It was not entirely fair to say that his cases were no longer interesting following the demise of Professor Moriarty, for there were still cases he accepted because of their points of interest, but there was a definite alteration in the tenor of the crimes committed. The cleverness, the subtlety, the inspiration was gone, replaced with mere cruelty and excessive violence. Now the petty thefts and purposeless outrages truly were petty and purposeless, and posed no challenge even to the official forces.
His dissatisfaction with the way of things following his return slowly grew over the years until retirement seemed a plausible and even welcome solution. That his health was no longer quite what it had been only lent strength to the argument. Then Watson again removed from Baker Street in order to marry and that, in combination with the attempt on his life by Baron Gruner, convinced him to begin making plans for his withdrawal from London.
In the year it took to secure a cottage in Sussex and make the other necessary preparations, his dissatisfaction developed first into ennui, then into a profound melancholy. His roamings about the streets of London brought him none of the enjoyment he used to feel and instead reinforced his sense that he was no longer connected to the city as he used to be. This was no longer his London, and he no longer had a place in it.
At first, the secluded location of the cottage and the peaceful nature of life in that soothing corner of the downs were a balm to the ache in his soul and he passed the first few months there in something almost like contentment. But the melancholy lingered and renewed itself in the storms of spring, the rooms empty of anyone save himself and the housekeeper, and the lack of anything truly stimulating to which he could devote his mind.
Watson had, in the beginning, written to him every few days, inquiring about the cottage and life in the area and the people nearby; Holmes was faithful in his responses for a time, but as the melancholy gripped him ever more tightly, his answers became infrequent and this led to a precipitous drop in correspondence from Watson. Yet there was always some sort of message from Watson every fortnight, at most, courteously asking after his health and wellbeing and relating some small details of his own daily life.
He stopped reading them. He knew Watson meant well, but being confronted with Watson's domestic and professional life only reinforced the fact that he was adrift and alone and purposeless, eking out an isolated existence that had no rhyme or reason.
It was a logical step to ponder why he yet lived.
He found no good answer to this question, despite hours of unmoving contemplation in his bed.
He had the disquieting sense that he was missing something.
He rose from his bed and went for a swim in the frigid waters of the Channel to clear his head. He swam through the moonlit water until his lungs ached and his muscles burned and he didn't feel the cold anymore. He considered swimming toward the middle until his strength gave out and nature took over.
He dragged himself onto the pebbled beach where he'd left his clothes and cast himself on the ground alongside them. Somehow he slept until the rising sun glinting off the water and the high tide licking at his toes woke him.
When he returned to his house, the housekeeper took advantage of actually seeing him for the first time in days and scolded him for not having eaten in some time. He ignored her and disappeared into the bathroom for a leisurely bath, waiting to emerge until she was outside beating the rugs. He wandered into the kitchen, intent upon securing a glass of water, and noticed the small stack of letters beside a plate of toast, no doubt for him.
The top letter was from Watson.
He had not thought of Watson in days. Without thinking, he used the butter knife to open the envelope and peered within. It seemed to be the usual sort of missive, and he almost threw it in the fire. But something told him to read the rest. Watson was asking to visit soon, whenever his wife left to assist her sister with the birth of her latest child.
Holmes waited three days to send a terse response in the affirmative.
It was two and a half weeks before Watson appeared on his doorstep, so he had plenty of time to think about life and whether he ought to persist in continuing his. He concluded that he ought to exist at least until Watson had come and gone, for it would upset Watson if he were to come only to find Holmes dead, and he would try to interfere if Holmes made an attempt during the visit.
Watson would be distressed no matter when he perished, that much he could say with absolute certainty. And that mattered to him like nothing else did, though he wasn't sure how long he could plod along with that as his only tether.
The housekeeper had long since gone home when the knock rattled his door. It was repeated in the time it took him to actually go to the door and open it, and he blinked at the apparition standing on his doorstep.
"Holmes!" Watson greeted him cheerfully.
He remembered himself and stepped back. "Watson. Come in."
"I was beginning to think you'd forgotten I was coming," Watson joked as he entered the house and looked briefly about the small entryway and the hall beyond it.
Once he closed the door behind his guest, all he could do was stare at him, his heard clenching painfully at how little his friend had changed even while his own world had turned upside-down and inside-out.
"Holmes? Are you all right? I dare say you don't look entirely well, old fellow," Watson said with some concern.
This, at least, he knew how to deflect. "I'm fine, but you must be tired from the journey. Let me show you the guest room." Watson followed him readily, commenting admiringly on the rooms they passed along the way.
When he had been shown his room and the location of the bathroom, Watson said, "I had hoped to talk a while with you tonight, but I had an early morning and I fear I'm exhausted. You won't be offended if I go straight to bed, will you?"
"No, no, not at all," he assured him hurriedly, relieved by the suggestion. "There will be plenty of time to talk while you're here."
"Yes, quite right. Good night then, Holmes."
"Good night," he echoed half-heartedly, retreating even as Watson closed his door. He fled to his own room and fell back against his door as it clicked shut. He slid to the floor and put his head in his hands.
The long, empty days of Watson's visit stretched out before him in a seemingly endless line, the emptiness abruptly filling with the spectre of extended conversations and no ready reasons to end them. Watson had already seen something in him that led him to guess that something wasn't right; how long would he be able to hide the nature of that wrong? And what would Watson think of him when he found out?
Then his logic pointed out that if Watson took it badly, he would have no more reason to continue the charade. A good thing.
And if Watson reacted with pity or, even worse, sympathy? He could not predict the outcome if that were the case, but it seemed likely that Watson would attempt to help him in some manner, which could even include committing him to an asylum. A very bad thing indeed.
He slept poorly and rose before the sun. When daylight finally glimmered on the horizon, he went out for a brisk walk, hoping it would lend him at least the appearance of alertness. Watson was in the bathroom when he returned, so he sat at the table with a pot of coffee and braced himself for whatever might come.
Breakfast wasn't as awkward as he'd feared, but was more awkward than he'd hoped for. His eating habits quickly became the focus of conversation when the housekeeper said something tart in response to Watson's request for whatever Holmes was having for breakfast. Wretched woman, he should have sent her home and given her the day off.
That look of concern quickly settled on Watson's face and didn't leave it until they went out for a mid-morning stroll.
Between the stroll and eating lunch at the pub in the nearest village, he was able to keep Watson's attention away from himself until well into the afternoon. Then his luck ran out, for when they returned to his house, Watson expressed a desire to sit for a while and have a little chat.
Once they were both settled in with pipes and a pot of tea on the table between them, Watson asked pleasantly, "What have you been doing with yourself, now that you're retired? I can guess that sleep still isn't high on the list."
"A little of everything and a lot of nothing," he answered evasively, realizing as he said it how out of character that might seem to Watson.
Watson gazed at him thoughtfully, then said, "I think you don't quite know what to do with yourself. It's just like it used to be between cases--sometimes you could occupy yourself for hours on end, but sometimes you could find nothing of interest no matter what was available to you."
He gazed back, willing himself not to flinch. Had Watson always been this perceptive, or was his misery etched on his face for all to read so easily? Watson looked so sincere, he decided to give him a portion of the truth. "I often find myself at loose ends," he confessed after a long pause. "Some of my former pursuits no longer matter, and the others aren't sufficiently engaging to fill the days."
"'No longer matter'?" Watson repeated dubiously. "If it interests you, how can you say it doesn't matter?"
"My chemical research involved questions pertinent to my consulting career. As I am no longer consulting, I have no more questions to research."
Watson frowned. "Surely there must be other things you can research."
"To what purpose?"
Watson shrugged and sighed. "What about your violin?"
"I pick it up from time to time, but I lack an audience."
Watson blushed and glanced away. "I would be glad to hear you play while I'm here."
He shifted as if to rise and Watson's hand touched his arm.
"But not just now," he said gently. "I suppose keeping up your commonplace book is also irrelevant now."
"Quite. The volumes are now with Mycroft, who is having a clerk review the material and my notes to ensure all data are included in their master files."
"That's good," Watson said approvingly.
They sat in silence for several minutes and he hoped that the conversation was over.
Alas, Watson resumed it. "Surely there must be something interesting and useful that you can do."
"If you have any suggestions, do enlighten me," he snapped, abruptly standing and stalking agitatedly over to the window. "I have found nothing of the sort."
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to imply that you aren't trying. I'm just worried about you."
"I begin to think I should not have retired," he said slowly, staring out the window in the direction of the water. "Yet the fact that I didn't recognize it as a poor decision implies that remaining in practice would have been a poor decision, with my judgment so flawed. It is quite a conundrum."
"Oh, Holmes," Watson said unhappily. "Would it help to come back to London for a time?"
"No," he said shortly. "London holds no interest for me any longer."
At that point they were interrupted by the housekeeper bringing tea--the wonderful woman had impeccable timing--and when she left, he asked Watson about his wife and practice, for he knew Watson could happily talk on those subjects for some time. And he did, of course.
He woke with a gasp, and felt an acute disappointment that his dream was not the truth. The realization stabbed through him in a bolt of pain so excruciating that he could feel it in his bones. He groaned and buried his face in his pillow, wishing he could simply cease to exist. Maybe then the pain will stop, the helpless hopelessness might end.
Then he remembered Watson was visiting, recalled him entering the house with his suitcase in one hand and his doctor's bag in the other. If he knew Watson--and he was fairly certain he did--he would find the bag near the front door. He also knew Watson always kept certain things within it that could be used to blunt the pain until he determined how to make it stop permanently.
He crept silently from his bedroom, shielding the light of his candle with his hand as he padded down the hall. Sure enough, the bag had been set on the table nearest the front door. He quickly found the bottle he sought--nearly full--and a syringe and he took these back to his bedroom.
The morphine swept away enough of the pain to ease him back into sleep. He went gladly, hoping to fall again into the same dream.
He had nearly found it when he felt himself being shaken and heard Watson's voice insistently calling his name. He tried in vain to clutch onto the dream as it tore into shreds around him and he sighed despondently.
It took some effort to pry open his eyes and when he did, Watson's worried face was hovering close to his.
"Oh, thank goodness," Watson said with relief when his eyes opened, then Watson's expression shifted from worry to disapproval. "Holmes, just what were you trying to do?"
"I needed to go back to sleep," he mumbled, averting his eyes and inching away from where Watson was perched on the edge of the bed.
"You came very close to putting yourself to sleep for good," Watson scolded, picking up the morphine bottle and waving it in front of him. "You took far too much."
He shrugged. "I didn't measure carefully," he admitted languidly. "It didn't matter."
Watson's expression grew thunderous. "It didn't matter? Of course it matters! Something like this is a matter of life or death," he cried, shaking the bottle for emphasis.
He sighed and idly plucked at his pillowcase. No, an unintentional error in dosage was not worthy of concern.
Watson sighed and set the bottle back down. "What was so important about going to sleep?"
He debated whether to say it, but this was a perfect opportunity to discover what Watson's reaction would be to . . . everything. "I dreamt I met Death face-to-face. Just as I embraced it, I woke up." He glanced at Watson, but Watson was looking down at his hands. "I had to know what would happen after . . . what it felt like."
Watson took a deep breath and released it in a long sigh. "Oh, Holmes," he said, and now his expression was one of naked pain. "I knew you were unhappy, but I had no idea . . ." he rose and rounded the bed, disappearing from view, then the bed dipped as he climbed on.
Watson laid on the bed and embraced him from behind, saying nothing as he held him close.
He didn't know what to do, so he remained still, allowing Watson this gesture. He could feel Watson's exhaled breaths on his nape and realized his breathing had fallen into the same rhythm, though his was ragged and sometimes hitched. His eyes burned but he did not weep.
After some time, Watson murmured, "Are you certain the excess of morphine was unintentional?" Watson hugged him more tightly as he said it.
"Yes," he said quickly. "I would not have you be the one to . . . make the discovery."
"Thank you." Watson sounded surprised. "I appreciate the consideration."
No more words were spoken for quite a while.
He was sure that Watson had to be falling asleep--he was near to doing so himself--but the arms surrounding him never faltered. It was curious, that a mere embrace could make him feel just a little less alone even though he knew Watson could not stay indefinitely. He reached up and placed his hands over Watson's.
He fell asleep in Watson's arms and did not dream of Death.
Watson was not present when he woke; the chair had been moved from the dressing table to beside the bed and the door was ajar, which spoke of a vigil and a momentary absence. He remained still, slowly assessing his state. The melancholy persisted, as always, but there was a hint of pleasure that Watson had not shunned him, had remained with him even whilst he slept. What Watson might say now that the immediate crisis was past was another matter, but he did not wish to dwell on that yet.
Then Watson was standing in the doorway. "You're awake just in time," he said. "Lunch should be ready by the time you get dressed."
Watson's manner was casual, as if nothing had happened, and he followed that lead. "I will be out shortly," he answered, and sat up in bed.
"Are you feeling all right?" Watson inquired in the same tone.
He considered this; there were many possible adjectives that might describe how he felt at that moment, but 'all right' was, for once, sufficient. "Yes, I'm feeling all right."
Watson nodded once and drew the door closed behind him as he left.
He did not feel much like eating but would appear at the table for Watson's sake.
Not a word was spoken over lunch about that morning; that conversation waited until they were settled in the sitting room and the housekeeper was occupied elsewhere in the house.
"Is there anything I can do to help you?" Watson inquired gently.
"No." It was more a sigh than a word.
"Have you thought of . . . it often?"
"Thought of it, considered it, contemplated it, examined it from every angle," he said slowly.
"Yet you have not made an attempt?"
Having it said that way made him feel like a failure. "Not yet. There are . . . certain points that have stayed my hand."
"Like what?" Watson sounded curious.
"You." He glanced over in time to see Watson flush.
Watson sputtered for a moment, then said fiercely, "I'm glad."
"Naturally," he said wryly.
Watson did not speak for several minutes. "Is this something you've thought about before? I mean before your retirement."
"A very long time ago, before I met you," he confirmed, closing his eyes as he remembered those days. He had not thought of them in quite a while, and was bothered by the fact that he felt so much the same now as he had then. Had he not made any progress since his young and foolish days?
"Why didn't you do anything about it then? That is, if you don't mind me asking."
He flicked his hand dismissively. "I felt compelled to fulfill a number of obligations first, and by the time I did, I had become interested in my studies and the possibilities for a future career so that course of action was no longer attractive."
"Holmes," Watson started, then stopped again, fidgeting. He took a deep breath and turned in his chair to face Holmes and started over. "Holmes, I won't claim to understand, because I don't. But if I can help in any way, even just by being here, please let me know and I will arrive as soon as the trains allow. Call me on the telephone if a telegram is too slow. Especially if--or when--you decide to move forward with your intentions. Will you promise me that?"
He could hear the emotion in Watson's voice and found it too painful to look him in the face as he made his plea. He nodded jerkily in agreement, his voice unreliable as a lump formed in his throat.
Watson gripped his hand. "I need you to say it."
Holmes swallowed thickly a few times before the words would come out. "I promise."
Watson practically deflated with relief. "Thank you." He squeezed Holmes' hand once more, then sat back in his chair, breathing deeply. Nearly a quarter of an hour passed before he spoke again. "What do you say to taking a walk? The weather looks quite fine today."
Holmes readily agreed, and they set off arm-in-arm.
That evening, Holmes played his violin for Watson. His hands did not wish to obey him and the bow jittered nervously across the strings at first; despite what he had told Watson, he had not touched the instrument since his retirement and was dreadfully out of practice. But the pleased look upon Watson's face as he played was enough to induce him to continue, and he started to relax.
His loneliness, his aimlessness, his profound melancholy sang out through the violin, giving voice to all the things he could not put into words or even coherent thoughts; he soon played for himself rather than Watson, closing his eyes and pouring the tumult of his mind into the dance of his fingers.
He was senseless to the passage of time, save for the growing burn in his fingertips as he set them down again and again upon the shuddering strings.
When he reached the final notes of a song, he felt a gentle hand upon his right arm. "It's past midnight; we ought to turn in."
For the first time in hours, Holmes lowered the violin from his shoulder and immediately felt a wave of weariness wash over him. "Yes, of course."
The rest of Watson's visit passed quite agreeably, and reminded Holmes pleasantly of the old days. He didn't play again, however, as his fingertips were too sore. They took many walks on the downs; he appreciated anew the natural beauty that had drawn him there in the first place as he watched Watson enjoy the views and the wildlife and the serenity.
And then came the morning that Watson was to depart. Holmes could not help but be amused by the anxious way Watson regarded him over the breakfast table and by the relief he showed when Holmes said he would accompany him into town. "I find I need to visit the library."
Watson's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"
"There are a few matters I must research."
Watson sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose in feigned annoyance. "Like what?"
"Bees," he said simply, rising from the table and straightening his waistcoat.
"Bees," Watson repeated as he also stood. "What about them?"
"On our outings I watched several of them and now I wish to understand the behavior I observed. Now come, or you will miss your train."
They briskly walked the distance to the town and arrived with several minutes to spare. Holmes assented to accompany Watson as far as the platform, where they stood silently until the train came into view.
Watson turned to Holmes. "You've promised to contact me, remember, and I will hold you to it."
"I know," Holmes said with a tight smile.
They shook hands firmly, and Watson was whisked away, back to London.
Holmes went to the library, but did not find what he sought, nor could the librarian locate that sort of information in any of the catalogues of materials from the leading institutions in the country.
He departed empty-handed yet not unhappy: here was something worthy of his time and energies. The information he desired did not exist; he would just have to write the book himself.