Doctor Watson’s Kensington house was a modern, stately place. The red brick gleamed with a certain newness, seemingly immune to London grime. The columns which adorned the portico were the same crisp white as the shutters that flanked the windows. The shutters and columns themselves were identical to the shutters and columns of the houses on either side. The same was true for the houses on either side of them, and on and on, forming a whole regiment of modern, stately places, all so identical that Holmes always found himself checking both the house number and the name on the door, lest he mistakenly call upon a stranger.
“Good evening, Mr. Holmes,” said the maid, taking his hat and coat. “Doctor Watson is in the drawing room.”
“The drawing room,” Holmes repeated, letting the words roll across his tongue. Drawing room—yes, a house like this ought to have a drawing room.
“Yes, sir. Right this way.”
Down the hall they went, past the consulting room, beyond the study, up the stairs and into alien territory. How many years since Watson had quit Baker Street, and yet Holmes had never made it beyond the ground floor. It had become a habit, if not quite a ritual, for the two old friends to spend one night a week, soaking themselves in brandy and nostalgia. This invariably took place at Baker Street, so much the better for recapturing the spirit of ‘the old days’. Tonight, however, for some secret—or, at least, unexplained—reason, Watson had insisted they meet here.
The drawing room was nearly twice the size of the Baker Street sitting room and seemed to be suffering from an infestation of chairs. Chairs along the wall, chairs before the hearth, chairs drifting across the rug as if driven by strange, conflicting tides. The walls were papered with large, ornate chrysanthemums, which looked to Holmes rather like the heads of oriental lions. Sprinkled here and there were some familiar trinkets: the brass elephant which had followed Watson home from the war; the framed portrait of General Gordon; the red volumes along the mantle from whose spines glittered phrases like The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet.
And there, leaning against the mantle was the most familiar of all, Watson. Older, yes, and plumper, but familiar all the same. The same hands, the same smile, the same questionable taste in cufflinks.
They collided in a handshake that blossomed into more. Not quite an embrace—that would be odd—but nevertheless more. A hand on an arm or a shoulder, a slight squeeze of the fingers, eyes that caught each other’s and then quickly looked elsewhere.
“Well, Watson, you have quite the splendid abode. I don’t believe I have ever seen so much of it.”
“Thank you, though it belongs to Cox & Co. Or it will, if I keep putting off my patients in favor of your cases.”
“I should be only to happy to compensate you for your time,” Holmes insisted, knowing full well the offer would be refused.
Watson waved a dismissive hand at him and made them each a drink at the sideboard. Scotch this time, rather than brandy. Tonight required something stiffer. He handed a glass to Holmes before taking a seat near the hearth.
“Never mind that—tell me, how are things progressing with that forgery case?”
Holmes poured himself into an overstuffed club chair and sighed: “I’m afraid I’ve made quite a mess of it. Not the case, mind you, but I gave Hopkins what-for this afternoon… and I rather regret it.”
“Good heavens—whatever about?”
“Oh, who knows!” exclaimed Holmes in the way that always meant I’m too ashamed to say. “Suffice to say he made some trivial error in logic and I gave him my full and unbridled opinion.”
“As bad as that?”
“I rather think I put the fear of God in the man.”
“Well, we all know who his god is.”
Holmes tried his best to look displeased with the insinuation, in spite of the grin that tugged at the corners of his lips. He drowned a smirk with a gulp of scotch. He dared not look at Watson, to do so would have meant sudden death—utter loss of composure, the two of them dissolved in a laughing fit. Watson could see the laughter waiting just on the other side of Holmes’s quivering lips. He has almost forgotten how it felt to bring Sherlock Holmes to the edge of hysterical giggles. Was it possible to be homesick in one’s own home?
“Tell me, Doctor,” Holmes declared at last, “how are your patients?”
The question popped a balloon of mirth that it hissed out of Watson in a slow exhale.
“Oh…. Fine. Well… not fine. If they were fine, they shouldn’t need to see me. Unremarkable. A sprained ankle, a touch of fever here and there, a flair of gout, a nervous temper, and so on.”
“Should you prefer a patient who is remarkably ill?” teased Holmes.
Now, it was Watson’s turn to smirk into his drink.
“I’ll tell you what I should prefer,” he began, “A patient who listens to me. I’d give my right hand for that. I can’t tell you how many times a day I repeat my instructions, ‘Mrs. Phelps, stay off your leg. Don’t eat so much liver.’ Only to have the woman nod and ask, ‘But Doctor, I’m meant to dance at my son’s military ball next week, and the pâté at the Admiralty is meant to be exquisite!’”
“Oh my dear Watson, you must sell the practice and come assist me full-time—we are both curmudgeons without one another.”
Here, predictably, the conversation stalled. Watson would not meet his gaze and the atmosphere between them grew strange and disquieting. Holmes had misstepped; he was speaking too plainly. That was not how this was meant to go.
"Incidentally,” Holmes went on, blind to his error, “How are your notes coming along for the Friesland affair?"
A shrug. Watson poured himself a second glass. Or was it a third?
"Do you think you'll write it up?"
"Hmph. I doubt it."
"Why not? I should think it would make for very thrilling reading."
It was here the conversation hit a brick wall that even Holmes could not ignore.
Another shrug. Watson sank into his chair and downed the scotch in one foul, fell swoop. How could he explain that he hadn't written anything since that awful, last account? That writing his friend's death was a death in itself. How, ever since, the words had dried up like a well, the fields had gone barren. How his wife had despised him and his sullen attitude, his unshakeable grief. How could he describe the feeling of dragging his name across a paper which read A-N-N-U-L-M-E-N-T at the top? The resignation to loneliness.
And then, suddenly, to be confronted by a ghost in his consultation room; Holmes alive and in the flesh. Holmes, eager to return them to the previous state of affairs. As though their lives were snooker balls that could be racked up again after a bad shot. And Watson, crushed, deceived, and if he was honest, just as eager for a return. Had dreamt of it. Prayed for it.
For the last six months they had been engaged in this delicate dance, each man circling the other, drawing nearer and nearer. Push and pull. Ebb and flow. A hand on the back when there needn’t be one, legs touching in an uncrowded hansom, a private joke in mixed company. And tonight: here instead of Baker street, the drawing room instead of the study, scotch instead of brandy. They both knew very well what it signified, where they were headed. But it was not the time to articulate things. Not yet.
The distance between them, which they had so laboriously narrowed, seemed to widen again into a gulf. The clock on the mantel ticked away slow, painful minutes. Holmes sat, agonizing over his faux pas and Watson let him.
“Pardon me, Doctor,” interjected the maid. No one had heard her knock: hands trembled, glasses quaked, a bit of ice toppled onto the carpet.
“I beg pardon, Doctor, but if you won’t be needing me anymore this evening…”
Her eyes darted to the mantle clock. Gloves in one hand, and her coat in another. Her valise no doubt lurked just behind the door. A woman with an appointment to keep.
“No, no, by all means, Lucy.”
The maid was gone as quickly as she had appeared and with her, the tension which had threatened to suffocate them began to dissipate. They breathed deeply, recalling themselves to the present. The bit of ice was kicked onto the hearth and allowed to melt.
“If I am not mistaken,” Holmes began, “she was in a hurry to be off somewhere.”
“Yes. Visiting family for a few days—she’s her mother’s only daughter, so I try to make do without her once a month.”
“Very gentlemanly of you.”
“That leaves you with the house to yourself, doesn’t it?” asked Holmes. Yes, that was how things were meant to go. Watson lifted his eyes to meet Holmes’s and with that, their dance began anew.
“It does,” Watson agreed. He consulted the bottom of his glass, summoning the courage to ask what came next: “Would you like to see the rest of it?”
“Yes, if you shouldn’t mind showing me.”
Push and pull. Ebb and flow. Cat and mouse.
They stood. Watson announced them as being in the drawing room. Holmes looked about with an exaggerated curiosity. Fourteen chairs, all told; a pianoforte, which he was certain no one had played; a potted palm that looked a bit overwatered and under-sunned.
“Very nice,” Holmes concluded.
“I don’t come in here very often,” Watson added by way of excuse, picking a withered frond off the palm and tossing it into the fire.
Next came the dining room. No one had bothered to light the lamps within it, and the light from the hall cast ominous shadows between the legs of the chairs and down the length of the table. There was a noticeable bare spot along one wall where a china cabinet ought to have been.
“All the good dishes went with Mary.”
“I’ve been meaning to replace them. Let’s see. I suppose you’ve already seen the downstairs: the kitchen, my study, the consulting room…”
“Shall we go upstairs?”
“No way but up, as the saying goes.”
Watson led the way. In the middle of the stairs, he stopped and turned to find Holmes following rather much closer than he had expected. He cleared his throat, nerves raw and buzzing.
“Are you sure you wish to see it? There’s nothing but bedrooms upstairs.”
Holmes gave a sly smile which could cut the most steadfast man to the quick. A smile which slowed time into lazy ribbons of honey. The lick of the lips was perhaps overkill, but it had the desired effect of making a grown man blush.
“I think I should like to very much.”
Another clearing of the throat.
“Right then. This way.”
Upstairs they trudged. Through what was once Mary’s room, which was everywhere as bare as the wall in the dining room, the pink hydrangea wallpaper the only reminder of her presence. Through the bathroom with its copper-lined tub and hot taps, at which Holmes could not help but marvel. Through the spare room, that would have been a nursery, had it ever come to pass, but was now a lumber room, stuffed with Watson’s old army trunks and mismatched furniture. Through to the door at the end of the hall, to a room which could belong to no one except the master of the house.
The door did not creak the way the doors at Baker Street creaked. The room was larger. The windows, multiple, and with a view the garden instead of a brick wall. A room for a gentleman physician in good standing, not for a penniless veteran forced to share digs. Nevertheless, Holmes recognized the place. The shelves of novels, meticulously organized. The smell of ship’s and sandalwood. The immaculate dressing table and the messy bedside one. A lump rose in Holmes’s throat as he took it all in. Was it possible to feel at home in someone else’s?
In the hall, the clock chimed the hour.
“My—midnight already,” Watson muttered and, with only a moment’s hesitation, extended his offer: “You are of course welcome to stay the night… if it would be too taxing to return to Baker Street at this hour.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” answered Holmes, who would venture to Whitechapel or the Old Nichol at any hour without fear, even if he had fifty pounds in his pocket. “I should hate to wander out so late. Might be dangerous.”
Watson smirked at him, leaning back against the door frame. “The last time I asked you to stay, you hurdled over the garden wall."
“Not tonight; I should never make it in these trousers." Holmes gave a half-chuckle. "And. Well. I shouldn't like to be a fool twice over."
It was here Watson realized how close they were. To each other, yes, but also to the end of the dance. His eyes traced Holmes's face, finding new lines among the familiar features. He too had gotten older. His skin in some places had grown pinched and thin. Too much smoking. Too many long nights.
“Do you recall that night in Surrey when we were investigating the death of Dr. Roylott?”
“I do. Do you remember that cottage in Oxfordshire with that bed that creaked?”
“I do.” Now it was Holmes’s turn to blush. “D-do you—that is, do you suppose, that tonight will be rather like those nights?”
Watson’s hands came to rest against the side of Holmes’s face. A thumb brushed against his cheek. Fingers crept down his neck and under his collar. Holmes touched Watson’s arms, then his shoulders, his hips, his back, drawing their bodies closer. When they kissed, it was like a breath of air after a long dive.
Their reunion was not the sort written of in poetry. It was clumsy, awkward, and rife with nervousness. The both of them were out of practice. Watson had forgotten the cramp in his elbow that came from stroking too long and at the wrong angle. Holmes struggled to remember how to quiet his thoughts, to focus on the sensations.
Slowly, they settled into each other. Laughter mingled between their sighs. Every inch of skin was cherished. Scars, old, new, visible and otherwise, were kissed. It was not a coupling for the record books, but it was theirs. And in the moments that followed, tangled in one another’s arms, a sense of homecoming overtook them both.
"It is a curious thing," Holmes mused, "Whenever I had difficulty getting to sleep, I would imagine you next to me. And now, here you are, and I am not tired in the least.“
"Did it work? To imagine me?“
"Most of the time."
Watson hummed. "I could have been there in the flesh, you know."
“If I had asked it?”
“Perhaps,” answered Watson.
“Or perhaps you would have thought your place was here?”
“This certainly is a lovely house,” Holmes mumbled.
“No it isn’t. It is too large and full of ghosts.”
Holmes wrapped his arms about Watson more tightly. He took a breath, and then another, drinking in the warm, sleepy smell of him. He thought for a moment, evaluating, not wishing to repeat his mistake. Then, for the second time that night he asked:
“John, won’t you come back to Baker Street?”
Here, the conversation did not stall. This time, it was not a misstep. The time had come to speak plainly. Their lives were not snooker balls, Watson supposed, but perhaps they were a bit like forests. After a fire they could regrow, timidly at first, but continuously, until the traces of scorched Earth faded and were covered by new life. Watson rolled to his other side, took Holmes’s face between his hands, and made his answer.