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The Adventure of the Crossed Streams

Chapter Text

It was with a tempest of emotion that Holmes and I wrapped up our latest pair of cases, the most successful of which I might entitle, "The Stone Goose"—that is, if Holmes will let me alone long enough to put pen to paper. As it is, I find myself rather uninspired to venture out into our January-cold rooms and sit at my desk to work. Warm as the fire is, it can’t hold a candle to warmth of Holmes's bed, with his body pressed alongside mine.

But I get ahead of myself.


It all begun the morning of Christmas Eve. In spite of the approaching holiday I was feeling far from jolly; the winter thus far had been cold and miserable, on top of which the previous evening had seen us at the Yard’s holiday gathering—their invitation standing as thanks for our all our help over the year—and I'm afraid I celebrated a bit more heartily than was wise. So it was with quite a head that I finally dragged myself into the land of the living, grumpy and lacking in good will toward any man.

The windows were thick with ice crystals. Holmes's breakfast dishes had already been cleared away, which was just as well; I did not think I could handle Mrs. Hudson's Christmas cheer, or her kippers, after so enthusiastic a party. And so I grunted to Holmes’s back, bypassed the table entirely, and headed for the settee.

There was an unfamiliar hat laying on the side table, and it seemed it might prove an entertaining venture to deduce what it might be doing there. I turned the seat to face the fire before plucking up the hat and settling in with a blanket, feet toward the flames, to test myself. However, after only a few moments I felt the sting of failure. Though I turned it round and round in my hands, each time lit with the hope that the next revolution might bring me more information than the one before, I could find nothing helpful. Spots of wax marred the crown on one side, but that served only to illustrate that the man sat frequently underneath a dripping candle. The red silk lining was of good quality but stained, but that only demonstrated that the man frequently perspired while wearing it and that he often pomaded his hair. Additionally I noted that he wore two sizes larger than I, he had pierced the brim for hat-securer but had subsequently lost it, and the thing hadn’t been brushed in quite some time. It was discoloured in several places, and the unfortunate owner had attempted to cover those stains with ink. He had done a bad job of doing so.

Other than those obvious tells I'm afraid I could not lift any more illuminating facts from the evidence on display. Holmes was sitting barely ten feet away, bent over some project or other, but I refused to ask for his guidance. Instead of admitting to failure, I trained my eyes on the hat but allowed my inner vision to wander.

Holmes seldom wore hats such as this. By that I do not mean, of course, that he never wore dirty hats. I do not mean he never wore ill-fitting clothes, nor wore styles several years out of date. But those were all for disguise, whereas in his everyday life Holmes was fastidious as a cat and twice as lazy. Just the night before he had made us late with his fussing, prodding and pushing until each thread, each rambunctious curl, was tamed and set in place. I’d caught him staring at himself in the mirror with an expression of such ferocious seriousness as he tied his tie that I had wondered if he meant to burn holes in the glass. I swallowed down my laughter and shot my cuffs, and he spun from his furious contemplations to sear me in lieu of the mirror.

I have never been a fragile man. But I must admit, my fortitude was tested.

His eyes had dragged from head to toe and back as if he sought to burn me from the inside out and dared me refuse him. I couldn’t look away. The gaze was heat and light, a consuming fire as he took me in. The moment hung there, endless between us, and the world revolved entirely in the span of a heartbeat.

But then my heart had started again, and rather than shattering in the sudden flare of his gaze, I firmed my spine and reminded him that we should leave.

The look in his eyes, however, had stayed with me throughout the night.

It had been several years since I returned to our rooms at 221 Baker Street, and in that time we two had developed a curious dance between us which had not existed before my marriage. I wondered, then, whether I could interpret anything further from those glances. I knew very well that my craving for intimacy might be colouring my vision in much the same way darkened spectacles shade one's eyes from the glare of the sun. I knew I might be looking at the bright innocence of Holmes's affection, but seeing only something twisted and grotesque. And so I had enjoyed the brandy rather too heavily. This morning, I was paying the price for my contemplations.

Outside, a gust of wind rattled the panes. I tugged our second-warmest blanket higher about my shoulders; the first I had ceded to Holmes, for while my time overseas had rendered me more suited to the heat than the cold, truly my intolerance of winter was not a patch on Holmes's. The spareness of his frame and bird-like nature of his appetite meant he was constantly chilled, and even at that time I would have done anything to make him comfortable.

Especially at that time.

As if brought on by my thoughts on the subject, I shivered and pressed my hand over my shoulder. On such raw days not only did my old wound ache horribly, but I felt certain that it would snow. It was truly a poor method of divining the weather, sending young men into battle to fight older men's wars. To be true, though, I had been a lucky one. I'm sure any number of wasted young men should have loved the chance to predict the weather with twinges and pains rather than being cut down long before they'd a chance to reach another season.

"You are right, Watson," Holmes cut into my thoughts. "It does seem a preposterous way of settling a dispute."

I grunted in agreement. "Most preposterous." And then I suddenly realised that Holmes had done it once again. I rolled my eyes. "Oh, which was it this time."

"You were rubbing your wound," he said.

"It's cold." The ache was reliable, and what's more, he knew it.

"Yes, but that, in combination with the disgruntled expression on your face, suggested to me that you were becoming angry at the cause of the pain—the war, and the way it disrupted so many lives."

I scowled, annoyed as usual by Holmes's intrusion on my privacy. I was afraid that some day he might read something more telling, something more dangerous, and that in uncovering the truth he would ruin our intimate friendship for good. "I’m not exactly feeling up to scratch this morning, Holmes."

"And yet your eyebrows continue their semaphore."

For a moment I considered throwing myself down on the settee and facing away from him in a huff, but then I realised it was the very move he would have made. I thought perhaps it might tip my hand too far to emulate him whilst thinking of him, so instead I turned renewed attention to the battered old felt in my lap with the hope that would signal my dismissal of his parlour games.

Which, of course, it did not. "You first were concerned with inspecting the hat. Firstly you wondered why it was here in our rooms, then went on to studying it as I may have done. You could not form an adequate picture, however, but rather than ask for help you continued to follow your own thoughts. They led you back to me, then to the party last night, then, naturally, to your over-indulgences. The weather intruded on your thoughts at this point, and from there you became concerned about those subjects which I have already detailed for you." I must have been telegraphing something else with my expression, because he drew himself up short. His gaze flickered away from mine. "But enough of that; I am only making you more cross. Come, turn your attention instead to this little problem, which might provide more gratification for our sluggish brains than any little thought exercise that hat might provide."

He indicated the small cardboard box in front of him, of which I admit I had taken little notice whatsoever. I dragged myself from my louche position on the settee and looked over his shoulder, and I was only slightly shocked to find, nestled inside the box on a bed of rough salt, two human ears.

I blinked at them. "Well, Holmes?"

Holmes grinned at me like a cat who had brought its owner the gift of a wilted mouse. "Miss Susan Cushing was celebrating with friends when she opened up a box addressed to “Miss S Cushing”. She found, not a Christmas gift as expected, but these enclosures you see before you."

"That must have been quite a shock."

"Not as much as the shock I expect the previous owners had. That is, before they were killed."

"…Explain." Against my will, I found myself drawn in to Holmes's puzzle—not an unusual occurrence, when it came to him, but it certainly softened my irritation.

"I'd a note earlier from Lestrade, with this alongside it. The details are these: at an early Christmas party yesterday evening, Cushing found herself the unwilling recipient of this pair of unmatched ears. The bumbling incompetents at the Yard assure her it is a hoax, perhaps perpetrated by a lodger she'd had some time back, a medical student with whom she'd quarrelled and who thereafter had left on rather inharmonious terms."

"But you suspect otherwise."

"Obviously. Look at these cuts—they were done with a dull instrument, not the sharp scalpel you'd expect from a medical professional. The address was made with a broad-nibbed pen in very inferior ink, and by a man—it was certainly a man, look at the handwriting—who was uneducated. Or, at least, he was unfamiliar with the city of address. Look at the manner in which he spelled "Croydon". With an 'i"."

"That could easily have been faked, Holmes."

"Ah." He held up a finger to forestall any more of my interruptions. "But there is one chief clue which, when it is pointed out, can not but bring you round to my conclusion."

"And that is?"

"Smell them."

"…Smell them."

"Smell these ears, Watson. Describe to me their scent."

Brimming with reluctance, I nevertheless leaned over and took a gentle sniff over the box. "I smell nothing I would not usually detect from a pair of ears lying in a box of salt."

"What you do not smell is something you would surely expect from a pair of ears separated from their owners by a medical man."

It hit me. "Carbolic."

"Bodies preserved for medical use are injected with some form of preservative fluid. If these were sent as a practical joke by a medical student, surely the preservative he would have chosen would be carbolic or rarefied spirits, something he had to hand. Not rough salt. Furthermore, it would have been far simpler to present a matched pair than an unmatched set. No, Watson, this is no practical joke. It is a serious crime."

Mystery quickened his eyes, and they shone through me almost more than my heart could bear. "What do you plan to do, then?"

"We, surely, Watson."

The cold was forgotten. The intrusion was forgotten. All I could do was smile back. "Yes, Holmes. Whenever you have need of me, I am there."

It was a curious thing: our conversation had come to its natural end, and surely Holmes must have been itching to move forward on his case. But we did not. In spite of his usual impatience, and in spite of my personal resolve to shield myself more firmly against his gaze, we smiled at each other fit to recommend us to Bedlam.

Our communion was broken by an interruption from Mrs. Hudson. She announced Commissionaire Peterson's arrival, with the warning that he seemed in a state of extreme agitation. Holmes hurriedly re-covered the cardboard box and its gruesome contents, and we received him as if nothing strange had occurred.

Peterson's face, when he finally appeared in our sitting room, was so pale I thought at first he had seen a ghost. Then he held up something between forefinger and thumb—something small and blue and glittering—and the realisation of what I was seeing knocked all other thoughts from my head. I had seen the articles in the paper, of course. Everyone had.

"That's—" I boggled. "That's the…"

"The Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle," Holmes announced to the room, and held out his hand. "May I?"

Several days earlier, the Countess had come back to the Hotel Cosmopolitan from her Christmas shopping to find a rude surprise awaiting her; the morocco casket in which she had kept the carbuncle for many years was laid open on the dressing table, empty of its precious egg. The upper-attendant of the hotel was a man by the name of James Ryder, and it was he who provided the chief evidence: John Horner, 26, a plumber, had been called in to do some small soldering job that day and was left alone in the room to do the work. Having been convicted once previously for robbery, Horner had been arrested immediately for the crime, though the papers report he continually protests his innocence in the strongest terms.

Peterson seemed reluctant to hand the gem over, but after a moment he did, and so we all three gathered round Holmes's palm to have a look. The way the carbuncle caught and refracted the light was a wonder. I forced myself to focus on what Holmes was saying, and not on how the miraculous thing was even bluer than Holmes's eyes; I chided myself for even entertaining the thought.

"It is unique in the world of gems and its market price is unknown," Holmes was saying. "However, the reward of a thousand pounds is surely only a fraction of its true value."

"A thousand pounds," Peterson breathed in shock. His knees buckled, and I hurried to help him to a chair. "A thousand pounds. My wife was only going to cook the bird, Holmes. She found it in its crop."

"Bird?" I asked, confused.

"Before you even arose this morning, Watson, I'd already had a visitor. Peterson suspected correctly that I would be in need of some small puzzle to preserve my mind from the stagnation of a dreary midwinter, so when he happened upon this hat and a fine goose, he engaged me on finding its owner."

"How did he—"

"On his way home from the commissionaire's Christmas party last night, Peterson broke up a small altercation—a fracas, I believe he called it—between the owner of those items and a band of roughs. However, when he went to return the old man's dropped items, Peterson found that he had fled. And so, he brought them here."

There was one mystery down, at the very least. "At which point, presumably, you deduced the owner?"

Holmes looked distinctly uncomfortable. He waved the question away. "I deduced many things about him, yes. That he is ageing is certain, as is the fact he anoints his hair with lime-cream. He had been a fairly fortunate man, but in the recent past has experienced some retrogression—likely drink has weakened his state in the world. It is this fact and the state of his hat which lead me to suspect strongly that his wife has ceased to love him."

I blinked at Holmes, blinked at the hat, then looked up at his smug face again. "This must be some sort of joke."

But he bowled right past my doubt. "And he is an intellectual. I suspect this is how he maintains a degree of self-respect in the fact of such ill-fortune."

"And why," I asked, rolling my eyes, "do you deduce that he is an intellectual?"

Holmes grinned at me in that mischievous manner which never failed to send a thrill to my stomach. "It is a simple matter of cubic capacity, Watson. A man with so large a brain must have something in it."

Chapter Text

Holmes and I had a moment of communion about this ridiculous statement; both his hubris in making such leaps and his certainty that he was always right were unfortunately common, and they never failed to frustrate me.

I said, "I'm sure you've met plenty of pugilists in the ring who had rather large heads full of air and little else."

"Yes. And I've also found many a small-headed man whose brilliancy was astonishing. Or still others whose heads were of perfectly average size, but the contents of which and the matter of their employment I value above all else."

To any onlooker, it would not have been apparent he was talking about me, but something in the tilt of his head gave me pause. My heart thumped. Over-aware of our audience and the solidifying tension circling round us, I took a step away before I could betray myself. "It seems our most logical course is now to trace the sequence of events from the theft of the jewel at one end, and the crop of the goose in the other. If the stone came from the goose, and the goose came from—"

"Yes, our little deductions have suddenly assumed a much more important and less innocent aspect. We shall have to have a word with Mr Henry Baker.”

"And how do you propose to do that? You hadn't had much luck finding him before."

"I hadn't yet set my mind to find him before." Holmes settled at his desk, then pulled out a pencil and a fresh slip of paper. "We shall try the simplest method first."

"How will you determine if Baker is the source of the gem?" I asked. "Or if Horner is innocent?"

"It is a simple enough matter." Holmes finished writing, and read off the paper as if it were a transcription. 'Found at the corner of Goodge Street, a goose and a black felt hat. Mr Henry Baker can have the same by applying at 6:30 this evening at 221B, Baker Street.' There. That is clear and concise.”

"It's Christmas Eve. Will he see it?" I said.

"I am sure he will keep an eye on the evening papers. For a poor man, the loss was a heavy one. Peterson! Nip down to the advertising agency. Put this ad in all the evening papers."

"Which ones, sir?"

“Oh, the Globe, Star, Pall Mall, St. James's, Evening News Standard, Echo. And all the others that may occur to you.”

"Very well, sir." He paused. "…And the stone?" His hand floated toward where Holmes had placed it, in the exact centre of the scale at the corner of his desk.

Holmes grabbed his wrist. "No. I shall keep the stone." Only when Peterson withdrew his hand did Holmes let go. "Thank you. And if you would, please purchase a goose on your way back and leave it here. We must have something for Mr. Henry Baker in place of the one currently carrying out its ultimate destiny in your family's oven—that is, unless that goose, too, has done something miraculous. One never knows; perhaps during your absence its carcass has come back to life and flapped through the kitchen window." He fluttered his hands sarcastically, eyes wide. I hid my smirk behind my hands, but Peterson seemed not to hear him; he was still entranced by the sight of the jewel, glittering on the stainless steel platter. Holmes brushed the joke away. "Very well. We shall search down your reward when all this is solved."

Peterson blinked at the stone, then at the coins Holmes offered, then at Holmes himself. "A thousand pounds," he said, as if the sum were so great his brain had simply pushed it aside in favour of some more reasonable reality.

"A thousand pounds," said Holmes.

"A thousand pounds." Peterson tottered trance-like toward the sitting room door, putting the coins into his pocket and reaching for the doorknob. As I led him out to the street, he muttered the same to himself over and over and over. "A thousand pounds… A thousand pounds…"

Back in our rooms, Holmes was holding the gem up to the light and gazing into it as if held great secrets. Perhaps it did, to him. "It is a bonny thing. Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course, it is a nucleus and focus of crime—every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits.”

"The papers say it is not yet twenty years old."

"And already has a sinister history." He sounded indecently gleeful about it. "There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?"

"You'll lock it up in your strong box now, yes?"

Holmes was staring into it, and it seemed as if he did not hear me. "It has every characteristic of the carbuncle, save that it is blue in shade instead of ruby red."

"Holmes."

He started and looked up at me, then brushed my concern away. "Yes, yes. I'll drop a line to the Countess to say that we have it. Now," Holmes bounced up from his seat. "Back to our original problem. Get dressed; I'd like to head out to Croydon as soon as possible."

"You intend to visit Susan Cushing, then?"

"We intend to visit Susan Cushing." He locked away the stone, then shooed me away to my rooms. "Hurry. I'd like to be back in time to lunch at Café Royal."


The train was slightly warmer than expected, and it was a pleasant surprise to find myself cozy and comfortable, tucked up into my coat and muffler. I was very soon lulled into a dozy, dreamlike reverie, watching Holmes as we rocked from side to side.

Holmes was watching the world speed by, no doubt cataloguing every hedgerow and building we passed, building up his mental atlas of London and her surroundings. Very often his hands twitched with impatience, but in that moment he looked serene, and it made my heart glad to see it. It wasn't much longer before I was so contented with the world I dropped into slumber.

I awoke to his hand shaking my knee.

"Watson," he murmured. His voice was gentle enough that I didn't startle in the slightest; I only rose from the depths of sleep into a bleary sort of consciousness. "Watson, we're approaching the station. Wake up."

I did, and it was only a short walk to Miss Susan Cushing's house. The distance was so small the cold had scarcely had time to permeate my boots before we were there. She lived on a very long street of two-storey brick houses, neat and prim, with whitened stone steps and little groups of aproned women gossipping at their doors. A small servant girl let us in.

We found Miss Cushing in her front room. She was placid and grey, the antimacassar in her lap the only strong colour about her person. We were invited to enter, but she dictated that if we had the ears with us we should leave them in the front hall; they were not welcome in her presence.

"I am convinced this is all a mistake," she said after we had introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. "I've rarely left this house in twenty years, and have not an enemy in the world. I believe the parcel was not meant for me at all, but when I tell them this the gentlemen from Scotland Yard laugh at me. But why should anyone play me such a trick?"

"I believe you to be correct, Miss Cushing," said Holmes. "But if I might ask one or two questions—"

"Oh, I am weary of questions." She sighed and looked away out the window, as if she wished us gone along with the offensive enclosures which rested in a cardboard box in her front hall. Next to me, I felt Holmes's spine straighten.

"I have no doubt you are—" I started, but Holmes cut me off.

"You have two sisters, I believe."

At once he had her attention. "How on earth could you know that?"

I pointed to the portrait at her elbow. "You sat for this with two other ladies who are so like you that there can be no doubt of the relationship."

Holmes looked at me with surprise, and my stomach warmed.

"You are quite right," said Miss Cushing. "Those are my sisters, Sarah and Mary."

"And that one is…" I said, pointing to another portrait beside her.

"Mary, my youngest sister."

Holmes stepped in. "I see she was unmarried at the time. And the man with her appears to be a steward by his uniform."

"Yes, you are quite right. That is Mr Browner. They were married a few days afterward. He was on the South American line when that was taken, but he was so fond of her that he got onto the London and Liverpool lines soon after. The May Day, last I heard. He couldn't abide to be without her for very long, you see."

"So it was a love match," I said.

"Yes." She hesitated to say more, so before Holmes could pounce and put her off I tried to convince her to go on by employing the ‘semaphore’ of my eyebrows.

"We have the utmost discretion, I assure you."

Thankfully, it broke the dam. Like so many who live lonely lives, once started it seemed Miss Cushing was eager to pour out her heart on the subject. She told us all about her brother-in-law, how at first she had been loathe to condone the arrangement since she felt a steward beneath their station, but it soon became clear how glowingly happy they were together, and after that Miss Cushing could hardly wish her sister better.

"And I think they could have continued so," she said, "if it hadn't been for Sarah."

I knew Holmes so well after all our years together that the slightest change in his energy was as unmistakable to me as shouting. "Sarah."

"Sarah went to visit them soon after their marriage, and it quickly seemed as if she would never leave. I tried to convince her to come home, arguing that it wasn't right for her to stay there so long, that she ought to leave them to set up their own house and become settled into the roles of husband and wife, but…well, you don't know Sarah's temper. She's so meddlesome and hard to please that there's no convincing her. I don't like to say a word against my sister, but it is only the truth."

"And the presence of Sarah impeded their happiness."

"Not long after Sarah had come to stay with them she began inviting over a young man by the name of Alec Fairbairn. Mary wrote to me of him, using such sweet and familiar terms that I immediately became suspicious. I doubt anyone else would have read such things in her letters, but a sister knows. I truly believe Sarah meant Mary to run off with him. She seemed to want to shame Jim Browner. I do not know what he did, but was as if she'd grown to hate him."

I wished Holmes did not seemed so outwardly pleased at what she was saying. "You think Sarah and Jim quarrelled."

"I can only suspect he had grown tired of her meddlesome ways and given her a piece of his mind. He had been blue ribbon, you see, but had recently broken the pledge, and a little drink would send him spinning, irrational and wild. Ah! it was a bad day that ever he took a glass in his hand again. Once Sarah came home that's all she would speak about—Jim and his drinking and his ways. She hadn't a word hard enough for him."

"Where does your sister live now?" said Holmes. "She had returned home, but I don't believe she lives here any longer."

Miss Cushing tilted her head at him. "How could you possibly know that?"

"The basket of needlework at my elbow is quite a different style to the one you have been working, and there are some opened envelopes addressed to her tucked among them. No doubt it is misdirected post you were planning to deliver next time you saw her."

"It's true," said Miss Cushing. "She moved out one month ago, having found a position as warden at the mission in Wallington."

"And I suppose you'd planned to spend your holiday with your sisters."

"Unfortunately no," she said, and for the first time since we arrived, a vague blackness passed over her features like a thundercloud eclipsing the sky. "Sarah has responsibilities to the mission she must attend to, and Mary stopped writing not long after Sarah came back. I suspect—apart from this curious business—it will be a very quiet Christmas."

"Mary stopped writing?" said Holmes, brushing aside her loneliness. I quickly stepped in with a fumbling attempt to soften the blow.

"That must worry you."

She gave me a weary smile. "This isn't exceptional. Mary has a similar wilful streak to that which shows in Sarah, but it's tempered in her case, fortunately enough, by her eventual desire to set things to rights. I expect this is a temporary condition."

"Do you know why she stopped writing?" I asked.

"Not this time," said Miss Cushing. "No doubt in my latest attempt to offer advice upon her situation I'd said something that upset her. But our estrangement won't last much into the new year. You know how it is with siblings, I'm certain."

Holmes cleared his throat and stood. "Well, Miss Cushing, we must be on our way. We've many other avenues to investigate if we plan to clear up this situation for you."

"Oh," she blinked. "Yes, quite correct. Thank you for your aid in—"

Before she was through speaking Holmes had headed for the door. Quickly I offered her a perfunctory gesture of thanks, our apologies that she had been dragged into a case with which she, as she said, had nothing whatsoever to do, and hurried to follow.

"What are the many avenues of investigation you spoke of?" I asked, but, true to form, Holmes ignored me. He hailed a passing cab.

"How far to Wallington?" he asked the man.

"Only about a mile, sir."

"Very good. Jump in, Watson. We must strike while the iron is hot."

"Sarah Cushing, then?"

"Sarah Cushing."

Chapter Text

We took a cab to Wallington, stopping only briefly for Holmes to send off two quick wires before laying back and propping his hat over his face in an effort to shield himself from the winter sun, the rest of the world, and, I fear, me. The mission at which Sarah Cushing was the warden was a squat brick building. The chaos of the street rushed past it, a constant flow of unwashed bodies, of horses and workers and children and noise, and I watched Holmes's spine straighten as he prepared himself to ford the stream. When he stepped into the current I stayed close enough to be carried in his wake. We reached the other side with only minor jostling and rang to be admitted.

We barely got further than the foyer before being informed that Miss Cushing was unavailable.

"Miss Sarah Cushing is extremely ill," said the grave young gentleman with the shiny hat who was brought to us once we stated our business. "She has been suffering since yesterday from brain symptoms of great severity, and as her medical advisor I cannot take the responsibility of allowing anyone to see her. I recommend you call again in ten days."

And with that, we were summarily dismissed. "Well, if we can't we can't," said Holmes cheerfully, once we were back on the street.

"Perhaps she could not or would not have told you much."

"I did not wish her to tell me anything. I only wanted to look at her."

He would not tell me anything else (for so is his usual quest for drama that I'm certain he'd planned to lay out his findings all at once, and therefore I knew he wouldn't spoil it no matter how many times I asked), so the return train ride back to London was quiet and tense.

Once at the mid-day meal, however, he plied me with wine, and I found I could no longer stay cross with him; throughout our conversation it seemed as if his eyes rarely strayed anywhere else.

"You found your Stradivarius…" I said, blinking in amazement at his assertion, "…at the back of a broker's shop in Tottingham Court Road."

"Beneath a cracked statue of Athena and a lopsided dressmaker's doll, yes. I'd almost missed it, sidetracked as I was by the display of mismatched cufflinks." He grinned, and I was dazzled.

"I'm astounded they had something of such value tossed in with the rest of their wares."

"Oh, they didn't know." Airily, Holmes sipped his claret.

"So you must have managed quite a bargain."

"It's worth at least five hundred guineas," said Holmes with great mischief. "But I walked out having paid only fifty-five shillings"

The wind was knocked from my lungs not from his revelation but by the luminousness of his gaze. It sparked electric when it suddenly met my own, and I couldn't help the smile that spread across my face. To my elation, Holmes reflected it back.

In this way, we passed quite a delightful hour: Holmes, the claret, and the thunderclap way his eyes met mine.

Lestrade was waiting impatiently when we finally tore ourselves away from our lazy post-luncheon reverie and trekked through the cold to the police-station. It was only late afternoon, but Christmas Eve already had the city firmly in its grip; a comforting layer of cheer had settled over everything, and the usual gruffness of its inhabitants had, for the holiday, at least, been transformed into a population of joy-wishers and bearers of bonhomie, the festivity of the season brightening their lives.

The Inspector met us at the door with a telegram.

"Good, it's here," said Holmes. He scanned it quickly, then crumpled it up to stuff it into his pocket.

"So?" I asked. "What did it say?"

"Let's go home, Watson. My chemical equipment has been demanding some attention, and I'd—" Abruptly, he abandoned the thought to scowl over my shoulder, toward the front doors. "What are you doing here?" I spun to find Holmes's brother Mycroft sauntering into the Yard's front hall to join us. "Shouldn't you be home with a barrel of chestnuts, seven roast geese, and a plum pudding the size of a railway carriage?"

Mycroft's face twisted with a most dyspeptic version of his smile. "Your charm, as ever, warms my heart." His gaze scanned us both, found us wanting, and moved on. "You'd asked my help, and I'm here to bring it."

"I didn't want it in person."

"And the compliments of the season to you, too." At that moment he looked past Holmes and me, presumably to judge whomever was standing behind us, and his spine, already habitually erect, seemed to snap pin-straight. His mouth opened slowly and shut itself without a sound; he was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words.

"Mr…Holmes?" said Lestrade. I turned to see a similar expression on his face. He appeared to be taking in an marvellous sight, and as I watched, he scanned Mycroft from head to toe and back, then smiled.

"Inspector Lestrade," said Mycroft, who had regained his power of speech but not his composure. "You’re…er."

"And, er, you," Lestrade said, sounding curiously hoarse.

"Yes, yes," interrupted Holmes, "it’s been some time, the year has been good to you, my! what a difference a good tailor can make, what have you done to your hair…" He rolled his eyes. "Watson and I have a great deal to do today, Mycroft, so if you don't mind giving us that information, we can be on our way. I wish to be far distant from whatever ground-shaking episodes are occurring."

Mycroft did not move from his frozen pose. Instead, as in a trance, he reached into his satchel and pulled out a file, which he handed to Holmes without his eyes once leaving Inspector Lestrade's face. Lestrade, for his part, stepped forward to meet him. I had never seen such a delighted expression on him before or since, not even with all our years with Holmes's revelations. Perhaps that was why Holmes seemed so put out.

Holmes looked between them, rolled his eyes again, and studied the file Mycroft had given him. "Ha!" he ejaculated. "Excellent!"

"You mean to say you've found out something," I said.

"I mean to say I have found out everything." He beamed at me.

"What? You are joking!"

"I was never more serious in my life." Holmes pulled out one of his visiting cards and scribbled a few words upon the back of it. "A shocking crime has been committed, and I believe I now have laid bare every detail." He threw the visiting card at Lestrade, who paid it very little mind. "That is the name. You cannot affect an arrest until the twenty-seventh at the earliest. Leave my name out of this, if you would; this case has been exceedingly obvious, and I only wish my name to be connected to those which present some difficulty." The arrogant lift of his head was as dear to me as anything, and the pride in his eyes kindled my own.

However, neither Lestrade nor Mycroft appeared to be moved by his pronouncement, lost as they were in their own private wonder and stuttering, one-syllable conversation. Holmes looked between the two of them, huffed, and stormed out the door. Rather than interrupt their quiet communion, I followed.

Out on the pavement, Holmes was in a stew.

"I don't understand what's happened," I said.

"I refuse to discuss it." And with that, Holmes hailed a cab and ordered it to take us to Baker Street.

Holmes and I rode in silence for several long minutes, and rather than prod him for more explanation of Lestrade's and his brother's curious behaviour, I studied his reflected profile in the window. While I observed, the annoyance slowly melted from his bones, and a serenity settled over him as he watched the smudges of roofline rise and fall against the shifting, shell-pink horizon. His hands quieted, and he seemed to become contemplative. A softness limned his features—the curve of his mouth, the corners of his eyes—and his gaze reached toward the far horizon. I wondered, as ever, what he was thinking about. His face was seldom as illustrative as my own.

Once home, he climbed the stairs without a word, but stopped short a pace or two through the doorway. It was only through my ever-present observation of him that I managed to stop short in time.

"Mrs Hudson!" he bellowed.

Apparently she had only been round the corner decorating, because she appeared immediately bearing a rope of garland. Before she could speak, however, Holmes skewered the air with one long, bony finger, indicating our sitting room table. I followed where he pointed, and found only a small, inoffensive evergreen where our usual plant sat.

"What's that?" Holmes said, at somewhat less of a shout this time but with nearly as much venom.

"It's a Christmas tree," she said. "A Norway Spruce."

I did not think the scowl on his face was what she'd had in mind. "How dare you take my aspidistra!" he said, clearly affronted.

Mrs Hudson's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "I do dare," she said, whereupon she dismissed herself back to her decorating.

Holmes turned to me, and I tried, in vain, to smother my amusement. He huffed and spun over to his chemistry equipment, where he dumped his outerwear into a pile and began immediately to work. I prepared myself for a roiling evening, a Christmas Eve with Holmes and his foul temper. But three-quarters of an hour later, just as I was finally relaxing into my book, the fire-grate inches from the souls of my feet, Holmes cleared his throat.

"Wouldn't you like to know my solution to the question of Miss Cushing's mysterious ears?" he said.

I let the book fall to my lap. "You know I do."

"Do you have any suspicions yourself?"

I studied my slippered feet silhouetted against the fire. It had come to a point in our relationship in which I hesitated to lay out my deductions in the same manner he did; without fail, he made me feel inadequate, and I had grown weary of the sensation. I thought back to my test with the hat only that morning, and didn't even know where to begin.

"Describe the container the ears came in," he prompted, and came over to sit in his chair. He steepled his fingers in front of his lips.

"Yellow cardboard," I said. "Wrapped in brown paper and secured with tarred twine."

"It was a half-pound honeydew box, with nothing distinctive except two thumb marks in the left bottom corner. Addressed, awkwardly, to a Miss S Cushing, with no other cues as to the addressee. The paper smelled strongly of coffee, and the twine was tarred, of a type popular with sailors, and the knot—"

"The knot was left intact," I cut in. The corner of Holmes's mouth twitched. "Was it a distinctive knot?"

"It, also, is popular with sailors."

"And Jim Browner is a sailor."

"In fact, the parcel was posted from a port on the very same day Mycroft's intelligence tells me his ship was there. There is the distinct whiff of the sea about this case."

"Ahhh." It was becoming clear to me. "You think Jim Browner sent it."

"On its own the evidence is circumstantial, but with other clues, suspicion mounts."

"What other clues?" Unusually, Holmes was walking me through his deductions piecemeal, inviting me into his process at my own pace instead of laying out his thoughts all on a breath, and I was going to take this chance as it came, wholeheartedly and gratefully.

"The Yard—what did they think the solution was?"

I cast my mind back. "They expected it was a trick being played by some disgruntled medical student or another, one of those who had lodged with Miss Cushing. Though she maintained it seemed unlikely because she hadn't a quarrel with anyone."

"And the blade which cut off the ears: did it seem to have been made with a sharp instrument, such as a scalpel?"

"No, it was dull." I snapped my fingers. "And they didn't smell of carbolic."

"No, indeed, they were resting in a medium often used to preserve items onboard ships."

I couldn't rein in my grin. "The evidence mounts."

The quirk at the corner of Holmes's mouth broadened. "And Jim Browner's character?"

"Sober? Or after he broke the pledge?"

"What did Miss Cushing say about his place aboard the May Day?”

"That…he used to be aboard a different line, but when he fell in love with Mary Cushing he changed to be closer to her."

"Throwing up a superior berth to be with his wife."

"Subject to strong passions, no doubt," I said.

"And, as noted, occasional fits of hard drink."

"So it seems more and more likely that Jim Browner is involved."

"Now, Watson, turn your thoughts to the ears themselves. First, the man's—for it seems likely to have been a man's, no?"

"Its size did seem to indicate it. And the other's—"

"The other's is the clue on which my deductions rest."

That pulled me up short. "Oh?"

"Early on in our visit with Miss Cushing, she turned her head in profile and I noticed something astonishing."

"Her ears?" I ventured.

Throughout the conversation, Holmes had been leaning more forward in his seat, as if urging me to walk faster and faster, and then run. "What about her ears did you notice?"

Truth be told, I hadn't been paying much attention to her ears; at that moment in time I was more focused on Holmes, but it was clear he himself had noticed something, and I was not so blinkered by my affections that I could not put two and two together with my medical training and come up with a guess. "There is no part of the body which varies so much as the human ear, and each ear is distinct from all others. Susan Cushing's ears bear a remarkable similarity to one of the ears sent to her in the box."

"So similar it is beyond coincidence," said Holmes, the joy in his expression sending my heart racing. He was as energetic and focussed as a dog at a hunt. "I have written two short monographs on the singularity of ears, and I can tell you there was the same shortening of the pinna, the same broad curve of the upper lobe, the same convolution of the inner cartilage."

"So the ear likely came from a blood relation."

"A very close one."

"A sister." I swallowed as realisation dawned; we were no longer investigating a theoretical crime, but the murder of the poor woman's sister. "And you suspect Jim Browner."

"It did seem likely. The information I sent for via Lestrade came from a connection on the Liverpool force, and it concerned Mary Cushing's whereabouts. It seems she has not been seen at home in quite some time; her neighbours assumed she had gone to visit family, but she left no message."

"Have you considered—"

"Alec Fairbairn? Of course. You noticed the character of the ear. Did it seem like a sailor's ear? Was it sunburned? Rough?"

"Not at all. You presume it to be Fairbairn's, then."

"I do. The information I sent for from my brother verifies it."

"How?"

By this point, I could not move; Holmes had mesmerised me with his energy, his excitement, and the full force of his attention. "I had him use his connections to determine whether Jim Browner was on the May Day during these events, and so he was. The line of boats calls at Belfast, Dublin, and Waterford, therefore if he had committed the terrible deed, the first place at which he could post the packet would be Belfast. And so, it seems, he did."

"When does the May Day reach port again?"

"Three days." Holmes sparkled. "Lestrade will pick him up then, and interrogate him as to the exact details of his crime. All we need do now is be patient, and we will have our answers."

I couldn't help but grin. "Brilliant."

"Now we can turn our attentions to other matters."

"Other matters?" There was a strange light in his eye, a light which unsettled me as much as it also set my heart racing. I couldn't break away. I drank in the fine lines at the corners of his eyes, the quirk of his mouth, the manner in which one curl of hair had escaped the rest and was curving high over his forehead. I found myself staring back, warmth spreading through my chest.

For his part, he too failed to look away. I felt him read me in a million quick glances. Whatever he saw made him suddenly spring from his chair, forcing me to jump out of the way to avoid being trampled, and grab for his violin. "A song. What will you hear? —No," he said, then launched into a jaunty version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

I watched him play, musing to myself that as long as I lived, I wanted my days to be filled with this: Holmes being Holmes, reaching out to me howsoever he chose, the two of us together. It came as no surprise, of course, but it was the first time I'd couched it in those terms for myself, and my heart was full.

He played, and we gazed at each other. Slowly his song shifted to something slower and softer, and I felt my pulse quicken. Misty, delicate images played in my head, rich with invented sensory detail and tremendously compelling. I licked my lips at the thought. Holmes broke away to stroll around the room, so I took the opportunity finally to glance over at what he had been working on over at his equipment. To my surprise and delight, instead of an experiment, instead of mess and chemicals and steam, I saw a sight which stole my breath: Holmes had constructed a delicate arrangement of laboratory glass and steel and copper, a glittering tree strung with garland and topped with a bow. He had built his personal version of Christmas, and in that moment, I could not love him more if I tried.

Chapter Text

By the time he finally arrived, Mr Henry Baker's appearance was an old friend.

It was just as Holmes had described. The man who appeared in our sitting room was getting on in years. His grizzled grey hair was slicked down under a Scotch Bonnet which no doubt was being marred by perspiration; his walk and subsequent climb up our stairs had caused him to perspire in spite of the cold. That clue, in combination with the red blooms on his nose and cheeks, the dullness of his skin, the slight tremor in his hand, and the fact that he was out of breath, all attested to his poor health and his drinking habits. The poor man's head was large, yes, but the light in his eyes was striking; he looked at the two of us with a quick, crow-like glance from under bushy brows, strong intelligence brightening his visage and making it remarkable in spite of the coat which, though of some quality, had seen clearly some hard use over the past few years. Much like the man himself.

Between my private deductions and those Holmes had shared with me, I could have picked him out of a crowd.

Henry Baker took in the two of us with an assessing glance, but until Holmes rose from his seat at his equipment—where he had been attempting to create baubles by treating a set of glass flasks with silver nitrate—it was clear he did not understand to whom he should address himself.

"Mr Henry Baker, I believe," said Holmes assuming an air of geniality that I did not believe ran entirely true. "Pray, have my chair by the fire. It is such a cold night, and I perceive your circulation is more adapted to summer than to winter. You have some company in that regard." He smiled warmly at Baker, and our visitor seemed to subside into the chair. "Tell me. Is this your hat?"

Mr Baker seemed barely to need a moment to verify that it was so before he smiled. "Yes, sir, that is undoubtedly my hat."

"We had examined the papers for a notice from you so we could return your property. I am at a loss to know now why you did not advertise."

"Shillings are not so plentiful with me as they once were," was our answer. "I had no doubt that the band of roughs who assaulted me had carried off both my hat and the bird. I did not wish to spend more money in a fruitless attempt to recover them."

"Naturally," I said.

"By the way…" Holmes began slowly to pace about the room, his hands steepled in front of his lips. "About your bird. I'm afraid we were compelled to eat it."

"To eat it!" Mr Baker was suddenly crestfallen, as if his heart had plunged to his shoes. And no wonder; if shillings couldn't be wasted on advertisements, no doubt the price of a goose was too burdensome to be easily borne. I was about to reassure him we had a replacement when Holmes spoke.

"I'm afraid it would have been of no use to anyone had we not done so, for there were signs that, despite the chill, the bird needed to be consumed without delay. But as you can see there is another goose upon the sideboard the same weight and perfectly fresh, and I presume it will suffice as a replacement equally well?"

The relief upon the man's face transformed him, and he looked quite ten years younger—or, at least, ten years less hard-done by. "Certainly."

"Of course, we still have the feathers, the crop, the legs, and so on of your own bird…" And suddenly I began to see Holmes's game.

Our answer came in the form of a lighthearted laugh. Mr Baker shook his head. "They might be useful to me as relics of my adventure," said he, "but beyond that I can hardly see what use the disjecta membra of my late acquaintance are going to be to me. No, sir, I think that, with your permission, I will confine my attentions to the replacement you have provided—is it that excellent bird I see upon the sideboard?"

Before Mr Baker left, Holmes asked him one more thing. "Would it bore you to tell me where you purchased your other goose? I am somewhat of a fowl fancier, and I have seldom seen a better grown bird."

I was thankful I had not been drinking anything at that moment, else at the phrase “fowl fancier” I might have discharged it in a spectacular spray all over the floor. As it was, Holmes took great pains not to look in my direction, and I could see the twitch of strain in the corner of his mouth as he fought against the smile.

Mr Baker explained as he gathered up his items. "There are a few of us from the museum who frequent the Alpha Inn, as it is nearby. This year our good host Mr Windigate instituted a goose club, by which, on consideration of a few pence per week, we were each to receive a bird at Christmas. My pence were paid and I was on my way home when I was accosted in the story now familiar to you. I am much indebted to you, sir, for the return of the hat and this marvellous goose. I'm afraid the Scotch Bonnet is fitted neither to my years nor my gravity." And with a comically pompous manner he bowed, hands twirling and brows twitching, then strode off on his way.

Once the sitting room door had once more shut between us and the world, I'm afraid I could not hold back my laughter one second longer. I laughed until my guts were sore, heedless of anything but my happiness and the sound of Holmes joining in. He plopped down into his chair and let it prop up his melting bones.

We laughed until my sides ached and he gasped for air, and slowly, it subsided into a pleasant weariness and delicious sense of calm.

"What's next?" I eased out through several straggling giggles. "Mr Windigate at the Alpha, I expect."

"Of course."

"We need to be back for supper. Mrs Hudson won't thank us for missing it. I'm told she's prepared a huge meal." Holmes grunted, but said nothing further to assure me that we would return in time. Nonetheless, I pressed forward. It took me no small effort to master myself enough to sit up and list toward my coat and hat. "You know where it is, I trust."

"Near the museum, as he said. Surely you were listening."

"Truthfully, I paid more attention to his eyebrows than to his speech," I owned. "You told me earlier my eyebrows told a tale, but his sung me an epic poem."


It was a bitterly cold night. Even with the addition of extra woollens the winter snuck through the cracks in my clothes, and after five minutes of this I was shivering. To my surprise, Holmes threaded his arm through mine and drew me close as we walked. The addition of his body heat did much to soothe my chill.

The sun had long since gone, and the stars shone crisply and bright in a cloudless sky. Our breath puffed out before us like smoke from a long series of pistol shots. I matched Holmes's footfalls as neatly as possible for a pair whose legs were hopelessly mismatched in length as ours were, but after a moment the strain eased, and our footsteps echoed off the buildings in sync as we wended our way through a series of streets and neighbourhoods to Bloomsbury and the Alpha.

The inn was a small public-house on the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn. A welcome wall of heat from the fireplace pressed in on us once inside, and I chafed my hands together as Holmes ordered two of his very best glasses of beer from our pink-cheeked and mutton-chopped landlord.

"Your beer should be excellent," said Holmes, "if it is as good as your geese."

"Our geese?"

"Yes. We were talking not half an hour ago to a Mr Henry Baker, a member of your goose club," I said.

The landlord informed us that no, they weren't his geese, but instead came from a salesman in Covent Garden by the name of Breckinridge, a purveyor of the finest quality. Holmes hoisted additional payment and offered a glass on us, and while the landlord gratefully turned to fill his own drink I tugged off my gloves and prepared to enjoy my beer. Just as I had the glass to my face, however, Holmes slid behind me and out the door, and I had no choice but to follow.

"Now," he said, grinning and excitable, "for Mr Breckinridge."

"Can't it wait?" I said, hoping against hope for just a little of the beer awaiting us inside.

"Watson, we have found a line of investigation which has, unsurprisingly, been missed by the police, and which a singular chance has placed in our hands. We will follow it to the bitter end." He skulked off away, leaving me standing in the street, mourning our loss.

"Yes, extremely bitter," I muttered, and I took two steps to follow Holmes. But then my stubbornness overtook me, and I ran back inside. The landlord’s eyes indicated his surprise at my return. I spared him little attention as I grabbed my glass, lifted it momentarily in his direction, and downed the entire pint all at once. When the cup was drained I nodded at the man, spun on my heel, and left the club.

When I emerged it was to find Holmes waiting at the end of the road with a twisted expression on his face, as if he were fighting a smile with every fibre of his being. I hurried to catch him up, and though I was warmed by the running, once I had reached his side he nevertheless took my arm again and pulled me close.

"Faces to the south, then, and quick march!" he said, and immediately set off at a speedy pace. With our height difference I struggled to match it, and I heard his low chuckle. He walked even faster, so giggling, the combination of beer and merriment making me feel gay, I sped as well. Soon we were moving nearly at a run as we turned zigzags on our way to Covent Garden, our bodies bumping off each other with every step. When the bright lights of the late-night stalls hove into view, he and I slowed to a stumbling trot, out-of-breath and clutching at each other with laughter. No doubt those who saw us thought us drunk as lords, but I couldn't bring myself to care. We put ourselves to rights and, as one grinning and happy front, approached a large stall which bore the name of Breckinridge.

The proprietor was a horsey-looking man with a long face and full side-whiskers. A shivering shop boy was helping close up for the night.

"Good evening," I said. "It's a cold night."

He nodded and shot us both questioning looks.

"Sold out of geese, it seems." Holmes gestured to the bare slabs of marble.

"Let you have five hundred in the morning."

"Ah, too late."

The salesman, Breckinridge himself judging by the ledger he was working in and the sharpness with which he ordered the boy about, pointed to a stall up the way, lit bright as day with gas flares. Holmes shook his head. "I was recommended to you."

"Oh? Who by?"

"The landlord of the Alpha Public House."

"Oh, yes; he had a couple of dozen off me."

"Very good geese, too. Where, may I ask, did you get them?"

The transformation this question provoked in the man was a marvel to see. His face immediately flushed red and he came at us like a badger. His voice, already deep, rolled out from him in a flattening roar. "Now, then, mister, what are you driving at? Come on, let's have it straight, now."

"It's straight enough. I simply want to know who sold you the geese that you supplied to the Alpha."

"Well, I'm not gonna tell ya. So now!"

I heard Holmes blink as he processed this new development. Then he wafted a hand. "Oh, it really is of no matter. I fail to see why you should get so warm over a trifle."

"Warm?" Breckinridge said. "Warm?! You'd be warm, too, if you were as pestered as I am. When I pay good money for a good article there should be an end on it. But no, it's 'where are the geese?' and 'Who did you sell the geese to?' One would think they were the only geese in the whole bleeding world, the way you lot are fussing over them."

"Well, I have no connexion with any other people who were making inquiries," Holmes said.

"Inquiries?" said Breckinridge. "It's more like the inquisition. So I'm not telling you." With that, he turned and went back to his ledger.

Holmes shrugged. "Ahhh well. Watson, the bet's off."

"Bet?" said Breckinridge. It took me a moment as well, but when I noticed the conspicuous corner of a pink betting slip visible in the man’s pocket, I understood. I played my part with a heavy and theatrical sigh.

"I'm always ready to back my opinion on the matter of fowls, and I have a fiver on it with my friend here that the bird I ate is country bred."

"Country bred," I echoed, rolling my eyes.

"Ha! You've lost your money, then, because it's town bred."

"It's nothing of the kind."

"I say it is."

"I don't believe you."

"Pay up, Holmes," I said, trying not to smile, for often he had said to me that the fastest way to information was not to ask a question, but to force someone to correct you, and here, it seemed, was a prime example of the matter. “Hand it over.”

"What, d'you think I wouldn't know? Me? Who's been handling fowls ever since I was a nipper? I tell you, all those birds that went to the Alpha were town bred."

Holmes chuckled and shook his head. "No, no, no. You'll never make me believe that."

"Come on," said I. "Do the decent. Pay up." I held out my hand, trying not to catch his eye for fear my seriousness might crack.

"So? Will you bet, then?" Holmes said to Breckinridge, twisting his mouth. “It’s country bred.”

"It's merely taking your money. But I'll have a sovereign on with you, just to teach you not to be obstinate."

"Done."

"Right."

I hid my smile behind my muffler as Breckinridge retrieved his ledger from his workspace and plopped it down on the table under a hanging lamp. He pointed to one column, then another on a separate page. "This page is the list of country folk, and on this in red the list of city. The numbers after their names are where the accounts are in my ledger. Now, look at that third name in red."

"Mrs Oakshott, 117 Brixton Road," said Holmes.

"Yeah, account number 249. Now, turn that up in the ledger."

"Mrs. Oakshott, egg and poultry supplier."

"Now then. The last entry?"

" 'Twenty-four geese at 7s. 6d.' "

"Exactly. And underneath?"

" 'Sold to Mr. Windigate of the Alpha Public House.' "

Breckinridge's face, already glowing with the cold, seemed to shine with an competitive gleam. "Now. What have you to say now?"

Churlish, Holmes threw a sovereign onto the table and spun to go.

"Hey! What about this gentleman's fiver?" said Breckinridge.

We froze and turned back. I smiled like a cat with cream and held out my hand. Holmes's mouth quirked and his eyes narrowed, but nevertheless he dug out a fiver and slapped it into my hand in the churlish manner of a man whose disgust is too deep to go on. I pocketed it, laughter bubbling in my veins, and smiled at the proprietor with a smug air before following Holmes down the row of stalls, round a corner, and out of sight.

Holmes had stopped, and when he caught my eye our laughter could no longer be contained. I drunk in the sight of him, his eyes shining in the lamplight, the lines at the corners of his cheeks cut deep with pleasure, and I had to dig my fingers into my palm just to keep from reaching out. It had been years since I'd seen him laugh as often as I had that day. I wondered just what had happened to produce the effect.

"Well done, Holmes," I spoke instead of acting on any of the dangerous actions my heart yearned for. "Shall we see this Mrs Oakshott tonight?"

“She’s sure to be home.”

“But we’d be interrupting her Christmas Eve.”

“You don’t much care about that, do you? Not when we’re so close to solving this puzzle that I can smell it.”

“Are we, then?”

“I have it in my nose already.”

“And after we can go back home for that lovely supper Mrs Hudson has prepared.”

“My dearest Watson, I may be a cruel taskmaster in matters of deduction, but even I would not stand between you and the Christmas Eve dinner-table.”

I smiled at the blazing look on his face and at the way he was leaning so far in toward me that I could feel his body heat. The world was cold, but in that moment I was feeling altogether warm. “If betting is the order of the evening, I would wager that you must be hungry, too.”

“Starving.”

His smile set my stomach fluttering with something other than hunger, and he took my arm. Just as we were about to stride away from the stalls, however, we heard the stentorian voice of Breckinridge cut clearly above the hue and clatter of the street. A hush fell.

“I've had enough of you and your geese," we heard him bellow. "I wish you were all at the devil together. The next time someone comes round pestering me about those damned geese I’ll set the dogs on you.”

As one, Holmes and I blinked at each other and bolted round the corner. There in the meaty hands of Breckinridge, being hoisted by his coat collar, was a rat-faced man in mid-snivel. They stood in the yellow spill of light from the stall, and Holmes placed one wide-spread hand on my chest to hold me back and watch events play out. My heart under his hand was suddenly racing, and I could feel Holmes’s excitement echo my own.

Rather than chasing the game, it seemed the game had come to us.

Chapter Text

Holmes and I heard the strange, rodent-like man click and whinge as we came nearer. "But, but… There were two grey-headed geese—"

"What's that got to do with it? Did I buy the geese off you?"

"No, but one of them was mine all the same."

"Well, then that's Mrs Oakshott's trouble."

"But, see…" His fingers clutched desperately at Breckinridge's coat, a barnacle clinging to a steam ship. "She told me to ask you."

"You can ask the King of Proosha for all I care," Breckinridge said, and shoved him away, causing him to stumble into a nearby cart. Its proprietor gave an offended shout. "Get out of here. I've had enough."

The whinging little man nursed his bruised pride, rubbing his arm while he skulked away. I saw a flash of movement in the corner of my eye, and then Holmes was springing through the scattered knots of people still browsing in the marketplace, dodging and weaving through the traffic. I breathed a quiet curse and forded through after him.

"–lock Holmes," I heard him say. "It is my business to know what others don't."

"Ridiculous." The face before us was drawn and pale. "You can know nothing of this."

"On the contrary. I know everything of it. You are tracing some geese from a Mrs Oakshott of Brixton Road to a salesman named Breckinridge, then from him in turn to Mr Windigate of the Alpha, and from him to his goose club, of which Mr Henry Baker is a member."

Glee dawned on our stranger's pointy face. I was certain that glee was bound to be short-lived. "Oh sir. You, sir, are the very man I've longed to meet. I can hardly explain to you how interested I am in this matter."

"In that case…" Holmes threw out a long arm, and immediately a four-wheeler pulled to a stop beside us. "It might be preferable to further discuss business someplace warm, rather than this frigid marketplace. Join us. But first: who is it I have pleasure of assisting?"

The man's eyes skittered sideways for a moment. "John Robinson." As many Johns as we met in our travels, if it were not for his shifty expression I might actually have believed him.

"Come come," said Holmes. "Real names, please. It is so cumbersome doing business with an alias."

A flush of pink smeared across the man's cheeks. "Well…then…I suppose…my name is James Ryder."

"Quite so," Holmes said, and gestured into the cab. "Shall we? And then I shall tell you everything you wish to know."

The ride was short and awkward. I was exceedingly aware of the presence of this fumbling stranger in our cab, of how he took up restless space, nervous with his own apprehension, so I knit my hands over my knee and allowed myself to partially shut down until we reached the flat. It was a skill I'd learned during my years in the Army, filled as it was with long stretches of stagnation punctuated by violence, and I'd often found it useful during my years with Holmes.

The tension followed us up into our rooms while we arranged ourselves—Holmes standing before the fire, Ryder usurping his chair, and I settling into mine—and I assumed it would continue to plague us while Holmes found his way through to interrogating our nervous visitor.

I should have known better, however. I should have known Holmes would go straight for the point.

"James Ryder. You are head attendant to the Hotel Cosmopolitan." At once, Holmes began a steady turn about the room.

"…Yes, sir." Ryder's eyes darted toward the door, as if he were once again wondering what he was in for.

"And you wish to know what happened to Oakshott's geese—or, rather, one goose in particular. A white goose with a grey head."

Ryder's eyes went wide. "Oh, sir! Can you tell me where it went to?"

"That is easy. It came here."

"Here?"

"Yes, here. And can you imagine—well, I'm certain by your interest in the matter that you can—what we found? I don't think you'll be surprised to hear it. When we opened it up, this white goose with a grey head laid the bonniest blue egg that was ever seen."

Ryder staggered to his feet to clutch at the mantelpiece. He looked between us, uncertain whether to admit knowledge of the thing, while Holmes produced from his strongbox the Blue Carbuncle. He hoisted it up where it caught the firelight, and it gleamed like a demonic trap set to capture the heart and soul in preparation for the flames of hell. I watched Ryder's eyes grow immediately wide and hazy, as if once ensnared by the Carbuncle he needed only witness it again and the enchantment was refreshed.

"The game is up," said Holmes quietly.

This quiet crack of the whip broke Ryder's focus on the Carbuncle. He looked in horror upon Holmes's face, and as the full import of this statement sunk in he fainted, slowly but helplessly, slumping against the grate.

Holmes sprung over, but I got to Ryder first. I manhandled him back into his chair as Holmes spoke. "Hold up, man, or you'll be into the fire," he said, then scowled, muttering to me, "He's not got blood enough in him to go in for felony with impunity, the shrimp."

A bit of brandy revived Ryder, and fortunately, too, for Holmes was not yet done with him. "I have followed almost every link in the chain," said he, "and all the proofs I could possibly need, so there is little you could have left to tell me. Those few details, however, I confess draw my curiosity. How did you hear of the Countess's blue stone?"

"Er…" While the colour had returned to Ryder's cheeks, it did little to lend the impression he was at all a hearty or resolute individual. "It was Catherine Cusack who told me of it."

"The Countess's lady's maid."

"Y-yes, sir."

The expression on Holmes's face was cold and emotionless as granite. "Better men than you have yielded to the temptation of sudden wealth easily gained, though you were not very scrupulous in the method by which you gained it. It seems to me, Ryder, there is the making of a pretty villain in you. You knew that Horner, the plumber, had been in a similar situation before, and therefore that suspicion would fall easily upon him if you could put him in the right position. It was only left for you to create some small job in the lady's room—you and your confederate Cusack—and arrange for him to be left alone. Once he'd finished, you rifled the jewel's case, raised the alarm, and allowed the poor man to be arrested. What did you—"

"For God's sake, have mercy!" Holmes was interrupted by a sudden collapse of Ryder. He'd thrown himself onto the rug at Holmes's feet and now reached toward him, pleading. "Think of my father and my mother, what it'd do to them! It would break their hearts. I never went to the bad before and I never will again, I swear it! I swear it…I swear it on the Bible! Oh, don't bring it into court. Oh God, don't!"

My stomach clenched at this display of extreme cowardice to which we were being treated, and even Holmes's iron façade broke down. "Get back in your chair," he sneered, and haltingly Ryder did so. "You may cringe and swear and cower all you like, but you've thought little enough of the poor man you put in the dock for a crime of your own doing."

"I will fly. I will leave the country, and the charge against him will break down."

"We can discuss later what you will do. For now, give me your full account of the next act. The stone into the goose, and the goose to the market. The truth, if you have any hope of relief."

"I will tell you it all how it happened, sir," said Ryder. At any moment I expected him to drop again at Holmes's feet to plead some more, but fortunately for my temper he kept his seat. "Once Horner had been arrested, I knew I had to get away and hide the stone at once. I had no promise that the police might not take it into their heads to search me, or my rooms, or even the hotel. So I created for myself an errand and went out to my sister's house, where she fattens fowl for the market. It seemed every man I met on my way to Brixton Road was either policeman or a detective…"

As Ryder continued to speak, I found my frustration level increase until it reached the snapping point. I shoved myself from my seat and paced about the room, my hands clasped behind my back to protect Ryder from their reach.

He told us how the idea to hide the gem from search inside one of the birds came to him as he stood out back having a smoke, and that he'd selected a distinctive goose with a grey head. He'd thought in that way he could safely transport the carbuncle to where it could be sold, but in a flurry of wings and distraction he'd lost sight of his specific goose.

I'm afraid my sigh at this point in his narrative was quite rude, but he was so tiresome I found myself helpless to hold it back.

It doesn't take much imagination to guess what happened next, of course. Ryder, who seemed to think that the more theatrically he embellished his story the more it would make him endearing, described to us how his guts turned to water when he discovered that the grey-headed goose he'd pulled from the flock was not his particular goose, and how by the time he had returned to his sister's to find his fowl, all the rest had been brought to Breckinridge's for sale.

"…And you saw yourself how unwilling he was to share any further information with me," Ryder said, his voice beginning to quaver with his distress. "My sister thinks I am going mad, and sometimes I wonder whether she isn't right. And now I am…" He swallowed hard. "Now I am branded a thief without even having touched the wealth for which I sold my character." With that, he burst into tears. "God help me! Help me!"

I felt my face frozen into a blank mask, which I suppose was slightly better than the look of disgust it could have been. When I dared catch Holmes's eye, I found that he was just as slate-faced. We looked into each others' eyes over the prone and sobbing Ryder, and after a drawn-out moment Holmes growled.

"Get out," he said.

The expression that dawned over Ryder's face was beatific, and his tears dried up at once. "Sir? Oh, Heaven bless you!" he said, clutching worshipfully at Holmes with almost blasphemous reverence. "Heaven bless—"

"Get OUT!" shouted Holmes.

No more words were needed. Ryder scurried from our rooms and was out the lower door before the upper had even closed. The silence that fell upon us in his wake was thick and dark, weighty with what Holmes had just done.

There was a knot of frustration in my throat as hard and tight as the gem that Holmes was holding. I watched him turn it in front of his eyes to catch the light. "I must confess, Holmes, to being a little surprised."

Holmes's lip curled. "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies."

"Even with such as that? Ryder is weak and helpless, yes, but vermin are vermin, and once caught I'm not of the type to let them free in my house." Holmes and I each had a type of criminal which set us to snarling more than the others; his were blackmailers, and mine were weak-willed, cowardly snivelers who lacked the courage and honour to own what they'd done.

Holmes met my eye in such a challenging way I must admit I thought for one horrible moment that the evil which followed the gem everywhere had poisoned us. But then his expression relaxed. "It would be one thing if Horner were in danger from him, or if I thought he might commit further crimes, but no. He is too badly frightened. He will not go wrong again." I watched Holmes avidly. My heart thundered in my breast as, with a frustrated noise, he stood and secreted away the jewel inside his locked drawer, nestling it down among his notecards and mementos and the tender company of his careworn—and now empty—morocco case. He touched the jumbled contents. "I suppose I am committing a felony, but I may also be saving a soul. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides…" He looked back at me, and I realised he was considering his own vulnerabilities. "It is the season of forgiveness."

I remembered how often it was that my friend employed artificial sharpness to defend the softness of his heart. I felt ashamed at my initial frustration; I should have supported him. I should have believed better of him, especially in this season. I should have trusted his humanity.

The church bells began to toll, and I pulled out my watch.

"Ah, listen to that. Come," he said, and gestured to the meal we had once already postponed from dinner to supper. We sat, and I attempted to press the dregs of irritation down into the back of my mind. I wasn't entirely successful.

It wasn't until we had charged our glasses that a thought bubbled up, and I realised a small way with which I might soothe my frustration. "Holmes, I cannot contemplate eating while John Horner is still on remand." I saw his expression blank, but I pressed on. "Do you suppose that Bradstreet or one of his colleagues might still be at the Yard?"

He stared wistfully at the covered dish before he spoke, and I was surprised to realise that for once in our friendship, of the two of us, he was the hungrier. The fact that I was the one suggesting one more errand before we ate was an irony he seemed to find tough to swallow. However, after a moment of thought he conceded. "You're quite right, Watson. Come."

The cold of the last few days had finally shattered into snow, and it began to fall steadily as we made our way to the station. By the time we had made our case for Horner's release—the production of the Carbuncle, of course, aided by Holmes's impeccable sense of the dramatic—there were several inches accumulated on the ground. The purple glow of pre-dawn was spreading across the sky.

For several minutes we walked in companionable silence, but eventually I spoke. "Holmes…" The cushion of snow hushed my voice and kept it from disturbing the preternatural quiet of the city. I shivered, and he tucked his arm through mine. "What do you suppose Peterson will do with the reward?"

"Buy some better boots, one can only suppose," he said, and I heard the barest lilt of humour in his tone. As one, we stepped over a culvert alongside the road. The water in it was streaming just fast enough to resist icing over. "The inner sole of his current pair is of an inferior type, and has worn nearly all the way through. This is his third pair in a twelve-month. Taking into account the average route of a commissionaire—"

I tightened his arm against my ribs to stop his screed in its tracks. "And if he were being frivolous?"

"Frivolous?" It sounded as if the thought hadn't occurred to him. We turned the corner and passed my favourite baker, but of course even he was at home on account of the holiday. It felt for a moment as if we two were the only men alive in all the world. "What would you buy," he asked me, "if you were to receive such a sum?"

I confess I hadn't thought of it. "I suppose I would have to give a portion to charity," I said. "It would be the civilised thing to do."

His arm was already tucked against my ribs, but he stepped even closer so that our shoulders touched, and he tucked his hand against my bicep. It seemed this time he was the one feeling the chill. He was so close that I felt his low chuckle through my arm. "I don't suppose I should have expected anything else from you."

"Is it that amusing?"

"No, no. Not in the slightest. You're perfectly right: if you were to come into a sum of money, of course you should give some away. I do know you quite well, so that answer doesn't surprise me at all."

"But you would give some away, too." He turned away to watch the slow flicker as someone, just over the road, lit their morning's fire in the grate. "Oh, you'd find a way to hide it, but you'd be charitable just the same."

We walked on in silence and turned the corner into Baker Street. He spoke up. "Certainly you wouldn't have to share lodgings anymore. Leave behind my temper, and my noise, and my mess. You could reestablish a practise, perhaps. Find a…new wife. Reclaim the life you'd formed on your own when I'd…when I was gone."

I found myself shocked into silence. My feet nearly fell still, and it was only with a firming of my faculties that I kept moving forward. "As it happens, Holmes." I swallowed, and my heart thumped high in my chest. "I don't think that sounds at all well."

"No." His deep voice was soft.

"No."

We walked in silence, and in a few paces reached our door. I pulled out my key.

"So, you'll stay, then."

I had to focus to open the lock; my hand was shaking. "Yes, Holmes. In this purely fantastical situation in which I find myself a thousand pounds richer, yes. I think even then I should infinitely prefer to stay with you here in Baker Street."

He said nothing, and I led us up the seventeen steps. I watched him spin distractedly about the room, dumping his coat onto the sofa, uncovering the roast, putting the lid back on it, prodding the dead fire, then ending up in front of me again. I hadn't even a chance to rid myself of my hat.

"Watson," he said. He took a step forward and stopped abruptly, as though he were a fish caught on a line. Then he moved closer again and fell still. I couldn't take my eyes off this remarkable display. Holmes took one more step closer, and at last he was standing so closely I felt the heat from his chest. He smelled of stale tobacco and hair cream and snow. Without a word he lifted his hat from his head and set it aside, then did the same with my own, and then his gaze returned to mine for a moment before flickering to my mouth. "Watson," he started again, then seemed to shake the words away as if they constrained him. Before I knew it, before I could react, Holmes bent down and pressed his mouth to mine.

Immediately my heart went still. Shock froze me in place, though his sigh on my cheek was warm. My eyes fell closed at the sound. My lungs burned for air, but not a muscle could move until Holmes finally, at long last, pulled away.

"Happy Christmas," he said on a breath, and by the time I could open my eyes he was gone. I was left looking at the congealed remains of our supper laid out on the table. While it was true I hadn't eaten since the morning before, I cannot say I had the appetite for any of the beautiful meal Mrs. Hudson had prepared for us.

Risking her wrath, I swallowed, gathered my wits and my coat about me, and headed for my room.

Chapter Text

I dreamt of hotel maids and waterfalls and well-stuffed divans overflowing with jewels, the latter sharp and hard, far too uncomfortable to rest upon. I dreamt of Holmes by the hearth rug beckoning me to his stack of cushions, but rather than sitting turkish-style as usual he'd laid himself out head to toe, naked. I went to use him as a sofa instead of the divan. His skin was soft and so, so warm.

When I awoke, it was still full dark. I stared into the blackness and fought to understand what he had been thinking with that kiss. Then I tried to understand what I was thinking.

Both were as opaque to me as the darkness that filled the room.

Love him as I did, I admit I'd never even considered that my love would take on a more physical role. More than that, much more, I never considered that he might love me in return. Moreover, the fact that he had pressed affection to my lips seemed to me to be as absurd as anything else under the sun. This was Holmes: not cold, never cold, but methodical and logical and forever rejecting the softer emotions in favour of reason. Even when I married he had been restrained in his congratulations. In those younger days, I had felt keenly the sting of his reservation, and now, despite all the years of experience which had trained me to more fluently read his heart, I must admit my mind still rebelled when presented with the proof of Holmes's baser affections. If I didn't know better, I'd have suspected him of a return to the cocaine bottle.

But I knew he was sober, and had been for quite some time, and if I wanted to accept the reality in front of me I had to decide how best to proceed. Images of his face flitted through my mind as I considered our options, and the feeling of his lips on mine was a distracting, constant companion that I could not seem to shake.

I wrestled with these demons as my stomach churned, and at last I made a decision: I would not decide. I did not have enough information. Holmes could not make bricks without clay, and in truth, neither could I. I would gather my patience and I would observe. I would wait.

Slowly, fitfully, I slipped into a dream-dark sleep.


Christmas Day dawned bitterly cold, and Holmes and I spent the morning indoors circling each other like dogs pent up in a yard. When he caught me looking I paid closer attention to the cards I was meant to be writing. I tried not to feel his gaze on my back.

"Do you recall the address of the Ballentine sisters?" I asked him, hoping discussion of a successful case might turn his mood—and mine—around.

"You have the book right there. Look it up yourself." He threw a spent match into the fire and settled down to forget to smoke his third pipe that morning. He held it in his hand, prop-like and unused, the entire time I watched out of the corner of my eye, and I was convinced that by the time I finally returned my attention to my cards the thing had gone out again.

Holmes was not the only member of the household in a state; Mrs Hudson had taken revenge for the wasted meal by serving us a breakfast made up entirely of items we both disliked—no mean feat, I imagine, for I was not a picky eater—so by the time midday rolled round I was starving for food and gasping for any amount of fresh air uncontaminated by our moods. I threw on my coat and headed out-of-doors without sound or signal from Holmes's quarter.

If there were marks of love to be spied, he was taking great pains to hide them.

The sky above my head was the flat white of midwinter, heavy and close with the threat of more snow. My breath puffed dragon-like into the air as I warmed to my walk, and I pushed myself to a steady march, seeking the ease that came from leaving Holmes far behind. I was damp with exertion by the time I calmed enough to think.

It didn't seem possible Holmes's actions might entirely ruin what we had, but I couldn't bear many more mornings like that one—awkward, close-mouthed, and strained—and the discomfort firmed my resolve. I couldn't simply wait for Holmes. Resolution seemed necessary.

And I had to be the one to act.

Without a doubt, Holmes felt something. It was obvious in hindsight from the flattering attention he'd recently paid me, and it also explained his actions when he'd been in the lounge readying himself in front of the mirror. He'd turned to pin me to the wall with his gaze, and the look he'd given me was neither uncomfortable nor soft. No, the emotion in his eyes was hard and wanting, a obdurate gaze that scintillated like the Blue Carbuncle itself.

There may not have been marks of love that morning, but there had certainly been plenty over the last few days. And clearly Holmes had divined my feelings, else he wouldn't have taken that first, fumbling, shocking step. Even taking into consideration his ignorance of the world of romance—if I was certain of nothing else, I was certain of that—he could not fail to know the threats explicit and implicit in carrying on an affair. It would place us perpetually in opposition to society. Perhaps he had judged the potential wound worth the prospect of healing our relationship, of knitting our two souls together more closely than ever before.

Most would say more closely than they ever should be, of course. And as I took a walk round Regent's Park, I weighed the options myself.

Accepting the premise—that he loved me, and that I loved him in return—was simple. Less so was the decision of what to do with that information. It was all truly daunting. Perhaps that was why he had fled; even I was being turned over and over by the thought of it, and of the two of us I was the one more equipped by experience. Still I wondered: should I act? Should I allow him to? Or should we simply shut this all away, lock it safe behind some cupboard doors and pretend it never happened at all? Which would I rather? Our desires were entangled with the state of the world, snared by law and custom and the rightness of God's will.

Still, we frequently jettisoned all three when needs must, and I could well see a time in future when our needs would be great indeed. I could not imagine that, even with recommendations against it, they would stay locked away for long. It felt inevitable, much as I wished to avoid it. And avoid it I know I could not do, not with Holmes involved, Holmes whom I loved with every fibre of my being. I had only just realised the previous day how much I wanted never to leave his side. I would not be parted from him, complicated emotions or no.

Yet there would be danger. There would always be danger. I resolved, then, not to return to 221B until I had screwed my courage to the sticking place—enough to act, at any rate. And so it was that I turned my brief bid for fresh air into an afternoon-spanning affair that didn't see me home until supper was already on the table.

It was a simple meal, but much appreciated. Mrs Hudson seemed to have begrudgingly welcomed us both back into her graces, for while it wasn't anything near as lavish as that which she had prepared the previous evening, it was lovingly cooked, and perfectly suited to the importance of the day. And placed at the centre of the table were two gifts: one for Holmes, and one for me, each given by the other. Mrs Hudson seemed to be taking the phrase "good will to all men" with a great deal of seriousness. She had wrapped both our gifts to the height of her great ability; they made a splendid and festive centrepiece, for all that I doubted Holmes would want to exchange them.

He surprised me, however. No sooner had the crumbs of Christmas pudding been cleared away then he picked up his gift and examined it.

"You didn't wrap this," he said. I shook my head. "And it was not purchased at Gammages."

My eyebrows crawled toward my hairline. "What do you know about Gammages?"

"The people's emporium," he said, sounding smug. "A wide variety of goods for sale. Many customers."

"All the more behaviour for you to study, you mean."

Holmes shrugged, but wouldn't meet my eye. "Are we opening these or not?"

My gift to him was a packet of custom-printed stave paper imprinted with his name, with a field at the top for his personal archiving system. His jaw was tight when he stared at the open box, and I saw him take a breath before he thanked me.

His gift to me, on the other hand, was rather warmer. And quite literally so.

I pulled it out to look at it easier, and my fingers sunk into the soft pile. "A winter dressing gown?"

"You don't like it?"

"Look at my face, Holmes. Do I like it?"

The tiniest quirk of smile graced his mouth. "Good."

"It's lovely." Lovely, yes, but far more than sheer loveliness was its luxury. I wanted to bury my face in it. The edges were trimmed in lush velvet, and the cuffs were heavy and soft. I had been thinking about buying myself a warmer dressing gown for a long time, but this was of far better quality than I ever would have purchased for myself.

"Gammages is a remarkable place. I nearly bought you a cape to wear when you ride your bicycle. It stretched forward over the handlebars."

"And you didn't because…"

"You don't ride anymore."

"That seems a good decision, then."

"I thought so."

As we stared at each other, silently reaffirming our connection, my heart thudded in my ears. Even the wrappings of my gift were soft, and I twirled round my fingers the blue ribbon that had graced the top. The satin felt delicious against my skin.

It was then that I had a brilliant idea. I only hoped I had the courage and grace to implement it.


Not long afterward, I locked our sitting room doors and presented myself silently. Holmes had stood lost in thought, smoking at the window for the last half hour in his pyjamas and dressing gown, his hair clean of pomade and curling about his head. When he looked my way, his eyes were wide and open and grey as the sky before snow.

"Holmes," I murmured. I saw his adam's apple bob as he took me in: the blue ribbon tied in a neat bow round my waist, my bath-damp hair, my bare feet, and the slash of naked skin between the parted lapels of the dressing gown. His lips parted. Fear shone in every feature. “I’ve discovered the truth.”

The second bob of his adam’s apple was plain. “Have you.”

“I’ve made my own study. I’ve observed, I’ve studied the signs, and I’ve come to a conclusion. There can be no doubting the truth of my deductions. After all, I had a very good teacher.”

“I’m not certain whether at this moment I’m pleased to have taught you.”

If I had my way, soon his pleasure would be very great indeed. I held out my hand toward him. "Come."

His chest heaved with a sudden breath, as if he had been holding it, and at last he blinked. With the tiniest of movements he twitched a nod. And so I led him toward the staircase, barely breaking eye contact for fear he might flee.

When we reached its base, however, he stalled once more. "Watson…" he said. I walked back down and stopped a few steps from the bottom.

"You don't need semaphore to know what I want," I said, trying to reassure him.

I wanted, no less, for him to cross this Rubicon with me.

He sucked in another jerking breath. His face, his dear, vibrant face, was so filled with trepidation it made my heart ache. For the first time, I allowed myself to do something I'd long wished I could: I touched his cheek, stroking my hand along his jaw. It was even more delicious than I'd expected.

I felt his inhalation shake, and saw his eyelids flicker. "Come," I said to him once more, and began to climb the stairs. This time, he followed.

In my bedroom, his eyes barely left my face as I closed the door, as I stoked up the fire, as I slowly, carefully untied my dressing gown. The two halves fell open to reveal me in my full glory, already beginning to stand ready for him, and in the silence of the room I heard the flattering shake of his breath. He stared, and I let him look in return—battle-scarred shoulder and all—and in that way we were still for several long seconds.

All at once, then, I heard a him make a plaintive noise, and he swooped in to press his mouth to mine. He stayed frozen there, the only sign of his turmoil the unsteadiness of his breath against my cheek. When at last he broke the kiss, I sighed. Slowly, haltingly, he brushed his tongue against mine, shaking in breath and body. It sent a shock to my core, and it seemed to do the same to him; at once he brought our mouths together with bruising force and cried out into the kiss. It was the sound of exquisite pain. It was the sound of a wall crumbling down. It was the sound of a man finally receiving his most fervent desire, when he’d believed it would be forever beyond his reach.

My heart hurt to hear it.

When the kiss ended, I saw that a wrinkle of distress had formed between his brows. I smoothed it with my thumb, but at the touch, it only grew deeper.

"Holmes," I whispered.

He took me in his arms, then, crushing me to him. The force triggered a revelation, and belatedly the weight of the moment settled upon me as well: this was the first time we'd embraced for love. Small wonder he was overwhelmed. Even I, who could certainly not be described as a novice in these sorts of affairs, even I found myself clinging. We held each other until his breathing steadied and until I had enough emotional stability to proceed. He smeared kisses down my neck, with a goal to taste my scar, my clavicle, my chest. His curls tickled the underside of my chin, and I laughed for purest joy.

"Good, then?" I said into the room, smiling like a fool, and buried my hands in his hair.

"Hush," he said.

For several minutes his mouth found better employment than speech. After he had finished undressing me and made a thorough map of the planes of my abdomen, I towed him over to my bed, pushed his dressing gown off his shoulders, and pulled his nightgown over his head. He, too, was already standing proud for me, and I flushed to see it. For the first time, I saw the tiniest hint of his usual arrogance. "Did you doubt my enthusiasm?" he said.

"I had my moments."

"You're an idiot."

"So I've been told."

With that, he pulled me onto the bed, and for long minutes all coherent thoughts were lost.

His skin under mine was one of the most delicious sensations I'd ever experienced. He was warm and soft, as I'd dreamt, but also rougher, more male than the texture to which I’d been accustomed. His smell was mineral and musk, and I felt myself strain harder toward him the more we touched. I could not find satiety. Everything was taste, was scent, was breath, and love ached in my bones. I did not wonder, then, whether these activities might lead to our ruin, for our every touch was an act of love, and I could not imagine God would reject us for it.

When he slid down to my waist and his full, lush lips wrapped round me, however, I did have an urge to blaspheme.

The shock rapidly melted into deepest pleasure, and as my toes curled and my thighs trembled I forgot to question whether this was something he really desired to be doing. The low sounds of satisfaction he made were an adequate answer in any event, and I surrendered myself to the pull, pull, pull of his mouth.

I was lost. Lost on a sea of bliss, lost floating in the fog. With the corner of my dressing gown wedged into my mouth I had the luxury to worry little about the noise, and instead could allow myself to focus on the feel of his hair curling between my fingers and the tension drawing up between my legs.

When at last it came the wave of release was long and slow, thick and sweet as treacle, and even once I dropped over the edge he would not pull away. I poured into his mouth over and over, wrung by a series of unctuous spasms, more pleasure than my body could comfortably stand. It jerked and shook, and I was briefly glad for the fabric jammed in my mouth, for in those seconds I had no capacity for quiet; the ecstasy was so strong, so complete, my mind was a blank.

I came to my senses with a start. The dressing gown had fallen from my mouth while I had lain there in a hollowed-out stupor, and when I opened my eyes I found Holmes's face on a level with mine. In the dim lamplight his mouth looked obscenely dark. His curls were a black halo about his head.

"Are you—" he began, but I could put it off no longer. I crushed the words back into his mouth with my own, winding myself round him and kissing him so deeply I tasted myself on his tongue. Our kisses until that point had been passionate yet shallow things, but this instead was the full force of desire, and the pleasure I felt at expressing it was more than I can say.

He moaned. God help me, he moaned, and if I hadn't already spent I might have found myself in danger again.

My head spun, my hand found him more than ready, and in the spirit of reciprocity (and, I admit, not a little greed) I broke the kiss and assessed the matter before me.

His member was ready and waiting, but I hesitated a moment; the newness of the experience struck me, and while I dearly wanted to provide a ready mouth in service to his need, I was inexperienced and daunted. But then there came a helpless twitch of his hips, and it caused such a feeling of care to rise up in my chest that I could not withhold his relief any longer. I set myself to my task with eagerness and affection, and all the while I stroked his flank with an open palm like soothing a skittish horse. The motion calmed me as well.

I may have been overly gentle, for it took some time, but soon I felt him grow restless, and his breath became harsh and hard. Before I knew it there was a heartbreaking sigh and he was spending into my mouth, his back bowed with pleasure and the muscles in his thighs straining with his bliss. He trembled as his body overflowed with release.

When the climax had finally passed we clung hard to each other, and love sent its pleasant burn speeding through my veins.

After several breaths, however, full force of what we'd done struck like a thunderbolt. No doubt Holmes knew what was wrong the moment he felt me go rigid, for he stroked my hair and put his mouth close to my ear.

"Do you remember the case with Milverton?" he said. At that distance, and after what had just transpired, his voice was the darkness of the deepest stream at midnight, and the hushed murmur of running snow-melt. I shivered.

"Of course I do."

"You didn't hesitate then to do what was needed."

"Yes I most certainly did." I hadn't wanted to break in that night. I'd thought he was mad.

"And yet you joined me, law or not, because it was the right thing to do."

"Are you saying this is the right thing to do?"

He waited a moment, then took my face in both of his beautiful hands and kissed me: once, soft, perfect. "Are you saying it's not?"

I considered this, then kissed him back. For once in our long history of catechism, I did not feel self-conscious of my response.

Chapter Text

I awoke the morning of New Year's Eve in a brilliant mood. Holmes had slipped back to his room, and yet for all that I was not alone: draped over my chair was the new winter dressing gown. It reminded me of a week of clandestine kisses and illicit encounters, and a fountain of love and hope and joy sprang up in my chest. I need never feel alone again, if this fullness of emotion were always with me.

Come midmorning, once we had breakfasted in a smug sort of quiet, Holmes cleared his throat. I was reading by the fire, and he was at the desk doing something with paper and string. "I wonder," he said, "whether Mrs Hudson would enjoy having a few days off for the new year."

I saw instantly what he intended. I considered how best to frame my response. "Yes. That might be a nice thing to do for her. A…gift, you could say."

"Precisely. A gift. See, Watson? Once again you read my meaning. You really are a wonder. I don't know how I ever managed life without you."

I buried my smile in my book. It might be a very good thing indeed to remove Mrs Hudson elsewhere, what with Holmes in this sort of mood. A Holmes effusive is a Holmes to suspect. (There was a reason, after all, why I never again after the events at Baskerville drank a cup of coffee he'd fixed for me himself. I'd learned my lesson.)

Mrs Hudson seemed delighted to accept our gift. As she disappeared to pack, I sat in anxious anticipation, and by the time she dropped off some post that had come for us and we said our farewells I was forced to remain in my chair; I was afraid to stand lest I telegraph my eagerness for certain illicit activities which, doubtless, we'd fall into the moment she was away.

Holmes now conducted my heart's blood—as well as nearly everything else about my life—and I didn't want to give him reason to rue it.

The moment the door was closed and locked we raced for my bedroom. Now that we had the luxury to know that there was no one to hear our cries—short of someone listening with a stethoscope to an outer wall of the building—we did not hold back. We fell onto my bed in a flurry of limbs and adrenaline.

My pleasure in hearing Holmes's full-voiced moan for the first time is something I will carry with me to the end of my days.

It wasn't until we were lying next to one another, sweating and emptied, that we could speak words other than "yes" and "more".”

"What shall we do today, then?" I asked as my breathing returned to normal, enjoying the sensation of a week of solitude spread before us.

"This again, I would hope. And then perhaps we could attempt to bathe together."

I laughed. "We must do something more than this, Holmes. Your brain will atrophy. You'll run mad."

He turned onto his side, presumably to scowl at my profile. "Incorrect. How do you suppose my brain is engaged while I'm making you pant and curse?"

His words painted a picture for me, and it made my heart, which had finally begun to slow, pick up its pace again. "I could not begin to presume."

"No need to presume," he said, and he moved in close. His breath tickled my ear and made my finer hairs stand to attention. "I shall tell you. I am thinking of how the curl of your toes describes the precise place I should put my tongue. I am thinking of the manner in which I should next like to make you ask for God's mercy because the position we are in is too good for you to bear. I am cataloguing the amplitude and frequency of the tremble in your thighs, so in future I can more accurately calculate and thus prolong the time until you spend. I am considering how tempting it is to feel your climax from the inside. I am wondering how full it would feel to climax while you are inside me. I am weighing the risk of being discovered with the pleasure with which I would burn if I could make you scream until you run hoarse." He paused, and I heard him swallow in thought. "Yes, Watson, my brain is busy enough. But do you know with what it is most occupied?"

My heart's blood was indeed conducted by him, for with his words it pounded madly through my veins. It was also, I noted, making a renewed attempt at bringing me physical arousal, but it would have to be some time yet until I could request he make good on his promises. In the meantime I fumbled for some words. "I can only assume you're planning how best to torment me."

I heard him stifle a chuckle. It was not a kind sound. It promised dark, wicked, immensely pleasurable things. "The only torment I'm interested in is the drawn-out manner in which I plan to use my tongue in your tail." My breath hitched, and for a moment he only pressed his mouth to my biceps and waited for a host of filthy images to parade themselves across my inner eye. When he saw that I had regained some measure of control over myself, he again spoke. "No, Watson. The times I have been bringing you to climax, my brain has been most occupied with one singular thought."

For several long seconds he didn't speak. Anticipation was an anxious buzz in my chest. "Which is?"

Holmes moved even closer, so his body was pressed along mine. His voice rumbled. "In all my life, I never expected to be given this opportunity. To bring you such happiness is truly the most miraculous Christmas gift I ever could have wished for, and I am more thankful for it than I can say."

My heart spun like a top and sent me dizzy. In one swift movement I blanketed him with my body, too overwhelmed for mere words. Love ached in my skin and my teeth and behind my eyes, and I could do nothing but hold him until the exquisite pain eased.

It took a very, very long time.


After a nap, during which I discovered that Holmes had a charming propensity to cling like an octopus and to snore like an overfed bulldog, we fortified ourselves with a bit of the cold supper Mrs Hudson had left for us and went back to my bedroom. We hadn't donned a stitch of clothing since she left, and I must admit the latitude made me giddy with delight. Holmes got back in bed and opened up his post, and I sat at my desk and began to organise our recent cases into discrete—and discreet—stories. It was decadent to sit naked with no fear of anyone walking in and no need to hide ourselves from each other. I felt sated, I felt joyful, and I felt wildly, tremendously loved. As I considered a possible title for our case with the Blue Carbuncle, my hand encountered a bite mark on my lower belly. I smiled.

We had sat in our separate occupations for some time before I heard him make a strange noise. I dragged my gaze up from my notebook to find him white as a sheet.

"Holmes! What is it?"

Wordlessly, he held up the topmost sheet of paper from a packet, and so I sat in bed beside him and began to read. The bundle was from Lestrade, and in it he'd set down how they'd apprehended Jim Browner when his ship put in at port a day earlier, as well as his protests of innocence.

"But this doesn't seem very troublesome," I said, not understanding why he looked so ill. Holmes then handed me a second sheet.

"Read on," he said in a voice like a bow scratching at strings.

This letter was in the same hand as the first, but the manner of writing was more rushed and the left side repeatedly smeared. It appeared as if Lestrade had been writing so quickly the first lines of ink had not yet had time to dry before he'd pushed the paper to reach the next.

HOLMES, it began.

There have been developments in the case, and while I know they won't be welcome to you, I know you would curse me farther if I keep you in the dark.

Yesterday the front desk was all in an uproar, and I was called over to witness a shocking sight. A woman was slumped there in a filthy gown with her hair round her shoulders, and the side of her gown was entirely stained dark red-brown from a massive wound at the side of her head. She was mumbling to herself. At first I thought she was mad, but after a moment I realised she was simply upset and tired and hot with fever. I asked Peters and Ray, who had both brought her in, what was the trouble, and they told me that the woman was none other than Mary Browner, appeared on the street out of a crowd, bleeding and calling for help. As soon as she had secured their attention (for they, like I did, assumed her at first to be a madwoman or a beggar) and said her name, she fainted dead away in their arms.

She awoke in hospital today. I was called to her bedside, where she poured out her story, enclosed. I hope after you've read it you'll consent to help us find Alec Fairbairn—

At this, I stopped reading. "Fairbairn!"

"Keep reading," Holmes rasped.

—consent to help us find Alec Fairbairn, for we've truthfully bungled this case and he's still at large.

I know you're not likely to be in the best of moods after reading this, Holmes, but I do hope you'll help regardless. Perhaps you might bring along that slobbering hound with the keen nose, because Fairbairn has a fair start on us, and his crime is monstrous. I fear for his sanity, and I fear for public safety. If he should disappear into the wind, who knows who might next be at risk.

Lestrade

I let the letter fall to my lap and stared out into the room, stunned. "Holmes," I said. He only grunted. "Do you have Mary Browner's statement there?" He handed it over, despondent, and I set to reading.

The story had been taken down by a completely different man. From his handwriting, I judged he was a bit shy and prone to optimism. No doubt Holmes could have gleaned far more, but I guessed from his clouded and stunned expression that this was not the time for those sorts of games.

It began without salutation.

I don't even know where to begin. You see the state of my injuries, and I want to make it clear. Alec Fairbairn is the man who did this, not my husband, Jim Browner. I have little doubt you'll release him as soon as you hear this story, because laying it all out should make it plain. He may be troubled, but he has never laid a finger on me, in anger or any other emotion. He is a good man, and doesn't deserve what has been done.

Yes, it's true that at one time I had been tempted to stray. I know what you'll think of me when I say that, but I do so in the cause of greater justice, so your judgement is of no matter to me so long as it frees Jim and imprisons Alec. My sister had poisoned my ear to further her own desires for Jim, and he—my dearest Jim—didn't react well when I began to pull away. He broke his pledge, and the drink was beginning to get an iron grip on him, but before things went too far down a sad path I understood. Thank God that I understood. We had been so happy, we two, together, so happy until my sister appeared. So I approached him, and we began the slow but worthwhile path toward reconciliation.

This, however, angered Alec Fairbairn. Oh, that I had seen before what sort of man he is! We might have avoided all this pain and this disfigurement. When I turned my attentions rightfully back to Jim, Alec became incensed. I told him that he had no promise from me, and in fact Jim still held my heart and my vow. Jim and I found a quiet place together away from home, so he might once again embrace sobriety before his shift aboard the May Day, and I'd thought that was that. Little did I know what that the devil had in store.

The afternoon Jim was due to be aboard ship I went with him to see him off. No sooner than he had departed did I turn to find Alec Fairbairn behind me. My heart raced as he spoke a few treacly words of apology, and I accepted with my voice though not my heart. I made the mistake of trying to move between him and an empty trap, and at once the world went dark. I can only presume he struck me. I awoke to find myself in an enclosed cart. Its rocking made me violently ill, and that was only the first of the indignities I suffered at his hands in the coming days.

At this, I needed to set the paper aside for a while, for the narrative made me feel queasy.

"Yes, Watson, I understand the feeling."

"I did not—"

He shook his head sharply. "Read on."

When the cart stopped, he pressed a cloth over my face and the world once again dimmed. This time when I awoke I found myself inside a dark, cool space, too small and too ill-furnished to call a room. I was on a mattress but not a bed, and the gas lamp high on the wall illuminated nothing else in the room save an old pile of newspapers and a bucket. I had been imprisoned, to what end I knew not. I was terrified and ill and already considering my escape.

Time would pass. Periodically Alec would enter holding a knife, but instead of violence I received only words. Alec would stop and talk at me in his most charming way, as if I had been in my sitting room and he a guest at the table. He spoke of dinner parties he had attended, and of his success at the races. For my part, I held my tongue as much as I dared. His amiability was, I'm sure you understand, more terrifying than shouting, for I could not see where it was coming from nor guess to where it might turn.

One day, Alec seemed in a fresh rage, though I still cannot guess why. He came into the room with a knife, just as he usually did. This time, instead of talking nonsense, he approached me. I felt certain my life was over and that he was about to gut me like a fish. Instead, however, he did something almost more horrible. I say this because I will bear a reminder of it to the end of my days. Instead of murdering me, he cut off my ear in one swift slice. I still feel nauseated to think on it.

I will not go into the ill treatment I received in the aftermath, nor the fever I contracted in the following days. I noted through the pain that Alec, too, was bandaged on the side of his head, and I wondered whether he had perpetrated similar violence upon himself. Suffice it to say I survived the assault, and eventually had just mind enough to plot revenge against him.

My chance came quickly. He had come in to tell me his usual inanities, and in his effusion came too close to where I lay. I struck out with my legs to knock him down and clapped him hard on the side of the head over his bandage, which incapacitated him long enough that I could run from the room. I found myself in a well-furnished but unfamiliar house. For obvious reasons I didn't linger long enough to study it. As fast as I could, I fled. Luckily the two officers were outside on the street, and…well. You know the rest of my story from there.

I feel immensely fortunate that the story did not become more grotesque. I know well what could have been. It pains me that I cannot offer any more information about Alec's current whereabouts, and that I do not know what his ultimate plans were.

At this, I stopped reading and let the paper fall to my lap. "Holmes," I said, but had nothing further to say. My mind reeled.

"This is nothing like the affair in Norbury."

"Holmes—"

"You should from now on say 'Browner' instead, for this is far worse." I reached to touch his leg and reassure him, but he jerked away. His face was a rictus of tension and pain. "If she hadn't found a way to free herself, who knows what Fairbairn might have done. In that circumstance I might just as well have killed her myself."

"Untrue."

"True."

"Then I would have been as guilty. I may not have your gift for observation, but logic is not beyond me. And I did not see it either."

"Yes, but you're…" He trailed off, presumably because he sensed he was about to say something I wouldn't like.

"What? I'm what?"

"You're…" Holmes gestured at me in an imprecise way. "…you. Your talents lie elsewhere."

I raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"You're not the one who has spent years parading oneself about as a consulting detective."

"No, but I have lived with one."

His face contracted in frustration, and I knew I had drawn him away from the edge of the self-pitying funk he'd been about to tip into. He opened his mouth, but I interrupted to set out my conclusions before him, one by one, just has he had for me hundreds of times.

"It is obvious what happened. We both determined that the ears belonged to Fairbairn and Mary Browner. We received the info that Mary's house was closed and that Browner had gone on his ship. From that, we reasoned that if Mary had gone without warning and Browner had reported for duty, then Browner must have killed her. But we reasoned ahead of the facts, as you are so fond of saying. We didn't verify Fairbairn's whereabouts. If we had done so, we might have known that we needed more information."

"Watson—"

"It did not occur to either of us that Mary might have gone away with Jim. We did not check whether she left at the same time as he. We didn't insist upon interrogating Sarah Browner, else we might have determined that Mary and Jim had reunited. There were large swathes of the case left unexplored. We reasoned from effects to causes, with grave results that could have been graver. I can only presume to guess at why we made so many errors, but I know how you feel about guessing."

Holmes examined the sternness of my face, and I could see him puzzling over why I was the one laying out the facts this time.

"We did this, Holmes. We. The days leading up to Christmas were so heady and confusing that it's amazing we didn't do worse. I don't know your rationale for leaving unexplored the option that Fairbairn was guilty, but I'm afraid mine was simple carelessness. I was so overwhelmed by the connexion building between us I just didn't pay attention. To be embarrassingly honest, I was so mesmerised by you I could see little else."

"Is that the reason you think we made so many errors?"

"It is but one."

"And the others?"

"Simple prejudice."

"I don't have simple prejudices."

"They may not be simple, coming as they do from your complicated brain, but I assure you that you have them. And in this case, I suggest you disregarded the idea that Mary returned to Jim Browner because you preferred that she avoid a man with an addiction."

"Ridiculous."

"With your past, it would not be so. It's only logical that our prejudices stem from personal circumstances in our lives, and it doesn't get much more personal than your habits and all the effort you went through to cleanse yourself of them."

His face became the supreme caricature of a frown, and I tried not to laugh; the situation was not, in truth, a funny one. Besides the fact of his past reliance on the needle, the current facts were that Mary Browner had nearly died, and Jim Browner arrested, all because of our mistakes in judgement. I had long chastised myself for making light at crime scenes.

"That is not the only option," he grumbled.

"Then tell me another."

"I could prefer that she stay with her new love simply because he is new."

Once again, I restrained myself from laughter. "So that is your prejudice? You were taken in by the romance of it?"

Holmes seemed caught out. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. "No," he eventually said, but it was not convincing.

"Perhaps you wished someone to choose you over another? It is possible. Clearly you had read on my face or by my actions that my feelings for you had become…such as they are. This is obvious, else the risk in kissing me would have been too great. I had deduced this long before I presented myself before you and took you to my room. And because you would not have kissed me without a great deal of premeditation, it seems logical that I was the one you pictured throwing off a previous love, creating your current prejudice."

"I myself could have moved on from an old love in the past. Your reasoning isn't very sound."

"I know that not to be the case, for I know you have no old love to cast off. I know you, Holmes."

"Not quite Biblically."

"You will not put me off my line of thinking with crassness."

"Pity."

I cleared my throat and continued. "Over time I have become aware of a sea-change between us. Our connexion has been shifting. Growing. I don't doubt you've felt it as well, because—if this past day has taught me anything—much as you may deny it, you have as much capacity for emotion as anyone I've ever known. In fact, it occurs to me as I say this that your distance during my marriage may have been in self-defence." I looked to him. "If you denied that deduction, would you be lying?"

Holmes scowled at the wall. "Am I meant to be on trial, Watson?"

I felt so much love for him and his reticence that my chest hurt. "So allow me to reframe the narrative. Perhaps it's not so much that Mary Browner spurned her new lover in favour of an older one. Perhaps instead, Mary Browner returned to her first, best love."

The dawning comprehension on Holmes's face was beautiful to witness. His mouth opened, and as his eyes widened they became lit by an unearthly light. "Oh," he said. "Oh."

"Yes." I allowed myself a small smile, hoping that, even if this didn't erase our blunder, it might go some way to easing Holmes's guilt. "Her first love. The one she seemed made for. The one she would return to regardless of the troubles that stood in her way."

Holmes stared into my eyes, and I did not look away. "I don't usually counsel my clients to return to spouses who have broken their pledges."

My heart pounded with the confession I had just made, but I fought to pay attention to our conversation. I owed Mary Browner that much. "She did not ask your advice."

"We can't be certain she acted freely."

"Well, fortunately we can check on her health and situation. Unless you don't want to—"

"Don't be an idiot. It's my fault Fairbairn is at large."

"It's our fault, Holmes. I share in your failures as well as your successes. Now, and always."

My oath echoed round us. He swallowed before he spoke. "First, best love?"

I examined his dear face, deadly serious and brimming with hope, and I smiled. "Come. Lestrade wants our help, and we want to give it. I can't think of a better way to start the new year than to set right our wrongs."

"Far better if we hadn't have been wrong in the first place."

"Do you have a time machine with which to go back and fix it?"

"I have told you those novels are a waste of a doctor's brain."

"Then be quiet. Quick baths—separately, please, for I do not think there is room enough in our tub for two and no, we do not have time to experiment—and we can be on our way."

"Are you set to spoil my fun for the rest of our days?"

"It will be my pleasure, yes."

"For the rest of our days, John." He looked intently at me, and I stared back.

I was shocked by it all—the sentiment, the vow, the use of my Christian name—and for several moments I couldn't so much as blink. A rogue curl had fallen over his forehead, and when the spell softened enough to allow me movement, I did not hesitate to brush it back. "Yes, Sherlock. For the rest of our days. Our successes and our failures. Our mealtimes and our concerts and our arguments over the titling of our stories. They will be my pleasure. Truly. Intensely. No words can say how much."


When we finally found Fairbairn, he had holed up in a let room in Hammersmith under an assumed name. It was clear from his belongings that he had planning for some time to flee the city, but hadn't yet done so. Holmes deduced further that he had been preparing to disappear into Italy, that he had made arrangements to bring Mary Browner with him, and that he was profoundly disturbed.

Holmes also verified that Fairbairn had been attempting to frame Browner for his and Mary's death.

"She is meant to be mine!" Fairbairn shouted, while the constables carried him away. "Browner should hang for the way he's treated her!"

"The law will be too good for him," I said, disgusted, poking through Fairbairn's things without much stomach for it.

"Possibly true," said Holmes. "But this is one case, at least, in which I will not interfere with them having their way. I only hope they can do enough."

As the three of us left the house—Holmes, the hound Toby, and me—the cloud cover that had hung low in the sky for well over a week was finally breaking up. A gloriously warm beam of winter sun glittered off the snow runoff that burbled beside the street. The change in temperature had done wonders for my shoulder but was playing havoc with my hip, and as we crunched our way through to the cab I tried very hard not to betray my discomfort. Yet when we stepped carefully over the stream of meltwater Holmes took my elbow to steady me, and I had to smile.

"Where to now, Holmes?" I asked once we were on our way. The dog huffed and settled down on my feet.

"Well. There's a special dinner on at Simpson's that you might enjoy. There's also string quartet performing Haydn, which I know is your favourite. We have options, Watson, and the decision is entirely yours."

We had no cases, no appointments, no calls upon our time. Mrs Hudson wouldn't be home. There was nothing in particular we needed to do.

Suddenly all I could think of was the grace of Holmes's body and the rough-smooth texture of his skin, the smell of his hair and the sound of his moan. I began to crave the comforting warmth that built between us as shared desire pushed back against the winter's cold.

Love in the face of danger: it was a communion that seemed uniquely suited to our lives together. And I knew precisely what I wanted to do.

I knew the instant Holmes deduced my intentions, for his eyelids shuttered and a smile slanted across his face. Eager anticipation thrilled through my veins as I called up top.

"221 Baker Street, driver. And extra if you get us there in under half an hour."

The new year stretched out before us, and with it our futures together. Our success. Our failures. Our love, bright and elemental and warm as fire.

That holiday, I received a gift that I would treasure—then, and always.