Chapter 1: Prologue - Their Last Bow
John Watson felt positively younger when he left Simpson’s that night, on the arm of his housekeeper of years ago, his best friend a half-step ahead of them both. Watson could tell that Holmes had been invigorated, renewed with an old energy, by the adventures they had just completed. It felt as though they were twenty-five years old again, returning from Scotland Yard having just deposited the murderer Jefferson Hope into custody. He could remember it as though it was yesterday, although it had been over thirty years previous.
“When will you be joining your regiment, Watson?” Holmes asked, rubbing his chin absentmindedly. The goatee that was required to fulfil his duties to his country the last two years had been shaved off just that morning, and Watson was glad to see it gone.
“Tomorrow morning, Holmes,” Watson answered. “I expect we’ll be in France in just a couple days.
Holmes did not respond to this pronouncement, instead slowing his step and moving behind Watson to allow another couple to pass.
“And you’ll be returning to the South Downs?”
“With only my bees to keep me company.”
“I’ll come visit when I return.”
“You must,” Holmes said, with the air of one that expected that eventuality to never occur.
- - -
The next morning, Sherlock Holmes took his breakfast with Watson and their always-loved housekeeper at the hotel, still reminiscing of the old days at Baker Street, about the cases they had worked together. Watson and Holmes still laughed to remember the Red-Headed League. Mrs. Hudson still tutted in disapproval when Watson recounted all the disguises he’d seen his friend take. Holmes did not point out the ones that Watson had forgotten.
But in time, breakfast ended.
“I believe I am expected at noon,” Watson said, his bags at the ready in the lobby. Mrs. Hudson leaned forward to straighten the lapels of his uniform and Watson thanked her.
“I hope this military campaign is a more fortunate one for you,” Holmes said, shaking his partner’s hand firmly, and not letting go.
“My dear Holmes, if the first one had left me healthy, I would never have met you. I think , in that respect, it was successful.”
Holmes didn’t answer, and shook the hand again, his eyes firmly on the hands, and not his friend. He clapped his other hand to Watson’s shoulder.
“Take care of yourself, Holmes. Thank you.”
Watson patted the shoulder of his best friend- his closest and most valuable companion that he’d ever met. He didn’t want to think about what would have happened if he hadn’t met him.
He lifted his luggage and left to get a cab, while Mrs. Hudson put her arm in that of the retired detective.
“I’ve never met a luckier man, Mr. Holmes. He’ll be visiting us before you know it.”
Thanks to stephyinutah on tumblr for letting me bounce ideas off of her. I have a better idea of where this story is going now, so thanks!
Again, my first shared fanfic, so feedback is appreciated.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing to my sitting room, Mr. Holmes?” Mrs. Hudson gasped when she entered. The floor was strewn with papers and open boxes of notebooks littered the sofa and the armchairs. She bustled over to push away the few that had drifted towards the fire. Holmes ignored her. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of all the papers, completely indifferent to the mess that he had created in the once-tidy room.
“Mr. Holmes!” she scolded.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Hudson. Doctor Watson sent along some possessions for safekeeping while he was in France and they have just arrived. I’m finding his notes of my old cases absolutely fascinating.”
Mrs. Hudson shook her head and smiled. Although she knew Holmes would never admit to missing the doctor while he was away, she was glad to see he wasn’t trying to shut himself off from his friend. She decided to put the newspapers she’d just picked up from the village away. There was no need to upset him with the war news. Just yesterday a family in the town had received the dreaded telegram, and she was sure even Holmes worried about Watson being in harm’s way at that moment. She also never dreamed of the day when Sherlock Holmes would enjoy the romanticised writings of his faithful chronicler.
“Speaking of the doctor,” she said. “I just returned from the post office and it appears he might have written you. Unless you have other friends who could be writing you letters with this particular postmark.”
Holmes jumped up with energy and Mrs. Hudson smiled with affection as she handed him the letter, then tutted in disapproval at the notebooks that were scattered around the room, now completely ignored in favour of the new missive.
“Is the doctor well?” she asked. Holmes responded with a curt nod and smile as he sat in the only chair at the dining table that wasn’t stacked with notebooks. “Why don’t I make you a fresh pot of tea?”
Holmes didn’t reply at all, so absorbed he was in his letter. Since he had no objection, she went to make the pot, shaking her head, hardly believing that she could feel so much affection for such a strange man as Mr. Holmes.
When she returned, Holmes was still reading the letter. It had been a small envelope- two pages, she guessed, so she smiled to think that Holmes was reading it over a second or third time.
“Has he sent you a mystery to unravel, Mr. Holmes?” she asked, pouring him a cup.
“Not at all,” Holmes murmured. “Thank you for the tea. The doctor sends his regards and says he hopes the letter finds you well.”
"Oh, that is so good to hear. But please, would you mind reading the entire thing? I long for any news of dear Watson,"
"Of course, Mrs. Hudson."
My dear Holmes,
Please excuse my indecency of not writing you for the last two months. It has been a trying experience here in France and I am always lucky to get a few minutes sleep or rest for my weary old bones, never mind time and energy to compose a short note to you, my dear friend.
I am in charge of training the new medics that arrive in our area. They are all so young, eager, and bright-faced, that I sometimes marvel at how many years have passed since I was like them, in my first campaign.
When there is a quiet moment I tell them and my patients stories of our times together. I try to stay away from the murders we’ve solved together, for there is too much senseless death around here, but they are always amused to hear of the King of Bohemia and the Blue Carbuncle and many others that I really should put to my pen when I return, with your kind permission, of course.
I hope this letter find you well, my friend, and I hope someday I will have the pleasure of hearing what little adventures you’ve been involved with since I left.
Very sincerely yours,
I hope this letter find you well, my friend, and I hope someday I will have the pleasure of hearing what little adventures you’ve been involved with since I left.Give my greetings to Mrs. Hudson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow,
“If you write a reply I will post it in the morning,” she added.
“I’ve heard there has been difficulty in getting letters to the front in France,” he said. “Besides, there is little of interest here for the doctor-”
“Oh, don’t say that, Mr. Holmes. Write him a letter. I’ll post it in the morning.”
Holmes folded up the letter at last- she had been right, just two pages- and placed it back in the envelope.
She posted the reply in the morning and hoped that it made it to the doctor. She’d been surprised that Holmes’ aversion to correspondence had initially extended to his closest friend, but she’d insisted and he’d written.
"I'm sure the doctor will be glad to receive it," she said.
When she returned from the post office, the letter from Doctor Watson made it to a place of honor in the center of the mantelpiece, where it was affixed by a pen knife.
My dearest Holmes,
Thank you so much for your letter of September 3rd. It was really a boost to my spirits to see your familiar hand and hear that you, Mrs. Hudson, your hives and your Stradivarius are all well. The war continues on here, and I have to confess, it is a strain on my old bones.
The men in the trenches are saying this is the ‘war that will end all wars’. They are all so young and optimistic that I want to believe them. I want to share their relentless hope that all this senseless killing and destruction will serve some purpose. In my heart, I know that its not true, and war will continue long after you and I are gone.
I thank you for your invitation to join you in Sussex when I’ve returned. I would be so glad to see you once again. Our days for adventures are long since past, but I do so crave your companionship and the quiet the country would provide, especially on those long evenings here when the gunfire and shelling lasts through the night. My superiors tell me they’d be glad to grant me leave to retire when I feel I am ready and I fear that moment is coming soon. Perhaps we shall see each other again in the near future and I will have the great pleasure of hearing your violin again.
Referring to the papers you asked me of: yes, I consider my papers related to the case I’ve titled ‘the Valley of Fear’ to be complete. If you would like them published, then by all means do so. I should have a series of cases ready for publication and labeled as such.
I’ve acquired a sort of reputation in our field hospital for being able to figure things out about the boys that arrive. I can usually pinpoint their occupation, and sometimes, especially if they are in possession of more personal effects, small details about their family and personal lives. My skills will never reach the heights yours did, but it seems a couple of your methods have really become ingrained in my own habits.
Please give my regards to Mrs. Hudson and, if I am not able to write you before then, be sure to have a peaceful holiday season.
I am, as always, very sincerely yours,
John H. Watson
Mrs. Hudson smiled when Holmes had finished reading it out loud to her. It had cheered him up so much to receive the second letter in the post that morning
She brought the dishes out and returned to the sitting room to find Holmes addressing a packet.
“This can be posted in the morning,” he said, handing it to her.
She took it with a smile. “I hope there will be a letter to post in the morning too,” she added.
Holmes didn't respond, and instead returned to the letter he'd received. It was much longer this time, and he would spend the afternoon memorising it before spearing it on the mantelpiece with the first.
. . . . . .
It was months of worry for Mrs. Hudson until they heard from Doctor Watson again. In fact, the holidays passed and Sussex had started to brighten into spring again. She knew the doctor was surely busy, and if they hadn't heard otherwise, must have been well, but she couldn't stop thinking about what might be happening over there. She didn't have the heart to read the newspapers and tried to avoid giving them to Mr. Holmes unless he asked for them, which he did only occasionally. It seemed both of them liked to imagine, when they could, that there was no war, that Watson was simply away for a time and would return soon.
So when she went to retrieve the post one morning in early June, her heart leapt in happiness when she realized a long-awaited letter had arrived for the retired detective. She rushed home as best she could to hand it to him as soon as possible.
"A letter from Doctor Watson!" she announced, when she entered the front hallway. The anxious face of Sherlock Holmes appeared in the doorway almost immediately and he quickly retreated with it to the sitting room. She shook her head and chuckled a little at his eagerness as she watched from the hallway. "Please tell me the doctor is doing well."
"It seems he is!" exclaimed Holmes. The letter was short and he was already reading it a second time. It would be memorised and affixed to the mantelpiece in no time.
Holmes did not offer to read the third letter out loud to Mrs. Hudson, and she didn't think it was decent to ask this time. What she did know was that the letter had certainly contained good news. It sent Holmes into an energetic fervor at Watson's papers with a smile on his face. He emerged after a couple days with another packet.
"These are to be published as well," Holmes proclaimed, showing her the file labeled such. "I do wish to wait a bit. The Valley of Fear case was published so recently."
"Very well, Mr. Holmes" Mrs. Hudson said, pouring him tea.
"Valley of Fear" was published starting in September 1914, when Watson was surely at war. I like the idea of Holmes finding it and asking if he could publish it.
This chapter is just a quick segue. More important chapters to come.
John Watson had always been proud to serve his King, Queen, and Country. He’d always been glad of what service he could do, either in his years in the military or in his unofficial capacity as a detective’s assistant over many years.
But this, this wasn’t serving. This wasn’t something to be proud of, this wasn’t dignified, honourable, or right. This was dirty, crude, desperate, bloody and stupid. Completely and utterly pointless.
His young colleagues, the bright and optimistic ones, were the age his grandchildren could have been if he had ever had them. They told each other that they were fighting for peace. That this war, this horrible disaster, would be the one that would end all other wars and only peace would come out of it.
Only pieces, Watson thought, as he amputated limbs in less than sanitary conditions. Only pieces of men-boys!- would come home. None of them would go home complete, none of them would go home the same. And he’d seen enough in his sixty-two years to know that humans would always find other ways to cause destruction to others.
He was tired and he was old and he was done.
“Here you go, chap,” said a young voice, as Chambers, a young surgeon fresh out of Edinburgh, sat down next to him. He was holding out a flask.
“No thanks, I’m back on duty in twenty minutes,” he sighed.
“Just got off,” Chambers said, taking a swig. “What are you doing just sitting here, chap, shouldn’t you be writing home to your wife?”
“I’m sad to say I haven’t had a wife for about twenty years now.”
“Is there anyone waiting for you in England? There has to be.”
“Just an old friend and a cozy cottage.”
Watson smiled to think of it. When he made it out of here, that would be where he would go. There was nothing else for him, except for memories and Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Retirement was all he desired. A small cottage, Mrs. Hudson's wonderful cooking, a warm fire, and an interesting friend. He closed his eyes and inhaled, trying to imagine how Sussex would smell when he got there. He imagined Holmes' smile over his pipe when Watson appeared at the door. He imagined the fresh pot of tea in a china cup as Mrs. Hudson would serve it. He and Holmes would sit by the fire and reminisce. Maybe Watson would write up a couple more of their adventures. Maybe Holmes would take a small case or two in the village. Maybe Holmes would teach Watson a little practical beekeeping and they could work together again. Maybe he would be able to stretch on a comfortable sofa and forget. Forget the blood, the destruction, the sound artillery shells made in the wee hours of the morning, the boys calling to their mothers, the feeling of failure as Watson felt their hearts stop, the smell of the gore, the sight of the discarded bodies and limbs before they were buried. He'd like to forget all of that. Maybe in Sussex he'd forget. Maybe in the quiet of the English countryside the horrors of France would be erased from his memory.
A second later, the thunder of another explosion pushed England far from his mind. As he struggled to breath despite the pain, he tried to force his mind back to Sussex and bees and Mrs. Hudson and Holmes. He didn't want his last thoughts to be the taste of blood-not all his own- the crushing pain in his chest and shoulder, the ringing in his ears, the sight of dirt and dust and blood and a useless, bloody war. No, he couldn't think of that. Only Sussex. No, not Sussex. London. Baker Street, 221B. Holmes smoking silently as Watson wrote up the case they had just completed. All was right in the world, everything was peaceful. The desk chair was comfortable, his new pen slid easily across the paper, there were happy shouts of greeting outside on the street below, and the sweet smell of pipe tobacco drifted by his nose.
The weeks passed. Sussex brightened slightly in the summer then faded to a chilly and wet autumn. Mrs. Hudson was sure to prepare warm fires to combat the cold that had settled into her bones one grey day in November.
Holmes felt just as old as she did that day. The cold froze his joints and he was loathe to even rise from his bed on that frigid morning. But Mrs. Hudson had stoked the fires and promised a warm breakfast, so he had no choice but to indulge her. The breakfast and fire warmed him slightly, but what really did the trick was to pull a letter off the mantel and read it with his breakfast.
Holmes simply nodded his acknowledgement when Mrs. Hudson announced she'd be going to the village for the post, and that perhaps today the doctor will have written. Holmes certainly hoped so. It was months since he'd received the letter from Watson that promised the army surgeon would be retired and in Sussex by the holidays. He was waiting, quite impatiently, for the post to turn up the doctor himself instead of just a letter.
Unsurprisingly, as it had for months, the post returned with no letter. Holmes tossed two case offers into the fire and had settled down to another one of his friend's notebooks when there was a knock on the door.
The housekeeper sighed in frustration.
“They must be pretty desperate to come all this way,” Mrs. Hudson remarked. They’d occasionally have potential clients here and there, with strange little mysteries that needed untangling. Many of them were young and had heard of him from their parents and older relatives, who had once read Watson’s -oftentimes sensationalised, but highly flattering- accounts.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Hudson, that’s the telegram boy,” he said smoothly.
The boy didn’t ask for a reply before he left, which puzzled Holmes. No potential client would not pay for a return, even if Holmes’ answer was to respectfully decline.
He put down his notebook urgently when he heard Mrs. Hudson gasp, a strangled, grieved gasp that made his heart leap into his throat.
He found her leaning on the sidetable in the front hall, the telegram clutched in her hands, her chest heaving as she tried to collect herself.
“What is it? Come sit down.”
Holmes steered her to the sofa, where she sunk down with a strangled sob. She held out the telegram to Holmes with a trembling hand, as though that would explain her sudden hysterics. It was addressed to him, but that didn’t perturb him- he’d given her leave to open all his correspondence and send courteous refusals to all but his brother. He couldn’t see why anything meant for him would cause such a reaction in Mrs. Hudson. Holmes squeezed her hand in reassurance, then read it himself.
REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT CAPTAIN JOHN H WATSON OF THE FIFTH NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS MISSING PRESUMED KILLED NOVEMBER 11
Holmes pulled his handkerchief out and handed it to Mrs. Hudson, who was sobbing freely by then. He sank down on the chair opposite her.
He crumpled the telegram up in his hand and stared at the fist. He remembered clasping Watson’s hand at the entrance of the London hotel just a couple months before. He’d had a bad feeling then, but everyone did. Great Britain had just sent her first troops to France and all of Europe was simultaneously frozen and burning. He knew he’d never wanted to send Watson to that.
He thought back to John Watson- the one fixed point in a changing age. Even after his retirement, and their separation of many years, they never felt far apart. It was never a strained distance, and it was never an unbridgeable distance. Holmes knew, without the words having ever been spoken, that Watson would come, no matter the distance, and no matter the time, no matter the convenience, when he called, and that had reassured him in those strange years. And, indeed, he had come. Even after Holmes had impersonated an American for so many years and sent Mrs. Hudson to live with the Germans. Even after the telegraph and calling cards were starting to be replaced by telephones and the weariness of age had started to ebb away the boundless energy Holmes had once felt, Watson came. Came with a motorcar, at the drop of a hat, to Holmes’ summons. Always there. His fixed point.
Watson would always come through when Holmes needed him. When he needed a steady hand and an extra revolver or a physician to tend his wounds on his adventure. He’d been upset when Watson left Baker Street to marry Mary Morstan, but his frequent returns to Holmes’ side were all he needed.
Watson had come with him when his greatest foe had dogged his footsteps all the way to Switzerland, steadfastly refusing Holmes’ advice to leave. Though he tried to keep himself above such human emotions, he had been touched- and still was, when he thought of it- by the loyalty of his Watson.
Ignoring his breakfast and forgetting his hat and coat on the hook, he left for the garden, thinking that perhaps some of his bees remained in their hives.
He couldn’t leave his hives untended, even the death of his closest, if not only, friend couldn’t excuse him from those duties. Besides, he was a cold, calculating mind. He couldn’t- ever- let emotions get the better of him, he never had before.
Hadn’t he told Watson that when Watson had announced his engagement to Mary Morstan? “Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.”
But when he couldn’t place his true, cold reason above all else, what was this, then? He realised he didn’t know the precise distance from the rear door to his first hive and tried to measure it out with his steps. He tried to catalog in his brain each mark on each hive, and the precise patterns of wear. He couldn’t listen to the rumble in the distance and identify the motorcar it was coming from, he couldn’t explain each scuff on his shoe. Watson invaded every observation, every thought.
For queen and country, a fixed point in a changing time. The motorcars were replacing the hansoms and the world was on fire and Holmes was growing ever more weary and Watson should be there for him, ready for his call, his telegram, his midnight visits to the practice, when Watson would give Holmes a reproachful look, but pack his bags with urgency and fervour. Watson should come when he called, like he always did.
But now there was no Watson. No answer to the telegram, no trustworthy and loyal partner that could help illuminate his thoughts when they became obscured or provide a companion and a steady hand with a revolver when the task became dangerous.
His breath came fast, and he was gasping, his hands and legs shaking uncontrollably, his lip quivering and his eyes strangely wet. He didn’t know what this was, he’d never felt anything like it before. He leaned against the back wall of the garden shed, then slid down to the ground, hugging his knees to his chest.
Finally, he realised he had felt this before- why had it taken so long to find this memory?- once before, in the basement of the old man Garrideb, when he had been late in disarming the counterfeiter and turned around to see Watson, wavering on his feet, a red stain blossoming on his thigh. That was the last- and truly only other- time he had felt like this.
Both times it had been Watson. It was the thought, or the reality, of losing his faithful friend, the brave, loyal, patient, and kind doctor- that had caused his powers of observation to become blurred, the organised cataloguing in his brain to become shuffled and obscure, the firm heart to break, the steady legs to fail. He never really felt anything penetrate his cold, calculating abilities until now. He didn’t know what it was, or how to stop it, and he was lost without his Watson.
If love was the enemy of his cold mind, as everything he’d ever observed told him, then surely this was love. He knew it wasn’t the same love that cause Watson to marry, to spur so many of the cases of affairs and courting and jealousy that he had worked on, but it was love in the sense that it was a deep, unshakeable bond that had woven their existences so closely over the decades of their relationship.
Perhaps love was the enemy of the rational mind. Perhaps it was the enemy of the great Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps Doctor Watson- and the love Holmes felt for him- was indeed the enemy to everything that he had every worked for in his life.
“You should come in, Mr. Holmes, you’ll catch cold.”
Mrs. Hudson’s face was still tear-streaked, but she was calm and cool when she was scolding and looking after Holmes. She didn’t seem bothered at all that she’d found him curled up with arms around his knees against the back of the garden shed. A light snow had started falling.
He stood up slowly and she offered him a fresh handkercheif. It was gratefully accepted and she looped her arm in his to lead him back to a warm fire.
. . . . . .
The flakes had settled in the detective's already greying hair and he looked so old curled up behind the garden shed. Her heart, already pained from the loss of a dear friend, hurt even more to see the anguish of Holmes, who was usually so cool and collected. Now he was old, and vulnerable, and grieved, and she could barely bear to look at him. At least he took the handkercheif and let her take his arm as she led him back to the house. She didn't want him to catch a cold on top of everything else.
She’d always known that between her two tenants, one would go early and the other would not bear it well. It seemed the two could never truly be apart from one another for too long, but the finality of this separation could not be disputed. She didn’t know the long term effects to a Holmes if he was unable to call on his Watson when needed and she wasn't sure she wanted to imagine it, never mind experience it.
It was a difficult two weeks after they’d received the telegram. First, of course, Mrs. Hudson had to deal with her own grief at losing Doctor Watson. He had been such a kind, gentle man and she had cared for him so much. But she also had to shoulder the grief of the detective. After receiving the telegram, he rushed outside into the cold without his coat or hat and when Mrs. Hudson found him, he was sitting against the garden shed and covered in a thin layer of snow. She had hurried him inside, but it was too late and he had caught a cold while out there.
For over a week, he was ill, and yet refused to see a doctor. No matter how she pleaded with him, he would not.
“You are ill. You will see the doctor,” she insisted. “I will call him first thing in the morning.”
“No, you will not. I do not wish to see any physician but my own.”
Mrs. Hudson opened her mouth to retort, but couldn’t find the words. She’d been the one soldiering on for the last couple weeks, but his voice- his hollow, deflated, indifferent voice, felt like it had stabbed her heart. His physician wouldn’t come- couldn’t come, she knew Watson would have the second he heard of Holmes’ illness.
They’d had this argument before, when Watson had been married and living away from Baker Street and Holmes was trying to find evidence to convict a tropical disease specialist of murder. She should have known it to be some stunt of Holmes’ then; he’d never been so oblivious to danger as to refuse a doctor when he needed one. Their standoff had lasted three days before he consented to let her call Watson in that case.
In this case, it couldn’t be a stunt. There was no reason for it to be a stunt. He had no case to work on, no criminal to convict. But worst of all, there was no Watson to call.
Mrs. Hudson had cared for him that week as best she could. He barely ever spoke, he refused all but the smallest amount of water and food. Delirious with fever, he kept telling her he was working a case and therefore, was too busy to eat. He asked for, and went through, some of Doctor Watson’s notes, apparently thinking his case could somehow be helped by that. When she finally broke her word to the detective and fetched the doctor from the village, they'd returned to find Holmes had locked himself in his room and refused to unlock it until the doctor had left.
The fever broke about a week later and it was replaced by a terrible cough, but at least he was finally on the mend. For the next four days, Sherlock Holmes did not say a single word to his housekeeper. During that time, a series of pages of Watson’s notes had ended up speared on the mantelpiece with the three letters and the telegram. She couldn't help thinking he was creating some sort of shrine to the late Army doctor. He’d certainly chosen a strange way to do it.
Today, Holmes lay on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket. It was nice to see him up and about, Mrs. Hudson thought, though as soon as she did, his body was wracked with coughs. She waited until he had caught his breath again to speak.
“A telegram arrived for you while I was getting the post,” she said. “Your brother extends his condolences and believes you should purchase a telephone.”
Holmes didn’t respond to Mrs. Hudson.
“Did you want to send a reply?” she asked, checking the tea that she had set out earlier. “If you do, I can bring it back to the office when I’ve finished making you a fresh pot of tea. And perhaps I can bring Doctor Ferguson back with me?” She added the last part as Holmes started coughing again.
He shook his head as he struggled to catch his breath amid the hacking coughing. She sighed in disapproval.
Now, she served him a fresh pot of tea and made sure he was comfortable. She asked again if he wanted to send a reply to Mycroft.
“No matter,” said Holmes, finally. His voice was still weak and hoarse. “I’ll see him soon enough.”
Mycroft would not visit Sussex, and she couldn’t imagine Sherlock Holmes being fit to travel to see him in London. She was quite alarmed, then, to get up the next morning to find that Holmes had packed for several days and left.
At least he’d taken his hat and coat this time. She stared at the empty hook and thought about what to do now. Trying to care for him, keep track of him, was going to drive her mad. He was always so unpredictable and uncontrollable but now he was unpredictable, uncontrollable, grieving, and ill. He could be a real danger to himself sometimes.
She was a year younger than him and she was not his mother. He was a grown man and should be able to take care of himself. Even if he had been acting like a child as he got older. So why was she anxious to follow him and take care of him? She knew the answer. She cared for her old tenant. She needed him. She always had. Her marriage only lasted a couple months before her husband died of a fever and suddenly she was left with no family and an old empty house. Somehow, luck had struck and she’d met Mr. Holmes, who, within seconds of their introduction, correctly deduced that she was a widower and had rooms to let and yes, he’d be interested, dependent on the price.
The price she asked was too high for him, and she felt sorry for the tall, thin young man. He said he’d keep in touch with her and maybe find another gentleman to share the rooms with. She hoped he would.
When he returned soon with the doctor, she knew at a glance it would be a perfect arrangement. She never realised how perfect it would be- how long their association would last, how much she would grow to care for them, how strong the bond between her two lodgers would grow, and how easily she would say yes when Holmes asked her to join him in his retirement.
At least the ticket-taker at the train station had seen Mr. Holmes.
“Got on the early train to London,” he said. “Didn’t look well.”
“Of course he did, he is ill. Did he say where in London he was going?”
She huffed in frustration again.
“When’s the next train to London?”
“‘bout an hour, ma’am.”
“Did he buy a return?”
“No ma’am, I don’t believe he did.”
“Then I’ll get a one-way as well,” she said, determined.
The ticket taker shrugged as she paid for it, perhaps perplexed by the old lady’s determination to find Holmes. Perhaps there were rumours in the village- she didn’t think of that. It probably was strange to see a housekeeper chasing her master to a far-off city, probably made stranger by the fact that she knew nothing of his movements.
She returned to the post office to send a wire to Mycroft Holmes before she left. She figured that’s where he was headed after his cryptic statement the day before.
"Mrs. Hudson wired to tell me to expect you. It is, indeed, good to see you back here, my brother," Mycroft Holmes said, shaking his brother's hand in the hallway. "What can I do for you?"
Mycroft gestured to the sitting room and Sherlock followed him. Mycroft sat and gestured for his brother to sit, yet he did not.
“You worked in the foreign service, and I need information."
"On what?" Mycroft asked, his curiousity piqued. For his brother to come to London to get information despite being retired...
"Doctor Watson's disappearance. I need details, Mycroft! Data, data, data! Nothing is trivial! Give me everything!”
“Sherlock,” the older man said, gentle with his brother. “Please, sit down.”
He did not oblige, he paced his brother’s sitting room. Visiting Mycroft somewhere other than the Diogenes was rare, but he had purpose this time, so courtesy and habit be damned.
“I have nothing more than what’s in the telegram,” Mycroft said with a quiet sigh, watching his brother pace back and forth, agitated. “What I can tell you is that there are guidelines to follow when it comes to declaring someone ‘missing believed killed’. In fact, sometimes they are sure, they just say that to spare the family from the fact that there is no body to send home.”
He crumpled the telegram in his fist and continued his frantic pacing.
“You’ve retired, Sherlock. No more mysteries, right? That’s what you told me.”
“This isn’t a mystery!” Sherlock barked. “It’s Doctor Watson! Get me everything you know or get the people who do know!”
Mycroft put his chin on his fists with a sigh. How could he make his brother understand that he had to let go, he had to say goodbye, he had to accept? But would Sherlock Holmes listen to reason this time? Would he trust the deductions of others?
“Who do I talk to, Mycroft?” he snapped at his brother. “Tell me!”
“You talk to your vicar, Sherlock. Plan a memorial. You can have a stone erected without a body.”
“That’s not- Mycroft, I refuse to theorise without data and all I have now is a telegram from someone with limited, if any, knowledge of detective work.”
“They don’t put detectives in the war zone to find every missing body, Sherlock. There really is nothing we can do. I suggest you get some rest, and perhaps call a doctor. You don’t look well.”
. . . . . .
Holmes waited by the side of the road for a hansom, but none were coming. It had been so long since he stayed in London, he shouldn’t be surprised that it changed. He was about to hail one of the motorised cabs, but then figured he should just walk. Mrs. Hudson had wired Mycroft to tell him that she’d be at Baker Street, and he couldn’t ignore the fact that the familiar rooms might be comfortable.
When he arrived in the dusty front hall, Mrs. Hudson was trying to clean a little.
“Oh, there you are,” she said. He walked past her and climbed the stairs slowly. His lungs were protesting all the physical activity and he earnestly wanted to sit down before he was overwhelmed by more coughing. “I’ll make you a fresh pot of tea. I can’t say this old house has any food in it, so I was thinking you should ask if you could dine with Mycroft.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, pausing at the top. “I prefer not to eat when I’m working a case.
“Mr. Holmes, you are retired.”
“I’m out of retirement.”
“Mycroft should have known better than to give you a case. I did tell him you were ill.”
“Mycroft wasn’t helpful,” Holmes said, sitting on the couch. His chest was tightening.
“You sit and rest. I’ll fetch you tea.”
Holmes was glad when she left. It gave him a chance to think about the data he had. He knew the when, he had to find the where, the why, the how, and the what next. He had slim data. Mycroft and the War Office were not forthcoming with information. He had three letters. He’d gleaned a little from them- he knew that Watson had used a fairly sharp knife to sharpen his pencil, that the notepaper and envelope had been supplied by the army, that he’d probably written in the hospital, judging by the spill that still smelled faintly of some medication. But the paper, the pencil marks, and the envelope could tell him nothing about what had happened after the letters had been sent. And that was his case.
He’d found missing men before. Some were presumed dead, and murder investigations begun before Holmes had found the men, alive and well. Therefore, it was wrong to theorise without all the facts. It wasn’t enough to declare a man missing and presume him dead. So Holmes was determined to find the man. Or at least find those who made their presumptions and find the data they had used. He was sure he could find another possibility if they would provide the facts.
. . . . . .
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Hudson asked, as she took in Holmes’ attire and travelling bag.
“France,” said Holmes, as though the answer was obvious.
“What on earth for?” she asked, concern in her eyes.
“It’s where Doctor Watson was seen last,” said Holmes, straightening his hat.
“Mr. Holmes!” she gasped. “You’ve been ill, you can’t go running off to a war zone!” Then, gentler, “I know it’s hard, but I think you just need some time to think and to grieve.”
“Mrs. Hudson, I have found missing men before. I’ve even found dead men before, alive!” he said, grabbing his case and walking out, despite her protestations.
Holmes had been away from England for five weeks and was no closer to finding the resolution to his case. He’d passed from one regiment to the other, through Northern France and Belgium. The winter was cold and wet and he feared he’d freeze to death several times.
No one had heard the name ‘John Watson’ and knew where he’d been last seen. A couple of older soldiers recognised the name from the stories in the magazines. One greying major brought out the clippings of Valley of Fear that his wife had sent him, poured two brandies, and sat with Holmes on Christmas Eve, when the trenches were finally still.
Holmes did not reveal the nature of his foray into the Great War, but listened to the major talk of England. He listened to the reminisces of Birmingham half-attentively. He found his mind straying much closer to Baker Street than it had in the weeks since he had left a confused, angry, and worried Mrs. Hudson on the front steps. He thought of the calm following a case, him sitting on his chair and smoking in front of the warm fire, relaxed, as Watson wrote up the case at the desk. The pen scratched on the paper, soothingly. A couple happy shouts of greeting floated up from the street above. The sweet smell of tobacco pervaded the room and he was content.
The major offered Holmes another brandy and Holmes remembered were he was. He refused politely.
“I thank you for your kindness,” Holmes said. “But I really should continue while the Christmas truce is still fresh. Please have a happy holiday.”
Holmes continued here and there, concentrating his efforts on field hospitals and medics tents- anywhere that a doctor would gravitate towards. He knew Watson would never break his vows as a physician and if there were sick or wounded, Watson would be there to help. However, each stop was just as fruitless as the last.
That is, until late February, when he found himself knee-deep in partially frozen mud somewhere in what had once been Belgium. This could not possibly be what Belgium truly was. There, when he repeated the name that had so often been on his lips, a middle-aged doctor had a flash of pained recognition.
“Captain John Watson. Army Medical Corps, attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers?”
“Well, you’ve found what’s left of the fusiliers,” said the doctor with a sigh, gesturing to a box that would serve well enough as a chair to rest their weary legs. “Most were taken out in November.”
“Around the eleventh?” Holmes guessed, and his new acquaintance nodded.
“German shells collapsed half our shelter and our hospital. We only managed to pull a dozen or so out, and none of them are in any fit state to return to us. Repatriated because of their injuries,” he explained.
“But you pulled out the bodies?”
“Those that we could. There’s still nearly a hundred that were never found. We lost the hill soon after.”
“Still in that godforsaken mound of dirt,” the doctor said, looking at his hands. “I was sorry to lose him. Good chap, Watson was. Good doctor. Strong constitution for a man of his age. It was nice to have a friend of his age here, when so many of the ones that come are no more than boys.”
Holmes looked at his hands and decided to continue with his questions anyway.
“Can you give me every detail you remember of that day?” Holmes asked breathlessly and eagerly, resisting the urge to stand and try to find the remnants.
“What do you mean? I was working on a patient- I was doing an amputation, and I heard the whistle of the artillery and next thing I knew, I was dragging everyone I could find to a safer place as the rest of the supports started to crash around me. There really isn’t much more I can say. If you were of any acquaintance with John Watson, I am sure you would agree with me when I say the world lost a great man that day. I must go, I’m on duty soon.”
Holmes watched the soldier go. He wrapped his jacket tighter around him and considered what had been said. Yes, the evidence that Watson had been killed was compelling. However, Holmes was not satisfied. He had to see more detail. Perhaps he’d visit the scene in the morning.
Someone handed him a mug of tea and he drank it, as he drifted into an uneasy sleep upon the overturned crate. He was awoken several time by gunfire, followed closely by shouts and swearing by the men, but was so tired and defeated he would drift back to sleep several minutes later.
In the morning, he was awoken by the doctor he’d spoken to the night before, who placed a warm tin of soup into Holmes’ hands. The soup was, of course, disgusting, but he’d eaten worse recently.
“Doctor Ormund Sacker,” he introduced himself. “Didn’t catch your name last night.”
“Sherlock Holmes,” he said tiredly, shaking his hand. Sacker sat next to him.
“Watson never said you were a military man. Said you were retired in Sussex and keeping bees.”
“I was.” Holmes answered.
“And then you got bored of it and decided to wander off to war?” Sacker asked, sarcasm evident in his voice.
“I was looking for Watson,” Holmes admitted, more to himself than Sacker. In his mind, he was simply on a case for a missing man. He’d been trying to ignore the fact that it was his Watson, his best friend and lifelong companion. But now that’s what he realised. He was looking for someone he needed more than anything in the world.
“You came all the way here because you wanted to find your friend?” Sacker said. His voice was pitying, with a hint of admiration. “Foolish, but I admire your dedication. I wish I could help. But all I can do is recommend you make your way back to England. Do what we can’t, alright? Live a quiet and peaceful retirement. I think it’s what Doctor Watson would have wanted you to do.”
Sacker patted Holmes on the shoulder. Holmes contemplated what was left of his soup and shoved it aside. He wasn’t going to give up on Watson so easily.
"If I went above, what would happen?"
"If you were lucky, you'd be hit by a sniper."
"Is there any way you can think of to get to the old- you know, where-" he found himself strangely short of words.
"Not safely, my friend. We're under orders not to approach it."
"I'm a civilian, not military. Is there any way I can identify myself as such and get there safely."
"You could try a white flag, but I- don't tell anyone I said this, I really don't think you should, Mr. Holmes. It's the strangest, and frankly, stupidest, plan I've ever heard."
Holmes brushed away the advice. He'd risked his life for cases before. He was no stranger to it, and he had to see what clues he could gather from the site.
"Would it be safer to go at night?"
"It's no matter," Sacker said. "Please," he pleaded. "Doctor Watson wouldn't-"
"Like me to leave a case unfinished," Holmes said resolutely. Sacker sighed and shook his head.
"On your own head," he said.
Miraculously, he reached it after what seemed like hours. He didn't think it would take that long and that it would be that exhausting. He had crawled for most of it. Now he was covered in dust and coughing it out. It burned his eyes and he blinked furiously trying to see what he had come for.
The stench made him cough and it burned his eyes. The men lost that day were obviously not much more than decaying flesh hidden among the dirt-covered wreckage. The broken wooden supports stuck out at odd angles. It was a long walk around, and Holmes was exhausted by the end of it. His breathing was laboured and his face felt strangely warm despite the cold outside.
He stopped to breath and saw two strange figures coming towards him wearing ridiculous masks of some type. It was getting harder to breath, but at least he now understood why. He’d heard about the gas being used and this area must have been contaminated.
The Germans were talking to each other quietly. Holmes could pick up a few words here and there, but he was too distracted by the burning sensation in his lungs, making each breath harder than the last. The Germans grabbed him roughly and pulled him away, despite his week protestations not to be taken away from Watson. He ended up having a coughing fit that made it feel as though someone was rubbing sandpaper in his throat and the inside of his lungs. He couldn’t do much more than whimper in pain and fight for each breath as the Germans pulled him away.
Perhaps it was time, Holmes thought, as his vision faded. Perhaps the evidence lined up and Watson was gone, and he, Sherlock Holmes, was going too. He was old, he was tired, and Watson was gone. Perhaps it was time to follow him. There were voices around him, and his lungs protested every breath, he didn't know what was going on anymore and all he could think was that it was time. It was over. He was fading out, as he never expected to. He'd expected a more spectacular end, he always had.
Maybe he should have stayed in Sussex with Mrs. Hudson. Stayed retired. Mourned Watson. Moved on. Raised bees. He wished he was there, but no, that wasn't right either. He wished he was in Baker Street, and not in the dusty, empty Baker Street he'd last seen. No, he was thinking of a different Baker Street- those times before he was retired, when he and Watson would entertain clients all morning, then choose the interesting ones to work on in the afternoon and Watson would sit and take notes at the desk, and Holmes would calm his mind with the soothing sounds of his violin.
He could feel the warm fire and the violin in his hands, he could hear Watson's pen scratching and the notes of the violin drifting through the room, drowning out the buzz from the street below. Watson's tobacco smoke filled his nostrils, punctuated only by the sweet smell of Mrs. Hudson baking below. He closed his eyes and all was perfect.
He was yanked out of the peaceful dream by hands on his chest, pulling at him. He tried to fight back, but there were only more hands holding him, and there were shouts and yells, not all in English. He was breathing hard, feeling as though he'd swallowed the fire and he couldn't hear the violin anymore, but he couldn't open his eyes and see Baker Street and Watson and Mrs. Hudson again.
"Holmes, Holmes! Calm down, man!"
Holmes obeyed, abrubtly and completely.
He'd found his physician.
“Can I join you in your rounds?” Watson asked the doctor. He’d been declared mostly fit, finally, after several long months in the prisoner of war camp infirmary. The explosion and resulting cave-in left him with about a dozen broken bones and a damaged lung. He’d barely made it out, and the recovery had taken a couple long and painful months. Today, though, he was feeling like moving out and about. He’d gotten used to the throbbing in his left shoulder, and the doctor had tied the arm in a sling to make it more comfortable.
“You can observe if you’d like,” said the German doctor. His name was Drescher and they’d struck up some rapport as Watson recovered. Drescher had found out pretty quickly that he shared a profession with the old man with the chest injuries. Pretty soon, their conversations turned to their families back in their respective homes. Drescher was intrigued and delighted with Watson’s recounting of his adventures with Holmes, and Watson enjoyed hearing of the German’s children.
They made slow progress around the ward. The boys that were there seemed brightened to see an English doctor. Watson tried to learn all their names, as Drescher went from one to the other, not wasting a second. He was glad he could keep up with the efficient pace of the German despite his age and own injuries. Most of the men they saw were ill with fevers and infections, and there wasn’t much they could do for them besides make sure they were hydrated and comfortable. A couple of the men were injured when they were brought to the camp, like Watson had. Their injuries were gruesome, but the time Watson had already spent in the trenches had hardened him somewhat. Gas burns were the most painful from what he could tell. The men with those cried out in pain almost constantly, if they could. The others had inhaled the gas and, for them, every breath was a struggle and the main goal was to keep them comfortable, since there was very little hope of recovery. They were only boys, Watson thought. Only boys who would never make it back to their parents, to England. It wasn’t fair. They were eighteen, nineteen, twenty and they were dying and there was Watson, nearly sixty-three and yet still mostly healthy.
There was one mysterious, difficult patient on the ward. Drescher seemed to be trying to avoid him, but he made it towards him near the end of the rounds. His face, neck, and upper chest were swathed in bandages and his chest heaved with the effort of breathing with his burned lungs. Even with his face covered in bandages, Watson could tell the man was about his age. His hair was greying and fading to white, his exposed skin stretched and wrinkled. There was something hauntingly familiar about him. Maybe he reminded Watson of himself, old and battered, yet still fighting for something
“He’s been an uncooperative patient,” Drescher said.
“Gas?” Watson guessed.
Drescher nodded curtly. He said something in German to an orderly, who returned quickly with bandages and water. He handed Watson the patient notes as he prepared the fresh bandages.
The notes were mostly useless for Watson, who didn’t speak German. But there was something that caused him to yank on the German’s sleeve and direct his attention to the notes.
“His name. How do you know that’s his name?” Watson hissed, prodding at it.
The German nodded at the handful of personal effects that were next to the bed. “In his wallet,” Drescher said.
He didn’t need to say much more. Watson’s blood ran cold. He recognised that purse, recognised the lens sitting next to it, the small packet and notebook that also came from the man’s pockets. He’d longed to see their owner for over a year. But not here. Not like this.
Watson handed the notes back, trying to stop his hands from shaking. The German doctor put them aside and started to remove the bandages from the burns. The second he did, though, the patient tried to push him away, his arms flailing in protest. Without a second thought, Watson did his best to get a firm grip on his arms and stop him.
"Holmes, Holmes! Calm down, man!”
Holmes lay back, breathing hard. Watson could tell he was in incredible pain. The blisters from the burns oozed onto the angry red skin. The gas had apparently gotten into his lungs, for Holmes sputtered and coughed for breath as he relaxed and Watson let go with a slight hiss of pain, as the effort had caused a spasm of pain in his bad shoulder.
“Have I hurt you, Watson? I must apologise-” Holmes wheezed and then coughed.
“What in the world are you here for, Holmes?” Watson asked once the detective had started to regain a weak, but steady, breathing rhythm. Holmes gestured clumsily and tried to grab his wallet from the beside but Watson gently eased his arm back to the bed.
“I’ve got your things, Holmes,” said Watson, opening the packet of papers.
On top was a folded telegram. It was obviously folded and unfolded often, probably out of habit, for the note was short and shouldn’t have been hard to memorise. Watson unfolded it. An important telegram.
REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT CAPTAIN JOHN H WATSON OF THE FIFTH NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS WAS MISSING BELIEVED KILLED ON NOVEMBER THIRD
Watson read it over twice, three times, and then a fourth, before the German tapped him on his shoulder.
“Yes, very well. Holmes, the doctor’s going to finish dressing your wounds. I’ll be right here.”
But Holmes would have none of it. The second the German lay his hands on the detective, he received a blow to his face. Watson grabbed the flying arms again and waited once again for his friend to calm down.
“Perhaps I could do it?” Watson asked, the question applying equally to the German doctor and Holmes himself. Both nodded their consent, Holmes eagerly, the German curtly.
Watson dressed the burns as gently as he could, trying to ignore the gasps of pain from his best friend. Holmes wheezed and coughed.
“There,” Watson pronounced, when he was finished rubbing his friend’s shoulder gently.
“Don’t go-” Holmes whispered, reaching for his friend’s hand but nearly getting his eye instead. Watson put his hand in Holmes’.
Why Holmes had come and how was completely beyond Watson, who quickly pushed aside those questions for the more urgent and important ones- Holmes well-being.
“I’ll be right back, Holmes,” he whispered, then went to Drescher.
“Could we speak elsewhere?” Watson asked quietly.
It was a sign of their strange friendship that Drescher nodded and led him to the other end of the ward.
“One physician to another,” Watson said, as calmly as he could. He didn’t feel calm. His insides were writhing in worry and fear for his friend. “What’s your prognosis? You have better experience with it than I do”
“If he makes it another two days, he will probably survive,” the German said. Watson couldn’t read his expression right now, but was there something behind it-
“Are you being honest?” Watson barked. He was afraid of damaging his relationship with the other doctor, but right then Holmes was more important. He had to know.
“It will be a struggle, but he does have a chance of living,” Drescher said stoically. Watson realised that his friend was struggling to keep up the mask he needed to treat his men. Some physicians needed it in war, and Drescher’s calm, gruff exterior was breaking.
“He is the man you told me of?”
Watson nodded sadly, and then, with a sigh. “I mean, there’s bandages over his eyes now, but were they-?” He choked on the question, unable to continue, not wanting to say it out loud. From the look on Drescher’s face, there didn’t need to be any words spoken to confirm the worst.
“Would it be possible for me to stay with him?” Watson asked. It was not at all regulation procedure in the camp, but Watson wanted- needed- this favour from them. He needed to be with Holmes. He still couldn’t imagine what had happened that led to Holmes being there, but Watson wasn’t going to leave him there alone.
“I think I could arrange that,” Drescher said. Watson agreed with a grateful nod and they returned to Holmes together
. . . . . . .
Drescher's order that the English doctor would be staying in the infirmary until further notice perplexed the guards, but they didn’t question it. It wasn’t like the old man was a threat or anything. He spent most of his time sitting by the bedside of another elderly English patient. Sometimes the doctor talked to the man, sometimes they were simply quiet and seemed as content as was possible. They noticed the doctor would sometimes put his hand in that of the patient, for reassurance, they guessed.
They’d heard the whispers when the patient had brought in, the orders to make him comfortable and that he wouldn’t last much longer. But something about the English doctor made the patient fight and he improved with the company. The guards were not going to question the order any more. If the unorthodox system in this infirmary caused one less death from this stupid endless war, they could live with that.
Watson sat next to the bed. The steady rising and falling of Holmes chest was reassuring. The last week had been a challenge for Holmes, but now he was breathing better and resting as the burns healed. Holmes had resisted every physician except Watson, but the Germans had been more accomodating than he expected.
Watson had kept the telegram Holmes had brought. Since they had been reunited, Watson had focused entirely on Holmes' medical care and recovery, not on the series of events that led the detective into the war. Now, he unfolded the telegram and puzzled over it. Had Holmes been hired for a case here? It seemed unlikely. Not only was he retired, he was not reckless. His line of work did put him in danger, but he was not stupid enough to not realize when he was in immediate danger. He would surely have understood the risk before he came over, but why had he? Watson could see no connection between that and the telegram.
“Watson?” Holmes asked, breaking Watson out of his thoughts.
“You're awake” said Watson, patting his hand. “How are you feeling today?”
"You're reading my papers," Holmes said. Watson was not surprised by this deduction. Holmes had acute hearing and could surely hear the rustling.
"I'm merely trying to puzzle out how you ended up here, Holmes. I can't find a reasonable explanation."
"Watson, isn't it obvious? I was looking for you-"
“According to the telegram, I was killed, Holmes. I was killed in war, that was no reason for you to come here.”
“You were missing. I don’t theorise without facts, and I didn’t trust those who theorised in your case. So I came.”
It was quiet as Watson read the telegram again. Missing presumed killed. Yes, in this case Holmes had been right. Watson hadn't been killed, though he had come very close to it. What did Holmes hope to accomplish, though? He risked his life to find what would most likely have been a body. The best case scenario was finding Watson here, and then what? They were in no state to escape from the Germans, they were old, battered men. Their best chance in this case was to hope the war ended soon and wait it out here until it was all over and they would be returned to England.
He remembered the time he’d been grazed by a bullet and how worried Holmes had been. Indeed, Holmes, always the conveyor of justice, confessed that he would have killed the criminal right there, in cold blood, if Watson had been hurt. Watson had been touched at the time by the way Holmes had worried for his well-being, but he never thought that he mattered quite that much to his friend.
Watson felt the tears at the corner of his eyes as he thought of what Holmes had sacrificed for him. He was incredibly touched, but also disappointed. And that’s the emotion that he chose to speak out loud.
“You damned fool, Holmes," he scolded.
Watson listened to the slight catch in Holmes' breath that revealed the detective's confusion and hurt at the reprimand.
"This isn’t another case and I’m not just a missing client," Watson hissed. He was angry. Angry at Holmes for risking his life so flippantly for a fruitless mission. He was angry at everyone who had prompted Holmes to take this course of action- whoever made the erroneous report that led to the telegram, whoever had allowed him to leave Sussex, whoever had let him cross the channel. He clenched his fists and thought of what he would do to the man who let Holmes wander into the gas cloud. But most of all, he was angry at the circumstances that had brought them here and caused this terrible series of events. He was angry at the governments that had declared war, he was angry at himself for re-enlisting. "This is a war, Holmes!" he nearly shouted. "This is a bloody, stupid, endless cycle of destruction that doesn’t care who gets in his path. It makes no exceptions and spares no one. You should not have come over.”
Holmes turned away from Watson. Afraid he had hurt Holmes, Watson took a deep breath to calm down, then put his hand in his friend's, hoping it was a reassuring gesture.
"I'm- I'm still very touched by your friendship, Holmes. And I'm sorry. I'm-"
"Not responsible, Watson," said Holmes. "I would have been disappointed in you if you hadn't re-enlisted."
Watson was glad Holmes couldn't see the tears in his eyes, but he also couldn't let Holmes absolve him from the responsibility. Holmes might have been a fool, but so was he. He should have been in Sussex, not France. No matter how much he longed to be young and adventuring again, he wasn't, and he shouldn't have pretended to be. Look what it had led to. His delusions of youth had hurt more than just himself.
"Watson!" Holmes was the one scolding now. "I'm glad I came."
Watson couldn't believe it. Of course, he hadn't told Holmes the permanence of the injuries yet, but Holmes had to have known. He was a chemical expert. He must know the effect of chemical burns.
And, as though he could follow Watson's thoughts, Holmes spoke. "I know I'll never see again. But I much prefer hearing your voice to seeing the empty armchair in Sussex."
And before either of them could say much more, they both jumped when they heard a large explosion, followed by a couple yells and panicked voices, most of them shouting in German.
"Watson?" Holmes asked, panic in his voice.
Not letting go of Holmes' hand, Watson took stock of the situation. The explosion had come from the corner of the ward that was connected to the kitchens. The voices were coming from there, probably trying to help anybody who had been caught or trying to direct someone to put out the fire that was already licking at the walls of the infirmary, pouring smoke into the room. Watson immediately thought of the fragile condition of Holmes' lungs. He took his own handkercheif and dipped it in the pitcher of water at the bedside.
"Looks like it came from the kitchens, there's a fire," Watson said, "Here, put this over your mouth," he said, placing it on Holmes' face. Watson looked to where a handful of orderlies were trying to move the patients away from the corner with the fire, to put it out before it got much farther into the room. The flames were licking the medicine cabinet.
Watson realized what was going to happen the split second before the first of the chemicals ignited, causing a chain reaction that took down most of the infirmary.
. . . . . .
Watson came to blinking dirt, debris, and blood out of his eyes. His forehead throbbed- he’d been hit with something. His legs and arms were still there, but numb, probably from shock. He took several deep breaths and tried to move his unresponsive limbs. Finally, his arms stiffly wiped his face, trying to clear his eyes.
Holmes was nowhere to be seen at first. The corrugated metal roof had come down on them, and the wooden walls behind him had splintered into pieces. Watson was caught under the chair he had once been sitting on, which was being held steadfastly there because of the roof, which was too heavy for Watson to shift on his own.
Watson finally spotted Holmes, lying on the floor very close by. He was awake too, and groaning. A pile of lumber separated the two, and Watson could only reach out through a crack to take the detective’s arm. Neither of them could do much more than wait for someone to come find them trapped there, hopefully before the roaring fire reached them.
“Watson?” Holmes asked. Watson grunted a response, trying to assess what he could see of the fire. It was powerful, and fast. He couldn't tell that they didn't have long. They'd either get rescued in the next couple seconds, or be swallowed by the flames. Watson shouted for help, but didn't hear any response to his pleas. There was probably too many trapped. The flames were climbing higher, the risk anyone would have to take to get to them was getting higher by the second. Pretty soon, it might not be worth it to try to rescue the two old men.
"We have to get out ourselves," Watson said. "I'm going to try shifting some of this, wait for my direction."
Holmes gasped as Watson let go of his arm and tried to shift a piece of the lumber pinning them down. Watson threw everything he could into shifting it, as he felt the smoke filling the air and the fire licking at the debris around him. His efforts only got him a couple inches closer to Holmes, but in no less danger. Holmes was already choking on the smoke, Watson could feel it burning his lungs. Pretty soon, he'd be choking too.
Maybe this was the time not to confront the danger, but his own mortality. He didn’t hear shouts, he didn’t hear help coming and he could feel the flames rising on him.
"Can you move the board on your right?” he asked Holmes. "Pull."
Holmes groped until he found it. As Holmes pulled as best he could, coughing by now. Watson pushed and coughed and felt the flames about to take him if the smoke didn’t succeed first.
Watson guessed he always knew he was going to die, even if his conscious mind insisted on thinking that he’d be immortal. He was nearly sixty-three. He’d grown old. He’d lost his wife and his chance at children. He’d lost his youth. He was grey and wrinkled and slower than he ever had been. Perhaps it was time. He guessed that there was no better end for Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Together, on one last adventure. That was the best he could hope for. Better than outliving Holmes and confronting life without him. Better than watching his own body fall apart more than it already had. He should have known this was how they would both end.
Watson reached out for Holmes' arm again and held it tight. At least Holmes, who had woven himself into every facet of Watson’s life, was there at the end. As he struggled for another breath in the smoke, he was glad of that. Glad that neither of them had to die alone.
Mrs. Hudson heard the knock on the door and her heart leaped as usual. She tried not to get that glimmer of hope every time, but it came anyway. Her heart no longer leaped as high as it had before. The knock was unfamiliar, she tried to tell herself. It was not the knock of her lodgers.
“Mr. Holmes,” she said calmly, collecting herself. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m just a lost and wandering old man. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Me? What could I possibly-?”
“I read your story in the Strand,” he said. “I wanted to pay my compliments.”
“I don’t know-”
“Don’t try that with me, Mrs. Hudson. I know who wrote that piece, but I will respect your wishes for anonymity. It was an excellent tribute to them both.”
“Should I- have-?”
Mycroft Holmes shook his head and she nodded. It was better not to demoralise the country like that. They may rest assured with her writings that Holmes and Watson had done their share for the war effort. Let them believe the two had returned to a happy retirement, instead of whatever befell them on the Continent.
“You haven’t heard from either, have you?”
She shook her head sadly. “If I did, you’d be the first to know, Mr. Holmes.”
Her breath caught this time. She wasn’t sure she could say that name without thinking of her lodger. Of where he probably was at this moment. It had been almost two years since he had marched out of the house with his travel case, intent on finding a man presumed dead.
“Why don’t I make you some tea?” she suggested, as she showed the elder Holmes brother into the sitting room. He nodded his assent and she returned to the kitchen to prepare some hot tea.
When she returned, Mycroft Holmes was examining the knife balanced in the centre of the mantelpiece.
“You haven’t touched my brother’s things, have you?”
“Honestly, the last time you paid the rent for your brother, he came back alive.”
“Mrs. Hudson, I never lied to you in that case. I simply told you I’d pay the rent for the rooms. Doctor Watson was the one who sent back the erroneous reports from Switzerland.”
“Don’t you dare say a word against the doctor!” she bristled. She didn’t care about her position as merely a housekeeper, no insults would be allowed past her. “He may not have shared the intelligence that you and your brother had, but he loved your brother and your brother loved him!”
“That cannot be argued with, of course. Yet we must hope that they still do.”
Mrs. Hudson sank down into the chair opposite Mycroft, tears biting at her eyes. She’d spent the two years of silence steadfastly referring to both her lodgers in the present-though she believed Watson dead, she’d tried to keep it up for Holmes’ sake-and now she’d faltered. Now she was referring to both in memory. They must be gone. She must accept that.
“When will we know?” she asked in despair. This waiting, this silence, was worse than knowing. Closure, that’s what she needed, so her heart wouldn’t leap and fall every time there was a knock on the door, a letter in the mail, a tall, thin man on the street.
“When peace comes to Europe,” Mycroft said. “I suppose then that we will discover the true fate of them both.”
“Sometimes I fear that might not come in our lifetimes,” she said quietly. She heard the talk and say the headlines in the street, though she still didn’t have the heart to read the news herself. This war seemed unending.
. . . . . .
Her heart barely leapt at the sound of the knock on the door, but she still felt the quiver of hope now and again. She stood up slowly to get the door, weary. She wasn’t entirely surprised by the visitor.
“Mr. Holmes!” she said. “Why’d you come all this way? Come in, please.”
“I just was given access to some documents by the War Office. I thought you should know what I found.”
“Here, sit down, I’ll make a fresh kettle and then you can tell me.”
She left for the kitchen, anxious to delay the inevitable. Mycroft Holmes had been keeping in touch with her since her employer disappeared and making sure she was still being paid. Sherlock’s estate was sufficient enough to pay her the usual wages and she’d been comfortable, yet lonely, at 221b. Today, he had a somber look on his face and a packet of papers.
It had been almost a year since the Armistice had been signed. All the prisoners of war had been repatriated. The men of Britain had come home. Yet two had not.
She returned with the kettle, a little bit more fortified for what she was going to hear.
“It has been almost a year,” said the elder Holmes brother. “For almost a year, Europe has been silent. Especially the two voices we’ve been longing to hear.”
Mrs. Hudson poured the tea, trying not to let her hands shake.
“It seems Doctor Watson was in a cave-in in a trench in Belgium,” said Mycroft. “His body was not recovered, but he was presumed dead.”
Mrs. Hudson tried not to cry. She knew that, though the loss seemed just as fresh.
“Two weeks later, an injured soldier at a prisoner of war camp identified himself as Doctor John Watson-”
Mrs. Hudson’s heart leaped. Watson had survived? The kind, loyal doctor had not died when they thought he had? But then her heart fell because she thought of Holmes, and the doctor, and the fact that they still had not returned to England.
“Several months later, the German soldiers found an injured Englishman, apparently a civilian, in the same area, and brought him back to the same camp that Doctor Watson was recovering in. Doctor Watson, it seems, identified the man as Sherlock Holmes. My brother’s injuries were ‘severe and permanent’, though the exact nature of them was not recorded here.”
Mrs. Hudson swallowed and wrung her handkerchief. The fact that Holmes had been injured somewhere he was never supposed to be broke her heart. But she felt there was worse to come.
“There was a kitchen explosion in the camp on June eleventh, 1916,” Mycroft said quietly, closing the folder. “It spread quickly and ignited several flammable chemicals in the infirmary before they had a chance to evacuate the patients. Most of the bodies were never recovered.”
She’d guessed this was coming, but hearing it, finally, made it so complete. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the men who she’d lived with and cared for for most of her life, were gone. At least she could retain some comfort that they died together. She could imagine no better ending for either of them. One could not exist without the other, which is why Holmes had left for France in the first place. Oh, but how she had longed to hear that they were alive and well and returning to her now that peace had come.
. . . . . .
Mrs. Hudson expected the ceremony to be small and intimate. She knew herself and Mycroft Holmes would be there, with a handful of retired Scotland Yard detectives. What she was not expecting was the number of former clients, children of former clients and even those who had just read Watson’s missives that attended the service.
Afterwards, she lingered in front of the stone in the churchyard to say goodbye one last time.
She was glad that Mycroft Holmes had placed their names on the same stone. She could think of no other way memorialise the best men she’d ever known. They were never fully separated, not even in death, and their memories should never be either.
The inscription Mycroft chose puzzled her for a bit, but she started to understand it. So they still live for all that love them well.
“I guess we’d like to think they’re still out there adventuring,” Mycroft said from beside her. “But I think the book has closed and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are finished.”
She thought of the packet that Sherlock Holmes had handed her years ago, when the war had just started, when Watson had been gone for just a few short months, when all was right in Sussex. She smiled mischievously at Mycroft Holmes and resolved to find the papers again.
'His Last Bow', told in the 3rd person, was published in 1917.
'So they still live for all that love them well' is a quote from Vincent Starrett's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Just a short epilogue left! Thanks for sticking with me!
Chapter 13: Epilogue
Anne Sherrinford noticed the two old men shuffling down the deck of the steamship. She observed them slyly as they moved slowly towards her. She tried to focus her eyes on the book she was reading, but was too distracted by them.
The shorter one had a painful stiffness in his bones. He walked with a steady limp and she noticed his left arm mostly useless to him.
It was invaluable to his companion, however, who clutched it as the shorter one led him away from the railing. His face was scarred and he was nearly blind. His joints her more agile than his friend’s, but his lungs were weak.
“Here, let’s sit down and catch our breath,” said the shorter one, guiding his friend to the bench across from where Anne was seated. They placed their battered travel cases down.
Despite the physical toll that the years and, she deduced, the wars, had taken on their bodies, she noticed there was also something positively youthful in them. Their smiles were those of young men eager to take on the world. She guessed that their minds were sharp and always ready. They radiated optimism almost as brightly as the sun that was warming them that morning.
They had life in them yet. And that didn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
After they had caught their breath, the taller one seemed to get bored.
“Do you know where this ship is headed?” the taller one asked.
“Not in the slightest,” answered the other. “I thought we agreed it would be more interesting this way.”
“I chose a book for you to read on the journey,” the taller one added proudly, producing it from his bag and handing it over.
The shorter man chuckled when he saw the front cover. “Forget about the ship, do you know what book you’ve picked up?”
He handed it back to its owner, who ran his fingers along the binding and cover. “Recently published, probably rushed to the press” he rattled off. He paused to sniff it. “Published in… Sydney, perhaps? The genre and content, however, remain a mystery to me.”
“Detective stories,” supplied the other.
“Oh,” he said in disappointment. “Those tend to be frightfully inaccurate.”
Anne was inclined for a second to stop and ask if he had been familiar with detective work, for his observational skills were to be admired, but decided to let the two men remain in each other’s company.
“Well, I hope this one won’t,” the other said decisively, taking it back. “Oh, don’t give me that look, Holmes, I think you made a good choice.”
The one named Holmes moved closer so they sat on the bench arm-in-arm.
“I’m ready, Watson, please begin.”
The one named Watson sighed as he opened it.
“What is it?” asked Holmes.
“It seems my literary agent has added a quite unnecessary and long-winded preface. Would you prefer I skip over it?”
“Of course not, my dear Watson! I had no idea that I had laid my hands on one of your volumes.”
“You did indeed. And not only that, you have managed to discover a volume of my own writings that I am not familiar with. Sir Arthur seems to have inserted some of his own fanciful tales in here- I do not recall any cases involving blanched soldiers or lions manes.”
Holmes smiled as though he was hiding a secret. Watson did not look up to notice it. He shook his head and chuckled. “I suppose we will discover what twaddle he’s created when we get there.”
NB: The stories of the Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes were published from 1921-1927. The collection was published in 1927. Two stories, The Blanched Soldier & The Lion's Mane, were narrated by Holmes instead of Watson.
Well, that's it! Hope you enjoyed! Reviews & comments are appreciated!