The loud whispers of, “You do it,” “No, you!” in conjunction with the jerky movements of nervous young bodies in her peripheral vision broke through her concentration, and Mary emerged from her work to push up from hunching over her desk.
“Yes, what is it?” After however many hours of close communion with her texts, her voice rasped and her eyes strained to find focus on the shapes across the room. The two short blobs froze briefly, and then one took a step closer. Ah, yes. Katherine and George, ten—no, must be eleven now, twins from down the lane. It was Katherine who had pulled her courage and inched toward the desk, a thin envelope in one hand.
“Pardon Miss Russell, but this came for you. A telegram. We came in the kitchen door, like you said to do?”
“Yes, Katherine, that’s fine. Very good.” She stood up and winced when her hips complained at the sudden movement. How long had she been working? No matter. Get the telegram and send them on their way. The draft of this chapter was almost complete. A few more hours. Five. Half a day at most.
Mary’s Oxford house had several modern conveniences, including the telephone. But over the years it became very clear that when Mary was in Oxford, she was in Oxford. Once settled there, her ability to filter out everything else so that she could be in Oxford meant that time-sensitive communication should not rely upon her being aware of the telephone ringing. The pair of children had been dispatched by her neighbours to deliver the telegram to her study directly, by special standing arrangement (as she has also been known to not-hear pounding at the door for deliveries, post, visitors, or telegraph agents).
Holmes had mocked her when she set this system up a few years back, apparently unperturbed by the handful of communiqués and consequent invitations and expeditions she’d missed. Of course most of those weren’t from him. When he truly needed her, he could always ensure she knew it.
She reached out one hand for the telegram and spread her other arm wide to herd the children ahead and toward the front door. “Thank you both for this delivery. My best regards to your parents, there you go, good bye.” She hoped that was a little skip and not a stumble when George hopped over the threshold as she closed the door on them.
And then she read John’s message and the world dropped away again.
By the time she arrived at the London hospital where Holmes had been taken, they had already discharged him to Watson’s care. She stood blankly in front of the reception nurse, swaying slightly. “He’s been released,” she repeated. “Does that mean…What does that mean? My husband is not still unconscious with a possible broken pelvis and indications of internal bleeding?” There was a pause around her as her voice, oddly high-pitched on that last “ing,” rang in her ears. If this turned out to be one of his ploys…
The nurse’s this lips pressed a bit thinner before she spoke. She put her finger along a note in the medical file as she read it. “Well, he did regain consciousness earlier today. At which point he insisted on being discharged to be treated by his personal physician at home.” She frowned at Mary. “This was against hospital recommendations, you understand. And especially at his age.”
“He can just do that?” Too loud, again. Mary closed eyes for a long moment. “Of course he can do that,” she muttered to herself. She tried to scrape up a bit of composure. “If you don’t mind, do the records state the name of the personal physician? Was it Watson?” She didn’t know why she asked, but the nurse seemed mollified by a question with a concrete answer she could provide.
He’s not unconscious, she thought. He walked out of here with John. Who would not have permitted it if he believed he was at death’s door. She tried not to picture her genial and frankly elderly Uncle John stopping Holmes from doing whatever the hell he wanted, for fear that she couldn’t.
At his age.
It occurred to her when she arrived at the door that she had no idea whether this was John’s current address. She tried to keep her address book up to date, but then she could always ask Holmes if she had something to post to John. He’d lived in several flats in London over the years she’d known him, moves punctuated the long overseas trips he took. She hadn’t seen these rooms before, just as John had never been to her Oxford home.
When the three of them gathered, John joined them in Sussex, or they conversed at various tea shops and restaurants in London or thereabouts, if she and Holmes were working together there or if she passed through while Holmes and Watson were. Of the three of them, she suspected Watson was the least satisfied by the arrangement, being the one of the three who seemed most to prefer a settled home life, and yet it had been his choice originally, as far as she knew, to leave Baker Street. He had chosen to leave and marry, more than once. She didn’t know how long he’d been here. Why didn’t he just stay in one place? She ignored the tremor in her hand as she reached out to ring the bell.
Watson was entirely aware of the role his choices made in where and how he and Sherlock—and Mary—had ended up, and as much as he had dreamt of full companionship with Holmes, he also had the hard-won, heartbreaking knowledge that they simply could not do it. They could be together on occasion and enjoy those times , or they could be together all the time and gradually vex and hex each other to misery.
It had taken them a long time after Holmes returned to life to work this out, despite the fact they went through the cycle once before the events with Moriarty. After Holmes returned, they had had a few good years at Baker Street, gradually growing rocky until Watson reached his limit (again), left (again), found a wife (again). And then five long years of awkward and unspoken semi-estrangement until stumbling upon the proper concoction of times and places together and apart, to be able to move forward as they had been for, what fifteen years now?
Watson had written many hundreds of unpublished pages working out his understanding of how this came to pass between them and despite them, discerning his personal hopes, dreams, and needs, and his speculation of what Holmes thought about it all. They never spoke of it directly. Likely Holmes either believed he knew what Watson thought or believed such knowledge to be incidental to his own part in rebuilding their partnership. Or perhaps his endless natterings about apian social interaction were cover for an attempt to observe the subtle and varied exchanges among other social creatures. For that was the crux, as Watson came to understand: he was too much a social creature to live in such solitude, even with such a wonder as Sherlock Holmes.
It would be difficult for Watson without Holmes’ dark periods and the means he would apply to divert them. But it became impossible for Watson, with them. Not because he was afraid of his pain: he was certain of this—finally, after so very many words spent dissecting his heart for signs of cowardice in this regard—given his experience of those last terrible months with his first wife. But he was helpless when Holmes withdrew from him in the darkness, and utterly impotent when chose to poison himself to escape the pain. At those very worst of times, they brought out the worst in each other.
Watson had left Baker Street for the last time in 1902, certain that if he stayed they would only drag each other into despair. He had reached the point where he knew he was making it worse, in part because Sherlock felt the need to hide symptoms from him and in part because it was affecting his own health: he relied too much on Holmes’ mood and work to hold himself up, and it was clear to him that they’d both go down if things continued as such. So he moved out and later married (a mistake on both their parts, and the mutual agreement was the only silver lining to that debacle). Sherlock had been so bitter, unable or unwilling to forgive, and left London without a word. Thank God for Mrs Hudson, who must have disregarded stern direction from Holmes about the matter, who forwarded their Sussex address to him.
John was clearly unhappy that Holmes had left the hospital, and he was concerned about both the concussion and the hip, but he put on his most pompous Doctor Watson face to reassure “young Mrs Holmes” that her husband would have a full recovery. She was grateful for the near involuntary reflex to scorn any “Mrs Holmes” directed her way and for John knowing it would have that effect.
Holmes was sleeping now, and all they could do was wait and gauge his state of mind in a few hours. And a few hours after that. And so on. There was nothing she could do. It felt different from previous injuries and mishaps in the course of their work; this was too much like the time all those years ago when she thought he’d been blown up on the boat, and the shock then had jolted them into the partnership they had now. Only now she knew so much more of what would be lost, what she would lose, if he…when he…
It took her a while to notice the faint tremor in John’s hands, the pallor in his face, his pinched lips. How many times had he come to this brink, before? She remembered at least four confirmed by one or both to have been as bad or worse than what had been published in his stories, and she suspected there were more. She knew Watson’s stories, but she also knew he wrote them to conceal and obfuscate as many of the actual dangers and risks taken as the actions he exaggerated and glorified. She didn’t know much at all outside his stories: There had never been any reminiscing in her presence. Very few stories told to her by Watson, fewer recounted to her by Holmes. Thanks to Mrs Hudson’s frequent but entirely circumspect and scant allusions, she knew only that there was much she didn’t know about their time together, before she came to Sussex.
“Is this—” she started, then slouched back against the stuff upholstered back of the sofa in his prim, stuffy drawing room. She straightened up again immediately, frowned, took a breath, fidgeted a bit more. Her bones felt wrong, like every limb was slightly out of joint. Like she was the one who had been pushed down a wrought iron staircase.
“Would you tell me what it was like for you, during those three years?” Her frown deepened. “Was it actually three years? I haven’t…He never…” She released an exasperated sigh at her own ignorance and unease. “Would you tell me what really happened those times before, when you left and when he left? How you coped? When you thought he was dead?”
She’d read John’s stories of Holmes’ death and resurrection, but she had never attempted to parse which elements were storytelling fabulations and which came close to what had actually happened, what he’d actually felt. She told herself it was because Holmes hated talking about the stories. She should care, now, whether John hated telling them too, but she couldn’t stand the waiting and wanted a distraction desperately or she might seek out something for herself to stop from vibrating out of her skin.
The fear was ebbing, now that Sherlock had woken up to snarl at everyone in the hospital and demand that Watson take him home. The fall had been horrific to witness; he hadn’t seen it happen, but the clanging thud of multiple impacts down those massive stairs, absent any cries of pain or sound of consciousness nearly brought him to his knees. It was frankly a miracle that Sherlock hadn’t snapped his neck, and only now was that relief beginning to ease the tension in his own back. Mary had been silent when they returned from looking in on the patient in his bedroom, and this sudden outburst of questions had surprised him. He saw now the way she was shaking, her shallow breaths, and her skin stretched taut and white over her knuckles.
“You are so like him, in some ways,” Watson murmured. He shifted his hand to hover over hers, where they clenched and unclenched in her lap. “May I?” he asked, and she seemed startled, nodding acquiescence. He slid a bit closer across the seat to be able to cup both his hands around her icy fingers. And not at all like him in others. He would never ask such things. I could barely ask myself such things. Where to begin?
As he pondered a response, he was suddenly struck by the realization that for him, in this moment, their story had become one of recovery and new beginnings. It was painful, and there were terrible mistakes and hurts on both sides, emotional and physical, but over and over, Sherlock came back to him and he came back to Sherlock. They both survived despite all the odds against them, all the obstacles dragged (sometimes by themselves) onto their path. Including the miracle of the one huddled next to him.
She had saved Sherlock’s life that dark spring when they’d met, had reached him when he himself had all but given up hope that Sherlock could still be reached by anything. Over the years he had attempted to bolster her confidence in that partnership when it seemed to flag and shifted his time with Sherlock away from Sussex, so that it could be her place with him. She needed roots and safety, much as Sherlock had. He wondered if either of them would ever see it that way. His own mild jealousy of her life with Sherlock never strangled him. It was a weak vine vainly attempting to circle a wide trunk with deep roots. But he doesn’t want her jealousy of his history to ever overwhelm the sturdy slim young tree she and Holmes have grown. He took a deep breath.
“I will tell you how it was. Perhaps not tonight. But what you can rely on, what you must be sure of, is that he wants to wait for you, and he wants to come back. No matter how dark it seems, how far away it feels he’s gone or that you’ve gone, he always wants to come back to us.”