John Watson sat at the dining room table in his very dusty, very lonely house, reading the morning paper, and waiting. As soon as he'd awoken, he'd gotten himself dressed in the tweeds he'd set out the night before. He'd come down to the dining room to the usual scene: no coffee pot at the ready, no soft-boiled egg, no toast. He only had the paper because he'd fetched it himself.
Jane was a terrible maid. He always had to wait for her, and sometimes she didn't show up at all. When she did, she'd seldom done what John had asked. And when she called him "Sir," her tone held a hint of mockery, as if they both knew he didn't deserve it.
Mary had told him on multiple occasions to fire her.
He could not bring himself to do it. He knew very well the reason why he kept Jane, despite her impertinence, tardiness, and ineptitude.
The fact was, there was something about Jane that John found to be a comfort. In his time with Sherlock Holmes—as Holmes's companion, as his friend, as his personal historian, as a host of potential things that had regrettably gone unspoken—he'd grown accustomed to minor vexation, and never quite feeling like he had the upper hand. He'd also grown used to being constantly amazed and delighted by Holmes's gifts as a consulting detective. He'd never gotten used to, couldn't imagine ever growing used to, the times when there seemed to be something more between them, the times when Holmes looked at him with fire in his eyes, the times when they were both dug in researching some case or other, and Holmes, noting John was exhausted, squeezed his shoulder and told him go rest, my dear boy. The times—rare, but all the more precious for their rarity—that John was certain Holmes intended something more carnal by his actions, times when the brush of Holmes's lips against John's ear as they awaited some killer in a darkened room seemed entirely intentional, times when the closeness of his body as he observed John writing, leaning over his shoulder to read his words, seemed an invitation of sorts.
John had been frozen in those days, full of indecision, but certain that if Holmes did not press his advantage, all the feelings that were steadily building up inside of him would surely burst free, and they would at last have their moment. And how grand it would be. How fine, just the two of them against the world.
They never got their chance. Instead, Holmes had gone and thrown himself off a damn waterfall.
At first, John had waited, certain it was some trick. He could not believe that Holmes, he who attended to every detail and seemed to understand and anticipate all things, could have been so sloppy as to actually allow himself to die. It would only be a matter of weeks, perhaps months, before he would return.
A year passed, and more. And still Holmes did not return to Baker Street, and soon John couldn't stand the pain of being there any longer. He finally accepted that his friend was gone.
And so, if Jane sometimes filled him with vexation and grief, and if Jane's tone were sometimes utterly irreverent, and if she kept him waiting in a thousand small ways, and if she argued back when he criticised her, it was perhaps a kind of comfort, a way to keep alive the thornier, less wonderful qualities of Sherlock Holmes, even if the man himself would never be seen again—at least, not until John himself passed into whatever heaven or hell was reserved for men like them.
And so John waited for his breakfast each morning, and sometimes it never came, and sometimes he told Jane that she needed to improve, and she never did, and secretly John thanked her for it.
He had been staring at the paper for fully five minutes without reading a word, when he decided to give up the attempt. He folded it deliberately, placed it on the table, and sighed, fingers tapping on the linen tablecloth that bore the brown, circular stains of a week's worth of coffee cups.
Outside the dining room window, the October sky was a pearly, uniform grey. He would probably need a coat if he wanted to go out later. He didn't want to go out. He didn't want anything from this world, particularly.
Just when he thought that he would be lost in his thoughts for the entire morning, Jane burst in, sans breakfast. Her white maid's apron was besmirched with black ash, her hair in disarray, and her face red.
"Sir!" She was utterly out of breath, gasping as she spoke. "Sir, I've heard noises upstairs again!"
John was on his feet, feeling a mixture of exasperation and concern that was much, much better than the sad nothing he'd been feeling just a moment before. He pulled out a chair, urging her to sit.
She sprawled, throwing her head back most indecorously as she blew out a breath. "Sir, I tell you, there is truly something amiss in the attic."
John pulled out the chair beside her, and sat himself down.
Holmes was long dead, but that did not mean that John had forgotten the times they'd had together, and what it was like when a client came to them with a new puzzle. John could keep up that legacy well enough. At least, he could try. All he needed to do was remember Holmes's methods, and do his best to emulate them.
He took his small notebook and pencil from his vest pocket, and prepared himself to play detective.
"All right, Jane. Are you quite well?"
The girl nodded, and wiped at the sweat on her brow with her forearm, leaving a black mark there. She was brash in her manner, but it bothered John not a whit. He and Holmes had always been quite unconventional together.
"Very well. Now, tell me what happened."
Jane blinked at him. "It wasn't rats, Sir."
"I didn't say it was, Jane."
"But you did yesterday, Sir. And the day before that, you said it was wind."
"Ah." John had dismissed Jane's complaints about the noise the first two times. He paused to clear his throat. "Well, Jane, that is true. But you see, I put out poison, and we have seen no rats, so I think we can conclude that we've eliminated one very likely explanation."
"It would seem so, Sir." Jane pursed her lips, looking as impertinent as she always did.
"Now Jane, you must admit that rats are a logical explanation for noises in the attic."
"Rats that wear hard soled shoes, Sir."
"I did tell you, Sir, that I heard the sound of footsteps in the attic. On Monday and yesterday."
"Did you?" John remembered very clearly that she'd said exactly that, but he hadn't wanted to hear it, preferring to occupy himself writing up one of Holmes's old cases.
The grim relentlessness of Jane's gaze wore John down in no time at all.
"All right, all right."
He was willing to admit—privately, to himself—that he'd been in the doldrums, unable to accept any new information, really. He only wanted the past, and what was lost to him.
It was difficult, because he should be happy. He should be fine. He'd met Mary, and they were together now, and engaged to be married, or at least they would be as soon as he got around to formally asking.
But he wasn't himself at all. He'd dismissed Jane's concerns, and been all too willing to ignore a perfectly good mystery in favour of staying in his black mood. It seemed, however, that the mystery would insist upon itself. He shifted in his chair, embarrassed for his former actions.
"I am sorry."
"Very well, Sir."
"All right." He sat up in his chair, and readied his notebook once more. "So. Tell me again exactly what you heard today, if you will."
Jane nodded and sat up in the chair, straightening her skirt. "First of all, I was in the second bedroom, Sir, sweeping out the grate."
"You mean my study."
Jane took a moment to look imploringly at the ceiling before she replied. "Yes, Sir, I know it's your study now, but when Mistress moves in, you know, Sir, it won't be long before it's a bedroom once more."
John winced. Jane could be surprisingly astute. "What do you mean?"
"No need to frown at me, Sir. I don't mean to imply anything about the state of your future marriage. I'm sure you're very modern, Sir, and will wish to share a bedchamber with your wife. I only meant that Mistress will no doubt want to turn it into a nursery. I'm not a nursemaid, Sir, in case you were wondering, although if Sir should ever wish to get a dog, I'd be very happy to look after him or her, Sir."
John shifted in his chair, and tapped his notebook with his pencil, unwilling to address or even contemplate any talk of marital bedchambers, babies, or dogs. "The noise, Jane, if you will."
"Yes, Sir. I'm getting to it, Sir. You never know what little detail may be important to the case, if you don't mind me saying. I learned that from your stories. I felt the grate cleaning might be important."
John hated it when Jane quoted from his stories. It should be flattering, but somehow it always amounted to her throwing his own words in his face, as part of some argument she seemed to always be holding (and winning) with him.
"Very well. Carry on."
"At first, I thought it was the wind, Sir. There was a sound like the wind in the leaves, a kind of whistling and moaning, but then I thought to look at the curtains. Since it was not a cold morning, I'd opened the window to air out the room. You should really not smoke such a coarse brand of tobacco, Sir. Something lighter would most likely keep you from coughing so much at night."
"Yes, Jane, all right. Your point?"
"My point, Sir, is that there was no wind. I'd opened the window and the curtains didn't so much as stir. Yet there was the sound of wind, or what I thought at first was wind. And then it turned out to be a voice, Sir."
"Yes. A whisper, really, Sir."
John's stomach turned. He hated to think that he'd been drawn into a tall tale spun by a maid, and yet, here he was, practically bolted to his seat. "And what did it say?"
Jane leaned in, impertinently close, such that her breath, smelling faintly of milky tea and oranges, moved across his cheek. She spoke the words more deeply than her accustomed tone, as if in imitation of a voice John had never forgotten, and longed always to hear.
"The game is on."