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Soldier's Leave

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A dead man stared at me in the glass.

I blinked, and once again it was only a man worn by exhaustion who'd seen too much death in far too short a time. This was the same face I'd seen in the cracked glass of my tent in Afghanistan for the few weeks I'd been stationed there before Maiwand. But those deaths had been soldiers, adult men; not civilians, not children and expecting women and old people. Another failed campaign, Watson.

"…Watson? Dr. Watson?"

I turned to see the nurse, a middle-aged woman in white, at my elbow. She indicated the hotel concierge with a tilt of her head.

The young man bobbed his head. "Is the suite to your satisfaction, sir?"

I'd been given rooms in one of the best resorts in this seaside town. Bedroom, bathing facilities, desk near the window with an unobstructed view of the Brighton shore, and a few minutes' stroll to the impressive Regent's Pavilion. It was better than I deserved. I was convalescing even though I hadn't contracted the influenza myself. I hadn't done any good, I'd failed, and finally even Holmes had no need of me, so he'd sent me away. He sent you here to get well, he looked so afraid every time he saw you– But I was too exhausted for logic to counteract the dark thoughts in my head.

"Yes. Yes, thank you, Nurse Jacobs." I'd remembered her name.

She'd readied my supper (beef-barley soup and buttered toast) and turned down the bed. I would not be called away from the table or my slumber by the telephone while here, for calls that might as well have run, "Doctor, my little daughter is very sick. Could you come here and work in vain for two hours until she dies?" or "Doctor Watson! My wife is carrying our first child. Please come and say a few useless words of comfort when I lose both of them."

I ate, washed, and went to bed.

I awoke late the next morning after spending the night walking through bodies in the road like London during the Black Death, trying to get home only to find a corpse in my bed. Breakfast was porridge and tea.

"It's lovely out, if winter-brisk still," said Nurse Jacobs. "When you're in a better state I'll take you outside," and she indicated the Bath chair in the same corner of the room that held her cot. Ah, I was to be wheeled like a legless old soldier or a senile grandmother, to receive all the pitying looks I pleased from passers-by who'd assume I was recovering from the 'flu and not that I was a useless treater of the affliction.

And even those few hours awake was too much for my constitution, it seemed – for not long after breakfast all I wanted was to return to bed.

So passed the first few days of my stay in Brighton, sleep broken only by plain meals. I might as well have been in Baker Street as in one of the best and costliest resorts in a seaside community, save that Nurse Jacobs was a woman of strict business when it came to her patient, and did not regard me with motherly distress as would Mrs. Hudson.

After three days I began to stay awake for longer hours, and Nurse Jacobs made good on her promise of a trip down the boardwalk near my hotel. The bright blue sky laced with white cloud, the salt smell and steady roar of the ocean, and the cries of the gulls were lovely after a winter's worth of yellow-brown fogs, the humid stench of carbolic and vomit, and the sound of weeping. I fear that I pretended to be dozing when others passed us, so that I would not have to see pitying looks. But I was also grateful for the chair, for even being pushed by a nurse in the spring air sent me straight to bed when we returned to my rooms.

When I awoke one time to see Nurse Jacobs engrossed in her book, I inquired after her reading material and was informed that it was a love story – "don't care for the adventure books or those murder mysteries." I hid a smile – the first I'd felt like making for a long time – for it was just like Sherlock Holmes to make sure that not even my private nurse would disturb my rest here by asking intrusive questions about my most famous writing topic.

I knew I began to recuperate when I started to experience boredom with my routine of sleep and bland meals, and stayed awake long enough to read my own books.

The morning, a fortnight after my arrival, when I was able to dress and go for a walk on the promenade unwheeled and unescorted, I began to realise that I would get well again. And after my return to my room and a nap, I sat at the room's desk and wrote a letter of thanks to the man who had sent me to the seaside.

I received Sherlock Holmes' written reply two days later, and not even the spring chill could douse the warmth I felt. From that time on I was no longer isolated, and our letters flew back and forth like silk threads on a loom. He complained about the ridiculous jewel theft case he regretted accepting; I told him how Brighton looked in spring.

When I had physically recuperated from overwork I thanked Nurse Jacobs for her service and dismissed her; all I needed now was time, and Holmes had let me know that I was not to concern myself about the length of my stay.

Many factors contributed to my recovery. The hotel's splendid fare soon made my invalid's-meals a distant memory; the weather was cold but without the bite of winter, brisk enough for an enjoyable walk even under an umbrella, and the occasional sunny day promised a kinder season coming; the library kept me well-stocked with evening reading.

Strangely enough, a nearby Turkish bath banished much of my lingering sorrow. Half of London's medical men seemed to inhabit the place, and we spent our time in the drying room sharing stories of our work during the 'flu epidemic – all of them very much the same sad tales of providing more use as a comforter of the bereaved than a curer of illness (one poor fellow had been unable to save his own nephew). As cold-blooded as it sounds, hearing others' more painful tales of woe reconciled myself to the sadness I carried inside from what had seemed such a futile work this winter. I was not alone in any of this.

And I had letters from Baker Street, and letters I wrote Baker Street, that could not contain our love for each other.

I have spent years depicting my companion in a highly specific way – the Sherlock Holmes of which I write avoids most of society and all women, and sneers at romantic love as a hindrance to his precise logical faculties. The chief reason I do so is that certain men are simply unsuited for conventional wedlock, and not even I could fabricate such a spouse for this man (as I could with myself). I settled on Bohemian eccentricity, and that became the cloak I used to hide the heart of Sherlock Holmes from all prying eyes.

Just as Jonathan and David used archery practice to send hidden messages to each other, so too did we hide our natures under innocuous words in our correspondence. If either of us ever nakedly alluded to missing our shared nights of tender kisses, whispered endearments and physical passion we were as good as gaoled; but if I merely spoke of longing to resume games of chess with my brilliant flatmate, no outsider would see anything amiss.

We also wrote freely of our regard for each other as comrades, our friendship, and our longing for each other's company all winter, that not the wickedest blackmailer could use against us. And when the whole ridiculous diamond case was concluded Holmes made me laugh till my sides hurt describing the denouement, and I commiserated when he complained that a famous gem retrieved by a famous detective had set all of London's newspapermen on our doorstep.

I continued to improve; I regained both my lost sleep and missed meals (helped in no small part by the parcels of Mrs. Hudson's currant scones), exchanged shop-talk with my fellow medicos, took longer and longer walks along the promenade – only to return to a beautiful suite of rooms that was now solely inhabited by me. The spring air ran in my blood now, and my dreams were of life and not death. The letters to my absent lover expressed my desire to return home soon.

But as May drew to a close I realised that it was nearly time for Mrs. Hudson's fit of spring cleaning, and my presence would only be a hindrance until that business was concluded. Two more weeks, I thought, setting out on my morning walk, light-hearted at the thought of my exile's imminent end. Two more weeks.

I returned to my suite, and he was in the room waiting for me.

We did not cease playing chess until the wee hours of the night.