On the day that the war ended, John Watson was busy feeding the chickens and the rabbits that the widowed postmistress kept in the small enclosure behind her cottage. For nearly all of his time spent in the village, the care of these creatures had been one of his regular chores. John didn’t mind; it was peaceful and gave him time to think.
This particular morning, as he perched on the fence watching his charges enjoy the kitchen scraps, he was thinking about his best friend, Sherlock Holmes. Which was no new thing, of course. Sherlock had a way of dominating every space he occupied, even, apparently, the space inside John’s mind. It had been that way since the day they met almost five years ago and it still was.
Occasionally, John wondered if he should worry about that just a bit.
John reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his journal. This was not some fancy leather-bound volume like the one into which ten-year-old Sherlock had been noting his aeroplane spotting when they met and that now also held whatever random thoughts he fancied saving. Not that Sherlock would ever admit to having any ‘random’ thoughts.
The contents of John’s very ordinary essay book had never been shared with anyone, including Sherlock. Well, especially Sherlock.
Checking that the feathered beasts were still happy with their meal, John opened the book to its first page. The Case of the Purloined Pies. He smiled a little at his more childish scrawl.
Admittedly, there was a definite lack of really interesting mysteries in the little village, a fact upon which Sherlock ranted at length. Frequently. “Why is no one ever murdered in this blasted village!?” was a common refrain. But whenever a case did appear, John had carefully written down every detail. He had only a vague notion of why he bothered or what he intended to do with the stories, but he kept up his recording of Sherlock’s brilliance.
At a furious cackling from below, he tossed down some more kitchen scraps for the chickens and then reached way over to shove some carrot ends into the rabbit enclosure. As a city boy, it had taken him some time to learn not to name the rabbits. At least, not out loud.
At that moment, he heard his name being called. “John!” Sherlock appeared around the corner of the cottage. “John! It’s over! The war is over!”
John quickly shoved the essay book back into his pocket and jumped down from the fence. “Really? Completely over?”
Sherlock came to a stop right in front of him. “Yes. Well, the European front at least. Which is the one that has kept us trapped in this barren landscape for approximately one third of our lives. And now we are free!”
John had never told Sherlock that he actually found the life he had here in the village rather better than the one he’d left behind in London. That life featured a drunken father, a careless mother, and an older sister who took her disappointment in everything out on him. Most importantly, that life hadn’t featured Sherlock Holmes.
He suspected that Sherlock knew it all anyway, especially after the one time John’s mother and sister had visited him in five years. The stipend for John’s care arrived only sporadically and it was never enough. But Mrs Hayes was a nice woman, who kept him fed and clothed and who claimed that the chores he did around the place were recompense enough,
Frankly, John was not altogether sure where his parents were even living now or if they wanted him back at all.
But he managed to smile at Sherlock, who was radiating excitement.
Mrs Hayes packed them a picnic basket, with a flask of lemonade, cold chicken sandwiches and biscuits, before she went to join the spontaneous party in the village square. She knew that they would rather sit on the rise together and watch from a distance.
They ate and drank in silence for a few minutes, watching as bunting was draped on the shop fronts. John finally finished his sandwich and decided that he should say something before it was too late. “I’m going to miss you,” he mumbled.
Sherlock stared at him. “Why? We’ll be in London, so you can still help me with my experiments and cases.” Then he frowned. “Well, I’ll be off to Eton in a few months, but that isn’t far from London, so we’ll be fine. Except I will miss seeing you every day.”
This was not the first time John had understood that he and Sherlock were from very different worlds. These past five years had smoothed out some of those differences, but now the gap between them was going to grow. He knew the gap would soon become a chasm, but he knew no way to prevent that. “I don’t even know where I’ll be living, Sherlock.”
Sherlock’s expression reminded John, suddenly, of the younger boy he’d met such a long time ago. “You don’t want to be my friend anymore?”
“Of course I do! I will always want to be your friend. But let’s face it, Sherlock, things are going to change now. You’re off to Eton with all the posh boys and me, well, I might have to take a job instead of continuing on in school.”
“But, John, you’re going to be a doctor.”
John knew his bark of laugher was harsh. “That was a dream, Sherlock Boys like me don’t become doctors.”
“Boys ‘like you?’ What, clever, kind boys who are good at science?”
“Poor boys,” John snapped out. “Boys with drunken fathers and hopeless mothers.
Sherlock was quiet for a moment. “I could talk to my father…”
John shook his head firmly. “No. Thank you, but no.”
John wondered if this was what a broken heart felt like. It seemed all too possible. If his heart had been broken at fifteen, what kind of a life would he have?
Suddenly, Sherlock reached out and took John’s hand. “I only have one friend, John.”
“I know,” John whispered. “Me, too.”
There seemed nothing else to say, so John kept quiet. He didn’t pull his hand away, though, as they sat and watched as the villagers celebrated below. In fact, he held on just as tightly as Sherlock.
Two days later, the usual black car arrived in the village and parked in front of the vicarage. The difference was that Mr and Mrs Holmes were not inside, arriving to visit their son. Instead, John helped Sherlock load his things into the boot while a young man in a three-piece suit waited, his impatience obvious.. When the job was done, Sherlock bid a polite farewell to the vicar and his sister. No one looked heartbroken at the parting.
John waited by the car until, with his official good-byes taken care of, Sherlock walked over to join him. “We could give you a ride into London,” he said.
But John shrugged. “Still waiting to hear back from my folks,” he said. “I get the idea they might be in Liverpool, so who the hell knows where I’m going to end up.”
“You have the address of the London house, right?”
They smiled faintly at each other and then, suddenly, were embracing one another tightly. “John,” Sherlock whispered.
“Sherlock,” he replied.
Without another word, Sherlock hurried into the car.
John stood by the vicarage gate and watched until the car had disappeared down the lane.
Sherlock was surprised to find a small parcel waiting for him when he returned to his Eton room after his classes had ended for the day. The postmark was Liverpool, but there was no return address. Didn’t matter, anyway, because he recognised the handwriting on the front.
There had been only three letters from John in the six months since they parted. John was, indeed, in Liverpool now, trying to keep up with his classes while also working at a greengrocer. However, the last letter Sherlock had sent to the address provided had come back as Undeliverable. He was thinking of asking Mycroft to hunt John down.
It was not a surprise to Sherlock that no one at Eton liked him very much and he was fine with that, because he only needed one friend. But he missed John so much that it was a physical ache most days.
After a moment, he carefully opened the parcel. Inside were a battered school essay book and a note. He read the note first.
To the best of times.
Sherlock turned the book over in his hand. Carefully hand-printed on the cover were the words THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES AND JOHN WATSON. He opened the cover and looked at the first page.
The Case of the Purloined Pies
It made Sherlock smile, just to see the title, but it was a pale shadow of a smile and it vanished as quickly as it had come.
Somehow, he understood that John meant this gift to serve as a goodbye, although he did not understand why. It hurt too much to think about it. Along with the pain, however, there was a budding anger. Why should John be able to decide that they were not going to be friends anymore?
Instead of thinking about that at the moment, he stretched out on the bed and started to read about the best of times. The Lost Kitten. The Case of the Disappearing Knickers. The Mystery of the Librarian’s Budgie. And more.
Every case for the last five years had been carefully recorded. Oh, John had added far too many rhetorical flourishes and over-the-top descriptions, but that was to be expected. John liked that sort of thing.
On the very last page, there was a postscript.
Sherlock Holmes went on to a brilliant career solving mysteries and conducting [sometimes explosive] experiments. John Watson joined the army when he turned 17 and acquitted himself well.
After carefully setting the book aside, Sherlock curled himself into a tight ball and cried over his lost friend. His lost heart. It was the first time he had cried since he was four years old.