I had no idea what I was doing when I first invited Watson into my bed. I do not refer to a lack of familiarity with any physical acts. Those had been sampled, appraised, and catalogued years earlier, starting with the groom's apprentice on my grandmother's estate, carrying through to some fellow enthusiasts at college, and later in the guise of discreet entrenous at an anonymous London club for discerning gentlemen of especial taste. I was no stranger to the pleasures of the flesh, in other words, and considered myself an adequate bedmate, if not as adventurous as some. I personally found no erotic enticement in violence, even of the play-acted sort, nor any of the more exotic practises one hears of behind closed doors or in drunken sailors' yarns. A prick, a mouth, a hand, an arse, were all I required or desired.
Watson's interest in me was apparent from the start, although his shyness over his injuries and natural circumspection prevented him from making any overtures outright. As for myself, I feared that engaging in carnal intercourse with my flat-mate might prove troublesome and lead to complications in our daily affairs. It was for this reason alone that I did not encourage him, for I could not deny that I found him intriguing. Had we met under different circumstances, I have no doubt I would have found myself with his prick down my throat the same evening.
Fortuitously, his interest was easily directed elsewhere, landing now on a widow who sought his advice on a medical matter, then on a fellow veteran of the wars he made acquaintance with at his club. I strictly discouraged pursuing extracurricular contact with clients for reasons of discretion and professionalism. It was a rule I adhered to without exception myself. As an additional method of deflection, I pretended no interest in matters of the flesh, refraining entirely from my usual adventures and instead devoting my mental and physical energies fully to my detective work. I was pleased to see that he did not tend to form deep attachments with any of his lovers, as it kept him free to assist me at any time of day or night. The fruitfulness of our partnership thus soon became apparent, and we fell into an easy companionship marked by mutual understanding.
After several months of living in close quarters, however, his agreeable qualities became more and more difficult to ignore. At the time, I ascribed my yearnings wholly to my long abstinence, and in truth that may have exacerbated my urgency. But to my detriment I did not account for sentiment, despite my long-held belief that matters of the heart are anathema to a logical mind. At any rate, I made my decision in the firm conviction that it was a reasoned, sensible one.
I determined that my friend had insinuated himself into nearly every aspect of my existence, and far from being burdensome, the situation had served only to increase my productivity, mental acuity, and general sense of well-being. Opening my bedroom did not seem a very large thing to venture. I had after all never been compromised by such entanglements in the past, aside from some trivial attempts at extortion which were easily rebuffed. And although I did not judge Watson to be the sort to engage in such dishonest practices in the first place, I easily had enough material on him already to keep any equivalent attempts in check. Additionally, I predicted several benefits: relief from the distracting stirrings I was increasingly subject to whenever my thoughts wandered in his direction, the convenience of proximity and privacy, the security of mutually enjoyable, invigorating release without the need for tedious negotiations or the lurking risk of disease, and of course the tantalising prospect of John Watson's head between my legs and his weeping prick dripping nectar on my tongue.
He took a small amount of convincing but soon agreed quite readily to my proposal, and I subsequently discovered his juice to be sweeter, his tongue more devious, his fingers more nimble, and his mouth more succulent than I had dared imagine. We indulged, nay gorged, on each other with abandon, awash in an ecstasy I had only glimpsed from afar in previous encounters. I knew no limits nor did I wish any. His enthusiastic exclamations, blissful sighs, quickened heart and twinkling eyes bore testimony to the fact that he found our private meetings equally delightful. In other words, the mutual satisfaction resulting from our augmented arrangement was both pronounced and hearty. I congratulated myself upon my wisdom, Watson upon his magnificent endowments, and our landlady on her deaf ears and early bedtimes.
I did not understand the full extent to which I had been compromised until much later, but by then it was too late. The damage had been done. I had become complacent like a lamb fattened on tender blades and choice morsels by a caring and skilful hand, the same hand which would later hold a knife to its throat and drain it of its life-blood.
"Have you any plans for today, Holmes?" Watson asked casually as we sat over the remains of our breakfast. His tone was too light, his gaze too fixed on the newspaper he held in his lap. He was up to something, but, infuriatingly, I could not tell what. I had had to re-learn his moods and tells upon my return from my enforced absence many months earlier. We had both changed during that period. There were still things that eluded me, parts of him that remained hidden. Where once his body and mind had been to me an open book, free for my perusal and pleasure, nimbly wandering its well-worn pages, now both remained locked up and sealed as if behind smoked glass.
He shook out a crease in the broadsheet, drawing my eyes inadvertently to his capable, steady fingers. Those fingers had mapped every inch of my unclothed body, invaded every cranny, drawn out inexplicable pleasure from me until I was insensate. Now, at most, they might pass me a letter-opener or clap my shoulder over my coat.
"I intend visiting the British Museum later on," I said, watching my friend carefully for any sign of his intentions. "I want to compare some of my sketches of Tibetan mummies with the new Egyptian ones they have on display." I berated myself instantly at Watson's slight flinch. The reference to my three-year sojourn was oblique, to be sure, but I should have been more circumspect. It was still a sore point, and one that went unaddressed for many reasons.
Watson pretended to be unaffected, perusing the page before him as he replied: "I thought it might be nice to take advantage of the weather for a turn in the park."
I glanced out the window. The sun was shining for the first time that morning following two solid weeks of heavy rains. Well, it was a small thing and seemed important to him. He asked for so little. Too little. As well, I was never good at withstanding a temptation when the object of my craving was dangled so tantalisingly before me.
"Why not." I gave him a quick, encouraging smile, hoping not to appear too eager for the paltry crumb of attention. "I can always go to the museum later." My positive response did not elicit the release of tension in his demeanour that I had hoped for. If anything, he appeared even more nervous.
"Splendid," he said nevertheless. "In an hour then? We can take a cab and head up toward Hampstead Heath."
He intended a real trek, then, not just a polite stroll through the Regent's Park around the corner. The paths would still be muddy from the rain; I would have to dress accordingly.
We repaired to our respective rooms shortly thereafter to complete our preparations. Watson had returned to his bachelor's digs upstairs about six months ago, upon my urging. He had been grossly unhappy with the humdrum routine of a civilian medical practitioner, rattling around in the now empty halls of the residence he had shared with his late wife. It was a risk to invite him back, to be sure. He had been widowed less than a year at the time, and his attitude toward me then and since made it abundantly clear he had no wish to resume our previous status. Since our renewed partnership, however, I had made every effort to keep him fed with a steady diet of interrogations, investigations, and intrigue. The pink in his cheeks and spring in his step were testimony to the success of my measures as well as a constant, terrible reminder of all that I had lost.
"I thought we were to be hiking the heath," I said some time later as our carriage continued on Highgate Road past Parliament Hill and took the turn into Swain's Lane.
"We will, by and by. We have some business here first," Watson replied. I peered out the window. I hadn't paid attention when Watson instructed the driver on our destination, assuming it to be Hampstead as he had announced at breakfast. There wasn't anything down this way aside from Highgate Cemetery. The hack drew his horses to a stop in front of the very gates. Watson stepped down and went to pay him.
"You usually visit on Sundays," I said as I descended. I was irritated, both at being caught off-guard and at being dragged along on this errand. Surely Watson could have taken care of this on his own later when I went to the museum, or else we could have put off our joint outing until the afternoon.
"It was tipping down on Sunday," Watson said briskly. "I wouldn't have driven a dog out in it, much less a horse and its master."
The driver touched his hat and tapped the reins to his horses' backs to set them on their way.
Well, I was here now. No sense putting up a fuss. Watson was sure to be quick; he hadn't even brought flowers. "Very well," I acquiesced. "It will be a good opportunity for me to take a survey of recent burials whilst you tend to your business. Who knows but that there might be a mystery or two to unearth." I glanced at him with a sly smile to check whether he had understood my joke.
But Watson was not up for japes that morning. "You're coming with me," he said sternly, taking my arm in his and steering me toward the entrance. "You haven't paid your respects once. Unless you've been without me?"
"I have paid my respects to you, as my friend," I said stiffly, even as I fell into step beside him. "I'm sorry for your loss, Watson, but I am not a member of the family and never knew her socially." The excuse, albeit truthful and more than within the bounds of etiquette, rang awkwardly in the brisk morning air.
"Then you're bloody well going to get to know her now." I felt him sag slightly, all the fight suddenly gone out of him. He stopped and turned to me, his eyes filled with the old burden of his grief. "Once, Holmes. Just this once," he said in a tired voice. "I promise this is the one and only time I shall ask this of you."
How could I refuse? I could not.
Despite my agreement, Watson did not let go of my arm, as if afraid I might dart away behind one of the macabre funereal statuary at the next opportunity. In truth, I found our sudden proximity discomfiting, his elbow nestled firmly against my ribs and his hip bumping mine as we started down one of the crushed-stone paths. We used to walk like this, back in those carefree days before he married: arms entwined, adjusting our strides to keep abreast, an automated synchronicity borne of a physical familiarity much more intimate than that which we put on public display.
I was instantly reminded of it now: the fiery trail Watson's hands burnt into my skin, the teasing brush of his mustache over my lips and sac, the sticky-slick stutter and slide of his cockstand on my abdomen, my back, my cheek. The undulating dance of pleasure in which we thoughtlessly partook, innocent of the detritus we would leave in our wake. I even fancied I could smell the tantalising tang of his sweat which the morning sunshine coaxed from him, the same pungent liquid I had lapped off his skin, from his secret places: filthy, dark, heady.
When had we stopped taking the air together? I could not recall. That in itself was telling. Some time before Miss Morstan had brought the tale of her fabulous treasure to our home, that much I knew.
I had hated Mary Morstan, at first, when I realised Watson's intentions. Her fresh countenance, her gentle, well-modulated voice, her delicate hands were like red-hot pokers stabbed through my flesh. When that had burnt itself out, I hated Watson, and finally myself. Miss Morstan had not taken Watson from me. He had left of his own accord, and I could not, in the end, blame him. At the root of his abandonment was the fact that I could not offer him what a wife could. Security. Social respectability. Our dalliance was fine for recreation but nothing a man would want to look back on as his legacy. Or so said my brother. I did not tell him that I should have died happy, had I achieved nothing more in life than to have Watson at my side for it.
We stopped in front of a weeping angel atop a square pedestal. An interesting choice: a guardian to watch over her and mourn. Watson must have been uncertain of his own ability to do so. Had he experienced a cooling of sentiment toward her by the end? Had she been threatened by the same life-draining blade as I? But no: his grief had been real and raw enough, even at the distance from which I had viewed it. I scarcely dared contemplate the awfulness of the second possibility: that Watson had assumed he would not last much longer on the earth before joining his dearest spouse. A gnawing sickness lurched to life within me. What if I had not come back when I did? It did not bear thinking.
My eye mechanically skimmed the name and dates on the monument, already becoming bored and sliding away before being caught by the last line carved in relief into the granite: FRIEND - WIFE - MOTHER. I reeled. There had been no mention of a child, not in Mycroft's missive informing me of Mary Watson's passing nor in her obituary, which I had looked up as soon as I set foot in London. Was it being raised by a relative?
I realised the answer a moment later, and reproached myself for having been so distracted not to notice at once: at the foot of her grave were three small, square stones laid flush with the earth. They bore no names, merely singular dates, each one year apart, starting the year of my departure and the last coinciding with their mother's death. There had been no nursery or photographs of an infant in their house. Watson might have burnt it all, of course, but that would be unlike him, who still carried his brother's watch and polished the buttons on his battered old uniform once a year. Stillbirths then. Was this why he had insisted I come here? To twist the knife even further? To lay out before me in no uncertain terms what I could not give him? And yet Mary Watson had fared no better in that regard. And there she lay, and here I stood.
Watson cleared his throat, dragging me back to the here and now. However, it presently became clear that it was not I whom he intended to address.
"Hello, Mary," said he, his voice brisk or even forced, as if he were performing a duty he shied away from but found necessary. "I have Holmes with me. He has no excuse for not coming earlier but has agreed to come today as a favour to me. So you see, he has made progress, at least." He huffed a bit as if the last were intended as a joke, although I did not see the humour nor understand what he meant by 'progress', unless it referenced the journey from Marylebone to Highgate. The first part of his statement was nevertheless true, if uncouth to articulate. At any rate, Mary Watson was not here to listen to a litany of my social shortcomings. It began to dawn on me that hers were perhaps not the intended ears for Watson's speech, which he continued thus:
"I wanted you to see that we are doing well. That I am well, with him. You worried for me, I know, in those final hours before you closed your eyes forever, although you did not say so. You were not far wrong; you knew me well. Well and good, we shall never know what might have come to pass, had Holmes not miraculously reappeared when he did. I am very glad he did."
So it was as I had feared. The loss of his dearest wife, following so closely the deaths of their several infants, had devastated him far more than I had known. Oh, Watson. Would that I had returned to your side sooner. Would that I had never left. Regret is the reward of the fool.
"As for Holmes" -- and here I felt him tighten his elbow around mine, although his gaze remained steadfastly fixed on the monument before us -- "I wanted him, I think, to see that he has nothing to fear. That you are not a ghost that haunts my days or nights, but a dear and fond memory. When I leave this place and return to our home I do not take you with me."
I understood, and trembled. One half of my heart leapt for joy but the other cringed in fear. Not the fear he alluded to; not that Mary Watson still held his heart. No, it was the fear of what would happen to mine if I accepted the invitation in his words: our home. Not his and hers but ours. Mine and his. I had lost him twice already. Both times I had been powerless, helpless and inept, unable to reverse the course of time or passion, to either find the point at which our paths had diverged or to return us to a common course. It seemed we had nevertheless arrived at a crossroads once more. There was no question of which fork I would take. I was incapable of any other choice, even knowing what lay ahead.
"Well," Watson said gruffly into his mustache, scuffing self-consciously at the grit under his boots. I became aware that we had been standing in silence for upwards of a minute. "That's enough of that, I should think. Shall we?" He leaned away as if to uncouple himself but I was not ready to yield. I would never be ready to yield.
"One moment, if you wouldn't mind," I said, holding his arm fast. He had said he would only require this duty of me once, for which I was glad, as it was not a pleasant one. But it was a necessary one, and I was equally glad for the chance to discharge it properly. If I were to embark upon this course, it was vital that peace be made between myself and Watson's wife; or rather, since the deceased was in a place beyond feeling, that I make peace with my own failure which she symbolised.
"Mrs Watson," I therefore said, as it seemed most expedient to follow Watson's pattern of proxy, "I should like to sincerely apologise for my neglect. As John says, I have no excuse." His Christian name came to my lips without conscious intent on my part, but I did not take it back. It was as clear an answer to his invitation as I was able to articulate, and I knew he would understand it. "There are many things I should probably say to you, and should have said when you were alive, but did not. One of them, perhaps the only important one, is just this: thank you. Thank you for doing for him what I could not. I shall endeavour to always be a friend to him, at least, insofar as that lies within my humble power, until you may be reunited."
It was a promise to myself more than him, although I had no notion of how I might keep it. I had no idea what he needed nor wanted, anymore. He found our adventures amongst the criminal classes amusing, perhaps even refreshing; beyond that, I was grasping at straws only to have them slip between my fingers. As far as I knew, he had not taken a lover since his wife's death, nor even indulged in the hourly pleasures he used to seek at the start of our acquaintance. That, at least, I felt certain I would have known. Is it not obvious by now how deep I was, and am? What began with the intention of a selfish distraction and short-cut to fleshly indulgence had become a pathetic obsession that profited no one. I sometimes thought I must have imagined the desperate joy and profound serenity of those lost years; perhaps I had. Perhaps it had all been nothing more than a feverish dream engendered by my chemical indulgences and peculiar brain.
Watson turned to face me once my speech was done. His cheeks were pink, his eyes stormy. He placed his hands on my arms and stood chest to chest with me before his wife's grave, his face turned up to mine. "You fool," he said fiercely, and my heart both sang in tune with and shrank from the passion betrayed by his voice. "There is nothing that you cannot do for me. There is no one who can do more. Holmes. Sherlock. It is you with whom I have been reunited." My name on his lips, usually only uttered in moments of deepest privacy, breathed into my mouth, whispered against my nape, spilling across his tongue in tandem with his release spilling across mine. His words confused and delighted me, but I had long since learned that there was little profit in attempting to cross emotion with logic. I felt as if I were ascending even as I fell into a place from which there could be no rescue. Whether pit or haven was not mine to tell.
"John," I rasped, and would have kissed him then beneath God's sky and no regrets, not a one, had not a pair of ancient matrons come round the bend. They were dressed all in black and had their arms linked similarly to our method. Their manner spoke of an intimate familiarity. They might have been sisters in blood or indeed in Sapphic philosophy. It mattered not. My frenzied brain replaced their figures with those of Watson and myself, aged two score years: his pate bald and ruddy, mine grey and waxen, our bodies bent and twisted by age and injury, yet still afoot, and that together. Still together.
That night, he came to me. I did not allow myself to dwell on the reason. It was of no consequence. I would give him what I could, even if it meant I would suffer for it after. He was hot and shivering when he slipped between the sheets. I thought at first he might be feverish from our jaunt on the heath, but he assured me it was a fever of a different sort. We did not talk beyond that. His breath across my lips was word enough. My tenderest touches in his most delicate places were my response. He heard and acknowledged with caresses and kisses to my mouth, my chest, my fingers, my prick. I spent in the hot, spit-slick sheath of his fist while licking my shameful sentiments into his salt-damp skin. He spilt in the sweat-oiled crevasse of my arse, with our hands grasping each other like limpets on a rock in the crashing surf.
The sun had already risen when he left my bed, the maid clattering with the coal-hob downstairs. We were reckless. Our landlady remained blissfully deaf and blind, a malady she foresightedly passed on to the servants. The scene repeated itself nightly. He called me darling and lavished me with overgenerous attentions. I called him dearest and let myself be consumed. We fell into old habits. Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. I had learned. Yet I was helpless to escape the snares of my own devising, the lures of my peculiar manners of thought and action.
Watson did not invite me to his second wedding. I do not know whether he intended it as a kindness or a slight. I took it as neither, merely an expedience. Things became difficult since the Wilde affair. I sought refuge in my needle and my work, he in his pipe, his practise, and before long, a new paramour. I contrived to meet her, once, in the disguise of a philanthropist soliciting contributions to a foreign mission. She was perfectly acceptable, a spinster but of an age with him, somewhat long in the face but still handsome in the way of women who devote their lives to intellectual pursuits: a writer in a Bohemian circle. They met through his publisher.
The day of his nuptials I spent in a haze of blissful unawareness; the evening in the company of a young geologist from Budapest whom I'd angled at a lecture of the Royal Geographical Society. I found his stones compelling. I did not often succumb to such temptations. My appetites had waned, perhaps with age, although I had not yet seen fifty years; or perhaps because my palate had been spoilt. The anonymous couplings I used to find so stimulating were now bland and unfulfilling, leaving me with a sickly, hollow feeling I did not know how to fill. (That is dishonest: I knew.)
I descended into ennui, punctuated by fitful bursts of high activity. In truth, this had always been my modus, although I had fancied that Watson's constant presence and attentions had exerted a mitigating influence. Perhaps it had been no more than that: a fancy. I did not blame anyone for my solitary situation, not even myself. I had enjoyed more happiness than most men. It would have been intemperate to require more. The few mysteries that engaged my interest provided some distraction. Watson continued to accompany me when he could separate himself from professional or civic duties. I did not begrudge him his domestic life, nor his choice of counterpart. I was never an easy companion. I recalled the promise I had made at his first wife's grave, and did what I could to fulfil it. My success will remain another's to judge.
The bees were slow to wake that morning. The sun had been up for an hour, but only a couple of sleepy workers sat contemplatively in the entrance to the hive, testing the air. It was not yet October, but the nights were tinged with the scent of frost. I planned to secure the hives for the winter in the next day or two, once I had fetched the necessary supplies of tarpaper and nails from the village. I had taken on the apiary from the previous owner of the cottage as a courtesy, without any real enthusiasm. Instead, I discovered an interest in the busy creatures that captured my attention as well as any nefarious trick or dastardly plot of human invention. Beekeeping requires a keen intellect, sharp eye, delicate touch, and not a small amount of shrewd intuition; the small element of danger makes the enterprise piquant.
The grass was still thick with dew on my way back to the cottage. I was discovering a new fascination in observing the natural cycles out here in the countryside: the seasons, the tides, the heavens. The decision to depart from the city had been an easy one, in the end. My techniques appeared, to small minds, old-fashioned and oblique beside the modern science of fingerprinting, which could be -- and often was -- carried out by any fool, given the proper equipment. To that, I had to admit I was no longer as fleet of foot or as certain of the superiority of my fists as I once had been in the face of young brawn.
Inside, I poked the fire in the stove and put the kettle on. Mrs Waites had brought fresh bread and boiled eggs the previous day, and it would do for a cold breakfast with some of my honey. After that, a stroll into town, if the weather held, and in the afternoon I looked forward to putting the finishing touches on the survey I was preparing on some of the archaeological features of the area. The local historical society, contacted through the vicar, had reported a keen interest and a lecture was being organised. The evening would then be spent before the hearth, reading the latest issue of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society.
It might all sound rather dull compared to my London years, but I had diversions enough to keep me occupied, even more so than in my youth, when I used to languish for days complaining of a lack of distractions from my own thoughts. I was not lonely. I had my bees and Mrs Waites, who came to clean twice a week and stopped by daily on top of that, on her way to and from the market. Then there was the postmaster, who was always good for a story or two; Tom Fletcher and his wife, my neighbours down the lane, amiable and generous in the way of country folk and eager to keep me well supplied with blackberry preserves and cordials. (They seem to have had a standing exchange of farm products with the previous owner, which I was only too happy to maintain.) And various other denizens of the town and countryside who brought their little problems for me to solve, my reputation having somehow curiously found its way to this remote corner of the country.
A soft knock at the door informed me that one of them had arrived. I liked to make a game of deducing what I could before opening the door. It was a stranger, clearly. I knew the knocks of all of my regular visitors, and someone who had been here even once before would not be so hesitant, as if unsure of the reaction of the home's inhabitant to their interruption. A man, to judge by the double-rap (women tended to rap three times or more) of average height (from the position of the contact), and using a cane (the tap of its metal tip against the stone step), which indicated additionally that he was either of advanced years or suffering from a debility. The topic would be a personal problem, nothing of a criminal nature, or if it were, something that he was embarrassed to take to the local constabulary. It was pressing enough to seek me out this early, but not so urgent that he had lost his composure. It was enough to start with, and I went to the door prepared to impress my visitor and gather more clues from his appearance, accent, attire, comportment, and any of the hundred other seemingly insignificant details that led me to my conclusions. As soon as I opened the door, however, all thoughts of clues and deductions flew from my mind as I was faced with the very last person I had ever expected to see here.
In my description of my country life thus far, the astute reader may have noticed the lack of the very person who featured most prominently in the previous parts of my narrative, namely my old friend -- if indeed I may still call him that, for we had not seen each other since my resettlement -- Dr John Watson. He had naturally remained in London, where his life continued to play itself out with but one supporting character less. We maintained a monthly correspondence, but it restricted itself by unspoken agreement to superficial matters. What would be the purpose of pretending otherwise? I missed him like a phantom limb, startled every time I looked around to find him absent, only to become aware of a bone-deep ache that I had somehow grown accustomed to with time and familiarity.
When I opened the door that morning, then, it was as if I were seeing a ghost, and I had to take several moments to be sure the apparition was not in fact a manifestation of my own imagination. Watson stared back at me, clearly as startled as I at the sudden confrontation, although he, at least, must have been prepared to see me on the other side of the door.
He was the first to break the silence. "Holmes. You look well."
"And you," I managed, my mind whirring to formulate a scenario for his appearance. He did look well: hale and lively, the fresh air having whipped colour into his cheeks and put a sparkle in his eye. He must have taken the first train from the city and walked out from the station in the village.
"My condolences on your loss," I blurted baldly, for it seemed the only explanation for his presence.
"Your wife," I explained, encompassing his figure with a broad gesture, as if to explain my conclusion. In point of fact, I did not see any unequivocal evidence of his bereavement: he was not wearing mourning, and his countenance did not betray sadness or grief. Of course, she might have died some weeks or even months ago. Perhaps he had waited until the customary mourning period had passed before undertaking the journey here. The fact that he had not mentioned her passing in one of his letters was slightly remarkable, but then the existence of his spouse was one of the topics which was tacitly never mentioned between us, just as I did not inform him of the occasional forays I made across the Channel to the Continent.
"My wife didn't die, Holmes," Watson said, appearing both bewildered and bemused. "May I come in?"
"Yes, of course. I apologise." I stepped back and ushered him inside. The cozy room felt suddenly close, his body looming too near mine. I closed the door behind him and retreated to the kitchen, where the kettle, which I had set to boil earlier, was clattering furiously on the grate.
I tried to conceal my discomfiture behind the niceties of offering food and drink, which he politely accepted, even though I could see he had already breakfasted on the train. I kept stealing glances at him, still half convinced he would disappear if I turned my back for longer than a moment. I said before that he looked well, but that would be like saying the Koh-i-Noor looked shiny, although I confess I might not be the most impartial observer. To my eye, the marks of age had settled on him like a refining patina. The dashes of silver in his hair were elegant, the fine lines around his eyes like the smooth grain of polished wood. I marveled to have him here before me, but feared the reason for it. It must be something quite ominous indeed to bring him out here without warning.
Once we were settled, each with a cup and a plate, and the usual comments made about the weather and the state of the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway, the conversation came inevitably round to the purpose of his visit.
He cleared his throat and corrected the position of his teacup in its saucer. "I have some things to say to you, Holmes, that can't be put to paper. That, and I needed to see you at least once more, no matter how things may develop."
My alarm at his words stemming from the belief that he was speaking of his imminent demise must have shown quite plainly on my face, for he laughed and shook his head. "No, you fool. I'm fine. Well, as fine as a man can be with a wounded heart, knowing it's his own bloody fault."
My own heart leapt in my chest in sympathy, although I knew his injury did not have the same source as mine.
"Kitty and I have come to an arrangement," Watson announced bluntly. "A divorce might be easier in the long run, but neither of us is willing to accuse the other falsely and it's not as if I have much in the way of property to lose or pass on, should it come to that. There's the house, of course, but it's more hers than mine anyway, the way it's constantly overrun by her people." He said this with fond exasperation, not unlike that which he used to exhibit when speaking of my more noxious habits. "Aside from that, my books and medical instruments and a few sentimental items, the only object of true value I have ever had in my life is not one upon which a price can be laid. Nor can it be found in London."
I confess to being not a little angry that he thought this an appropriate matter to bring to me. For all I could conclude was that either he or his wife had fallen in love with someone else but not yet acted upon it, and were agreed to quietly allow the other to conduct their business in private, and lead from then on separate lives. The fact that he was so easily willing to give up the house indicated that he was the party at fault. I surmised that he wanted my help in finding his mysterious lost object, or to keep it safe from his wife. I asked if this were the case, although I may have done so in a less than cordial manner.
"No. Bollocks," he responded, flustered. "This isn't how this is supposed to go. You are that object, Holmes, and whether you are lost or not is what I am here to determine." His hands clenched on the table top, and I barely restrained myself from reaching for them. As it was, I could scarce bring myself to breathe as I listened to the rest of his speech. "I have been blind and inconstant," he said. "My only excuse is that I did not understand what we had, and what we were. I thought of what we did, you and I, as a convenience or expediency to avoid sullying the virtue of unknown ladies. I thought that all men must do it from time to time, if they were unable to find a willing female, when their hunger became too great. I was confused by the depth of the attachment which I developed, but put it down to our close living arrangement. I believed that when I had a wife, I would develop the same or even greater feelings toward her. And so I sought one, and ran from you, because I felt otherwise I must go mad. Kitty and some friends of hers have shown me, though, that two men or women can be as devoted to each other as a man and wife. That their bond can be as true. I know that they are right because I recognised myself in them." When he raised his eyes to mine, they were pleading and raw as he begged, "Do you understand?"
I did. Of course I did. I had lived it, and felt it in my soul. We had been confrères, intimate friends; but in the eyes of the world we could never be more. Two men might share rooms, food, tobacco, adventures, illness, laughter, perils, breath, each other's bodies, but they could never be to each other what a man and woman might, given the blessing of a parson or priest. Not even if their souls could only be fulfilled in each other's arms and their destinies at each other's sides. I understood.
I also understood now what his purpose was, and what he proposed. Many years ago, I would not have hesitated to embrace him now, praise his wisdom, and disrobe him in the most efficient manner possible. But unlike him, I had become acquainted during my travels with many pairs who lived as he described, who acknowledged their affection toward each other and named it, if only between themselves. It was never an easy lot. There were places in the world where it was easier, but England was not one of them. There were reasons we had not declared ourselves earlier, and his apprehension and confusion were not the only ones. I had never been unaware of my heart and nature, yet had refrained from raising the subject between us. My many years of intense study of humanity and inhumanity had taught me that it takes more than an abiding affection and undeniable attraction to keep two people together, regardless of their gender or inclination. We had both hurt each other badly, but perhaps those wounds had been necessary to tear us open and drag out the things we hid from each other. All of these logical reflections were useless, of course, for as ever, despite any misapprehensions I might still have, there was only one path open to me. It was not even a choice, for I was as helpless to deny my heart as my bees were not to follow their queen.
"I find myself in the unenviable position of being indebted to a wife of yours for a second time," I informed him solemnly.
Watson's face spread into a smile of unrestrained happiness. "It won't happen again," he swore, shaking his head. I felt a pang, because I did not want any promises that might be broken, yet knowing those were the only kinds of promises either of us could give.
"Have you any plans for the rest of the day, Watson?" I inquired.
"I am entirely at your disposal. Today and every day, I hope."
I had learned not to hope, but by now, I believe, I had also learned to accept the turning of the seasons, knowing the inevitable losses of winter would be followed just as inexorably by a new spring.
"Then come." I laid my hand over his and felt his beloved flesh, the firm and steady fingers, the heat coursing through them. "Let us go and visit the bees."