Any debate over which dilapidated building was most likely to hold their quarry was summarily ended by an explosion that rocked the railyard. Watson and Lestrade exchanged a horrified look before hurrying to the flaming boxcar, tailed by the men Lestrade had brought to assist Mr. Holmes in arresting a pair of thieves. Holmes was lying several paces from the fiery wreckage, seemingly thrown there by the force of the blast, and Watson hurried to his side while the Yarders dealt with the rest of the mess.
Holmes' head was mere inches from the first of a pair of rails running parallel to the siding that housed the boxcar. He had his hands over his face and was curled on his side, the very picture of misery. Watson patted him on the shoulder reassuringly. "What happened, old chap?"
Holmes stiffened but did not answer. Watson coaxed him to lie on his back, then tried to remove Holmes' hands from his face. Holmes resisted him, but Watson was able to see that he had suffered mild burns on his face. Watson frowned; burns were something he wasn't readily equipped to handle with just his medical bag. All he could do was dampen a cloth with tepid water and press it to the parts of Holmes' face that his hands didn't cover.
When he felt the cloth touch him, Holmes twitched in surprise, but he quickly caught on and soon wrangled control of the cloth away from Watson, spreading it out to cover as much of his face as it could. "Watson?" he ventured hesitantly, his voice just a little too loud.
"Yes, Holmes?" Watson answered patiently as he checked the rest of Holmes' body for any serious injuries and found nothing save a lump on the back of Holmes' head--perhaps he had struck the rail.
"Watson?" Holmes repeated, more loudly.
Watson's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Holmes? What's the matter?"
"Watson?" His tone was almost frantic, and one hand left his face to flail outward, searching the air around him.
Watson took the flailing hand and held it between both of his own; Holmes calmed immediately. "Watson . . ." he said, his voice uncharacteristically tremulous.
"Where else are you hurt?" Watson pressed him, but Holmes still did not reply, his hand trembling. Then Watson had a horrible thought. "Holmes, can you hear me?"
Silence followed his query. There was no blood coming from Holmes' ears, but the light was insufficient for the use of the auriscope. Determining what was wrong with Holmes' hearing would have to wait.
Watson turned his attention to Holmes' face, setting Holmes' hand down and attempting to lift the cloth so he could better assess the damage. Holmes let him, this time, but kept his eyes closed. Watson was relieved to confirm that the burns were minor, merely flushing Holmes' skin with redness. He carefully pried open Holmes' eyelids--even they were tinged pink--and reassured himself that Holmes' eyes looked to be undamaged.
Holmes blinked a few times, as if reassured it was safe to do so, then frowned. "Why can't I see?"
Watson's heart sank. First Holmes cannot hear, and now he cannot see? Heaven help them both.
"Watson! Answer me, man! Why won't you speak to me?" He reached for where Watson had been, and clutched whatever fabric he found, which happened to be Watson's coat sleeve.
Watson took one of Holmes' hands and held it against his throat as he said, "I have been speaking to you, Holmes."
Holmes' sightless eyes widened in horror as he felt the vibration and realized what it meant. "All I hear is a roaring, like an explosion, or a large fire," he murmured helplessly. "Watson, you must take me home." Watson began to object, but Holmes didn't need to see or hear him to know what he would say. "No, no hospitals. If you insist upon specialists, they will come to Baker Street. We can afford it."
It was a small consolation that Holmes had lost none of his masterful personality in the accident that had deprived him of two of his senses. Watson gently urged him to sit up, then helped him stand. Holmes swayed on his feet and might have fallen if Lestrade had not been approaching and grasped his other arm to keep him steady. Holmes, however, flinched away from the unexpected touch and collided with Watson, nearly knocking him over, then fell to his knees, breathing heavily with his head bowed.
Lestrade moved to help again, but Watson stopped him. "It would be better if you would secure us a cab."
"Of course, Doctor," he said, glancing quizzically at Holmes before departing.
Watson patted Holmes' shoulder, then took his arm and guided him back up. Holmes was quite unsteady on his feet and seemed nauseated, but he put his arm around Watson's shoulders and allowed himself to be led toward the road. Getting him into the cab was a challenge; Watson had to use his cane to nudge Holmes' leg high enough for him to find the step, and even then he almost missed it. He fell onto the seat rather than sitting on it, and pressed himself unusually close to Watson when the cab began moving.
Getting Holmes out of the cab was also difficult, though at least gravity worked in his favor, even if it did mean that he slumped quite heavily against Watson once he found the ground. The doorjamb was an unexpected obstacle, but once Watson guided Holmes to the stairs he could manage those well enough, so long as he held on to the banister for dear life. Once at the top, everything seemed to catch up with him and he vomited on the carpet just in front of their sitting room door. Even on hands and knees he was shaking; Watson wished desperately there was more he could do.
Watson settled Holmes on the settee so he could lie down to help the vertigo and, after notifying Mrs. Hudson of the mess on the carpet, he took the time to carefully examine Holmes' ears. He would have to obtain a specialist's opinion on Holmes' sight, but this, at least, he could investigate for himself.
He used several successively brighter light sources in conjunction with the auriscope, hoping that he wasn't seeing correctly, but they only confirmed what he initially saw: the explosion had ruptured both of Holmes' tympanic membranes. Only time would tell how well they might heal and, correspondingly, restore his hearing.
"What's the diagnosis? Will I hear again?" Holmes asked flippantly but couldn't hide his evident anxiety over the answer to that question.
Watson took Holmes' hand and held it against his shoulder so Holmes could feel him shrug.
Holmes swallowed heavily. "How long until we know for sure? Days?"
Watson held Holmes' hand against his cheek so Holmes felt him shake his head.
A hesitant nod.
A more definite nod.
"Weeks or months," Holmes said morosely. "And my sight?"
A shrug, and Watson touched the lump on the back of Holmes' head.
"I see." Holmes paused, considering what he'd just said. "That phrase is quite unsuitable. Will you be calling a specialist?"
When Holmes asked nothing further and pulled his hand away, Watson took it as a request to be left in peace for a while. Holmes no doubt had a great deal of thinking to do.
Watson rather thought the remaining hours of the afternoon dragged by, and could only wonder how Holmes perceived time without the usual cues. For his part, he started passing the time with reading the papers, but found himself frequently turning to discuss some point with Holmes, only to draw up short as he remembered that Holmes could not hear him. Sometimes he even spoke to the room before recalling that he was, at present, talking to himself.
Every so often he rose from his chair and shook Holmes' shoulder to be certain he wasn't sleeping. Holmes mumbled aggravatedly the first few times; on the fourth occasion, he snapped, "Leave me be! I do not think I could sleep even if I tried."
Watson mixed a dose of headache powder into a glass of water, then took the glass and the packet to Holmes. As expected, when Watson tried to urge him to sit up, a growled "What do you want now?" was the response. Watson handed Holmes the paper packet to him, and Holmes felt it with both hands, his brow furrowed as he tried to determine what it was. When Watson tapped his hand with the glass, his expression cleared. "Oh. Thank you." Holmes was not quite so grumpy after that.
When Mrs. Hudson brought dinner up, Holmes refused to eat. Watson did not try to force the issue, recognizing that Holmes' claim of not feeling up to it was likely quite true. He did hand him two pieces of toast, however, and tried to insinuate that dire consequences would result if Holmes did not eat them. His message may not have been clear, but Holmes did eat the toast.
Soon after dinner, Watson proposed that they turn in by bringing Holmes' nightshirt out for Holmes to feel. Holmes quickly agreed. Watson helped him to the bathroom--though Holmes was quite insistent upon doing his business by himself--then escorted him to his bedroom. Holmes was still not certain of his steps or able to stand in place for long before losing his balance and stumbling; Watson wondered if this would continue until his ears were fully healed, or if he would adjust at some point and be able to conduct himself under his own power.
Once Holmes was tucked in bed and had been given a mild sedative to help him sleep, Watson turned to leave. Holmes caught his arm and pleaded, "Please, don't go." Watson patted Holmes' hand, then tried to pull away again. "No, please. The darkness and the sound . . . I think I will go mad."
Watson nodded, though Holmes couldn't see him. He took Holmes' hand, guiding him first to feel Watson's shirtsleeve, then Holmes' nightshirt, then squeezed his hand reassuringly. He had to repeat the sequence before Holmes said hesitantly, "You will change, then return?" Watson nodded against Holmes' hand, and Holmes let go of him. "All right."
He returned as quickly as he was able and slipped into the empty side of the bed; Holmes slid nearer to him as soon as he stopped moving. Watson closed his eyes and pondered how having someone near might help when one could not see or hear them.
After a few moments where all he could focus on was the sound of Holmes breathing, the rustle of the sheets under them, the distant noises of the metropolis settling down for the night, he thought he understood. You do not need to hear someone breathe when you can feel their exhalations ghosting across your skin. You do not need to see someone next to you when you can feel the warmth of their body, the tentative press of their leg against your own, the dip in the mattress beneath their weight.
Holmes quickly fell asleep, but Watson spent a while thinking how he might use Holmes' remaining senses to reassure him, to communicate with him, to keep him from falling into a mood now that he had fewer stimuli to keep his mind occupied.
Watson found it disconcerting to wake in Holmes' bed, but soon had other things to concern him, as Holmes still suffered from severe vertigo if he sat up too quickly or if he even attempted to stand. They were able to get him dressed, but he remained abed while Watson set out to consult with the specialist several of his peers recommended in response to telegrams he'd sent out the previous afternoon.
Doctor Hamilton was quite agreeable to paying Holmes a visit, and did what he could to examine Holmes, though Holmes' inability to answer any questions and his tendency to shy away from any touch other than Watson's made his assessment somewhat more challenging. In the end, he could only confirm that the eyes themselves were undamaged, thus the disruption of sight originated inside the brain. It was within reason that the problem would resolve itself when his head injury healed, but only time would tell. He recommended a blindfold for Holmes so he would not strain himself as his vision returned (if it returned), and rest and quiet to heal.
After the doctor left, Holmes asked Watson questions until he seemed to understand that nothing could be done but wait--something he was not very good at, particularly when it involved complete inaction--and he lapsed into silence, turning his back toward Watson and the bedroom door. Watson patted his shoulder and left the room to see to a few things.
The next days were difficult for both of them as they tried to adjust to Holmes' changed situation while still hoping for eventual improvement. With the aid of a cane, Holmes was able to stand on his own despite the continued vertigo, and he could lurch his way from bed to dresser to doorway to mantelpiece and so on. His brilliant mind quickly learned the positions of things, so he could find the chamberpot or his dressing gown or the tobacco slipper so long as they were in their proper places. He could even smoke his pipe without assistance, his fingers knowing all too well how to stuff a pipe, though there were a few burnt fingertips before he learned to light it unaided.
Eating proved more difficult, for he had no way of knowing what was on his plate and where unless he put his fingers in his food. The utensils also posed a challenge, as he could not quite tell if he was holding the fork or spoon level or whether he'd managed to get anything onto them at all. And that was assuming he was hungry enough to try eating in the first place, which often wasn't the case thanks to the nausea he endured to move himself to the table.
For one meal Watson had Mrs. Hudson supply food that could be eaten with fingers rather than forks, but Holmes summarily refused to eat with his fingers like an infant. Next Watson tried bringing the food to Holmes wherever he was perched, but Holmes' continued awkwardness with his silverware and his inability to see when he was about to spill something resulted in some rather impressive stains on the settee upholstery and his clothing.
So Watson thought he'd try something else. He set the lunch tray between him and Holmes on the settee; Holmes began identifying the dishes from their smells, stopping abruptly when Watson gently touched his cheek. The tines of a fork then brushed his bottom lip, and he opened his mouth in surprise. Holmes swallowed that bite and several after without comment. Watson was pleased that Holmes accepted that much, even as he couldn't help thinking that Holmes presented quite a picture, blindfolded and allowing himself to be fed. His self-control was steadily crumbling in the face of such constant proximity to Holmes, but at least Holmes had no way of knowing what his nearness could do.
As in bed, during the day Holmes often gravitated to wherever Watson was--or insisted Watson sit near him--for the simple reassurance that the steadfast doctor was nearby. Watson was rather fond of the times Holmes put his head in Watson' lap and asked him to read the paper aloud, then proceeded to fall asleep. Holmes continued such behaviors but became more taciturn as days turned into one week, then two, without any change in his sight or hearing.
Where before he would try to predict what was for dinner based on the smells wafting up from the kitchen, he ceased to take any interest in what was going on belowstairs or anywhere else. He often opted to remain in bed rather than make the effort to venture into the sitting room when there was no purpose for him to be in the sitting room--it couldn't even be argued to be a 'change of scenery' since everywhere looked rather the same to him.
Under ordinary circumstances, Watson would have been concerned that Holmes would resort to his needle; that he could not do so must have been particularly vexing for Holmes. Unwilling to drug Holmes into a better frame of mind, Watson periodically took to dropping a random item in Holmes' lap. Holmes would feel it, smell it, and sometimes even taste it, then tell Watson his conclusions.
There were moments that Holmes was unwilling to play along and the item was thrown across the room, but it was a fairly successful ploy on most occasions. Holmes had a truly uncanny sense of smell, in particular, and could identify at least two dozen brands and mixes of tobacco by scent alone.
Watson was beginning to run out of things for Holmes to identify when their daily check of his vision--at night, just before bed, with a single candle lit--found that he could perceive the light of the candle and correctly identify when the candle was in front of him and when it wasn't. Holmes wanted to return to the sitting room immediately for additional experimentation, but Watson was able to persuade him to wait until morning.
Watson woke during the night to find Holmes absent from bed, though the sheets were still warm. "Holmes?" he called as he pulled on his dressing gown and picked up Holmes'. Right after Holmes was injured, Watson ceased making comments addressed to Holmes, but three days of unnatural silence and feeling as if he'd been struck mute convinced him to carry on as usual, which meant addressing Holmes as if he could hear. Only later did he reason that this would make it easier to tell when Holmes' hearing began to return.
He found Holmes standing in the middle of the sitting room, blindfold dangling from one hand. "Watson," Holmes said upon feeling Watson settle his dressing gown on his thin shoulders. "You need not rise on my account. You are not yet rested--your limp is more pronounced than usual."
Watson gaped at him, but before he could utter a word, Holmes explained, "I could feel your step on the floorboards." Most of the rugs had been taken up after Holmes nearly tripped into the fire while learning to be ambulatory in his current state; this, and the fact that Holmes was barefoot, explained Holmes' insight.
Watson patted Holmes' shoulder, then took his elbow and tried to lead him back to the bedroom. Holmes resisted. "It seems we were mistaken. It is morning, but I cannot see any light." Watson sighed and took Holmes' hand, closing it around the fingers he held up.
Holmes' sensitive fingers felt the upraised digits and he said, "Three? You mean it is three in the morning?" Watson nodded against Holmes' hand. "Many apologies, my dear chap. It was not my intention to knock you up at such an hour." This time when Watson pulled him toward his bedroom, he came willingly.
After they rose again at a more decent hour, Watson evaluated the various timepieces they had in their possession. Selecting an old, beat-up pocketwatch with no sentimental value, he carefully removed the glass facing so the hands could be felt when the watch was open. This he presented to Holmes at lunch. Holmes laughed briefly, then appeared quite touched as he practised reading it. "You are far too kind," he murmured. "Of course, I shan't need it for long, but the thought is quite appreciated."
Watson frowned. While he was grateful that Holmes was taking an optimistic view, he was concerned that Holmes was setting his hopes too high. That there was improvement was encouraging, but it didn't guarantee the full return of his vision. Holmes would not cope well with anything less than his formerly keen sight, but how could Watson hope to moderate Holmes' expectations with only crude gestures at his disposal?
(In the end, Holmes did use the watch for far longer than anticipated, but not for the reason Watson feared. It was a splendid way to tell time without requiring a light, and Holmes often used it during stakeouts. The end of its useful life came rather abruptly, when it served an entirely different purpose and caught a badly-aimed bullet that would otherwise have struck Holmes in the stomach. The bruise from the impact lingered for weeks; the badly dented watch found a new home on the mantelpiece.)
Fortunately, Holmes' eyesight continued to improve, albeit more slowly than Holmes would have liked; Watson thought his progress was quite good. From distinguishing light and dark, he progressed to being able to tell when Watson placed himself between Holmes and the sunlit window. The next day he began to identify vague shapes, like Watson pacing up and down the room or the cabinet against the wall, but only when the room was brightly lit--in dim light, he was still nearly sightless.
As Watson had expected, once Holmes could see a little bit, he was ever endeavouring to improve just a little bit more, as if by his will alone he could make Watson's face come into focus. He quickly tired but didn't admit it and gave himself innumerable headaches; Watson tried to watch him and put the blindfold back on him when necessary, but Holmes would quietly go elsewhere and take it off again.
Even with the overexertion, within a week Holmes went from barely seeing light and dark to being able to make out the blurry forms of people and furniture in most levels of light. He could identify a hand when placed before his face, but couldn't say how many fingers were being held up. He could differentiate between Mrs. Hudson and Watson based on the shape of their clothing (as well as height and the difference in hair styles), but faces and clothing details were still lost to him.
Despite this progress, Holmes grew frustrated and refused to speak or leave the bed for three days. On the third day, Watson took the day's papers and a novel and sat on the bed beside him. He soon noticed that Holmes was edging toward him, even as he kept his back to Watson. Holmes ended up with his back pressed against Watson's leg. Watson came close to elbowing him in the head at several points, so he used the proximity to justify occasionally brushing against Holmes' shoulder or his hair.
Holmes never uttered a word of complaint, even when Watson discovered that, while reading his book, he had absent-mindedly begun stroking Holmes' arm as one would a cat. Watson's face flushed in embarrassment, but when he removed his hand Holmes sighed, rolled over toward him and set his face against Watson's hip. Watson's body began to respond to Holmes' affectionate touch; never was he more grateful that Holmes couldn't see than at that moment. Holmes in his normal condition would have been horrified, no doubt, but this Holmes sighed in contentment, blissfully ignorant of Watson's mortifying state.
Watson resolutely returned his hand and eyes to his book, willing himself to pay attention to the words on the page and not the warm nearness of Holmes. It even worked for a time . . . until Holmes shifted and put his arm over Watson's leg, tucking his hand beneath Watson's knee.
Near his breaking point and desiring to flee, Watson considered that Holmes never would have allowed such closeness before his accident. But were these gestures of affection, or merely Holmes seeking reassurance of Watson's presence the only way he could? In either case, he could--and should--not rebuff him. Watson let his hand stray from his book again, this time to run over and through Holmes' hair. Holmes sighed raggedly and clutched him more tightly.
Every so often Watson's hand strayed to stroke the curve of Holmes' face. In one such pass, his fingers came away wet. "Holmes?" he murmured as he set his book aside and shifted to the side a bit so he could see Holmes' face. Holmes tried to turn away, evidently embarrassed.
"Shh, it's all right," Watson said, gently removing the blindfold and wiping the dampness from Holmes' cheeks. Holmes began to open his eyes, but Watson's thumbs held his lids down; when Holmes seemed to accept that he shouldn't open his eyes, Watson swept his thumbs beneath Holmes' eyes to catch the welling moisture there.
Watson drew back from Holmes for a moment, carefully rearranging the pillows so he could recline against the headboard, then guided Holmes to lie alongside, his head pillowed on Watson's shoulder and his body pressed against Watson's side, Watson's arm curling around his back to hold him close. Holmes slid an arm around Watson's waist and sighed, relaxing as Watson stroked his face, his arm, his back, and murmured reassuringly.
At length it seemed Holmes had fallen asleep. Watson must have followed his lead, for he was next aware of opening his eyes to find Holmes leaning over him, studying his face intently. He smiled at Holmes, who smiled back but did not withdraw. "Holmes?" he questioned finally when Holmes continued staring at him without saying a word.
As soon as he spoke, Holmes frowned, looking exceedingly discontent, and drew back, flopping onto his back and throwing an arm over his eyes. "I do not know how much longer I can stand this, Watson," he said mournfully. "My sight is more important for my work and I am grateful it is returning, but being insulated from all sound is maddening."
Watson patted his arm, recognizing that words were worse than useless. Then he realized it had been a while since he'd checked Holmes' ears; he rose and fetched his bag, urging Holmes to sit up by tugging on his arm. Holmes obeyed without protest, his shoulders slumped and his eyes closed as if he didn't care to see what he was in for this time.
The membranes were beginning to heal. The changes were subtle and had not yet sealed the rupture--thus Holmes' continued deafness--but Watson was encouraged. He gripped Holmes' shoulder reassuringly, hoping Holmes wouldn't ask questions, as he still had no way to determine how soon Holmes might regain his hearing or how much he might regain. Holmes didn't say anything, just laid down with his back to Watson.