I staggered back, woozy and almost ill to my stomach. Mr. Hope…Miss…whatever-her-name-was surged toward me and gripped my arms, guiding me down into the chair to the left of the fireplace. I stared at her, struggling for breath as twin thoughts wrestled in my mind.
One: She. Not he. She. It angered me that this one fact should be so significant in my mind. Defined cheekbones, prominently arched nose, graceful mouth, lanky limbs—all looked the same as they had a moment before. But my perception of them had changed. Apparently, not even I was beyond viewing people through the lens of their sex. After priding myself on my broad-mindedness, the realization was a stinging rebuke.
Two: She must have seen through my disguise from the start. And if she had done so easily, whom else did I fail to fool? Who else knew? Uncle Ian had paid well for the silence of the army surgeon who operated on my gunshot wound. But I had no money to buy off anyone else. Imminent ruin loomed around me, cold and paralyzing.
“Calm yourself, Doctor,” she said, her brisk voice barely changed after revealing herself to me and yet tangibly different in a way I couldn’t describe. “There’s no need for theatrics.”
“Like the bit of theater you just performed?” I heard myself saying. It shocked me that I had the presence of mind to be sardonic. But something about her tone bit at me, and I responded on reflex.
Her fingers worked to button her shirt again, and her lips curved, just at the edges. “I never could resist a touch of the dramatic.”
“So I noticed.”
Shirt done up, she held out her hand to me. “Let’s start again. I’m Sherlyn Holmes.”
I took her hand, and at the feel of her skin against mine, my chest constricted in a much more pleasant way. “Siân Watson.”
“I thought I heard a hint of Welsh in your accent.” She seemed very pleased with herself and made no move to withdraw her hand. “There’s no reason to worry that anyone else has realized your true sex.”
Her statement jolted me, and I slid my hand away, my cheeks heating at my gracelessness.
She tucked in her shirt as if she didn’t notice. “Obviously, Stamford knew, and I did tell Mrs. Hudson in advance—she’s already aware that I cross-dress when it’s more convenient for me, so of course she has no objections to your doing it. But your disguise is convincing, and the vast majority of men are too stupid to have noticed. So don’t measure them against me—it’s not a fair comparison.”
“How did you know I was worried about that?”
She slid her bracers back into place, replaced her collar, adjusted her waistcoat, and buttoned it. “And since you don’t wish to live as a man anymore, you should know I don’t cross-dress all the time either. So that shouldn’t create any problems for us sharing a flat together.”
“How did you know that I—”
“Dr. Watson, if you persist in trying to ask that question every time I make an observation, it will take us to next Christmas to have an entire conversation.” Waistcoat now fastened, she started in on her necktie.
Suddenly no longer dizzy, I sat up straight, pinning her with my gaze. “But I want to know.”
Her hands froze at her neck, and she pinned me right back. “Then I suggest you keep a list, and we can go through it all at once on a quarterly basis.”
My blood heated, and I stood as smoothly as I could. Took a small step her direction. “Done,” I said quietly, my lips tightening.
Something flared in her eyes, but she quickly hid it, bending to search for her scattered hairpins.
I savored what felt like a minor victory. “Personally, I don’t intend to don men’s clothing ever again. The only reason I’m still passing as a man is because I haven’t found a way to rebuild a woman’s wardrobe without attracting suspicion.”
Miss Holmes laughed at that. “Why didn’t you just ask Stamford if you could borrow a dress?” she said, two hairpins tucked between her lips.
I started to answer, realized I didn’t have an answer, and shut my mouth. How fleeting victory was. “I was so surprised to see Stamford, and then events progressed so quickly, I admit the idea never occurred to me.”
She grinned, twisting up her hair, and I could practically see her mentally tally another point in her own favor. “I would be happy to loan you an ensemble so you can go shopping.” When her hair was pinned, she brushed off the wig and smoothed the locks before sliding it back in place.
Wearing her clothes would feel like a shocking intimacy. I barely knew her. But for many reasons—some that I refused to think about just then—I didn’t want to say no. “We might need to have it shortened for me.”
Her gaze swept my body, starting from my feet and stopping at my eyes. I suppressed a shiver—she seemed to be measuring so much more than my height.
“Perhaps, but you’re not much shorter than I am.” She picked up her abandoned coat and shrugged into it.
I found my voice with difficulty. “Then I would greatly appreciate the loan of a dress. Thank you.”
“Excellent.” Her eyes held mine a moment longer before sliding away. I had the brief impression of a tiny smirk, but then she was through the doorway and in the hall. “Mrs. Hudson,” she called down the stairs, her voice strangely exultant, “we’re taking the flat!”
I hurried to join her.
She threw a quick, mischievous smile over her shoulder as she fastened the buttons on her coat. “Race you,” she said, laughter in her tone. Then she was off, taking the steps two at a time.
I shook my head. How was it that Miss Holmes could tease me so, and yet it didn’t feel malicious but rather invigorating? I’d just acquired the most outrageous, high-handed flatmate imaginable. I should be annoyed or at least apprehensive. But I found her too fascinating for that, and besides—she’d given me 221B and a dress. I couldn’t wait to see what she would do next.
We moved into our new rooms over the next few days. Well, to be precise, it took me one afternoon to bring over my meager belongings, and it took Holmes the better part of the week to transport hers. She had countless books, from classic literature (barely opened) to sensational accounts of crime and horror (dogeared and well-read), and chemistry texts and medical tomes. When I suggested that we should sort and organize all the volumes, her contribution to the effort was to stack crates in front of the fireplace and tell me to sort away while she piled the rest of her books haphazardly on the shelves in the study.
I began unpacking with good intentions, but after four hours of trying to decide if a book should be under “classics” or under “poetry,” “philosophy” or “science,” I gave up and just filled the shelves. Holmes wandered by a bit later and perused the titles.
“It’s always useful to have a logical filing system. Excellent work, Watson.”
I pretended not to hear the laughter in her voice. But over the next few days, I caught her switching one or two books at a time until the new order met with her approval. If she had a system for it, I couldn’t tell what it was.
As our rooms filled up, it seemed strange to me how comfortable it all felt. Almost none of these things were mine, but Holmes never made a distinction. She shared in the same way she did nearly everything else—with a headlong totality that made me feel not just that I belonged, but that I had always belonged, always existed there in that flat long before I even existed on earth itself. But woe to me if I tried to express my gratitude. She had no tolerance for sentiment.
When Mrs. Hudson saw that Holmes was taking the first floor bedroom, our landlady scolded her for being so inconsiderate. “Making poor Dr. Watson manage an extra flight of stairs? Whatever can you be thinking?”
Holmes transformed into an excellent impression of an icicle. “I was thinking, Mrs. Hudson, that ‘poor Dr. Watson’ wants the second-floor bedroom, and I was happy to give it to her in spite of the fact that the first-floor room is smaller.”
“How did—” I clamped my mouth shut.
She arched her brows, but when I shook my head without finishing my question, she just marched into her room with the crate she’d been carrying. Mrs. Hudson eyed me, concern shadowing her brown eyes.
“It’s true,” I said. “Though I don’t know how she knew it. But the minute I saw the upstairs room, I wanted nothing more than to have it for myself. I can handle the extra stairs. It’s a lovely room, isn’t it?”
“Thank you. I’m actually partial to it myself as well.”
We shared a warm moment of understanding, and then I leaned closer, lowering my voice. “How does she know things?”
Before Mrs. Hudson could answer, Holmes popped her head out of her room. “For Christ’s sake, Watson—I’m simply observant.” She disappeared but then called out, “And I have excellent hearing!”
Mrs. Hudson patted me on the shoulder. It felt like sympathy.
Next Time: Watson finally goes shopping for new clothes–what could possibly go wrong?
(A Study In Garnet is the first book in the Ladies of Baker Street series by Meredith Rose. It is a mostly-canon-compliant, Victorian-set, female, and queer retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m offering the first 10 chapters for free, in hopes that you will support my writing and continue enjoying the story by purchasing the book in either hardback or ebook format from my shop.
I’m posting the chapters here on my website, once a week. Enjoy, and please share with people you know who are looking for historical f/f fiction or who enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories. Thanks for reading!)