It is a simple, white mug that gives him away. Sitting there, showing signs of having recently been cleaned, the casual observer would have learned nothing from its presence.
But Sherlock Holmes has taken observation to another plane of existence, so the mug instantly arouses his suspicions.
“I see the recent spate of burglaries has Inspector Lestrade quite busy.”
The question is enough of a non-sequitur that he receives only blank looks in return. Holmes can almost see Gregson’s mind pause and then scramble to catch up. “His mug hasn’t been used today. Normally he would have had at least two cups of tea by now. And while he has yet to consult me, I have been keeping up with the particulars of the crimes.”
Gregson’s face slowly morphs into an expression of muted glee. “I daresay you’ve got the wrong end of things this time, Mr. Holmes. In fact, dear Lestrade failed to show up this morning, and the Superintendent is not pleased with his absence. Wherever he is, I hope he’s having a jolly enough time, seeing as how the rest of us have been left to carry on with his cases.”
From the corner of his eye, Holmes catches the look of profound concern on Watson’s face. Lestrade may be unimaginative and methodically slow, but he is infinitely reliable. An unexpected absence without so much as a message does not signify anything good.
After their business is concluded, Holmes flags down a passing cab. Holding up a hand to forestall any protests or discussion from Watson, he instructs the driver to deliver them to an address Watson’s doesn’t recognize.
The cab arrives at a shoddy, crumbling building that Watson might on his more charitable days describe as “careworn.” Holmes seems to know exactly where he’s going and they soon find themselves on the second floor. The door he approaches is neater than the others in that hallway, with numbers that are straightforward, if plain.
Holmes’s perfunctory knock and shout of “Lestrade” instantly clear away Watson’s confusion. Hearing nothing, Holmes attempts the door handle and, finding it unlocked, enters the room. Every medical instinct in Watson’s body starts at the sight of the Inspector huddled in blankets on a threadbare settee, apparently oblivious to the world.
Watson hurries over, immediately chagrined that he’s left his medical bag at Baker St. Lestrade’s fever and chills are obvious. These, coupled with a too-rapid pulse and the miserable cough that escapes between chapped lips every few minutes, point to influenza. After a couple of minutes in examination, Watson adds dehydration to the list.
Holmes has been surveying the Inspector’s meager belongings, but returns to the sitting room when Watson sits back on his heels.
“Just the flu, Holmes. However, given the severity of his fever and his obvious lack of ability to service his own needs, I would recommend moving him to Baker Street where we can care for him.”
“We Watson? I do not recall volunteering for nursemaid duty. Surely there is someone else who can perform this function for him. Perhaps a family member or a close friend?”
“Holmes. You know as well as I that Lestrade has no immediate family in London. And are you honestly suggesting that Hopkins or, God forbid, Gregson nurse him to health? Lestrade would wring Hopkin’s neck before the night was over, fever or no. And Gregson would probably put the poor man in a coma. No. He comes home with us.”
Holmes knows there’s no arguing with Watson when he has that tone of voice that speaks of deep concern and deeper affection. He merely aids the doctor in moving the limp inspector down the stairs into the waiting cab.
More worrying than the heat that rages from Lestrade’s body is his complete unawareness of events happening around him. He has yet to acknowledge his visitors and it’s all they can do to get him to engage in his surroundings long enough to walk between them.
The ride to Baker St is tense. Lestrade sits on Watson’s side of the cab, leaning against the doctor’s shoulder. Eventually, they arrive in their sitting room. Holmes deposits the smaller man on the settee while Watson rummages for basic equipment. He returns to the room armed with various medical supplies.
While Watson busies himself arranging Lestrade more comfortably, Holmes repairs to his armchair and the stack of newspapers he’s been meaning to pursue for days. They spend the rest of the night in this fashion, Holmes occasionally making the trip to replenish the water while Watson continues packing cool cloths around his neck and on his chest. Throughout the evening, Mrs. Hudson makes an appearance to freshen the coffee pot or add to the small pile of sandwiches on the side table.
Lestrade’s fever doesn’t break the next day or even the next night. Instead, he seems to hover in a twilight state between unconsciousness and a weary lucidity, eyes glazed and not focusing on anything in particular in the room. Holmes grows increasingly concerned in spite of himself and Watson is nearly beside himself with worry, although he attempts to hide the fact from Holmes by focusing entirely on his patient’s comfort.
By the second day of the illness, Watson becomes nearly frantic in his efforts. Lack of sleep sends his thoughts pinging between guilt over not noticing Lestrade’s illness earlier and frustration with the apparent lack of success. But while Watson is concerned for his patient’s health--gravely so--Holmes is concerned for Watson.
Late in the evening of the second day, Holmes bullies Watson into taking a much-deserved rest, although the stubborn ass refuses to go further than Holmes’s own room. Holmes acquiesces, but only because he understands more than Watson thinks he does. He knows that any benefit the doctor would receive from being upstairs would evaporate in the face of overwhelming curiosity. At least from Holmes’s room, he can keep a weather eye on the situation.
Watson retires, and Holmes finds himself playing nursemaid. It’s not that he minds Lestrade, nor that he begrudges him Watson’s services. Instead, he finds himself puzzled by his lack of disgust or annoyance. He would not call his relationship with the Yarder friendship by any means, but there is a mutual regard that exists between the two that apparently runs deeper than he had previously thought.
Unexpectedly, Lestrade breaks his long-held silence with a whimper, of all things. A whimper. A low, keening sound as if there is no comfort to be found anywhere in the world. Holmes finds himself momentarily at a loss, but them remembers movements he’s seen repeated by Watson and Mrs. Hudson throughout the ordeal.
Wringing out a cloth from the basin, he applies it to Lestrade’s forehead, wiping his wet hands in the inspector’s hair in a mimic of motions he’s seen countless times over the preceding days. Surprisingly, the lines on Lestrade’s face ease and he breathes a shallow sigh of…relief?
Curious, Holmes repeats the gesture, cataloguing every nuance of Lestrade’s expression. It seems running his fingers through the silky strands soothes the weary man and nudges him towards unconsiousness. Eventually, he slips into an almost peaceful sleep and Holmes pulls a cane-backed chair closer to the settee.
His fingers don’t stop their movement until he’s completely sure Lestrade is asleep. Even then, his hand seems almost reluctant to part from its assigned duties. He eventually decides that mere contact seems sufficient, grabs a chemistry text nearby, and settles himself into the chair. His hand seems to migrate of its own volition, lying on the covers in the approximate location of Lestrade’s heart.
A sense of peace and satisfaction fills Holmes, in spite of his dual concern for both doctor and patient. Eventually, the text drops from nerveless fingers and his head droops forward to lie on his chest. Unseen by doctor or detective, the man on the settee sighs deeply as a rush of coolness quenches the fire that has been burning for as long as he can remember and sinks into blessed dark oblivion.
The next morning, Watson awakes to find Holmes scrunched over in the chair, head resting on the settee beside Lestrade’s left shoulder. He smiles softly and moves back into Holmes’s room to acquire the blanket from the bed. He hears Mrs. Hudson enter and her soft “oh” as she processes the scene in front of her. She shoots a knowing look at Watson as he exits the bedroom and gathers the various trays and dishes from around the room, lifting the coffee pot with an inquiring expression, and grinning at his vigorous nod in return.
Watson retrieves a novel from his bookshelves and settles down in vigil over his friends. When Mrs. Hudson returns with the coffee and some dry toast, she is only a little bit surprised to find the doctor has succumbed to sleep again as well, head tilted back and mouth open. She’s sure that his current position cannot be comfortable, but she merely slides the book out of sleep-lax fingers and moves to close the curtains against the rising sun. The soft “snick” as she closes the door is the only sound that disturbs the sitting room for some time.
A day later, and Lestrade’s pale countenance has gained some color besides the unhealthy flush, and Watson finally allows himself to relax. There is as much embarrassment as frustration at inaction in Lestrade’s tone when he thanks the pair for their assistance and begins to make his way home. The fight that ensues between doctor and patient is epic, and Holmes wisely remains on the sidelines. Eventually, it’s agreed that Lestrade will spend one more night in the house, but only on the settee as he will see neither Watson nor Holmes “forcibly evicted” from their rooms.
Watson acquiesces with grace, and the three of them spend the night in a muted celebration. Lestrade has no appetite for more than toast and tea, but sits with Holmes and Watson at the table, regaling them with stories of Bradstreet’s early career. Eventually, he migrates back to the settee and his companions to their customary chairs.
The setting sun fills the room with a soft yellow glow. Lestrade eventually allows himself to fall back asleep to the ebb and tide of Holmes and Watson in quiet conversation, breathing a sigh of contentment as his heart whispers only one word to his battered body.