Chapter by ArmchairElvis
Watson wakes suddenly, in the half-light of his hotel room. The blood-bright details of a battlefield dream slip away like hot sand, and then he hears the clash of metal-rimmed carriage wheels on stone outside. A newspaper boy bawling headlines. London. He's in London.
Artist's war exhibition! Daily Graphic! Sketches and photographs from the seat of war!!
Watson smooths down his moustache, the gesture comforting and automatic, and lets his eyes dart around the familiar-unfamiliar surfaces of the room: the dirty grey light filtering through the curtains, roughly closed against the morning light, spine-cracked books stacked on top of his wooden trunk, the coat from his only civilian suit hanging limp and discarded over the back of the chintz easy chair.
Watson is ten pounds underweight and weakened by fever and pain. He is poor. He is alive.
Watson is dressing himself slowly when a telegram arrives. He only just remembers to tip the boy; he doesn't get many telegrams. He darkly suspects that it might be the Army reconsidering their decision to cut him loose with half-pay. No such luck.
WATSON NO LUCK REGARDING ROOMS BUT A MAN CALLED HOLMES SEEKING DOCTOR STOP
SAID WORK WOULD BE SUITABLE FOR QUOTE VETERAN OR LOAFER ENDQUOTE
SHALL I ARRANGE MEETING QUERY
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF OLD CHAP
Watson feels vaguely ashamed in having attracted Stamford's pity, and now his plain, no-nonsense attempts at assistance. Stamford was the same at Bart's: always friendly, always unassuming, and Watson spent two long winter days goading him toward a more systematic understanding of visceral anatomy out of nothing more than admiration for that quality in him. He is an easy man to like.
Watson leaves the flimsy on top of the scratched desk with the rest of his scanty correspondence. As he buttons his waistcoat he does the same old tired calculation in his head: dividing eleven shillings and sixpence into tobacco and luncheon and the outstanding hotel bill and the comforting emptiness of the green baize card table at his club. By the time he has sat himself creakily on the end of the bed to pull on his socks, Watson realises that he is composing a reply to the telegram in his head.
The upper floor of the Diogenes club smells vaguely of shoe polish and newspaper. It is a comforting smell, a normal smell. The silence is disquieting. Watson can hear his own shoes moving over the carpet, and when Mycroft Holmes comes forward to shake his hand Watson can hear a loose floorboard creaking under his bulk. He is a tall man, broad at the shoulders, his waistcoat straining over a generously-proportioned gut.
Mycroft ushers him into something called the Stranger's Room. The first words he says to Watson are "We can talk here."
Watson doesn't quite know what to make of this strange silent club, of this tall man with searching grey eyes that have already raked over his stiff leg and his frayed cuffs, so he stammers out a thank you and sits.
"I understand from Mr. Stamford that you underwent training at Bart's?"
He feels vaguely uncomfortable under Mycroft's gaze. It is the same way he felt being studied for signs of wrongdoing by the house master at school. Mycroft looks away, pouring himself a cup of tea, and Watson takes out his cigarettes.
"Do you have any experience with mental incompetence, doctor?"
"I worked in the clinic at Bart's for some three years. I came into some contact with it there."
"Mmm," Mycroft Holmes says. Then he reaches abruptly forward and transfers a cucumber sandwich onto his plate. Watson does the same, and he has a mouthful of soft bread and butter and cucumber that is better than anything he's eaten in days when Mycroft speaks again, his tone light, as if commenting on the weather.
"You do have a brother, don't you?"
Watson swallows painfully, shifts back in his chair. "I -- yes -- how did you know?"
"You're wearing his watch. Tell me, Dr. Watson, do you love your brother? Despite his intractable alcoholism and chronic carelessness?"
Watson stands up, the abrupt movement sending a shock of pain through his leg: it causes a cold sweat to break out at the small of his back. He dashes his napkin onto the table, the back of his neck hot.
He thinks of his brother, too: John I need a loan old chap and I'm awfully sorry to have to do this to you again, the sad carelessness in his eyes.
"I don't know how you came to know my business, Mr Holmes," Watson says, stiffly. "But this excursion into my private affairs is unwelcome."
Mycroft Holmes remains seated, his face mild, and Watson begins to feel awkward, standing at the table in this bizarre club that is as silent and as dignified as a funeral procession, and his anger begins to drain away.
"Your watch, Dr. Watson, has been wound with an unsteady hand and not well cared for. Forgive me for my dramatic streak, you'll find that my brother has no such flaw. I am asking because I want you to understand my devotion to my own brother. He is not an idiot, Dr. Watson, merely backward. In some ways he is a genius, in some ways he is no more developed than a child."
Watson sits. Eleven shillings and sixpence. He cannot afford not to. "A savant?"
Mycroft nods. "My brother is fixated on crime-solving techniques, and he has spent a vast portion of the last four years devoting himself to a system for solving crimes. When someone such as my brother gets a notion into his head, it is very hard to dissuade him from it."
"I understand." And Watson puts his hand into his pocket and closes it around the cold silver surface of his brother's watch.
"He feels himself drawn to this city. He has attempted to run away to London twice already. I have business that keeps me here, and the servants at the house are growing too old to manage him. He was ejected from the train near Eastbourne last time, for not having a ticket. He was found wandering the high street and taken in by a police officer, whom he extensively questioned on local crime. The police officer was charmed by him, according to our groom, who I fear was made older by the ordeal of finding him. Next time we may not be so lucky. Some people are able to perform admirably under pressure, Dr. Watson. I imagine that you are such a person. My brother is not."
Watson turns this over in his mind. He has always had a descriptive imagination, and now he imagines a different version of the man before him, wandering the high street of a seaside town.
"Why was he wandering? Could he not find his way back to the train station or the telegraph office and send you a wire?"
"It is something to do with being overwhelmed by distractions, as I understand it. Not much is known. I have hypothesised that my brother has little ability to find the order in chaos, as it were. He finds some situations overwhelming."
And now the image that rises unbidden to Watson's mind is a dusty field in Afghanistan, ringing with gunshots and screams and the bass rumbling of hooves. There is a young man on the stretcher before Watson, dumbly allowing for his shirt to be cut away from his body, his hands slack at his sides. Then there is a volley of gunfire less than a hundred feet away, and the young private takes his hands and puts them over his ears and screams in a broken wail that begs for a slap or a shot of morphine. Yes, Watson thinks he understands.
Mycroft clears his throat, as if finding a lost thread. "My brother wishes to relocate from our country house and take lodgings in London. I am willing to pay you to assist my brother in achieving that goal."
Yes, Watson thinks, if he offers I'll accept. I must be mad.
"Can your brother speak, Mr. Holmes?"
Mycroft's mouth twists: a bitter smirk. "My brother is fluent in three languages and has been bombarding me with an outline of an impenetrable treatise he is writing on ciphers. He cannot engage in idle chatter, he cannot find his way through a crowded railway station, and if he were not prompted to dress warmer he would go out in a hailstorm wearing nothing but his shirtsleeves."
"I see," Watson says.
"You have been informed of our situation, Dr. Watson. You have not yet seen."
There is a pregnant silence, broken only by the remote sounds of the street outside, insulated by the suffocating quiet of this club. Watson joined his club so that he might partake in conversation, something to break the monotony. Why did Mycroft join this club?
Watson swallows. "I think that I would like to see."
Mycroft puts one of his meaty hands into the inner pocket of his immaculate suit coat and draws out a chequebook.
Watson leaves the Diogenes club five pounds richer. It is a staggering amount. He orders himself a new suit, at Mycroft's request, and he takes a double whiskey and a good meal at his club. Then he goes looking for lodgings.
Mycroft sends Watson thick letters on an expensive cream paper, full of practical instructions. My brother does not tolerate being interrupted when he is in the middle of an experiment, and he may very quickly become unreasonable. My brother becomes disoriented in noisy unfamiliar places. His handwriting is neat and unhurried.
In the later letters Mycroft is more personal. My brother attended the same prep school as I until his eccentricities and behaviours became intolerable to the masters. He was tutored at home from age nine. It seems that the schoolmasters recommended that the younger Holmes was intractably mentally deficient and should be institutionalised. Mycroft has underlined this passage with an angry stroke of his pen. They did not understand, Mycroft writes. They did not care to see.
The Holmes country house is large and cold and draughty, like every other country house Watson has ever visited. It makes Watson glad that he inherited nothing more substantial than cufflinks from his own father. Perhaps Mycroft feels connected to his own history, here, but Watson sees it as nothing more than a white elephant, the physical embodiment of a decayed minor title.
A stooped old butler with white, wispy hair takes Watson's coat. The interior of the house is less imposing -- old, comfy furniture and knickknacks discarded with the nonchalance of old money. Mycroft does have money, Watson decides: but not an unlimited amount. It is probably a strain on him financially, supporting his brother.
The library smells comfortingly of books; Watson is glad to take the weight off his feet. There is a pile of newspapers on the table, rumpled as if they have been read all the way through and discarded. A large assortment: a local daily, a French newspaper, several editions of the London Times and the county weekly.
There are voices in the corridor: Mycroft's soft rumble overlaid by another voice, higher, thinner. Mycroft opens the door and walks through it, two or three steps ahead of his brother.
The younger Holmes is around twenty-five, and extraordinarily thin. He has the same pale grey eyes as Mycroft, but where Mycroft's are intense his are searching. He is wearing an immaculate grey morning suit with an old pair of brogues, dusty and worn down to a slant at the heel. He has a beard, trimmed roughly with scissors. It is jet-black and looks incredibly incongruous on his thin pale face. His hands are long and thin and white and they never stop moving.
"Sherlock," Mycroft says. "This is John Watson."
Watson stands, doesn't hold out his hand. Sherlock Holmes doesn't come forward. He stands to one side of Mycroft, pulling at the fingers of his right hand with the left. He doesn't look Watson in the eye, either, but seems to glance at the side of his face.
"Hullo," he says. "I am Sherlock Holmes."
"I'm very pleased to meet you," Watson says. "Your brother Mycroft has told me that you wish to move to London. I am--"
"--Yes," Sherlock cuts Watson off, his voice rapid and almost monotone. "My brother said that you would help me find rooms in London. He also told me not to ask you about money, which is rude. Tell me, Watson, did you serve at Maiwand? I perceive that you have served in Afghanistan and the timing of your wound would place you at that battle."
"Oh dear," Mycroft says.
Something grey crowds in at the periphery of Watson's vision and he has to sit down. He clears his throat so that he can trust his voice. There is a bitter taste in his mouth; shock.
"You are extraordinarily perceptive." Sherlock Holmes nods, walks over to the table. His face betrays nothing.
"Sherlock," Mycroft says. "We've discussed this." He glances back, then turns to Watson, his brow creased. "I apologise if my brother's revelations startle you."
Watson nods, swallows again. "You have startled me," Watson says, addressing himself to Sherlock, who is now sifting restlessly through the newspapers. "But I am very interested in gaining an insight into your reasoning process."
"It is so very simple," Sherlock Holmes says. He explains himself in full, addressing the space to the side of Watson in the same rapid, low voice. Watson sees something in his eyes finally, an intensity, and he imagines that if Sherlock Holmes wishes to solve crimes, very little will stop him. Mycroft glances at Watson, his eyebrows raised, as if to say now you see.
Watson decides that he will follow Sherlock Holmes to London.
It is Mycroft's idea that they should move Holmes' things to London gradually. His existence revolves very much around routine, and this comfortable pattern must be upset as little as possible.
Watson has found lodgings in Baker Street. The rooms are large and well-appointed and the landlady seemed tolerant when Watson mentioned a few of Holmes' eccentricities, such as his violin playing and his chemical experiments.
As soon as the train is underway, Holmes shrinks back in his seat and stares out the window, putting his long nervous hands together at the fingertips again and again. After a while he begins to hum. Watson is attempting to read over some notes in his notebook, but the noise is insidious and distracting.
"What's that, Sherlock?" Mycroft's question is automatic, comfortable, like a question he's asked a hundred times before.
"Mozart," Holmes says. "Clarinet concerto."
"Mmm," Mycroft says. "The noise becomes rather distracting in the close confines of a railway carriage. I wonder if you might give the doctor and I the pleasure of hearing you sing. That might work better."
Holmes' singing voice surprises Watson. It is a rich tenor, strong and technically superb. He sings something in French that Watson doesn't recognise, but it is beautiful and infinitely preferable to the humming. He's smiling.
Watson crosses his legs and settles further back in his seat. As he does so he glances at Mycroft. There's an extraordinary expression on his face, something like pride and sadness mixed.
Watson turns his face back to the scenery, and after a while Holmes stops singing, and the carriage is silent.
The telegraph poles mounted at the side of the railway line whip by, the wires mounted on them moving up and down hypnotically. Sherlock Holmes fixes his eyes on them, tracing invisible calculations onto the leather seat.
It is almost midnight. Watson puts down his book and finishes his brandy. He stands up. Holmes remains absorbed in his collection of newspaper clippings, a catalogue of the macabre.
"I am going to retire."
"Yes," Holmes says, bent over his clippings.
Watson swallows down on the things he wants to say, his irritation only sharpened by the schoolroom smell of Holmes' glue and the burn of the brandy in his throat. He closes the door softly behind him.
Watson comes awake in the soft pre-dawn light of his room. He can hear Holmes' violin in the next room. Watson wishes that he had some sort of musical knowledge. That way he could furnish a description of the music in his own internal language. In the darkness of his room the muffled sound is sorrowful and complex. Watson thinks about getting up, talking to Holmes, but the lassitude of sleep reclaims him and he drifts off again.
It is almost lunchtime when Holmes arises.
"Good day," Watson says. Holmes grunts. His hair is unkempt and he is wearing only his nightshirt. He's very thin. Watson can see the shadow that his collarbone makes against his chest.
Watson goes to the doorway and calls down to Mrs. Hudson, asking her for a fresh pot of tea.
"I heard you playing the violin last night. Couldn't you sleep?"
"No," Holmes says abruptly. He opens the first of the morning newspapers with a business-like rustling noise and sits down at the table.
Mrs. Hudson arrives with the tea, and Watson pours a cup for Holmes and sets it before him. Holmes puts the paper aside and thanks Watson formally.
"Any interesting murders?"
Truth be told, Watson has missed these small domestic moments. It is such a drastic change from the blank walls of his hotel room, from that blank life entirely devoid of contact and responsibility.
Holmes is perhaps the most eccentric conversationalist Watson has ever known.
He knows next to nothing about current events, yet he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime. At breakfast he entertains Watson with an exhaustive and orderly description of all the smuggling activity in Sussex over the last twenty years. At tea, it is pickpocket techniques, and at a time when most civilised people are thinking of turning in to bed, Holmes treats Watson to a dispassionate account of deaths by strangling and how they differ from hangings.
He speaks of politics with a childlike naivete, and most of his knowledge of history is the colourless rote learning he must retain from his schooling. He is dismissive of any subjects that don't hold his interest.
About three weeks after they move into their lodgings, the curiosity becomes too much for Watson. He decides to question Holmes over breakfast, when he is least distracted and the least likely to ignore him.
"Holmes, how exactly do you plan to establish yourself as a private detective?"
Holmes throws back his head and laughs. He has a strange laugh, grating in its own way, and although Watson finds nothing he has said funny he cannot help but smile. Holmes can be so disarming.
"I am already established, Watson. I have created my own unique position as a consulting detective to the police and the general public."
"I see," Watson says, although he doesn't.
Holmes takes his toast and goes to stand by the open window. It has become a habit: Watson has decided it is so he can listen to the traffic. Holmes clears his throat, and then he starts to speak through a mouthful of his toast. "I am not a private detective. Private detectives and government detectives alike lay their problems before me, and I advise them."
"And why come to London?"
Holmes turns to the window and gazes out at the street. Watson wonders what he sees. Late winter slush on the streets, swept aside by carriages and hansom cabs. People scurrying to and fro to escape from the cold and the acrid fog. It is so noisy here, in this vast dirty city where all the dregs of the empire are drained. Watson has tried to understand what it is like inside Holmes' head, but he cannot, not really. He hears Mycroft's voice: Nobody really knows what his interior life is like, doctor. I find it easy to read the desires and inner thoughts of other men, but my brother is not other men.
"It is much quieter there," Holmes says, vacantly, and then he leaves his toast on the windowsill and goes over to his desk, rummaging around in the drawers.
"Last year I corresponded at length with a police surgeon at Scotland Yard. Do you know much about poisons, doctor? This case was a most engaging one..."
So Watson learns a great deal he does not wish to know about the undetectable ways that a man can be poisoned in his drink and in his food. He also learns that it takes a minimum of six hours for mail from London to reach the Holmes' country house from London. That the lane leading to the small country post office is hard-packed black dirt overlaid with a little gravel.
He also learns that Holmes has established himself as a consulting detective, a repository of information, a problem-solving machine.
Holmes is scrupulously and formally polite to Mrs. Hudson when he remembers himself, and dismissive when he doesn't.
"What would you like for luncheon, Mr. Holmes? Mutton curry or cold roast beef?"
"Neither," Holmes says, without putting down his newspaper. His voice is slightly muffled by stem of his pipe, a blackened old thing producing vile clouds of thick blue smoke. Holmes smokes a rough blend of shag -- according to Mycroft he picked up the habit from their old gardener and can be persuaded to smoke nothing else.
"I can hardly be expected to cook something else for you when Dr. Watson will be taking luncheon at his club." There is some asperity in their landlady's voice, but Holmes goes on reading the newspaper, his face impassive.
"Holmes," Watson says, turning from his desk. "Mrs. Hudson was presenting you with a limited choice. As I will be taking lunch at my club and it is the scullery maid's day off, those are the only two options."
Holmes takes his pipe out of his mouth and rustles his newspaper. "I don't like cold roast beef," he says, his voice higher than usual. "It is unhygienic and the texture is vile."
"I think that Holmes would like the mutton curry, please," Watson says, before Mrs. Hudson condemns them both to a diet of dry toast and sardines.
Watson spends a pleasant afternoon at his club, only slightly marred by the knowledge that Holmes is alone at their rooms. He and Mycroft have agreed that Holmes must be left alone, Mycroft tapdancing his way around the word independent without actually saying it.
Watson returns to Baker Street in the early evening, some ten shillings richer and considerably cheered.
"Did you have a pleasant afternoon?" Watson pours himself a cup of tea and lights a cigarette, taking a seat by the fire. Holmes does not move from the settee, where he is sitting wrapped in an old dressing gown, bent over a chemistry journal. His pipe is empty, and he is tapping it absently against his teeth.
"I have been reading about the ring structure of benzene. And Mrs. Hudson is frightened of me."
"Frightened of you? Holmes, what--"
"It has been almost 30 years since Kekulé suggested that the benzene ring consisted of alternating single and double bonds. There is much evidence for the cyclic nature of the molecule. And you have been playing billiards. There is a characteristic smudge of blue chalk in the fold between your thumb and index finger."
Watson looks up at Holmes, at that impassive pale face, made even more ascetic-looking by the unruly beard that straggles up his cheeks. There are many things he does not know about Holmes. There are many things he could be capable of.
"Why was Mrs. Hudson frightened of you, Holmes?" Watson is very careful to keep his voice level.
Watson knows that he could overpower Holmes, if he wished. Mrs. Hudson would not fare so well. He has a sort of wiry strength in his thin limbs, and the leverage of height.
"Oh, I do not know. She said I looked a fright sitting here. I do not imagine why I frighten her now, since she has seen me sitting here many times before."
"Oh," Watson says, smiling in his relief. "What exactly did she say?"
" 'You look a fright Mr. Holmes, sitting there in your old dressing gown and with that black beard,' " Holmes' mimicry is eerily accurate. It is Watson's turn to laugh. Holmes turns back to his chemistry, humming softly to himself.
"Oh, Holmes," Watson says, and he waits until Holmes is looking at him, his grey eyes flicking across Watson's cheek, restless. "That is a figure of speech. She means that you look slightly strange."
"Oh," Holmes says, something like satisfaction in his voice. "That makes much more sense." Watson wonders if that is how he feels when he solves a mystery.
Holmes' silences have a way of making Watson uneasy. Holmes sits on the settee, and opposite him in the chair sits a woman that Watson knows by reputation only. She is the wife of a duke, well known for her society parties and her philanthropy. She is beautiful and intimidating and breathtakingly wealthy.
Watson is sitting in the chair by the window. From there he can see the side of the Duchess' haughty face and the fur stole draped over one arm. Her story is a long one and she tells it without a single interruption from Holmes. When she finishes telling it, a brittle silence descends. She clears her throat expectantly, proper even in her indignation.
"And you want to know a little more about this young man," Holmes finally says, as if he can barely rouse himself.
"Yes, Mr. Holmes," the Duchess says as she rises from her chair. There is an air of finality in her tone. "Will you do it?"
"No," Holmes says.
The Duchess hesitates in the act of pulling her stole back over her shoulders, her face like stone.
"Because I don't like you," Holmes says, his voice flat and cold, and he rises from the settee and makes to leave the room, turning his back on the Duchess and her generous fee and the easy matter of evaluating the gambling habit of her youngest daughter's suitor. "Watson will see you out."
Watson does not see the Duchess out so much as he is swept outside in the wake of her fury. Holmes does not take the case.
A still spring morning, crisp and cool, the air mercifully clear. Watson is sitting at his desk writing, and Holmes has spent the morning pacing back and forth, reading newspapers and furiously smoking his pipe.
"It's no good."
"Hmm?" Watson says, not turning from his desk.
Holmes mumbles the same phrase under his breath as he goes over to the bookshelf and rapidly pages through a book. Watson puts down his pen when he hears Holmes thump it closed.
"It's no good," Holmes says again. "I shall have to go to the Reading Room at the British Museum."
"Indeed?" Watson has just written himself into a comfortable rhythm, and he is not comfortable in being torn away from it.
"Yes!" Holmes rushes over to the mantlepiece and stuffs his tobacco pouch into his pocket. He is wearing his shirtsleeves and the same disreputable old brogues that he invariable wears. He goes to his desk and opens the drawers, rifling through them. He finally takes out a piece of card, which he shows to Watson. It is printed, and Holmes' name has been filled in using that watery ink so beloved of bureaucrats.
The Principal Librarian of the British Museum wishes to inform Mr Sherlock Holmes that a reading ticket will be delivered to him on presenting this note, etc etc. Watson has friends whose medical researches have compelled them to use the Reading Room, although he always found the University Library to be cosy and welcoming enough.
"Well, Holmes, do you wish to go now?"
"Yes, Watson! The Museum is at Great Russell Street, London, WC."
Watson gets up and picks up his blazer from where it lies draped over the back of the settee. "Very well. Go and put on your waistcoat and your blazer and your coat."
In his excitement Holmes often forgets these things, or becomes confused when putting them on. Watson would be lying if he said he did not find it intriguing, that a man with the breadth of experience and knowledge that Holmes has should be confounded by these simple tasks. Why he sometimes forgets to put his stockings on, why his fingers fumble as he ties his shoelaces with agonising slowness.
In the cab Holmes frowns a lot and splays his hands flat over his thighs, but he invariably does that in cabs. When they reach their destination Holmes hops eagerly out of the cab and then stands there, waiting anxiously while Watson pays the cabbie.
"Well, Holmes," Watson says as he hops down from the cab with his walking cane under his arm, "Isn't it impressive?"
"I don't know," Holmes says, with the same harried frown on his face.
"What do you mean you do not know?" Watson smiles and gestures at the majestic Grecian columns that flank the front of the building, at the sculptures on the pediment.
"I don't know," Holmes says, his voice rising a half-octave, and Watson takes him by the elbow and leads him up the steps. When they are finally standing in the cool quiet of the reading room, Holmes speaks again. "It is too much. There is too much."
Watson leaves Holmes sitting quietly at a reading table by himself, immersed in his research. He goes to consult with a librarian and spends a very unsatisfactory two hours reading a number of books written by alienists. Holmes' problem is not one of thinking, a neurosis. It is an organic problem, one that medicine has no answer for.
"I suppose I was twelve or so, when I first noticed. I came home from my first half away at school and discovered that my brother seemed so much different from the other boys. I had not noticed it before. Perhaps it was because I had grown, or maybe it was being immersed in that environment. I do not know."
Watson and Mycroft are partaking in Mycroft's only form of exercise: the short walk from his rooms to the Diogenes club.
"How old was he then?"
"Five. His chief occupation was lining my old lead soldiers up across the nursery floor." Mycroft pauses, as if he has entered another line of thought. "I remember a boy in my form complaining that his younger brother chattered all the time, wondering if his brother screamed and kicked over vases for unfathomable reasons."
Watson takes out his cigarette case and lights a cigarette. Mycroft likes to talk when he walks, likes to rumble and rant and build up a head of steam before he swaps the clattering London thoroughfare for the cloistered environment of his club.
"I bloodied a cousin's nose once when she threw a bucket of water on Sherlock, because she was curious about what his reaction would be. His reaction was loud. I could not understand how somebody could be so cruel. I do now. Some people seem to gain enjoyment from finding a creature or person that they are somehow superior to and highlighting that superiority."
They walk on companionably for another ten yards or so. Watson prefers walking alongside Mycroft to Holmes. Holmes walks too fast and does not consider Watson's leg.
"Was your brother older, Dr. Watson?"
Watson goes on walking, his eyes focused on the grey cobblestones in front of their feet. It rained less than an hour ago, and the stones are slick. Greasy puddles reflect the grey sky.
"Er, yes." Mycroft speaks in the past tense, Watson dimly realises.
"You inherited his watch?" So that is how he knows. The blasted watch. Watson would be rid of it if it were not the last feeble reminder that he has of his family.
"And his debt."
"Oh, I am sorry."
"I'm sure you know as well as I that you cannot pick your family."
"Indeed," Mycroft says, and he smiles to himself.
"Just before I went up to Cambridge my father came and spoke to me for a long time. I think he'd wanted a son to go up to Oxford as he did, and he'd just realised that Sherlock wouldn't be going to University. Sherlock had quite possibly the most long-suffering tutor in the world. He was already studying chemistry at a near-undergraduate level, but he could hardly be induced to read a nursery primer aloud. My father and I spoke of many things: my ambitions at University, the house and lands, family. And just after he leaned over and knocked out his pipe into the coals he looked straight at me and said 'Don't forget your brother.' He rightly assumed that I was harbouring resentful feelings for Sherlock, that I wanted to forget him. He told me that he thought Sherlock had abilities to counteract his detriments, that I must try to make the best life for him that I could."
Watson says nothing. He can understand Mycroft's feelings. Holmes can be so bullheaded, so cold, so frustrating.
"The next time I came back to the house, Sherlock came into the library to greet me. He looked me up and down from across the room, put his head to the side, and said 'Your room is on the western side of the Quadrangle and you went to see your Maths tutor this afternoon.' He had just turned thirteen. I understood. I began to be less angry at him as I grew older. I realised that he cannot help being the way he is. And I think that it cannot be easy, having a mind such as his."
"No," Watson says. "It does not seem easy."
Mycroft turns and gives Watson another of his raking, searching glances. They have reached the door to the club, and they do not continue the conversation until they have reached the Stranger's Room.
"I am glad that you and my brother have established such rapport. I can not imagine a better outcome for him. I must thank you, truly."
Watson takes a scalding sip of tea, nods. He does not know what to say.
"My brother wishes to relocate from our country house and take lodgings in London. I am willing to pay you to assist my brother in achieving that goal." AU: Holmes is autistic. Holmes, Watson, and Mycroft, with guest appearances by Moriarty and Mrs. Hudson.
Watson has not yet finished his breakfast when Mrs. Hudson knocks on the door and introduces a small neat man, who steps into the sitting room and announces in a clear dispassionate voice that he has an urgent message for Mr. Sherlock 'Olmes.
Holmes emerges barefoot from his room and reads the letter, waving the commissionaire away with his free hand. Watson hands the man a halfpenny from his pocket and ushers him out the door.
Holmes thrusts the envelope toward Watson, his eyes on the carpet. "We must go to Lauriston Gardens."
Watson reads over the letter as Holmes finishes dressing. A man has been found dead in an unoccupied house off the Brixton Road. Well-dressed, splattered in blood, and apparently without injury. The note is signed Yours faithfully, Tobias Gregson.
"This is terrible!"
"It is certainly a little out of the common," Holmes remarks as he emerges from his room. "Indeed, there are several points of interest about it."
Watson gathers together two overcoats and his walking cane and makes sure that he has enough money for a cab to Brixton and back. Holmes clatters down the front stairs and stands by the front door, worrying at the fingers of his left hand with that of his right.
"You know this Gregson?" Watson pulls on his coat and hands Holmes his own.
"I have corresponded with him at length. He and a fellow named Lestrade are the least stupid of the Scotland Yarders. Some day I shall have to tell you about the Affair of the Aluminium crutch."
And then they're in the cab, and Holmes says nothing, except for a few absent phrases that Watson cannot make out, such as the movement is based in Ohio and no furniture in the front room. He's rubbing his hands together. "Perhaps you could tell me about the Aluminium Crutch," Watson ventures, and to his surprise Holmes launches into a rapid-fire explanation of the case.
Lauriston Gardens is a shabby, disreputable little street. There is very little traffic, and the sounds of the main road a few streets away are muffled. The street smells of smoke and brackish water. It is a cloudless day, and Watson welcomes the feel of the sun on his skin. Holmes walks back and forth on the strip of watery grass that flanks the path, busily clasping and unclasping his hands.
The door is narrow and unpainted, the wood grey and weathered. On Watson's knock it is opened by a pale blond man with a thin moustache. "Sherlock Holmes, I presume." He puts out a large cold hand and Watson takes it.
"I fear that you are mistaken, sir," Watson says, flustered. "I am Dr. John Watson, Mr. Holmes' assistant."
"Indeed," Gregson says, as if he does not have time for trifles. "And where is Mr. Sherlock Holmes?"
"He won't shake your hand," Watson says in an undertone, "don't be offended." Then he calls for Holmes, who is on his hands and knees examining the path.
"The path has been trampled by several policemen, and most of the evidence has been obscured." Holmes approaches the door, speaking to the ground between his feet.
Gregson looks him up and down, casting a flat policeman's eye over his now-muddy trousers and the way that his eyes slide away from eye contact the way magnets do when the poles are the same. Watson wonders if he or Mycroft shouldn't have prepared them somehow, but would that be worse?
"It is very kind of you to have come," Gregson finally says. "I have had everything left untouched."
"Did you come here in a cab?" Holmes says, coming forward a little. Gregson casts a quizzical look at Watson, as if he's asking if there is some kind of joke.
Gregson smiles jocularly, as if he is trying to break the ice. "Lestrade's a bit much of a penny-pincher for that, sir."
Holmes repeats himself, his voice flat. "Did Lestrade catch a cab?"
Gregson's brow crinkles. "Mr. Holmes, I just--"
"He meant no, Holmes." Watson doesn't know what he can say to make them understand, to make this easier.
A shorter, wider man with dark hair appears from the hall leading to the back yard as Holmes is examining the body. Lestrade.
"This is Dr. Watson," Gregson says. "And that is Mr. Sherlock Holmes." Lestrade places a warm callussed hand in Watson's, then puts his hands on his hips and looks Holmes up and down. Watson watches as he and Gregson share one of those cryptic looks common among policemen.
Holmes says nothing.
It is a large bare room, smelling of dust and rising damp and blood and meat. The dead man lies on his back, grimacing at the ceiling, his bared teeth gleaming where the light from the single window hits them. There are great gouts of blood scattered around the room, and the deepest puddle of it, to one side of the man's head, has not yet darkened from scarlet to brown. Holmes flutters around the room, examining everything from the man's coat buttons to his lips.
Then he stands up and walks around the perimeter of the room several times, his coat-tails streaming out behind him. He strokes his beard with an index finger and thumb. He takes out his tape measure and measures the distance between several equally indistinguishable marks on the wall.
Watson hears the rustle of starched cotton as Lestrade crosses his arms across his chest. He is gazing at Holmes with something approaching contempt, and Watson feels his cheeks redden.
"It is not his blood," Lestrade says.
"Obviously not," Holmes says, his voice high and irritated. "It belongs to the man who lured him here and killed him."
There is a silence, just the gritty noise of Holmes' shoes moving over the dusty floor.
"Je ne sais pas," Holmes says. I don't know. He clears his throat several times, and Watson shifts his weight to his other leg.
"Van Jensen, Utrecht, 1834. Where are the contents of this man's pockets?"
A golden watch and chain, the fat links rusty with blood. A leather note-case, some pocket change that Holmes sifts through with an index finger, his mouth clamped down into a thin line.
Holmes turns his back on the crime scene and walks rapidly down the hallway, outside into the cool air. They follow him. The floorboards in the hall creak and the smell of rising damp is stronger. There is an old-fashioned wallpaper on the walls here, peeling, and Watson vaguely wonders if a house-proud woman picked it out, twenty or thirty years ago.
Holmes stands outside, his skin white in the bright sun. "We shall need to get a cab, Watson."
"Wait," Lestrade says. "What are your findings here?"
"I could discover very little," Holmes says, addressing himself again to the churned-up mud of the path. "The entire scene has been trampled by clumsy policemen."
Lestrade raises his eyebrows and Gregson has opened his mouth to say something else when Holmes continues in the same high, irritated, remote voice.
"The murder was a man taller than six feet with small feet and a red face. He wore square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar. He came here by four-wheeler and his victim came into the house on his own two feet. The horse had a new shoe on the off fore-leg."
"If this man was murdered, Mr. Holmes, how was it done?" Lestrade crosses his arms across his broad chest again.
"Poison," Holmes says, and that is all he will say.
"Listen to this, Watson!" Holmes sits reading the newspaper, his toast forgotten in front of him. "The man was apprehended, it appears, in the rooms of a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who has himself, as an amateur, shown some talent in the detective line, and who, with such instructors, may hope in time to attain to some degree of their skill."
"Indeed," Watson says, his voice carefully level. "You are also mentioned by name in this morning's Times."
He passes the newspaper over to Holmes, who carefully reads the paragraph Watson points out to him.
"Well," he says. "That is gratifying."
"Holmes," Watson says, "They have treated you here with such contempt! They have made Lestrade and Gregson out to be skilled professionals and you the bumbling amateur!"
"That is of no consequence to me, Watson," Holmes says. "I wager this little mention will bring more work my way."
It matters to Watson. What matters more is the contempt he saw in Lestrade's eyes.
The next time that Mrs. Hudson announces Lestrade at the door, Watson bounds up from his desk and down the stairs quick enough to meet Lestrade half way.
"Good day, Lestrade," he says with false bonhomie, loud enough to carry up the stairs, and when Lestrade puts his hand in his Watson pulls him off-balance, so he half-stumbles to the next riser. He blocks Lestrade's left with his right elbow and then puts his hand on the front of Lestrade's shirt and twists it savagely, not caring if he has caught the skin up in the taut cotton.
Watson draws Lestrade's face closer to his own, so close that he can smell the cigarette he smoked in the cab and the aftershave he splashed on this morning.
"Holmes may not be aware of the scorn you have for him, Lestrade," Watson whispers. "But I am, and if I ever hear that anybody at Scotland Yard has treated him with anything less than the respect accorded a gentleman, I will make your life very difficult."
"You? How?" Lestrade whispers back, his voice low and angry. Watson lets go of the front of the shirt and allows Lestrade to push past him, his shoulders high.
"Holmes has friends in high places, Lestrade. He's not an idiot, merely eccentric. You'd do well to remember that."
By the time they reach the sitting room Lestrade has smoothed down the front of his shirt and plastered a stiff smile on his face. Watson watches him carefully, all the same.
Watson comes home from his club to find a small, dirty-looking boy sitting on a chair opposite the settee. The boy is wearing a threadbare workman's shirt that is much too big for him and a pair of trousers that stop at mid-ankle. Holmes is sitting on the settee, leaning forward, his hands steepled under his chin.
"What happened next?"
"I saw 'im get out the carriage."
"You are certain that it was him?"
"You are certain that it was him, Wiggins?"
"It were 'im. The other stayed up in the carriage. Shorter feller in a brown suit, like. Hat pulled down over his eyes."
"And did you observe if he was carrying anything."
"He had a packidge under his arm. Sumfin wrapped up in brown paper."
"Your accent is truly fascinating to me. I had little idea that people really spoke like that."
Holmes leans back, half-closing his eyes. The small boy remains on the seat, swinging his legs slightly. After a short pause Holmes takes a shilling from his pocket and hands it to the boy.
"Until next week, then. Don't hesitate to send a telegram if anything out of the ordinary happens. I will reimburse you."
The boy clatters down the stairs and down onto the street.
"Have you taken to spying now, Holmes?"
Holmes does not reply. He lights his pipe and smokes it silently on the settee, stock-still except for the fingers of his right hand, which beat a nervous tattoo against his leg. Watson goes to his room to change. When he returns, Holmes is sitting at his desk, engaged in the energetic collation of a huge pile of notes and telegram flimsies and newspaper clippings.
Dinner is potato and leek soup followed by roast lamb. Watson particularly enjoys Mrs. Hudson's roast lamb. Holmes takes a few spoonfuls of the soup then pushes it away from him.
"Have you ever heard of a man called Moriarty, Watson?"
"I can't say that I have," Watson says after some little deliberation. No doubt he will have heard of Moriarty soon.
"He is a mathematician. He is best known for a series of lectures he delivered on the physics of moving objects."
Watson takes a mouthful of lamb, chews and swallows it. Holmes is engaged in filling up his pipe, his eyes on the geometric embroidery pattern at the centre of the tablecloth.
"Now that you mention it, I have heard something of him."
"I know appalling things about Professor Moriarty. He has enjoyed a parallel career to his academic one."
Then Holmes goes to his desk and takes a bloated Manila file from the top drawer. He places it in the middle of the table, narrowly missing knocking over the water carafe. He takes out sheafs of paper, a scrapbook, a one-inch Ordnance Survey map of London scrawled all over with his unsteady handwriting.
Five years ago Professor Moriarty embedded himself in the London underworld, pulling over himself a suffocating array of subterfuges and criminal networks and false trails. Now he sits in the middle of his own tightly-woven web. The only question left to Watson is why. He supposes that Moriarty is the sort of person who would say why not?
Prostitution. Opium. Smuggling, poisonings, heads caved in on deserted country lanes. London, Liverpool, Manchester. Holmes believes that Moriarty has paid operatives as far away as Dublin and Paris.
"I wager that I'll have discovered everything I need to know about Moriarty in six months," Holmes says. "Everything I need to know to defeat him. This is why I came to London."
It takes Moriarty three months to notice.
A woman has been found dead in St. James Park, a train ticket from a small station in the Scottish Highlands the only clue as to her identity.
That is, apart from the brand of snuff she uses and her custom-made shoes and the shape of her big toe. But those things have not furnished Holmes with enough detail.
It is bitter midwinter and Victoria station is cold and echoing, poorly heated and filled with the same smothering coal smell as the whole of London. Watson is walking a step behind Holmes, half-guiding him to the train. Holmes does not do well in train stations. Watson had the cab drop them off at the entrance that would provide the shortest route to the Scottish platforms.
Watson has his valise in one hand and his walking cane in the other, and he is trying to decide whether the ABC guide had the train as 11.23 or 11.32 when a shortish man with a bland face swings a heavy police-issue nightstick into his stomach. He doubles over, gasping, black dots swimming like bonfire ash in front of his eyes, and then there is another blow across his shoulder (that one sends a stinging tingling pain down his weaker left arm), and then the bland-faced man is walking rapidly away as two equally unmemorable men nod at each other and turn away, leaving Holmes curled in on himself about three feet ahead of Watson.
Holmes is curled on his side. Watson climbs to his feet, the cold of the marble seeping though the knees of his trousers.
There is a bobby approaching from the other side of the vast echoing chamber and the station is full of rushing people and scuffing feet and the chuffing noise of trains. Most of the passersby give Holmes a wide berth. When Watson puts a hand on Holmes' shoulder he shies away and takes a deep breath and moans raggedly. The sound makes Watson's stomach clench. Then Watson puts the reassuring weight of his overcoat over Holmes' shoulders and puts one of his hands on Holmes' shoulder and squeezes it and says "Come on, old boy. Get up."
A fat woman in a ridiculous hat comments loudly to the rat-faced woman walking next to her, wondering out loud why such people are allowed out in society. Watson finds himself quite uncharitably wishing that her face will sprout a large unsightly wart or growth, then perhaps her rat-faced friend will not want to go about in public with her.
Holmes clears his throat and coughs, and Watson puts his hands on Holmes shoulders and pulls him up into a sitting position.
"Stand up unless you want to explain yourself to that policeman," Watson says, hating that he has to resort to such petty emotional subterfuge. He puts his arm around Holmes ribs and allows Holmes to brace himself against his shoulder.
Holmes gives a sharp wet gasp and puts a hand against his side.
The bobby finally approaches them. He has a mild questioning look on his face, his hand resting casually on his nightstick.
"Everything orright here?"
"Yes," Watson says. "My friend here is feeling unwell. We will be catching a cab home now."
"I thought I might have seen you in an altercation over here, that's all."
"You misunderstand, sir." Watson says, allowing some of his anger and frustration to leak into his voice, giving it a steely battleground edge. He knows how to treat this man as a subordinate.
"Very well, then," the bobby says.
Holmes walks very stiffly. Watson doesn't like the look of that, doesn't like the twisted cast to Holmes' mouth or his fragile silence or the way he gasps when the cold air hits his lungs, the shallow breath ghosting around his lips like a comma.
While Holmes is undressing Watson goes takes some sterile water and morphia and mixes a fresh dose.
"This will help with the pain," Watson says, shaking the bottle. He washes his hands at the basin, dries them, then takes the needle from a basin of sterile alcohol and draws a fifth of a grain of morphia into the hypodermic syringe.
The skin of Holmes' forearm is so white that the veins stand out in sharp relief.
Holmes falls into a fitful sleep ten minutes later. Watson is confident that the cracked rib is only that, and is in no danger of piercing the lung. Mrs. Hudson comes upstairs bearing a tray of tea and toast, and she makes a little tutting noise before she bends over to pick Holmes' crumpled clothes off the floor.
"Wouldn't want this to go through the wash," she says, putting a plain white envelope on Holmes' desk.
A cheap envelope, a blank piece of paper. No address, no salutation, just a neat sentence written in a spidery hand. Watson wonders if it is the professor's writing.
This is your final warning.
Mycroft closes Holmes' bedroom door softly behind him. Then he goes to the mantlepiece and lights a cigarette, dashing his match angrily into the fire.
"I see," he says.
"A nightstick," Watson says. "A well-organised attack."
"Or a lead-filled cane," Mycroft says. "Until I saw the bruise I could have convinced myself that it was a random occurrence."
"You saw the note?"
"Yes, although I can tell nothing from it other than that it was written on a train and that the writer can afford more expensive paper. No doubt my brother could deduce more from it. I doubt he needs to."
"As far as I know there have been no others," Watson says.
Mycroft crosses his arms and blows an angry line of smoke at the floor.
"You will forgive me if this question is impertinent, doctor, but where were you while these men were cracking my brother's ribs with a nightstick?"
"I was -- Someone winded me. It was all over before I could get up."
"Oh," Mycroft says. "I am sorry to hear that. I had it from Mr. Stamford that you made quite a name for yourself as an amateur boxer before you went to Afghanistan." He appears chastised. Watson wonders what else Mycroft knows about him.
"I did," he says. "But sometimes you only need one good blow to fell an opponent. He got one on me."
Watson wants to unbutton his waistcoat and shirt and show Mycroft the angry red mark that stretches across his ribs and stomach, the way it will deepen into a purple bruise that nags at him when he stands up and when he dresses.
They are in the thundering church-like quiet of the Stranger's Room again and Mycroft puts his hand on Watson's shoulder.
"Another thing, old boy. I've added a codicil to my will, asking that it not be read until five years after my death. Sherlock is my main beneficiary, but I am concerned that some of my cousins may learn from historical antecedent and challenge the will on the grounds that he is 'mentally incompetent'." A brief flare of scorn.
"But why five years?"
"To give you time, Watson, to give you time."
What for? You mean Holmes and I? What are you planning?
Mycroft's eyes are bland and his secretary has envelopes bearing the crest of military intelligence on his desk. He spends all day in his office doing sums, Holmes says. What sort of sums put the plainclothes man at the end of the corridor? What sort of sums put Turkish cigarettes in his desk and bring the telegrams that Mycroft sometimes receives at the club: telegrams from Germany and India and Russia. Telegrams bearing mysterious names, sometimes no more than a series of numbers.
The questions Watson wants to ask of Mycroft all die in his throat.
A week later Watson learns that Mycroft is making arrangements regarding the appointment of his successor.
Mycroft will not allow Holmes to leave their rooms. He works feverishly for weeks, snapping at Mrs. Hudson and leaving overdrawn pots of tea on every surface. Every time Watson leaves to send a telegram or dash to the post office or the library, a short, broad-shouldered man with a bland face meets his eye from a bench or a doorway or street corner. Mycroft's man.
It is early spring, and London is muddy and crisp and alive when Holmes hands a large Manila folder to Lestrade. Everything is tied up neatly; Holmes has let Professor Moriarty tie his own noose. He intercepted letters meant for the man's subordinates and cracked the code the criminals used in the agony column of the Times.
Lestrade hurries away to let Scotland Yard spring its much less intricate trap, and Watson persuades Holmes to change his shirt, to sleep.
But then Mycroft clatters up their stairs with a bruise on his right cheek and a handkerchief wound around the fingers of his left hand. Knife, Watson diagnoses. There is cracked dried blood on Mycroft's knuckles, blood leaking tacky through the white cotton.
"Pack some things, Doctor, we must leave for the Continent in fifteen minutes."
Mycroft goes into Holmes' room, where he is sleeping off the exertion of the investigation. Watson can soon hear the throb of raised voices through the walls.
The leave in ten minutes, Watson carrying two hurriedly-packed valises and Holmes his violin.
They are walking down Baker Street in the direction of Regent's Park when a sharp cracking noise sends Watson's nerves singing. Broken glass rains down around them, the window of their front room. And then they are running.
On the train to Bonn Mycroft and Holmes conduct a long conversation in rapid French. It seems fluent to Watson, not undermined by the uncertainty that so many Englishmen have with the language.
"It is the least preferable outcome but it seems the most likely," Mycroft finally says in English, exasperated, and he turns to look at the scenery.
Holmes lights his pipe and puts one of his long nervous hands against the cool glass of the window. He hums and hums and nobody says a word.
Meiringen is ridiculously cheerful. The air has a cleanness to it that is entirely unlike London and the trees are sprouting delicate green buds. Watson is wary whenever he hears a British accent, but there is no sight of Moriarty, only students on geological excursions and schoolgirls on tours.
The path to the falls has been worn smooth by generations of day-trippers with stout boots and alpenstocks. The roar of the falls is like an afterthought at first, so faint it could be the wind. The path grows steeper, and the air is colder, and Watson has the unshakeable feeling that something is dreadfully wrong.
The falls are around the next bend and the sound dominates every thought. Holmes is uncomfortable with it. His eyelids are clamped down to slits, and his hands run nervously through his messy hair. Travel wearies him, and the stress and uncertainty of the last weeks have spread his resolve very thin.
A cry travels up the path behind them, a sweaty messenger from the hotel in the town. A Mr. Lestrade has left an urgent message for Mr. Sherlock Holmes. If Herr Holmes could return to the hotel? A deep line carves down between Holmes' eyes and he puts his palm against a cold grey boulder as if to steady himself.
"Go," Mycroft says. "I will see you in Rosenlaui tomorrow."
"Be strong, brother," Holmes says. Then he turns his back and hurries away down the path. Watson has his eyes on Mycroft for another few seconds, and he sees the look of happy surprise on his face. It is such an un-Holmes thing to say. But then Mycroft raises his hand to Watson, bidding him farewell, and Watson follows Holmes. It is cooler under the shade of the trees, and the path is dappled in light and shadow. Watson remembers that, the way the trees seem to play with the light.
There is no message, of course, and when they breathlessly arrive back at the last turn of the path before that roaring nothingness, the place where the Earth seems to end, there is only Mycroft's walking stick leaning against a boulder and a note held down by his cigarette case.
Holmes wordlessly passes the pages to Watson, his face empty. The note says in part: It is a simple calculation, my life for his. It does not seem simple to Watson, but he has never considered himself to be exceptionally rational, only brave and romantic and a little stupid.
Holmes lays himself flat against the path and screams himself hoarse, yelling into the nothingness of the rushing water and the sweet ozone smell of the mist. Watson cannot tell what he is saying, if he has any words.
Holmes stands up and wavers for a second, overwhelmed by the rushing susurration of the water and the clear sunlight and the two sets of footprints that end abruptly at the edge of the cliff. Then he puts his head up to the sky and clamps his hands over his ears and screams, an animal sound torn from him by grief and self-reproach. It hurts Watson to hear it.
"I should have known! I should have known!"
How Watson got Holmes down off that path, he will never know. When they arrive back at the Englisher Hof, Holmes is silent, half-supported by Watson, his voice hoarse, his eyes red.
They arrive back in London to a hero's welcome. Holmes will hear nothing of his own achievements. He will barely eat, he does nothing but sleep. Watson occupies himself in gently rebuffing the enquiries of Holmes' family and helping Scotland Yard to iron out the last kinks in the case. Holmes emerges from his room once a day if that. Watson is deeply tired, and he finds himself bitterly wishing that he could behave as Holmes does.
Watson yearns for Mycroft's advice.
He takes Holmes back to the family seat. Holmes stays in his old room for days, rattling chemical bottles and rustling papers. Watson sleeps restlessly in a guest room, jolted into insomnia by the unfamiliar surroundings.
One morning Holmes emerges and greets Watson with something more than the cold disregard for everything he has shown in the previous weeks.
"Will I show you the folly, doctor?"
They walk across the fields, wet heat rising from the sun-warmed grass. Holmes starts to chatter about Roman artifacts and something called the Ribchester Helmet, and Watson just listens.
Summer. Baker Street is sweltering, and Watson would rather be in the country where there are things like streams to bathe in and cellars to cool beer in. But Holmes insisted on going back to London to immerse himself in investigating a jewel theft. It does not seem like such an interesting case to Watson, rather a sordid and unimaginative one. Watson is attempting to write and not having much luck with it.
Holmes is sitting at the settee, smoking his pipe and worrying away at his beard with a thumb and index finger.
"Perhaps you would be more comfortable if you shaved."
"Hmm?" Holmes looks up, startled.
"Some say it is uncomfortable to have a beard in the summer. You might be more comfortable if you shaved."
"I never learnt," Holmes says absently. "I don't like the way it feels."
Three hours later, after a flurry of telegrams and a great deal of pacing back and forth and shouting, Holmes sits himself on the settee, absently takes a sip from a cup of tea that must be long-cold, and lights his pipe.
"I think that you may be right," he says as if resuming a conversation from minutes ago. "It would be a relief to be rid of this oppressive beard."
So Watson takes out his shaving brush and his razor strop and the basin from his bedroom. He mixes up the lather and applies it to his face, then stands at the mirror in the hall, looking into Holmes' eyes through the mirror.
"You should put hot water on your face first," he says. "It prepares the skin."
He applies the lather, the soapy-clean smell of it strong and comforting in his nostrils, and then he stretches the skin of his neck with his left hand as he shaves with his right. Watson always shaves his neck first, has done so since his father taught him to shave, in much the same way he is teaching Holmes now. Life has a funny way of looping in on itself.
"Make the first pass with the grain," Watson says. "That means as the hair grows."
Watson washes his face and dries it. It is strange, to be shaving now in the mid-afternoon. The smell of the soap is morning-strong against Watson's skin and he feels as if he is slipping back in time. Holmes seems so present, next to him, so tall and white and intense. He can smell Holmes' tobacco, as well, can see the slightly shiny knees of his well-brushed suit.
"Would you like to try?"
"I might cut myself."
"There is a chance of that. Breathe out to keep your hands steady."
Watson strops his razor and hands it to Holmes.
"I'll watch you," he says, his voice carefully casual.
Holmes bends over the basin and sluices water over his face.