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Disgrace

Chapter Text

It was with a heavy heart that I wrote up the final case of Sherlock Holmes. Over the years of my acquaintance with him, I had memorialised his singular gifts in the many stories published in the Strand, recounting my strange experiences in his company. I had not intended to write up the tragic event which created such a void in my life. Indeed, as the months passed, I found it more and more painful to set pen to paper describing any of our adventures, let alone the events of that day.


I did eventually write it, however, for a specific reason.


In my grief, I sought solace in the company of Miss Mary Morstan, whose acquaintance I had made during the events recounted in the story I have entitled The Sign of Four. I found her to be a singular woman, not only beautiful, but also brave and strong and clever in a way that few women of my acquaintance are. Her acceptance of my proposal lifted my spirits, but only partially eclipsed my sorrow. In retrospect, I suppose that my affection for her was fuelled by grief. When she held my hand and gazed into my eyes, the pain that squeezed my heart loosened its grip just a bit, and I was able to breathe. I recognise now that this was not love. She pitied me, and I used her pity as a distraction.


“Nearly two years have passed since his death,” she told me one day. “It is time for you to let go of this terrible grief. Take off your black hatband. He would want you to move on with your own life, not wallow in his. You have never written about what happened on that day. Perhaps doing so would enable you to put it behind you.”


I knew she was right. It was time to determine what sort of life I would now lead. I owed her a clear commitment, unfettered by past love. Every time I contemplated life as a quiet, married man, however, I remembered the days when I carried my revolver in my pocket and chased criminals down alleys, following his footsteps. At such memories, I grieved not only for my friend, but for the dangerous life we had lived together that was now past. That life, that danger, had revived my will to live when I returned from Afghanistan, crippled and depressed.


I am a man of action. With Holmes, it had always been about the chase. I admit he was my lover from nearly the first days of our association, but it was never an affair rising from purely physical desires. We were a complementary pair, a yin-yang, my love of danger drawn to the quests on which his deductive mind led us, his uncompromising rationality yielding to my sentiment. When we first met, it was as if a puzzle box had finally clicked into place, solved. We each provided what the other lacked.


That would never happen again in my life, I knew. He was gone; I saw him fall. But I have never been one to wallow in indecision. My nature demands a course of action. And so, I chose.


Dear reader, I married her. At the time, it seemed the only reasonable and courageous thing to do. I wrote the story, as she had requested. She read it and wept with me. My melancholy did not depart, but my life went on.


* * *


One morning as I opened my surgery, I received a note from Mrs Hudson, my former landlady, asking me to stop by the Baker Street flat as soon as I was able. She said that a new tenant desired to take the lease, and in going through the flat, she had come across a box with my name on it. Since I was certain that I had not left any of my personal effects behind, I was curious to see what it contained. I hardly dared to hope that Holmes had left something he intended for me to have.


When I had seen the last patient out the door, I left my paperwork behind and caught a cab to Baker Street. I still had my key, and so let myself in. Mrs Hudson came to greet me, looking (as I thought) rather nervous.

 

“Oh, Dr Watson,” she said. “I hope— that is…”


“Yes, Mrs Hudson. I am happy to take the box off your hands, and anything else that Mr Holmes left behind. Has the new tenant arrived yet?”


She looked confused for a moment. “Tenant? Why, yes.”


“And the box?”


“You will find it in the sitting room.”


I bounded up the seventeen steps to 221B, anxious to take the box and return home, where (once Mary was asleep) I might peruse it in private. Perhaps it only contained notes on old cases, I told myself. Though I did not want my hopes to rise too high, to expect some kind of personal message, I was at that moment like an addict who has just spotted his next dose. I was hungry for even the tiniest bit of evidence that I had meant something to Sherlock Holmes.


I knocked lightly and entered, hoping to pick up the box and make my exit quickly. I did not want to have an awkward conversation with the person who would now live in these rooms, sit in the chairs where we once discussed cases, sleep in the bed where we once loved one another. My own memories of the flat were still tender; I was not ready to face the reality that had apparently arrived in the person of the new tenant.


No one was in the sitting room. Not wishing to surprise the new person, I called out a greeting. There was no answer, and I felt relieved. I looked around for the box, but saw none.
Someone was coming down the hallway from the bedroom. A measured step, quick and energetic. In the darkness, framed by the light of the sitting room, the owner of the step appeared in silhouette, a tall man, lean, with dark, curly hair. He stepped into the light. “Watson.”


Sherlock Holmes stood smiling at me. I do not know that I spoke, or if I did, what I said. I rather think I was silent, too overcome with shock, grief, and sudden joy, for within seconds darkness washed over me and I fell into a dead faint, the first and only of my life.


* * *


“You’re alive then,” I said as my vision cleared. There was still a humming in my ears, but the shock that had caused my faint was abating.


Kneeling beside me, he lay his fingers on my carotid. “Pulse nearly normal. Sit up, Watson.”


I raised myself into a sitting position. He leaned towards me and brushed a kiss across my lips. Like a jolt of electricity, it went straight to my groin.


He took my pulse again and chuckled. “It appears that my presence has had a stimulating effect on your heart. As yours has upon mine.”


I gripped his arms. “Holmes, I must tell you —“


“Congratulations,” he said softly, his pale eyes studying my face.

 

“You know?”


He laughed. “I am a detective, Watson.”


“If I had imagined — if I’d had the smallest inkling that you were alive, I would never have married.”


He cocked an eyebrow at me and raised me up from the floor. Winding his long arms around my torso, he kissed me again, deeper, with more hunger than the first kiss. “Oh, John,” he sighed. “I had no doubt — none whatsoever — that you would be married by the time I returned.”


Tears started in my eyes. I turned away, ashamed. “But — I swore… I told you I was yours, forever—“


“Whatever that might mean,” Holmes said. “Obviously, you believed me dead. Even if you had suspected I was alive, there can be no legal tie between men such as ourselves. It makes sense that you would one day desire the respectability of a marriage. And children. You should have no regrets about that.”


“But what of us?”


He located a bottle of brandy and two glasses on the sideboard, poured stiff shots for each of us. Handing me a glass, he smiled fondly. “You are mine, Watson. I am not jealous of your wife.” He took a sip from his glass. “Neither will I let you go.”


I swallowed half of the brandy in my glass and felt somewhat braced. “Mary… she will not stand for any… infidelity.” Six months of marriage had taught me exactly how jealous Mary Morstan could be. It was not as though I was visiting brothels or propositioning women on the street. If I so much as tipped my hat to another lady, Mary would not let it go, but would carry on weeping and nagging until I swore upon my soul that I had eyes for no woman but her. Only then would she be mollified. My reassurances, however, had no lasting effect. There would be a next time, and the drama would repeat.


Because my profession sometimes required me to see women behind closed doors, she insisted that I always have a nurse present during examinations. A reasonable precaution against innuendos and accusations that might ruin my career, I thought, readily agreeing. Then she became jealous of my nurse, a woman of more age than beauty, and insisted that I discharge her in favour of someone less seductive. Eventually, it seemed as if my only recourse would be to serve as a physician to an order of monks.


Of course, Mary did not suspect my inclinations.


“She will not need to know.” Holmes set his empty glass on the sideboard and let his hands wander down my chest. “I have spent three years away from you, John, three years during which I thought only of you, waiting for the day we could be reunited. I will not be deprived of you now.” He began to unbutton my flies.


* * *


Late that night, I lay in his bed, unwilling to remove myself from his embrace. I had given myself over to the inevitability of Holmes, as if he were a gravitational field or an astronomical event outside of my control, but I was not as confident as he that such an unconventional relationship could work, especially in light of what Mary had recently told me.
This I pondered as he gently stroked my back.


“When is the child due?” he asked.


I lifted my head, looking into his face. “You knew?”


“I’ve been watching your house for days, Watson. I saw her.”


“But she is barely — how could you tell?”


“I learned her destination. She went to see a colleague of yours, one H. E. Williams, obstetrician. Of course, you would insist on a doctor, not a midwife. So… six months?” His hand slid between us, exploring my manhood.


I hummed in surprise at his touch. “Yes, she is just barely into her second trimester. Holmes, I do not see how this will work.”


“Babies are born every day, Watson. Most of them find their way into the world with few complications. Do not worry yourself.” He flipped me onto my back and began to flick his tongue into my navel. My manhood was now fully alert, ready for a second round.


“No, I mean — you and I… and Mary and I… and the child.”


“We are friends, my dear man, and as such it is a reasonable expectation that we will spend time together. Surely even your green-eyed wife will allow you some masculine company.” He grasped my prick and gave it an exploratory stroke. “You will continue to do your duty by her, and keep your promise to me as well. No incompatibility between these commitments.”


I groaned and pressed against him. “I must soon return home. What will I say to her? She is already concocting stories in her mind. She will interrogate me about my lateness, as she always does, and she will know if I am lying.”


He kissed me, gently biting my lower lip. “Tell her the truth.”


At this, I laughed bitterly. “Oh, of course. Brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll just say, Sorry I’m so late dear, but I ran into an old friend and we ended up having carnal relations for half the night. I’m sure that will lay her fears to rest.”


“You have a character that demands honesty of yourself, Watson. Never a credible liar, my love, you are inclined to see all situations as choices between good and evil.” He smiled fondly. “Obviously, you will not tell her the entire truth. It will serve no purpose, and concealing some aspects of the truth from her will actually be much kinder. Simply tell her, I ran into an old friend. She will assume the rest. Old friends are known to talk for hours.” He began to stroke the inside of my thigh.


“Mmm. Will she accept this half-truth?”


He propped himself up on one elbow and looked at me, still fondling me. “I do know the lady, Watson. In fact, I probably understand her far better than you do. Don't look at me so, Watson. You have — and I say this with the utmost affection — a gullible nature. The day she brought her case to us, I already saw that she would eventually make a play for your heart.” He chuckled in the semi-darkness. “Or at least your libido.” He slid down my body, took me into his mouth and pleasured me for a few moments.


“Never my heart, Sherlock,” I whispered, breathless. “You know why I married her.”


He left off pleasuring me, went back to fondling. “Of course. She is a woman of guile, and you are a man of honour. All this was clear to me on that day. I’m only surprised that it took her so long to seduce you.”


“It was for you that I avoided her for so long. I grieved for you, Holmes. I could not give myself to anyone. I only kissed her because… I suppose I’d had a bit to drink.” I gasped as he slid first one, then two fingers inside of me. “I give myself to you alone. No woman, no man — only you.”


He rolled on top of me, inserted the third finger. Then he was in me, gently sliding into the place I would only ever give to him.


“Let us grieve no more, my love,” he said, settling deep inside me. “I will never leave you again.”


Had I not lost the power of speech, I would have replied, Nor I. Never again.


* * *


“You’ve been drinking.” Mary frowned at me. “But not in a pub. An old friend? What old friend?” She knew all my mates from Edinburgh, Oxford, and Barts, at least by name, and she had met many of my army friends at our wedding. I could see her mind spinning through that index of names. “And you’ve washed.”


Of course I had washed. It would not do for my wife’s keen nose to pick up the smell of what another man had done to me. “I stayed over, had a wash-up this morning.”


“You haven’t answered me.” She gave me the look, the one that peered into the dark corners of my soul. “Who is this old friend? Come, John. You fairly reek of guilt and shame. If you’ve been visiting one of your old haunts, I shall find out.”


“My dear, nothing like that,” I felt my traitorous face flush. “You know that for me, there is no woman but you.” This was a part of the truth.


A tear came to her eye. “I’m sorry to be so jealous. It’s foolish, I know. But I see the way women look at you. You are a handsome man, John, and so susceptible to flattery, so agreeable to suggestion, I sometimes worry that you will be drawn into an affair.”


This assessment of my character quickly made me defensive. She thinks me weak and foolish. Without considering what it would mean, I offered proof of my (supposed) fidelity.


“Well,” I said, smiling. “You will be surprised to know who my old friend is — I was certainly surprised to see him. Shocked, even. Sherlock Holmes, my dear — he has returned. I spent the night at his flat. Re-living the old days, as it were.” Again, all true.


She did look shocked, for a moment. Then suspicious. “Had he managed to return from the dead, that story would be on the front page of every newspaper. What are you saying, John? That he has been in hiding these three years? For what purpose?”


“He has not revealed himself yet, except to me, his brother, and our landlady. I cannot say more.” I knelt down and kissed her hand. “Mary, he is my dearest friend, returned from the dead. We had much to talk about.”


She smiled then, and kissed me. Briefly, I recalled the sensation of another pair of lips and almost shuddered.


“Of course, John. We will have him over to dinner.”


* * *


I went in to the surgery the following morning. My first patient was already waiting outside when I arrived, an elderly man, white-haired and bent over, demanding treatment for a boil on his buttocks. I confess that lancing boils is not a favourite part of my job, but people who suffer from these painful afflictions can scarcely be blamed for their ailment. I approach them with the same kindness with which I treat anyone, whether young or old, male or female.


“You are most kind to relieve my anguish,” he said in heavily accented English.


“If you will just lower your trousers and bend over, Mister Loveridge, I will endeavour to make you more comfortable.”


The gypsy did as I asked. “Please, Doctor Watson, relieve my anguish. I suffer so.”


No sooner had I laid eyes on that posterior than I recognised who it was. “Indeed, sir,” I said, “your affliction is obvious.”


I dismissed my nurse and locked the door behind her. “By all the gods, Holmes,” I said. “Do you expect me to give you satisfaction here?”


“My dear Watson,” he said with a devilish smile, “I do what I must to relieve my anguish. As you have caused it, so perhaps you are the cure for my ailment.”


“You’re mad,” I said, smiling in spite of myself. “I suppose you enjoy observing how easily I can be deceived by a grey wig and a crooked back.”


He chuckled. “You are just as trusting as ever, my boy. In part, that is why I am here in disguise. I must caution you not to come to Baker Street.”


“How am I to see you if you insist that I keep away from you? You cannot suddenly pop back into my life and then warn me to keep away!”


“You will see me when you see me. It will be dangerous for you to be seen going to the flat. Will you promise?”


“But why? Surely any reasonable person would expect —”


“I am not considering reasonable people, Watson. I am considering the criminal mind. I am considering the people I have been pursuing these past three years, the people who forced me to go into exile.”


His words did not put me at ease. Holmes had shared with me some of his harrowing adventures of the past three years. Moriarty himself was dead, he assured me, but there were those who continued his work through the web-like organisation he had built. For three years, Holmes had hunted them down and brought them to justice. Now, only one remained, a person whose name he had not yet learned. His return to London was in part an attempt to draw this criminal out and make him show his cards, he said. So far, he had not succeeded in this venture.


“You say people. Before, you told me that there was just one person left.”


“One person who has brought all of Moriarty’s agents into a single fold. This is an unusual person, Watson, a patient schemer not willing to lose all in one go.” He sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. “Do you not see, Watson? I am not the only one they seek. They will target you, as well, if they think they can get to me by hurting you. Promise me you will not come to Baker Street unless I call for you.”


I drew myself up. “There was a time when you trusted me to protect you, Holmes. Have I ever failed you under attack?”


He smiled and tilted my face towards his. “You have never lacked courage, my dear chap. Even without your sidearm, you are a formidable opponent. No, John, you have never failed me in the face of that type of danger. This danger, however, is of a different sort. You will not see it coming nor recognise it as it looks you in the eye. This danger will insinuate itself in such a way that you will have no suspicions.”


I gave a short laugh. “You make it sound as if this one person could be the ghost of Moriarty, haunting us.”


He smiled grimly. “Not a ghost. Promise me you will stay away. I am endeavouring to keep my return concealed as long as possible. You did not mention it to Mrs Watson, did you?”


I blanched. “I did as you said, just called you an old friend, but she was suspicious even so. Her jealousy is like… a force of nature. She threatens to harm herself, and I could not let it proceed to that —”


He looked at me curiously. “Has she ever threatened you?”


“No. She has, on occasion, struck me — but it was, perhaps, deserved. I provoked her.”


“So… You told her that I was the old friend you’d been with.”


“She was becoming agitated. She noticed that I’d been drinking, that I’d bathed… In order to allay her fears, yes, I told her it was you. I said that we talked until late and I stayed over because of the hour. Nothing more. She accepted that — she even said we should have you to dinner. She is my wife, Holmes! She is not a gossip. Surely you cannot believe that it would be a risk for me to tell her this.”


He put his arms around me. “It’s just as well. I could not conceal my return much longer.”


“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought it was all right — I did not want her to be angry…”


“Do not be disturbed, love,” he whispered. “I’m sure it was not wrong to tell her.” His kiss made my knees weaken. “Now, Doctor, about my affliction…”


* * *


A few days later, I came home from work to find the table set for three.


“Tonight we are entertaining,” Mary announced, placing cut flowers in a vase. “Your dearest friend, Sherlock Holmes, is coming to dinner.” She frowned at me. “The cutaway, I think. Wear the pearl cufflinks. I had your black shoes shined.”


“You contacted him, then,” I said, feeling foolish.


“I was out running errands and stopped by his flat.” She gave me a tight smile. “John, get dressed! Now, please.”


Anticipating an awkward evening, I poured some Scotch into a glass and quickly downed it. Mary didn’t like my drinking, but lately she hadn’t been kissing me, so I wasn’t concerned. I dressed as she had commanded. When the bell rang, I opened the door.


He looked elegant. Smiling, he pulled me into a brotherly hug. “You gorgeous man,” he murmured into my ear. “I want to undress you.”


Mary entered, crying her greetings. “So glad you were available,” she said, kissing the air as she embraced him lightly.


Most people see Sherlock Holmes as a taciturn, asocial, even arrogant. He does not enjoy the social interactions that most people crave, and can certainly act above his company when forced to spend an evening with people he considers unworthy of his time and attention. His intellect is much to blame for his lack of manners. He understands social convention, and can conform when necessary (e.g. for a case), but finds it incomprehensible that any sane man of above normal intelligence should waste time on such play-acting. He generally says what he thinks without apology.


Because of this brashness, it took me years to learn that he is somewhat diffident in society, lacking confidence that he will be liked. This shyness he seeks to conceal under indifference. When I began to understand that his haughty demeanour concealed a bashful heart, it endeared him to me immeasurably. That such a great man, a great mind, could have doubts about his amiability makes me swoon a bit.


He is also an excellent actor, and that is the social animal I observed the evening of our dinner.


He brought wine, made every effort to charm Mary, flattering her a bit, even suggesting that I was fortunate to have acquired such a wife. She received all this with pleasure and responded in kind, reminding him of how grateful she was that he had taken her as a client and solved her mystery. “But even had you failed to solve it, I would have considered myself satisfied nonetheless, if only because you brought my dear John to me.” She smiled, laying her hand on my arm a bit possessively.


“Then perhaps you will consider naming your firstborn after me,” he said, grinning mischievously. “William Sherlock Scott Holmes. You may pick any or all of these.”


She was vexed. Turning to me, she said, “You told him. I asked you not to tell anyone until it could no longer be concealed.”


“My dear, he is my friend. When I told him of our marriage, my joy was so great that had I not reported this bit of news, he would have read it in my face. I have always been utterly transparent to Sherlock Holmes. He knows my every secret without being told.”


She was not pacified by this declaration but, ever the mistress of her emotions, within seconds she had smoothed her face into a pleasant smile. She regarded Sherlock archly. “If it should be a girl, I’m afraid none of your names will do.”


He leaned towards her with a roguish smile. “You know, Sherlock is actually a girl’s name.”


She let out a gale of laughter, laying her hand on his arm. “You are such a wit, Mr Holmes! I don’t know how I shall keep my composure when you are around. We must see you often now that you have returned. My dear John adores you, and I can see that you find him indispensable as well.”


I felt my face colour a bit and looked at Holmes to see if he found her observation as disconcerting as I did. He merely took her hand and kissed it. “My dear lady, it is as if you can see into my heart.”

Chapter Text

When we had seen him into a cab, Mary turned to me, narrowing her eyes. “Do not embarrass me, John.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, surprised. Thinking back over our evening, I tried to recall what words I might have spoken that had so annoyed her.

“Sherlock Holmes may be a great dissembler, but your shameful heart is an open book.” Her eyes were icy. “Any indiscretion, even minor, and I will ruin you.”

“Indiscretion?” I was beginning to understand, but playing the fool has always come easy to me. Perhaps that is because I am a bit of a fool. “My dear—”

“You know what I mean. You are a fool. Do not draw attention to your foolishness.”

Confirmed: I am a fool. “But — our child!”

“Sympathy will be on my side. I will take everything.”

“Are you asking me to leave?”

“Don't be simple-minded. Your departure would seem to confirm that you and he —” she pressed her lips together, a tight line. “We will carry on as we have begun. He will be a frequent guest here, and you will continue to assist him in his work. But you will not sully this house by indulging your perversion under its roof. Am I understood?”

I nodded.

“You will sleep in the guest room.” She turned and walked away, leaving me to my thoughts, which were disconcerting.

* * *

I desperately needed to smoke. Since Mary had forbidden me to indulge in that foul-smelling vice in our house, I put on my greatcoat and stepped outside. Perhaps I would take a walk around the park. I thought about going to Baker Street, but I had promised Holmes not to go there. And I remembered Mary’s words — her threats —regarding indiscretion. I could not be seen going to visit him too often.

At the park, I sat on a bench, dug out my pouch and filled my pipe. I found myself in an untenable position: married, but estranged; in love, but apart. While I did not foresee restoring relations with Mary, there was the child to think about. How could I reconcile my dark desires with the decent reputation my child deserved? Even if I foreswore seeing Holmes, Mary was convinced that I was tainted. No, she would not have me back in her bed, even if I had wanted it.

I lit my pipe, drew on it until the bowl glowed. As I puffed, I ought to have felt calmer, but instead my mind took off, imagining all manner of horrible outcomes. Things were not yet as bad as they might soon become, I realised. A respectable woman like Mary, to whom I had become repulsive, would hardly let me see my child. We might live together for the remaining weeks of her pregnancy, but surely she would go away once the child was born, probably to some relative, or perhaps a spa, where she could regain her health after the birth. There she would no doubt connect with other men, find a suitable husband for herself, a step-father for my child, and cut ties permanently. At that point, she would no longer care about my reputation. I might lose my job, my career, everything.

What might she tell people? What secrets might she whisper in the ear of my successor? My husband is a monster, an invert, a homosexual…

Would my child ever know me — most likely the only child I would ever have? She might tell it that I had died, give it the surname of its new father so it would never know of my existence. When she first had told me the news, I was delighted, imagining the tiny babe smiling up at me, toddling around the house, giggling as I lifted it into my arms. Now that the reality of it had set in, I longed to be a father, to see my offspring grow to adulthood.

But that image had faded. It was not to be.

I would send a note to Holmes in the morning, I decided, ostensibly to thank him for the wine and suggest a lunch appointment or some such thing. I could speak my mind only in his flat, I supposed, where we would not be overheard, but that was one place I could not go. Mary might allow us to continue our friendship, but it was torture not to be able to see one another freely. We’d always been careful, knowing that our secret could ruin us both, but living together for so long had given us an illusion that we could have the things that normal men desired — open affection, physical contact, and freedom of expression. These things were now denied to us.

If only he had returned sooner, I thought.

* * *

I was surprised the following morning at surgery when I received a note inviting me to meet Holmes in a private room at the Diogenes Club, where his brother was a member. I cancelled my appointments and went at once. He was already there when I arrived, drinking a cup of tea and chatting with his brother.

Mycroft has but one countenance, which he uses for all occasions: mostly smarmy with a touch of arrogance. I have long known that he considers me something of an imbecile. When my relationship with Holmes began to change from flatmate to lover, he gave his opinion — within my hearing. “Sherlock, your vanity about this little man is perplexing. He is handsome enough, but quite ordinary in every other respect. You will soon weary of his flattery, his tedious little brain, and his ridiculous manners. It would be a kindness to break his heart now, before he is overly attached to you.”

Holmes had naturally defended me. “He may not himself be luminous, but he is my conductor of light.” I have never forgotten how wounded I felt at Mycroft’s words, nor how moved I was at Holmes’s acknowledgement of my value. I know that to be luminous does not lie within my talents and abilities, but I have always endeavoured to be of service to my dearest friend.

I had not expected to see Mycroft today. He was rarely present on those few occasions when Sherlock and I had met someone at the club.

As I entered the room, he nodded to me. “Welcome, Doctor. I was just reminding my brother that sentiment is a chemical defect found on the losing side. Clearly, his affection for you has clouded his reason. Let’s hope that he can keep the two of you out of danger.” He gave me a disdainful look. “And how is your dear wife?”

“Well,” I said. No other person can so swiftly tie my tongue as Mycroft Holmes.

He rose. “Pleased to hear it. I’ll leave you to whatever business brings you here, then.”

When the door had closed behind him, Holmes poured me a cup of tea. “He’s wrong, you know.”

I nodded absently and drank my tea. My left hand, always affected by anxiety, shook.

Noting my distress, he smiled sadly. “So, Watson, your wife is not very forgiving.”

“You knew?”

“As I indicated last night, the lady and I understand one another perfectly. It is to the benefit of both of us to share you.”

“She has the upper hand, however,” I pointed out. “She has my child.”

“True, but if she throws you out, she risks her reputation, her own economic security and that of the child. In her eyes, I am worse than any female competitor. She knows that if she keeps you from me, I can make her miserable.”

“How?” I asked. “Are you speaking of blackmail? For God’s sake, Holmes, what are you withholding from me?”

“Blackmail? Of course not, dear fellow. I despise a blackmailer, and would not stoop to become one. Not even for you, John. What I meant is that she wishes to maintain the sham of a happy marriage. For that, she requires a cooperative husband. The person who can best influence this condition in you is me. It’s a delicate dance, keeping you content, not letting you slip towards rebellion. She sees the child as a way to keep you bound to her, but recognises that I can keep you happy. If you rebel, she will withhold the child from you. If she prevents us from having intercourse (social or sexual), she may find herself in a battle. It is a battle that she could easily win, but not without damage. She cares only about her reputation, and will go far to avoid a divorce.” He smiled. “It’s actually a brilliant arrangement. She is the perfect beard for an invert who fears discovery.”

“And what if she is no longer willing to play her part — the beard, as you put it? She is young and attractive enough to throw her net over another man.”

“As she did you,” he said, sipping his tea. “I am sorry, Watson. I would to God that you had married any woman other than Mary Morstan. She is quite mercenary and cunning, quite capable of netting another man, as you put it, or perhaps a string of men.”

The thought of my child dragged through a series of different fathers was too much for me. I stood and began pacing. “I cannot bear this — all this deception — I never intended—” To my embarrassment, I began to weep.

“Come, Watson,” he said, pulling me into his lap. “I have distressed you. It quite incenses me to see you treated thus, when you deserve so much better. I should have warned you about her before I left.” He kissed my temple.

I leaned against him, overcome with my own shame. “You say this as though I were a good man being wronged by an evil woman, when in fact I am the corruption, the perversion, the evil vice that will shadow my child's life. She has done nothing to deserve such a husband. I cannot blame her for being angry.”

“She is not a good woman, Watson. You, however, are a good man. The vice you refer to is merely a social convention, a decision by the majority to oppress a minority. The church first labeled us as sinners. Now science will have us as diseased, mentally ill. All of this is codswallop. We are not insane; neither are we wicked. Someday this will be recognised. Urarian love will be accepted as noble and right. Indeed, an Englishman named Havelock Ellis has just published — in German — a study of sexual inversion that is quite progressive—“

“What good are books to us, Holmes?” I cried. “We may lose our reputations, even our liberty, if she decides to ruin us. Oscar Wilde is in Reading Gaol. I am afraid. We are not safe.”

He kissed my forehead, my temple, my nose. “My fearless Watson, you know that our plan has never been to be safe. If it were, you would not be with me, and we would not be chasing down criminals. We are not made for safety, you and I. We are men of action, men who crave adventure as other men crave alcohol. This is our arena, Watson. We must gird ourselves and prepare to fight.”

I had never heard him speak so heroically. Tears stung my eyes. “Thank you,” I said. “I will not disappoint you.”

“You never do, Watson.”

* * *

When I finally returned home, Mary was suspicious. This was nothing new. I could not have imagined otherwise. She always interrogated me when I returned home, desiring to know who I’d seen, how I’d spent my time.

“So. You were at the Diogenes Club — with him?”

“Yes, and his brother. My dear, I was not indiscreet. You said I may not bring him under this roof, but you did not forbid me to see him. In fact, you seemed to encourage it.”

She struck me, full force, across the face. “You are rubbing this in my face, husband. Not that you deserve such a title. A real husband would tend to his wife, not run about in broad daylight with his paramour.”

I felt myself flush. “Then you do not wish me to see him? Or invite him to dine with us?”

“Let me handle this. You will botch it up and embarrass us both. I will tell you when you may see him and when we will entertain him.”

I squared my shoulders. “He is my friend. Surely I am allowed to have a friend?”

She struck me again and ground her heel into my toes.

I bore up, did not fall to pieces. Inside, however, I was in a torrent of emotion. Was I, a man, to let my wife treat me thus? Apparently, I was under her thumb, a spineless excuse for a man.

* * *

This became our life together. We did not converse; she interrogated and I equivocated. She struck me for any minor offence — arriving home late, wearing the waistcoat she did not like, making noises while reading the newspaper, humming in the bath, thanking the cook too effusively, smelling like tobacco, frowning without reasonable cause — and I withdrew. After dinner each night, she retired to our suite, now off limits to me, and I retired to my study, where I stared into the fire and pretended to read medical journals.

Some evenings we had guests, people we had met socially. On these occasions, we gave every appearance of being a normal, happy, expectant couple. She would give me fond looks, and I would kiss her hand.

I grew more and more despondent.

Days went by and I did not hear from Holmes. This intensified my depression. To be hated by my wife was difficult, but I have known many respectable marriages with little love. It was possible to imagine us thirty years hence, silently sharing breakfast, still married. But being deprived of the company of my dearest friend was intolerable. I felt so alone, even more alone than I had felt in the three years previous.

* * *

I left the surgery rather late one evening and hurried towards home, certain I would receive a beating, or at least a scolding. Recently, she had taken to throwing things at me, a great drain on our budget as more and more crockery smashed against the walls. Her aim was good. If I did not duck quickly enough, I would surely be sporting a bruise or a cut the following day.

On this particular day, I took a shortcut down an alley, hoping to catch an omnibus on the main road ahead. Seeing the ‘bus at the kerb, I began to run, when I felt myself grabbed from behind.

Panicking, I struck at my assailant, but to no avail. He held me firmly. Realising I was caught, I asked myself what Holmes might do in a similar situation. Notice everything and try to deduce a means of escape.

The man was taller than me by at least six inches, but of no great bulk. His arms were wiry and strong. He smelled of tobacco and a rather pungent bay rum cologne. His clothing was cheap, his cuffs worn, his work boots spattered with mud. The hands that gripped me were gloved. I reached back towards his face, intending to gouge him, but before I could touch him, he had restrained my hands and shoved me against the wall. I surveyed my surroundings. The alley was almost entirely dark now, and I saw no passersby on the street at either end. Even if I were to cry for help, no one would hear me.

“Take my notecase, if you must,” I said.

The man did not speak, but inserted his hand into my trouser pocket.

“The coat pocket,” I said.

His hand continued to grope around in my front trouser pocket, finally seizing on my member. He hissed in my ear, “Do not move or make a sound.”

I felt something pressing into my back, a knife perhaps, or maybe the muzzle of a gun. At this point I would have begun to beg for my life, but he had warned me against making any sound, so I kept silent.

He unbuttoned my flies, and I understood what was about to happen. My breath quickened, but I did not cry out. Nor did I faint.

I have heard of men in moments of extreme danger feeling a strange sense of removal from their physical surroundings. Such was not the case with me. I felt everything that happened, but, strangely, not with terror. My attacker was gentle, almost courteous. He had come prepared with some ointment that made the entry of his fingers into my hole comfortable. He probed around with his finger, finding my prostate. When he finally entered me with his prick, I nearly cried out in gratitude. As he pushed in, he grabbed my member, which was at full attention, and stroked it. I felt a sense of urgency such as I have rarely felt. His release and mine came almost simultaneously. I panted, feeling as if all my bones had turned to rubber. He kept his arms around me, steadying me as I swayed.

In a moment, he fastened my flies and released me. I fell to my knees in the muck as I heard him fumbling to button his own flies. He lifted me to my feet again and attempted to brush the dirt off my trousers. He summoned a cab, helped me inside, his face still cloaked behind his mask. He handed coins to the driver. Then he was gone.

By the time I arrived home, I felt calmer, and hoped that my face was not flushed.

Mary glared at me when I came through the door, making my apology. Her eyes fell on my trousers. “You have got dirt on your knees,” she said contemptuously. “What were you doing, gardening?”

“I stumbled as I was running for the ‘bus,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed. “Do take more care, husband. With a baby on the way, we cannot afford new trousers for you. When they are dry, give them to Margaret so she can brush them.”

I did not receive a beating that night.

* * *

I do not recall the moment when my suspicions first began to appear. Mary was the same with me as she had been — appearing only at breakfast and our evening meal, irritated at nearly everything I said or did. But there was something different. She seemed more content, less inclined to argue. Puzzled and a bit suspicious, I put my somewhat paltry deductive skills to work.

I noticed dried mud in the entryway. Holmes would have been able to tell me what street that mud had come from, what kind of shoe had brought it to my house, and probably deduced the profession of its wearer.

In the bedroom (which I inspected while she was at the green grocer) I found ash, apparently from a cigarette. Holmes could have told me the type, the manufacturer, and the source of the tobacco. He would have known which shops carried it, the names of the shopkeepers, and how many children they had.

The mud could have been brought in by a delivery man, I thought, though rarely do they step over the threshold. It had rained overnight and into the morning. In order to avoid a scolding, I generally removed my shoes before crossing the threshold. I was certain I had not brought mud into the house.

As for the ash: women (of our acquaintance, at least) do not often smoke cigarettes. Since Mary had forbidden me to use tobacco in the house, it could only have been brought there by a man. A man who was, presumably, invited into our bedroom.

The conclusion was clear. My wife was having an affair. The only thing that remained to be determined was who the man was.

* * *

Sitting in the park with my pipe later that night, I pondered how to proceed. I could stake out the house, watching from nearby to see who entered. To do that I would need to take time off from the surgery. Mary would undoubtedly find out if I did this.

Then I hit on an idea that might not only free me from the surgery for a few days, but also tempt her to invite her lover to visit.

I had been invited to a medical conference in Edinburgh, which would take place a couple of weeks hence. I would tell her it was important for me to attend, and that my employer permitted — no, required me to be gone for the several days of the conference. Concealment would be necessary, perhaps even a disguise, to avoid her notice. As I had a couple of weeks to prepare, I was not worried.

* * *

The following day, as I was preparing to leave the surgery, a patient showed up. My nurse had already left, but I saw no reason not to see him. He was tall and thin, with the dark complexion of an Indian. He wore an English suit, but a turban covered his hair. For some reason, I thought of Mr Loveridge, my patient with the boil.

He introduced himself.

“How can I help you, Mr Singh?”

Mr Singh admitted, with some embarrassment, that he was having a urinary problem. “I cannot make water, doctor,” he said in heavily-accented English.

I examined him. “I notice a certain… rigidity in your member,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” he replied. “Can you help?”

A cure was soon effected.

“If the problem recurs, do not hesitate to come back,” I told him.

* * *

I returned home. As I arrived, Mary was putting on her coat, preparing to go out. She seemed to be in a good mood, and did not question my lateness.

“Where are you going?” I asked. I had not known her to have evening activities before.

“Oh, do not worry, my darling,” she said, smiling sweetly. “The Society for the Betterment of Orphans has a speaker this evening at Victory Hall. I promised Mrs Bellows that I would attend. I shall not be out late. Margaret has dinner ready for you.”

It occurred to me that I might follow her and determine whether she was telling the truth. “Have a lovely time, dear,” I said, pretending to have lost interest.

I went upstairs to change out of my work clothes. I put on a pair of dark trousers and jacket. She had left by the time I came downstairs. It was a cold evening. Putting on my herringbone ulster coat and my bowler, I went out. 

My evening was not productive, however. There were many ladies present at Victory Hall, too many to discern one small, blonde woman in a dark coat and hat. In fact, there were so few men that I felt conspicuous. The program went on and on, the woman speaker vehemently exhorting the audience to take action against the increasing numbers of orphans. Her foremost idea was that orphans be loaded in boxcars and driven to the countryside, where they could be employed in healthful and economically useful labor in the out of doors. She also suggested that birth control should be made available to all women likely to die in poverty, lest they leave their orphaned children to the care of the community. I wondered that she did not recommend Mr Swift’s modest proposal. Not fully comprehending how the orphans currently crowding the streets could benefit from birth control, I proceeded home, had my dinner, and went to bed.

Perhaps I had given up too soon, but I did not want to arouse her suspicions. There was no point in tipping my hand yet. I slipped Margaret a half-crown to keep my outing confidential. 

* * *

On the following morning, as I was leaving for work, I noticed footprints in the garden, obviously male, larger than my own feet. The soles looked like those of a work boot. Since it had not rained during the night, they must have been made the previous day or evening. I examined the side of the house and found markings on the siding, as if someone had ascended and climbed in through a window.

Conclusion: Someone had waited in the bushes, then climbed through the window to our second storey.

Now my thoughts were in a tangle, and I wished that I had Holmes to help me decipher the clues. Mary had gone out, I had followed her, and a man had entered our house. Yet nothing was taken? I had returned before Mary and found no one in the house besides Margaret.

Perhaps Margaret had a lover, I thought. 

* * *

I was accosted again two days later as I left the hospital, having visited a patient of mine who’d just had his appendix removed. He was doing well, so I left him to his rest and headed out to find a cab.

One appeared at once, and I got in, giving my address to the cabbie. It was only after several minutes that I realised the cabbie was not heading to my destination. Instead, we seemed to be driving through an unsavoury part of town. It was then that I took a moment to notice the cabbie. He was tall and narrow, wearing a wool tweed cap such as cabbies often wear, pulled low over his forehead. His features I could not see well except for a rather long Roman nose.

I banged on the roof of the cab. “Oi! You’re going the wrong way!”

He paid no attention. I waited to see where he would take me. After about ten minutes, he pulled over in a deserted area.

“Step out of the cab, Doctor,” he said in a raspy voice. “Keep your back to me.”

I stepped down, carefully, making sure I didn’t look at his face. “Please,” I said, “Don’t hurt me. I’ll cooperate. My notecase—”

He laughed, a coarse, sinister bark, and shoved something against my back. “Walk towards the building.”

It was an abandoned warehouse, one I remembered from a case Holmes and I had worked on several years earlier. I was attempting to recall the floor plan, thinking how I might escape, when he covered my eyes with a blindfold.

This complicated things, but my hope was not entirely gone. He prodded my back with his gun (it was a muzzle, I felt sure, not a blade). I walked forward, following his directions to step up, turn, and walk forward.

The attack was much the same as the last time. I did not resist, considering it futile to deny a man with a gun.

Afterwards, still blindfolded, I asked, “Clearly you’ve been following me. Why?”

He pulled up my trousers and reached around to button my flies. His voice was low and gravelly. “Perhaps I fancy you.”

He drove me home, letting me off a block from my house.

Mary was at the front door when I arrived. “Late again?” she said irritably.

“I had to stop at the hospital,” I said.

We ate dinner in silence. I slept well that night, alone in the guest bed.

* * *

I had not heard from Sherlock Holmes in over a week.

* * *

Another week went by, and I prepared to leave for Edinburgh. I had, of course, no intention of going to Scotland. Rather, I was staying in a cheap inn close to my home. I had settled on a couple of places where I could post myself, in disguise (of course), and watch my house.

Holmes had often worked under cover. I had begged him more than once to take me on those excursions, but he had always declined, saying that my safety was his first concern. One man undercover might evade notice. Two men undercover invited discovery. With growing excitement, I contemplated my ruse.

Mary seemed almost cheerful as I packed. “This has been a hard time for us, John. I know I have been difficult to live with.” She sighed, touching the corner of her eye with a handkerchief. “Perhaps when you return, we can work on restoring the joy we once had.”

“Of course,” I said, surprised at her emotion. “I will do whatever you wish.”

I did not seriously consider a reconciliation possible, especially if she was having an affair, but I wanted to be open-minded. Holmes had always valued this quality in me.

I disguised myself as a working-class fellow, taking a page from Holmes’s book. He had a plethora of disguises, gleaned from I know not where. I visited a used clothing store, where I picked up a pair of worn woollen trousers, a tweed waistcoat, a grey jacket with elbow patches, and a pair of workman’s boots with the heels worn down. Though I prided myself on my sartorial choices, I had grown up in disadvantaged circumstances and remembered my father wearing such items as he went to his factory job. I topped off my get-up with a soft cap. I contemplated shaving my moustache, but I had long prided myself on its length and fullness, and could not imagine how I would explain its absence to Mary. Instead, I allowed my beard to grow. My unshaven stubble gave me a scruffy look. Ordinarily I am meticulous about my appearance. As I looked into the mirror, I knew that no one would recognise the disreputable fellow staring back at me.

The first two days, I had no luck. I walked around the block, sat in the park, loitered outside the local pub, as if I were awaiting a friend. All this earned me was glares from local tradesmen who were convinced that I was planning a break-in. One threatened to send for the constable if I did not move on.

On the third day, I spied a man at my door. When Mary opened the door, he handed her a message. She tipped him, but did not send a reply. An hour later, she left the house and caught a cab. I also caught a cab, but it was too late to catch her. I considered all the times Holmes and I had followed people in cabs, and wondered how he had mastered the secret of summoning a cab out of thin air. It is a stock device of the fiction writer, but not as easy as it appears.

The following day, I paid a cab to stand by, around the corner, but she did not leave the house. I suppose it was money wasted, but reminded myself nothing ventured, nothing gained. I determined to do it again the following day.

The day after that, with my supposed trip to Edinburgh drawing to a close, I waited, cab at the ready, and saw a man enter my house via the front door. Mary received him, and it seemed that as the door closed, I saw them embrace.

Now I was on fire, determined to prove her infidelity, to divorce her and restore my life to what it had been before she seduced me. I paid the cab and dismissed it, then tried to imagine what was happening inside the house so I could plan how to surprise them. She would bring her paramour to our room, our bed, they would recline and begin their tryst. Would they disrobe? Would they exchange endearments, stroke one another amorously? I did not know what she might demand of a lover. She had never demanded much of me after our wedding night, but I had always thought that her natural delicacy prevented her from enjoying marital relations too enthusiastically. Clearly she had deceived me. A woman does not take a lover for the conversation.

After seven minutes (time to disrobe and recline, I estimated), I entered the house silently. The first floor was empty, but I could hear sounds upstairs. Mary laughed and said darling; a baritone voice replied. I had my gun tucked into the waistband of my trousers. I pulled it out, cocked it and made sure it was ready to fire. I would not shoot unless the man’s reaction was violent. If he attacked me, I was ready to defend myself. I reasoned that an English jury would certainly acquit me. A man and his castle, and so forth.

My heart pounding, I crept up the stairs, shifting my weight step by step. It was not like going into battle, where I knew the range of expected outcomes. It was not like the times when Holmes and I had tracked a suspect and surprised him. I keenly felt the lack of any support.

At the top of the stairs, I paused, listening to the sounds from the bedroom. A feminine giggle, a masculine voice. I steeled myself, went to the door, listened more closely.

Mary was talking. “…won’t be back for two days. Idiot. He tried to follow me the other evening, you know. Just as well. Got him out of the way for a couple of hours.”

The male voice was somewhat familiar, but too low to make out most of what he was saying. “…a bit dim-witted… wouldn’t worry…”

She let out a gale of laughter. “If the worst happens, I can talk him around. He’ll do anything I say… thinks I want to reconcile…”

“Do you?”

There was a pause. For a few minutes I could not make out what they were saying. I held my breath, hearing sounds of a scuffle and imagining amorous activities.  I strained to catch any words, fearing that I might hear moans and whimpers. I ought to catch them in flagrante, I thought, but suddenly found myself wavering.

Abruptly, their voices became loud enough to hear, and I recognised that the situation had changed. They seemed to be arguing now.

“Will you give me the information?” she asked. Information?

The man’s voice replied, “You know my price. Are you attempting to barter?”

“Here is my offer: tell me what you know and I will let you live.” The bed creaked; someone had gotten up. A metallic click. A gun?

The man laughed. “You’re not going to kill me. My death could make things very awkward for you. What would your husband think?”

“He is an imbecile. He will think what I tell him to think.”

“You can’t kill me,” the male voice repeated evenly. “I have the information. What is the point in killing me when I can be so useful to you?”

“Not useful enough. And you know too much.”

“Darling—”

I know that voice, I thought. No longer hesitating, I reacted, bursting through the door with my gun ready.

The scene that met my eyes was not what I expected. Mary, holding a gun on her paramour. Her paramour, smiling grimly, in shirtsleeves, but without trousers — Sherlock Holmes?

Two gunshots.

Two bodies.

Chapter Text

I sat in Lestrade’s office for a long time, contemplating the turn of events that would inevitably lead to my ruin.

Mary was dead, by my own hand. I would at the very least go to prison for murder, if not be hanged.

Mary had shot Holmes, her lover. Whether he lived or died, my life was over.

My heart, that useless organ, was like a lead weight in my chest. I could feel it pumping vainly, almost as if it were unaware that it was broken. Like a machine, it would continue ticking, regardless of how pointless its function had become. What good is it to feel love, when it is built on deceit? Once again, my heart had led me to unfounded conclusions and poor judgment. Whenever Holmes decried emotions as unfounded in data or facts, my reaction had ever been to scoff. Love is like faith, I told him. It requires a certain suspension of logic. As always, I had been wrong.

Logic, my dear Watson. How had I been such a fool? Holmes had always teased me about my naiveté. You’re so trusting, Watson. Naive. Gullible. I had taken such gibes in stride, reasoning that it was better to think the best of people than assume the worst, especially in matters of the heart. Now my foolish trust had earned a bitter reward. The two people I had loved most had betrayed me. One was dead, the other dying.

Waiting to hear my fate, I hung my head and wept. I no longer cared about ruin or prison or hanging. I wished that I had turned the gun on myself.

I do not know how long I wept, but when Lestrade returned I was calmer. I felt empty.

“Come, Doctor,” he said. “I will take you to see him.”

I raised my head, not comprehending. “Him?”

“Holmes has come through surgery and is resting comfortably, I’m told. His brother sends word that he’s asking for you.”

“He’s alive, then?”

“Indeed. Though Miss Morstan — that is, Mrs Watson…” He cleared his throat. “…she is an excellent markswoman who certainly could have put a bullet between his eyes, had not your sudden entrance startled her. This is Holmes’s account. The bullet went through his upper arm, which will cause him some discomfort, but ultimately not impair him in any way.”

I took this in, quietly glad that he was alive, sorrowful because it was clear, with all that had happened, that I could never see him again. How could I ever look him in the eye after such a betrayal? I felt both angry and ashamed.

“And what of me?” I asked. “Are you not arresting me — for the murder of my wife?”

“Charges will not be pressed,” he said. “You acted in self-defence. Had you not, you clearly would have been her next target.”

My brain could not form a single rational thought. “What am I to do?” I said quietly, to no one in particular. “I cannot return home. My wife, my child, my… friend… I have nothing now.” My face was wet, but inside I felt hollow.

Lestrade laid his hand on my shoulder. “There are things that should be said, Doctor, but I am not the one to say them. All this will make more sense when you have talked with Holmes.” He gestured that I should follow him. Like a man walking towards the gallows, I went.

“You seem cheerful,” I remarked as the carriage headed through the busy streets. It was raining, not uncommon for a spring day in London; black umbrellas crowded the sidewalks. In spite of the gloomy weather, Lestrade seemed almost light-hearted, like a man from whose shoulders a great weight has been lifted.

He smiled. “Moriarty’s final confederate has been uncovered. His network is being dismantled as we speak.” He leaned forward, speaking softly. “I’m not to say so until the details are all accomplished, but the success of our investigation is due to the tireless efforts of our friend, Sherlock Holmes.”

I nodded absently. “He is a busy man. Rarely sleeps. Which gives him time for many things. Many things.” I closed my eyes.

The cab let us out on Baker Street, in front of 221. Lestrade accompanied me.

I gave a short, bitter laugh. “I see. You are to guarantee my appearance.”

“He asked me to bring you. Said you might not be inclined to see him, but I should make sure you did, even if I had to put you in the darbies.”

Unwilling to air my own humiliation, I kept quiet. Heavily, I trudged up the familiar stairs leading to the flat.

Mycroft was standing at the door when I reached the top of the stairs. “So glad you’re here, Doctor. He’s been anxious to speak with you.”

I nodded. “Of course.”

Once inside, I met one of my surgical colleagues, George Asbury. We exchanged a few words as he updated me on his patient’s condition. I did not wonder that the elder Holmes had called a surgeon to the flat to attend to his brother. Sherlock abhorred hospitals, claiming that one was much likelier to die recuperating in a hospital ward than at home, due to the large number of infectious agents circulating in a building full of sick people. I did not disagree.

While Mycroft and Lestrade talked, I made my way to the bedroom, where the assisting nurse was fussing over the bandage on Holmes’s arm. He dismissed her when he saw me at the door.

“John.” He looked pale, his usually bright eyes dim with pain. I felt my heart clench on seeing him, even though I had already resolved to dismiss his explanation of the events, whatever it might be. I had caught him with my wife, without trousers. Not quite in flagrante delicto, but close. He motioned for me to close the door and sit.

I took the chair next to his bed. “I’m here, as you commanded.”

“Thank you.” I thought he looked embarrassed, perhaps even a bit frightened of me. “You must be very angry with me, Watson.”

“That is an understatement,” I said, willing my eyes to remain dry.

“I suppose it is.” He looked sad. “I want to thank you for saving my life. Even if it was not your intent to ruin her first shot, you saved me from a second shot, which undoubtedly would have killed me.”

“I didn’t think,” I said softly. “I saw her pointing the gun at you, and simply did what I always do. I protected you.”

“Yes, you do. Without fail. My brave Watson, always rushing in with temerity, ready to protect this fool.”

“Spare me your sentiment, Holmes,” I choked out. “I have no use for empty words.”

“That’s fair,” he said. “Then I will tell you everything, and you may judge for yourself whether my words are empty. Will you hear me?” He gazed evenly at me.

I stared back into those pale eyes, thinking of how I had loved his face. “I will, if only to honour what was once between us.”

He nodded. “Very well. As I have already told you, I returned to London with the intention of digging out the remaining roots of Moriarty’s organisation. All the others had been dispatched, but one. The final operative was known directly only to Moriarty. Once he was gone, this individual continued to operate, and as each limb was hacked off — Parker, the Larrabees, Moran, Mortimer, and so many others — this person became the centre of the web. Soon after returning, I learned the identity of my final nemesis.”

“You never told me,” I said bitterly. “But why should you? I am, apparently, too gullible, too foolish for you to trust.”

“No, Watson, that is not true. I did not tell you because it would have been risky. You already were in danger, very deadly danger, even before I returned. This entire game which I have been playing was constructed to protect you. I did not want to keep you in the dark, but if I had revealed to you what I had learned, I am certain that not only would this person have escaped, but you would have been killed as well.”

“How? I do not run in criminal circles, as you do. How was my life in danger, if yours was not?”

“I did not say my life was free of danger. Yours was in greater danger, and it was my duty to save you.”

“If you had trusted me —”

He shook his head decisively. “No, Watson. I say this with no disrespect: you lack the guile that would have been required to keep such information secret.”

Petulantly, I frowned. “I wonder that you would want to protect me. You yourself said that I am dim-witted.”

“My dear, darling man—”

“I am not your darling!” I felt that this needed to be said, but perhaps not as loudly as I had said it. The murmur of voices outside the room ceased. I lowered my voice. “Of what possible use am I to you if you cannot trust me with information?”

“I do trust you. But in this case, silence would have been too much to require from you.” He regarded me with concern. “I could not tell you about the danger, because it was under your own roof.”

He paused, watching my face as this sank in.

I frowned. “One of my servants? We have but two, a cook and a boy who runs errands for us. I hardly think either of them—”

“No. Not your servants. Your wife, Watson.”

I laughed. “Mary? You’re saying that she—” I fell silent. She had been unfaithful to me, true. And clearly she was dealing in some kind of information. Not to mention the gun that I had not known about. But it was not possible — it was inconceivable — “Surely you are not suggesting—”

“I am,” he replied. “What do you know about her, Watson? She was the daughter of Arthur Morstan, as she told us. This is true. Yes, I checked. She had no other relatives than her father, her mother having died soon after her birth. Her father also died while she was young, as we know. She was at a boarding school in Edinburgh until she was seventeen, she told us. This I have not been able to verify. She worked as a governess in some of the best homes in England, came with glowing recommendations to each new position. Employment verified, though I have not found the source of those recommendations. No friends, she told us. Does it not seem singular to you, Watson, that such a sweet, amiable, sympathetic woman (as you have described her in the published account of her case) — that such a refined and sensitive young lady (again, your words) should have no friends?”

When I recalled our courtship, I could not remember a single conversation concerning her early life. Our wedding was small, and all the friends who came were mine. Having no family of my own, I understood what it was to be without relatives, but she never spoke of her school years, which certainly had been full of friends. Such a vivacious girl could not help but have made friends.

“I admit, her failure to mention any friends seems a bit peculiar,” I replied, “but there may be reasons she did not wish to discuss it. A young woman, alone in the world, might keep to herself in order to preserve her reputation, the only thing she truly possessed.”

“You are a romantic, Watson, inclined to look for what you want to see, and to assume you have found it when no evidence contradicts your assumption. I prefer to reason from data rather than the lack thereof. Even as I looked into the problem she presented to us, I became aware of other associations which lead me to suspect her of criminal involvement, though not to the extent I later realised. When the opportunity presented itself for me to fake my death and destroy Moriarty’s gang, I had decided that her involvement was not significant. I nevertheless worried about you, since she had obviously made a play for your affections.

“When I returned to find you married to her, knowing by then that I had greatly underestimated her role in the organisation, suspecting that her power had grown over the years of my absence, I had to act quickly. I possessed information that she wanted, and dangled that before her to keep her from killing us both. I made her think I wanted a place in the organisation, and I allowed her to think she had seduced me because it was important for her to have confidence in her power over me.”

“You had an affair with her,” I said. “Call it what it is. You had relations with her.”

“Yes — while you were simultaneously having relations with both me and her,” he replied. “Call it what it is. You were having an affair with me, cheating on your wife with me.”

I had to admit that this was perfectly true. “All right. Pot, kettle.”

“Furthermore,” he continued, “the relations, as you so politely call them, which I had with her were nowhere near as carnal as those which we have shared. For me, it was almost unbearable. I feel very little attraction to women, and in fact had to seek some advice on how to manage certain aspects of the affair.”

“Advice? From whom?”

“As you know, I have many acquaintances among the working classes of this city, including a few young ladies.” He turned a bit pink. “I do not judge people whose means of earning a living are limited. Nor do I take advantage of them. These women do what they must do.”

“I’m curious as to what their advice was.” I was blushing a bit myself. Carnal, indeed.

His cheeks were scarlet. “Hm. Well. Later, perhaps, we can discuss that advice. For now, let me finish what I have begun. I strung her along, boasting that I knew certain things — secret government information that she desired to know. Not willing to tip her hand, she flattered me, acting the role of admiring lover. For my part, I wanted her to think me more foolish than my public reputation suggests. This was difficult, requiring multiple assignations, for which I blame you—”

Me? And how am I to blame for your assignations, may I ask?”

“It is entirely your doing, Watson, if the public thinks me a prodigy. Your stories have given the public a Sherlock Holmes with almost mystical deductive talents. Some days, I quite despair of rising to your expectations. Fortunately, I finally convinced her that I am, indeed, a preening fool.”

“Of course,” I said bitterly. “Only a bloody genius like Sherlock Holmes could convince someone that he was not, in fact, a bloody genius. What was the end game to be?”

“I’m getting to that. We met twice here, at Baker Street. The other times we met at your house during the day while you were at work, and once in the evening, when you went to the Betterment of Orphans meeting.”

“In my marriage bed, I suppose.”

“Well, you weren’t using it anymore. Oh, there was one time — full disclosure — when I climbed through her window at night.”

The footprints in the garden, I thought. “While I was sleeping in the next room?”

He had the decency to look a bit embarrassed. “Well, yes. She said she had slipped a sleeping powder into your Port. Her bed, incidentally, is much nicer than the one in your room.”

“Really, Holmes, this is too much! If you’re going to cuckold a man, at least do it when he’s out of the house.”

“According to your wife, you were no longer favouring her with your attentions. She implied that you were unable to fulfil her —”

“She was — with child!” I said with renewed indignation. “She was nauseous, suffering from exhaustion, uninterested in my attentions. I have never been unable, Holmes. Never in my life have I failed to fulfil—”

He chuckled. “Calm yourself, my dear chap. I can personally vouch for your ability. Your supposed impotence was yet another detail confirming that she was lying. At any rate, you became suspicious and began to watch her movements. She noticed you following her (oh, my dear Watson, even a blind man would have noticed) and decided that threats would be more effective with me than seduction. Had you not become suspicious, we might have arrested her without injury.”

I bit my lip. “I see. Again, this is my fault? I suppose I should have looked the other way while you were sharing intimacies with my wife—”

“My dear man, the intimacies were all endured for your sake. I only thought of you. Quite literally. Why do you think I kept surprising you in dark alleys and ravishing you in your surgery? I missed you, my love. And you did enjoy my little surprises, didn’t you?”

I sighed. It was true, I had enjoyed the element of surprise. The danger of being caught had only added to the charm of having carnal relations in alleys and abandoned warehouses. I felt a bit depressed at the prospect of limiting our future assignations to the bedroom. It seemed rather tame.

Considering this, I smiled in spite of myself. “Yes, your surprises were charming. I was rather looking forward to our next visit to Scotland Yard. The evidence room might have done well.”

He cocked an eyebrow at me. “My dear, you surprise me.”

Now I was blushing. “Yes, well. The end game. You were saying…?”

“Yes. She pulled the gun on me, demanding the information, and as I was considering my options, you blundered through the door. She fired on me, perhaps reasoning that she could explain my death to you by claiming that I had forced her into the affair and was trying to blackmail her.”

“This makes little sense.” My head was starting to ache. “Why didn’t she just blackmail you? She knew about us!”

“Exposing me would have meant exposing you. She was unwilling to do that.”

“It seems that it would have made for an easy divorce,” I said. “Surely that was her plan, to use me to find you, and to ruin us both.”

“I do not believe that our relationship played any part in her original plan. She married you simply in order to track me. Do not be offended, Watson. I’m sure your abundant physical charms and winsome manners made it an easy decision. But had you been less of a prize, she undoubtedly would still have tried to seduce you. When she discovered that we were lovers…” He sighed. “She is — was — a vain woman, confident in her powers of seduction, using her sexuality as a weapon. It infuriated her that you were sharing physical intimacy with a man. She would not let it be thought that she could not keep her husband’s hands off other men. That anger she showed you was quite genuine. What better way to get revenge than by seducing her husband’s lover? A woman who could tame two inverts — well, having both of us would be quite a feather in her cap, a source of private gratification. Turning us in for our inversion would only sully her own image. There are some ugly names for women who fancy inverts. She was not about to expose us. This was her first tactical error.”

All of these pieces began to form a picture in my mind. Seduction, power, revenge. Murder. “The baby,” I said softly. “I killed my own child.”

“There was no child, Watson,” he said. “Her pregnancy was a pretence. She confessed it to me, and the autopsy will prove me right about this. She invented it to keep you from wandering. Much as she hated our affair, she would have been mortified if you’d had an affair with another woman.”

“I would never!”

His lips curved a bit smugly. “I have had many opportunities to observe your attentions to women. One might easily mistake your natural charm for flirtation.”

“I do not flirt, Holmes. I am simply courteous.”

He shook his head solemnly. “You’re a bit of a heartbreaker, my darling.”

“Oh — and I suppose you are jealous!”

“Of course,” he said. “And her suspicions turned out to be well-founded. You were having an affair. With me.”

“You said you were not jealous of her. You said I belonged to you.”

“I lied. I was horribly jealous. But had I forced you to choose, you would have stood by your legal promise to her. Your promise to me is not legally enforceable. You do belong to me, though, and the only way to win you back was to convince you to be unfaithful to her.”

“If I’d known you were alive, Holmes— one hint that you were coming back—”

“Yes, I know. I forgive you for marrying. I know it was not your intention to take a wife, but she needed you and gambled on you being a gentleman, one who would feel that a kiss was a liberty demanding a proposal. She accepted, and you were too chivalrous to back out. But she saw your character and knew she needed more than a marriage certificate to keep you from straying. Hence, the child. Because she was refusing to share a bed with you, it was quite easy to pull the wool over your eyes. Fear not. You did not murder your child. If you had not shot her, she would have killed us both.”

I shook my head. “What now? There must be a trial.”

“No need for a trial. Mycroft has already set the machinery in motion. The police record states that she shot herself. The newspapers will report that your wife, in a fit of madness, tried to kill you. As you attempted to subdue her, protecting her from the gun with which she threatened you, she turned it on herself and fired, killing herself instantly. You are devastated, naturally.”

“That makes no sense, Holmes. Who will believe this ridiculous story?”

“It will make sense when it comes to light that she had been in and out of asylums since she was seventeen. The public eats up melodrama. Anyway, Mycroft will tidy up the details. I think he rather enjoys it. Almost as if an unfulfilled writer of tawdry fiction dwells in that man.”

“And what about me?”

“Now you come home.”

“Home.” I sighed deeply. “Do you love me?”

At that moment, Mycroft opened the door. “Brother dear, duty calls me. Dr Asbury and the Inspector have left. I assume that I will be leaving you in good hands — provided your doctor has accepted your apology and agreed to stay.”

Sherlock took my hand. “Will you stay?”

“I am not aware that an apology had been tendered,” I said a bit stiffly, looking down at our hands. “Though I am not averse to hearing one.”

“Dear John,” he said, kissing my hand, “I am sorry to have been the cause of so much grief. I do wish, for your sake, that your wife had been half as sorry, or had loved you even half as well as I do. Speaking selfishly, I am glad she did not.”

Mycroft shook his head. “Brother mine, we need to work on the concept of remorse. The intent of an apology is to be restored into another person’s good graces. I am certain that bringing up his disastrous marriage is not moving your dear doctor towards forgiveness.”

Sherlock glared at his brother. “Be elsewhere, Mycroft. I do not need advice from you on matters of the heart.”

Mycroft gave his brother a stiff bow and nodded at me. “As you wish. I will await your answer, Doctor. You have two minutes, Sherlock.”

When he was gone, Sherlock took my hand once more. “Perhaps I have not said what you want to hear, John. When it comes to sentiment, I am as big a fool as ever existed. Let me try again. I love you with all my heart, darling. Do not doubt that. What I have done may be hard for you to forgive, but it was done to save you. I have no regrets. That woman did not love you. I do. Even if you wish to walk away and begin a new life that does not include me, I am content. John Watson lives.”

“You would let me go?”

“Not willingly. But neither will I restrain you to stay. I love you, John. I do not wish to live without you, but if that is what you wish…” His voice trailed off, resigned. “That will be the price of my actions to save you.”

I saw his eyes shining with tears. My resolve not to take him back, even my desire that he should somehow pay for what he had done, were gone. What had he really taken from me? My marriage was a sham, my wife a person I had never known, my child an illusion. All he had taken from me was the fantasy I had wanted to believe. The evidence had been there all along; I hadn’t wanted to see it. Now everything unreal had been eliminated. What remained was real, the man sitting before me.

“I am yours,” I said without hesitation. “I will not leave you.”

As I leaned in to kiss him, the door opened once more.

“I’ll be on my way then,” Mycroft said. “Thank you, Doctor. I’m not sure that your decision is the reasonable one, but reason never has been your strong suit. I’ll see that your things are packed and brought here.”

When his brother had left for the second time, Sherlock smiled at me. “What’s wrong, my love? You seem downcast.”

I steeled myself. “I feel I owe you an apology as well. Had I not been so credulous and naive, I never would have told Mary that you had returned. Had I known she was not to be trusted, I would never have spoken your name to her. I must blame myself for everything that happened as a result, including your injury. When I think that she might have killed you—”

“Do not berate yourself, love. I was quite sure that you would reveal all. I depended on it.”

“You knew? You expected me to tell her?”

“I needed her to know, while avoiding the publicity my return would draw. I also depended on your suspicions to force her hand. Yes, I know I said that we might have taken her alive if she had not proceeded to the endgame so soon, but that was only one possibility. Once we started down that road, it could have gone very differently had you not interfered. She might have killed me. As it was, you did, in fact, save my life.”

Keeping his injury in mind, I kissed him gently, though my emotions demanded a more physical response. When I pulled away, he was smiling. I smiled back. “Jealous, you say?”

He nodded. “Always. Men or women, young or old, handsome or plain. Anyone with a pulse will notice John Watson, drawn by his irresistible charm. Clients, criminal masterminds…”

“Useful information,” I commented. “You being jealous, that is.”

“Information which I suppose you will use to torture me.”

“It depends. If I do flirt with someone, perhaps you will have to punish me.”

He smiled. “I suppose I will. And I suppose you must flirt. That will be a good protection for us, you being a lady’s man. But please, John. I beg you. Do not marry again. I am not sure I can cope with another wife, whether she is a criminal mastermind or not.”

“I put myself in your hands,” I said. “I promise to obey you in all things.”

“All things?”

I thought about everything that had happened — his death, my marriage, his sudden resurrection. There was truly only one thing that mattered. “I will obey you in all but this — if you ever order me to leave you again, I will not obey.”

He beamed. “Never leave me. That is my only order.”

I kissed him again, this time without reserve or regret. When we parted at last, I said, “Now, tell me about this advice the young ladies gave you.”