It had been a day of fortunate finds. Holmes’ investigation had stretched on for three days, from dock-side to tavern, from the depths of seedy warehouse basements to the top of rickety tenement buildings. This morning things had started to fall into place. By mid-morning, he had most of the evidence he needed. By noon, he’d been in just the right place to overhear the details of the next robbery. By mid-afternoon, he’d learned the location of the next delivery, and also discovered the identity of the shipping firm involved in the scheme, one he had suspected but not previously been able to find any conclusive evidence tying them to the crimes. All in all, it had been a most gratifying day.
By late afternoon, however, the worsening weather sent even the most hardened criminals off the waterfront, and Holmes felt the fatigue of the past days of little food, little rest, and the constant need to maintain his disguise catching up with him. It was time to return to Baker Street.
He made his way along back streets and alleys, a twisting, winding course designed to ensure that he was not followed or observed. He took several cabs, grateful for the chance to get out of the sleet and snow, but still too wary to take one all the way to his address. Cabs grew scarcer as the unusual spring storm grew more intense, and Holmes resigned himself to the possibility that he might have to walk the rest of the way. The streets were nearly deserted –
No. Not quite deserted. Out of the corner of his eye, Holmes caught a glimpse of a flurry of activity near the end of the alleyway. One, no, two men were down, and the other two ruffians – ones Holmes vaguely recognized – were reeling back from the furiously-fighting man they’d set upon, a man who clearly had no intention of being a victim or the loser in this conflict, outnumbered or no –
Wait. He knew that fighting style. He knew that face, distorted as it was from effort and the blood running down his forehead and into his eyes.
Why, how, what on earth, were all questions for later. All thoughts and observations fled from Holmes’ mind. He rushed to help his friend.
The other two men either sensed his approach, or decided enough was enough. They scurried away as fast as their injuries would take them. Watson blinked and shook his head before clumsily fishing out a handkerchief and pressing it to his temple. There was no sign of his hat, and his walking-stick was shattered into multiple pieces and lying on the ground. He swayed, and Holmes increased his pace, intent on catching him should he lose his balance and fall.
In his concern, he forgot all about the fact that he was still in disguise, and that startling Watson in the immediate aftermath of a fight was never a wise thing to do. He scarcely saw the fist before it impacted firmly with his face.
Somehow he managed to get his arms around Watson despite the sudden attack. His friend struggled wildly, obviously believing he was the one being assaulted, and Holmes forced his pained mouth to shape a few words: “Watson! Easy, it’s me!”
The doctor’s struggles ceased so abruptly Holmes almost slipped and fell. “Holmes?” His friend’s voice was hoarse, barely more than a gasping whisper. Holmes braced himself just in time to take most of his weight as Watson’s knees gave out from under him.
He knew he said something in reply, but if asked, he honestly could not have said precisely what. Almost all of his attention was focused on Watson, examining him, attempting to deduce from the visual and aural cues just how badly his friend might be hurt, what exactly he needed in order to recover as quickly as possible.
Sometimes he could almost see a glimpse of truth in the common sayings of old housewives. Case in point: today’s miserable sleet- and snow-storm bid fair to prove that April really was the cruelest month. Perhaps these frozen spring showers would bring May flowers, but Holmes rather doubted it; more likely they’d freeze the budding plants clean down to the ground. They were certainly adding to Watson’s difficulties, which were already considerable: bleeding and bruised from the recent fight; short of breath; high spots of color brought on by the cold contrasting with chilled pallor and dark shadows of fatigue; tight lines of pain and tension creasing the skin around his eyes; pained stiffness in shoulder, leg, and torso. The brutal weather just made all these things worse for Watson. He could feel the other man shivering badly. His stained, sodden overcoat clearly wasn’t providing him enough protection from the elements. Holmes wished his disguise had more layers, so that he could have offered one or two to the obviously suffering doctor.
He got his friend moving with an effort. He felt Watson leaning heavily on his arm, limping with each step. Holmes bit his lip in concern, then winced as the injudicious motion aggravated his split lip. “Not much farther. We’ll hail a cab as soon as we’re out of this alley,” he said encouragingly.
“Only if you’ve the fare to pay for one,” Watson wheezed. “I seem to have misplaced my pocket-book.” He took another ragged breath before gesturing weakly with the arm that wasn’t tucked into Holmes’. “And if we can find a cab in this awful weather, and if any respectable cabbie will stop for the likes of us.”
Watson’s pawky humor reassured Holmes a trifle, but his friend’s wry observation contained a valid point. Between Holmes’ seedy disguise, and the doctor’s blood-streaked visage, they might very well have trouble flagging down a cab, much less convincing a cabbie to accept them as passengers. Well, whatever trouble it took, Holmes swore to get his Watson home as quickly as possible. His friend needed warmth and rest and treatment. “I have enough coins for the fare, never fear.”
Holmes wished he could tell whether Watson’s hoarse breathing was simply an aftermath of the fight or indicative of some injury, but he certainly wasn’t going to remove Watson’s coat to check him over, not until they were both under shelter. “Steady, dear chap,” he murmured as he felt Watson stagger. “We’re nearly there.”
“Sorry,” Watson apologized. “This pavement’s rather icy.”
It was, and only got worse as they left the meager protection of the alley. The wind blew full-force, driving stinging pellets of ice into any exposed skin. Holmes felt Watson flinch, and drew him closer to his own body in a futile attempt to protect him. “Are you sure you’re not badly hurt – that you’re well enough to continue? There’s a pub not two blocks from here that serves a notable bitter and tolerable ham sandwiches. We could stop there for a while, catch our breaths and warm up before continuing on to Baker Street.”
“The day I’m having, the place will be closed for repairs,” Watson puffed. “Or infested with vermin who ate all the ham. Let’s just get home.”
“Really, Watson - ” A faint rattle reached his ears, and Holmes whipped his head around to see a lone cab on the street, heading slowly towards them in the increasing whiteout. “One moment, dear fellow, there’s our ride!” He turned loose of Watson and darted out into the roadway, waving both arms.
The cab driver looked far more interested in getting out of the weather than in accepting a fare, but the sight of Holmes’ money and a few well-chosen words swiftly changed his mind. Holmes returned to Watson’s side, worriedly noting his shaky stance and the pained way he braced himself against the side of a building. Sleet and snow had frozen into his moustache. “Take my arm, my friend,” Holmes coaxed. “We don’t want to keep the cab-man waiting.”
Holmes practically had to hoist Watson bodily into the cab. The interior was old and musty, and the wind whipped through the frame as if the walls and glass weren’t there. Holmes sat as close to Watson as he possibly could and tucked an arm around his shoulders, trying to share what warmth he had. The cab lurched into motion, and Holmes held them both steady against the sudden jerk. Despite his best efforts, Watson flinched at the movement. Holmes sought to distract Watson from his ongoing discomfort. “Now, Watson, we should be home shortly – but why don’t you go ahead and start telling me about this day of yours.” He wanted to know, of course, needed to know if he was to understand exactly what had happened to his Watson and how to best help him, but he also knew that recounting events – telling a story – was one of the surest ways to soothe his friend.
Watson gave him a faint smile. “All right, Holmes, but I warn you beforehand, it’s quite the tedious tale.”
Holmes smiled back, glad to see such a show of spirit. His Watson was tired, injured, far too chilled, and short at least one good meal, if Holmes was any judge. Holmes would see all these things remedied back at Baker Street, and keep him as safe and comfortable and amused as he could in the meanwhile. “I shall be the judge of that. Now begin at the beginning, and pray do not leave out any facts.”
Watson sighed and leaned into him. “Well, it started with a leaky roof…”
Holmes listened, grateful for this most fortunate find of all.