Mr Holmes, I haven't the right to ask you for help...
Dr Watson folded the letter after he'd finished reading it aloud and sighed. Despair sat like a boulder on his heart. "What an evil world we live in, Holmes. They seemed dashed decent fellows, too. It's a pity you can't even respond to Capt Henderson's letter in the negative without casting aspersions on--"
"A serious matter, Watson. A very serious matter."
That was not uttered in the melancholic tone Holmes adopted when he despaired of the world. That was the houndsmaster ready to chase the game.
John Watson stared at his colleague and friend. Holmes' fingers were steepled and pressed to his lips. His eyes were fire.
"Holmes. The man stands accused of murder of three women at the docks. All that will save him from the noose is if you do indeed corroborate his story that he and his -- companion," the word was whispered, "-- Mr. Jacoby, were committing sodomy with each other in the place where inverts are known to habituate."
"Which we know precisely because we too were at that selfsame--"
"Holmes!" Watson glared at him. "Do you have no awareness of what consequences this will bring? It's Henderson's life if you stay silent -- if we stay silent -- and it's his future and reputation, and the future and reputation of Jacoby, and our futures and our reputations, if you take the case. The law--"
"My dear Watson, you have never feared a bad law in your life."
"Even a bad law can lead to ruination. My little practise is nothing, another can have it. My Army pension will be stopped, and there goes my shilling for beer. I can travel to another country as a doctor and start my life over. But can you live with the end of your reputation? Your brother will regard you with contempt as lower than a murderer. Mrs Hudson will curse the day she let the rooms to us. You could go to prison, among men who are in there because of you, who will rejoice at this opportunity for revenge, and the prison guards will scorn to look your way while--"
Only when a thin white hand clasped both of Watson's did he notice that they were shaking.
The only consulting detective in all of London turned all the fire in his eyes on his friend and colleague. "My dear John," he said. "I've had a crueller exile than a few years of hard labour; Her Majesty's prison guards would have much to learn from Professor Moriarty. As for my reputation–" He waved a hand as if dashing away a fly. "I have pleased to keep my amours private, as would any English gentleman. But if my good name now rests solely on the price of an innocent man's life, it is time to lose it." He smiled, a little quick flicker around his lips, and his lids lowered. "You would do well to visit France, my dear man, for an interminable length of stay. I intend to respond to Henderson's plea."
Dr Watson's head dropped. He drew one deep breath. Then he looked up. The same fire burned in his own eyes - though they were possibly a little wetter. He leaned forward.
Holmes met his lover halfway.
"Your bravery shames me," Watson said when he pulled away from the kiss. "I am too old to learn cowardice. I will stay, and give testimony if needed." He smiled. "You'll need an Army boxer at your side in Reading Gaol, if we run into any old friends."
The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for but a moment; the firm line of the lips wavered. But all Holmes said was, "What of the law, my dear fellow?"
Watson grinned like a tiger snarling. "The law? The law is a ass!"