent so long with a partner consciously determined never to show his heart.  When I remained dumbstruck, he smiled tentatively.

"I suppose in light of recent events that I reached the wrong conclusion?"

"I should say so," I blurted without thinking.  "A conclusion nearly as wrong as mine, in fact.  I was terrified of you."

He laughed at this, and seated himself on a footstool, pulling his long legs into his body.  He regarded the fire in silence for a long while.  Then without looking at me, he asked, "Isn't there anything you'd like to say to me?"

I approached him at once and knelt on the floor immediately beside him.  "I said so many cruel things to you that I cannot begin to imagine how I could make it up to you.  But know, please, that I regret every--"

"No, no, no," he declared, shaking his head.  "I forgive you.  You needn't speak of it." 

"But my dear fellow, you must allow me to express--"

"I should be very grateful if you would consent to leave off apologizing," he insisted.  "That is not what I meant.  If I endeavor hard enough to see it in the proper perspective, I ought to be flattered, after all.  I never knew you to be so possessive.  But I--perhaps you recall that I shouted something at you just before you left, which...I should like to know--"  He sighed and ran both his hands through his hair.

"I love you," I said at once.  "I do not believe I have ever loved anyone this way.  The thought of you touching someone else was like being set on fire, and every other literary cliché I know that you loathe, and the thought of leaving you--I cannot even speak of it.  You are my life.  I love you so wholeheartedly that I never once told you about it.  And for that, finally, I am most sincerely sorry," I finished.  I rested my body against his seated frame.  "Rest assured it will not happen again."

He put an arm around my back and drew me close to him.  I think I would have broken down wholly at that moment had he not done so.  But Sherlock Holmes is a very kind fellow, whatever he says in the heat of his fiery opinions.

"It had better not," he breathed at last.  "I have quite reached the limit of my tolerance for such errors."

"As have I, love, I assure you," I told him.  "As have I."

I would be remiss if I wrote that the case of the master blackmailer ended as quickly as it began, for Holmes displayed an edginess in my company for the remainder of that day which pained me more than I can express.  That I had been guilty of nothing more than reaching a reasonable conclusion he assured me without hesitation, but he still--against his own will, I am certain of it--evidenced a sort of wounded discomfort at the fact that I had thought him faithless and unfeeling which made itself known in small ways that only I could have noted.  Indeed, when I did notice he was acting strangely, I marveled at my own prior tendency to overlook the tiny gestures which had become habitual for him.  I had been seeing him all the while without observing his most affectionate quirks.  He did not offer me a cigarette when he lit his own.  He made no effort to inadvertently brush my leg or shoulder.  When we walked down the street to visit the photograph of the woman he had divined was the murderess, he failed to take my arm.  Indeed, when I touched him, he would pat my hand absently and then move unconsciously away.  I had begun to dread that I had ruined far more between us than we had gained despite moving declarations when Holmes at last spoke to me just after dinner.

"Do you know what day it is?"

I did, though I hadn't thought of it.  "Why, it's Christmas Eve," I replied at once.  "Happy Christmas, my dear fellow.  Mad as it sounds, I had entirely forgotten."

He was silent for a while, drawing upon his pipe.  "I am afraid I've neglected to purchase you a token of my esteem," he said with a sad little smile, and something approximating his old sardonic formality.  "I was rather harried this past week."

"I am shocked and embarrassed to own it, my dear fellow, but I seem to have committed the same offense."  I poured us two glasses of sherry and approach him with assumed good cheer.  "I was also harried, but for a much more ridiculous reason, as it turns out."

Holmes ignored the reference.  "Whatever the reason, I should have liked to have something for you."

"Never mind that now.  I have everything I desire in this world, after all."

"Do you really?" he inquired dryly, taking the glass.  "That is rather an outlandish claim, isn't it?"

"Nevertheless it is perfectly true," I stated.  I was silent for a short period as I struggled to find the right way to make myself clear to him.  "Yesterday I had your friendship, and your trust, and your company, and occasionally your physical attentions.   All of these things made me very happy, but I could not bring myself to tell you I wanted far more, because I was a damnable coward.  Today I have your regard--"

"Love," he corrected with a wry smile, one eyebrow cocked critically at me.  "I believe that in the English language that is the closest approximation, although you could employ 'heart' if you desire a more metaphorical effect.  Let us use the technical terms, now you have found your reserves of courage.  One cannot underestimate the value of accuracy in diction."

"Love," I allowed, my voice thickening slightly, "and what is more, your forgiveness.  Both are incalculable."

"Watson, that is a very hyperbolic thing to say," he pointed out softly.

"Nevertheless, those two things are so splendid, my dear fellow, that I am incapable of imagining needing a single other thing for the rest of my life."

"Then you have a very pedestrian imagination," he asserted.  "Come here.  Sit down."

I did so, with an incredible sense of relief.  Now he was hectoring me, I knew he had forgiven me more surely than any other combination of words could have done.

"My imagination is a good as the next man's.  But your importance to me cannot be exaggerated."

"Is that the reason you were disinclined to celebrate my impending nuptials?" he inquired innocently.  "Oh, dear me--I haven't purchased a gift for my fiancée either.  That is inexcusable.  I am an appalling lover, aren't I?"

"You are perfectly tolerable," I said, nestling into the crook of his sinewy arm.

"How very gratifying," he laughed.  "Well, I suppose I must thank my stars your imagination is as poor as it is, for if it were any better, you would be easily able to conceptualize a vastly more satisfying partner and I should be all alone."

"I cannot conceive of a finer man any more than I can conceive why I never noticed your brother was an invert."

He drew back in mock dismay.  "You must not think that my feelings for you give you license to cast such shocking calumnies at my own flesh and blood.  I cannot be responsible for what I do if you dare to suggest again that my brother enjoys the sort of perversions you yourself favour.  The very idea!  There is one sodomite in my family, and I think you can guess who it is."

"But your brother is unmarried.  Why--"

"Sarah Hastings was as female as womankind can be.  In fact, she was a dancer."

"Then I do not understand."

"The letters written to her by my brother made occasional oblique mention of events, without ever giving them their name, which would nevertheless have cost him his entire career in Whitehall had they been sent to the right peers."

I thought about this for a moment.  "How did Mil--"

"She passed away some time ago and her correspondence was never recovered.  It was typhoid fever, quite swift.  My brother now lives as you have already observed," he added wistfully, with a marked grief in his grey eyes.  "That is to say, he exists from day to day, and exerts his mind continually.  He does very little else."

While I had never dreamed such was the case, it explained everything about Holmes' world-weary, distant sibling.  "I am very sorry to know of his troubles," I said.

"It is kind of you.  But it can't be helped," he sighed, setting his glass down on the table and lying back so that his dark head was supported by my chest.  "We Holmeses are all the same.  At least, my brother and I are."

I leaned down carefully and set my own glass on the floor so that I could enfold the impossible, maddening, sublime fellow in my arms.  "Whatever do you mean?"

"We are the world's foremost in the arena of observation and deductive reasoning.  We are very secretive creatures, I am afraid, and far too stoical for our own good.  And we are some time about it, but once we have made up our minds, there is only one person for whom we live and breathe.  Permanently.  It was Sarah Hastings for Mycroft, the poor wretch.  I can only pray that you remain in good health for far, far longer."

I kissed the top of his head and looked about me at the festive, dimly lit sitting room.  The windows behind their blinds were caked with frost, I knew, and I knew that outside carolers were clapping their gloved hands together against the bitter wind as they sang further down the street.  I could not catch the tune.  Soon the moon would rise and coat the snow with a sparkling sheen, and I would stare at it from our window, very nearly pained by the beauty of it.  I tried to recall what we had been doing the previous Christmas Eve, and found it obliterated from my mind entirely.

"I will live for as long as you like, provided it is with you," I said.

"That is a very generous offer," my love replied softly.  He turned his head slightly and closed his eyes as if intending to sleep there.  "I intend to hold you to it."



When I attempted the words in my mind, they made precious little sense.  I sat there silent until he glanced up at me, tilting his dark head back.  "Yes?"

"I know it is an asinine line of thought," I said slowly.  "But I have loved you for a terribly long time.  Come to that, we have been together for over a year.  And even so, I never once dreamed it could be like this."

"I have already told you that your imaginative faculty is sadly lacking," he pointed out.

"But did you ever picture it this way?  I mean to say, this...."

"This complete, you mean?"

"Yes," I said, relieved beyond expression that he knew what I wished to say.  "That is it exactly.  Did you?"

"I had hoped it would be," he replied thoughtfully.  "But this, just now, was beyond even my capacity to imagine."

"Which makes it...."

"As-yet unfathomed by humankind.  Yes."

I smiled at this, and closed my eyes.  It was doubtless foolish to remain in such a position when we were both bone-weary, and skirting the boundaries of complete emotional exhaustion.  But nevertheless I know it was some few hours before we abandoned our nest, the crackling of the fire, and the smell of the forest still lingering about the walls.