by Katie

Shortly after my marriage I had bought a connection in the Paddington district.  Old Mr. Farquhar, from whom I purchased it, suffered terribly from the affliction of St. Vitus' dance, and was eager thus to accept my offer to take the burden of work from his shoulders when I presented him the opportunity.  As for myself, I was equally eager to go into harness once more.  It was a tumultuous time of life for me, uneasy and tentative, and I hoped by working once again for my livelihood to shed a measure of the ennui which had settled on me the instant I was away from Sherlock Holmes.

Ennui I call it, but in his sense of the word and not the public's, for it was a boredom tinged with longing and a resignation infused with deepest heartache.  It was a painful period, and one over which I do not delight in reflecting, but I am forced in my current confusion and agony of anxiety to examine it carefully.  Carefully, and on paper, a medium which has always been a clarifying influence upon my thoughts.

I must, or I shall surely go mad--for he is gone.

No, no, he cannot be gone. 

Absent he may well be, but gone....  How can I have penned such a thing?  It was as if writing it made truth of a nightmare.  I would say that the act caused my hand to tremble, but that is not the case.  My hand has not stopped vaguely trembling for many hours now, not since the alpine stock leaning against a boulder.  I do not know that it ever will again.  I had sensed, shivering and worn to a rail on the voyage back to England all those years ago, that the palsy would dissipate over time.  And I was right to think so, no matter how comprehensive my sufferings had been.  I had only to wait.  Time heals many things, and what it does not heal, it often blunts.  It was so for me.  But not even time will serve, in this case, if he no longer breathes. 
I wonder what on God's earth will save me if he is gone where I can never follow him. 

Write it.  I must write it.  If I cannot bring myself to write it down, to extract with surgical precision the serum of truth from a nebulous series of memories, I never deserved him in the first place.  He would do so in my place, and more besides.  He would have known the truth by now.

So, let me be brutally faithful to the evidence...he is gone.  That is known, the hardest of all hard facts. 
But gone where?  Gone into hiding in faraway lands, or even shortly to be buried in the heart of London perhaps, biding his time?  On his swift way toward safety and sunshine and rock-strewn beaches in the south of France?   Asleep in a warm, dry hayloft?  Running from airguns with a bullet lodged in his breast?
Cold and unbreathing at the bottom of a merciless waterfall? 

But I am getting ahead of myself. 

I should not write of that before I must.  The other portions are dreadful, but nothing would save me were he dead in fact.  His absence I can bear, I think, though a torment.  His no longer existing would decay me from the inside out.  Perhaps that is how I shall learn the truth of it, if to write avails me nothing.  If he survives, so then will I, in sympathetic parallel.
I am talking nonsense.
Lord have mercy, where has my mind gone?
From the beginning, then, and I shall try to make some sense of it in print.  I must be absolutely methodical about this, if it is to work to useful effect.  And in any case, I must make more haste.  They are watching me again, the sympathy in their eyes mingling now with curiosity.  But they can do what they like, for I must think it through.

I was suffering, then, from ennui.  Sherlock Holmes' version of the word rather than the dictionary's. 

I do not say, mind, that I lacked any affection for my wife.  My wife is a beautiful, intuitive woman, plainspoken in the very best manner, with pale blonde hair and the kindest heart on this earth.  She seemed to love me from the beginning, and I relished every dark day the prospect of sitting down with her over dinner and then later nodding with her over the sort of books Holmes always scoffed at and Mary enjoyed as much as I did. 

We read to each other constantly in those days.  We read tales of savages and long-lost islands, pirates with noble inclinations, ships ransacked by the natural elements, and orphans coming into fabulous inheritances.  Mary Watson and I read to each other until our eyes could no longer follow the lines, and then we would retire--either to brief, genial, tender lovemaking or to slumber.  She was not overly inventive in the bedroom, but I think she liked that I often allowed her to take the lead.  I wished to deprive her of nothing, to be the very best husband I could.  I owed her that much, and considerably more, and when I thought of my true reasons for marrying her I would run out to the nearest bookshop and purchase her a fresh token of my affection.  I love her as much as a man can love a woman--or rather, I love her as much as a man who is aroused by other men can love the woman to whom he has committed his life.

Still further back.  I must be thorough.  I cannot begin to comprehend what I truly did to him until I examine the case from its origins.  How I wish I knew better what the beginning was.  Every time my friend chided me for beginning a story backside foremost, I had supposed, poetically speaking perhaps, that I was starting from the beginning.

Holmes always knew the beginning.  I often find myself of late--no matter how cruel he was--wishing I could be more like him.

The first blackmailing letter Holmes and I received was a ludicrous farce; my friend took one glance at it, traced the sender via postmark, stationery and familiar handwriting, and the villain was in police custody for arson before the sun had set the following evening.  Whether he was truly guilty of arson or not I neglected to ask, but anarchist ties certainly ruined his credibility when he vehemently denied it.  The next attempt came from a subtler source and required more diplomacy, in the ironic form of Holmes laying his hands on incriminating documents of the blackmailer's and observing that he would be just as happy to publish a defamatory statement as the next man.  Then a clumsy satire of a joke written by a police inspector fell into Lestrade's hands, who had the loyalty and the sense to mention its contents to us before burning it and reassigning the blackguard to St. Giles.  Then there was Milverton and four months of his peculiar brand of hell; he is now deceased, although not at our hands.

It became clear to me after Charles Augustus Milverton met his demise that I could no longer stomach our life together.  For Holmes' sake, as well as mine.  And regarding mine...

It was never easy.  It was also never warm.  Not deliberately.  Heat, immense heat, great waves of it, and coldness in abundance, but never simple warmth, not by his design.  He never once said that he loved me after we commenced the affair, preferring to raise a single eyebrow when I spoke of what a thrall he held me in, or simply smile when I reached for him, desperate to breath the same air.  But he did love me, nevertheless.  The warmth slipped through in countless beautiful mistakes.  This is what tears me to pieces now at the same time it comforts me, for he loved me so wholeheartedly that I cannot believe he would have walked half-willingly over a cliff's edge.  He loved me with a voiceless tenderness I ache to recall, hailing cabs on the instant he spied me limping or glancing at me the moment anything pleased him, to see whether it pleased me too.  And every time a new threat appeared to splinter cracks through our carefully guarded lives, my friend reacted with a determination that made him physically ill.  And so, regarding his sake...

It bordered on the suicidal.  Holmes would drop everything, throw himself headlong into the task of protecting us--protecting me.  He would go for days without sleep, forgetting to eat, coldly frantic to set things right again.  And to no avail.  Oh, he succeeded on every occasion, but none of that mattered.  The sieve, I knew, was growing more porous by the month.  Sherlock Holmes simply could not look at me, nor I at him, without a beam of devotion connecting our gazes.  It was impossible.  Love fogged the air between us even when he was staring at a corpse and I was carefully penning case notes.  In another world, it may have been marvelous.  Not in ours.  In ours, it meant at the very best lifelong social ostracism following a sodomy trial acquittal.  And so I faced the choice of either marrying, or watching the man I would have cut off my arm for lose his mind preventing our exposure.

I cannot deny that I craved a bit of warmth either, as I recall it.

It was a ghastly mistake, of course.  I know that now, for he has told me.  When he was here. 


God help me, what have I done to him?

For three months after taking over the practice I was kept very closely at work and saw little of my friend, for I was too busy and too heartbroken to visit Baker Street, and he seldom went anywhere himself save upon professional business.  I was shocked, therefore, when, one morning in June, as I sat reading the British Medical Journal after breakfast, I heard a ring at the bell and the high, somewhat strident tones of my old companion's voice.

"Ah, my dear Watson," said he, striding into the room.  Then he stopped.

I found myself rising, though I did not quite know why.  My heart had ceased beating, I thought.  And then begun again when a spear jabbed through it.  That is what it felt like, at any rate.

"My dear Holmes," I murmured.

Sherlock Holmes is a man who physically imposes himself upon every atmosphere he occupies, save when he is attempting to remain unnoticed.  That morning, he wanted me to notice every detail, every perfect buttonhole, every fine black hair on the back of his neck.  He wanted nothing better.  And so, because I had been invited to stare, I stared.  The difficulty in setting down just how beautiful the sight of him was cannot be overestimated.  He looked coolly down at me from his greater height, suave and elegant as always in grey trousers and a charcoal frock coat, and he tossed his silken hat on an armchair.  I would swear, if it made any logical sense, that Holmes can appear taller when he wishes to, for my ceiling seemed suddenly of a very pedestrian loft.  His ivory skin was flushed slightly with June sunshine, a condition which lasts through July midway into August and then is gone like the daylilies until another year has come.  The look in his steel-coloured eyes was completely inscrutable, but completely inscrutable looks from Holmes tell me his mind is very troubled, and he looked even thinner than was his usual.  My friend's supercilious eyebrows twitched when I held out a hand to him.  He took it nevertheless, shaking it solemnly.  The feel of him was as intoxicating as one of his own drugs.

"I trust that Mrs. Watson has entirely recovered from all the little excitements connected with our adventure of the Sign of Four?" he asked in a tone that could have shattered the window at my back.  I am surprised it did not, in retrospect.

"Thank you, we are both very well."

He dropped my hand and returned his own to his pockets.  Then he seemed to be very interested in my bookshelves, and wandered over to my small library.  Holmes ran a single staggeringly lovely finger down the spine of a lurid short story collection. 

"The Premature Burial was of particularly grim interest, I trust," he said caustically.

"I've always liked Poe.  So does Mary," I added.

"Wonderful.  I confess I cannot easily picture her endorsing the same florid fiction that you do, my dear chap, but I congratulate you unreservedly."

I could think of nothing to say.  I fell to watching him read the titles, longing to put my arms around him where he stood with one hip cocked dashingly to the side, but knowing I could not.  I would never want Mary as I did Holmes, but she deserved fidelity.  It had been the first condition I had made absolutely clear to my friend when I announced my intention of and reasons for marrying in the first place. 
Sherlock Holmes never ordered me not to do it.  I think, if he had, he might have saved us both.  If he had commanded me not to get married, I do not believe I could ever have wed her.  His silence on the subject, in fact, was deafening.  It was as loud as his silence on the subject of love had been noiseless.  Holmes had practically dared me to go through with it, and devil take the hindmost.  But when I told him that physically it was over between us when once I was wed, Holmes had only remarked that if I truly did intend to get married, I would not have to worry a brass farthing about it, for he would want nothing to do with me.

"Holmes, I am delighted to see you," I said at last.  "I am, truly.  I have missed you terribly.  But you cannot be here to discuss our widely differing tastes in literature."

"I am here for two reasons," he answered me thoughtfully, although he did not turn around.  "One of them will probably annoy you.  I recently had need of the monograph I wrote upon osteological durability when a victim's body is destroyed by various methods--quicklime, fire, et cetera.  I could nowhere find it, and it's out of print."

"I apologize," I said, going to him where he stood before the bookcase.  "One or two of your books ended up being delivered here by accident because they were mistakenly on my shelves, and I haven't had the time to--here you are.  I'm sorry, Holmes.  It utterly escaped my mind.  This is your Michel De Montaigne as well, I believe."

"You are probably right, since after all you can't read a word of it," he agreed, taking both the little blue volume and the larger.  "He is one of my particular favorites, you know."

"I can read it rather well," I corrected him.  "Some of the nuances are lost, I have no doubt, but the language is remarkably accessible.  'If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.'"

"The second reason," Holmes said, ignoring me entirely, "was because I hoped that the cares of medical practice and the heavy chains of marriage have not entirely obliterated the interest which you used to take in our little deductive problems."

A thrill coursed through me.  I had not had the courage to ask him.  I knew it was dangerous, knew even then that spending time with him was as precarious as walking through a zoo without cages, but I would have walked through hell itself for the chance to be next to him, even if I could no longer have him for myself.

"On the contrary," I assured him eagerly.  "It was only last night I was looking over my old notes, and classifying some of our past results."

Holmes' grey eyes narrowed at me.  Then they shone, with a light which was half appreciation of my flattery and half icy dominance.  The blazing sun and the frigid side of the moon.  Never the warm earth between them.

"Then if I ask you to drop everything, leave your practice behind, and go with me to Birmingham instantly, you will say yes even though I have not mentioned a word of detail regarding the case to you?"

"A thousand times yes.  I was wishing I knew of a way to ask...yes, in any event, Holmes." 

His hand drifted upward, his other arm cradling the books.  Holmes drew one fingertip down along the line of my jaw, so softly that I could barely feel it.

"I perceive you have been unwell lately.  Summer colds are always a little trying."

My friend's mere proximity was maddening, but I had not the heart to step away from him.  "I thought I had cast off every trace of that chill."

"So you have.  You look remarkably robust," said he, trilling the r.  "Wedlock seems to have endowed you with a certain indefinable air of hale normalcy, the sort I can only dream of ever attaining.  I deduced the chill from your slippers.  Are you truly going to disappear from your practice and follow me to Birmingham this very moment?"

"If you wish it, Holmes."

"My client has been sitting in the cab all this while," he admitted with a half smile.

"Has he indeed?" I laughed.  "Well, in that case I am sorry to have kept him waiting.  Let us go, after I have a word with my friend next door.  My neighbour is always willing to look after my patients, and I his, so there will be no difficulty."

"You and I, then, shall softly and suddenly vanish away.  Nothing could be better," Holmes said quietly.

The tone meant the exact opposite.  A very great deal could be better, and we both knew it.  But I went all the same with my friend to Birmingham, to the offices of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company in Corporation Street, and we solved Mr. Hall Pycroft's mystery and saved a man's life from suicide in the bargain.  I felt alive again, as I had not done in months.  Our client was a charming young City man making his way up in the world, fresh-faced and intelligent and rough of speech, and his problem--while not an overly thorny one for the likes of Sherlock Holmes--felt wonderfully of home to me. 
I had not sat with my knees brushing my friend's in a private carriage for many months, had not caught the gleam in his eye as he watched me listen to an account of mysterious designs in still longer, and there is a material difference between treating an elderly gentleman for catarrh and preventing a man hanging himself in so dramatic a fashion.  By the time the seventy minutes back to London had passed us by, I was in a near panic at the thought that the morrow would bring me no sight or sound of the world's first and only consulting detective.  The angles at which all his long limbs reclined within that railway carriage were as well-known and as comforting to me as a child's nightly prayers.

"Thank you for having stopped by, Holmes," I said when we took our leave of each other.  We stood on the train platform, a sudden crop of June clouds obscuring the sun as it sank into the reddening horizon.  "I hope that in future--"

"In future, this sort of thing is not guaranteed to take place with any frequency," he interrupted me coldly.
Holmes lit a cigarette with his long, pale hands in immediate view of my eyes.  That was purposeful, I knew, and yet another silent declaration.  It had been for years.

"I see."

"Watson, I do not say the opposite is true either," he sighed at my downcast look, "but after all, a large portion of my visit this morning had to do with ascertaining the whereabouts of my books.  And I've done that," he concluded.  "Haven't I?"

"Just what percentage of your coming to see me do you claim to have been due to property losses, my dear chap?" I shot back, wounded.

"More than you know."  He left the cigarette between his lips and extended his hand to wish me goodbye.  I shook it, and when I let it go the cigarette returned airily to a magical little space between his middle and index fingers.  "Or perhaps you do know, after all.  I wonder.  You do habitually de-emphasize your own perspicacity.  Take care, Watson," he said flippantly, striding off.  
I watched him go.  His dark tails fluttered in his wake as I marked his progress through the crowd, an impossibly tall figure in a sea of drab bowlers and dun-coloured bonnets.  There is something about the way Sherlock Holmes walks which makes the streets beneath his feet seem his private, personal property.  It is a joy to view it in action, partly because of his unearthly grace and partly due to my own certainty I could name any byway in all of London and he could deliver me there on foot without a single wrong turning.  London belongs to Holmes, after all, as wholly as I do.  As I lost him to the throng, I affected to be thinking over what he could possibly have meant in regards to his books lest he turn back unexpectedly.  Thankfully, he kept his eyes forward, for we both knew better.  And he realized I was watching him, in any event.  Even exiting train stations is a performance to the likes of Sherlock Holmes.

When I arrived home that night, I felt guilty enough over my profound joy at merely having been near him for a few hours to be carrying a yellow-backed nautical tale for my wife.

"There you are," she said affectionately.  Mary was sitting by the darkened window, with an apple the soft yellow tone of her hair resting in her hand half-eaten, and a volume of poetry in her lap.  "Thank you for leaving the note.  I might have perished waiting dinner for you otherwise."

She was beautiful even to me, in that moment.  Fragile-seeming and feminine though she was, her easygoing candour inspired the deepest affection in me. 

"I am sorry," I said, leaning down to kiss her mouth, "for softly and suddenly vanishing away."  She tasted of the apple, and that silly little thought made me still fonder of her.

"But you are back," she smiled.  She handed me the apple and I gratefully took a bite of it.  "Therefore the Snark was not a Boojum.  What was the Snark in fact?"

"The Snark was Sherlock Holmes."

"Oh, dearest, that's wonderful," she exclaimed.  "You must have missed him all this time, now I come to think of it."

"Yes, I have."

"It's my fault," she said with a wry face.  "I am so shy around him, and he so distant from the world at large, that all the work is left to you.  But no longer.  Don't think me bashful enough where he is concerned that you should suffer for it, darling.  Let us stop respecting what you call Bohemian reticence, and ask him to dinner.  And what's this?  The Wreck of the Dauntless Intrepid.  Thank you--no, we shan't begin it yet--first you must tell me what daring adventure Mr. Holmes dragged you into, and while you are about it I shall ring for your supper."

It was the next morning when I failed her.  I failed her utterly without having any intention of doing so, and yet the failure was inevitable, for Sherlock Holmes had first failed to command me not to marry the kindhearted blonde woman with the empty treasure chest. 
I awoke, and I saw to my patients, and I read the newspapers.  Then I told my wife quite truthfully that she was right, and that I would like to invite my friend to dinner, but that I also wished to wrap up the details of yesterday's case with him, so perhaps I ought to ask him in person at his flat in Baker Street.  Something about having seen him the day before for the first time since my marriage worried me in the faintest, deepest of fashions, and I swear before God that ten minutes in his chaste company was the only thing on my mind, and more than enough to key a heady anticipation.

"Do not smoke more than one cigar, please," Mary requested happily, coughing for a moment.  "You come home from your club smelling of a forest fire at times, and it is enough to quite alarm me.  And do convey my regards to Mr. Holmes."

The sound of my door shutting behind me rang out weirdly unfamiliar in my ears.  It clanged like a funereal bell.

I stood for three minutes on his doorstep, in an agony of indecision.  Following my attack of nerves, I propelled myself to my old door and rang the bell.  Mrs. Hudson appeared entirely delighted to see me and sent me straight up to our old sitting room.

When I opened the door, I could smell his very presence.  It was a mixture of tobacco and almond, of faint musk and fainter cedar, of immaculate cleanliness living amidst utter mess, with a faint overlay of burnished violins.  The sound of a sultry, languid stirring reached my ears from the settee. 
Holmes did not seem to be doing anything in particular there--he was merely resting, napping perhaps, without a book or a telegram or even his pipe or fiddle.  In fact, Sherlock Holmes appeared to be entirely occupied with staring at the wall.  Then a cold thrill went through me when I saw his revolver lying on the floor beside him.  Why that should have frightened me momentarily I cannot guess, knowing as I do now what he was already running from, but it did; my friend's habits regarding firearms has always been just shy of lunacy.  He confuses bullet pocks with decorative flourishes and pistols with paperweights.  Holmes' eyes remained lost somewhere in the distance a bit longer, and then he looked at me curiously as I leaned down with my hands on the back of the furniture.

"Whatever are you doing here?" the lilting, clipped tenor inquired.  He had not been asleep.  Both his voice and the brilliance of polished steel irises proclaimed as much.

"It was profoundly good to see you yesterday," I confessed.  "I fear I wanted to see you again.  And my wife had desired me to ask you to dinner."

Holmes wriggled his lips at me for a moment in puzzlement, then allowed his aquiline face to fall back in the direction of the bow window.  Reaching down for a cigarette, which for some reason was lying on the carpet in a pile with several spent and unspent brethren and the clean little gun, he lit it with a vesta from his waistcoat pocket.  Employing my friend's methods, I was able to determine that he had been there for a minimum of two hours, and was planning no further enterprise for quite some time.  He clearly had no client impending, no other business at hand.  And yet, there was literally no welcoming warmth on that oft-caressed face either.  I knew he was very surprised I had come to Baker Street at all, and was thus measuring his words with care.  I myself was surprised at my own boldness.  But he did not look pleased, and that disturbed me.  It was nauseating to think that the day before might have reminded him of faults of mine he no longer had to suffer, that he could be glad of my absence.  I am not so deluded where Holmes is concerned that I always suppose my company desirable to him.

"You should go," he objected.

For a moment, I simply moved to obey, and then a monstrous thought struck me.

"Why?" I asked before I could stop myself.  "Do you expect someone?  A client, perhaps?"

Had Holmes answered that he expected a new lover, I may well have been driven out of my wits.  I could not have him, granted, but if anyone else was busy having him, pleasuring all that smooth white flesh while I tenderly serviced a charming female whom I cherished like a sister, it would have broken my mind in half.  I knew every inch of that skin, had mapped it better than my own and worshiped each single scar and birthmark.  For instance, there is a pair of faintest freckles just above the sweet depression on the left side of his lumbar curve where even he himself could never see them.  The mere thought of another man with Holmes, in Holmes, succumbing to Holmes, was so perverse to me that I could not even bring myself to speak the words.

"Rather hypocritical of you, isn't it?" he smiled, reading my mind as he always did.

"Yes," I owned testily.  "It is hypocritical.  That is why I didn't say it." 

"Why do you sound so put out?"

"Because you never give me credit for failing to say things."

"I am not required to give you credit for anything.  But I will grant your wish nevertheless and admit to my complete and utter celibacy.  I have been dry as dust all this while.  Now, run along with you." 

"Are you so eager to be rid of me?"

"I would only weary you with my mood tonight, I assure you.  You know how I am when without a case."

"I haven't anything to do tonight either.  That is why I am here."

"Never mind--you will tomorrow.  You're the owner of a thriving medical practice."

"Thriving?" I inquired, transparently hoping for an explanation as I rounded the sofa and descended into my old armchair.  Courtesy be damned, for his nearness was like breaking the surface of deep water for a breath of air.  "I said nothing to you of its success or failure when you were there yesterday."

"Your neighbour possesses as old-established a practice as you just bought.  It was no very great leap of reasoning to make when I noticed that an elderly woman with a prescription in her left hand had just emerged from the door adjacent to yours as we left.  She could conceivably have fallen ill only recently, but her complaint appeared to me to be longstanding rheumatism, and the very old do not change physicians on a whim.  What is more, she glanced over at you, my boy, in obvious interest at laying eyes on the new doctor who has set up shop next to her own.  Therefore your medical neighbour's practice is quite as old as was your predecessor's."

"Yes, but--"

"Your neighbour is well-off enough to afford a silver-plated door knocker, but his stairs are worn three inches less deeply than yours.  Ergo, while his business is successful, yours is more thriving still.  Are you satisfied?"

That was when it happened. 
It was the way his eyes were glimmering at me, perhaps, grey and subtle as the early-summer winds beyond the glass windowpane.  Then again, it was the fact that I had not seen him in months and had then run about with him like a blithe boy that did it, the way a man who has no water thinks water the most delectable liquid to be found anywhere on the earth.  And yet, it was far simpler than that.  Holmes was only half-dressed, his open shirt revealing the clean white plane of his iron-hard breast, with his bare feet tucked cozily behind his knees upon the settee.  He had no collar, nor tie, and yet his flowing black locks were sweeping back across his head in perfect accordance with his meticulous wishes.  None of it was intentional or planned, but he is more keenly aware of himself than any man I have ever met in all my life.  And so, if I am truly honest with myself, the answer to the question was an even more basic one still. 

Sherlock Holmes was doing it on purpose.

Before I could answer whether or not I was satisfied, he had noticed and his sensitive mouth opened a little, releasing a breath of triumph he had not even known he was suppressing.

"Watson," he said, his drawl scraping over me, "what the devil is wrong with you?"

"Nothing whatever.  And your inferences are sound."

"Yes, I know they are.  My inferences are almost always sound.  It is those very inferences which prompt me to ask again: what the devil is wrong with you?  You do know you have a problem, do you not?"

"Explain yourself, please."

Sherlock Holmes propped himself up on his elbow with a look of sugar-sweet neutrality.  "Are you aroused by my inferences, Watson?"

"What on earth can you be talking about?" I countered evenly.

He sat up a little more, the long ivory hand holding his cigarette now floating over the carpet with his elbow resting upon the arm of the sofa.  Holmes' eyes were daggers by this time, and every bit as pitiless.

"I am talking about the evidence at hand.  Your face is barely flushed, and your breathing has slowed ever so slightly.  I confess it a premature stroke of bad luck at this juncture that I cannot see your trouser front from this angle, but--"

"Holmes, haven't you better things to do even with your idle time than torment me?"

"Since you left?" he reflected icily, blowing smoke through his lips.  "No."

And there it was.  My fault, my doing, my cruelty, no matter how necessary and inevitable the act had been.  When I look back on it now, what shocks me is that I was not yet frightened of him in those few seconds.  I thought I knew what he was capable of, the limits of his vast invention, the lines he would never cross.  I had thought my inability to resist him somehow sacrosanct within our new set of circumstances, for he is a gentleman.  He would never even in his wildest periods of sparkling mania have forced his attentions on me directly, for instance, nor hovered over my lips for a kiss when he knew me a man of my word.  Holmes is as exact as he is prideful, and as unbending as he is exact.  And he had never yet been warm.  But by convincing myself I knew what he would never do, I had dismissed the irrelevant task of guessing what he would do--the most imbecilic of all elementary mistakes.  Forgivable, perhaps, under other circumstances, but errors are always fatal where Sherlock Holmes is concerned.  And I had never dreamed, never in my darkest nightmares, never had I even remotely fathomed how very angry he was.

"I did not leave because I desired to do so."

"I fail to understand you," he said brightly.  "Surely you do not imply you were coerced by that slightly built, good-natured little woman?  Or that I left your bags at the foot of the staircase?"

"Holmes," I replied in a tone of utmost gentleness, "we had been made targets.  We've been through this before, several times.  Your freedom was threatened."

"I dealt with it," he said in the tone he would have used upon a very stupid Yard inspector, grey eyes flashing.  "I would have been a poor swain indeed had I failed to protect your interests.  Chivalry may be dead, but common decency surely is not."

"You were ripping yourself in half," I observed hoarsely.  "Do you think I enjoyed watching that happen?  Or knowing for a fact it would all too soon happen again?"

"Doubtless your view is much improved now.  When you are at home, of course.  How is Mary Watson today, by the way?  Was she livid at you for your disappearance?"

"No, not at all.  And she's...she's very well.  Thank you.  We get on splendidly, under the circumstances."

"She loves you, that much is clear.  Your hat was never so clean when you lived with an unfeeling and mechanical consulting detective, and I think you've gained seven pounds.  It is most gratifying to see you flourish under the care of true love at last.  For my part, it's a decided relief.  I would certainly never have brushed your coat of a morning or urged you to take seconds of beef stew."

"Why should you hurt me purposefully?" I demanded.  "That is what you are doing, of course, but why?"

"No, no, I am only happy for you," he said with another terrible smile.  "For your marriage, your practice, and your improved view of life.  The sight of me ripping myself in half hardly sounds agreeable.  This newfound pastoral scene, however--"

"I wanted to live and die with you," I growled fiercely.   It had grown positively impossible to keep my voice under control.  "Surely you noticed that detail, as you noticed all the others.  I married her because the anxiety was slowly killing you."

"You married her because you wanted someone to worship the ground you walk on rather more visibly," he purred.

"What I wanted was to give you everything in me--and I did, for years."

"You needn't have done.  What would you ever have gotten in return for your pains?  I never loved you."

It could have been cruel, under the right circumstances.  And I confess the statement did not precisely surprise me--God knows that when cornered Holmes is capable of nearly anything, including statements which amount to deadly verbal sniper fire.  And this one could possibly have been the sort of statement which would have sent a different sort of man straight to the Thames, to join all the rest of the sufferers who found one day their lives were more than they could bear.  But it was a bald lie.  If there was one barb which would never work against me, it was that one.  He had the advantage, perhaps, of never having declared his affections, but a man does not invoke the interest of three professional blackmailers and a snide bigot of a police constable over a roll in the hay.

"You did, once," said I.  "Or you made me believe it."

"I never loved you.  Why make me say such a dreadful thing twice?  It's only you who suffers by it."

My fists were clenching.  "You loved me even though you fought it tooth and nail from the outset.  You loved me, for all your petty, twisted tortures.  That was the problem, for God's sake, Holmes.  The problem was that you loved me."

"You seem desperate to think so, in any case.  And so I put it to you again, Watson," he murmured cuttingly.  "Are you aroused, watching me solve cases?  Unravel puzzles?  Describe a human being based upon one lost article of his clothing?  Have you always been aroused by my little tricks?"

"Yes," I whispered.

Holmes threw the cigarette into the grate, which sent up a crimson spark as it perished.  Slowly, like a cat rising from its repose, he leaned forward to depart from the settee.  I expected him to stand, perhaps to throw me out of his rooms, but he merely continued the beautiful arc and descended to his knees on what had once been our carpet, crawling toward me with the aid of his hands as the seconds seemed to stretch themselves into days.  I stopped breathing, I think, and when I began again it was at far too rapid a pace.  Holmes came to a rest kneeling on the rug in front of me and draped his fingers over my thighs.

"Or were there perhaps other activities of mine that aroused you still more?" he wondered, stroking at my trouser leg.

"Holmes," I protested with far more firmness than I felt.

"I only ask out of idle curiosity," he said softly.  Palms outward, my friend forced my thighs open.  He sat back on the rug between them, one of his own knees drawn up to his chin and one angled beneath him, not touching me any longer, not even attempting to.  He merely rested his black head against one of my legs and stared with the eyes of a Gorgon at the seam in my trousers.  "Perhaps I used to cultivate other skills still more precious to your libido.  What did you think of me boxing, for example?"

I knew full well what he was doing by that time.  Heat, and more heat, endless heat, and stabbing cold, but never warmth.  I could have left at that very moment.  I still had the strength, or I thought I did.  And then he continued.

"Of all the occasions you've watched me box, I think the bare-knuckle charity bout hosted by the police department was my finest moment," Holmes mused.  "He was a worthy opponent, and we went after each other like a pair of tigers.  I was thoroughly bruised by the time I won, but I won nevertheless, and do you recall what happened after, when you took me home?  You stripped off my torn shirt and bandaged the cut above my eye, and then you drew a bath, knowing I hate staying disheveled and sweat-covered for very long, and when I was once in the bath you rolled up your sleeves and insisted on washing me yourself.  My arms, my breast, my back, my shoulders, my thighs, every single portion of my anatomy was subjected to your private and benevolent attention.  I denied you access to nothing, as you slowly made me clean once more.  I only moved at your guidance, as I recall it, only shifted when you moved to open me further to your touch.  And then you realized, as I had known for some time, that you were wearing far too much clothing.  So your stripped it all off and climbed in with me, and you soaped my thighs to make my flesh slicker while you drove yourself long and slow between my legs."

My hand drifted toward my crotch as if a demon possessed it.  That demon's name, I knew full well, was Sherlock Holmes, and yet I did it anyway.  I stopped, pressing the muscle of my thigh.

"Yes," he whispered.  "Go on.  There's no harm in this, to a married man.  It isn't me touching you, after all.  Only yourself."


"Go ahead.  I am safely out of the way, and I'll never tell a soul.  What did you think of me fencing?" he continued, in the same treacle-slow tone.  "I did it for you, you know, on the occasion I believe you ought to be recalling.  It was a casual match, after everyone else had left the gymnasium.  I feel sure you remember.  Only you and I remaining, and my fencing partner of the moment, and no one to tell either of us we had better not remove our protective attire and go at it bare-breasted as if we were fighting a duel centuries ago."

I did remember.  He had been a reckless, lash-thin twenty-eight years old, with the eyes of a god and the jawline of a fifteenth century knight of the realm.  I remembered every trickle of sweat down his washboard stomach, and the guilty thrill I had felt at seeing a shallow line of red well up along his arm and knowing I--only I, out of every man in London--would be the one charged with healing it later.  It was nearly worth the harm to that beautiful flesh, though only nearly.

"Do you recall that when I won that match, I teased you that the blond fellow whom I'd bested was so adept at foils that he might well be proficient at other forms of swordplay entirely, and that we ought to invite him home to find out?"

"You weren't serious," I pleaded desperately, balling my hands into fists again.

"Why not?" he mocked me.  "I've hosted more than one chap in my bed before, at University for a lark.  But now you mention it, no, I wasn't.  The only thing on earth I wanted back then was you."

That was the instant when Rome, which had not been the labour of a day and had required severest effort to maintain, fell.  I tore open my trouser front and grappled with the tie of my underthings for a moment before freeing my cock from its cloth prison.  Taking myself in hand like that was probably the most mortifying thing I have ever done, but I could no more have avoided it than I could have avoided loving him in the first place.

Holmes had one hand on the floor for balance, and the other gripped his vertical upper shin, but his face smoothed over my trouser leg in a devastating caress, like an affectionate animal's nuzzling, his eyes staring at me with both longing and something like brute force.

"I always wondered why you didn't take me up on it," he hissed.  "I could see you admired him.  He was such a cheery and golden-headed boy, after all, and I think his upper arm was as thick as my thigh.  Lord knows what the rest of him must have been like.  And you possess an admirable capacity for loving people, my dear fellow, all sorts of people.  Why, your present situation finally proves it beyond a doubt.  It's ironic, I suppose, that I can love no one and you love several dozen poor souls.  The whole world could fit within the confines of your heart right alongside me, I would wager.  Would it not have been amusing, if only for a night?  We could have prepared him together, ever so slowly, and I could have taken him while you watched.  Or he could have taken me, if you preferred that, while I licked and sucked at your--"

"Stop it," I snapped, though my hand was on my flesh all the same.  "I said no because I was in love with you.  I am still in love with you."

"Oh, yes.  I recall your having given that same reason a few minutes ago for another act entirely.  For the selfsame reason, you would have me believe, you went off and married a female.  I keep forgetting that you've simply unique ways of expressing your regard, perhaps because I have never been in love myself.  Well, I shall leave him out of it, then."  His cheek smoothed into my thigh once more, and his grey eyes fell shut.

"My dear--"

"Think what we could be doing if you were not married," he sang out sadly, trying a new and far more devastating tack as I cradled my aching flesh.  "I would have you in my bedroom by now, I feel almost sure of it.  I would already have removed your clothing--piece by piece by piece.  I would have taken my time, but it would have been difficult to keep my fingers from flying from task to task, so eager they would be to reveal your skin to me.  Once you were bare, I would have performed the same ritual for myself while you watched from the bed, and by now there would be nothing left between us.  We could be making an endless chain, the two of us, lying on our sides with our shafts in each other's mouths.  Do you recall, on the first occasion, I had no liking for that activity with you in my bed?  With other men, I had enjoyed it, but with you...  It had all seemed too much for me, a totality of sensation with an absence of any focus--your hot mouth on me only distracted me from the sweetness of your cock, and vice versa, until I felt I was falling to pieces.  I mastered my own mind on the next instance, however, and I don't believe I ever brought you closer to tears."

"Don't do this to me, Holmes."

"Is the scene not precisely to your liking just yet?  Let me see.  Although I never loved you, I have missed your company, so I suppose I could be playing your catamite, if you wished me to do so.  I could take something slick and lie on my back on the bed with you above me.  I could part my legs and ready myself for you with my fingers, and the only thing you would be left to decide is whether and how often to kiss me while you watched me at work.  I should prefer if you did, of course, for I cannot help but think the sensation of caressing your tongue within my mouth would significantly enhance the activity.  I could take as long over it as you wanted, if the sight proved enjoyable to you.  Perhaps I could take you in my mouth while I did it, with you facing backward toward my legs for a clearer view, so that by the time I was finished with myself your prick would be wet and hard.  Then you would turn yourself round and I would hook my legs over your shoulders and--"

"For God's sake, man," I moaned. 

I fell forward, my muscles no longer under my control.  I pushed Holmes' slender body down against the floor, may the Lord God please have mercy on me for it, and I collapsed the short distance to the carpet, my knees on either side of his flawless torso and my greedy cock still in my hand, hovering just above his beloved lips.  When he spoke again, his eyes wide and glittering with passion or perhaps tears, I could feel his breath on my tender skin.

"Or we might go the other route," he continued in the same maddening tone.  I had been a fool not to be frightened.  The strength in the body between my knees was breathtaking, the self-control required for him not to touch me impossible, the lust in his eyes intoxicating.  Whether it was hellfire or the ice at the end of world I knew not, but it felt like both simultaneously.  "I am very angry that you passed several weeks without stopping by to see your erstwhile friend.  Perhaps what I would do instead is to close the curtains and send Mrs. Hudson out to dinner, and then bend you over the arm of the settee the way you deserve."

There are other men in the world, I can only suppose, who are capable of talking an ex-lover into a state of frenzied passion, but if so I have never met them.  If so, perhaps I would have feared them too.  But he was the only one I loved.

"What do you think you merit on this occasion?  The belt?"

"Far worse," I groaned, and I meant it too, as my hand gripped my member like a vise.

"I'd have to locate the crop, then."  His eyes darted to the cane stand and then back to me.  "I would take meticulous care over your person, but only by thrashing you could I possibly convey just how tedious the time has run since you left me, and what it means to me when you arrive as a casual caller.  I frankly hate you for it.  That is why I asked you to leave.  But once I was finished, having taken my time, I would run my fingers over the marks I had made and then take you just as long and as hard as I pleased, because you would be asking for that too by the time I was through making myself clear.  After that many strokes, given with pitch-perfect balance between pleasure and suffering, you would be asking for it deep and fast and rough."


"And I always do what you ask, don't I?  You must have been a very intriguing diversion for me all this time, come to think of it, or else I have no explanation for why that is so.  You apparently love me, along with loving half the rest of the world, so that explains your willingness to obey me.  But what explains mine to obey you?"

His hands, almost visibly twitching for my body but kept under steely, otherworldly control, were thrown up in a position of either surrender or despair at the sides of his head.  I reached down with my free hand and gripped him by the thick black hair above and a little behind his temple.  For the third time, his face melted into my skin, as his hand shifted to caress the backs of my fingers, running up and down and then twining his own fingertips ever so slightly between them.  I could feel their prints, every individual line which made him Sherlock Holmes and no other, in the grooves where my own fingers joined my palm.  Even at that slightest of all touches from him, I moaned.  My friend's eyes flew open, and he looked up at me with what was almost purely hatred. 


"Is this what you do, John?" he whispered savagely.  "Is this what you do at night, or in the early morning, or in your consulting rooms?  Abuse yourself like a pathetic adolescent and think all the while of me fucking you?"

"Have a little mercy, if you love me."

"But I never did.  Answer my question, damn you."

"I know you don't believe me when I say I married her for you, but--"

"Every man does it from time to time, you can't deny that, and you are inevitably thinking of me when you touch yourself, aren't you?  Are you deep inside my body in your mind's eye, with my knuckles white against my bedroom mantelpiece?  Or are you sweat-soaked and shivering beneath your coverlet in the moonlight when I used to climb your stairs and take you in the middle of the night?" 

"I beg you to stop."

"Do you go about it after accidentally recalling me, or do you merely seize opportunity when it arises, as it were?  Is this pitiful exercise a part of your life now, like eating breakfast or reading the Times?  Is this what you meant when you said you had been 'looking over old notes' the night before last?"

"I swear to Christ you'll be the death of--"

"Is this what you do?"

"Every day," I gasped in despair. 

The hatred in his eyes broke apart.  I felt a shudder building at the base of my spine, at the identical moment I felt I might shatter into an outpouring of uncontrolled grief he would never tolerate, let alone enjoy.  My friend knew I was on the very precipice as I flinched swiftly back from him, for I was two inches away and he had viewed the sight on countless sweat-drenched occasions.  And so he darted forward with his hands and his lips and took only the very tip of me into his mouth.

I spent into him until I had nothing left inside me save my shame and my anger and my undying love for every single thing that he was.  Even mercilessness.  Perhaps especially mercilessness.  For I no longer found myself particularly deserving of his clemency.

When I had stopped pulsating, I forced myself to look down at him again.  His eyes were half-closed, and his face torn between raw hurt and fleeting triumph.  I threw my legs back with one swift motion and lay on top of him, tracing his lips with my fingers.  For many long seconds I felt the porcelain skin of his mouth, a blush of finest rose within all the white and the black and the grey, before my head fell toward him.

"Don't kiss me," he whispered raggedly.  "If you love me any more than you love all the rest of sodding London, do not kiss me."

I obeyed him, at least partially.  He gasped when I tore open his flies, and his entire body arched with aching despair when I took him in hand.  I backed away from his face while trailing my other hand down his chest, and I swallowed him to the hilt.  He was very near.  I had not long to savour the precious task, and I regretted the fact on the instant I realized how aroused his own vengeance had made him.  Seven or eight movements of my mouth and my tongue and my hands finished the job, and when he violently choked back the beautiful sound he had always used to make freely and often even laughingly, I blessed his essence in my mouth even as I cursed myself for a callous, cold-hearted fool.

Then it was over.  Everything was over.  I crawled upward again, not any longer a man who has kept his vow to respect his wife, and fell shivering into the arms of my tormentor.  All his limbs slid around me instantly.  For the author of my torture and downfall, he was an endearing sort of villain.  His breath was coming shallow and fast, as if he was frightened to death of something.

"It will be all right," I lied, worshiping the side of his face with my palm.

"No.  It won't."

He was far more likely to be correct than I was, and I knew it.  I had fallen in love with my dearest friend, watched him battle as best he could not to fall utterly under my spell, conquered his surviving defenses, and then left him.  Even though that last had been for good reasons, it was an unforgivable chain of events.

"If you never open your heart to me again in your life, tell me what you are thinking right now," I begged him.

He drew in a breath through his nose deliberately, and then out again past his lips, so as to snap back into perfect control of himself, but something about the technique he had employed a hundred thousand times before no longer seemed to be working.

"I think I'm lost without you," he admitted, putting a horrified hand over his mouth before he had quite finished speaking.

"But I'm here, now I know that is the case!" I cried.  "I'm here!  It can be just as it was before between us when I have occasion to be with you.  Forgive my shortsightedness for having indulged in trite, self-righteous posturing before, but now--"

"You were right," he spat out.  "Forgive my shortsightedness in turn for wanting to get a little of my own back.  Forgive me for ever darkening your door at all.  It was a thankless experiment, and now I've paid for it.  I want no part in your bed."

"But," I whispered.  "When you said you were lost--surely you still want me?"

"I want you as far away from me as is earthly possible."

"Why?" I managed.

"Because when I said I never loved you," he replied brokenly, pausing to bite his lip, "I may perhaps have misrepresented myself."

"Forgive me," I groaned, my face falling on his shoulder.  "Please forgive me.  But it was the truth when I said I did it for--"

"Say it was for me one more time and so help me I'll throw you down the stairs," he snapped.  "It was for better china settings and a kiss goodbye whenever you leave the bloody room."  In a move made all the more heartbreaking for its familiar grace and efficiency, he pushed me off of him and rolled away, doing up his trousers as he walked a few paces toward the fireplace.

"Very well.  So be it.  I'll tell you the truth if only you swear you won't judge me too harshly for it," I persisted, trying to set myself to rights with trembling hands and finally sitting back against the sofa, still on the floor.  It was where I belonged.  "Or never mind that, and judge me as you think I deserve.  Do you want the whole truth of it?  Do you want to know what a monster I really am?"

"I don't give a damn any longer."

"You do, I know it.  Shall I tell you what a travesty of a man I've become?"

"Just as you please, and see where it gets you.  I am through with being affected by the things you say to me, John."

"She's dying," I told him.

Holmes turned around, his elbow still resting upon the mantel.  At first he looked disbelieving beneath his gently glowing flush of sex, but then his mouth fell open just slightly as he comprehended what I was saying.  I felt the first tear run down my face, and didn't bother to wipe it away.

"I've only known for a fortnight," I whispered as more quickly followed.  "When she caught from me the identical summer chill you deduced I had taken, and I heard her.  The way she breathes.  Coughs.  It's only a matter of a few years, Holmes.  Nothing can be done in the long term.  When it first seemed she could grow fond of me, and I came to like her company so very much, and I....  God help me.  She doesn't know it yet, of course, but I do, and nothing I could possibly attempt will save her.  I wanted to stay faithful to her while she lives.  What sort of evil beast would--but that doesn't matter anymore.  I have nothing left.  Not my honour, not my word, and my soul I gave to you a very long time ago.  Do you know what I first felt when I found out my wife was dying?  I was glad, Holmes.  Glad.  I thought, a few years of suffering, and then no one would suspect us again...did I mourn for her, or rail at fate, or plan a desperate fight like a good doctor?  No.  I thought of you.  Taking me back.  I was never going to tell you how glad I was, never, so that you would never know that I'm depraved and not the good man you trusted me to be at all.  Instead I've hurt you terribly, and lost every piece of the human being I once was.  There.  Now you know everything.  The moral gentleman you fell in love with is gone, so you needn't trouble yourself on my account.  Now you can tell me to get out of your flat, that you never wish to see me again.  Throw me down the stairs.  I already forgive you.  Any man would do the same in your place."

My friend did neither of those things.  He cleared his throat suddenly, looking away, and then he looked back at me.  I was far too miserable to pull my handkerchief out of my sleeve and dry my face.  So at length he walked over and knelt in front of me, handing me his own.  I took it, pressing it straight into my mouth and nose instead of putting it to any practical use, for it smelt exactly like him and I had missed having my soul near me very much.

"Human nature is a strange mixture, Watson," he said after a few more moments.  "We are all of us many things.  But no part of you is anything even remotely resembling evil.  Perhaps you're a fool, I grant.  Perhaps not.  But if you think one errant emotion is going to make me consider you a monster, you are utterly wrong."

I reached blindly for his hand and pressed it as hard as if it was keeping me from a descent over a precipice.  I could not see him do it, but at some point as I shook he forced my fingers open and kissed my palm with all his boundless devotion.  His lips rested, ever so slightly open, on the tender cupped skin.  It was enough.  It was more than enough.  Then he released me, sitting back on his heels.

Belatedly, I dried my eyes.  "May I keep this?"

"Of course you can."  Holmes rose to his feet again.  "I know why you took the books.  The osteological pamphlet was covered with additional notes in my handwriting, and I've read the Montaigne a thousand times."

"I ought to have known a story about shelving confusion would never deceive you," I answered, laughing bitterly.  "It was better than stealing one of your scarves or your pipes, you'll admit."

"Get away from here," he said, but his voice was kind.

"Will you promise me something, even if I don't deserve it at all?" I asked as I staggered to my feet.


"If you find another lover," I said, and then almost choked over the words.  "Will you warn me?"

I'll never forget how his face changed.  The expression is before me at this very moment.  But he turned away once more before he began speaking, leaning with one exhausted shoulder against the mantelpiece as he rubbed his eyes with his fingers.

"John, you grossly misrepresent either me or you to ask me such a thing.  Either you are implying I am savage enough to stumble blindly from mate to mate like a dog, or you are implying that you are forgettable.  In both cases, the error is insulting."

"I'm sorry," I murmured.

"I know you are," he whispered.  "Now, leave me.  Leave me alone."

I did leave him, for the second time.  I stepped out of his door, and I thoroughly dried my eyes, and I went home to my wife.
"Oh, my John," she said when she saw me, smiling in a pained sort of fashion.  "It went badly.  Did it go badly?"
"Yes," I said, taking her in my arms.  I buried my face in her vanilla-scented neck, brushing up against lace and sturdy cotton. 
"I wonder sometimes if he deserves a friend like you," she confessed to me softly, stroking the short hair at my nape.  "But then I recall him better, in my mind's eye as he was with poor Mr. Sholto, and I am able to see him as you do.  Whatever he did, my sweetheart, I can promise you--I would stake anything on it--I swear to you that he regrets it by this time."

That could have been the end of it.  And it was, for a period.  I did not know when next I would see him.  As it happened, I only set eyes on him again several weeks later.  It was on the day they hung Beddington, the famous forger and cracksman.

There Sherlock Holmes was, in my doorway.  My ceiling grew smaller again, and my heart surged.  He was holding his top-hat in one hand and a newspaper in the other, his countenance grim.  There were new lines on his face, I realized with a small shock, a deeper feathering at the outer reaches of his remarkably fine lashes, and several of the hairs at his temple were now the colour of his eyes just after a climax.  A sparkling, icy shade.  I had done that to him, I thought, and seeing it before me was the worst possible punishment.

"Holmes, what has happened?  What's wrong?" I asked him, rising quickly and emerging from behind my desk.

Holmes dropped his hat on my chair and handed me the newspaper, that morning's Echo.  "I beg pardon for the interruption to your work hours, Watson, but I needed to see you."

My eyes wandered over the print to no avail at first, but then I saw a small notice on the right-hand side.  "They've hung Richard Beddington," I read.  "That was an all too swift administration of justice.  The trial ended quite recently.  But I fail to--"

"The brother," he said dully.  "Thomas Beddington, known to you and me as Harry Pinner."

"The man we saved.  What of him?"

"He's knifed himself in the wrists."

"Oh, Holmes," I whispered. 

I set the newspaper behind me on the desk.  Even had I not known Sherlock Holmes by heart, even had I not learned every piece of him religiously, even if my devotion did not border upon obsession, I would have been able to discern his distress.  Running a hand over his hair in his distraction, he paced back and forth for several seconds, though hampered by the smallness of my consulting room.  "He's dead, of course.  I had to see you.  I know that I cannot be held directly responsible for the man's life, but surely indirectly--"

"It was not your fault, Holmes," I said emphatically.  In other days I would have caught him by the hands and physically stilled him, willing calm into his body with the strength of my grip and the nearness of my own form, but I had lost even that.  My touch would be of no comfort to him now, surely.  "What could you possibly have done?  Set a constant guard over the poor man?"

"Warned his gaolers," he said with a fierce gesture.  It required every ounce of my strength not to restrain him, for when his graceful limbs make such sharp motions, his spirit is flailing more wildly still.  "Wherever did he come by the weapon?  Or was it a weapon at all?  He ought to have been under closest supervision.  I never--"

"You could not have known, Holmes."

"And when I think of having saved him in the first place only for the torment of living through the day his brother left the world, I cannot bear to look at myself."

It was too much for a mere mortal, a sinner along the lines of any other, and one in love with him at that.  When the next agonized limb flew through the air, I could bear it no longer.  I reached out and caught him by both his sinewy forearms, turning his hands inward until I had pressed both his palms together.  I held his wrists in a gentle prison which nevertheless brooked absolutely no argument.  He appeared startled for the barest moment before gradually stilling, twining his fingers together as my own sent all the tranquility I could muster into the filigree of blue lines around his radial arteries.  His hands fairly vibrated with energy beneath my steady ones, but mine never faltered, and he knew they never would.  It was always so with us.  It had been a lesson of inestimable worth the day I learned that comfort must be thrust upon him.  I will give Holmes peace by raw force if he can come by it no other way. 

I felt his pulse slowing.  It shocked me that I still could manage the feat, as disturbing as my proximity was to Holmes, but by virtue of habit if nothing else, his rushing blood gradually obeyed me.  When it had slowed to its normal--admittedly still rapid--rate, I brushed my thumbs over his pulse points and let him go.  Before he could object to my nearness, I returned to my desk, sitting on the edge while looking up into the face I saw every time I closed my eyes.

"Human nature, as I said to you some weeks ago, is a strange mixture, Watson," Holmes said at length with a wracked half-smile.  "How my well-being remains any subject of interest to you after my inexcusable behavior when last we--well, the mind of man is undoubtedly queer." 
"I don't quite follow," I sighed.  "You know my mind through and through, and you're written on every page of it."
"In that case, inexcusable was not the correct term.  I mean that your capacity to forgive me unpardonable sins appears to be as bottomless as my capacity to commit them."  Holmes likewise drew a rueful breath.  "I should not, under the circumstances, marvel at it so, however.  Even a villain and a murderer can inspire such affection that his brother turns to suicide when his sibling's neck is forfeited."

"I think I understand how he felt," I admitted, the shock of the event leaving me quite without defenses.  "You are the plague of my life as much as you're my heart's desire, and yet if anything happened to you, I could possibly act just as Beddington did."

Holmes started visibly.  Then he frowned, and strode over to me where I was sitting upon my desk, stepping neatly between my legs and taking my face in his hands.

"Promise me you don't mean that," he whispered fiercely.  "Accidents can happen.  Mistakes.  Promise me that you would do no such thing."

Thrilling at his touch, I ghosted over his hands with my own.  "My dear Holmes, you are right here in any event."

"But one day I may not be," he insisted.  "Who can tell?  One day I may meet with an accident, or a confusion of twisted circumstances requiring me to flee danger, or with the sort of misadventure that keeps me from contacting you, or with a Snark which is in fact a Boojum, and I may softly and suddenly vanish away.  Vow to me that even if you heard tell of my actual demise, you would go on with your life and take care of Mary the way she deserves."

"I don't--"

"You could do it.  Think of the consequences that could befall me if you were mistaken and I yet survived, and you could do it.  I have every confidence.  If you could not do it for yourself or for your wife, you could do it for me."

"But why are you--"

"Because I love you, because you are you and I am I and I love you for that reason and a thousand lesser ones, and you will now promise me that you would never hurt yourself on my account.  You're worth a great many of me."

"I swear it," I said in deepest shock as his arms went around me.  "Holmes, don't take on like that.  I swear to do as you ask, in the very unlikely event I should be faced with such a choice.  But do not softly and suddenly vanish away from me.  Please."

Holmes drew back.  He looked into my eyes for a very long time.  It was neither hot, nor cold, but something gentle and not of this earth.  Then he kissed me. 

I had not been kissed by him since my marriage, and the vortex of his breath and lips had already rendered me boneless before his tongue began caressing mine and I was lost to all the world.  I had given him my heart and soul so long ago that it seemed natural to be without them, but when I kissed him I could taste them in his beautiful mouth.  I kissed him until it at once seemed the most blissful and piercingly sad act ever performed by a man, but I would never have been the first to stop it.  I could not have if I tried.  Sherlock Holmes kissed me softly and suddenly, his hand resting over my heart as our tongues tried to find what our minds had thought lost to us for good and all, and I wished there were other vows he wanted me to make to him.  I would have sworn anything.  I wanted deathless loyalties and impossible quests.  I wished I had never given myself to him, so that I could do it all over again.  That kiss was like breathing air, like my blood circulating, like all the mystical functions of life itself.  And all the sweeter, somehow, for my knowing that he would, barring an exceptional change in our circumstances, never do it again.

It ended, the way all things end.  Holmes ended it.  And he went at once for his hat.

"Come back, when you are able," I begged him.  "Come back tomorrow."

"I am hard at work at the moment," he replied.  "There is a damnable villain plaguing London of whom I'll tell you more when I know concrete facts.  It has everything to do with the Birlstone tragedy, you will not be surprised to hear.  But I will seek you out soon.  Farewell, and keep well, my dear man, until I see you again.  Later in the week or possibly the next."

"I'm so very sorry about Harry Pinner, my dear fellow," said I.

"Nothing happens the way we want it to, does it?" he asked softly.  "Nothing.  It would be enough to make a man vanish, I think.  If given the right pressure.  But not that way.  Not through self-slaughter.  The vanishing I understand perfectly, but the other is final." 

"What about the vanishing do you mean?"

My friend walked over to my window and leaned with a half-closed fist against the glass, touching his brow to his hand.  For several minutes he merely watched the traffic, the light playing off his black hair.  I waited for him.  Then he spoke at last.

"I dreamed it again last night.  That I had taken all the evil in the world inside me like huge injection.  I did it willingly.  Everyone in London was happy, John.  Everyone.  But they didn't want anything any longer.  They had no desires left.  One by one they all died."

"It was only a dream," I vowed to him devoutly.  "You must believe me.  It is only ever a dream."

"But if you felt that way," he whispered, "might you not vanish?  Simply be nothing, and no one of consequence?  Or at least, might you wish to?"

Before I could answer, he had turned to go.  And in truth, I do not know what answer I could possibly have made him.  Holmes hesitated with his hand on the door, his body angled so that I could clearly see the drape of his fingers emerging from immaculate French linen, one of the countless ways I knew he loved me before he had known it himself. 

"I saw your wife, on the way in," he added.  "She asked me to dinner."

A knot of fear twisted all at once within my torso.  "Holmes, please don't--"

"I accepted," he interrupted me.  My face must have reflected my utter disbelief, for he frowned just as quickly, holding up a hand.  "I know what you think of me, John.  I know what you suppose me to be, and I know that person is closer to a monster than you would ever admit to me.  No, let me finish.  It was my doing entirely.  I invented that man, and I take full responsibility for my actions.  All my actions, however reprehensible.  But I cannot allow you to think that the sole measure of a gentleman is the sum of his mistakes.  For your sake, never for mine.  I have a feeling that, if you can one day find it in your heart to forgive me, you might think a little better of yourself.  And with that sole end in mind, I hope you can forgive me."

"I forgave you the moment I shut your door," I managed through the lump in my throat.

"Then you won't mind my haunting your dinner table on occasion, I can only venture to surmise."  Holmes set his hat on his dark head, taking some care, and drew pale summer gloves from his pocket.  He walked back over to me pensively, and then he rested his left hand's extraordinarily delicate fingers on my knee for an instant. 
"You need not fear me, my dear fellow," he murmured.  "Nor need you fear someone else arriving.  There is no other man in the world for me, but in spite of that--no, because of it--I vow I shall never harm you like that again."

It was not the words which made me believe him, nor his strangely spiritual belief that if I did not think him a monster, I could not think myself one either.  It was the ethereal softness of it, so far a cry from his usual acidic speech.

"Nor I you," I whispered.  "I give you my word."
"Do you know how good a man you are?" he asked.  An innocent smile, the likes of which I had never seen from Holmes in my life, played over his lips.  "Without even trying?"
"Of course I try," I laughed, trying valiantly to steady my voice.  "I try every moment of every day."
"Yes, that is what I mean," he nodded.  He pulled my head down and kissed the very top of my brow.  "Most of us don't, you see."

He had vanished a moment later.  A shining black top-hat passed my garden window, and then a beautifully tall, thin man plunged into London's pedestrian traffic.  Watching the space on the kerb where he had just been, I pressed my fingers into the mark his hand had left on the glass.

That was years ago now, of course.  Before frequent telegrams and rare dinners and still rarer laughter, and the feeling of his fingers taking my elbow sadly as he steered me toward hansom cabs.  Three times, during those years, Holmes shook my hand when he did not need to do so by any law of courtesy, and lingered for precisely two seconds too long.  Once, his eyes fell upon the hollow of my throat for a moment before returning forcefully to my face.  Only once.  On a single other occasion, when I had very nearly been shot, he had gripped my head fiercely in his hands and laid his brow with infinite gentleness against mine before wheeling and silently walking away.  There was never more than that.  Somehow it was enough.  It would not have been, had he not loved me.

But he did.

And here the note sits in my lap.  Even still I cannot make sense of it.  I cannot make sense of anything.  My mind is gone.  And for once, I cannot ask Holmes to explain it away.

The Swiss police are kind to me, but they ask me things I cannot tell them, and I have somehow drawn further within the shell of myself than I have ever been since the slaughter at Maiwand.  Someone noticed I was shivering badly twenty minutes ago, and placed a thick woolen blanket round my shoulders.  Coffee is near my hand on the table, and so is tea and brandy, none of which I called for.  They only want me to see them when they speak to me.  They have wanted that for two days now.  But it is too soon for that, and I must think.  The instant they release me back to the hotel room I write more of it down, every heartbreaking fact, for I will not survive without the answer and here they gently take my pen away from me, wondering at the cryptic shorthand with which I have been filling countless blank pages. 

My head aches constantly now.  The station buzzes with men, sending wires across the ocean, receiving fresh ones in return.  They placed one from Mycroft Holmes before my eyes, but I could not even read it.  I had always used to read Holmes his telegrams aloud.  Now the symbols may as well be the scratches left by chickens in the dust, for all the sense they make to me.  There is only one piece of writing I can see any longer, and that is the one in his handwriting I found in the pocket of my coat when I reached the hotel at Meiringen and there was no invalid lady to care for.  It is not signed, nor addressed.  But I would know his hand anywhere, and it had not been in my clothing that morning when I dressed. 
"--as may be, Sergeant, but I assure you he is as steady a man as ever lived.  I ought to know it by now.  We can work through the business of his statement before we depart, but I have been charged with seeing him back to London, and that's just what I mean to do.  I'd not think lightly of standing in my way."
I know that voice.
When I look up, I find I do not have to crane my neck very far at all.  A short, shabby, meticulously dressed man with oddly bright eyes set into a plain, sharp face bends down and grips my shoulder.  His lips are thin and his brow wide.  He is very pale, but seems equally calm.
"What do you think, Doctor?" Lestrade asks, giving me an almost indiscernible shake.  "Back to the hotel for a meal, then a bit more of this, and afterward we set off for home?"
We walk at a slow pace back toward the hotel, red shutters gleaming from the windows of the buttery homes.  The air outside is almost unbearably fresh now he has mentioned London.  But is London still standing, after all?  Can London survive without Sherlock Holmes hastening down her corridors? 

I must not think of that, however.  I must concentrate on not reeling off the surface of the earth into the countless abysses surrounding me.
"Lestrade," I say when I recall how to speak aloud, "thank you.  Many times."
"You needn't thank me at all, I promise you, Dr. Watson."

"You haven't offered me condolences," I observe.

At first, he makes no answer.

"Now, here's a puzzle," Lestrade says slowly. 

He has me gently by the elbow with one of his petite hands.  Dropping my arm, the Inspector pulls a folded note from his pocket.  "Mr. Holmes never allowed you to set eyes on the contents of one blue envelope inscribed 'Moriarty,' hidden away in pigeonhole M, did he?"

I am silent, and he nods accordingly.  No one had been granted access to those documents, not Mycroft Holmes himself, not before the time was ripe.  And then the time had come, and the Yard had struck, with Patterson and Gregson and Lestrade and all our friends, and we had fled.
"Here's what I want to know, then," Lestrade continues, his dogged voice making certain not to carry more than a few inches in any direction.  "How did you write me a note and then hide the message within pigeonhole M if you were never allowed access to it?"
He passes me a sheet of paper, which reads:
By the time you are holding this, grave events will have transpired which require me to beg a favour of you as an old friend.  What Holmes has done cannot be undone, God help us, any more than the earth can cease spinning, but once he has seen it through, I will need you at my side, I feel certain.  How I hate to impose upon you in this sudden fashion, but please--if you are reading this, and have ever cared for me--drop what you are doing, leave Moriarty's gang in capable hands, and fly to Meiringen.  --Dr. John Watson
"You never wrote that, did you?" Lestrade remarks as I stare down at my own handwriting.
"How did you guess?" I ask, dazed.  "The penmanship is perfect."
"So is the phrasing," Lestrade nods.  "Sounds like you down to the last adjective.  But it was locked in pigeonhole M, so I had a better look at it, since it seemed long odds indeed that could have placed it there.  You and Mr. Holmes habitually shared stationery for so long, I might not have noticed.  I didn't notice, not until I was staring at it again on the Channel crossing.  But this isn't from your consulting room.  It's from Baker Street.  I need not tell you, Doctor, that I didn't care if the devil himself had written it by that time.  I was charged with reaching you, and I took my marching orders."
"My God," I murmur.
"There's something else," Lestrade surmises.  He knows me all too well.  "What is it, Doctor?  What have you found?"
I hand the Inspector the note from my coat pocket, the one I found at the instant my friend may well have died.  It costs me something to hand it over, but less with Lestrade than another.  And in any case, Lestrade will never understand it.  Only I was in my consulting room the day Holmes begged forgiveness for the cruelest thing he had ever done to me, and so only I could possibly wrest any secrets from Holmes' last communique.  The note beneath the cigarette case had not truly been for me, but for the Swiss police.  He could never have known who would arrive first on the scene.
When did he write it?  Had he known?  What had he known?  Was he thinking of life, or of death?  And why would he take such pains to remind me of a vow made in my consulting room long ago had he not seen a premonition of his own fate?  Each single letter is like a symbol of a deeper mystery...and yet, only one meaning is possible. 

He was trying to tell me something about vanishing--which he understands, and I do not.  And further, I am to obey him, even in death.  I am to go back, and to love my wife, and to live without him.
The note read:

Erect and sublime, for one moment of time.
 In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
 While they waited and listened in awe.