My friend did not take failure well, and my friend, for all his myriad virtues—or perhaps precisely because of them—was not above a significant measure of pride. To fail at an assignment entrusted to him personally by the Crown would gnaw at him all the more. Holmes was a fragile man in ways that would be surprising to a casual acquaintance, and I sickened to think into what black pit of depression such self-pronounced disgrace might throw him, and to which needle-nosed demons he might thence lie vulnerable.
I had intended to visit Holmes innumerable times these past many months, but there was always something—my wife, my practice, my contentment with my own books and chair—holding claim to be impediment. During our last all-too-brief evening together two—no, it was three...no, over four!—months ago, he had described this case its import with an intensity that made me ache for those days of our partnership when my time was mine to do with as I wished.
often the case, I had been the only mortal soul taken within his
Mycroft had abandoned
him, retired—arguably the entire reason for this
Parliamentary fiasco in the
first place—having shifted his orbit to Bruxelles, a city he
described as more
gastronomically his home than
Perhaps, had I been there to assist Holmes as I once was in days gone by...
But surely that was nothing but my own inflated self-worth rearing its proud and ugly head. Sherlock Holmes needed no one. He might want me, enjoy me, find particular uses for me that simplify his work, but he has never needed anyone. I should know; aside from the wealth of knowledge I have accumulated on him as his biographer these past many years, I am privileged to say that I have been his only intimate friend.
It is a quality about him that I have regarded simultaneously with both the most reverent esteem and the most abject disappointment. Being wanted is lovely—being wanted for no special purpose beyond one's own charm and self perhaps doubly so, but every man needs to feel needed as well—perhaps physicians most of all.
I leapt the stairs two at a time, resulting in an unpleasant reminder that the time passed since I had first taken these steps was having a worse way with my bones and joints than any bullet had and was far less stoppable to boot.
"Holmes!" I ejaculated, throwing the door wide open.
Whatever I expected to find, it was not this. Holmes sat, immaculately dressed, over his afternoon tea and the same newspaper that I held in my hand. He turned to the door, and the clinician within me reflexively scanned his eyes, his posture, his demeanour, for any hint of the return of those vices that were wont to take advantage of his failures and his boredom in the most wicked ways.
I saw none.
He seemed older than when last we met—or perhaps it was the fatigue of having borne so difficult and onerous a case alone—but those grey eyes were clear and bright, and their power, when turned fully upon me, was entirely undiminished. As I had for more than twenty years, I warmed happily to his approval.
Watson! Will you
take tea? No of
course not; you've dined courtesy of a
patient, I see. Likely
gout stricken, I
would surmise, if he makes a habit of meals of red wine and
pâté as he just had
served to you. It
is most kind and
professional of you to see the dangerous stuff safely disposed of
reach of your patient. Above
the call of duty: that's my Watson: nothing is too much in the name of
to a soul in need. Say
you will at least
join me for a cup, otherwise it will have been long trip from
I did not look to my shoes or cuffs to see how much mud I had accumulated. I would see to the wardrobe damage later. "I didn't come for the tea," said I tossing the paper onto the table next to his. There was a place setting laid for me with my favourite china cup and saucer--the set for which I had always reached despite the gradually increasing number of chips and the hairline crack which had threatened the integrity of the saucer ever since '95 and the events connected with the canary-trainer.
A tin of cigarettes from Bradley's rested beside it. I opened it and sniffed: it was my preferred tobacco as well. This would not be so curious a finding save that I had switched blends only last month.
A simple matter of interrogating the shopkeeper, Holmes's voice reminded impatiently from within my head as I replaced the tin upon the table. Holmes's echt voice in my ear had a far warmer tone. "Then I will confess it all and announce that I had not imagined that you did. Although I reminisce fondly upon the days when I might expect you for no greater reason, I am not yet so addled as to confuse the then with the now. I should have failed king and country earlier and far more often, had I known it would incite the return of your attentions so promptly."
I ignored the barb. First, I would rather Holmes lash out at me with his frustrations than at himself. Secondly, it was neither entirely unfair nor untrue. "So it is a failure then?" I asked, easing into the proffered seat. "I had thought, perhaps, one of your elaborate ruses such as the ploy with The Star of Rhodesia—"
He threw hands in air. "No, no! The matter is an utter, complete, abject phenomenal loss on all accounts—save that the involvement of the party who employed me is a secret that shall remain known only to the three of us."
Three. Then...no counsellors, no ministers, no aides. His Majesty had entrusted no one else with this, nevertheless despite the spottiness of our intercourse these recent days—despite the fact I played no role in this case at all—Holmes still trusted me.
"I am sorry, Holmes," said I. I cared no more for the vagaries of politics than did Holmes, but a personal request from the Crown is something that would stir the soul of any Englishman.
Holmes waved off my sympathies. "I am no longer the mind that I once was. Two years ago I would not have bungled this assignment so badly. From this I make my most telling deduction: it is time for me to retire."
"Retire?" I gasped. "Holmes! You are one of the foremost minds in the world."
"One of. But I am no longer the solitary brilliance that was Sherlock Holmes. Again, Mycroft proved the smarter brother; it is time—perhaps past time for me to bow out."
I had nothing to say to this. My friend's wisdom and insight were beyond anything I had conceived possible. I had never been so arrogant as to argue with his reasoning before, and it did not occur to me to start now, even over this. Who was I to render verdict upon an intellect such as his?
It is often fact that the candles which burn most brightly gutter themselves earliest as well.
Truth be told, I had seen so little of him this past year that I could not attest to the state of his faculties either as his physician or as his friend. Did the weeks pass more quickly now than they had in younger years? I could not understand how we had let so many slip away.
I think more than anything else that had fallen behind us, it saddened me most to realise this. I had planned to do so much better by him, and that is time we never could reclaim.
Of course, he could have visited me, as well.
He drove steel-grey eyes into me, and I watched him record my every thought in the manner that always had unsettled Mary so.
"It is as precious bone china," he pronounced, apparently concerning nothing.
"We reserve our finest china for those occasional visitors whom we barely know and care not the slightest how we stand in their affections. Our family and our dearest friends, those who are the most integral to our lives and loves, they must make due with odd pieces of daily ware, whatever happens to be at hand. However cracked or chipped, it is deemed good enough for those whom we treasure most. The best of ourselves we preserve carefully in dusty cabinets to be offered up when and for whom it matters least."
I flushed. He had described a paradox of human nature and a system which could benefit from some repair. An inky silence seeped between us.
I hadn't intended to stay away this long. Somehow, one day had simply passed into the next.
my throat. "
"No, never that." Holmes spoke with the vehemence that fuelled his most engaging pursuits. "Not ever within my sphere. "You are a family man, Watson; to you such things are commonplace. I, however, have had little occasion to be presumed upon in such an easy way.
"I will be remembered in many ways for many things by men and nations around the globe, but there will only be one who remembers me with fondness; I cannot begin to express how grateful to him I am."
"Holmes—" A fullness choked my throat. The public considers Holmes to be an impassive man, yet his words alone had rendered me nearly unable to continue.
I rose and ran my hand over his shoulder, the curve of his neck and through his hair. I think what took me back most acutely was the smell that wafted up. Beyond any pomade or soap or cologne there is a base scent that seeps from any lover, and of all the senses, smell is the most rudimentary one—the one that rouses us at the level of the animal, the one which sparks the most primal and long-buried of memories within our souls.
I had meant to assuage him, but in less than a second I was swept more than a score of years away—back to the first athletic days when we tried everything conceivable in our curious and anatomically knowledgeable minds. The days when cocaine ballooned his libido far beyond his capacity to satisfy it, and our marathon sessions stretched on for hours upon end. The days when his needs for control saw me spread out and cuffed—each limb separately—to the bed, dependent on him for release, him resolved to favour only my cods and ignore my prick no matter how frantically, shamelessly I begged him to fall upon it and put my rigid torment to an end.
When he finally rubbed check against my wood it was if everything I had ever wanted erupted from some place deep inside and shot out of me in spurt after agonising, wracking spurt. I'd come so hard, I feared I'd hit the ceiling, I chuckled to him as we cuddled together in a magnificently spent and sweaty mess—a rather stickier situation to explain to our landlady than a few patriotically placed bullet holes on the wall had been.
I remembered the times thereafter when the excitement of the unexplored gave way to the comfort of the familiar and thence the gentle lovemaking that even after all these years, my body was once again reminding me it still would seek from him.
But ennui has always been the bane of Sherlock Holmes's existence. It shall be an eternal source of joy and pride to me to say that I am the one thing he has never tired of, though we have been companions for the greater part of both our adult lives.
Sexual couplings are another matter, though. Like all other things, when the adventure wore off, Holmes eventually tired of them. Being—unlike him—merely a commonplace man, I did not.
Thus, it would be that some things must change.
Some things, however, would not--could not.
My touch that had been initiated allegedly in his interest now caressed over his shoulder and down his breast.
He stopped it with the iron strength that my flesh remembered so keenly. "We cannot go backwards, Watson. Time marches in one direction only."
I flushed. I had not intended to impose myself on him.
If he had noted my relapse (which I am certain he did; he notes everything) the gentleman in him—or perhaps it was the dearest friend a man could ever have—steadfastly declined to recognise it for what it was. Holmes continued, "I have had a remarkable career, and I will not see its end be less than its beginning. I cannot go back to younger times, and so I accept that this is the end of my run."
"The salmon swim upstream in the springtime," protested I.
"To exist there only briefly, then float—exhausted—back down again. I wonder what your salmon think of as they drift on their lonely way back from whence they started." Not unkindly, he removed my hand. He held it for a good bit longer than he had strict reason to.
No, he had not misunderstood me at all. He never had: none of the times that I had tried to surprise or spare him, nor even the times that I had tried to deceive myself.
"They're fish, Holmes; I doubt they think at all."
"Precisely. And you and I are not. It is hardly our springtime, Watson."
I had no response to that.
"When?" My head spun. Holmes is leaving me.
"Weeks, months I suppose. I have several loose ends to see to still."
"I don't wish you to go," I blurted, ashamed to hear the schoolboy candour escape my own two lips. How could a statement so plain and innocent convict my inner self so irreparably?
"I don't wish a great many things, Watson, but wishing will not make them so."
The remark might have referenced the case recently at hand. I suspected it did not. The silence thickened.
my throat. "I have
always been fond
"Visit? Why, I shouldn't considering taking up a residence not able to comfortably accommodate us both. You will always have a bed wherever I do. I am relying upon you to come and go however you please."
I blinked at the unwitting crudity that had slipped into another interpretation of that remark, then I saw the twinkle in his eye.
"No longer the mind I once was," be damned! I have not the slightest hope of living to see the day when the word "unwitting" might be properly applied to anything regarding of Sherlock Holmes! I laughed aloud, and I saw that he was proud of me for it.
I turned his chair around to face me, and he rose to stand disarmingly close to my skin. I slipped my palm about and over his private parts, not to incite, but more to test whether the prerogative was still mine. This time he let my hand stay where it chose. I tilted my head and kissed him with all the love that had swelled up so hard within me.
But as sweetly tender as that kiss was, there was no passion in it, and for the life of me, I could not name the day, or the month, or the year when that change had taken place.
Holmes was right—as always. We can't go back. But that needn't be a tragedy. More adventures await all of us downstream; there lies a great and vast ocean out there.
We broke apart.
I took a breath. "How is Mycroft, anyway?" I asked, aiming for some hook of normalcy on which to hang my hat.
"Well. Very well." Holmes slid into his armchair. "He has taken on a young protégé."
Holmes barked a laugh. "No, very young and very solely as a mentor.He says the boy—Poirot?—has a deductive mind to rival his. Now that I should pay a great deal to see. Such is the way of the nature, Watson. While span of a river must exist downstream, another span is always up. The world will flow on around you and I, my dear fellow. I think it is my turn to ride the current and rest."
"If anyone has earned it, you have," I said. I meant it to be a token reassurance, but the unexpected sincerity that came out of me almost broke my voice.
Holmes looked to me and nodded. "Thank you," he said.
No one who had not abided with Holmes for twenty years could know all that that simple phrase encompassed.
Holmes drew in an enormous breath. "One benefit of ending a case and a career—albeit catastrophically—is that I seem to be entirely free for the rest of the day. I don't suppose a harried a doctor and husband can say the same."
"In fact, I have attended all my urgent cases for a few days, and my wife will doubtless be grateful for the peace and quiet," said I, falling into my old place in the well-worn caneback. "If you can tolerate the intrusion on your precious bachelor privacy."
"Splendid!" said Holmes. "You will find your old room just as you left it—well, perhaps with a trifle less dust and fresher sheets. For reasons I'm sure I cannot fathom, Mrs Hudson took it upon herself to tackle the spring cleaning of that room this week."
"So it is," agreed Holmes. "Curious woman, she."
"You planned this!" I accused.
"I observe patterns. And I have missed you, Watson. Bees will hold no candle to my old friend and companion." Holmes tamped fingerfuls of foul dottles down into the oily clay.
I settled in to hear the full story of the Parliamentary Affair. I would not need my notebook; the sensitive nature of this adventure meant that it was destined to remain only between us. "I trust not," I frowned. "Holmes, you have the queerest ideas about compliments."
Over the bowl of his pipe he smiled at me, laughed and began to recount the entire tale just as he had upon so many occasions before. Once again I was captivated by his voice and presence, and carried away by the adventure he related.
It was as if I never had left.