Back on the street, Watson looked frantically about for Henry Baker.
The man seemed to appear out of nowhere, leaning solemnly against a lamppost, his round profile haloed in a cloudy yellow beam.
“I tried to go home,” Watson panted when he got within Baker’s earshot, “but Mrs. Hudson didn’t know me, and the place was filled with—”
“But you never lived there.”
“I do live there. I moved in after Stamford introduced me to Holmes.”
“No, you do not. You never knew anyone named Stamford and you never met Sherlock Holmes.” Baker’s mantle of eager friendliness had been replaced by the dour mien of a judge.
Watson never wanted to see Holmes more in his life. He understood now that his friend might not recognize him, either, but at least he would be able explain these horrifying circumstances with the cold, precise logic that Watson had always depended upon to reconcile the order of the world. He realized just then how unaccountably comforting it was to have Holmes guide him down a marble staircase of deductions that led to a single truth, beautiful in its vast simplicity.
“Baker, where is he? Where’s Holmes?”
Baker looked away.
“Where is he?” Watson repeated forcefully.
Baker shifted his weight and still didn’t answer.
Watson grabbed Baker’s lapels and shook him like a heavy rag doll. “I don’t care if he’s on the moon, I must see him! Take me to Holmes. Now!”
Baker stepped backwards as he pried Watson’s fists from his coat, astonished and offended by the unwarranted abuse. Watson did not bother with an apology. He glared at him unrelentingly until Baker righted his clothes and restored his dignity. When he turned up the street, Watson followed him without another word.
They walked on and on through winter’s pale darkness, past shuttered houses and locked storefronts, under tall gaslights that flickered weakly behind sheaths of snow. They finally stopped in front of a small stone church.
“Holmes is here?” Watson’s unnatural laugh rang stark and hollow into the icy quiet. “What’d he do, turn himself over to a life of clergy?”
Baker ducked his head and led them through the wrought-iron gate of the church’s cemetery.
The wind howled like a banshee around them, and Watson hunched inside his coat. Baker came to a slow halt in front of a large granite tombstone, moved aside and nodded at it.
Watson fell to his knees.
“No,” he whispered.
He stared at the grave.
“No! NO! NO!” he screamed uselessly through the peals of wind.
He placed his hands on the stone like a blind man trying to see. “It can’t be. He can’t be. He can’t.” He denied and denied, but the epitaph stared silently back at him, its brutal truth etched in permanent dark lines for all eternity.
“How? Why?” He looked maniacally up at Baker, who calmly reached into his inside pocket and extracted a newspaper. He unfolded it and held it out for Watson to read.
Sherlock Holmes Found Dead
Unknown Whether Overdose Accident or Suicide
Watson snatched the paper from him and pored over the article. Holmes had been found by his landlord with a needle in his arm and an empty vial of morphine next to his body.
The words blurred and the paper floated limply from his hands.
A world without Holmes would be the worst kind of purgatory, a life half-lived in the cyclical torment of an insipid dream from which he would never awaken, never escape, forced to abide an existence that was a fool’s game at best, a tragic waste at worst.
And without Watson, Holmes would apparently cease to exist at all.
“I want to go back,” he whispered.
“Mr. Baker. Whoever, whatever you are, you must take me back.”
“But you said…”
“Bugger what I said! I’ll take it all, everything, the war, the wounds, the mistakes, the shortcomings, the disappointments. I’d endure five more wars and a thousand injuries if it meant Holmes were alive. And he needs me, too, I see that now. Oh please…” he sobbed.
Baker shrugged one last time as a final screech of wind whipped up a violent drift that showered snow over the tombstone and sent Watson tumbling backwards.
And then, nothing.
By and by, Watson came around. He woke up under a jet black sky dotted with a million silver pinpricks of light. Baker was gone and the air was still.
Watson stood on shaking legs and pushed the snow from his limbs. He swept the snow from the grave against which he had fallen. He looked at the name, rubbed his eyes into focus, blinked and looked again.
Relief swarmed into a cluster of hope inside his stomach and waited. The nightmare would not be over until Watson reached his home and the only family he knew.
As he left the cemetery he was momentarily waylaid by a familiar flash of pain gripping his leg. For the first time in his life, he was grateful for the reminder that he had lived to endure the Afghan war.
He pressed on, propelling his bad leg in wide circles as he galumphed up the street. He recognized where he was. There was the bookstore he so often frequented, the neat rows linen-covered books appearing soft and welcoming even in the dark. There was the haberdashery where a display of the finest top hats tipped at dapper angles from the lifeless heads of smiling dummies. There was the wine and spirits store where Watson had purchased a bottle of Holmes’s favourite Irish whisky from Mr. Russell just that morning.
And finally, there was 221b Baker Street, a heavenly vision of golden light pouring from the windows of the sitting room where a tall figure was just moving away from the curtain. The moment Watson saw it, pure joy catapulted him the final half-block to the front door, which had been left unlocked.
Watson pounded up the seventeen steps, taking them three at a time. His leg groaned with each thump, but it didn't matter. He was at the landing and through the door in a matter of seconds.
“Watson!” Holmes was already at the door, his face a mirror of the overwhelming waves of happiness that were crashing giddily through Watson. Strong hands reached out and grasped the doctor’s shoulders, planting him firmly at the center of the detective’s universe. Watson basked in the radiance of warmth meant entirely for him, ready to drown in the tenderness that was swimming across his friend’s eyes. Then he saw Inspector Lestrade over Holmes’s shoulder, wearing a strangely paternal smile.
“Dr. Watson, how glad we are to see you,” he said genially. He clapped one hand on Watson’s shoulder.
Watson smiled at the Inspector. He was almost as glad to see him. Almost.
Holmes unlocked his eyes from Watson’s when he suddenly remembered their landlady.
“Dear me, I must go and fetch Mrs. Hudson! She’s out trolling the streets with nothing more than a shawl and a lantern.” He flung his ulster around his shoulders and flew down the stairs.
The sitting room was aglow with Yuletide atmosphere. The fresh garlands draped over the mantle spiced the air with a pine-green fragrance that blended agreeably with the fire-roasted smell of burning wood in the hearth below. Sprigs of mistletoe sprouted from the archways and red candles pointed merrily like
“We found the jewel,” Lestrade said brightly, pleased that he got to deliver the good news. “Ryder managed to escape us, I’m afraid, but not before leading us on what I can only call, without understatement or originality, a wild goose chase. I couldn’t see the point of any of it until Mr. Holmes insisted on dissecting this creature we finally tracked down at the Alpha Public House. And you’ll never guess what we found in its crop, Dr. Watson.”
“The blue carbuncle?” he laughed.
“Damnedest hiding place I ever saw,” Lestrade chuckled, shaking his head. “Horner’s been let off, of course. Mr. Holmes mentioned that having the wrong man locked up is often a rather clever way of ferreting out the true criminal. A bit unorthodox, I must say, but I suppose I have to agree.”
Watson loosed a slow sigh as soon as Lestrade unwittingly lifted the great burden from his conscience.
“Dare I ask where you’ve been that caused you to become soaked to the skin, doctor?” Lestrade couldn't swear to it, but Watson looked like he had spent the night inside a snowbank.
"I was—“ he started, but he was hard-pressed to follow it up with anything that didn’t sound impossibly ridiculous.
A shadow crossed Watson’s face. “Lestrade, I have seen more than I ever thought possible. A lifetime has passed before me.”
Lestrade, who so rarely accepted hyperbole when it came to investigation, responded with a small serious nod. He never doubted it must have been a potent force that kept such a man out on a night like this.
“He was…very much distraught over your absence, Doctor,” confided the inspector in a low voice. “Oh, he would never admit as much to me, but the disturbance shook that systematic world of his from the inside out. Perhaps it is already evident to you how much you mean to him, and you’ll forgive me for taking too many liberties when I say,” he paused to consider his words carefully.
All the light in Watson’s smile was transported to his eyes and they blazed hungrily enough that Lestrade knew he was about to utter a sentiment that Watson had been waiting to hear for a long time.
“I know him to be many things, sir,” Lestrade resumed from a slightly different angle, “a brilliant man, some would say a genius, a methodical creature, certainly an exasperating character. But never before had I realized that the depth of his feelings go quite beyond—”
Watson would have to hear the rest from Holmes, for the mingled sounds of the chirping landlady and Holmes’s sonorous patter on the stairs interrupted their conversation. A moment later, Holmes was bustling Mrs. Hudson through the door.
“Oh, Dr. Watson, we were worried to pieces,” she cried as she leant her small frame onto his chest and pressed a cold cheek against his lapel.
Watson squeezed her affectionately and kissed the top of her white head. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Hudson. I cannot tell you how I’ve missed you.” Indeed, the hours he had been gone had stretched into such an anxious interval that it seemed far longer to everyone.
Mrs. Hudson tightened her hold around the doctor’s waist and immediately sprung back as though she had been bitten.
“Doctor, you’re soaked to the skin!” She admonished him with a scolding look and hurried from the room to fetch tea and hot water. The three men watched her leave. A heavy silence fell over the room.
“Right then,” said Lestrade, clearing his throat and reaching for his hat. “I’ll leave you two alone.”
Holmes wasn’t at all sure how to thank him, for he owed Lestrade more gratitude than he was equipped to express. So he followed him to the door, and when Lestrade turned to say his final goodbye, Holmes stuck out his hand and fixed a stare on the hat the inspector was holding.
“Lestrade, it's been..." he stopped and looked up when the stunning truth found its way into his mind.
“Your company, sir,” he finished, and Lestrade’s firm grasp communicated all the things they would never have the wherewithal to say.
“A very happy Christmas to you and your wife,” added Watson, whose warm smile and slight bow effervesced with his own appreciation.
Lestrade smiled at the two men, planted his hat on his head and exited Baker Street.
Holmes closed the door behind him, and turned to Watson. His eyes traveled up and down his person, but instead of developing into enlightenment, his expression stalled at perplexity.
“What is it, Holmes?”
“From the looks of it, you spent some time in a tavern, walked a good deal and possibly fell asleep in a snowbank. But I would swear there was something…more.”
“You’re right," Watson said. "I traveled farther than I ever thought possible tonight.”
Holmes hiked his eyebrows with interest, but just then Mrs. Hudson rapped on the door. Her small face was still flushed with mirth when she entered with the tea tray. She would never say so aloud, but she knew that taking care of her boys kept the spring in her step and the sparkle in her eye. The dishes clattered cheerfully as she set the tray on the table.
“Oh, Dr. Watson, this was delivered for you while you were out.”
She extracted the letter from her apron pocket and handed it to Watson, then ordered him once more to change out of his clothes and go straight to the hot bath she was drawing for him in the washroom.
“I would like nothing more than to see you rested and comfortable,” Holmes conceded.
Watson carefully mounted the steps to his room and undressed. He pulled on his heaviest robe and sat down on his bed to read the letter.
Dear Dr. Watson:
I am writing on behalf of the family of Dorthea Winchester, who passed away this afternoon under your care at St. Bartholomew’s hospital.
You were no doubt distressed by this unfortunate turn, for my mother spoke so fondly of you that it was evident you and she shared a special rapport, and that you took particular interest in her well-being. It is therefore of the utmost importance that I impart to you the fact that you are in no way accountable for her death.
Two months ago, Mother was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition when she was traveling in Bristol. Our family’s decision to keep this from her, while certainly not a laudable one, was done for what we believed was good reason: my sister Anabel had died in childbirth two days previous and the infant only survived her for a few hours.
As you know, the close relationship with her only daughter was something that Mother treasured above all else. Given the devastating effect the news would have had, and knowing that she herself only had a short time remaining on God’s earth, we let her believe that the delivery was successful, and that both Anabel and her granddaughter were healthy and anticipating their Christmas visit.
Your decision to keep Mother in the hospital was a blessing to the Winchesters, for she never had to bear witness to the solemn gathering at my brother’s home, which still carries the heavy, mournful climate of our loss. She died believing all of us to be awaiting her with lightened hearts and good cheer. That your kind and caring smile was the last thing she saw is something for which I shall be eternally grateful.
I hope that Mother will soon forgive us from her Heavenly rest as she is reunited with my father, the daughter of whom she was so proud and the granddaughter she already loved. I hope that you, too, can forgive us, Doctor, for any undue stress we may have inadvertently caused you.
Very sincerely yours,
Allistair Winchester, Jr.
* * *
“I was worried, you know,” murmured Holmes, relishing the way his heart began to gallop when Watson rested his forehead upon his.
“I know.” Watson circled his arms around Holmes’s waist and nothing had ever felt so right.
“Where exactly did this great journey of yours take you?”
“It’s a bit…difficult to explain. I spent the evening with someone who taught me some important lessons.”
“How charmingly vague.”
“All right, then. In an elaborate scheme I shall never fully understand, an old drunk showed me that, contrary to what I thought at the time, there are some people in the world who need me.”
“I can certainly think of one.” Holmes raised his head to regard him. “Was it really as bad as all that, Watson?”
The recollection snagged Watson's brow. “One of my most regrettable mistakes today was making a mess of the investigation and knowing that I let you down. The way you looked at me this evening…” he shook his head sadly.
“I wonder if it was anything like the way you look at me when you catch me with the needle. Or when I refuse to eat.” Holmes traced his thumb along the smooth contour of Watson’s chin. Touching him was coming much more naturally than he had imagined.
“Those are just habits, Holmes. So often when I strive to excel at your methods, I come up short,” Watson sighed, but the corners of his mouth turned up contentedly when he discovered how snugly his cheek fit into Holmes’s cupped hand.
“Then I invite you to look through your volumes of notes on unresolved or uninteresting cases, or better yet, the ones where I have failed entirely.”
“The thing is I—“ their eyes fastened on one another, and Watson felt his outer layer of skin slip away. “I love you, Holmes. A very great deal, in fact. And I want you to love me.”
“I do. I always have. I don’t need you to be perfect.” His wide-eyed gaze never faltered.
“Even though I dragged you into an investigation in which you had no interest?” he ventured, though Holmes’s affirmation had gladdened him so completely that all his remaining questions became superfluous.
“There again, your logic has failed you. When have you ever known me to be reluctant to track a criminal?” Holmes said, a gentle smile pausing his words. “No, Watson, I was only addled because I had so looked forward to spending the rest of the day in here with you.”
He leaned into Watson’s ear and whispered, “You see, I rather like what we’ve started.”
The words sent a thousand Cupid’s arrows squarely into Watson’s heart, and with a clean tilt of his head he found Holmes’s mouth. Their lips met and parted, met and parted and Holmes was no longer shy. His hands slid up and down Watson’s back, smoothing at first and then kneading until Watson was crushed up against him and they were perfectly latched in the kind of open-mouthed kiss that bursts through portals of passion.
But the kiss was broken by Watson’s tiny yelp when his leg finally gave out once and for all, sending him to the floor like a column of tumbling rocks. Holmes caught him by his forearms.
“Here. I’ve got you,” he murmured. He bent a sturdy shoulder so Watson could lean upon it while he shuffled him to the settee.
Watson landed heavily on the cushions, and Holmes seated himself at his feet with his hands resting on the planes of his thighs. He began curling his fingers in gentle squeezes around the tight cords in Watson’s leg. He jerked once, then twice, and Holmes glanced up in apology, eased the pressure and soon found more comfortable methods of coaxing the rigid knot to relax and release. It was as relieving as it was arousing.
Watson dropped his head on the back of the settee with a soft groan, and Holmes felt himself twitch in places he never used to think about. He wanted to touch Watson more thoroughly than this, to climb into his lap and run his hands through his hair and pass his mouth over exposed skin to find out what desire tasted like.
Watson offered no protest when Holmes reached curious fingers into the flies of his pyjamas, but his next breath remained suspended in his lungs when a hot mouth engulfed him a moment later. Holmes would need some guidance, that much was clear, so Watson grasped his head and thickly murmured instructions through his cottony haze of lust. The sound of his own voice dictating such sinful commands magnified the intense eroticism of Holmes responding in earnest.
In a few minutes, Holmes was doing quite sufficiently on his own, his busy tongue winding in mad circles, his lips stretching and puckering over hardening flesh. He was enjoying himself immensely, and soon observed that the tiniest variations could make Watson keen and gasp and shiver and writhe more loosely under his mouth. He loved the way Watson's hands raked through his hair and pressed into the back of his neck, restless fingers begging to be swallowed whole, and when Holmes finally indulged him he was more than ready for the wordless cry of warning that followed.
Two more thrusts and Watson was soaring. The tension within him swelled into blinding pleasure and then drained from his limbs as he sagged bonelessly and blissfully into the sofa. With a deeply satisfied sigh, Holmes closed his eyes and rested his head on Watson’s knee, thinking how lovely it had been to hear his name uttered with such ecstatic agitation.
It was Watson who finally spoke again. “Holmes, why don’t we…”
“Yes, let’s,” agreed Holmes, coming instantly out of his happy languid heap to grab Watson by the hands and hurry him into his bedroom. For the next several hours, he set himself to learning everything there was to know about the act of love. Watson took him places the seven-percent solution had never reached, and the best part about it was having him there to share in the joy of it.
* * *
The next morning, Watson noticed three things. He was not in his bed. There was someone next to him. He felt wonderful.
Holmes had been awake for some time, but he was so enchanted by the morning-soft flesh pressing warmly against him that he drifted in and out of consciousness until his arousal necessitated that he wake his bedmate. Then it was nothing but lips and hands and ragged breaths and two decidedly pleasant shudders before anyone spoke.
“Holmes, I’ve a question,” said Watson once his mouth was free.
“Why, yes, I do have another Christmas present for you,” Holmes answered and set about delivering it with aplomb.
“And I shall look forward to receiving it,” Watson chortled between gasps, “but my actual question is this: how did you know which goose at the Alpha Public House had the jewel inside of it?”
Holmes slowed his kisses along Watson’s stomach. “You spoke with Lestrade.”
“Yes, and you must forgive my dense—“ Holmes interrupted him with a sharp bite on his side. One day he would figure out a way to enumerate for Watson all the reasons he thought him a hero, but for now he would deliver affectionate physical reprimands for his self-effacing statements.
Holmes lifted his head and Watson smiled at the way his mussed-up hair fell across his forehead. “Now Watson, if you were going choose among a gaggle of geese to hide a jewel, what would you look for?”
Watson considered that a moment and when his blue eyes alit with the answer, Holmes couldn’t help the smile that poured over his own face.
“The one with the most distinguishing features, I fancy.”
“Quite so,” said Holmes, and he resumed the delicate oral trail he was criss-crossing over Watson’s torso.
Neither of them gave any thought to the dim commotion downstairs, or even Mrs. Hudson’s light footsteps speeding up the stairs. By the time she unlocked and entered the sitting room, Watson had just enough time to conceal himself in a tight ball at Holmes's feet before she burst into the bedroom waving a piece of paper over her head.
“Mr. Holmes! Mr. Holmes! It’s the most wonderful thing, sir!”
“Oh please,” Holmes drawled, putting forth his very best efforts to appear both sleepy and alone, “Go away.”
She marched over to the side of the bed and held the paper out for him to see. “A cheque for a thousand pounds from the Countess of Morcar made out to one Mr. Sherlock Holmes for the recovery of the blue carbuncle.”
Holmes sighed. He couldn’t believe she had come barging in to bother him with this. He cared nothing for money, especially since everything he ever wanted was currently hiding underneath his blanket. But it was Christmas after all.
“How lovely, Mrs. Hudson. Why don’t you keep a hundred for yourself and donate the rest to charity?” He rolled over in silent dismissal.
“Which charity? There are so many.”
“You decide. Now leave me in peace, won’t you?”
Mrs. Hudson pressed the cheque to her heart and hugged herself in a jubilant little dance. The Alexandra Orphanage where she volunteered badly needed its chimney repaired, and there would be enough left over to buy the children new winter coats.
“You’re a good man, Mr. Holmes,” she said, but he only grunted in acceptance of this. “Happy Christmas to you, sir.”
She turned to leave. “You too, Dr. Watson,” she called.
Watson poked his head through the blanket, and exchanged a worried look with Holmes.
“Mrs. Hudson, I can explain,” Holmes said hurriedly. “Dr. Watson’s room is very cold, you see, and he came down here in the night so he could sleep comfortably and...“
His words faded before they reached her ears. She stopped with her hand on the door knob and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. How daft did they think she was? Why on earth did they suppose there was mistletoe scattered all over their rooms?
Of course she never wondered about the misty-eyed looks had been passing between them for weeks or the pair of dressing gowns hanging crazily from the back of the settee or even finding them in bed together on Christmas morning.
The only thing Mrs. Hudson wondered was what had taken them so long to get there.
* * *
John Watson stood silently at the window of Baker Street, his eyes idly searching for shapes among the brilliant white wonderland below, a sad smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He was thinking about two men, the very best of friends, whose companionable habits had evolved so easily and naturally that he never noticed when they became the seamless fabric of their shared lives.
Gratified as he was for the intimacy he’d longed for, Watson knew that things would never be quite the same. Some small part of themselves had been left behind.
“Whatever we may have lost,” said Holmes from behind, gently stepping into his thoughts, “will be more than remunerated in the discoveries we’ve yet to make.”
He slid his arms around Watson’s shoulders and gave him a reassuring hug. “My regard for you hasn’t changed, my dear boy, only my means of showing it.”
Holmes kissed his ear and moved away. He crossed the room and poured two cups of hot coffee. He placed Watson’s on the table next to his chair for whenever he was ready, and took his own over to the settee with the newspaper.
It didn’t take Watson very much longer to dispense with his grief. The scene that greeted him when he turned around held the most comforting possibilities, and he sipped his coffee in the amiable silence and cherished every single one of them.
In a couple days the world would shift back into place, the everyday trials of troubled strangers would appear again on their doorstep, sometimes leading them into dark underworlds of crime, sometimes leading no place at all. But they would never do any less than combine their greatest strengths in order to put the wrongs to rights.
There would be times when Holmes was irritable and thoughtless and days when his stubborn habits would tax Watson's patience until a simple jest or the soothing sounds of the violin restored order once again. They would argue about cases and meals and chemicals and noise, but those, too, would pass as quickly as they arose.
Now when they laughed together it would be longer and sweeter, and they would share looks and ideas and memories more intimately and often. And there would be those thrilling moments of sensual bliss, each one a reminder of their unflagging esteem and devotion, the physical manifestation of their permanent place in one another’s hearts.
Offering a silent prayer of thanks to Mr. Henry Baker, whoever, whatever, wherever he was, Watson joined Holmes on the settee, wrapped himself in his arms and drifted into serenity, knowing the world was a better place with the two of them in it.