"Why are you hiding me from him?"

John looked exasperated. "Mary," he sighed, shaking his head. Their coffee cups sat untouched between them. They had agreed on a whim to try out every coffee shop in the City of Westminster, a different one each Saturday morning—it seemed such a fun idea at the time-and this establishment had by far the worst coffee in all of London. The abysmal atmosphere only added to the disappointment, and now she was pushing a subject she knew perfectly well was off-limits. But she couldn't stop herself. It had been three months, she had been more than patient, and she knew it was time to cast off the kid gloves and get to the heart of the matter.

"Are you ashamed of me?" she pressed him.

He looked honestly shocked. "Of course not!" he protested. "If anything, I'm hiding him from you. I'm . . . protecting you from him. . . ." he trailed off, looking sheepish.

Mary's dimples showed, but she didn't smile outright. "Don't be ridiculous, John. We spent weeks together, when he solved my father's murder. I already know all about him."

John sighed. "Sherlock on a case is different from Sherlock at home, bored. He's rude, thoughtless, self-centered, childish."

"I'm a doctor, John. I deal with rude, selfish, childish people every day," Mary reminded him gently. She held out her hands to him across the table, coming to the point. "What are you afraid of?"

John took her hands in his, his face falling into those worry-lines she found so endearing. "Every girl I've gone out with since I met him has left me because they can't handle him. And that's okay; I figured if they can't deal with him, they aren't for me, you know? But now it's you. . . . I don't want. . . . I mean, I can't. . . . ."

At last, the truth comes out! Mary felt the relief of an infected wound being lanced, the poison being drained away. Now the injury could begin to heal. "You're afraid he'll scare me off too? But, John, you're right. If I can't handle Sherlock, I'm not the one for you. We need to find that out sooner or later. I'd rather it be sooner. I want a chance to prove to you that I'm serious about this relationship. You'll never feel completely comfortable with me until then, am I right?"

She could see the dread in his face, could read there all the dreadful confrontations with the girls he'd tried to date in the past: the accusations, the misunderstandings, the fear, the anger, the unreasonable demands. John never talked to her about Sherlock, or their cases. But Mary had pored over his blog, knew it by heart. She could understand the feelings of Sarah and the others: dates cancelled due to a case; dates interrupted by Sherlock's demands for attention; nights spent in fear for John's safety instead of in the comfort of his presence. Yes, and she could imagine the insults and derision Sherlock would have hurled at them. But Mary had an edge over these women. She had seen Sherlock and John at work together, first-hand. She had watched them solve the ten-year-old mystery of her father's death, and she had witnessed the incredible team-work involved. She intimately understood the importance and the significance of their relationship, and it had become important to her as well.

She also understood John's hesitation. Being dumped over and over again had eroded his self-esteem. She had spent the last three months trying to convince him that she was not like those other women—that she was committed to this relationship and that nothing would drive her away, not even Sherlock Holmes. She had done her best to let John know how much she respected him, valued him, admired him. This last hurdle must be jumped, or their relationship could go no further.

John squeezed her fingers in his. "You're different. I really want this to work. I NEED this to work. If we. . . . if we could keep these two parts of my life separate. . . ."

It was Mary's turn to be exasperated. "Then I'd get only half of you. And Sherlock would get only half of you. And you-you'd have none of you. You'd be constantly split in halves, and you'd be impossible for any of us to live with. John! I want ALL of you, whole and complete, danger and all. Please trust me enough to believe I can deal with it."

John sputtered in protest, "That's not true! I mean, I work with him, I live with him, but it's not like we're joined at the hip. . . ." His phone chose that moment to signal a text message. He glanced at it and threw it down, ignoring it. Mary laughed at his disgruntled expression.

"It's him, isn't it?" Her dimples deepened. "Go ahead and read it. Honestly, John, what if he's in trouble? What if he really needs you?" She grabbed the mobile and pushed buttons until he snatched it back from her impatiently.

"Desire tea. Need sugar," John read. Mary snorted, most unladylike, and dissolved into giggles. John looked at her in amazement, then chuckled ruefully. "It's like living with a perpetual three-year-old."

"Tell him we're on our way," Mary urged him.

"What?" John groaned. "No, no, he knows I'm on a date. He can't be allowed interrupt whenever he likes. I'm trying to train him!"

"Oh, come on, John. Even a three-year-old deserves to get his own way sometimes. Let's give him a little treat! The coffee here is crap anyway, and you make a divine cup of tea. We'll pick up some sugar and all have tea together. It'll be lovely."

John looked at her suspiciously, then affectionately, then gratefully. "All right, let's get this over. But I guarantee it won't be lovely." He shoved back his chair, then held hers as she rose; tossed some change on the table and shoved his mobile in his pocket.

If Mary Morstan had learned anything in life, it was that people were not permanent. Her mother had died when she was young, and her father, an officer in the military stationed in east Asia, had sent little Mary back to England to be shifted constantly between distant relatives and disinterested friends and undistinguished boarding schools. She had never stayed any one place long enough to establish lasting relationships. She saw her father only rarely, and then he disappeared altogether. The government had investigated: he had boarded a plane heading for England, and had never arrived and had left no clues behind him. No explanation was forthcoming. Mary had taken his vanishing philosophically—in her mind, he had already been gone for a long time.

The government was very sorry for her loss—she would never want for money now. So she went to medical school, found she was brilliant at something, and realized that she could make a life for herself helping people even less fortunate than herself. She liked doing that—helping. It made her feel connected to the human race in a way she never had before. She felt needed. But still—her patients stayed until they didn't need her anymore. Then they left, just like everyone else.

Mary dated a bit, but no one was really interesting to her. She was her father's daughter. She like excitement, challenges. Emergency medicine filled these needs, but everyone she met, even the doctors she met in hospital, were dull. Mary could not endure boring people. Unused to staying in the same place seeing the same faces for very long, she went from job to job, and ended up in a medical clinic in the City of Westminster near Baker Street.

Doctor John Watson intrigued her from the start. He was cute; he was funny; he was good with the patients and kind to everyone. And he was dating Sarah, the chief of staff. But then, he wasn't. Mary heard the inevitable gossip as Sarah abruptly quit her job and moved away and John worked his way through a stream of girlfriends over the course of a year. John Watson was a bit of lad, it seemed. Mary lost interest. How cliché, a doctor who was player. She had no desire to be one of his hit-and-run victims. She avoided him as much as was possible in such a small establishment.

And then the letter came, and she didn't know what to do. She'd been receiving the mysterious letters once a year since her father's disappearance, and she'd tried to investigate their origins on her own. But finally she had learned to live with the not-knowing and just accepted that someone had a guilty conscience and was trying to make amends with gifts of money. This letter, however, was different. It did not contain money but a summons. The mysterious sender now wanted to meet her in person, and Mary wanted very much to go. But she realized that it would be very unwise to go alone. Whom did she know that would be willing to walk into a potentially dangerous situation with her? Mary had so carefully held the world at arm's length her entire life. She did not know of one person whom she could ask to help her.

Except John Watson. She did not really know him, of course, but they had after all been colleagues in the same clinic for over a year now. They had worked together on cases; they had discussed patients; they had "socialized" casually at staff functions. He was not a stranger to her. And he had this flatmate, this Sherlock Holmes; a consulting detective, he was called. Mary was vaguely aware that John helped Sherlock in his investigations. She was also aware that John had been in the military—had been decorated for acts of valour, and had been invalided out due to an injury. He was accustomed to danger and he was used to mysteries. He was perfect.

She waited for him in the break room, and when he walked in way-laid him with her problem. And he was not what she had expected at all. He did not flirt with her. There were no innuendoes. He looked her in the eyes and his own did not wander. He listened to her patiently, and took her problem seriously, and offered her his help immediately without her having to ask.

And now, as she walked down Baker Street from the Local towards 221B with a package of sugar in her hand, Mary reflected on that first time she had made this journey, following John Watson to an unknown destiny, finding herself trusting him in spite of herself. She had met Sherlock, and he had been annoying and rude and brilliant. John had been fearless and protective and kind. Watching the two of them work together on her case was a treat, in spite of the danger they had found themselves in. She saw that John, among others things, served as a liaison between the eccentric detective and the rest of humanity—an interpreter and even a buffer zone for the protection of all parties involved. He made it possible for Sherlock to truly help people, not just solve puzzles. And of course, Sherlock had solved the puzzle of the mysterious stranger and of her father's murder, proof of his incredible gift of genius.

She also saw that John was lonely, and that his serial-dating had been due to a search for a companion who would not leave him because of his unusual and difficult lifestyle. She saw that he was loyal and dependable and honest, the complete opposite of his gossip-informed image at work. Most of all, he was not boring. He was, in fact, the most interesting person she had ever met or was ever likely to meet; and when her case was solved and there was no longer any need for constant contact with him, she found herself disappointed that it was over and longed for more. If Mary Morstan had learned anything in her life, it was that people were not permanent. John, it seemed, had learned this lesson as well. And she was determined to change that fact, both for herself and for John.

As they climbed the stairs to his flat, John suddenly stopped and grasped her hands. The package of sugar dropped unheeded to the landing and he kissed her gently in such a way as she felt he was saying good-bye. "John, I'm not leaving, I'm arriving," she whispered. "Please believe me, I want to make this work."

"You don't know. You don't know what you're in for," he murmured. He had a haunted look of one who had endured too many ugly scenes and heard too many ugly words.

"He doesn't know what HE'S in for," she smiled. "I'm going to be the girl who stays."

John wrapped his arms around her, a bit too tightly, and sighed into her hair. "I want you to. I've never wanted anything more." Then he became aware that she had stopped breathing and let her go.

Mary picked up the sugar and gestured to the door. "Come on, now. It'll be fine."

Normally, John was the perfect gentleman, holding doors and chairs for a lady, letting her go first. This day he went inside ahead of her, blocking her way until his flatmate looked up and acknowledged his presence.

"Sugar," he announced, and stepped into the lounge, revealing Mary behind him.

Sherlock frowned. "What's she doing here?" he intoned, without feeling.

John took on a deliberately cheerful countenance. "You remember Mary, Sherlock. You solved her father's murder three months ago."

"Of course I remember," Sherlock returned scornfully. "I never forget an interesting case. Answer the question."

"We're here to make your tea," Mary answered for herself, matching John for cheery disposition. "It'll be lovely, the three of us together again."

Sherlock snorted and returned to his examination of a petri-dishful of soil with a magnifying glass. John looked at Mary and shrugged. "Come on, we'll put the kettle on."

Mary chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. "No, you go on," she said at last. "I'll stay here and have a chat with Sherlock."

John did not move. His face remained unchanged, but his eyes widened in a hint of panic.

"It's all right. Really," Mary murmured. "On you go." She handed him the sugar and gave him a little shove towards the kitchen. Then she sat in John's accustomed armchair and watched Sherlock until she was certain he was no longer truly absorbed in his work was but simply looking at it in order to ignore her. She smiled a bit and plunged in.

"Can I be frank with you, Sherlock?"

"Must you?" he sighed. And then he looked at her, really looked at her, and she saw the dread there, the resignation to the inevitable awful scene, and she realized that the confrontations with John's previous lady friends had taken a toll on the detective as well as on John himself. She imagined the accusations, the anger, the impatience, the abuse hurled at Sherlock by frustrated females who could simply not understand, could simply not accept, that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were necessary to each other; that they were better as a team than they had been on their own; that their work was important and worth any sacrifices they had to make.

Mary felt deeply that this moment might be the most important moment in her life—that what she said and did in the next few minutes could decide the course of the rest of her life. "I can't mess this up," she thought desperately. She took a deep breath and tried again.

"John is important to me. You are important to John. That makes you important to me, as well. I want us to be friends, you and me. I'd like us to try, anyway."

She could tell by the slight raising of his right eyebrow that she had taken him by surprise. He thought over her words for a second, then replied, but without heat, "I don't have friends. Perhaps he's told you."

"You do, though. You have him. And now you have me, whether you want me or not. I'm not going to go away, so we must find a way to make this work. I WANT to make it work."

John chose that moment to call from the kitchen, "Sherlock! We're out of sugar because you dumped out the sugar bowl and filled it with eviscerated eyeballs, you git! Why can't you use the containers I bought especially for body parts?"

Sherlock rolled his eyes. John apparently did not expect an answer, the rattling in the kitchen continuing as it had been, and Sherlock was apparently in no fear of his experiment going into the trash. This was a commonplace exchange between them and was more ritual than anything else. Sherlock muttered under his breath, "I needed a container without a hermetically sealed lid. The sugar bowl was perfect."

"Of course it was," Mary replied without thinking. Sherlock looked at her with some annoyance, expecting sarcasm, but now that she'd begun, she continued on doggedly, "you needed to cover them to prevent foreign objects falling in, but you also needed air to circulate in order for them to deteriorate naturally."

Sherlock's face did not register change except for that slightly raised brow, but he did not tell her to shut up. Mary felt a tentative hope rise in her chest. She was getting to him. Well, at least she was not boring him.

Sherlock gazed at her for some minutes, making his deductions. She understood this process—he'd done this before, when they had first met, so she endured it patiently. Then he spoke, and it was her turn to be surprised.

"Ask me a question."

She hesitated. She had to tread so carefully here. She was so close to drawing him in, so close to making him understand her purpose. "What?"

"That's what people do, isn't it? To get acquainted, they ask questions."

Mary did not dare to let the smile that was rising in her to register on her face, but she was aware that her dimples were showing just a bit as a triumphant joy flooded her being. But what question to ask? It couldn't be a boring, mundane, everyday question. It had to MEAN something.

She took a deep breath and looked into his eyes, and began. "John's blog says that he believed your friendship, your partnership, began during a cab ride to the first case you worked on together, when you deduced his whole life and he didn't tell you to piss off. But I think perhaps the truth is, your friendship began the first time he called you an idiot. Am I right?"

This time the surprise actually made it into his expression before he suppressed it. "That isn't in his blog. He would never have told anyone about that. You couldn't know about that. Therefore you are guessing."

Mary allowed herself to smile. Gotcha! "Yes, but it's a good guess, based on what I know of John. He's intrinsically honest, and he says what he thinks to you. And you appreciate that about him, more than any of his other qualities. Am I right?"

Before he could answer, John entered carrying a tray containing a teapot, a creamer, and four mismatched cups, one of which was doing service as a substitute sugar bowl. "Still all here, are we?" we asked wryly, looking from one to the other in open curiosity. Mary gave him a reassuring grin.

"We're getting along famously," she said encouragingly.

"Biscuits, John," Sherlock demanded.

"I'm sorry?" John bristled instantly in return.

"We need biscuits, John, with our tea. Be a friend and get us some."

John gritted his teeth and visibly summoned up his long-suffering patience. "We haven't any."

Sherlock sighed dramatically. "Use your senses, John! Take a deep breath and observe the delicious scent of baking wafting up the stairway. Mrs. Hudson is just waiting to gift us with biscuits. Don't disappoint her—go down and collect them!"

John looked at Mary, and she nodded. "Go on, it's all right. Really."

After another moment's hesitation, he went out reluctantly, and Mary turned back to Sherlock expectantly.

Sherlock took a moment to gather his thoughts. "When we solved our first case, I took a risk John felt was . . . unnecessary. He told me I had been an idiot, but he laughed after he said it. He understood, even if he didn't agree." There was another pause as he debated with himself whether to go on. "I realized the value of such honesty in my life. I do tend to take unnecessary risks heedlessly. John reminds that I am mortal. He keeps me honest with myself."

This confession took Mary's breath away. It was more than she could ever have dreamed to siphon off from the wells of Sherlock's internal workings. But she did not allow her victory to show on her face or quaver in her voice as she pushed onwards. "All right, then. Now it's your turn. Ask me a question," she challenged him.

Then he smiled, and she could suddenly see how charming he could be if he wanted to, how amusing, how much fun. She realized she was finally seeing the Sherlock Holmes that John Watson knew, not the face he showed the rest of the world. He was trusting her with himself now, and she was touched.

"I suppose you think of John as . . . funny? Kind? Even, sweet? A cuddly teddy bear, perhaps?" Sherlock said with a glint in his eye. She nodded with a smile, but before she could answer, he went on. "What would you say if I told you that John Watson is one of the most dangerous men you've ever met?"

Mary schooled her expression not to show her astonishment at this turn of conversation. She thought quickly. This fencing with words was exhilarating, but exhausting as well. She carefully responded, "I'd say I'm not surprised at all. But I'd also want to know what makes you say it."

Sherlock smiled again. Ah, the correct answer! She was playing the game well, and learning as she went.

"Why are you not surprised, then?" he wanted to know. It was a second question, not playing according to the rules, but Mary didn't mind. This was more like a real conversation than anything she had imagined having with Sherlock Holmes, and she feared breaking the spell.

"It was one of our first dates. We went to a pub, and as we were leaving a chap grabbed my behind and make a . . . lewd suggestion to me. And before he'd finished his sentence, he was flat on his back on the floor with John's foot on his throat. He was angry, John was, but he didn't raise his voice, and that made him rather more frightening. He demanded the chap apologize to me, which he did, and John let him up. Then as we were walking down the street, the man followed us, grabbed John by the shoulder; and John whirled round and bloodied his nose for him, quick as a thought. It was amazing! I mean, this man was drunk, but he was also a lot taller than John, and heavier. And John tossed him around like a professional wrestler."

At that, Sherlock laughed, and the sound was enchanting. "Oh, that's wonderful! He never told me that story. Yes, that's just like him."

"So answer my question, then," Mary prompted him. "Why did you say that, about John being dangerous?"

Sherlock steepled his hands and touched them to his chin in thought. "I hadn't known John Watson for 36 hours before I saw him kill a man with incredible skill, and laugh about it afterwards. And then we went out for Chinese." He watched her carefully, studying her reaction to his revelation. She was on trial now, more than ever before. This was what was important to him—how she would respond to what Sherlock considered to be the REAL John Watson. And then it all clicked into place. The other girls John had gone out with, the other normal people he had tried to date—they had all failed this test, this single test. Sherlock was protecting his flatmate the only way he knew how. He was screening John's companions, looking for one who would truly accept John for who he was, not for how he presented himself to the rest of the world. Mary felt a whole new depth of appreciation for Sherlock Holmes.

"Oh!" she exclaimed with a sudden insight. "It was him! He was the mysterious shooter who killed the cabbie, the one the police never caught. He shot him through two windows just in time to save your life."

Sherlock snorted. "He believed so, yes. I dispute that I was ever in any danger."

"And that's when he called you an idiot," Mary finished triumphantly, no longer trying to hide her joy.

Sherlock smiled fondly in remembrance. "Exactly."

And Mary knew the correct response, and it was an honest one. "How exciting! Thank you for telling me that story, Sherlock. He'd have never told me himself, and I love knowing that he truly is the person I believed him to be."

Then John trudged in, carrying a plate of Mrs. Hudson's biscuits, fresh from the oven, and dropped it before his flatmate with a show of annoyance that didn't make it to his eyes. Mary grabbed his hand for quick, reassuring squeeze to tell him that all was well. But it wouldn't have taken a detective to see that Mary been officially vetted and approved. How she'd done it, he couldn't fathom; but it certainly raised her to the level of "perfect" in John's eyes. Any woman who could handle Sherlock Holmes was the woman for him.