The early spring wind whips cold and damp off the sea, and John wishes he’d brought a warmer coat. Or at least a pair of gloves.
He turns to watch as Sherlock, a dozen paces behind him, stoops to pick up a stone from the beach and throw it in a smooth arc into the waves. The grey at his temples is much more noticeable in this light, stark against the remaining dark curls. This stretch of melancholy is a bit worrisome—when he’d asked John to come down to Sussex with him John fully expected a case to occupy the entire conversation, but Sherlock had been silent the entire drive, brow furrowed and eyes pensive.
“We should probably go back up,” John says, and tucks his hands under his armpits. “The tide’s coming in and frankly, I’m bloody freezing.”
Sherlock takes one last look out to the horizon, mouth downturned and brow furrowed, before seeming to shake himself and catching up to John with a few long-legged strides. John turns back toward the path cut into the cliffs, climbing steadily toward the rolling downs already green and lush in the weak April warmth.
They reach the top and Sherlock strikes toward the west, back to where their hired Land Rover sits a mile away in a public carpark. John falls into step beside him and takes a deep breath.
“I expected a case,” he starts. “A bit chilly for a walk, really, so. D’you mind telling me what we’re doing out here?”
Sherlock doesn’t even pause, simply tucks his head down against the wind and continues walking.
“I’m retiring,” he says simply.
John’s floored. He stops abruptly and stares, mind scrambling to catch up with what must be the most unexpected sentence he’d ever heard Sherlock utter. “Retiring? As in, not taking cases? You must be joking.”
“Of course I’m not.”
“Yes you are. You’d lose your mind without the work. Not two weeks ago you experimented with paint strippers on the living room table, you were so bored.”
Sherlock chuckles and starts walking again, angling toward a large stone cottage in the distance. John follows, trying to keep up, literally and metaphorically.
“I’ve spent the last twenty years chasing down cases, John. Twenty years of trying to settle my mind on problems that last, what, a week at the most? Two at the outside? When was the last time I honestly thought about any one problem for more than a few days at a time?”
“Well, chalk it up to your brilliance, then. I would think your clients would be thankful for quick solutions to their problems.” John frowns. This isn’t like him, none of this is, and even fifteen years knowing the man isn’t shedding any light on what he’s driving at.
“Perhaps,” Sherlock says. “I can only hope that it was worth it. For them and for me.” John knows better than to think that’s all he’ll have to say on the matter, but perhaps he’s not quite as serious as it seems. John walks and tries to calm the small flutter of panic in his chest. If Sherlock is serious, if he really retires, what will become of all of those hopeless cases? And, John realises, what will become of him? Doesn’t Sherlock know that Sherlock retiring means John is retiring, too? What will he do with all of that time? Will Sherlock want to move on, leave him behind?
“I’m tired, John,” Sherlock continues. “I’m ready to settle my mind on one problem. Or perhaps two, I’ve not yet decided. I’d like to start my book, my magnum opus on detection. Perhaps also study bees.”
“Bees?” John asks, his mind grappling for a handhold in this mad conversation. “What the hell for? And I can understand being tired; we ran after McMurdo for at least a week last month and I’m sure we didn’t sleep more than a day or two. Let’s face it, neither of us are getting any younger.”
“Precisely my point. Perhaps it’s just my body telling me it’s time to slow down, or perhaps I truly am bored. But either way, I’m certain I’m ready for a change in circumstances.”
John tries to reconcile the manic, insistent, constantly busy detective with the life of quiet Sherlock is proposing. He can’t manage it. It seems so fundamentally different than the Sherlock he knows—well, he thinks he knows.
But is it really? He can see the appeal of a single, long-term project to a mind like Sherlock’s, the far reaching sort of planning and restful organisation that it would require. To find a hobby that he enjoys that would also use his scientific skills in a different setting, a project that wouldn’t ever truly be finished. Yes, he can see that. He just doesn’t know how long that sort of satisfaction could possibly last, when Sherlock still can barely stand to be without a case for more than a few days.
They’re getting closer to the cottage as they walk, and John can see the details start to emerge: an ancient, two-storey grey stone building with a slate roof; large, square-paned front windows on either side of the front door and a low stone wall curving away from one side of the house and down toward a large, whitewashed outbuilding. As John turns, he can see the house is on a small rise and looks across an open sweep of the Downs toward the sea, to the south and west. A “For Sale” sign is planted in the front garden.
“Oh, that’s a nice looking spot,” John says, walking up to the window to look into the empty front room. Most of the room is in shadow, but it looks big, all high beamed ceilings and stone floors and warm, honey-toned walls.
“Do you think so? Let’s take a look.” Sherlock steps up to the front door and pulls out his lockpicks, dangles them in John’s face and raises his eyebrows mischievously. Despite the fact there isn’t a soul around for a mile in any direction, John tuts at his insatiable curiosity and looks around for any observers. A few moments work and they’re in, the door creaking in the cold wind and bringing a swirl of dry leaves into the front room.
“What on earth are you up to?” John whispers, and Sherlock only smiles, catches his hands behind his back and walks into the room to have a look at the massive fireplace on the wall to the right of the door.
John shrugs and figures he might as well satisfy his own curiosity while he’s here. The room he’s in is the main great room, with the bottom of a large staircase sweeping gracefully into the space to the left. John pokes at the old-style wall switch next to the door, hoping to get a bit more light than the fading sun can give, but the electricity must be turned off. So he makes his way through the dim, filtered gloom toward the bright doorway next to the stairs that leads to a large dining room. The setting sun makes the oak paneling glow and the wall sconces sparkle through the dust, almost far too grand for such a lonely house, but lovely. The people who lived here must have had some aspirations, John thinks, and smiles. John continues to wander, feeling the strength of the stone floors under his feet, the walls that have stood probably two hundred years or more, and finds himself skirting through the butler’s pantry, still intact with glass-fronted cabinets, to the kitchen, where he stops stock still.
“Sherlock,” he calls, when he stops giggling enough to catch his breath. “You have got to come see this.”
He can hear Sherlock’s footsteps echoing through the house as he approaches. “What is it? You wouldn’t believe it, but this house has an old—oh dear God.”
John starts laughing again at the look of horror on Sherlock’s face. “Yeah, the 70s moved in and never left. Christ, this place looks like my house when I was growing up.”
Red and gold striped wallpaper covers every exposed wall, accented with bright yellow appliances and brown wooden worktops. It’s a large space, decently laid out given the age of the place and what they had to work with, but it is, in a word, ugly.
“I think this wallpaper is vinyl,” John says, prodding at a loose piece. “And I swear my Aunt Pat had that fridge.”
“The cabinetry is solid, if hideous,” Sherlock says, poking his head into one of the doors next to the sink. “But I fail to see how any of this would have been in good taste even then.”
“Don’t ask. Our parents drove Allegros and chain smoked Pall Malls.”
“Well, perhaps your parents,” Sherlock murmurs, and opens a door on the far side of the kitchen. “Oh, look, the back stairs. Shall we look higher, before the sun sets completely?”
“Sure,” John says, and follows Sherlock up the narrow back stairs to the first floor, where a long hallway runs straight down the middle. The décor up here, at least, seems fairly straightforward, pale fawn walls and polished wood floors. There’s a bathroom to John’s left, on the north side, in pretty decent shape if a bit out of date, and two large bedrooms further along that same side. Once they reach the end, they both cross the hall and throw open the door to the first front bedroom and John gasps.
The room is obviously the Master, large and open and airy, with two large windows facing south and and two small ones flanking a small fireplace along the eastern wall. Sherlock slowly walks into the room; impressed, John notes, as he rarely ever is. His eyes seem to glow in the fading sun, and the little half-smile on his face is a wonder.
That smile grows even bigger when John investigates an odd little door along the inner wall and finds a large en suite bathroom. John’s jaw drops open when his eyes adjust to the dim light from the one small window.
It’s like a time capsule, but in all the best ways the 1970s kitchen downstairs wasn’t. The bathroom looks like it was built in the 1920s: all Art Deco chrome and steel and white and black. A large claw-footed porcelain bathtub takes up one entire end, fixtures gleaming dully. Two pedestal sinks with old-style porcelain knobs are on one side, slipper-shaded chrome sconces on either side of the twin mirrors, and the walls, up to the ceiling, are white glass tile with chrome accents. It’s the most amazing, unexpected thing, and John is utterly charmed by it.
Not more than Sherlock is, though. He trails his fingers over the fixtures as he walks, fingers dusting lightly across the smooth, cold walls, across an elaborate radiator in the corner big enough warm the huge expanse of porcelain and glass. Just the thought of heat makes John shiver a bit in the cool shadows. Sherlock climbs in the tub, heedless of the dust on his coat, leans his head back against the side and closes his eyes.
“Move here with me,” he says.
John’s heart jumps. “So you’re serious, then.”
“Absolutely. Move here with me. Don’t stay in London alone. Come down here with me and start that book you’ve been yammering about.”
John gusts out a laugh. “I can’t just drop everything and move, Sherlock. You may be able to retire to your dream home with all that family money you and Mycroft have stashed somewhere, but I can’t.”
“So you like the house, then.”
“So I like the…of course I like the house! It’s beautiful, it’s perfect, well, sort of, that kitchen is hideous but can be renovated, I suppose. But that is entirely beside the point.”
Sherlock opens his eyes and turns his head toward John, eyes barely above the rim of the enormous tub, suit-clad knees poking over the top. He looks ridiculous, and endearing, and absolutely at home. “I hear there’s a position open for a part-time general physician in a clinic at Seaford,” he says.
A curl of suspicion starts to unfurl. “Oh, you just happen to know that, do you?”
“Well, I may have, perhaps, had a look before we came down,” Sherlock says.
“Mmmhmm. And you may have, perhaps, known this house was for sale,” John says, and leans against the sink, arms crossed.
“There may have been a few pictures online. None of them showed this bathroom, though. I cannot imagine why that is.”
“Stop trying to change the subject.” John can feel the house trying to burrow into his skin, imagines cold winter nights sat beside that massive fireplace, the warm summer breeze drifting across the garden and through the windows. “I don’t know anyone down here. I’d be alone but for you.”
“Not to be entirely blunt, but you don’t go out these days, anyway. Your last night out with the lads, as you say, was months ago. We’re less than three hours away from London. We’re near Brighton and Eastbourne. It’s hardly the middle of nowhere.” Sherlock climbs out of the tub and sits on the edge, eyes serious. “Come on, John. I know you like this place as much as I do. I can buy the house on my own, if that helps. All you need do is say yes.”
John hesitates. As much as the idea appeals, as much as his heart is glad that Sherlock wants him to continue to be part of his life, there are a few things John needs to make clear.
“I expect to have the time to work on my book. I am not going to be your research assistant.”
Sherlock’s eyes light up, and John can feel defeat start to round his shoulders. “Absolutely.”
“I expect to pay my fair share. I’m not going to depend on you alone for my retirement. But I know for a fact I can’t pay half of what I’m sure they’ll want for this house.”
“Well, as I did three-quarters of the work, I’ll pay three-quarters of the cost. How’s that?” Sherlock looks gleeful, hopeful, and John can feel his objections starting to dissolve in the excitement of the possibility of a new adventure, a new life.
“Oi, genius. One last thing.” Sherlock nods, eager. “I’ve had the second bedroom the last fifteen years. I’m not going to have second best in my own home.”
Sherlock’s smile freezes into place, and John struggles to keep his expression neutral as Sherlock fights an internal war between his own nature and a tug toward generosity.
“Of course,” he says at last. “This can be your bedroom.”
John laughs. “And deprive you of that bathroom? Not a chance. There’s one more room, on this side. Let’s go have a look.”
Sherlock follows John down the hall until they reach the last door, and John takes a deep breath, steadying himself. He’s still not convinced this is the best idea, and he needs a little more time to think about it, to be certain pulling up the roots of his life and following his mad genius to a remote house on the South Downs really is what he wants to do.
He turns the knob and opens the door, and nearly steps back in surprise.
The setting sun lights up the room with a warm orange glow, setting the mullioned windows ablaze. The room is a little smaller than Sherlock’s, but where he has a fireplace, John’s room has a deep bow window along the entire west end, with a built in cushioned seat. Where Sherlock’s room feels formal, cool, this room is soft and warm and comforting, and John takes a tentative step inside. He makes his way to the window seat and lifts one of the small sets of sliding windows.
The roar of the sea is carried into the room on the breeze, the smell of salt still tangible even half a kilometer from the coast. John sinks down onto the cushions and presses his forehead to the glass, feels the tension drain from his neck and shoulders, and knows in his heart, in his bones, that he’s home.
“When do we move?” he asks, and Sherlock’s smile rivals the setting sun.