(Note: this story takes place in
1927. If you would like to view the most beautiful artistic
representation of Holmes and Watson in retirement that I have ever
seen, and one done by a wonderful friend, here it is. Breathtaking.)
Holmes had kissed me in the middle of his garden that morning, absent-minded but as stirring as he ever is, fat sheeplike clouds grazing in the air above us before he strode off with his gauzy hat under his lean arm, and I had recalled that it was--in an official sense--his reason for moving us to Sussex in the first place. Kissing me out of doors, that is to say. My friend never has only one reason for doing anything, but I do think that Sussex is as near as he can come to just that: a single-minded enterprise. I can be pardoned for not initially recalling that I had just been granted the specific boon for which our cottage exists for two reasons, I think. First, I can hardly be expected to think of particular things whensoever he kisses me. And second, it was 1927, and we had lived here, more or less and with a pair of gaping holes in the middle, for two decades now.
I wiped a cloth over the pine kitchen table, pondering. Martha comes in to clean but biweekly these days, for we are growing decidedly reclusive. That would change three days hence, however, when we traveled to London, and so I was remembering things as they were. I was in the midst of what seemed frankly a terrible short story, an appalling mess which seemed derivative of myself, and it must be my memory that's growing to be the problem, I thought. So I simply stood in the clean little kitchen with a blue linen cloth, recalling past things.
For instance, I recalled our arrival, with bags and valises and steamer trunks, in shadow-lengthening September. Holmes was only fifty-one then, a young man by my current standards. Some of his hair was still sable. A good three quarters of it, actually, apart from his silver temples, and his beautifully lithe body was more or less unmarked save for the thousands of tiny violations his right hand enacts upon his left arm. It was before explosions, before a War which neither of us had expected to ravage the world.
My friend cocked his head at the cottage and smiled. The peculiarly whimsical one which isn't calculated, and which he hardly ever realizes he is displaying. It is rather absurd to admit to what degree these unconscious smiles affect me. I revere them as a pilgrim does relics.
"What do you think?" he asked.
We were in the midst of a spectacular row, as it happened. He had strode into the sitting room one afternoon a month earlier and announced that we were moving to Sussex now, and I had best pack my things. Did he really suppose, I replied, that I would drop everything, leave the city we both loved, and move into a domicile I had never seen in my life? Yes, he said, and don't forget to buy a lighter set of summer clothes. That sort of behavior is no less infuriating for being entirely expected. In fact, it only grows all the more unforgivable. So every potentially irritating thing about travel, I had allowed to irritate me to the fullest. In fact, I hadn't spoken to him at all for over an hour.
But then...then I was looking at it.
The cottage is just at the northern edge of Eastbourne, a mile distant from the sea and the high, chalky cliffs, off a grassy byway which rolls and dips through the countryside. It is set very far back from this road, and within a copse of white elms. It is painted blue, and is two floors, though the top floor is primarily a lumber room apart from the office where we keep our vast mountains of papers. There is a porch at the front, and another at the back, and, as it was September, there were tables and chairs populating both. A gigantic spray of yellow moss roses almost completely obscures the front veranda from the dusty track one traverses by carriage or automobile. Red and yellow stained glass adorns a rectangular top piece set in all of the windows. All the foliage that was not green was red or yellowing above us.
I forgot I was angry.
"We're going to live here?" I said, breathless as a child.
Holmes laughed, I saw out of the corner of my eye as his head tilted. I'd not have known it otherwise, then.
"You wanted me to see it first like this," I mused. "You've let me be annoyed with you for four weeks now, simply so as not to ruin a surprise."
"If you're sorry, you can make it up to me," he quipped. "I don't mind."
I don't mind either, and I never did mind, I'm afraid. I made it up to him the moment our luggage was inside and the new front door tested over efficacy of lock and key fitting, and I had knelt in front of him, in another sort of lock and key altogether. I don't think he'd expected it, and I felt him laughing once more in the muscles of his lower stomach, though as I say I couldn't hear it at the time, and everything was right. Everything, I thought. We would be happy here. How could I ever have doubted him? He traces my eyebrows with his thumbs at times when I'm before him like that, and he did then.
That was a long time ago, I reminded myself. A very long time ago. And nothing to do with any cases. What was sooner?
"Bees," he said to me three months later, dropping a handbook on my desk where I was writing a story--a good story, too, a very good story, a story people love--in the dead of winter.
"No," I said.
"Yes," he said, glowing, "I must have them. They are fascinating, Watson. Did you know that the method by which they communicate the location of nectar is in the form of an intricate dance?"
"No. And no," I added, smiling up at him beatifically.
"I'll make honey for you," he said, making every single word absolutely depraved.
"Tempting," I admitted, because it was. And he had also decided that was the right moment to sit in my lap and place all five of the long fingers of his right hand at separate points along my cheek and jawline. It was most distracting.
"I'll eat the honey myself," he offered in a far cleverer ploy.
We had bees come spring. I like them now. Holmes loves them in the way he loves things he doesn't understand entirely. It must be such a curse, understanding so very many things. It took me some time to learn that about him, to understand that part of why he loves me is that I baffle him. I find myself to be very simple. My motives are clear enough to fathom, and I make it my habit never to take motiveless actions, so my own lack of capriciousness causes me to wonder at times why Holmes is looking at me the way he looks at fascinating murder scenes. But if I can puzzle him, then God bless him, he's welcome to me, and welcome to bees. And the honey really is exquisite fresh from the comb. I'm delighted we bought the first hive.
But that was such a long time ago. My mind was nagging at me to recall more immediately important things, even though I was fighting it with everything I had.
I failed, though. So I remembered this morning. I didn't want to, but I did. I remembered ten thirty am.
I was crossing the dining room to make a pot of tea, in the midst of an excellent article, entirely content with the world. Then I heard a slight sound of footfalls and saw Holmes running for the house through one of our windows. It was his easy sprint, the loping one when he's being efficient and not actually hurried, but my heart leapt into my throat anyhow. It ought not to have done so, for I have witnessed that run literally thousands of times and it specifically means that nothing particularly alarming has happened, and yet I could not stop myself. He slid though the back door, and I saw when he entered a tiny line of pain above his nose.
"Are you all right?" I demanded.
"Yes, of course."
Holmes walked to the sink and ran the taps, as cool as you please. That was very like him, though. Sherlock Holmes has nearly died several times in my viewing, with nary a peep from the man.
"Confound you, what happened?" I snapped.
My friend froze for a mere instant, then turned to look at me.
"I don't generally mind bee stings," he drawled, "but this one is between the first and second knuckles of my left hand's index finger, which will be a deuced nuisance when I play my fiddle if I don't get the stinger out quickly. Doctor," he added on a sigh.
"Of course, let me help you," I offered, already ashamed of myself.
I went and joined him over the tap. To my regret, the light was much better there, not that Holmes requires light in order to see straight into my thoughts. On the contrary. I have been informed, and with just cause too, that he need not have me in his direct view at all to read my mind. He'd forgotten all about bee stings by that time, of course, and tilted my chin up to see my face, his fingers cold and wet on my skin.
"Are you going to be like this..." he waved his other hand in the air, an elegant flutter. "Forever? When I scrape my knuckles gardening or get a headache or, say for instance, everything in my body hurts, which is not infrequently?"
"I'll try not to be," I vowed. "I promise."
I shook the scene out of my thoughts. I wiped the polished table top again, to watch the moisture evaporate. But my head was spiraling endlessly, free-falling into the things I least wished to mull over.
I felt stupid, and sluggish, and old, and useless, and a fool.
I sat down.
Truth be told, I feel as if I'm falling often enough, of late. In a manner of speaking.
We had suffered two heart attacks by 1927, and I don't know why either one of them surprised me. And by "we," I mean "Holmes," though I felt every agonizing, clenching, gasping instant of both of them. I am seventy-five, and he is two years my junior, likewise an old man. Why I had been surprised on the first occasion that a lifelong drug addict suffered one of its most predictable consequences, I honestly cannot fathom, but I was decimated. Then we laid in a good supply of nitroglycerin, and so that problem was permanently solved. The second time had left me shaken and utterly out of my mind for a solid span of four days, days which were just ending, and I could not for the very life of me seem to master myself.
After I had saved his life the previous week, he had apologized prettily. And then fallen at once into a brown study.
"I don't mean to put you through this, you know," he had whispered.
"You never mean to put me through anything."
The snaps as I shut my medical kit were too loud in the small room. They said what I would never say to him. They said, you put me through hell, and yes--you've never meant it in your life. I don't waste time wondering if it would be better if he hurt me purposefully. For he never has done, and he never will, and knowing that is one of the thousands upon thousands of things which make him not merely tolerable but essential to me despite the hurts he deals out. If he could change his entire nature to the degree that he could never wound me, he would do so in a heartbeat, were it the most gut-wrenchingly painful exercise on earth. It is one of the sadder facts about him I have cataloged.
"You do realize that it was never my best feature," he had confessed softly, sitting cross-legged in his shirtsleeves on our bed and staring out the window, extraordinarily pale even for him.
I swallowed what felt like a boulder as I turned around.
"Your heart, you mean?"
He shrugged, adding a single nod.
"You backwards-headed, contrary, vain, feeble-minded bastard," I had growled. "I should like to know just what you could possibly imagine your best feature to be, then."
"I don't know." He ventured a tiny smile. "My hands used to be rather good. I say, John, feeble-minded is a bit of a stretch, isn't it?"
Then I had kissed him. I had kissed him because one of these days he is going to die, and without ever knowing that his heart is the most utterly graceful organ I have ever encountered. I'd used to think he would learn it one day. He won't, though, and if loving him for approximately forty years hasn't done the trick, I do not know what else can. I have done my best.
Holmes came inside and found me staring broodily at a half-finished manuscript, a very clean kitchen table, a blue cloth, and my fingers. Granted, it was hardly a sight typical of our household.
"All right, out with it," he said, sitting on the table in front of me and crossing his long legs at the shins.
"You can be such an engaging conversationalist," I returned, rather unfairly. "I cannot get this tale to hang together. Not the way it happened, nor yet the way it didn't happen."
"Then why are you writing it?"
"I beg your pardon?"
My friend's pale, arched eyebrow quivered at me quizzically. "If you are deriving no joy from the writing of it, nor from the reading of it, and you don't need the money, and I happen to know you don't need the money, because I'm quite satisfactorily wealthy and your royalty cheques are obscene, then why are you writing it?"
I knew why I was writing it in spite of all those factors, and he was right on each and every count, but the answer was none of his business. And Holmes, bless him, has a tendency to figure out things which are none of his business entirely by accident. So I bought myself a little time.
"I'm in a terrible mood," I admitted, pushing the pages away. "It's been ages since I've been to London--what, two years now?--and I think I'm afraid I won't recognize it. Or recognize...anyone. People we've known for decades, other than Lestrade. Or I fear that I'm losing my knack for humanity entirely."
"It takes longer than two years to entirely rebuild London," my friend returned mildly. "And the day you lose your knack for people, God have mercy upon you, because you live with a rather incorrigible example of the species."
"He's all right." I played with his fingers for a moment, a habit I've never remotely tired of. "What are you doing?"
"Anything you like. I've four letters to write, but that can wait until later."
Reaching down with his free hand, he drew his fingertips over the back of my neck. Unfortunately, although the touch affected me as it ever had, that was not quite what I wanted at the time. It had not been for exactly four days, which was hardly typical for us, but I believed so far that I had made my reticence plausible. Once, I had simply been asleep, and he curled in a chair before the fire until the small hours. Once, I had managed to snug in so comfortably and contentedly next to him when we retired that the matter never came up. Once, in the lazy mid-afternoon, I had feigned a streak of inspired literary genius and thus earned his sudden courteous avoidance.
"We're going into town," I said, catching his hand and kissing it briefly.
"Are we? And why, may I ask?"
"We haven't played at criminal investigators in weeks. There are all sorts of things we need to know without asking anyone. For instance, has Mrs. Fairfax's granddaughter been born yet? Did Mr. Brown end by selling the southwest pasture, or did he renege at the last minute as ever, because his best sheepdog happens to be buried there? Does Madame DuBois really intend to house her mad nephew here for the summer months?"
"And these important matters are ones I am to deduce, I take it?"
"I need daylight." I pushed the damned papers away a second time. "And noise, and two or three pints, I think, and I'll be quite myself."
"We're walking, then," he shrugged. "And I refuse to sit down at the Lion and Hart if George Haversham is anywhere visible. If he is visible, I am leaving. If he is invisible but present and detectable, I am leaving. If his imminent future arrival is discernible by logical inference, I am leaving."
One of the unforeseen consequences of having written a very popular series of short stories seemed, by 1927, to have been almost a foregone conclusion: namely, that Sherlock Holmes could not venture anywhere, even in Sussex, without encountering...I do not know quite what to call them. Admirers, perhaps, though they none of them knew him personally. Fanatics might be a better term.
Fortunately there was only one such at our local pub, and his name was George Haversham. Holmes had once been subjected to an hour-long discussion regarding just what type of snake exactly he supposed Dr. Grimesby Roylott to have kept, whilst his interrogator informed my friend very seriously that there was no such thing as a swamp adder. Errors of that sort are my fault, of course, sometimes deliberate and sometimes otherwise. Holmes only tolerated that particular session because he kept catching me laughing out of his peripheral vision, and he ended by telling the most outrageous lies conceivable about the secret Hindu breeding of animals unknown to modern science, making me laugh all the harder. On the next occasion, when my friend had been sipping a porter and Haversham had feelingly wanted to know whether there was more to he and Irene Adler's relationship than might have met the casual observer's eye, Holmes had asked him very politely, and I quote, "Would it discommode you terribly to sod off, as I am engaged by Mr. Peters next door to keep the most stringent watch over the barman to ensure his whiskeys are poured fairly?"
"George Haversham desires naught from you save your esteem," I said slyly.
"And my time. Grotesque amounts of my time. Oh, and my entire personal history, and most likely follicles of my hair, come to think of it. The man is mad."
"You are unique." I feigned a sympathetic expression. "He has discovered that the white elephant lives in his very village. He may have seen it, but having once seen it, to ask the poor man to forever abstain from--"
"You've finally lost your mind, I think. Pity it's days before the wedding. And you were so looking forward to it."
"Not as much as George Haversham looks forward to the smallest glimpse of an aquiline nose."
"Keep at it and I'll tell him you've kept many dark secrets, and that he must prize them out of you over shepherd's pie."
The shepherd's pie at the Lion and Hart is just slightly less ghastly than the food I ate during the Great War. I couldn't help myself. I grinned at him. Holmes had picked up one of my pages and was squinting at it. He pulled his reading glasses out of his ivory coat pocket, slid them up his nose, and at once the little frown disappeared.
"The world adores you," I concluded.
"Well, reading this, I suppose my popularity is understandable after all. Even when talent fails to recognize genius, the talent being absent, I mean, and mediocrity abounding, there's nothing like florid melodrama to get the blood pumping. Let's be off, then," he said, putting the page down delicately. "I shudder to think what sentence follows 'Holmes thrust the blade into the corpse to the very hilt, sparks flashing in his keen grey eyes.'"
"You did," I pointed out. "I was there. I saw you."
"You were there," he agreed, leaning down to kiss me. It was brief, and dry, and wonderful. "I simply fail to see why everyone else needs to have been there too. Fetch your stick, the Havershams of the world never drink before five, so we have the advantage of them."
And of course, I could not answer his half-spoken question. Not then, and not ever, I thought. There is a very long list of activities Sherlock Holmes indulges in which I should prefer him to abstain from; his habit of cutting right to the quick of my worst and most barely-fathomed foibles happens to be one of them. So I bided my time until such occasion as he would tug a raw bit of my heart out to show it to me, quite entirely by accident, of course, and instead went for my hat and stick.
As it happened, our time spent at the Lion and Hart was quite wonderful--Holmes never fails to be wonderful when I expect it of him, and George Haversham was nowhere present, and I forgot my troubles for a matter of three hours before we went home to dine upon bread, and cheese, and honey, and peas fresh from his garden. It was, all told, far too idyllic a late afternoon to presage what came after. I ought to have expected an imminent confrontation, but in all honesty, I had not done. I am not stupid. Holmes, of all the people on earth to stand next to for comparative study, would be the first to say so. However, I can be needlessly optimistic, and this was one such occasion.
In briefest fashion, for I cannot bear to think of it otherwise, we readied for bed. I read for half an hour whilst Holmes wrote the letters to which he had referred. We dimmed the lights. Upon crawling into bed, and sliding close to one another as we usually do, my friend's hand wandered vaguely southward towards a region which had missed his direct company for precisely four days.
And I froze, petrified of possible consequences. God help me. As if a lack of verbal communication has ever stood in the way of Sherlock Holmes.
"What on earth?" he inquired solicitously.
"Nothing," I said quickly. "I'm rather tired."
His rejoinder was nothing less than the truth, so I prayed that for once--if only once--I would be fast enough to out-think him. I may as well have prayed for the ability to fly.
"Leg isn't bothering you, shoulder isn't bothering you, hand isn't bothering you," he swiftly interjected. "What in the name of the devil have I done? Out with it, that I might make a very elegant apology and return to--"
"It isn't...strictly safe," I blurted out.
Holmes shifted. The electric light switched on. My friend considers technology a boon, as do I, though on occasion I miss the flare of gaslight. As I miss many other things.
Sitting back on his heels, very alluringly shirtless and with a lean physique which has never failed to arouse the basest urges in me, Holmes directed eyes like a pair of rapiers in my direction. I do not quail before such behavior, but I know enough to tread lightly when it appears.
"Safe," he repeated. "You suggest that an activity we have indulged in--what, some thousands of times, John? Tens of thousands? Have you counted? Because I have lost track."
I let this pass.
"...Is unsafe," he finished caustically. "Pray enlighten me as to the cause."
And upon my honour, I thought over my reply. What it might mean to me, and to him, and to us, in almost every permutation. Save for the ones I was ignoring, of course. Finally, I decided that--since I cannot lie to him anyhow--it would be useless to try.
"You're not entirely well," I answered.
Holmes, God bless the man, pulled back at least a full inch. I have seen him do so perhaps thrice in our lives, and never in the company of swamp adders, devil hounds, or murderers with loaded weapons. Only ever when I have said something wretched to him. I am not proud of the fact that I can elicit fear beyond threats to his physical existence. I am not proud that I have done so on multiple occasions. I am not proud of a moment of any of it, save that I was ever genuinely acting as I thought best at the time. It is not easy to live with a man whose upper hand is almost without question, not when possessed of a will and a temper, and not that he has ever sought to control me--I simply exist in a time frame approximately five minutes before him, every day. And inevitably, this gap in our chronology leads to grievous errors upon my part. They are to be expected, but it is ghastly to know I have hurt him deeper than anyone ever has, including people who deliberately did so, and multiple times. I should forgive myself for it if I were a very forgiving person. I am not, when once the crime is deep enough.
"Let me understand this," Holmes said in a voice gone cold as steel. "I am paying for a terrible habit with terrible physical consequences. And I am about to pay for those terrible physical consequences with a set of entirely different terrible physical consequences. Because you don't suppose I've suffered enough quite yet, watching you turn white every time my bloody shoulder goes into spasm. It being the left shoulder, and thus in the same region as the organ you're clearly thinking of. That's all insufficient. You'd like a bit more of your own back."
My mouth had gone quite dry. "For God's sake, Sherlock--"
"No. I can see that it's not enough for you. Shall I suggest an alternate punishment, perhaps, one more--"
"That's monstrous, and you know it. I was thinking of preserving you, not of punishing you."
"A fine job you're doing, too," he snapped.
"I cannot apologize for wanting to prolong your life."
All the anger, every trace of it, along with all of the underlying hurt, cleared away from his face in an instant. And I knew enough to be rather apprehensive about what would come next, given that signal. It had never boded well for me in the past, not even once. In fact, it was the direst sign upon record. Holmes got up and stood at the edge of the bed, glaring down at me, smoothing back his hair with his palm so as to look dignified for what I knew to be an impending announcement of some kind.
"Then I want a divorce," he said pleasantly.
I'm afraid I couldn't think of an answer to that for quite some time.
"You...you what?" I finally managed to stammer.
"A divorce. Due to refusal of conjugal rights."
"But I--that is, I only--"
"Or on the grounds of non-fulfillment of marital vows."
"We didn't make any vows, Sherlock Holmes."
"Nonsense. Every day has been a vow. A British jury would grant my petition in an instant."
"You're not taking this matter before a British jury!" I protested, spreading my hands helplessly.
"Fine, write it down on a piece of paper, and I'll sign it. Meanwhile, I am moving."
"Where are you moving?"
This was all wrong, too horribly wrong to even contemplate, too wrong for me to breathe properly. Perhaps in retrospect it ought to have been amusing, but in fact it was nightmarish. He was grabbing a blanket from the back of the chair and throwing it over his shoulder. He was plucking his pillow from his side of the bed. Holmes was taking his book from the nightstand, and his spectacles, and now stood very tall and very thin, wearing nothing but thin linen sleeping trousers with a drawstring, in our bedroom door.
"Not far. It is my property, after all. When you bring the proper documentation, I'll be more than happy to sign. Goodnight, Watson."
It was several minutes before I could gather the composure to go after him with a plan in my head. Because going after Sherlock Holmes without a plan in your head, when he is in that particular state, is a very bad idea. I sat and I thought and I fought feeling seasick, and then finally I reached several conclusions. None of them were remotely flattering, I am afraid. And I am afraid too much of late. Taking a few deep breaths, I threw a thin dressing gown over my shoulders and went out to investigate.
He was not in the kitchen. I ran upstairs briefly, thinking him in the office, but he wasn't there either. Neither was he in the parlour, nor the attached formal dining room which had hosted Geoffrey Lestrade's seventy-fifth birthday celebration the year before, with an attendance of three and a duration of eight hours, ending at four in the morning. I went outside.
Holmes had spread the blanket out wide in the middle of our grounds near the garden in the soft grass and was staring at the constellations with a look of furious calm on his face. Walking over to it with the lantern, I gazed down at him.
"What are you doing in my new digs, precisely?" he inquired coldly.
"May I come in?"
He shrugged, which is no easy trick to accomplish elegantly whilst lying down. I set the lantern on the ground and stepped onto the blanket with him, both of us barefoot, and I lay back to look at the stars he was fathoming.
"Is it an unfortunate failing of mine," I said rather less than steadily, "that I tend to assign myself responsibility for matters beyond my ken, and take up projects impossible to achieve by any mortal. Removing the many hazards from your life has been one of them, yes, and--despite its impossibility--I have had measurable successes on that front. But at times, when I attempt the impossible, I do not think clearly. I was not thinking clearly. I...I want you as much as I ever have wanted you, but I was frightened. For the past week, I've been ghastly at mastering it, and I swear to you I am going to do my best to stop your being tied to a coward for the rest of your days. Please forgive me."
My friend sighed heavily. He rubbed a lovely hand over his face. The scars blanketing his torso stood out stark white in the moonlight, like a web of spiders' silk. It was beautiful, is always beautiful, particularly by night when I am reminded that he could have died so very, very easily and he is still mine, still present and so warm and so perfect when my head meets his shoulder as we fall asleep under the quilt. But he doesn't particularly like hearing that his scarring is lovely, and neither do I, for that matter. So I merely watched him, wanting to touch but not allowed to yet.
"Will you forgive me?"
"Give a man a moment, John."
"Of course," I whispered.
I tried to pick out constellations but failed utterly at concentrating. This was breaking me in half already, and I had to go and make it fifty times worse. Who gives a damn about stars when Sherlock Holmes is lying next to you, and you've just done something irretrievably stupid? After a few of the zodiac signs, I gave up. I didn't want to look at a single thing in Sussex without him looking at it with me, and that was the problem, that was the key issue, that was what was making an abject--
"Darling, might I ask you a rather terrible question?"
"Yes," I said at once.
He propped himself up on one elbow and turned on his side to look at me.
"Is it not a bit unfair of you, asking me never to die? Because I won't manage it."
I swallowed, hard. There was something very bitter at the back of it, something aching.
"Yes," I whispered.
"I didn't expect to live past eighteen ninety-one, you see," he continued softly, "and it was a miracle that you lasted through nineteen-eighteen, and you won't manage it either. Aren't there better ways we can pass the time?"
"Yes, yes, yes to all of it, but I can't stop thinking about it."
"About me dying?"
"No. About what you look like when your heart isn't beating. You don't know what it looks like."
"I know what it feels like, I can assure you, Doctor," he growled. "That much I remember, so I'll thank you to credit me with my usual store of imagination and ask yourself whether I'm particularly proud at the moment to have produced such a harrowing display. Twice."
"Everything I've done in the past four days is absolutely wrongheaded," I groaned.
"There I will not contradict you, for if you suppose heart strain to be lessened by your absenting yourself--"
"Don't, please. I know what I've done, and it's wretched. Forget about your heart, forget all of that--we'll switch, perhaps. It's all I want from you and you already have mine."
"What a pretty trade that makes. Something unparalleled for something defective. You're an absolute idiot at times, John, there's no denying it."
"I know I am. But say that you'll marry me again, please. Just say that."
Holmes thought it over. He hesitated. Inching a bit closer, he brushed my hair back from my brow. He reached for his spectacles, and he put them on, and he gazed into my eyes with every indication of being about to say something very serious. Of lasting, final import to the both of us. All of him was grey in the moonlight, and his eyes were the greyest of all, and I would never last a day without him. I waited for him to pass severest sentencing, my own heart beating very hard.
"I expect an interlude of positively filthy sodomy," he replied.
I bit my lip to hide a smile, but with Sherlock Holmes, that is as good as smiling. So I beamed at him, and the stars grew bright, and I remembered which constellations were which.
"Yes, by all means."
"Filthy," he repeated, passing his fingers through my hair again. "I mean to say, debauched."
"I'll comply with your every whim."
He took the spectacles off. Some women, when they are old, find themselves wed to rather sexless creatures. Some men, perhaps, though I can only guess there are far fewer ostensibly married male couples on earth, suffer the same loss. I myself happen to be married to the randiest old man in Great Britain. It is another thing which ought not to have surprised me. I moved to rise.
"Where do you think you are going?"
"Back inside," said I, confused.
"No, I am feeling rather loath to go back in there, in light of recent circumstances. We shall do this in my house, thank you."
Of course that's what he said. But--again--apparently I allow myself to be surprised by him to an alarming degree.
"Out of doors?" I inquired breathlessly.
"In a manner of speaking, I not yet having had time to put up any walls. And when I say filthy, my good man, you are in for quite a session."
"I'd never dream of doubting it." He was kissing my jawline, nudging my head to the side, and the stars above me were glinting wickedly at us.
"Our closest neighbours are--because I bought the property specifically for that reason--far enough away never to notice us, and close enough that we can hear their dogs barking. But you know all that. Dressing gown off with you."
I complied. "Holmes, I...we haven't anything out here."
"Well," he said, trailing wet open-mouthed kisses down my torso, "let us see whether I can think of any way of using one thing to make another thing wet."
He could, of course. And within another ten minutes, I was all in pieces, and only thanking Providence that my friend is a man who considers his own wrongdoings so permanently buried within my skin that he can forgive me egregious hurts with the effortlessness of a four-year old child. No, I do not mean to say that. That is a mistake. He does make an effort, at times, and he did that night. I witnessed him letting it go, refusing to clutch at an offense when he is self-controlled enough merely to allow it to slip through his graceful fingers instead. I cannot suppose it innate when in fact the skill is hard-earned. I envy him that capacity, and wish deeply I could myself master the knack, but we differ both in that we are separate men, and that we love one another quite disparately. By this point in his life, he conducts every day as a thank you that I am here. And I live every day greedily wanting more of him. They are not the same thing, though they are equal in intensity.
When it was quite over, neither of us could either think of parting company by getting up, or of quitting my friend's new abode, for that matter. He has always chosen our dwellings extraordinarily well, has done from the very beginning. So we remained there, I with my head on his shoulder and my knee between his legs. Holmes made a long arm for one corner of the blanket and twitched it over us neatly.
"What are you thinking?" I asked. "I can't read thoughts as you can."
"Well, you ought still to be able to deduce them. Were you paying sufficient attention. I am only ever thinking one thing at such moments."
He had told me a very, very, very long time ago what it was. When he wasn't yet thirty, or world-renowned, or fleeing death on the Continent. When I was still flinching at door latches and the clipping sounds made by florists' scissors, longing for morphine when I was made miserable by the world. And now I thought of it, we had been tucked together just in this same fashion, I mused, and so he was right--I ought to have been able to remember.
I am only ever thinking one thing. Look at you.
If everyone knew how he loved me, had I been able to trumpet it to all the world, had I written erotic memoirs instead of short stories, not a soul would ever have believed them.
The evening before we were to travel to London for the wedding, I entered our bedroom with the intent to pack my things and was met with a shocking surprise. Sherlock Holmes stood before our full-length mirror tying a knot in a pale blue cravat, wearing a perfectly tailored dove-grey summer suit with formal swallowtails which I had never laid eyes on before. A box lined with tissue sat upon the quilt. Stopping just within the doorway, I caught my breath a little. He has always been fashionable, even before he could afford to purchase such things for himself, and his weight has never varied save during those dark times when he is still thinner than he should be, and so, when Holmes desires a suit to be made, he sends a request to the son of the same tailor in Jermyn Street in London which he frequented in the nineties.
A smile quirked onto his face when he read my expression in the mirror.
"Dear me. And here I thought you would like it."
Treading forward slowly, I crossed my arms in a critical manner. ""Well, I don't. Like it, that is."
"No, I think I rather adore it."
When I stood behind him, I set my hands on his svelte hips, feeling the bone and the muscle beneath, and rested my head on his shoulder. He smelled of sweet pipe tobacco and cloves and his own utterly wild self.
"Are you wearing this to check the fit, or because you want to convey to me that I've nothing remotely comparable in a spirit of friendly competition?"
"I am wearing it," he drawled, fiddling with his cuffs, "because I imagined it might inspire you to tear it off."
"Very clever of you."
"I'm a staggeringly clever fellow. Besides--"
I was already sliding a very purposeful hand up the flat front of his charcoal waistcoat when there came a knock at our front door. Sighing, my head fell to the back of his neck.
"This coat is a success, I think," he quipped. "Just a moment. I'll send whoever is it packing."
I sat on the bed after kicking off my house slippers, drawing my legs up and crossing them. I heard low tones from the front door, then it shutting again. A click from the lock being turned echoed in the hall. No one else in Sussex locks their doors, but Holmes and I have made many enemies in our lifetimes, and he absolutely refuses to retire without checking that every window and door is secured. It is ridiculously endearing. When I heard him returning, his pace was slower, more measured. He appeared in the doorway, impossibly handsome and impossibly tall, and leant his shoulder into the frame. All trace of sensual teasing had gone from his face.
"The postman just delivered an urgent wire. It's from Lestrade. He'd have 'phoned, he said, but he didn't wish to...that is, he preferred it in writing than aloud."
"Whatever is the matter?" I exclaimed.
Tapping the note against his palm, Holmes frowned. "My dear fellow, we've a separate engagement prior to the wedding services. In the morning, and then we shall just make St. James' by two."
"For God's sake, Holmes."
"Another funeral," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."
One cannot reach one's seventh decade without attending a great many funerals. But one does not grow used to them. To one's friends dying, or to death, though death is common. It is the commonest thing of all, of course, to a man who has been through a pair of ghastly wars, common to each and every one of us, but I had looked it in the face far too often and wished only that I could live out the remainder of my time without losing anyone else who had at one moment or another been a part of me. Holmes somberly approached and passed me the note to read.
"Oh, Holmes," I breathed. "No. No. I thought he was recovering."
"Recovering from what? The bout of pneumonia? That may well be, but one does not recover from old age. He was eighty-six, John."
I didn't say anything. I let the note fall to the floor. Holmes pushed forward and my head met his torso as his hands came up to card through my hair.
"He was a good man who led a good life," my friend said, "and who left a very, very healthy pair of daughters and no less than seven fat grandchildren. One of them almost disturbingly so."
I passed my arms around his back, breathing him in. Thinking to myself that a long life, and a steady career which had helped people, and seven fat grandchildren...that those things ought to be enough. That one ought not ask for anything beyond that. Enough. That loving the same impossible genius since nearly I first set eyes on him, and having a series of incredible cases follow after, adventures really, as many as we wished for and more, ought to be enough.
It would not be, though, this much I knew. It would never be enough.
When we left for London next afternoon and Holmes slipped his morocco case into his traveling bag, I was not surprised. Cocaine is better than morphine, safer by far, and I was aware that this particular funeral would affect him emotionally, let him show it ever so little.
I was not surprised, I say.
But I bit the inside of my lip until it was bleeding to keep from screaming at him you cannot love me and do this to yourself. You cannot. You cannot. You cannot.
Standing on the street corner as Holmes paid the slick black cab the following evening, I let London wash over me. The leaded glass windows, and the stones, and the wet granite and pulverized rubbish smell of it, the plane trees which felt like friends and the gaslights which felt like brothers. I do not spend my days in Sussex missing London, but when I return, I never want to leave it and am aching until I'm through our sweet, modest front door again. And seeing Holmes in London...he walked up to me carrying our luggage, as he will insist on doing, every step sure and catlike, and I wondered if London spends its every waking moment keening for him, howling for the return of its crown prince. He belongs to London, and he left it behind. For me. Were I London, I should not soon forgive myself, stealing him away in such a fashion.
"Come along," said he, setting a single bag down and pressing the bell after we had crossed the wide, quiet street. "Nearly time for dinner, and you know how he is about time."
Once above, the tall, stately door to the sitting room opened at Holmes' touch and we strode through it. Mycroft Holmes was in his high-backed wheeled chair, dozing before the fire, with a braided maroon rug over his lap and a glass of sherry at his elbow on the table, placed next to an opened and refolded newspaper. His huge, craggy face was peaceful and looked no less hale than the last time I'd seen it, though he has admittedly lost a great of his hair. His brother, who suffers no such affliction, set our bags down and cast him a look.
"If you grow any fatter, brother mine, you shan't fit in that chair, and then where will you be?"
Mycroft's eyes flicked awake instantly, and the most wonderful expression of pure warmth passed over his face. It was gone an instant later, replaced by a wry smile and the usual Holmes appearance of calm, distant, almost lazy evaluation as he looked us over. I have never seen two less demonstrative brothers, and I have never seen two siblings more entirely devoted to one another in my life. My own Holmes was no less calm and urbane whilst simultaneously looking as if he was beaming inwardly. It made me think of my own lost brother, of all the things that he and I never were to one another, and I was suddenly fiercely glad that if one of the pair of us, Holmes and myself, was to know absolute sibling affection, that it should be Holmes. He deserves each single second of it. In every other way, I am the lucky one.
"Sherlock, you have grown obtuse. Larger chairs can be built. The means and the funds exist. Dr. Watson, what a pleasure to see you, on the other hand. How was your journey? The delayed stop was not too taxing, I hope, since that particular station seems to boast a very passable cafe."
"How--" I began.
"It's obvious," my friend sighed. "He knows the schedule of trains from Eastbourne to London, as well as the stops, and yet neither of us appear put out that we are sixty-eight minutes late. Ergo, we are neither starving, nor much vexed over the question, thus a cafe, and thank you, Mycroft, the cold pheasant was really better than edible. Where is Carter?"
Our host's eyes twinkled. "I've sent him away until you depart. The man is absolutely no good when you're staying here, as he will insist on repeatedly engaging you in conversation and then privately complaining to me about your vocabulary."
"Oh, bugger," Holmes said tragically. "And here I had supposed him liberal-minded."
Mycroft tried not to smile and accomplished it by glaring. "Anyhow, I'd thought, since the pair of you are taking the guest room, you'd not miss him. It isn't as if I can't wheel myself about. And perhaps I tax your generosity unduly, but I had not supposed you incapable of the task either."
"I'm capable, even if he isn't," I said with a smile. "And that was thoughtful of you."
Mycroft Holmes is not exactly an ill man. And yet, he is not exactly a well man either. He has led a very sedentary lifestyle, which has led to circulation problems, and his bones are very brittle, and his lungs imperfect. That being said, he is also eighty years old. It is quite difficult for him to walk unassisted for more than thirty feet or so, as it leads to attacks of dizziness, which could easily lead to falls, which could easily lead to much worse. And so for the past two years he has been confined by daylight hours to a chair, wheeled about by a personal assistant for whom he shows exactly as much regard as a cat would show a turtle. Often, he travels to see us for a change of air, and Carter returns to the city until he is wanted again a few days later for the return journey. At times, though not recently, we come to London. It began to dawn on me just how happy I was to be there. I'd been so melancholy for the past week that it seemed downright incredible that I should grow so contented so quickly, simply due to Mycroft's foresight and the fact his brother loved to be near him.
"Mycroft is thoughtfulness personified, and I do not mean that as a compliment," my friend drawled. "But I am pouring us two sherries anyhow, to toast to his health."
We passed a wonderful dinner. The food alone, the chilled lobster and tongue pie and delicate slices of hot beef alongside a great heap of asparagus and of buttery boiled potatoes, would have been superb. But Sherlock Holmes was nigh to giddy, riding a tidal swell high above me on the air of London and the company of his brother, and so he was talkative. Mycroft Holmes, though I will state that I find his charm secondary to my friend's, was no less delighted. And so I sat over a beautiful repast listening to brilliant men argue about the social implications of the works of Darwin, and the Grouping Act which a few years previous had consolidated all of England's railways into four companies, and the question of forcing German reparation payments, and whether tapestry could be thought as much an art form as painting.
I commented. I listened. And I loved being there.
After trifle, which my Holmes failed to touch, he excused himself from the table. When I glanced after him, his brother caught my eye. All-seeing, as usual, without meaning to be. He caught my concern at once, and assumed it the usual one. That it was the usual one but for a much more urgent reason thankfully failed to cross his vast mind. It was deeply uncomfortable for me that Mycroft knew nothing of the state of his brother's health, but there was little I could say upon the subject to the purpose. After the first occasion it had happened, I had asked Holmes whether I ought not--or Holmes might not--write his brother.
"No one shall know a thing about this, by which I mean absolutely no one," he had replied icily.
"But surely," I had protested, "he--"
"The state of my health is mine as I see fit to disclose it, and if you breathe a single hint of this to my elderly brother, you shall place me in a mood towards your person which neither you nor I--mark that, Watson, neither of us--will enjoy in the remotest degree," Holmes had ruthlessly announced just before stalking out of the room.
The request was fair, if difficult. And so no one knew save for me and the birds in our garden and the bees in our hive. The things which I have kept secret would fill the British Museum to bursting.
"I never thanked you, you know," said Mycroft. "I ought to have sooner."
"For what?" I asked, quite bemused.
"It can't be easy."
I absorbed what he meant. And I understood that not a shred of malice was intended by it, that Mycroft simply knew his brother better than anyone. Knew the sort of hardships he doled out unconsciously. Knew better than me, possibly. And then I was so grateful that Mycroft had not said It can't have been easy that I could have wrung him by the hand.
"I'm a trained medical doctor and twice a veteran," I said instead, pouring the three of us more Burgundy into well-employed glasses. "I don't like easy things. I like worthwhile ones."
"If you hadn't been there before, you know," I added slowly, "I think I'd not have ever got to have him. My debt to you is far greater."
I meant every word of that like a heartfelt thanksgiving prayer. And it's quite a job, shocking Mycroft Holmes. But nevertheless, I had. He looked very studiedly at his bookshelves for a few seconds, the ones neatly and gracefully stuffed with Strand Magazine accounts of his sibling, accounts which I had written, accounts which were now in the writing process steadily deteriorating, accounts which were rubbish these days, really, but which I could not then or ever stop writing, for my own personal reasons. Gradually, his slightly bleary grey eyes drifted back in my direction.
"If you truly suppose your debt greater," Mycroft murmured, "then I think I have made my point."
Adjusting his tie, Holmes returned, humming a whimsical little waltz under his breath, sweeping sidelong back into his chair. I had only to glimpse his eyes to know he had not dosed himself against thought of the morrow. They were very clear and very sharp and very grey. Then then darted up to mine. The instant he saw my face, and his brother's as Mycroft lifted his wine glass, the lilting tune stopped.
"Can a man piss following three shared wine bottles without quite so much scrutiny?" he muttered under his breath.
"Sherlock, did you bring your violin?" his brother countered.
Holmes bit his underlip, glowering at the pair of us.
But then, after minimal cajoling, he played.
If I may be excused from telling what pieces Holmes performed that night, it is God's honest truth that I do not recall it. After we had migrated to the parlour and poured a round of port, I do know that he played for upwards of an hour. But what he played--he played nothing and everything. Slow, languid fugues drifted upwards into equally melancholy waltzes, turning on a single breath into effortlessly done snatches of Chopin and Bach, and the silhouetted shadows of Russian gypsy tunes which should have collapsed had one reached a single hand out. And I do not think he played, on that occasion, for his audience. He played only for himself that night. As he ought to have done, under the circumstances. My friend pulled his bow across the strings which have always been a part of him as if bandaging a secret wound.
And if I knew where the hurt lay, what of that? If I could see that his heart would not last as his fame would, did he fault me? If I had ruined one of his secrets as he had relentlessly sabotaged mine, what malice was there to be found in the music? None, of course. There was nothing of blame or of pique. It was never reproachful, dark though it was. Neither guilt nor accusation met my ears as his back arched slightly and his fingers flew effortlessly over the strings.
No, it was not hurt. Not hurt to any purpose, that is. It was only the deep half-smiling sadness which will follow him, just as waves pulse one after the other, until the day he is no longer present to feel them.
The morning light we dressed in was darker than Sussex, but familiarly so, like a soft, worn rag that has seen much use. Black mourning bands went on over the sleeves of our formal wedding attire, for we should not have the time to stop and change. When once I had finished, Holmes tucked his little silver spectacles into the inner pocket of his beautifully tailored coat and offered an arm. I took it, pushing the door to guest bedroom open.
"Softly," I whispered.
"Please," Holmes snorted. "My brother has excellent hearing, but nothing like so excellent as his ability to slumber purposefully through cattle stampedes. His chair is next to his bedside, and I've changed all his clocks by an hour. He'll sleep soundly till ten at the least."
"He'll be furious," I said as we hastened down Mycroft's stairs.
"I know," the sibling gloated. "Won't it be gorgeous?"
Our journey was a short one, or perhaps I merely dreaded our arrival, and thus it came upon us all the faster. The funeral grounds beyond the line of police carriages were crowded with familiar faces. Black trousers rising from the lush green grass, black hats floating beneath green leaves, black whispers between men who had once been green themselves but now had grown old, and could only remember. I nodded at a great many people, but not at so many as did Holmes, who stayed tight-lipped and somber beside me, shaking hands with fellows whom I would swear upon my life we had never met. Perhaps we had not, for my friend is much recognized. Sherlock Holmes was taller far than the herd of Yarders surrounding us, pressing hand after hand, and all the while, my friend agreed with them, with every word they said, though he himself added nothing. Yes, he was a fine sort. Yes, he will be missed. Yes, his family was lucky to have had such a father. No, not much of anything slipped past his notice.
This last could not fail to elicit a glance from me as the nameless young Inspector departed, clucking sadly.
"...unless that anything to which you refer happened to have been criminal evidence," he finished under his breath.
I bit away a fond smile and squeezed him by the hand as an alternative.
At length, a hush fell, and the mourners looked up, and there was Geoffrey Lestrade. We had not yet spoken with him. He was standing at the head of a deep and well-made grave, wearing fully black mourning, holding his bowler hat in his thin hands, looking for all the world like a subterranean creature with his short stature and wrinkled skin and faded sable coat and his small, dark eyes. His head darted from side to side thoughtfully, taking in the scene, clearly about to speak. A coffin, with wide black ribbons beneath it, rested to his left. A great many Yarders surrounded him. I knew every one of these by name. At the other side of the grave stood the family, all of them, including the six fat (and one astonishingly fat) grandchildren. I knew every one of them by name, too.
Lestrade held up a hand, and the hush fell still further, into silence.
"It's not for me to tell folk what they already know," he began, "so I won't tell you that Tobias Gregson was a fine policeman and one hell of an inspector. It wouldn't be right to say it, because that might make it seem as if I think some of you don't believe so already. And you do. Every last one of you. Tobias Gregson was a credit to the Yard, and he brought more criminals in off these streets than I can readily number, thanks to his tirelessness and his eye and his wit."
Holmes could have sniffed at this, but he didn't. He merely slid his grip back over my elbow, because he had always thought Gregson among the very best of the Metropolitan Force, and had treated him accordingly. That is, with slightly less scorn than the usual.
"No, I'm not going to convince you of that," Lestrade continued, "because you're thoroughly convinced already. But here's a story, and it's one I'd like you to know. When I first joined the Force, I was a cocky thing. Brash as you like with nothing to show for it, ready as anyone to scrap first and ask questions later, sloppy as they come and yet proud and touchy as if I'd just collared the very devil himself. Some of you know it," he said, and it seemed to me that his eye was higher than most of the crowd, that he was looking at Holmes. "And some of you even helped to change it. But not a man here ever said to me what Tobias Gregson once did. I'd just been made an inspector, and so I was still worse behaved than I'd been as a roundsman--barking at constables and worrying at witnesses. As if I could solve crimes any faster that way, as if it might help my career. What a colt I must have looked. Anyhow, I was botching a case pretty badly, and snarling at anything that moved because of it. God help a man with a quick temper. Well, as it happened, Gregson was newly promoted as well, and assigned to the same case, and one day after I'd just laid into a PC for some little error, an error I can't even recall, Tobias turned to me and he said, 'You think this is going badly?' And I said, hell yes, it's going badly. I said it was going just about as badly as it possibly could go. And he said, 'As badly as your husband being murdered these four days, and him never coming back again, and the baby crying, and you not able to explain it to the mite?'"
Biting his lip, Lestrade turned his hat in his fingers.
"I didn't solve it overnight," he said after a few more seconds. "Not that crime, and not my character. I've still got my pride, and a few of you might have noticed I also have a wee bit of a temper." A few quiet laughs floated over the grave. "But I never looked at it the same after that. Because that was the way Tobias saw things. And sure he was as brash as the next young buck, and he was suspicious of outsiders to boot, and I watched his mistakes same as he watched mine. We fought like a pair of toms when we were young, and I've not forgotten it. But I'd not be the man I am if he hadn't asked me that one little question. I wanted you to know it. He was a credit to himself, I know that. You know that. But he was a credit to those around him too, and every so often, he made one of them better. And I'm grateful. Thank you."
"That," I said, as the coffin was being slowly lowered into the earth, "was one of the best tributes I have ever heard. Did you know that story about Gregson?"
"No," my friend said, sounding very tired. "But if he weren't dead, I'd shake his hand over it. Lestrade used to be absolutely unbearable."
"Some of these folk are of the same opinion regarding a certain consulting detective."
"The consulting detective is aware of the fact and graciously acknowledges that he is an arse. But he is also, you'll recall, a genius."
I slapped the genius's arm.
"To think that I've lived to see the day when I actually want to talk to Gregson," Holmes mused. "And can't. It's ridiculous. You'd never have convinced me of it when I was twenty-five and he was staring up at me as if I was an animated scarecrow."
When the mourners around Lestrade had cleared off, and those moved by his speech were making their slow way back to the waiting cars, we finally captured his attention. Lestrade walked over to us at once, soberly tipping his hat farewell to one of Gregson's grown daughters. His brown eyes glinted at the sight of us.
"A sad occasion," he said, pumping Holmes warmly by the hand and then moving on to mine.
"But a very good speech," Holmes countered, offering an open cigarette case.
Lestrade took two, passed one to me, and leaned forward into Holmes' already-lit vesta. "Best I could do under the circumstances. He was a very good sort, Toby. Tried and true, all that and more besides. So are most of us career Yarders, if we're around long enough. But it isn't exactly as if I could have said he solved the Ripper murders, is it?"
"No," Holmes acknowledged, blowing smoke in the air. "But he was good at his work, and his family was happy. That's something. It's more than something."
"Mr. Holmes! Mr. Holmes!" a familiar voice cried out.
"God save the King, we're done for," Lestrade muttered, taking a long pull.
Chief Inspector Stanley Hopkins came striding up to us, a vibrant man in his middle sixties, still handsome as a puppy, beaming from ear to ear though his eyes yet held a deal of funereal gravity, his hand held in front of him as if he might have been pushing his way through a verdant jungle with a machete. When this limb came to a stop in front of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes examined it a moment before taking it, affection and annoyance at war in his deep-set eyes.
"Hopkins," he said affably.
"There you are. We've been looking everywhere for you," Lestrade offered dryly, earning my glare.
"Have you really?" Hopkins inquired, delighted. "Dr. Watson, what an absolute pleasure. Mr. Holmes, it has been far too long. London barely manages in your absence, you know. We barely manage. But we soldier on, regardless, as we must. Both London and its police force."
"I had gradually concluded that the metropolis does appear to still be standing, yes," Holmes returned, not unkindly. "How wonderful to know the same is true of the Yard. How is your wife?"
"Liza is very well, thank you, Mr. Holmes, and I will pass on to her your very warmest regards. Why, she was saying to me just the other afternoon, 'Sometimes it feels as if London isn't what it used to be these days, doesn't it, Stanley?' And I said, not without Mr. Sherlock Holmes in it, thank you very much, and Liza didn't say another word, for that must be the reason. God knows we came through the War right enough, though times were hard. But I run a tight ship around here, Mr. Holmes, and I think you'd be surprised at a few innovations all my own. Moving forward with the march of modern science, that's the goal I continually impress on my men, and it's all to your credit, sir. Entirely to Mr. Sherlock Holmes' credit, isn't that right, Inspector?"
"Probably," Lestrade said, sounding nauseated.
"And so! Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, arrived back in London. Gregson, poor fellow, would have been honored. God rest him. I have heard you've migrated to Sussex, yes? The South Downs? Do tell me how men of your vigour pass your time in the countryside."
"We raise sheep," Holmes reported without expression.
"We are shepherds," I agreed pleasantly, taking Holmes' arm.
Lestrade, bless the man, had a coughing fit which took him five feet to the west of us if it took him an inch. He doubled over, hacking helplessly at the ground. I had not been privy to the sight for some years, and it was a most welcome one.
"You don't say," Hopkins marveled.
"Shepherds, yes," Holmes continued. "Did you know, Chief Inspector, that wool can be woven in such a way as to produce coded patterns in the very fabric of the material, thereby creating an unbreakable cipher? For those who have mastered the technique, it has never failed to convey messages in absolute secret. We have been asked to further this study. By my brother himself," he added on a whisper.
"By Jove." Hopkins cast a brief glance of concern at Lestrade, who appeared to be drowning in the brightening summer air. "You must be subject to utter secrecy, advancing such a project. What can that entail?"
"Herding the sheep," I explained. "Feeding the sheep. Bathing the sheep. Shearing the sheep. Essentially, shepherding. The rest of our time, of course, is devoted to the actual weaving of encoded messages. Thus far we have only mastered scarves, but we hope soon to advance to pullovers, which can carry much more specific data."
The remainder of the conversation was unfortunately lost, for Lestrade at that moment produced a noise which might easily have turned him inside-out. Hopkins very obligingly went to rain friendly blows on his back as we watched, and then, when he saw that Lestrade was recovering due to the altruistic violence to his person, regrettably bade us all farewell. It seemed that the life of a Chief Inspector was a busy one, and that his duties called him back to the Yard at once, but that he very much hoped that we would stop in while still in London. After wringing our hands once more, Stanley Hopkins vanished into the lingering crowd.
"How do you do it?" Lestrade moaned, holding a hand to his brow. "How? It's inhuman."
Holmes and I exchanged a darkly flirtatious look--smoldering, really--which might easily have been dated from 1890.
"Holmes is a master of the art of deception," I smiled. "And I was in the Army. There you have it."
"I think you cracked one of my ribs."
"Should I check?"
"No," he groaned, straightening his spine at last and wincing. "Thank you, no, Doctor. But that was priceless."
"Glad as ever to be of service to the official police," Holmes said airily.
"Glad to have been here. Say," Lestrade added, "the pair of you are rigged up as if you had an appointment with Buckingham Palace. Headed that way, are you?"
"No, a wedding. Oh, hullo, come with us!" Holmes exclaimed, snapping his fingers. "We were both given the option of a companion. As to why, I haven't the slightest idea."
A smile gentled Lestrade's thin lips. "The only events I'm ever invited to anymore are retirement anniversaries and funerals. A wedding would be a spree."
"You'll join us, then. But there's something Watson and I have to do first. If you'll just grant us--no, confound it, you might as well both come along."
Holmes set off, his strides longer than mine and much longer than Lestrade's, as the former Inspector and I exchanged puzzled glances. For my friend was walking further into the graveyard and not out of it, bearing a little left, heading God only knew where towards a cultured copse of trees. Crumbling headstones flew past us as we struggled to keep up his pace. If I could not for the life of me fathom what he wanted deep in a cemetery, Lestrade was at least equally baffled. There was nothing around us save for the dead, and the grass, and the birds flying high above both.
"Holmes, where are you going?" I called at length. "We've only twenty minutes!"
But he pressed onward, neatly skirting markers and stones and little rusted-over iron rails until suddenly the ground fell away and we were out of sight of the rest of the departing assembly. There was a small meadow before us, and a line of solid tombs hulking watchfully, and a mausoleum, and five or six red stone plaques in the earth. Holmes stopped. Then my friend caught sight of whatever he was seeking and waved us onward. At last, having come a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile, we stopped before a brief, blank, grassy stretch of ground under a line of elms. A small hole in the ground greeted us, as did a shovel.
"Has a squirrel died, then?" Lestrade wanted to know.
Holmes glared, but there was no heat to it. He walked to the edge of the hole and beckoned us over to join him.
Then he pulled a small morocco case out of his inner coat pocket.
If ever there was a moment when I felt as if I might understand what it feels like when one's heart stops beating, it was that one.
When Lestrade left off staring at Holmes because Holmes was staring at me, and stared at me instead, he caught his breath. "Why are you--all right, one or the other of you is going to bloody well tell me what's going on. Are you quite well, Doctor? Doctor? Mr. Holmes--"
"He's fine," Holmes said softly. He passed Lestrade the case. "See what's in it."
Lestrade snapped the case open. There was a hypodermic syringe inside it, of course, as well I knew. When Lestrade understood a few moments later, his eyes flew back to my friend in amazement.
My friend is not addicted to drugs because they amuse him, or because they are fashionable, or even because they feel good. He is addicted to drugs because what lives inside his head is often far worse than anything I can possibly imagine, and Lestrade is well aware of this principle. I do not know whether Holmes ever told the Inspector in private how Holmes' own darkness came first to be magnified, or how his brother came to be celibate, or how the cocaine came to replace the morphine, at least most of the time, in a bargain we made many long years past. But Lestrade knows of Holmes' black moods even so, and they tear lightly at him even as they rip me in pieces.
I looked at Holmes pleadingly. My heart was beating once more, though far, far too fast.
"Are you certain?" I breathed. "Really certain that you can--that you can?"
Holmes took the case back from the ex-Inspector as he pondered this query. But he spoke soon enough, frowning a little. He cast a glance at me, almost a shy one.
"I don't want to see a particular look on your face ever again. It's as simple as that. So, yes," he concluded. "If you desire it. I can."
So saying, he tossed the thing in the hole which he had obviously hired someone to create for just that purpose. He reached out for the shovel and scraped the dirt over the depression.
It filled very quickly.
And it was done.
Sherlock Holmes, let it be said, will be shocking me speechless for the remainder of our time together. Age doth not wither, nor custom stale, etc. He is a maker of miracles, an author of the impossible, and all the while, I am allowed to watch. It is my privilege. The greatest of my life.
Wrapping a hand around the long handle of the shovel, Holmes leaned on it a bit and crossed his ankles eloquently and looked daggers at the both of us. Appearing quite vulnerable suddenly. And seeming to dare either one of us to make the first stupid or uncharitable or callous or simply wrong remark.
Lestrade coughed of a sudden.
"I don't know how you generally go about doing things, Dr. Watson," he said, sounding altogether awestruck, "but this is the part where I'd kiss him."
So I did.
Holmes' lips moved beneath mine by sheer force of decades of habit, and then he gasped, and then the shovel fell, and then he was taking half a step back, staggering ever so slightly, wearing the single most peculiar look on his lean, handsome face which I have ever seen, as if I had just sprouted wings and then boxed him about the ears with them. And moments later, a half second before he smiled, he blushed. But I think I must have been flushing myself even as I was fighting not to laugh, and Lestrade was already decidedly pink about the ears. Holmes' mouth opened incredulously, struggling for words, and then closed again--twice, I believe.
Lestrade started clapping, or I do not think the three of us would ever have found a way out of that quiet, sacred little meadow.
"Gorgeous," he said, turning as he clapped, climbing back up the slope. "Absolutely fantastic. First-rate. God, what a day. Let's go to a wedding, gentlemen, I'm in the mood for a drink."
We watched Lestrade's slim departing back for another moment before Holmes beamed at me, and kicked the shovel away, and the pair of us followed after hand in hand.
I had been looking forward to the marriage of Madeline Stokes ever since it was announced. So had Holmes been. And I must take a moment to explicate the reason why.
Once upon a time, for I can think of no other way to begin such a story, Sherlock Holmes was very poor. Despite being poor, he was the same man, burning to right whatsoever wrongs he could discover, and equally coldly burning to live by his wits, and so he set up practice as a consulting detective. He made but scant actual coin from the enterprise at the time, and so came to seek reasonable lodgings in Baker Street and ferret out a new fellow lodger (a man by the name of John Watson). Not long after this arrangement fell into place (to my everlasting satisfaction), Holmes was approached by a poor housewife called Grace Stokes, who had three little children--Amy, Martin, and George. Grace Stokes wanted her husband framed for murder. Grace Stokes had every excellent reason for desiring this end, for the horrors her husband was inflicting upon his own flesh and blood are not to be conceived of by those who call themselves human.
Holmes failed to take the case, finding it morally conflicting, but he did give her fifty pounds he didn't have. Fifty pounds that no one in his right mind would ever have borrowed from the class of person he could afford to solicit.
Thankfully, my friend is not entirely in his right mind.
We paid back the fifty pounds, but that is not the point of this story. Every year afterward until the children were grown, living with their aunt in West Sussex by the random generosity of a complete stranger, Holmes received a letter. It was jointly written each time by Amy, Martin, and George. It was obvious that their mother and aunt had told them little, instructing them only to write to an anonymous benefactor. But what letters! They told Holmes of tree forts, and of hot crusted mutton pies, and of sticks which magically became wands if only they were thrice dipped into a certain nearby stream. They told him, each after the other but mailed in the same envelope, of tiny heartbreaks and winning spelling contests, of dead birds discovered and then placed where adults would discover them in turn, of their opinions upon the edibility of tripe strew, of every wonderful thing that Holmes ought to have heard from his own offspring, if he and I had been able to have any. The vast majority of the Irregulars had needed fatherly advice desperately on occasion, but still--the letters from the Stokes children never failed to make my friend smile when he saw the return address. Not with pride, as he well deserved. But with simple human decency.
Amy Ravenswood, nee Stokes, was taken in childbirth when she was twenty-two. Morphine reared its hideous head when Holmes heard that news. She was much mourned.
Martin Stokes died in the Great War, unmarried and without issue. He fought valiantly for his country and is buried in France, victim of a rifle shell to the thigh.
George Stokes remained in England during the conflict, due to his invaluable position as the head of a tinned-food producing factory, serving the army--people like myself--with the best modern sustenance possible, though it frankly tasted like ground horse. He had a daughter and a son, Emma and Clive.
Clive and his wife Meggie Stokes have a single daughter.
Her name is Madeline. On the day Holmes and I received the invitation to attend her wedding, neither of us could stop smiling like complete fools for nearly four hours.
And here it was.
We three were late enough to the ceremony that we hovered without, peering in the great grey door at a tiny figure in white and a taller figure in a navy morning coat, and at the crowd of sixty or so assembled to see them wed. But very shortly, it was done, and the vows had been made, and we all repaired down from the church to the charming parlour, dining room, and lobby of a nearby hotel. Waiters bustled about carrying iced oysters, and glasses of wine, and plates of cold terrines and pates, the light from the windows just beginning to fade as the hanging chandeliers raced to match their glow. I don't think I could have been more pleased if I had tried, notwithstanding the remembrance of our old colleague and his peaceful passing.
"I'm in your debt," Lestrade said, swallowing another oyster. "First wedding in years. They beat the hell out of funerals."
My friend's head tilted like a great grey bird's for a moment, and then he was off, for Madeline Rogers, nee Stokes, had just been glimpsed waving him frantically towards her new husband. She is a person seemingly spun of flax and cornsilk, with hazel eyes and pale blonde locks, which she had curled about her face. Her new husband is far thinner and far taller, with a thin, hatchet-like visage and very kind blue eyes. Holmes greeted them courteously, chatting with the gentleman, and my throat constricted a bit.
"How do you know this family?" Lestrade wondered, passing me a full wine glass from a tray.
"Holmes saved the bride's grandmother when she was a little girl," said I.
"Ah." Lestrade winked as he raised his glass. "Of course he did. To Sherlock Holmes, then. Long may he--"
Geoffrey Lestrade froze in mid-sentence, and just as my friend was returning. Upon finding us with our arms half-raised, me staring at a motionless Lestrade, Holmes nudged my shoulder.
"You've broken the police inspector."
"I haven't either," I retorted, lowering my arm, finding the toast abandoned. "Lestrade?"
"Look," he breathed. "Just look."
The crowds parted a little, and I managed to look.
"Ah," said Sherlock Holmes, a smile in his voice.
There was a woman seated in one of the plush velvet chairs across the room, speaking to two other matrons. She was perhaps ten years our junior, certainly not over sixty-five, and part of her skirts were hid behind a potted fern. She wore full mourning, slim-cut in the modern fashion, and little jet beads, with a thoughtlessly charming velvet choker about her neck, and it was soon quite clear to me why our companion had diverted his full attention. Though she was of the complexion which must once have been blonde, her hair was pure white, and puffed up into a great cloud around her head. The effect might have been laughable upon someone else, but when taken in conjunction with her sweet countenance, her blue-grey eyes, her ready smile, and her habit of beginning to speak and then stopping to listen, it was merely whimsical and endearing. One of the loose black gloves in her bare hands had a hole in the finger, and she kept worrying at it, realizing she was worrying at it, and then stopping.
"Mr. Holmes," Lestrade said tonelessly. "I need Mr. Holmes. Now, please."
"He's right here."
"Yes?" my friend demanded.
"I need you to--to do it. Do it now. What you do."
"Harvest honey?" Holmes questioned, exasperated.
"No, no, the--the--you know, the--"
"Oh," Holmes said, chuckling softly but audibly. Reaching into his coat, he pulled out his spectacles and slid them up his arched nose. "Well. There's not much, I fear."
"Tell me," Lestrade pleaded.
Coughing his amusement into his fist, Holmes complied. "She has been in mourning for some two years, and her friends wish that she would stop being so Victorian about it all. She is obviously of French descent, one never sees eyes of that colour otherwise. What else. She resides within one--no--two miles of this hotel, and she walked here, despite the unfortunate fact that she has a touch of rheumatism. Only a touch, but it's perfectly clear. She owns no fewer than two Scottish terriers, but no more than three, forgive me for not discerning the exact number. Would that my brother were here. While of independent means, she lives within the strictures of a fixed income and cannot afford unreasonable extravagances. She dislikes wine extremely, but she will taste champagne for a toast. There you have it."
"Incredible," I exclaimed.
Holmes shrugged. "Simplicity itself. Surely I do not have to tell you--"
"No. You don't," Lestrade agreed, shoving his glass into Holmes' free hand as he dove towards the pretty young widow.
Holmes and I gawked after him for perhaps three seconds before finding other entertainment. It was readily come by, for Clive Stokes cultivates a very wide acquaintance. We viewed the dancing, and sampled the fare, and indulged in desultory conversation with almost everyone, none of whom demanded I recount the true versions of short stories or asked Holmes for his signature on their gloves. It was marvelous.
"Are you tired?" Holmes asked with a hand to my back some hours later, as I watched Lestrade waltzing over the small dance floor with a feeling of wide-eyed amazement.
"How can I be tired, watching an elephant fly?" I returned.
The bridal couple wandered past a moment later, slightly off-kilter and flushed with champagne, smiling aimlessly at everyone.
"Did you ever think of getting married, Mr. Holmes?" Ned Rogers called out in a friendly way. "I highly recommend the practice."
"I likewise recommend it to others," my friend answered without a hint of discomfort. "Based on personal experience."
When we bade a slightly delirious Lestrade goodnight that late evening, we elicited the usual promise to come down and see us. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast for me and a tongue-lashing for Holmes on the subject of meddling with other people's clocks, we dragged the same vow from Mycroft. At around eleven, Holmes whistled for and got the very first cab he spied. London passed by us once more--heedless, vicious, raw, though still beautiful. And then our bags were in our hands and we were waiting on a train platform, the air about us bright and still and polluted, the other passengers jostling us, Holmes looking happy and rested.
And I not wanting to leave.
"We ought to come back more often. Travel is difficult for your brother," I observed as we boarded, thinking about manuscripts which went nowhere and trains which went nowhere and hopes which went nowhere.
"Oh, he can manage," Holmes returned, hoisting our baggage into the rack. "It does him good. And he likes tremendously to complain about the train vibrations when he arrives."
"Do you never miss it?" I asked softly when he sat down opposite and opened a newspaper.
Holmes looked up, over his spectacles. "London?"
"No. Baker Street," I murmured. The words meant so much that I could not say them at any significant volume.
My friend pulled off the reading glasses, tapping softly them against the page, his eyes growing very gentle.
"Of course I do," he assured me. "How could I not?"
"I miss it terribly."
"I have noticed. Otherwise you would not feel the need to stare at manuscripts about it when they clearly vex you to distraction."
That was not the reason I stared at vexing manuscripts, and it had not been for years. But I held my tongue, gazing out the window as we began to move. The grass was dry beyond the tracks, littered with bricks and the odd hunks of concrete and stone one finds throughout a city. I thought of my latest three manuscripts, none of which gave me an ounce of joy, all of which sounded like poor imitations of my own style. My eyes fell shut.
I opened them.
"We'll come back to London whenever you like," said he, before returning the spectacles to his eyes and his eyes to his newspaper. "I promise you--two years is too long, even if six months of that was spent in Paris eating things seemingly crafted entirely from butter. And I do miss Baker Street. Every day. But I don't have to miss you, and that is what counts."
He was right, of course. So I thought about my bloody manuscripts and held my tongue and told myself that we were safe, that though I felt the tempest building, the storm would never break. All it took was silence, and time, and one more short story. And then another. And then another.
By the time we stepped off in Sussex, I only prayed that I could produce enough of them to serve my ends.
The fight occurred, as it had long been threatening to occur, the following day. It was a honey-coloured late afternoon, the air outdoors thick with bees and clover pollen, and, after tending to his garden, Holmes had wandered indoors to hide from the worst of the glare. He settled near to me, as often happens, peacefully and quietly setting up residence on the other side of the room. He likes to have me in his sight, though he is never fretful or unnatural about it. I could smell him from where he sat, the tang of pulled weeds he had not quite washed off his fingers, the warmth of a crisp apple emanating from his pale skin. And it so played out that I was working on a manuscript just then, a story about a murderer who had raided the kitchen and made his foul crime look like a gang break-in which sounded remarkably like "The Abbey Grange," though of course it had actually happened, and I hurled my pen across the sitting room. Holmes looked up from where he sat at a low table pasting newspaper scraps into a larger commonplace book, brow furrowed in disbelief.
"Apologies," I said lightly. "My eyes are tired."
"They aren't," he returned coldly. "If you are going to lie to me, as least take some bother about it."
I gritted my teeth. At times, it seems very unfair to have to live with transparent skin. Instead of rising to the bait, I went for my pen lying against the opposite floorboards.
"Tell me," Holmes went on, still pasting scraps, "has my money grown somehow tainted in your eyes?"
I stopped in my tracks. "What?"
"Tainted," he repeated. "Dirty. Are you in need of an item for which you do not wish to expend my funds?"
"Of course not," I answered, rather horrified.
"Are you likewise disgusted with your own not insignificant royalties?"
"Have you embezzled a large sum from our shared account, and are endeavoring to make it up? Have you a secret child? A worse gambling problem than previous?"
"No," I grated out. "And you know perfectly well that you are deliberately angering me."
"Am I? Well, if not for the money, you must be writing for the joy of it. That's settled, then."
Changing direction, I dropped onto the settee, exhausted in every way.
"Don't let's argue over my writing, please," I begged. "I have always written. I need it."
He threw the glue brush to the page in the deepest annoyance and stood up, settling his hands low on his hips as he paced.
"You," he said carefully, "have often written, yes. You have never forced yourself to write like some slave in a galley, endlessly toiling at a painful exercise. Why now, John? Why?"
"It isn't painful," I denied miserably.
"Unless you are punishing yourself for something, but I see no reason for such an act," he continued, tapping a fingertip against his lips. "No one is blackmailing you for more of them, that would be preposterous--are they? You would tell me, surely. Are they?"
I rolled my eyes, at a complete loss.
"Fine," he concluded cheerily. "Then I forbid you to write more stories about me."
Gaping at him, my heart hammering, I managed a single, "No."
"Why not?" he cried, throwing his hands in the air. "I have not seen you look so torn-apart in years, and in front of my eyes, and in our own house, and why should you not stop if it's coming between us? If they make you tell me ridiculous lies about your headaches and your eyestrain and your shoulder and your hand? Tell me, God, please tell me why you are doing this to us, I cannot deduce it and I am losing my mind over it. Stop writing them."
"But I can't ever stop writing them," I gasped. "I can't stop memorializing you. Ever."
"Why in sodding hell not? Watson, it's preposterous, what you're putting yourself through, and why? I don't have to make an appearance in family magazines every few months to know I'm alive, so why should--"
"Because as long as I keep writing you down, you won't leave me," I choked.
Holmes stopped in mid-step, whirling silently and deftly to look at me. It was a crystalline moment, and anything could have shattered it. His pale, thin, shapely lips went very still for a moment.
I put my face in my hands.
I hadn't meant to tell him that, of course. Because it was utter nonsense which only made me feel senile.
And so, of course, he found it out.
Then I heard long, quiet strides, and my friend joined me on the sofa, and his arms were round my shoulders, and it was very much easier suddenly for my head to be tucked into his neck.
"I have to keep at it, you see," I whispered. "I have to. So long as I keep writing down the wonderful things you do, the incomparable man you are, you'll keep giving me new ones. You'll do new splendid things, and I'll write them down, you see, and it'll go on forever that way, so no, I won't stop. I don't care if they're bad or foolish or sound like ones from the past. They keep you here. I keep you here. If I stopped, if there were no place to trumpet the new and utterly sublime things you do, then..."
"Then I would no longer be present to give you new material. All right, darling," he murmured, his lips in my hair. "All right."
It takes a very great deal of strain to upset me, and even so, I can almost always master myself quickly enough not to vex either one of us. But my hands were shaking and my breath wasn't quite steady, though my eyes were quite as dry as usual, and so we sat there, my friend's fingers wandering in mindless circles on my back and at my nape, until I was finally able to draw a deep breath and look up at him. His eyes, when I met them, were very distant, as they are when he is solving the most complicated of ciphers. He had looked so a very long time ago quite often, and has not nearly so much call to look so now. The expression making an appearance in our sitting room baffled me. Then Holmes stood.
"Come with me," he said, holding a hand out.
"I am showing you something, Doctor, and now is the proper time for it. Come."
My head pounding, I rose and took his hand. Perhaps out of pure habit, I cannot now say. I have always followed him, after all. There does not always have to be a reason. He pulled me through the dining room and down a tiny hall into our library, which unlike our office is on the ground floor, and is simply a minuscule chamber lined floor to ceiling with collected books. There are two high-backed chairs, a small, heavy table, and four walls of volumes, and nothing else. Not even a window. Holmes is an avid bibliophile, after all, while I am an avid reader, and so an entire room is necessary to house them. After he'd coaxed me in after him and flicked on the light, Holmes gripped my shoulders and turned me round and stood me in front of a very long row of yellow magazines.
I didn't want to be there, didn't want to look at the things, and stiffened so much that my friend's palms smoothed up and down my arms as he put his lips near my ear.
"You don't write these for the reason you've just stated. The reason you think you write them. To keep me alive."
"Don't I?" I snapped. "And you, who did not write them, know the true reason, I suppose? While I, the author, do not?"
"Quite so. I do."
"Then what in hell have I been doing all this time?"
"Introducing me to myself."
Holmes' hands left my shoulders. He stepped about a foot away, resting his weight on the edge of the solid table. Pulling out his cigarette case and matches, he lit one lazily, eyes skimming over the long line of issues. And not only the Strand. There were Collier's too, and Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, and Liberty. All in the order they had been published, and making me sick to my stomach. And I didn't understand a word he'd just said, to boot. The urge to flee grew stronger by the second.
"I just want you to know that I understand it now," Holmes said softly, pulling a tiny fleck of tobacco away from his lip. "Ever since I met you, I have had the most honourable of intentions towards you. And ever since I met you, in various ways, I have failed to make you happy. This fact has long led me to believe that I am...I think of myself as a something of a hazard, you see. Suppose a porcupine fell in love with a jellyfish, and the jellyfish reciprocated--such a match would create certain unfortunate situations," he mused with a wry one-sided smile. "Heartbreaking ones. As I have done. But all this time, you have been showing me who I really am at heart, and only in the past few years have I come to understand how thorough a job you've done of it. I don't think of myself as a hero, you see. I never have. I'm a man who loves puzzles, and whose mind torments him, and who would prefer the world to be a more just one than the one I knew when I was a boy, all of which are quite selfish motives for action, even if that action is crime-solving. And I feel as if I'm falling, John, so often. Endlessly, it seems. But when I read your stories, I can finally begin to glimpse that I'm a good man. Or at least, I'm what a backwards-headed, contrary, vain, feeble-minded bastard looks like if only someone loves him enough."
He stopped to pull another drag off his cigarette. Still staring languidly at the slender paper magazines. I was grateful, for tears had sprung into my eyes at last, and if he gave me long enough over the project, I could manage to blink them away again. Then his gaze slid to me.
"Oh, come now," he said gently. "Do you want to know one of my secrets?"
I nodded, unable to speak.
"What do you think I did when I was on the Continent, breaking your heart and running from airguns, when I read that passage in Twisted Lip about birds flocking to a lighthouse?"
I could only shake my head.
"I spent the entire afternoon weeping like an Irish widow. I had to buy another copy, I'd ruined mine. There. Now you know."
Laughter was the only possible response to this mock-grave admission, and so I laughed. I laughed, and found that once I had laughed, there were still tears in my eyes, but that I could bear to look at my creations now, all the thousands of words I had spent on this one man, and so I laughed at that row of serial issues for all I was worth. Holmes smiled broadly and slid up behind me, passing the arm which held his cigarette around my shoulders and leaning his head softly against mine.
"Look at that," he murmured. "Think of all the people who read them, darling. All the people who mourned my hiatus who had never even met me previously, all the people in distant lands who read them in other tongues, all the people who will read them in the future. All the people who think of me when they laugh at the Yard. It wouldn't surprise me if the British public reads these for fifty years more. All your love and your talent collected in one place, and just to show me that I am more like the person you think I am than the person I think I am. What a wonder."
When I leaned forward to steal a drag from his cigarette, he reached a slender finger out and plucked the last volume from the shelf. It was Liberty magazine, March of that same year. He flipped it open. Then, with his arms still over my shoulders, he help it up to both our eyes.
"It is glue, Watson," he read with some amusement. "Unquestionably it is glue."
Shaking my head at the sad, anemic, pallid, echoing thing, I laughed again.
"I fall endlessly too, you know," I whispered when the laughter had passed. "It just doesn't feel the same for me."
"I know. But let this be the last of them, John," my friend proposed as he tucked the volume away again. "Please. You've drawn your breath all this time to tell my story--haven't you?--in pain and in pleasure and in every other state, and it's enough. You're not keeping me alive: you've already immortalized me. I'm never going to die. The evidence is before you. Just be with me, and avoid my bees, and mock the fact that whatsoever my other gardening talents I cannot grow proper radishes to save my life, and--"
I never knew what else he wanted me to do, for I turned in the circle of his arms and I kissed him. But it can be supposed that kissing would have eventually appeared on that list. His lungs froze and then surged, and the cigarette fell between us to begin burning a slow, smoldering hole in our carpet, but I crushed it blindly with my shoe, uncaring, for I burned just as deeply. Burnt carpets, I realized, were as irrelevant to us as were unfinished manuscripts. For his arms at my back were strong, and would be for years to come, and he was mine, and had never once lent himself to another, had stayed mine all that while, and he was everything. Everything I had ever wanted, and now it seemed that he knew it.
He finally knew it.
Breathing hard, I pulled away and looked up at him. "Turnabout is fair play, but I won't be able to manage alone."
"I need you," I answered. "One last funeral. Only one more, Sherlock Holmes, and then we're through with them for good and all."
The hole we would have been required to dig in order to burn all of my unfinished manuscripts was soon deemed impracticable. And so Holmes went to the pit of stones at the back of our garden where on occasion we build a roaring blaze on a midsummer's night, where we once roasted a goose and then ate it with only knives and plates and fingers, and he lit a good amount of dry kindling, and nursed it until the coals were red and greedy, and the sun was setting red and exhausted behind the nearest hill.
It went hard the first time, throwing the bound-up paper on the fire and watching it change into ash. Even with Holmes' hand on my shoulder. Even though I knew that he was right, and that he understood.
But then it was easier, and then it was really very funny, and then it was a pure joy, and then we stood and watched as some hundreds of pages, exactly twenty-five separate terribly-written portions of short stories and novellas and stage plays, drifted on the air to the sea, and then were no more.
"Come back inside," my friend said when the papers had all gone and the stars were appearing. Evening falls fast in Sussex, faster than anywhere else I've ever lived.
"Whatever shall I do tonight?" I asked him happily on our way through the fading garden, walking past great pirouetting vines of snap peas on their trellises, and beds of greens, and of carrots, and herbs, and tomatoes which filled the air with sweetness. "Now that I'm not banging my head against bad literature?"
"You're the first man to make his male lover immortal since Alexander the Great," Holmes teased. "You'll think of something."
So after dinner, whilst Holmes absently played an aching and lovely little tune in the dining room, one that sounded like London at twilight in autumn, I read Dante, and then wrote a pair of letters, and then stared at the fire. I sat in my chair, simply resting my weight into its cushions. For a while, I curled up in it like a cat and thought about a sea adventure I suddenly wanted to write, and invented names for captains and deck hands and noble natives. Letting my mind play over dark seas, fantastic rescues, and the islands where the heroes would be tested by Nature and Fate. But really, I did nothing whatsoever.
And I was happy.
"That tune sounded a bit like us," I said when I crawled into bed with him a few hours later.
"It sounds very much like us," he answered mildly, reaching for his spectacles on the bedside table and then looking me over. "I've been thinking about it for a great many years. The piece is nearly finished."
Smiling, I asked, "What's it called, then? Dirge for the Endlessly Falling?"
He barked out a clear, vibrant laugh. "Oh, thank Christ. Thank every good thing, you're back to gallows humour. Do you know how I've missed--well, sod it all, that's what we shall call it, if you like."
I chewed at my lip. "No. It isn't a dirge. I want a synonym."
His brow quirked, and he pulled off the spectacles, tasting one end of the frames thoughtfully. They were silvery grey, like his hair, and they suited him, I thought for the thousandth time. He first needed them in 1921, the relentless biographer in my brain supplied me. He bought them in Regent's Street and when he first put them on, you wanted to kiss him, but you couldn't. So instead you pulled him into an old bookshop where he would have to wear them to properly see the printers' marks, and you stared at him for forty minutes there, and he bought an old Petrarch translated into French which smelt of a cellar but was very beautiful and bound in emerald leather.
I knew it all by heart. But I didn't need to write it down anymore. I could know it, and he could know it, and we had both been there, after all.
The rest of the world didn't need to see any longer.
"Better," I admitted. "Not ideal."
"Never once," I said, and I said it with all my heart. "Not a single time."
Holmes smiled at me. A sudden, fond smile that fanned his crows' feet into countless faint spokes around his eyes.
"Ode, then," he suggested.
"Perhaps is not good enough. Theme."
"There it is," I crowed, pushing forward and kissing the edge of his mouth where he was smirking. I dove in again when he shied away teasingly, nipping at his jaw. "I knew you'd find it. I knew it. You win again. You're a genius. Did you know that? What a remarkable faculty you have. You're brilliant, amazing, an immortal, you're--"
"Enough," he laughed, catching my hair delicately in his fingers. "Enough. Come here. Put out the light."