I was three the first time I dreamed of Death, and eight when I first dreamed of dying.
This was not as macabre as it might at first seem. I was not blind to the true cost of illness and injury, the way a suffering body could torment even the most well-ordered mind, but I was also a butcher's son – and one with (I daresay) an uncommon gift for the natural sciences. If anything, my sensitivity on the first point drove me to turn an unflinching eye to places politer society would shy away from. I wanted to understand these bodies we were all bound to, and animals were not so dissimilar as to be useless to that task.
If I'd dreamed only of Death in the general sense, that would have hardly been surprising given my circumstances, but as I grew, my capricious mind instead insisted on devising dreams where I was the one struggling for my last breath. I dreamed of a harsh white sun above and desert sands beneath, glinting all around as I grasped at my shoulder and my blood dyed the sand nearest to me a deep red. I didn't think to say anything of it the next morning, for it was hardly the first time I'd dreamed of that particular demise. But the next night, I found myself ensconced in thread-bare velvets and surrounded by specimen bottles and artefacts that would tempt any archivist into envy, my trouser-leg gone wet with blood; and then the night after that, as if to complete the set, dreamed of standing among shattered glass with the cloying smell of rich flowers making my head spin as I gasped for breath against a throat grown tight, a cold east wind chilling me to the bone.
Those dreams came to me now and again from that point on, always in threes and never tied to any event in my waking life that I could point to. I was hardly such a fool to think they might predict some dark future, but still I wondered: was it truly normal, to dream oneself into the grave so often?
Six months to the day after Harry began his apprenticeship I found myself on a train to London, all my worldly belongings packed into trunks, to live with an aunt I'd never met and begin my medical studies in earnest. I'd come to London to study, and study I did, entering the university that fall. I was quite lucky, I reminded myself; I was hardly a street Arab, and a house full of cousins wasn't quite as hateful as I would have imagined it. Even so, a part of me ached for Scotland, and in those days after I took my commission with her majesty's army my thoughts often turned to the hills around Aberdeen.
Those familiar with my adventures with Sherlock Holmes will already know the bare skeleton of my experiences in Afghanistan, how I came to be attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and to play my part in the second Afghan war. What I did not record in those pages was the chill that settled upon me when I was rerouted from India to Afghanistan and the fear that gripped me when I remembered my dreams of a desert death. My grandmother had taken some comfort in my dreams because, if there was any truth in them at all, I was hardly likely to come across the strange places my dreams had been set, at least in my waking-life. When I'd signed on with the army it had been for service in India, and when I learned I was desert-bound I'd promised myself I'd discharge my duties as best I could, though I had no great faith I'd survive the full tour.
It was not so surprising, then, when I felt the bullet shatter my clavicle, the harsh white sun above and the desert sands beneath, nor even when I fell ill again at Peshawar. I promised myself, then, that if I made it through and back to London I would get myself to Aberdeen as soon as I could. And I did just that, after I was settled in with Holmes and both my body and purse had recovered enough to make the trip. Once I had made it back to the house I'd grown up in, though, sitting across the table from my father and his new wife, I knew that while they may still be blood, I would never be more than a visitor there. That honor was reserved for a humble suite of rooms on Baker Street.
Over the years Baker Street came to feel more and more like home, not merely as a stand-in for the one my childhood had failed to provide me but as a shelter in truth. Marriage would sometimes pull me away from Holmes for a season, but after Mary died and Anna declared she no longer wished to share a life with me I found myself slipping back with an almost alarming ease into our life together: shared breakfasts and late nights, the soot tracked in by his Baker Street Irregulars and sleep schedules disrupted by explosions. I'd followed him into windowless cellars and cabs with disreputable men I barely knew, all without hesitation because for some reason I couldn't quite lay my finger on I trusted him instinctively.
That said, the first time I'd set foot in Nathan Garrideb's rooms off Ryder Street, I was taken aback, so similar was it to the parlor from my dreams. I said nothing of my fears to Holmes, even once he'd found out the other Garrideb's true identity, and I followed him the next day back into that house with as much courage as I could manage. If this was to be my final end, I told myself, I'd had a good run of it; and in any event I still had one more death-dream to fulfil. So I wasn't wholly surprised to feel the burn of the bullet working its way through my thigh, nor the realization (instinctual by that point but also well-supported by professional knowledge) that his bullet had missed the bone and the major blood vessels, that the leg seemed too much under my control to be suffering from nerve damage, and that – though the pierced muscles burned with a fire I had not felt since Candahar – it was what I had described to many a soldier as a flesh wound. A graze. Not dangerous.
I'd balanced my weight, then, and gritted my teeth against the pain in a way I hoped wasn't too noticeable (yes, in those days I still harbored fantasies of deceiving Holmes, on occasion) and bided my time until Holmes could help me back to a chair. He looked at me with his eyes shining brightly, swallowing hard against a lump in his throat. Was my old friend afraid? That was an impossibility, but even so, the words came tumbling past my lips before I could stop them: I was fine, it was but a scratch. And then he cut away the cloth and ran his fingers along my bare thigh in a touch that was both probing and intimate. I turned away, hoping against hope that my grimace hid the blush coloring my face. He stood up, turned to face my assailant, and left me to my thoughts. The worry on Holmes's face, the relief on seeing I wasn't so badly harmed as I might have been: those glimpses into the true depths of his affection were hard to forget, and by Jove I was not overly inclined to try.
In Candahar's shadow I was happy to have the dark dreams that had plagued me since childhood. I knew from men I had fought beside that they were often troubled by darker dreams than mine, carved out of the waking life we had shared there. Of men gutted and children half-starved and a dozen other images I will not glorify by putting down on paper – images that pulled them from their proper rest and left them in a cold sweat. As a medical man I had arguably seen worse than most, but more often than not the dreams that pulled me from sleep were not bred in the war. The ferrous taste in my mouth that often accompanied danger was the same, but at least on waking I knew with a certainty that the dream was nothing more than a night-phantom.
As the decades rolled on, though, I began to see the dreams in a different light. As a child I thought I was dreaming of dying, but twice I had been shot, and twice I found myself more alive than I was before. Candahar had brought me to Baker's Street; Ryder Street, to a truer perception of the man I was privileged to name as friend. (Was it friendship? That spark in his eyes had not been so dissimilar from the one I'd looked for in Anna's eyes as our love gave way to convenience.) When Holmes left London for Sussex and I followed him six months later, when I saw the gardens he had cultivated and the bees that followed and the greenhouse that might have been a tableau lifted from my dreams – I cannot say those sights gave me no pause, but they no longer deterred me as they once would have. They no longer made my chest fill with dread. I had lived a good, long life, and a small measure of time at Holmes' side was better than a long span of years without him.
One spring day, as I sat writing a letter to my cousin Erin, the sound of breaking glass rang out against the morning's silence. I grumbled about the idleness of youth and took up my cane – more a tool for chasing our young vandals off than a support against the leg that had never quite recovered after the war, I told myself – and made my way out into the gardens. "Watson!" a voice gasped as soon as I came in sight of the greenhouse. Holmes stood hunched over against a table, massaging his throat and clearly struggling to breathe. My cane dropped to the garden path, clattered against the paving-stones, and I sprinted to the greenhouse like a man half my age.
Stepping over the glass shards from the window Holmes had broken to catch my attention, I threw open the door and made quick work of surveying the scene. Holmes was gasping for air, his eyes were wide with something akin to panic, but there was no injury I could see. Then my eyes fell upon the bee-stinger almost tucked under his rolled-up sleeve. I plucked it out, but it seemed to be only a common bumblebee. Surely Holmes wasn't so daft as to work with bees if he was allergic to them? Or was he? I ran my hands along his back and throat but to no effect. His breathing was still laboured, and he braced both hands against the table for balance.
Fate could not be so cruel as this. It simply was not allowed. I had been prepared to risk the dreams' catching me at least, to risk my own death if it meant I could live with Holmes a little while longer, but maybe his. If I had but told him –
"Watson," Holmes gasped more quietly this time. "Adrena – adren – " Stumbling forward, he tried to open a drawer on the other side of the table. He lost his balance and fell to the floor, but I saw well enough what he'd been fumbling for. Opening the table-drawer properly, I took out a syringe he must have left there and kneeled beside him. I held the syringe up and he nodded, so without wasting further time I injected it into his forearm.
The effect was almost immediate. I sat down behind him and pulled him into a sitting position, massaging his chest, but from the way his breathing was evening out and his body had stopped shaking from the exertion of dragging breath past his constricting throat, those efforts were almost unnecessary. I held him anyway, leaning close against his back and inhaling the scent of him as I traced curlicues along his wrist that I assured myself were soothing enough to count as medically pragmatic.
"Halictidae," Holmes said at last, as if this was a sufficient explanation. I knew better and, after a lifetime justifying his predicaments to me, he knew I didn't know. His voice was a little louder than before, though, even if it was still a little raspy for my comfort – that was something. "Lasioglossum marginatum, to be precise. They are preferentially nocturnal but not exclusively so – one of the most intriguing species I've yet to study."
He half twisted himself around to face me, but I placed my hands on his shoulder blades and forced him forward again. "Eyes forward until your breathing returns to normal," I said. Then, after a pause: "Why would you study bees if they're such a danger to you?"
Holmes scoffed at that. "Don't be an idiot. They're not, or not generally. Lasioglossum marginatum is, apparently the exception to that rule, blasted overachievers."
"You're a damned fool, you know that?"
That actually earned a rare chuckle from Holmes. "A sensible man would have traded me in years ago."
I didn't deign to answer him, both because I was still frustrated that he'd been so careless with his own well-being and because of the simple futility of it all. What words could I say in that moment? If Holmes had ever guessed the true nature of my dreams he had not spoken of it. A part of me yearned to tell him, but the time didn't seem right. I wanted to laugh, to match his chuckle with a joy that had been long growing within me.
We had years to learn each other's secrets, I realized with a giddy thrill. My dreams may have heralded death, but it was a partial death and one accompanied by rebirth, the excision of scar tissue that kept me from healing into a better sort of man. And Holmes would be there at each step along the way, to catch me and hold me as I found my balance as he always had. The words would come, and I would share them when he'd have no cause to think them the fumblings of a brain overexcited in the wake of his near-death. Just then I said nothing, choosing instead to hold him against me and breathe in the unique smell of tobacco-smoke and lye and pollen that was Holmes.
That night I dreamt of bees, and bee-keepers, and nothing else.