If Watson’s bed wasn’t firmly wedged against one wall of his small garret bedroom, he would have said he’d gotten up on the wrong side of it. He woke, too early, in an utterly foul humor. It did not take Holmes’ deductive powers to determine the cause of his awakening; half his blankets were sodden and cold from rainwater leaking in from the roof.
“Wonderful,” he grumbled.
By the time he managed to place the bowl from his washbasin under the leak and strip the bed, he was thoroughly wide awake, chilled, and miserable. He struggled into his slippers, wrapped his dressing-gown more tightly around himself in the futile hope that the rather threadbare garment might impart some actual warmth, and hastened downstairs.
Or tried to. Halfway down, his leg seized up, and he nearly fell. Only a quick grab at the railing saved him – and also wrenched his bad shoulder.
“Oh, delightful,” he panted, pain shooting stars through his vision.
The sitting-room was cold, last night’s banked coal-fire smothered and dead in its own ashes. Watson tried to light a new fire, but all he got for his trouble was soot all over his hands and streaked on his dressing gown, grit in his eyes, and a lump on his head from where he banged it into the mantelpiece.
“Just marvelous,” he choked.
By the time Mrs. Hudson brought up breakfast (eggs stone-cold, toast soggy; the new kitchen-maid was decidedly not an improvement over the previous one) and apologized for the lack of tea (Rats? Really? Eaten half the package? And gotten into the coffee, too?), Watson would have been thoroughly grumpy with her and the world in general, if he hadn’t been such a gentleman. A gentleman does not sulk. A gentleman does not pout. A gentleman definitely does not take out his ill temper on others, no matter how deserving – or in Mrs. Hudson’s case, utterly undeserving of anything but his gratitude, particularly since she managed to get a fire burning at last in the stubborn grate. It smoked, but at least it provided a touch of warmth.
A very small touch.
And the smoke irritated his gritty, itchy eyes and made his throat hurt.
And still no word from Holmes, of course.
By midmorning, a leaky fountain pen had ruined two pages of work, and an overturned inkwell had drenched the blotter on his desk. Exasperated, Watson reached for another cigarette, only to discover that his case was empty.
“Brilliant,” he groused, knowing he only had himself to blame, but feeling resentful nonetheless. Still, perhaps a brief constitutional to his favorite tobacconist would help ease his still-aching leg and shoulder.
Even if it was still raining outside.
Or perhaps that was sleet?
It was sleet. It slithered icily through a previously-unnoticed hole in the shoulder of his overcoat. It oozed through a cut in his left boot. And it rendered his already-limping gait into a torturous exercise in slipping, sliding, skidding, and slithering along the glassy pavement. By the time he reached his favorite shop on Oxford Street, Watson was out of breath, shivering, and twice as sore as he’d been before leaving Baker Street.
“I’m sorry, Doctor Watson,” the clerk told him, scratching his head. “I could have sworn that I’d made up a batch of your favorite blend just the other day, but the drawer is empty, and I can’t seem to find what I’ve done with it. And we’re clean out of Ship’s. Perhaps if you came back this afternoon…?”
“Fabulous,” Watson muttered under his breath.
It wouldn’t have really mattered if they’d had his tobacco, Watson told himself, for when he stopped to buy a bag of hot chestnuts to appease his growling stomach from a moonlighting Irregular, his pocket-book wasn’t in his vest. He only hoped he’d forgotten it at home, and not lost it to some exceptionally clever pickpocket. He did find a battered tuppence in his overcoat, which was enough to get him his chestnuts, and fend off the scowl from the normally-genial lad. The boy dropped the bag straight into his palm.
The bag split on impact. The blazing-hot nuts went everywhere, and left red marks on the skin of his hand.
“Brilliant,” Watson sighed. “No, Tom, I’ll not have another. I think that’s enough nuts for one day.”
He’d barely made it back to the still-chilly, unpleasantly coal-smoked sitting room at Baker Street before there was a violent peal of the doorbell. Footsteps sounded on the stairs, the sitting room door burst open, and a vaguely familiar man appeared.
“Oh, Doctor Watson, thank goodness you’re here. My mistress must have you see her at once. She says she’s dreadfully unwell.”
“Of course,” Watson agreed automatically, and only then remembered why the fellow looked familiar. He was the unfortunate manservant of Mrs. Horatio Clark, an utterly hypochondriac matron who regularly vacillated between fluttering vapors and strident demands. She was one of the few of his former patients that he was unquestionably glad to leave behind when he sold his practice to Doctor Vernet.
Except, of course, she kept sending for him at intermittent intervals, probably when Vernet had managed to give her his excuses.
And he’d just committed himself to once more filling in the gap.
For one moment, he wavered. He really did. The day was already awful, his mood was in shambles, and he felt like a wreck. But he was a doctor, a soldier, and a gentleman, and none of these three would turn their back on duty in the face of a little (okay, maybe not so little) unpleasantness. Besides, the manservant looked entirely grateful, like he’d just been reprieved at the scaffold. Knowing Mrs. Clark, that probably wasn’t too far off the mark.
Mrs. Clark’s household was in an uproar. Her son and daughter-in-law were in residence for a visit, complete with their rollicking brood of six children. The youngest, a mere infant, was colicky and screaming at the top of its lungs. The second youngest had a very drippy cold. The older four seemed determined to shout the house down in the course of their games. The mother was at her wits’ end and inclined to be weepy. Mrs. Clark was having hysterics and complaining of chest pains. The father (wisely, in Watson’s estimation) rapidly decamped for a midday libation. After an hour of listening to the constant din and incessant complaints, Watson rather felt like joining him.
“Charming,” Watson said with a weak smile at the harried mother as the infant boy peed all over him during his examination. “Nothing wrong with this part of his internal processes, evidently.”
Hours passed before he was able to soothe the colicky boy’s pains so that he stopped screaming. He dispensed ear-drops and prescribed bed rest and regular inhalations of hot, herb-laced steam for the congested toddler. He introduced the elder four to the wonders of sliding about on Mrs. Clark’s icy back lawn, reducing the noise level in the house to a tolerable level. He suggested tea to the harried mother, and further improved her ability to cope by dosing her hysterical, demanding mother-in-law with a mild sleeping powder. By the time he extricated himself, he left a much-improved household behind him. He was also exhausted, sore, nearly lightheaded from hunger (he’d completely missed luncheon, and it was already past tea-time), fouled by various bodily secretions from the two youngest children, and his head pounded fiercely. The weather was, if possible, even more dreadful than it had been at mid-morning, sleet now mixed with snow. He’d have hailed a cab, if there was one to be found – and if he had managed to find his pocket-book, which he still hadn’t. Stifling the impulse to moan, Watson set out on foot for the long walk back to Baker Street.
Halfway there, Watson felt nearly frozen, and his old wounds stabbed at him fiercely. He ducked down an alley that if he remembered correctly from his outings with Holmes, would cut at least a block off of his return journey. He’d traversed perhaps a third of it when four large, bulky, ill-clad figures loomed up at him out of the sleety, miserable gloom.
Watson tightened his grip on his walking-stick – a lightweight one, not any of his more specialized sticks he armed himself with when working a case. “Gentlemen, it has been an absolutely rotten day. I don’t suppose you would kindly step aside and allow me to pass?”
“Listen to ‘im,” one sneered in return. “All polite as ya please, innit he?”
“Too polite by half, if you ask me,” another slurred. “But if you hand over your money and watch all nice-like, maybe we’ll be nice in return and let you leave with your skin intact.”
“Mostly,” a third man snickered.
“I’m afraid I have no money with me,” Watson demurred. “And I’m rather sentimentally fond of my watch.”
“Well, isn’t that just too bad?”
“Fantastic,” Watson huffed, and threw himself into the fray.
A breathless interval later, Watson’s vision was clouded by blood streaming into his eyes, his fists were abraded and sore, his ribs ached badly in two places, his walking-stick was shattered into three separate pieces, and he could barely breathe through the stitch in his side. He was also alone in the alley (except for the unconscious forms of two of his assailants), and still in possession of his watch.
He daubed at his scalp with his handkerchief, trying to stem the bleeding from where he’d been hit with a bottle (fortunately empty), and wondered whether it was worth the trouble to hunt down a bobby to arrest the two remaining miscreants. With his luck today, he wouldn’t find one for miles.
A flicker of movement caught his attention through his hazy vision. Another ill-dressed form rushed at him. Gritting his teeth, Watson swung at him with all the strength he could muster.
His fist connected solidly with the other man’s face, and he heard a barked exclamation of pained surprise, but the fellow still managed to get enormously strong, wiry arms around him. Watson struggled mightily, but could not slip that grip.
That familiar grip.
“Watson, easy, it’s me!” came a garbled, pained, but all too well-known voice.
“Holmes?” Adrenaline left him in a rush, and Watson sagged, abruptly exhausted.
Holmes shifted, his arms no longer confining, but still supporting most of Watson’s weight as his knees threatened to give out from under him. “Yes, my dear Watson. I am here, in the not-entirely-unmarked flesh.” His voice was rueful, his words unusually slurred.
Watson blinked stinging blood out of his eyes and managed to focus well enough to see that Holmes’ lower lip was split and already swelling. He groaned. “Oh, Holmes. I am so sorry.”
“Never mind, my dear chap.” One hand freed itself from supporting Watson in order to gently thread through Watson’s hair, gingerly examining the cuts. “I should have known better to rush towards you in the immediate aftermath of a fight. You’ve had quite an adventuresome day, I take it?”
Watson rolled his eyes. “My dear fellow, you have absolutely no bloody idea.”
A low chuckle revitalized Watson’s spirits as Holmes tucked Watson’s good arm into his. “I could probably deduce the basic facts, but I think you’d rather tell me all about it. Come on. Let’s go home.”