Chapter Eleven: Reversal of Fortune

8th December, 1889

The snow fell softly the next morning, each flake falling to the ground at such a languid pace, one had to wonder if they were deliberately taking their time or if the low hanging, lazily moving, yellow leaden sky simply couldn't be bothered to have it snow properly. With a smile, Helen turned her gaze away from the drawing room window and moved to put another log on the fire against the extra chill in the air that had blown in with the clouds the previous night. Not that she had felt it then.

After her new caller had departed last evening, having stayed till dinner, Helen had floated the rest of the night and to bed as though she had wings. The man she had loved for so long had finally come to her and confessed he wanted her too. It was enough to make her sing...if she wasn't afraid of being teased by her eight year old brothers.

Her smile dimmed a little as her thoughts touched on them. She would have to explain and try to make them understand about William and what she was about to do. They adored him, and it was not hard to see why, for he was a big brother, hero, playmate, and father figure all rolled into one for them. Any child would be fortunate to have him as a father. If depriving them of that paragon and replacing it with the kind but aloof and reserved Sherlock Holmes was not bad enough, there was also the fact that the boys had revealed that they had overheard her talking about William's marriage proposal to her mother and the idea of going to India and had been duly ecstatic at the thought of travelling to the sub-continent.

She would have to take her time in explaining it all to them once she had finished it with William. She would have to think on this carefully over the next day or so, though in truth she did not want to think on it at all. Her happiness was such that it only brought into even sharper relief how unhappy she was going to make William, and it stabbed at her heart to dwell on it. She had asked her new beau not to contact her for a few days…not until she had this resolved; it wouldn't be right to see him until she had ended things with William properly face to face. She needed to let this wave of happiness subside so that she could deal with the unpleasant aspect more coherently. In a day or so, when she had the words right in her mind and when she had steeled herself sufficiently, she would go to London, ask to speak with the Major, ask his forgiveness…and leave him.

A flash of his blue eyes consumed her consciousness, and that stabbing sensation struck again. Shaking her head, she brushed her hands quickly, the log skilfully placed, rose to her feet, and crossed back to where she had left her book on the chair by the fire. Picking it up, she endeavoured to return to its words, trying not to think about the next time she saw the detective. Her detective.

The small smile tugged at her lips again as her eyes scanned the writing on the pages, barely comprehending their meaning. Dimly she could hear a thrumming rhythm through the near silent, snowy early afternoon…the boys at their drums, their imaginations relocating them to the heart of the United States of America with their 'Cowboys and Indians' or deep into the heart of Africa, drumming out a tribal warning. It was only when it grew louder and she frowned slightly and glanced upwards that her eyes caught the window and the great-coated figure riding speedily to the house on horseback.

Her book fell to the floor, her legs having bid her to rise instantly.

William.

Swallowing heavily, she snatched up the fallen novel and found herself actually considering hiding. It was a momentary thing, born of ill-preparedness and guilt, and she berated herself for it instantly. She was no coward. She had created the mess she was in, and she alone had to face up to the consequences.

She flinched, however, when she heard the excited whoops of her brothers from upstairs, followed by the sound of their running feet, clearly having seen his approach up the drive from their bedroom. They thundered down the stairs as the bell was rung, only being stopped by the firm voice of Goodwin reminding them of their sister's decree on the rapidity of such descents.

They babbled excitedly as the butler moved to the door, and in her mind's eye she could see them virtually drag their favourite inside, bouncing up and down at his legs. Her eyes closed as she heard his rich, soft laughter and quiet, affectionate words to them. Then some words passed between the two men, followed by the boys' rapid footsteps scampering down the long hallway before two tousle-haired red heads burst into the room.

"Helen! Helen! William is here!" they chorused almost word for word, their faces, still ruddy from their short time out in the snow, beaming from ear to ear.

Helen opened her mouth to speak, but again found it had gone rather dry. Swallowing once more, she attempted to look surprised as she answered, "Oh?"

"Yes!" Andrew nodded vigorously. "And he's brought…"

"Boys," she cut across him quietly as she caught sight of Goodwin at the door. "I would like you to go back upstairs."

Two sets of small foreheads furrowed. "But, Helen…William!" Matthew informed her as if perhaps she had misheard them.

"Yes…I know, William is here," she replied, her nervousness making her stiff. "And I would like to talk to him…alone."

The boys blinked, their frowns remaining at this unexpected turn in the usual format of his visits, until Matthew's eyes widened as he grasped his brother's sleeve excitedly and turned to whisper to him. Andrew's expression mirrored his brother's once more, and a protracted "Ohhhh!" escaped him as frowns became grins.

"Very well, Helen!" Matthew said eagerly. "We will wait upstairs." Together, the two boys tugged each other out of the doorway, tumbling past their bemused visitor waiting at the bottom of the stairs, the twins dashing up it in their zeal to let their sister formally accept her beau's proposal.

As they left, Goodwin stepped inside. "Miss," he said even more quietly than usual, "Major Edwards has arrived." He paused, cognisant of at least some of what had passed between the young mistress of the house and the London detective the night before. "Are you at home?" he asked, his protectiveness towards her showing through, unwilling to expose her to awkwardness.

She gave the man a stoic look and nodded slowly. "Yes, Goodwin...show him in."

Hesitating in a paternal manner, the butler nodded slowly before answering, "Yes, Miss," and left the room. A few moments later, his quiet tread was replaced by the familiarly alert stride that spoke only of William Edwards to her. With a brisk knock, the door opened, and the scarlet tunic, dark hair, and bright blue eyes of the officer were quickly accompanied by a bright smile on finding her across the room.

"Good morning," he greeted her warmly as he stepped in. "Well...not good exactly, it's dashed chilly outside, in fact."

She gave him a small smile, nodding in agreement. "Indeed," she replied, trying her best not to look awkward and wondering why he was in such good spirits, as he surely must have had her letter by now. "Did you ride all the way here from London?"

"No." He laughed softly, closing the door behind him and moving across the room to stand before her, then taking her hands and kissing her cheek, his air cooled skin sending a shiver through her. "I took the train down and hired at horse at St. Albans. Much easier to manoeuvre in the snow than a horse and cart. He's hardly an Arabian but he got me here." Looking down at her, he indicated the couch behind him when she did not. "May I sit?"

She glanced over at the couch and, blushing, nodded. "Of course, I apologise," she replied, indicating the seat with a wave of her hand and resuming her own in the chair across from the couch, still wondering at his upbeat humour. "William...I..."she began tentatively. "Did you not get my letter?"

"Yesterday." He nodded, settling himself comfortably.

Her confusion grew. He had received her rejection, and yet there was no sign of annoyance, anger…or even curiosity. It was almost as if it had never happened.

"You look nervous," he observed with a tinge of surprise. "Is everything all right?"

Her eyes scanned the floor for a moment before they moved up to meet his. "I fear I am somewhat, William," she confessed. "Your reaction…" she trailed, off unable to put into words what she had expected of him.

He blinked and then his chin rose slowly. "Oh." A small smile touched his lips. "I see. You thought I might be angry."

She gazed at him almost gratefully. "Well…yes!" she admitted.

His chuckle was soft and amused. "Clapped away in the army and in India I may be, but I am not so unaware of the way of things as you think, dearest Helen." He sat forward and clasped his hands together. "I know from the other fellows how these things work."

Her confusion returned instantly. "How…they work?" she murmured quizzically.

"Yes." He nodded. "How a girl can't be seen to be too eager to accept a man. How he must be seen to convince her. Some of the chaps at the club had to ask their wives three or four times. And one poor lad they spoke of had to propose so often that they began to…" His smile and words faded a little at the expression on her face, and it was a moment before he spoke again with sudden trepidation. "Helen?"

She stared at him dumbfounded, a growing part of her irked that he thought she might play with him that way. Her voice was quiet as she replied, "William...have you ever known me capable of such frippery or willing to play such tricks? Or to say that I which I do not mean?"

His happy assurance leaking from him slowly with every movement, he shook his head. "No...no, to my knowledge you have always been straight with me..." he agreed as his bewildered frown grew.

She felt oddly calm as the words came out. "I can't marry you, William. Not now…and not in the future. Future proposals will not change that…not while things stand as they are."

He fell silent at the stark words, his heart seeming to stall as he stared at her. "But..." The word jerked his pulse into a rhythm of sorts though his voice was hushed and bewildered. "You gave me to understand that you cared for me...you said you loved me."

Her shoulders slumping a little, she gazed at him as though she desperately wanted him to understand. "Please, William…I'm sorry…more than you know…but I can't go to India with you. I don't belong there…for many reasons."

"But…" He sat farther forward, anxiousness flooding him. "I don't care about India. Not to the extent that I care about you. Given the choice, I would choose you in a heartbeat with no regrets. If that is all that is stopping you accepting me, then don't fret on it. I can speak to the General…he would be only too glad to keep me on here, and I could get a command post in England -- even in London if he organised it."

The emotion in her throat was making it ache as she spoke again, her voice rapid and barely above a whisper. "It's not all that is stopping me, William."

He did not speak but she could see him tense, his shoulders bunching, rigid like iron beneath his scarlet and gold, his fingers curling under his palms and turning his hands to fists.

She trembled softly. "I do love you, William. Very much. But...not enough. Not the way you love me. You should have a wife who will love you with everything she has. I wanted to love you like that, you deserved it and I've tried…" Her hands fluttered in a sign of helplessness.

"You tried?" he whispered; the look in his eyes was as if she had struck him, and Helen winced at the way his face fell even further and the shock…and hurt…in his voice. "Is it that hard?"

She moved to him instinctively, her heart breaking for him, and seating herself beside him, she took his fisted hands in hers and held them tight, turning him to her, her words soft but impassioned. "I love you, William…I do…but it's not enough. Not now. The timing…everything was wrong."

"Why?" He raised his eyes from her hands around his, confusion, dissent, and the need to understand mingled with tremendous pain. "Why is it wrong? What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing!" The word gasped from her as she fought feverishly to hold back her tears. "Nothing, William. It wasn't you…it was never you. You are possibly the best man I have ever known. Kind, loving, funny, bright, gentle…strong and sweet together. Had I met you before…I truly believe things might have been different but…"

"Why?" he asked again, stronger this time, her words only stinging him more and making him feel her loss the greater…to know he could have had her…if only… "Why are they different? Why would it have been different before? Was it before the money? Before your father's death? Is it my social position?" he asked incredulously. "Has someone decreed me not sufficiently good enough for you?"

"No!" Her eyes widened in shock. "You know I don't care a whit for such things."

"Then tell me why!" he demanded desperately, quickly rising to his feet and stepping away to look back at her. "What is this thing that stops you from loving me? Accepting me? This relatively recent obstacle that stands between us that would not have before? I know it is not your family. And if it is not your money or your social standing then what…" He stopped short, his features freezing as Helen's heart did likewise in her chest, the expression on his face making her blood run cold.

"Or who?" His words slipped into her like a stiletto, and her eyes wavered from his just for a moment.

And it was all that was required.

"No." He turned his head from her in a slow shake of denial, though his eyes remained upon her, disbelieving. There was someone else, and it took no more than a split second for him to know who. "Helen, no," he groaned, the agony in his voice profound at deducing the identity of his rival…his conqueror.

Him. How could it be him? He could barely even be civil, never mind warm or caring. How could it be? But everything was there. Had been there from the start. Holmes's dislike of him. Her exceptional esteem of the detective one minute, extreme annoyance at his behaviour the next, and vociferous defence of him beyond that again. Everything fervent…beyond the calm of an acquaintance or admired friend, even beyond a saviour.

Her reaction the night of the masquerade ball. Her too quick denial that Holmes had anything to do with her withdrawal. There had been no 'argument' as he thought…she had always told him, often heatedly, of her arguments with the man. But not this. She hadn't mentioned this.

Something had happened. While he had been gone, something had happened.

He had said something. Done something. Ignited…or worse, re-ignited what she felt for him. William felt nauseous at that thought…at what she felt for Holmes.

"All along?" His strained, questioning tones reached her, vocalising what he needed to know. Had to hear. "Has it been all along, Helen?"

"William…" Her voice shook along with her hands as she looked up at him, seeing the anguish in his eyes and longing to comfort him, but knowing she had no right…she above all had no right. "It's not what you think. He never returned my affection. It never has been anything more than what you witnessed."

"Has it?" he insisted hoarsely. "Has he always been the obstacle? Have you loved him all along…the way you can't love me?"

Her tears started to fall as she turned her head from him, unable to look him in the eyes any longer, the guilt seeping out of every pore.

"Yes..." He nodded slowly after a momentary stillness. The pain in his chest, beyond any physical pain he could ever remember, as the truth of it all came out in her silence. "How straight and honest you have been with me." He tossed her earlier words quietly at her feet like broken flowers, the tremor of betrayal in his voice sending shivers through her.

His words were not accusations, just statements of fact, which somehow only made them all the worse to hear. Lying there, stark and bare. "You allowed me to squire you about town...grow close to your family and they to me...let all and sundry see and assume we were soon to be engaged...let me assume…you allowed me to kiss you. Told me you loved me. And all this time you have led me to believe you returned my affections…while loving another. You may have said what you meant, but, Helen, in your way, you did not mean what you said." He looked down at his hands in humiliation. "What a fool you must think me."

"No!" She rose to her feet and moved to him, her hands pausing in the act of touching him -- something that had been so natural previously, now awkward beyond measure. "No…never, William! Not once. Please don't think that. Don't ever think that. The only fool here has been me for unintentionally using you so ill. For pretending to myself so long that things had changed. That I…"

"Loved me and not him?" he finished for her, his eyes rising up to hers, the heartbreak in them complete at a statement that would never be true.

"Oh, William." Her voice cracked. "I'm so sorry…please forgive me. I did not mean for it to be this way. I never would have done this deliberately. Would not have hurt you for all the world. When I agreed that you could call on me, I did so because you had made such an impression. You made me happy. You made me forget him." She paused again, cursing herself silently at how everything seemed to come back to the detective. And William knew it.

His blue eyes regarded her quietly. "So my entire purpose was to cover over a chasm of a love that couldn't happen?"

She looked up at him, pain and guilt filling her being, but she couldn't lie anymore -- not to herself and not to him. "At first…yes," she admitted.

He turned from her and moved to the window.

"But," she said swiftly, her words sounding weak even to her, "I quickly came to care for you…to love you. Truly I did, William. I know it means little to you now to hear it…and I know I have aggrieved and hurt you deeply. I take responsibility for that...and I know nothing I can say will help. "

"Given that you cared so much for me and loved me so…" he asked, without looking back at her, "may I ask why it was you did not seek me out in person to refuse my offer and to break it off? Would it not have been a kinder fate than leaving me wait? Or was that flimsy bit of paper I received yesterday in fact your attempt to take responsibility and end it with me?" He inhaled slowly. "'Thank you for your kind and considerate offer, William, but I must regretfully refuse your proposal of marriage?'" he repeated its contents verbatim. "With no word of why? If I had not returned today thinking this was just a formulaic step in proposing, would you have even have come to explain it to me and why it was you were refusing me?"

"Yes!" she insisted. "I had planned in a day or two, once I had…composed my thoughts, to go to London to speak with you in person. The letter is just the done thing, just a veneer of…"

"Frippery?" he finished softly.

She stared at him for a moment. She had balked at the idea of a letter as a device to encourage more ardency, but had used it as a device to refuse and hide behind. Both were the done thing, yet there was hypocrisy in her actions. "You are right," she agreed with a nod. "I should have told you in person. You deserved that much."

"There is much talk of what I deserve…" He watched the snow fall…heavier now. "It seems to be the case that I receive none of it, however." His sigh filled the room. "I suppose…I cannot blame you for seeking to move on from a love that was doomed to be one-sided. No, I cannot blame you for that…now more than ever." He turned back slowly. "We are in the same boat now, you and I. But I suppose you have it worse than I." He tried to raise his voice back to its usual light-hearted timbre, but the pain in it made the attempt sound hollow and empty. "At least the woman I love is capable of love...of feeling..." His fingers flexed tightly. "Not some cold fish with his emotions tied up and bound in some cage inside his heart, deathly afraid of letting them loose, and pretending to himself and the world that it's for some higher calling.

"It saddens me that you have not moved on from such a love. That somehow you have fallen into the trap of loving a man who cannot love you and that you will put aside what we have for…nothing. It saddens me because, as pathetic as it is to admit, even now I still love you with my whole heart and hate the thought of you miserable and pining for someone who does not return your love," he told her, folding his arms slowly.

She glanced over at him. She was sick of deceiving him and wanted it all out in the open, knowing with their mutual circle he would hear of it…of them…soon enough from someone, somehow. And what she was about to say must have been written large across her expression, for his eyes widened once more in incredulity.

"No..." He shook his head little by little, finding the concept ludicrous. "No...that is not possible...not him. He is incapable of letting go that way. He is too selfish and too proud…too much in his own head to allow himself to truly love another."

Despite this self denial, a thought occurred to him and as if suddenly compelled, William found himself by her side, his blue eyes flashing. "Has he approached you?"

Her breath hitched slightly at the sight of the sudden anger in his face. "William..." she begged, trying to find the words to calm him, to plead for him to stop this line of questioning, that it would do no good…but upon seeing the fierce fire in his eyes, instead merely whispered the truth. "Yesterday."

"Yesterday." His chin rose towards the ceiling as he inhaled deeply. "To what end?"

She stared at him, hardly able to answer that it was none of his affair, because it was, and she had made it so. But she remained silent, unwilling all the same.

"To what end, Helen?" he exacted with such sudden iron intensity that it made it easy to understand how he could command men.

"To offer himself as a suitor," she said miserably…all the earlier joy she had experienced in that thought long drained away.

His jaw clenched slowly. "A suitor? Why? What prompted it? Was it the masquerade ball? Did something happen between you at the ball?"

She shook her head quickly. "No! No…that is, not the way you mean. I left the ball in the honest belief that he cared nothing for me, William; you must believe that. I sent the letter to you in that belief also. He came to offer himself as suitor because he had heard of your offer to marry me."

"And wished to stop it?" he queried brusquely.

Helen nodded silently. One way or another, that was the truth of it.

"And of course you accepted him." William gazed down at her. "Just a few days after my proposal. Ironic, isn't it, that I finally stimulated him into action for you."

Tears sprung to her eyes. "Please William…don't." Her hand rose to his cheek. "Don't torture yourself like this."

"But it's true, isn't it?" he persisted, his anger growing and finding an outlet in Holmes. "He ignored you until he thought he might lose you. His adoring companion." He grasped her shoulders with both hands, his eyes searching her face. "Helen, don't you see? He doesn't love you! He can't! He only wants to keep you close. How can you fool yourself into thinking otherwise? He is too selfish to love, Helen! He makes light of love and softer emotions, you've told me that yourself. You've heard him! He is incapable of giving you what you need. He will break your heart!" he promised her.

He shook his head and backed away from her. "He has deluded you...somehow...you are as blind about him as I was about you, and despite this...despite everything, I won't let him break your heart the way..." he choked on his words as the pain began to manifest itself. He bit it back viciously, determined not to show any more vulnerability as he drew himself up, his blue eyes darkening to navy. "No...I will stop this before he hurts you. One way or another!"

Turning, he headed for the door, leaving her behind him, and her eyes widened with horror as she realised what he might mean. She had never seen him so angry in all the while she had known him. He was so hurt. There was so much pain in his eyes, so much anger now that he wasn't thinking straight, and in this state she was terrified he would do something rash.

Running after him, she grabbed his arm as he reached the door. "William, stop! Please...he has done nothing. It was all me...I am the one that hurt you. Please...please don't hurt him!" Tears that had sprung to her eyes began to trail over her cheeks.

"Don't hurt him?" he repeated in a dead voice as she wept now in fear for Holmes, the sight simultaneously stinging him to the soul and making him ache to be the one for whom she cared so. But a moment later, he wrenched his arm away from her. "Tears for him? A man whose only passion is for an unsolved riddle?" He inclined his head once. "I suppose it's appropriate, for that is what your life with him will be -- nothing but tears wept over him." He watched her for a moment more, before shaking his head. "No."

Turning his back, he opened the door and marched out into the hallway towards the front door. Pulling it open, he grabbed his great coat off the nearby coat rack and, paying no heed to his hat or gloves, dragged it on as he moved out into the falling snow and made for the stables where his horse had been taken.

On entering them and startling the stable boy, William moved to the stall with his horse and undid the reins. As he flipped the stirrups back down and prepared to mount, his heretofore always affable, friendly, open expression had changed to stone

Growing more frantic with fear, Helen ran after him, her feet unsteady in the slick new snow, her mind only focused on stopping him…calming him...talking some sense into him. Dashing into the barn, she found him already seated on the horse and stared up at him as she shook her head, her eyes begging him to leave Holmes be. "William, stop this...let him be! This won't help...and it won't stop me from loving him!"

"Perhaps so...for what you have done has not stopped me loving you. But perhaps it will stop him ruining both our lives." Grasping the reins, he dug his heels into the bay, urging it forward. As it trotted towards the stable door, he reined it in and looked back at her for a long moment, his face gradually softening once more into a recognisable semblance of himself. "I would've loved you every day of my life. Nothing would have come before you, not career, not India...I'm sorry that was not enough."

"No..." she gasped, racing after him as he galloped out of the barn, only to slip, her ankle giving way as she fell to the ground. All she could do was watch in despair as he disappeared into the swirling snow.


Holmes returned his pen to its proper place and gazed with more than a modicum of satisfaction at the figures in front of him. The completed calculations, pertaining to the trajectory required to fire an adapted heavy crossbow bolt with hooked claw and attached rope to the roof of an otherwise unassailable house, were irrefutable. It was possible to gain entrance that way and, given the absence of any other method of access, entirely probable.

Which was more than he could say for his proposed constitutional.

Turning his head, he regarded the snow. Like a storm of bees against the dull sky, the flakes turned white as they hit the background of Baker Street. The ground already covered in a substantial blanket of flakes; the snow was only likely to grow thicker still. London would be silent and still tonight as everything slipped to a halt and people went to ground for warmth and comfort.

He supposed he had best join them.

There was little to do now that he had completed the next step in the current puzzle of his latest case. No further step feasible until he had visited the scene of the crime once more. Normally the idea of an evening in while there was a case to solve would have irritated him enormously, but as he stood to draw the curtains against the falling night, adding to the warmth and snugness of his rooms, the prospect was not unpleasant for once.

And that new reality was something for him to dwell upon. In truth, he had a great deal to dwell upon.

He had returned home the evening before in something of a bewildered state -- not foolishly happy nor in a romantic haze, but rather in a warmed state of bemusement. He had awoken yesterday morning the most confirmed bachelor in all England…Britain…and quite possibly the Empire. Even if he had been struggling with the confining of his emerging feelings for Helen Thurlow, it had not occurred to him that by evening's fall that Sunday eve he would be courting.

Wooing a woman. Sherlock Holmes. It sounded somewhat fantastical, and yet…it felt natural.

To be sure, there were already some obvious effects, just as he had always known there would be. This feeling for one. This placidity. This calmly sitting in of an evening and being relatively unoccupied by case, by notes, or by experimentation with no sense of tedium, no bone deep ennui, no jittery impatience…merely the contemplation of this new situation.

It was an odd sensation, this serenity.

He had actually spent a large part of the previous night in bed, worrying upon it, and on what it meant for himself…for his work. He had risen this morning in the same mood…and yet when Watson came to call to discuss this new case as per request, he had immediately turned his mind to work as he always did without thought of anything else. His mind focused solely on his vocation.

He had not told Watson of these new developments in his life. It would have only distracted his friend from the case…not to mention made him incredibly smug…and the detective had wanted to see for himself if he would remain unaffected by this turn of events. And he had.

Apart from a short time when Watson had left and Mrs. Hudson had arrived with his lunch, his mind had stayed wholly on his work…only to slip into this contentedly peaceful and warm state of mind once more upon its completion.

He wasn't sure how long it would last. How long the oddly stupefying effects of an unshackled soul would remain with him and whether his jealous mind would demand the lion's share of his attention. He suspected that it was the newness of this state that was becalming him…that in time, it would take her actual presence to provoke this tranquillity of spirit.

It was the way of things with him. Abstracts did little for him. Give him the tangibles of a thing -- facts, data, evidence, names, people. The notion of her would never be enough to calm him…in fact, it would probably only disquiet him further to dwell upon her in absentia…this tranquillity would without a doubt require Helen herself.

And perhaps that was how it should be.

Perhaps. For it meant at least that while there was little doubt his heart was wholly in her hands, his mind would never wholly be consumed by her, and that the distraction when he was with her would not drive him too far from his work.

It was, he knew, a selfish thing to say and entirely unromantic: You are in possession of my heart, you raise my soul…but my thoughts do not linger entirely on you.

But for him, it was important that that be the case, for he could not continue in his work any other way. However, if the distraction became too great, sooner or later he would have to make a choice. And sentiment, even if it be love, could not stand under the weight of such a choice. There would either be grief or resentment, and either way, things between them would fail.

Better that he kept a part from her and gave her all the rest. That he remain intrinsically himself with his flaws, faults, and petty concerns…as well as focused, active, and content in mind. He rose and fetched himself his rosewood pipe and his slipper of tobacco.

It would not be easy even in those circumstances. He would endeavour to do his best to be attentive…though he suspected he would be watched over carefully by Watson in that regard. Still, there would be times…many, many times, when she would have to put up with being second behind his work and other labours. Whether she would be able to accept and content herself with that would remain to be seen. He supposed that was part of what the courting process would prove to them. Compatible as friends, could they continue to be so as a couple?

Their experiment in chemistry. He packed his pipe with a sigh, a twinge of embarrassment slipping through him at the utter foolishness of the thought processes that had led up to his going to St. Albans.

He struck his match and raised his pipe to his mouth to draw on and light the tobacco. Love. He sighed. The most befuddling and ridiculous of all emotions that seemed to reduce grown men to schoolboys and the intelligent to addlepated fools. He had avoided it assiduously for years for that precise reason…and now he had joined the ranks of the dullards.

Still, he sniffed, making a resolution to himself…he would be the sharpest of them.

Making out the sound of a knock on the front door, he glanced up in surprise.

Cocking his head slightly, he made out the muffled voices down below, wondering who it was out in such weather and whether Inspector Gregson had some important news for him regarding the murder at the Towers. But when he heard the steady tread of Mrs. Hudson upon the stairs accompanied by an entirely unfamiliar footfall, he knew it was not the Inspector.

A man. Young from the way he had to keep slowing himself behind the landlady as he ascended. Wearing heavy footwear from the sound of it. Boots probably. As they made their way along the landing, the opened-out stride of the stranger became one that was altogether familiar as was the rapid tap that accompanied it -- the thwack of leather upon heavy material. A military stride…and the sound of a riding crop hitting a coat covered leg.

A soldier. A horseman. Holmes rose from his seat. William Edwards.

"Mr. Holmes?" Mrs. Hudson opened the door, following a soft tap, her solicitous face gazing in at him. "I'm sorry for disturbing you, but there's a Major Edwards here to see you. He says you are acquainted with him? He's asking to see you on an urgent matter."

The tall man nodded. "Yes…yes, Mrs. Hudson. I am well acquainted with the Major; please show him in."

On receiving the assent she required, she turned her head to look behind her, her previous strict demeanour melting somewhat now that her lodger was happy enough to see the young man, and smiled at the handsome officer. "Go right in, Major," she told him. "May I take your coat?"

William stepped into the room and moved into its heart slowly, his eyes fixed determinedly on Holmes throughout. On reaching a halt, he looked back at the middle aged woman and shook his head. "No, thank you, ma'am…my stay will not be that long and I am still somewhat chilled."

"I could fetch you some tea, perhaps?" she ventured, eager now to be helpful to a member of Her Majesty's armed forces.

William shook his head again, slightly more forcefully. "No, ma'am," he said brusquely before catching himself and relaxing, his voice taking on a more apologetic tone. "Thank you, ma'am…it is kind of you, but this is not a social visit." He turned his eyes back to the detective.

"Oh!" Mrs. Hudson nodded quickly, assuming his visit was government related. "I see. Well, I shall leave you gentlemen to it."

"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson." Holmes glanced at her as she departed, the door closing as his gaze returned to the officer. The two men stared silently at each other for a few seconds before Holmes raised his pipe to his mouth and took a long draw, the smoke curling upwards as he exhaled, his words following. "Good afternoon, Major Edwards. Congratulations upon your promotion…well deserved, I'm sure."

"Thank you," William replied, remaining where he was. "Though perhaps it is you that deserves congratulating more than I."

Holmes nodded slowly. "You have come direct to me from St. Albans, I see."

"And what tells you that, Mr. Holmes?" the soldier replied, his words dripping with quiet disdain. "A splash of mud upon my greatcoat? A peculiarity of marking upon my boots? A distinctive snowflake upon my shoulder that falls only in Hertfordshire?"

"No, Major." The detective arched an eyebrow and lowered his pipe. "The entirely murderous look in your eyes."

William remained silent, his sharp gaze changing not a whit. "You find it amusing, Holmes?"

Sighing quietly, the older man moved to stand by the fire. "No, Major…on the contrary, I assure you. I just was not expecting your visit, I confess."

"Not expecting it?" William repeated quietly. "Are you so arrogant, sir, that you expected to be able to quietly and systematically undermine another man's relationship without repercussions?" He took a step closer to the fire and Holmes, his blue eyes ablaze with intensity. "Jealously demeaning one party and distracting the other throughout their acquaintance. Toying with them both while you try to decide whether or not you can be bothered to care enough to come down from your ivory intellectual tower. And then, once it became clear that you would be losing a favoured distraction, inflicting the final coup de grace by directly intervening in that relationship in such a vilely premature and underhanded manner."

Two more steps brought him level with the detective, the simmering anger becoming more and more apparent. "Did you expect, Mr. Holmes," William murmured through a tight jaw, "that I would merely allow it to pass un-remarked upon? Do you think me such a forbearing dupe that I would meekly accept my fate and allow the great man to simply supplant me?"

Holmes placed his pipe upon the mantle above the fire and stepped away, clasping his hands behind his back. "You will no doubt think it hard of me to say, Major. But…" he turned to him, "I did not think upon you at all."

William raised his chin. "No, Mr. Holmes…not hard…typical."

"Perhaps, so," the detective agreed with a nod. "But then you were not my priority."

"Indeed," the officer replied. "As per usual that would be yourself."

Holmes straightened but maintained his composure. "I cannot refute there was an element of selfishness in my actions, Major. But I acted as I did predominantly for the good of the woman we both care for."

William's quiet snort attracted Holmes's eyes back to him just as they were wandering away. "Care for her? You no more care for her than you do for your chemistry set…" he gestured towards the worktop, "or any instrument of diversion of yours that you care to name."

Holmes began to respond, only to be cut off.

"You, sir, care only for yourself!" William's normally soft spoken and light hearted voice was transformed, the words slipping from him low and hard. "Ultimately, you are the only one whose good opinion you have any regard for. From everything I have seen and heard of you, you believe yourself to be better fit to judge upon almost everything than the rest of us poor emotive mortals. Which, no doubt, is why you believe you can ride roughshod over manners, convention, and, unsurprisingly, plain decency. You take a great deal upon yourself, Mr. Holmes."

A small sigh escaped the other man as his guest paused. "You would no doubt have had me come to you and speak to you first?"

"It would have been the gentlemanly thing to do," the Major snapped. "Thrash this out between us as men."

"Decide which of us was best suited to her?"

"Yes!"

Holmes nodded and took a step or two to stop by the table. "And therefore it would follow that Miss Thurlow…Helen…would have no say in the outcome. No voice in deciding who it was she wished to remain with?" His eyes found the angry azure of the soldier's.

William went to respond, stopped, and frowned. "You are twisting my words…my meaning!" His anger grew with the colour in his cheeks. "If you thought me ill suited to her, you should have come to me and told me to my face instead of all these snide remarks and games behind my back!"

"Ah!" Holmes replied with a wry smile. "A frontal assault!"

The officer's eyes narrowed. "You will cease to make light of this, sir, or I will take infinite pleasure in seeing that smile wiped from your face."

Holmes folded his arms slowly. "And you, sir, will not threaten me in my own home. I am not taking this lightly, Major…not at all. I merely fail to see what purpose would have been served in my meeting with you other than some poor attempt at placing a civilised veneer over what would remain an ugly situation. You would not have taken my assertion that you were wrong for Miss Thurlow…and most certainly would not have rescinded your marriage proposal."

"Perhaps, sir, I would have." William's words were like cold steel. "If someone would have had the nerve and courtesy to tell me of her feelings for you! You knew she cared for you, didn't you?"

The detective's eyes moved away from the other man's slowly. "I had come to suspect it to be so, yes."

"Then, sir…had you the slightest regard for me or her, you could have told me. Told me and allowed me to deal with it, with Helen, on my own terms, rather than sneaking in behind my back and using yourself as a bribe to lure her away from me…to stop me having her and making a mockery of her feelings for you into the bargain!" William blazed.

Holmes returned his gaze to him immediately. "You think my actions a mockery?" he responded.

"I know they are!" William fired back at him. "What do you…You…know of love?" he said derisively. "Of the sacrifice and generosity that is required to feed it? Of the warmth and softness needed to keep it alive. Look at you!" he spat. "You care only for your mind's pursuits…only for the puzzle, the chase, and the resolution. What can you offer her?"

William stalked closer to Holmes as he spoke.

"A life of sitting at home waiting upon you? Pandering to your whims when you deign to remain here with her…and even if you are with her, your mind half a world away, striving to resolve some foul case or other and treating her as if she was non existent even when she sits across the room from you. So caught up are you in your own little world you will ignore her troubles for the most part, or, when you can be bothered to listen to her, treating them as trivial in comparison to your own. It will always be you first, Holmes! You are the single brightest star in your own firmament, and everyone else, John, Helen…no doubt even your Mrs. Hudson," he gestured towards the door, "all circle about you like the planets around the sun.

"You are incapable of the true expression of emotion. She will live on scraps with you, making do with a throwaway word here, an occasionally remembered endearment there. She deserves more!" He stopped in front of the detective, virtually trembling with anger. "She deserves to be put first…and she never will with you, will she?"

Holmes stood face to face with him, unblinking in the face of the man's fury. "There will be many times when she will be second best. Yes," he confessed with honesty.

"And you think that is right?" William growled.

"No, Major Edwards," the other man replied. "I do not. But that is who I am. And she loves me for who I am."

Hearing those words made Holmes's visitor flinch internally, though he reacted with a snort. "She loves some ideal of you!"

Holmes smiled softly. "Now you do her a disservice, Major," he told the officer with a shake of his head. "Considering it was, no doubt, Helen who told you a great deal about my working behaviour…I would venture to say from your description, her view of me is somewhat less than an ideal."

Under the other man's lightly self-deprecating humour, William's anger resolved itself into something colder, something firmer, and…Holmes recognised…something entirely more dangerous. "She will shrivel up and die with you. Each day…day by day…you will break a piece of her spirit," he said quietly, with absolute conviction. "Her life with you, should you remain with her, will become a misery. I cannot allow that to happen."

"I see…" Holmes answered after a momentary silence. "And from that, I might assume, Major, that you intend to take matters into your own hands?" His eyes caught the slight twitch of William's right hand towards his coat pocket, and though the officer's fingers did not delve into, nor even touch the great coat, the movement was enough. "I stand corrected," Holmes murmured, his eyes on the deep pocket of the great coat and its easily imagined contents. "You did not come directly here from St. Albans after all."

His eyes returned to the soldier's. "You do not have to do this, Major," he told him quietly.

For the first time, a smile ghosted over William's lips. "What else is there for me to do, Mr. Holmes?" He watched as Holmes paused for a moment at his words, a slight frown crossing his face, but in the absence of a response continued on, "I will not stand by and watch you break her heart. But you are right, I do not have to do this…if you leave her be."

Holmes remained absolutely still, his voice quiet and his eyes fixed upon the other man. "I cannot do that, Major." He saw the soldier's hand move again towards his pocket and spoke with quick, strong words, neither his face nor voice betraying any sign of worry. "And even should you draw your weapon and point it at me…I shall not." William's hand paused at his pocket's entrance as the detective's voice grew adamant.

There was more than a hint of annoyance in Holmes's voice when he spoke again. "I have never given in to threats to my well being, Major Edwards. Had I, I would not still be in this profession I have created for myself. And though I understand why it is you feel you must…you must know that you will only be wasting your time. For I shall most certainly not be giving in on this point."

Two black clad shoulders drew back slowly as Holmes faced the other man down. "This will change nothing, save for the worse. And, I suspect, despite all my ill mannered jibes to the contrary, that you are more than intelligent enough to know that. So I suggest, sir, you either draw your weapon and have done with it…or dispense once and for all with an idea that can come to nothing but the ruination of three lives. For I have seen the outcome of a crime passionnel too often for my taste."

William wavered, his hand hovering, while he stared at the detective. "You cannot pretend to love her!" he breathed, his expression incredulous.

Holmes took the slightest of steps away from him, arms still folded about himself. "Indeed, Major…" he agreed with a nod and gazed at him once more, the earnestness in his tone clear. "I cannot."

As the officer continued to stare at him wordlessly, Holmes ventured a small smile. "It would seem, Major Edwards, that I am not the only one given to making judgements upon others." His breath outwards was protracted as he moved to his desk and sat down slowly. "I have spent a great deal of time grappling with feelings I had no wish to acknowledge…and have behaved badly in doing so…towards you and Helen. And for that, you have my sincerest apologies, little as they will mean to you." He sat back and clasped his hands as he regarded the statue like form of the soldier before him. "But I lost that wrestling match at last…and the feelings I have for her are genuine. I shall not apologise for them."

The soldier before him appeared to come out of a haze, but even as his hand dropped away from his coat pocket, he took one more step towards the seated man, his voice insistent. "You cannot make her happy! Life with you will never see her content."

Gazing up at him, Holmes nodded slightly, his voice soft and not unkind. "Perhaps so, Major…but no more so than life married to someone she cannot love the way she should."

There was absolute silence for a moment as the two men regarded one another before William turned away from him and walked to the table, staring at the far wall.

Holmes exhaled slowly and addressed him once more. "There is, I know…nothing I can say to you that will make you feel even the slightest bit more at ease. But I know that you are absolutely genuine in your feelings for Helen and in your desire to protect her from all hurt. You are a fine officer and gentleman, Major…a good man, and I did you a disservice with my words and actions. If I were to be honest, I would say that you are the better man for her. By far. 'But love is blind, and lovers cannot see'...and I will not insult you by denying that I am glad for that.

"Nor will I demean what it is you feel now by telling you there is another for you." He glanced away momentarily. "I made that mistake once before and rued it…not understanding at the time how deep these things can run. It has taken me many years to appreciate it." His eyes moved back to William as he rose from his chair again. "I know how I felt when I thought she might leave with you. And despite what you believe of me…I understand what it is you feel now…for I know if the situations were reversed, I would feel the same.

"I cannot promise her a happy life, Major. I do not even know if it will come to that," he told him. "Such things are a long way off…for both of us. It may well be that she decides…or we do…that we are not compatible…or that she cannot be happy with me as I am. My life is not a conventional one and I cannot change that. Nor am I an easy man to know, even on a casual footing, for all the reasons you named…and more. But despite all my flaws and faults…she has laid her affection with me. It is a gift and as you say, she deserves as much in return. I recognise that wholeheartedly, and though I cannot assure that it will always be the case…I will try to the best of my ability. I give you my word on that."

The hush of the snow covered world outside was reflected within the rooms of 221b Baker Street for a time before William turned once more, his long hair falling over the sides of his face as he stood with his eyes to the floor. "When…" he began and faltered. "When you see…her again next." He paused again, his brow creasing as he considered his words. "When you see her again next…tell her I am sorry for my behaviour. I…would not have her last thought of me be as I was when I left her. I have behaved badly and I apologise."

"I doubt she would agree, Major," Holmes replied. "And it is we who owe you the apology. Only you have emerged with any credit in this affair."

William's eyes avoided the detective's as he looked towards the curtains, envisioning the cold evening outside. "Credit is scant enough consolation…and hardly due when one has a gun in one's coat pocket."

"I saw no gun," Holmes answered him. "Therefore there was none to tell of…to anyone," he said with meaning.

William looked to him, and Holmes could not but note the lifelessness in the other man's eyes now that the anger had faded. The cavalryman gave a minute nod of acknowledgement to Holmes's gesture, then moving towards the door, he laid a hand upon the handle and paused upon turning it and opening the door.

"I shall hold you to your promise, Mr. Holmes," he said quietly, facing out onto the darkening landing before moving out. "Take care of her."

Holmes stood watching the door until he heard the front one open and close, crossing over to the curtains of one window and drawing it back to look out on the world beyond -- the air navy blue with the fall of night, white with the increasing blizzard, and orange from the lamps flickering into life and casting their glow upon the reflective snow. His eyes followed the movement of the dark, solitary figure as he left the steps of the house and walked, shoulders hunched against the cold and what he must be feeling, down the street before disappearing into the darkness.

Letting the curtains fall back into place, Holmes stood where he was and reflected on what precisely love could do to a man. William Edwards, for all he had irritated him like a persistent gadfly, was a naturally exuberant and open soul…honest and sincere…energetic and playful. He'd looked a changed man, when he'd left here -- torn and broken.

William Edwards would never be the same again. Even should he regain a deal of his former self…there would always be a part of him that was scarred and leery…and it could not help but affect him. This was what opening one's heart could do. And this was part of the reason Holmes had feared it so. Still feared it so.

Part of him continued to wonder whether he was doing the right thing. The knowledge of what could happen to him and…after what William had quite correctly pointed out…to Helen, on this journey they were embarking upon and the damage they could do to one another, had to make him made him wonder if it was worth it.

A knock roused him from his solemn thoughts, and Mrs. Hudson's voice addressed him through the door.

"Come in, Mrs. Hudson," he answered her. "I am quite alone."

On entering, his landlady gave him a small smile and crossed over towards him. "I didn't want to disturb you with your guest, Mr. Holmes…but this came for you by courier just a few minutes ago." She handed him the small yellow telegram and moved to put another shovel full of coal and a log upon the dimming fire. "Would you like me to prepare your dinner for you now? I don't envy your friend having to go out into that weather like that, and was most relieved to see you weren't going with him! You're much better off where you are."

"Yes…" Holmes responded absently as he took in the name of the sender on the telegram and opened it quickly to read its contents.

SHERLOCK. WILLIAM JUST LEFT. I FEAR IS ON HIS WAY TO YOU. PLEASE PLEASE TAKE GREAT CARE. HE IS MOST DISTRESSED AND I FEAR WHAT HE MAY DO. PLEASE REPLY AT SOONEST AVAILABILITY. YOURS HELEN.

The flush of warmth that spread through him had little to do with the fire that had sprung to life under Mrs. Hudson's ministrations. Helen's concern for him was writ large in every abbreviated sentence. Her need to know of his safety brought with it the accompanying realisation that even though he might be miles away and out of sight, he was not out of mind…and would not ever truly be alone.

This, too, was what love could do to a person.

"Yes, Mrs. Hudson." Folding the telegram gently, he looked up with her with a small smile on his face as he finished his response to her. "I am most certainly better off where I am."

---- FINIS ----


Authors' Notes: Thank you all so very, very much for all your wonderful comments and thoughts during this latest story. We hope that you continue with us in our next one The Rules of Engagement, which will be rolling out in a week or two. We need to take a little breather before launching in. :D

We have to admit to a few chuckles from the last set of comments.

1. As you can see no one has gotten married yet...and we will not confirm nor deny they ever will. They just started courting...let's give them some breathing space. As for nights of passion...um...no. Sorry, but this is something that needs to be taken in baby steps...and we simply can't see either of them launching into an illict love affair. Think of the scandal to both their reputations if caught.

2. As for if we've seen My Fair Lady...we both have and love it. Not sure why BaskervilleBeauty that you thought we hadn't. (scratches head) Though I don't really see the comparison with this. As for Dr. Watson-Ruth...I wouldn't say he's like her at all. Can you imagine him giving Holmes sex tips? No...I see it more like Dr. Phil...maybe. Holmes just needed some tough love...and a kick in the head.

I think that's it...and again thank you to all that have read and/or reviewed. It means more to us than we can say. Also let's give a huge hand to our beta, D'arcy, who rocks our socks and put loads of time and effort into making sure we had super polished chapters to bring to you. Cheers, gal! Until two weeks or so... --Aeryn (of aerynfire)