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The Gleamings of an Empty Heart

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I have outlasted all desire,
My dreams and I have grown apart;
My grief alone is left entire,
The gleamings of an empty heart.

-Alexander Pushkin

1

 

Watson rode an omnibus out to North London, disembarking only a short walk from Highgate Cemetery. The fact that it was a damp and chill day did not dissuade him from his expedition. On the contrary, this kind of day suited him perfectly. It seemed apt to his enterprise.

Mrs Hudson had given up suggesting that he forego such an outing when the weather turned foul. Instead, she would simply advise him to wrap up well and tuck a sandwich wrapped in oiled paper safely into his pocket. “Just a bit of luncheon for you,” she always murmured. “Try to find a cup of tea to warm you.”

He was on a peculiar odyssey, which he freely acknowledged, so it was no that wonder his faithful landlady fretted. Mrs Hudson, as well as everyone else he knew, thought it was beyond time for John Watson to move past the sorrow and resume his life. He was not unaware of some whispered comments to the effect that it was unseemly for him to grieve the loss of a friend for longer than he had for a wife.

More than once he almost shouted out the truth and let the consequences be damned. It was only his aversion to blackening Holmes’ reputation, even in death, that kept him silent.

He visited a different cemetery each Saturday, in lieu of having an actual site at which to pay homage, because there was no grave for Sherlock Holmes. A body had never emerged from the swirling waters at the Reichenbach Falls. Watson had tried more than once to persuade Mycroft Holmes that some modest monument to his brother would not go amiss, but the peculiar man refused to countenance any such thing. And of course it would not do for Watson himself to presume to do so.

So there was no grave and no memorial, save the one that dwelt within Watson’s heart. And, despite his own unhappy feelings on the subject, he felt sure that his Holmes was quite content with that. One day several months previously, with no real intention to do so, he found himself travelling to Kensal Green. It was a pleasant afternoon so he determined to take a stroll along the canal that adjoined the cemetery.

The peaceful setting, with its cacophony of bird song and the sight of an occasional fox dashing into the undergrowth, served as a temporary balm to his sore heart. As he walked, he carried on a silent conversation with his absent lover. Such outings became the high point of each week.

So on this chilly day, he wandered Highgate Cemetery, traversing the winding trails cut into the hillsides, pausing to study the tombs and vaults that lined Egyptian Avenue. It was not until he saw the young man holding several red roses and weeping over a new grave that Watson remembered the date.

14 February.

The unhappy young chap had obviously lost his love quite recently and was mourning her.

Watson felt quite sure that the man had never given thanks for that fact that his grief was allowed, was honoured, while others were forced to keep their anguish hidden away. There were no roses for Holmes and any tears shed were only allowed in the dark of the lonely nights endured by one solitary soul.

When the young mourner departed, there were three roses left on the ground where one day soon a headstone would no doubt be placed. Without thinking about what he was doing, Watson walked over and picked up one of the flowers. He was sure the sadly departed whose body lay here would forgive him, because was there not a confederation of the dead?

He wrapped the rose in his handkerchief and took it with him back to Baker Street, where he secreted it inside his old campaign trunk next to the only photograph he had of Holmes. Damn society and damn Mycroft Holmes, too; he would have a memorial to his lover.

***

 

 

2

 

The tiny diner was the only place on the street that was still open. Someone had very optimistically used sello tape to attach an enormous glittery red heart onto the none-too-clean front window. Did they really expect any loving couple to choose this establishment for a romantic Valentine dinner?

Chance would be a fine thing.

The neon light outside flickered and crackled annoyingly as Sherlock went into the diner and slid into the back booth. It was most probably an unnecessary precaution, because even if he had chosen to sit right in front of the window it would have been safe. No one in New York City was going to recognise him. He was even reasonably sure that very few people in London would have known him either, given the short ginger curls, shrunken Dr Who teeshirt [a terribly sentimental choice, he knew too well, but would not acknowledge the fact even to himself] and tattered too-tight Levis. Luckily, in this city, no one raised an eyebrow at a man wearing dark glasses, even at night. Who would have ever thought to find Sherlock Holmes behind such façade? After two years, he could hardly find himself anymore.

He ordered coffee, because it was impossible to get decent tea in this heathen nation. Sometimes he dreamt of tea, specifically tea made by John Watson. A steaming cup made just the way he liked it and served with a smile. Or sometimes with an expression of irritation. Whatever John’s mood, though, he made tea and always handed a cup to him.

Sometimes the dreams evolved in a way that the reality never had. When that happened, Sherlock would awaken with a feeling of complete regret. For time and opportunities wasted. Then he would promise---himself? Fate?---that if he had the chance, he would speak up and tell John how he felt.

Assuming John would want to hear anything at all from him. Assuming he actually made it back home and had the chance to see John again. There were too many assumptions to be going on with.

When his coffee arrived, Sherlock took a quick glance at the laminated menu and ordered a ham sandwich. That choice made, he slumped back into the padded fake leather of the banquette and surveyed his surroundings.

There was only one other customer in the diner, a woman sitting opposite him at the counter. Her dress was red, just about too short and tight for common decency and yet somehow she managed to look classy and not like a street whore. This was not a woman who would troll for customers in Times Square. Her long dark hair was pinned up in a flawless chignon and her lips were shiny red, not unlike the ridiculous heart hanging in the window.

But her eyes were intelligent.

She was aware of the scrutiny and just gave him a tiny smile.

Something about her reminded him of the Adler woman. Which, annoyingly, made him think of John again.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said, the tone not quite mocking, but close.

Sherlock ignored the words.

Her gaze swept from the battered trainers, up the torn jeans, paused on his face. “You’re too lovely to be alone on such a romantic night.” She made it sound like simply a factual observation and not a come-on.

He sneered anyway.

She nodded. “Oh, I see now. You’re a man with a broken heart. She dumped you, right?”

“I wouldn’t hang out your shingle as a psychic quite yet,” Sherlock replied caustically.

She did not seem to take offence, because her lips twitched upwards into another smile. “Oh. Sorry, yes, I see now. It wasn’t a she at all, was it, who broke your heart.”

His impression that she was intelligent had apparently been accurate. Sherlock took a swallow of the coffee. “The general consensus is that I have no heart,” Sherlock said, not sure why he was even talking to her.

They were both quiet as the tattooed and pierced waitress delivered his ham sandwich and a small bag of crisps. At a gesture from the woman, she fetched the coffee pot and poured her another cup. Once the waitress was back at the far end of the counter, she picked up her advanced psychology textbook and started reading again.

The woman was still watching Sherlock.

Sherlock let his mind drift back to the last Valentine’s Day that he had been in London. Most of the evening had been spent on a deadly dull stakeout for Mycroft’s case of the of House of Lords member who was spying for Russia. Then John had abandoned his boring date and showed up at the stakeout. Everything got better immediately, as it always did when John was with him. As promised, there had been a footrace through darkened streets, a fistfight, and Chinese at 1AM. Through his giggles, John had said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Sherlock.”

John was a giggler.

And Sherlock had been so close to saying something. It almost felt as if John wanted him to say something. But, like every other time, he let the moment go by.

For one moment, his chest felt so tight that he actually wondered if he might be having a heart attack. Which rather put the lie to his contention that he didn’t have one, didn’t it? Not that he was fooling himself on that anymore.

The woman was looking sombre now. “Sorry,” she said, sounding sincere. “I did not mean to make light of your pain.”

Sherlock shot her a glance and then for some reason, he acknowledged her words with a quick nod. He was almost tempted to speak, but what would he say? His name is John and I miss him so much it is a constant ache. He does not know that I love him. Bloody hell, he doesn’t even know that I am alive. And that is not just romantic drivel; it is simply a fact.

He said none of that, of course.

Her phone on the counter beeped and she picked it up to read a text. “Ah, well, sadly, duty calls. I hate last minute bookings. But everybody wants to feel loved tonight, I guess.” She stood, pulling on a long coat.

Sherlock took another bite of the tasteless sandwich and chewed slowly.

“Au revoir,” she said, waving a farewell. “Good luck.”

He watched her step out into the night and hail a cab.

 

And as it happened, luck actually was with him later that night, when the man he was chasing turned out to be a fairly bad shot. The first bullet missed him by a meter and the second went directly into the ceiling of the parking garage as Sherlock pushed the man over the railing and watched him fall three stories to the concrete floor below.

The irony did not escape him, but he ignored it.

***

 

3

 

The rough-hewn stone and wood inn was located only a day’s ride [if one were fortunate enough to possess some beast of burden to carry him along] from the border of Tibet. Only the most stalwart of souls would attempt to enter into that secretive kingdom. They did not welcome guests. But sometimes needs must.

Holmes had travelled to this inn from Delhi riding in the back of a donkey cart, all 1620 kilometres of the journey, and his body felt every one of them. As he examined each bruise and scrape, he could easily imagine what his Watson would have said about it all.

But then he instantly dismissed that line of thought, because he knew it would take him down a very dark path. One that was too dangerous to tread in his present circumstances. The absence of his friend and lover was like an open wound, the pain of which made his current battered state feel like nothing.

After dropping his small valise onto the narrow bed upstairs, Holmes went downstairs again, this time to the common room. The atmosphere there reminded him more than a bit of an establishment he had visited in Anfa, with its polyglot of humanity gathered from all corners of the world.

How his Watson would love to hear the stories of his travels.

If he wanted to hear anything at all from Holmes after such a betrayal.

Again, he shoved that thought aside and went to the bar for a cup of the local beer. Avoiding the communal table where a raucous group of men were laying wagers on some byzantine game played with polished stones, Holmes sat at a tiny table from where he could survey the entirety of the room.

He had taken only two sparing sips of the powerful brew when a new person entered the room. He was a thin, pale man in the garb of a churchman and Holmes immediately recognised a fellow Englishman. Apparently the newcomer also recognised another European and gentleman, despite Holmes’ current rough condition, because as soon as he had a drink in hand, he crossed the room to the small table. “Might I join you, sir?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“If you like,” Holmes replied in the soft Scandinavian accent he had recently adopted.

The man took the other chair and then held out his hand. “Richards,” he said.

“Sigerson,” Holmes replied, shaking hands. Until it was proven otherwise, he decided to believe that this mild-mannered Englishman had no connection to the deceased Moriarty or his henchman Moran. “So, Richards,” he said lightly, “come to convert the heathens?”

Richards gave a small smile. “Come to do good works and hope that will bring those heathen souls to God.”

Sherlock Holmes, back in London, would have sneered at that ambition [and earned himself a reproachful look from Watson, who shared his scepticism but was unerringly polite] but Sigerson was not inclined to argue the topic, so he only hummed a reply.

“And what brings you to this benighted corner of the world?”

Holmes shrugged. “I am merely a traveller. An explorer. That is what I do.”

He did not add that he was also engaged in the unravelling of a spider’s web as he chased down the creatures still doing the bidding of a dead man.

They conversed pleasantly for nearly an hour. All the while, Holmes was watching the others in the room and by the time he excused himself to bed, he knew which man he would approach in the morning for assistance in crossing the border to Tibet.

Once back inside his corner room, he gave in to the weariness that seemed to permanently occupy his bones these days. In this mood, Holmes could begin to believe that he would never again cross the threshold of 221B or hold Watson in his arms.

He lighted a candle and sat at the shaky table, pulling the pad of paper closer. Once he had his inkbottle open and his pen in hand, he began to write, the words sprawling across the page.

My dearest John,
Tonight I find myself as far from you as it is possible to be and still be on the same planet. My heart aches with the missing of you.

He kept writing until the candle was starting to gutter, pouring his anguish onto page after page, saying things that had previously only been whispered into the darkness of their bedroom. He did not weep.

When he had filled four pages of the cheap paper, Holmes stopped writing. He reread his words, wishing they could somehow go out into the universe and thereby reach his beloved.

Then he folded the papers and placed them into the crude metal bowl intended to hold his shaving water. Using the last bit of flame from the candle, he ignited the letter.

By the glow of the burning pages, he undressed and crawled into the bed. He watched the flames die and finally there was nothing left but a pile of ashes.

It seemed like the perfect metaphor of his life.

***

 

4

 

The pub was already in rather frantic party mood by the time John walked in. He had been reluctant to come out and meet Greg Lestrade for a drink, but the detective had been doggedly persistent and wore him down. Of course, these days it took very little to wear John Watson down. The past two years had left him feeling fragile, as if his body were liable to shatter if anyone poked him too hard.

When he saw the red and glittery banner that was hung across the entire length of the main room proclaiming Happy Valentine’s Day, John was ready to turn around and flee into the night. But before he could do that, Lestrade spotted him and waved him over to the little snug at the back of the room.

John sighed and headed that direction, stopping at the bar for a pint, before joining Lestrade. “Greg,” he said.

Greg seemed glad to see him. “John! Christ, mate, it’s been months.”

John just gave a faint smile. Why would they have met? He was not a detective. And, to be honest, he didn’t have very good feelings about any of those who had played a part in what had happened. Even Lestrade, although at least he had come to John after the funeral and apologised.

John supposed that he appreciated it. Didn’t change anything, of course.

He took a swallow of his drink. “So after all those months you decide that we should get together on Valentine’s Day, of all times?”

Greg shrugged. “Had nothing better to do. And apparently you didn’t either.”

“Your wife doesn’t expect you home?”

The other man grimaced. “Ah, well, the marriage went up in smoke. Divorce went through last month. So this is my first Valentine’s Day in years as a single man. The ex is now living with an accountant who comes home for dinner at the same time every night.”

“Sorry.” John hated that deep inside he felt a little glimmer of something that seemed almost like satisfaction. Maybe everyone who had driven Sherlock to jump from that roof should have to suffer the loss of someone they loved.

He no longer shrank from the word.

“Actually,” Greg said, “I was surprised that you were free. Last I heard you were about to become engaged to someone named Mary. Ran into Mrs Hudson at Tesco’s and she filled me in.”

John was watching a City boy make a play for a woman clearly out of his league. “That didn’t work out,” he muttered. At first, he thought that was all he would say, but suddenly it didn’t feel like enough. Maybe he owed Sherlock the truth. “She got tired of always competing with a ghost.”

“Sherlock?” Greg said quietly.

“Yes. Of course.”

There was a moment of quiet between them.

“Maybe it was just too soon,” Greg offered.

John swallowed more lager. “She would have hung on, I think.” In fact, her dogged determination to hold on to their relationship seemed endless and John supposed it should have been flattering. Instead it began to seem oddly unsettling. Even a bit mad. And, in the end, it had not mattered at all.

“But?” Greg said, bringing him back into the conversation.

“I decided I preferred the ghost,” John said flatly.

Clearly, Greg wanted to discuss that, argue with it or maybe just try to laugh it off.

John did not give him the chance to do any one of those things. “I knew when I saw him standing on that roof.”

“Knew what?”

John almost felt sorry for the other man.. “That I loved him. Then he jumped and he died. Part of me died, too, but the love was still there.”

The detective obviously did not know what to say. Because he was not a stupid man, really, he had the sense to say nothing at all.

John finished his drink. “Greg, this is your first Valentine’s Day as an unmarried man. You should be making a play for one of the lovely ladies in here, not listening to me moan about my miserable life.” He stood.

“What about you?”

John just shrugged and left the pub.

With the familiar feeling that he was being watched [damn Mycroft Holmes} he walked back to his tiny flat. In the waiting mail was a funny card from Mrs Hudson and he realised he needed to visit her one day soon. He would meet her for tea someplace away from 221 Baker Street.

It was the best he could do.

***