My friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, was not a man of prodigal expression. He was wont to be uncommunicative and secretive, keeping his own counsel for his own purposes. Indeed, he could be most forbidding in aspect to those closest to him, and was often at his coolest and most reserved towards them.
For example, he was quick to use me or my reactions for his own ends; he employed me quite often in the solving of a case--even if only to divert attention from his own attack. He did not soften his words when he leveled opprobrium at me for a mistaken deduction or for what he considered blundering or ineptness on my part. He could ignore his fellow lodger for days when he was plumbing the depths of his own mind for answers--and with no warning whatsoever, summon me to travel with him at a moment's notice for an unstated length of time. (My Army experience in packing quickly so as to be quickly underway has stood me in good stead throughout my sojourn at Baker Street.) His behaviour towards me bordered on the indifferent, even callous, many times.
And yet I knew even from earliest days that he valued me, not only as a recorder of his cases but as his most intimate friend. For as quick and often as he was to drop unfeeling remarks, he was as quick and as often to favour me with a fond look, a smile, an oddly tender gesture, and even on rarest occasions a word of gratitude or praise. Indeed, the rarity of such words from him, and from such a man as Sherlock Holmes, made them all the more valuable when they issued forth, each one a sovereign surpassing the worth of others' farthing ramblings.
Such coins I had had from him, a few rare and precious sovereigns; but one June night in 1902 yielded a diamond that I have held to my breast to this very day. The case was a less-than-noteworthy effort whose sole eccentricity gave it the title under which I published it. The affair of the Three Garridebs was either a comedy with a tragic denouement or a tragedy with a comical theme -- one of peculiar surnames, eccentric wills, false inheritances and forgery. One poor man lost his reason as a result of that case, I myself sustained an injury, and the perpetrator returned to the prison from which he had left just the year before. It was he -- James Winter Evans, alias Morecroft, alias 'Killer' Evans, alias John Garrideb -- who wounded me; and yet I cannot find it in my heart to bear the man any rancour. The aftermath of his violent attack was worth the wound; it was worth many wounds to me.
The entire affair lasted two days and was not unlike the darkly humourous matter involving the Red-Headed League--indeed, at times I wonder if Evans had been inspired by that account for his own scheme, which involved a meek collector of artifacts with the peculiar surname that triggered his ingenious fraud.
Holmes had been amused by the situation, which was no doubt the reason he had taken it on; but he returned from his research the next day in doubt. He told me the true identity of the lawyer John Garrideb and the long string of murderous offences that had sent him to prison for five years. Holmes tried to persuade me to stay behind while he concluded the business, but he knew even then that it was futile to dissuade me. As he ruefully said, "I know it will only be an additional reason to you for running your head into danger. I should know my Watson by now." He was right; I had come to share my friend's love for the bizarre and the unusual, and my spirit had been tempered in battle.
So that afternoon we both lay in wait in Nathan Garrideb's roomful of curios, the innocent party having been sent off on his wild-goose chase for a false third Garrideb that would assure him a fortune from a bizarre bequeathment. I was just inspecting a hominid skull labeled "Piltdown" when Holmes gestured me into hiding. Together we watched the American gangster enter the room and reveal a hidden trapdoor to the basement, his true motive in luring the eccentric from his home. We approached that opening in the floor and apprehended Evans in the very act. He was badly startled by our appearance, but his rough life had no doubt sprung worse surprises on him, as he was quite cool and rueful in acknowledging that we had gotten the drop on him.
He was just hauling himself back out of the trapdoor when I saw something flicker in his hand.
What I did was neither brave nor self-sacrificing--those states of mind require thought, and the soldier in me acted without thought in that split-second of clarity. I shoved Holmes aside as the sound of gunfire filled the room, and a red-hot poker hit my leg, striking me to the floor. I lay, stunned by the closeness and force of the blow, breathless with a sharp hot pain at my inner thigh; I heard the tinkle of glass falling from a shattered case. I recognised the sensations at once -- I had been hit by a bullet before.
As I lay still, trying to ascertain my condition without moving, I heard Holmes dealing with the gunman in an unwonted fury, and was relieved that he had escaped injury. I already knew my own wound was not fatal, for the blood flowed slowly and steadily instead of pulsing; my sudden movement had not only cheated Evans of his primary target, but had also spoilt his aim.
I was on the verge of sitting up so that I could treat the injury myself when strong thin hands I knew well gripped my arms. I looked up with a rueful grin, expecting Holmes to make some jest about a former soldier being so clumsy under fire.
What I saw on that face instead stunned me. Terror was printed nakedly on that hawklike face, with grief waiting in the wings. Those sharp grey eyes were wide and dimmed, full of moisture; the stern thin lips were trembling. I could not credit my eyes -- Sherlock Holmes, the man of iron, on the verge of weeping!
He asked how badly I was hurt, that much I know, and I also know that he invoked the Deity on my behalf in some fashion; but it is the tone of voice that is etched into my brain, not his words. This was not the tone of a man coolly ascertaining the status of an injured comrade, but a terrified child denying the mortality of a stricken parent. This was a man sick with fear for someone he loves.
I stared, awed by the revelation of what had lain behind the cold mask Sherlock Holmes habitually showed the world, my physical injury all but forgotten in the face of a greater heat.
My dazed, staring silence only increased the fear on my friend's face -- he whispered, "Dear God, John, don't leave me--" and caught his breath in a sharp inhalation that in any other man would have been a sob.
Shame filled me at that sound of helpless grief--how could I let him suffer so? "It's nothing, Holmes," I said quietly but intensely, and gripped his forearms as tightly as he held on to my shoulders. "It's nothing. It's a scratch."
With his aid, I sat up, and watched him tear open my blood-wet trousers-leg with his pocket-knife. While it was most assuredly not a fatal wound, it was rather more serious than a "scratch"--it was bleeding freely, the powder burns exacerbated the injury, and I was in a great deal of pain. It did indeed look fearful. I could not see the expression on the bowed head; but I felt the thin white hands on my leg trembling.
I covered one of those bloodstained hands with one of my own and squeezed it hard, the strength of my grip conveying my robustness. "It's all right, old fellow," I said softly, moved beyond description, and unwittingly providing him with the assurance he would give me not three months hence, after he had taken injuries from the unspeakable Baron Gruner's hirelings that would frighten me as badly as this. "Don't look so scared. It's not as bad as it seems."
He looked up; a relieved smile flickered briefly across his face and stayed in his eyes, the blind terror vanished. "Thank God for that," he said softly. "You are right, it's quite superficial." Then his eyes turned the cold grey of a thundercloud, and his face was flint as he turned to his trussed and bleeding captive. "By God, it's as well for you," he snapped, his words as cold and stony as his face. "If you'd killed him, you would not have left this room alive."
Evans scowled back in silence, uncowed by my friend's words; but they sent a chill through me. At that moment, seeing my friend's cold face and remembering what that face had revealed moments before, I had no doubt at all that Sherlock Holmes would be capable of killing a bound prisoner.
After a quick bandaging of my wound with his handkerchief, Holmes offered me his arm, and together we looked down into the cellar that had held Evans' goal--the counterfeiting equipment of his old gangster rival Prescott with which he had hoped to make his fortune.
The rest of the evening was wrapped up quickly after Evans disclosed his side of the story; for once Holmes was aware of my presence during the denouement of a case.
After leaving the brigand to the tender mercies of the Yard, we took a cab to the site of my colleague Anstruther's practise; he was just closing up for the day, but at the sight of me being helped out of the cab and limping toward him using Holmes for my crutch, he gave an exclamation and quickly ushered me in. Holmes stood in the shadows of the room and did not speak as Anstruther cleaned and bandaged my leg and gave me a mild tincture of laudanum for the pain. I passed the wound off as airily as I could, which had Anstruther subjecting me to a stiff harangue; although he was willing to take my practise for a few days at a time upon occasion, he did not approve of my adventuresome little jaunts. "Should leave that roughhousing to the police, Watson, that's more befitting their station than yours," he growled. "What kind of respectable medical man runs around playing detective? Could have gotten killed tonight, you know--another half-inch deeper and this would have hit your femoral artery, and you'd be dead right now."
I had known that also, and silently I cursed the man for saying so. I could now sense a frosty draft coming from the shadowed corner that had nothing to do with the actual temperature.
Holmes spoke only to call for Mrs Hudson when we had reached Baker Street. I did not refuse his arm on the way up the stairs; the laudanum was starting to dull my senses and I realised how tired I was.
Once I had been ensconced in my bed, the fire built up, and a distressingly solicitous Mrs Hudson sent off to bring tea, Holmes retired in such haste that I knew that he had fled; soon the air was filled with the melancholy scrapings of his violin.
My own brain was still in a dizzy whirl, brought on by the abrupt cessation of pain, the languour of the laudanum, and the events of the evening. As the sharp distressed chords flew from the Stradivarius in the room below, I could not stop thinking of that face and that voice, the same ones I knew so well and yet were so completely different.
For the first time I had seen my friend's cold mask completely and truly stripped away. For the first time I truly realised that I was not, as I had basely thought in more bitter moments, of little use or value to Sherlock Holmes; nor was I merely regarded with the fond indulgence one extends to a faithful dog. It was a stunning revelation to know that my cool and just friend would have killed in the hot blood of rage to avenge my death--and would have grieved as bitterly for me as David had lamented the death of his own Jonathan.
How awe-inspiring it was to realise the hold I had upon this singular man's solitary heart. And how cheering to learn that Sherlock Holmes was not, after all, immune from the softer and gentler feelings to which mankind is heir--he had merely buried them so deeply and so well that he had managed to make everyone believe he was some kind of living automaton.
How...satisfactory...to realise that he did not regard me with some kind of fond tolerance, nor even with the proper cool friendship any man would share with schoolmates and comrades-in-arms.
He loved me. He loved me as strongly as I loved him.
I closed my eyes at the realisation. The same power that had caused John Watson to act like a cavalier defending his monarch's life would have caused Sherlock Holmes to overstep every boundary of gentlemanly behaviour in his grief.
It was true. Oh, dear God in Heaven, it was true. And whatever else Sherlock Holmes had taught his fellow lodger, he had taught him to look the truth squarely in the eye no matter how terrifying it was.
My thoughts were still in a daze when Mrs Hudson entered my room with my supper tray and a sound scolding for risking my life, as if I had been a naughty boy caught out in some dangerous prank; but her eyes were suspiciously damp.
"Mrs Hudson," I reproved her, interrupting her spiel, "the wound was a graze. My war-wound was far worse, and I survived that quite nicely. I should be able to remove the bandage within the week."
"You're quite sure now, Doctor?" she asked anxiously. "I'm afraid I had to throw your trousers away, they were quite ruined--and there was so much blood on them--"
"Mrs Hudson, I've treated many bullet wounds. I'd have suffered a worse injury if I'd turned my ankle alighting from a cab." I set to work on my soup.
"That's as may be. And he'll be in a state until you're back on your feet," Mrs Hudson said grimly, a jerk of her head indicating the cacophonous sounds behind the door.
"If he thought I could not handle myself under dire circumstances he would never have allowed me to go out with him from the beginning," I replied firmly. "And I am the one who was a soldier, not him. I reacted faster when that man aimed at us--"
I stopped. A cold fist had just wrapped around my heart and squeezed hard.
"Dr Watson?" Mrs Hudson was asking. "Doctor, are you in pain?"
I shook myself slightly and forced my morbid thoughts away. "It's nothing, Mrs Hudson. I'm just very tired." As if to underscore my words, a series of harsh violin chords issued forth just at that moment.
"Well, you'll both be all right once your leg's on the mend," Mrs Hudson replied, her brisk Scots matter-of-factness a balm to my nerves. "So you just lie back and sleep, Dr Watson."
I nodded, yawned extravagantly and apologised. Now that the oppressive pain was gone from my leg, my eyelids felt weighted with lead. No sooner had Mrs Hudson carried out the tray than I succumbed, despite the discordant sounds from Holmes' rooms and despite the sudden revelation that had reached through the laudanum haze to shake me with a momentary chill.
I was on foot the next day--walking with a cane, to be sure, but upright. By the end of the second day I had discarded the bandage to allow the powder burns to heal more quickly; by the end of the week I had returned to my practise. I spent most of my convalescent time in writing down the case and sending the story to the Strand.
And not once in all that time did Sherlock Holmes exchange one word with me. Indeed, he was so firmly ensconced in his rooms that I barely saw him let alone spoke to him. The only items that seemed to leave his quarters were violin music and tobacco smoke.
In the meantime our poor client found out the truth behind the promised inheritance for Garridebs, and the news broke his fragile health, sending him eventually to a Brixton nursing-home. Evans was brought up before the bench on the charge of attempted murder and was returned to the cell from which he had left only the year before. The crime had been halted, the villain apprehended, yet there was no advantage for any of the parties involved. My poor old leg, now doubly the recipient of a fruitless bullet wound, seemed a fitting symbol of the entire ridiculous case.
Holmes' behaviour was entirely understandable from that light alone; it was his usual pattern after a case had gone badly. There needed no further explanation than that, for anyone else.
Less than a fortnight afterwards, Mrs Hudson brought up a letter with his breakfast tray. As I was finishing my own breakfast at our table Holmes emerged from his rooms dressed for travel and carrying a Gladstone bag.
"Holmes, where are you going?"
"Out," was his terse reply before the door closed upon him.
For a moment I stared at the closed door. Then I let my paper fall, rose and went into his room. I found the opened letter among the clutter on his desk. It was a summons from Inspector Grayson, who wanted Holmes' help in deciphering a bizarre murder in his bailiwick.
The Gladstone meant several days' absence. Grayson had not requested that Holmes come alone; we had worked with Grayson before, and he knew that I accompanied Holmes on all his cases.
All save this one, it seemed. And as Grayson had not specifically asked for my absence...
Eliminate the impossible. Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
It was early July; and yet I was cold to the bone.
Mrs Hudson came up to take away the breakfast dishes, and something in my face must have caught her attention. Wearily I told her that Mr Holmes would be gone on a case for a few days.
"But you, Doctor, what of you?" she asked anxiously.
What of me indeed? I was past forty, no longer the young army surgeon who had first taken lodgings with the eccentric chemist I had met at Bart's, no longer the hale soldier. I had gotten myself shot. Either Holmes no longer trusted me to back him up in a crisis--or worse, he now saw me as past the age of adventures, someone to keep out of the line of fire like an aging veteran.
"I," I said coldly, heading toward the door, "have a practise to attend to. After all, no self-respecting medical man should be running around playing detective, should he?" I snatched up my hat and cane and exited.
"So you're back," I said coolly from behind my paper two evenings later, the fire before me the only warmth I felt. "I trust the case was diverting enough."
"There were certain points about it." The coldness inside me was as nothing compared to the arctic blast from the quiet voice nearer the door. The voice moved as I heard Holmes heading toward his rooms. "Grayson was pleased by my assistance."
"I hope he was of help to you." I was unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. "Indeed, he must have been much more useful to you than I would have been; he is younger than I by a full decade, and is not cumbered by a war-wound."
The voice stopped moving. "Watson, that--"
"You didn't even ask," I said with quiet venom. "You did not even extend me the courtesy of telling me that you would prefer to handle this case by yourself. That was unworthy of you, Holmes."
"Has been sound enough for nearly a week. But then, perhaps, you didn't observe that." I flung my paper to the ground and glared at him, giving up all pretense at casualness.
He was still in his travelling clothes, save for his hat and overcoat. The colour in his cheeks indicated that he had spent a good part of the time outside--perhaps out on a lake or other large body of water. The wind would still be brisk, for all that July had come... Absurdly, I felt a pang that I had missed the diversion this trip could have been.
His face was a mask. As it had always been, save for that one time. How could we have gone from that synchronicity to this distance in so short a time? "You have never required explanation before," he said. Was there a tone of apprehension in his cool voice?
"Because you never before shut me out in such an underhanded manner. In future, do be so good as to let me know when I will not be wanted along on a case." My rage was simmering.
He paused -- a fraction too long. "Yes, of course I shall."
I stood up and faced him. My suspicion had been confirmed. I took a deep breath, trying to quell my temper, and the terrible pain inside me. "You mean never to include me again, don't you?" His closed face was my answer. "You've lost faith in my ability to assist you, because of this!"
"No!" That sharpness was genuine. I was eased a trifle by the stricken look on his face. "No, that is not the reason--" He stopped. When he spoke again, the ice was back over his face and voice. "My compliments, Doctor. You managed that very nicely." He set down the Gladstone and faced me again. "You wish a reason. Very well. I had expected our last case to be an amusing little divertissement, and we ended up dealing with a very dangerous man. I have had occasion since that night to realise several things about myself. One of those is that I do not have the right to subject you to mortal danger."
Of all the reactions he was expecting from me, his look of startlement showed that he had not been prepared for me to laugh.
"You fool," I said, still chuckling grimly. "You had no trouble including me in the arrest of Abe Slaney, or in spending that ghastly night at Stoke Moran. You damn-well left me to watch Sir Henry Baskerville by myself when there was murder in the air!" My laughter was bitter in my mouth. "Now you dare to presume to protect me from the dangers of your work, when you can't even protect yourself!" I remembered that chill that had struck me that night as I was preparing to sleep. "If I'd done as you'd said, Holmes, and let you go alone to apprehend Evans that night, you'd be dead right now, shot by that devil. It was my quickness that saved your life that night, nothing else!"
"As I am fully aware, Doctor." Not at his most distant and careless had he ever sounded so cold and unyielding. "I intend to see that it never happens again."
"And so I am to stay here and see to my patients and allow the next villain to shoot without interference!"
"Your 'interference' seems to have opened my eyes, Watson," he said no less coldly than before, no less stiffly. "I have misused you badly in the past, needlessly endangered your life."
"Amazing what the sight of blood does to a man, eh, Sherlock?" I sneered, too angry to worry about my words or my liberty with his name. "I came closer to dying when you insisted on trying that damned Devil's Foot on us. But this one looked worse, didn't it?"
His face was still stone; but now his words grated one after the other like melting ice floes, on the verge of cracking. "Do you have any idea what I felt, when I saw you on the floor and thought I was about to watch you die?"
For a long second I went blank inside. Then it was as if Vesuvius had erupted after years of quiescence. Sherlock Holmes is an excellent boxer, but even he is not immune to a sudden attack from a quarter he is not inclined to believe a threat. My single blow to his jaw struck him to the floor.
I stood over him as he stared up at me in disbelief, my vision red with rage and wilder emotions. "You bastard! I have every idea what you felt!" I roared. I could not stop shaking. In my mind's eye I saw an abandoned alpenstock, a gold cigarette case, a note tucked beneath; heard roaring water that drowned out my screams. "I know exactly what you experienced for those few seconds, Holmes, because I lived with that feeling for three God-damned years!"
I exhaled like a dragon, and blinked, and shook my head hard, once. I had not realised how much anger I had carried for so long, and now the reverberations rocked through me like the aftermath of a Japanese tsunami wave.
Holmes rubbed his jaw, a stunned and stricken look on his face; it was my words, not my blow, that had so paralysed him.
I stood back, still facing him; I still trembled with the after- effect, but now I was almost giddy with the loss of that expelled rage. "I think I've needed to do that for a very long time," I said calmly, and held out my hand to help him up.
He accepted it; and stood, looking me in the eye. But there was uncertainty there now, and dismay, and shame; the stone façade had cracked. Now, finally, I saw in his face a terrible regret for the cruelty of his silence during the anni horribli that had greyed my hair and lined my face before my time.
Conversely, I myself was level-headed once again, my thunderstorm temper blown over and gone; I felt light as a feather, and now I could see clearly with my anger gone. I saw the look on his face, and I knew why he had excluded me from the last case. It was not, as I had feared, out of mistrust for my abilities, nor from a perception of me as a man past the age of adventures. Relief flooded me as I realised Holmes' true motive for his actions, for I had feared that icy distance between us more than I feared anything that could threaten life and limb.
It was a misguided effort on his part, awkward and uncalled-for; but then, Sherlock Holmes was learning a language that he did not yet know how to vocalize properly. I, however, did, having had much instruction in this language in many nations over three continents, in both the accepted dialect and the forbidden dialect. I had been wedded; I had lost whom I loved, twice, and regained what I loved once.
I was not unobservant. I was, after all, a medical man. I was aware of the current literature concerning many human peculiarities--for as my friend was drawn by the bizarre and unusual in the world of crime, so was I drawn to the bizarre and unusual in the field of medicine. (How grateful I was that I no longer need peruse with single-minded dread all the current literature concerning cocaine addiction!) And my friend had taught me himself how to read the clues around me.
A cold, loveless thinker, a living automaton? No. Simply a man, solitary by nature, who could only speak the forbidden dialect, and was perforce mute in its expression by custom and by fear. And as Sherlock Holmes had never feared a bad law in his life, his fear had a different focus.
Now, where he was fearful, I must be fearless. Here, where he was uncertain, I must take control for both of us.
I rested one hand on his shoulder, not relinquishing my eye contact. "Holmes," I said quietly, "do not shut me out of your world merely to keep me safe. If you truly love me, you will permit me the liberty of risking my life alongside of yours. We are better together than apart."
He did not contradict me; he knew that my words were true. But the dismay did not leave his face, and the shoulder beneath my hand trembled slightly. "John," he almost whispered, his voice as naked as his face. "It--pleased me to be solitary. I had never loved; never cherished anyone. Now, I could not bear to be alone again, as I was before. I think I would die."
The stark intensity of his words smote me. Yes, a man of his humours would very well sink into a melancholia from which he would never escape save by one means. And yet...
"If I do not accompany you on your dangerous cases, my dear fellow," I said gently, "you could very well die. I'm afraid it's a bit of a conundrum."
He nodded. He knew how true those words were too.
"My choice is to accompany you," I said. "While I have breath in my body and a fire in my heart, my revolver is yours. I came to London from Maiwand expecting peace and the dullness of routine -- I would tend my patients and bore them with war stories. Instead I have found adventures that make my wartime exploits look tedious. Your methods have opened my eyes to the world around me, and it has made me a better doctor. And I feel that I have done a little more service to my fellow man than firing at a few Afghani rebels half a world away. This is certainly not the first time I have saved your life, Holmes."
He nodded, and looked more at peace than he had for a fortnight. I, too, had never before told him any of this; it was a time for both our masks to fall away.
Then Holmes laughed a little. "It is not only your assistance in my cases for which I owe you my life, Watson. There is also this."
And to my considerable shock, he removed his coat and flung it over a nearby chair, unfastened his shirt-cuffs and rolled back the sleeves like a dockworker--an uncouth and uncharacteristic gesture for him. It took me a moment to see what he was showing me. His arms were mottled at the inside of the forearm and elbow with little white puncture marks--all of them old now, some even fading.
This had been the bitterest bone of contention between us for many years--but Holmes had read the medical articles that had terrified me so much, and had finally consented to my help in removing his addiction to cocaine. In truth, I think the actual reason for his capitulation was not the dire warnings by Freud and his counterparts in LANCET, nor my disapproval of his dangerous and loathesome habit, but simply his own distaste of being a servant to any outside influence; I may have merely been the strong enough impetus to finally propel him toward that goal. It had been a long hard stretch for both of us, long months of my diluting his solution and of him cutting the number of his daily injections. I had put up with his short temper in the interim and accompanied him on all his cases (a good many of his less noteworthy efforts date from that time, as he was so desperate for any stimulation that he took any job offered, no matter how trivial or commonplace). There were times I arrived at Baker Street wondering if the place was on fire; Holmes smoked so vigorously as a substitute for the syringe that the air in our digs became nearly unbreatheable some days. But I had not seen his morocco case in months; and now I knew that subterfuge was not the reason.
Holmes said nothing, and I did not need words; my reward lay before me in the beauty of his white unwounded arms. I felt as if I looked upon the justification of my entire existence. No matter what else John Watson had or had not accomplished in his brief span upon the earth, he had done this--for what was bravery under gunfire compared with rescuing a matchless mind from irreparable damage?
"Who can say how many years have been retrieved from the abyss?" he said quietly.
I smiled a little and shook my head. "I could have done nothing else as a medical man and still hope to think well of myself," I said firmly, and truthfully.
Something flickered across his face; instantly he was cooler, more distant. "Ah. Naturally. You would have acted no less toward any of your patients."
"No less," I replied, keeping those cool grey eyes in my sight. Then I raised my hand and cupped his lean cheek in an unmistakable gesture. "And no less toward anyone else that I loved so dearly."
And for the second time in a month -- the second time in my life -- I saw what those eyes looked like when they were warm with emotion and bright with unshed tears.
I lowered my hand from his cheek, only to take his hand. "Come with me," I said softly.
There are words for the specific actions that followed, and none of them are proper for a gentleman to repeat in mixed company. Suffice it to say that the act of marriage is very much the same whether in connubial bonds or out of them, for either dialect of this language. And just as I remember the tone of his voice rather more than his words as I lay on the floor of Garrideb's shop, it is not our actions that linger in my memory but the remembered sensations in my mind and my heart. (The one physical detail crystal-clear in my mind is the image of my friend bowed over me, far down my body, tenderly kissing the wound I had borne on his behalf.)
I was pleased beyond reason and ability to say, to find that lack of custom had not dimmed our ability to impart this language to each other; and if we spoke this dialect to each other awkwardly this first time, still we spoke with joy and with conviction. And we spoke with the realisation that here, in this place and at this time, we had achieved true commensality.
My friend's contempt for law-enforcement techniques was contagious -- and had spread to the point where I questioned the very laws themselves. My proximity to Holmes' work -- accustoming me both to dealing with the denizens of the shadiest parts of the city and witnessing the aftermath of deeds most foul committed by respectable people in the genteel countryside -- has also opened my eyes to many unpleasant truths hiding behind our society's veneer of civilisation.
I knew that what we had done was a crime; I also knew that I held in my arms my heart's desire. Where, in this commingled bliss and gentlemanly cameraderie, was the miasma of evil and sinfulness? What harm had this done--indeed, what good had it not done?
I was stirred from my somnolent thoughts by a familiar, if sleepy chuckle. "John," my friend sighed, and caressed the hand I had draped with such familiarity against his heart. "I am nearly forty years of age."
I smiled quietly, remembering my own distress earlier regarding that very subject. I remembered my beloved Mary, dead these five years, and the giddy heart-stopping pain I felt every time I was near her throughout our search for her fabulous inheritance. This was an entirely new sensation for Sherlock Holmes, and he was as bemused as I had been so long ago.
I recalled a bit of doggerel that fit us both. "'The young may speak their loving,'" I murmured, quoting, "'its happy golden state.'" I settled in to sleep, and held my contented love close to my breast. "'But we are no less happy fools, to whom that love comes late.'"
The hand stroking mine turned it outward to interlock fingers and meet palm to palm, and a sweet pain pierced my own heart. So strange to think of that handclasp as the most intimate and loving conjoining we had yet shared.
And before we both succumbed to sleep in my bed, one last thought warmed me like a draught of brandy. My friend had carefully manoeuvered us both so that the least amount of weight would rest on my injured leg as we lay together. Even in love, Sherlock Holmes was still the brilliant strategist.
I write all this, having seen the date. It is ten years to the day since we apprehended Killer Evans in that musty room, and ten years from the day I received my second and blessed bullet wound; the date I cherish above every other day of the calendar, even over the first of April (that being the day a certain old bookseller caused me to faint in my study).
We have become more intimate since, we two, and shared between us wellsprings of hoarded love and tenderness in an association that has not altered nor faltered with the passage of a decade. And yet...and yet it is still that diamond solitaire which I cherish above the veritable Agra Treasure we have since given each other. For from that day on I never again questioned my value to my friend. I have held that knowledge for warmth in the times of his coldnesses and his silences (for Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes, and not even our clandestine analogue to wedlock can shift that particular sun from its orbit). When his eyes are turned away in negligence or indifference, I recall that I know how those eyes look when they are full of tears. When his voice is clipped and distant, impatient with my slowness or intent upon other matters than social niceties, I remember that those same lips whispered a prayer for my life from the heart of a non-believer.
Holmes never again attempted to keep me from joining him on his cases, and he has had several occasions since then to be glad of his life because of my assistance. For me, there is no need to be grateful for a saved life. All I need do is witness the pitiable condition of so many of my fellow soldiers who withered and died without the spice of adventure to keep them alive, or the solitude of other widowed men who never regained the ability to love another; I count myself doubly blessed.
The rock-solid foundation of our long years of friendship, trust and love have remained the same even through ten years of conjugality. (I regret to report that the lure of a connubial bed and the warmth of his beloved comrade still do not stop Holmes from forsaking bed altogether during his usual single-minded pursuit of a case, any more than the exhortations of his friend and colleague did in the days when were were merely the staunchest of friends.) All that is most important between us has not changed though we now speak the forbidden language in secret fluency. We have become like two saplings planted close together that have grown into one conjoined tree, each fitting the other like a glove.
Neither of us is in the prime of life any more; but youthful faculties compromised by age have been replaced by an increase in cunning and wisdom. Some of our most successful cases in recent years I have not attempted to make into stories, because we resolved them without ever leaving the comfort of 221b; they would prove tedious reading for one expecting adventure and danger.
As this new century progresses, the golden years approach both of us. They cannot hope to touch us for a very long time; vigorous mental activity and the lure of the unusual keep us from dulling into premature age. Yet even there lies the assurance that we have ever found with each other. The prospect of growing old is no longer a fearful thing. I know that Holmes and I will face that as we have faced every unknown -- best face forward, ready for anything that might come along, and above all, together.