Sherlock Holmes stood silently at the window of Baker Street watching the last snowflakes sifting down from the sky. The pane was thick with ice, and winter’s frosty breath reached in just beyond the glass. Behind him, the sitting room was a warm cocoon, a tall fire snapping against the hearth and a fresh cup of tea steaming expectantly on his desk.
But it was with a troubled gaze that Holmes combed the street below, looking for signs of his friend. The hour was growing late, and Watson had not yet come home.
It occurred to Holmes for the first time that he was so long in the habit of not worrying for his friend, that to find himself actually doing so was all the more distressing. Watson had emerged unscathed from the rougher parts of their work with such regularity that his perpetual well-being was something Holmes depended on as confidently as his own wits.
But tonight was different. Although Watson was given to a short temper on occasion, Holmes had never seen him come entirely unhinged the way he had in Covent Garden that evening. He was no doubt frustrated with the case, and his leg was paining him more than usual, but his uncharacteristic disappearance told Holmes too late that something far deeper had shaken him.
Once or twice, Holmes raised his eyes to the fuzzy grey void of the horizon, or observed some small details so that Watson would have a chance to turn the corner of Baker Street when he wasn't looking. The luminescent shock of white that covered the city had muted the holiday clamor. The ghostly echos of shouting pedestrians gradually vanished like the stilled carriages that were dissolving into skeletal shadows underneath the snow.
Still no Watson.
Holmes was not a religious man, but as the clock ticked insistently into the future, he succumbed to the urge to ask the air that his dear friend, wherever he was, be kept safe.
Then, for perhaps the dozenth time that evening, Holmes revisited the day’s events, rifling for clues among the ruins of their scattered logic, hoping to find just one that would enlighten him as to the doctor's whereabouts.
* * *
“Mrs. Hudson! Mrs. Hudsooooon!” Holmes trilled from his recline on the settee, affecting the haughty, resigned impatience of an aristocrat whose servants always seem to be just out of earshot.
Mrs. Hudson finally entered the sitting room with an exasperated flush.
“There you are,” he said, his calm smile assuming she had all the time in the world. He picked up his empty teacup and thrust it in her direction.
She seemed to grow three inches taller as she drew a long breath, and narrowed her eyes into a vengeful glare.
“Mr. Holmes, if you please,” she began with measured restraint, though her words swiped a razor’s edge, “I’ve less than twenty-four hours to prepare this house for Christmas, cook two meals, drop my donations at the vicar’s charity drive, deliver three bundles of packages and set the plum puddings and I DO NOT wish to be summoned for so trifle a task as to REFILL YOUR TEA, SIR.”
Watson, who was sorting books at his desk, raised the "R" volume in front of his face and laughed quietly behind it.
Holmes lowered his cup in dejected innocence. “Why, Mrs. Hudson, you should not be standing here admonishing me when there are far more important matters to be tended. Get on with it then, and never mind the tea.”
She squared her shoulders, growled through gritted teeth and stormed from the room.
“What sort of beast do you suppose spat venom into her coffee this morning?” Holmes asked his flatmate, sounding more wounded than he had a right to.
Watson flung a disapproving smile at him. “Really, Holmes. You know how she is at this time of year. I realize you are in a position to go on holiday whenever you please, but she has no such luxury, especially at Christmastime. You’ve been too hard on her.”
“Permit me to remind you that the idea to abstain from detection over the holidays was entirely yours, Watson. Something about my health.” He was still pouting when he rose to retrieve a cigarette from the table.
Watson replaced the last book on the shelf. “No food and no sleep for three days do not a pleasant detective make,” he quipped, “not to mention a roommate. In any case, if you recall, I had suggested that we might enjoy Christmas quietly this year without permitting crime to draw us away from the warmth and comfort of Baker Street.”
Watson stole a sidelong glance at Holmes as he lit his cigarette. He tried to gauge whether or not Holmes had yet deduced his deeper motivations for keeping them sequestered over the holidays. The kiss they had shared four days previous was more thrilling than all their adventures combined, and Watson wanted very much to try it again.
It was no particularly special circumstance—in fact, it was a quite typical scene that had Watson on bended knee tending the angry gash that sliced across Holmes’s right palm. They traded playful barbs over the extent to which their ambush on an armed smuggler was, in hindsight, ill-advised and most certainly ill-timed. They shared a laugh. When Watson looked up, he was startled to see a shy smile chase across Holmes’s face. He came suddenly aware of the weight of his friend’s wounded hand in his own. And then the pattern of stains and scars he knew as thoroughly as a map of London creased into dark crevices as Holmes folded his bandaged palm around Watson’s wrist.
Watson had bestowed many a kiss before, but he was quite certain the world stopped turning when he held his breath and leaned into his best friend. Perhaps it was the briefest moment before he closed his eyes when he saw Holmes’s lips part and sink into a tiny smile. Or perhaps it was simply the wonder at crossing a monumental threshold with such a small gesture.
Either way, in that moment Watson was launched into the most exhilarating sphere he had ever inhabited. Holmes’s lips were as soft as a whisper in the dark, the soft yield of his mouth as charmingly uncertain as that of a young woman entering her first courtship.
Watson was staring at those lips again now, as Holmes puffed his cigarette to life and ambled to the window. He pulled the curtain aside and gazed with listless half-interest down at the street. “I suppose I do feel a bit smug knowing I haven’t any need to be running about the city in so common a fashion. One does wonder what it’s all for.”
Watson came to stand behind him. “They have families, that’s why.” He plucked the cigarette from Holmes’s fingers. “Tradition, Holmes,” he said through his inhale. “It means something to a great many people.”
Holmes shrugged and continued to stare with contemptuous pity at the pedestrians below, helpless pawns in a pointless game of their own making.
But Watson was already distracted. He was fixating on the graceful arch of Holmes’s neck, and the dramatic contrast between the neat edge of his dark hairline and his milky, translucent skin. Watson aimed his exhale for precisely that spot, and watched the locks of smoke swirl in graceful tendrils around his head. The awakened scents of fresh pine and rosewater on his clean-shaven face turned into a sharper aroma that was so essentially Holmes Watson’s kneecaps began to shudder.
He closed his eyes and started visualizing the most extraordinary things— a candlelit sitting room, heavy-lidded eyes, need-soaked kisses, graceful fingers skating over hot skin. Suddenly, Holmes tensed his body and tipped forward, sending Watson into a panic. He very nearly opened his mouth to begin defending his train of thought.
“It’s Lestrade,” Holmes exclaimed, annoyance and amusement at odds in his tone.
Watson, whose own reaction fell somewhere between annoyance and relief, peered over Holmes’s shoulder and together they watched the inspector approach the front door.
“One does wonder if he will be spared Mrs. Hudson’s wrath,” murmured Holmes, still unaware of the fact that it was his habits alone that drove the woman to her wits’ end.
Holmes moved away from the window and crossed the room. He left a cold void where he had been standing, much to Watson’s further regret.
Holmes waited a full two seconds before throwing open the door and ceremoniously greeting a surprised Lestrade, who was still brushing snow from his hat and hadn’t yet raised his hand to knock.
“The season’s greetings, Inspector! I hope whatever conundrum you’re about to present to us won’t have you working through the holiday.”
Lestrade stepped into the sitting room, nodding at Watson while he dusted the remaining snow from his damp lapels.
Holmes was already at the sideboard pouring their guest a glass of port when Lestrade started to speak.
“You know as well as I do that crime rarely takes a holiday, Mr. Holmes. But I will admit that jewel robberies don’t usually arise during a season of generosity and good cheer.”
“Ah!” The ever-present light behind Holmes’s grey eyes smoldered with intrigue. He dropped a sparkling red glass into Lestrade's hand. “Pray continue, Inspector.”
“It will be in all the papers soon enough, but you may as well hear it from me,” Lestrade went on. “Perhaps you’re familiar with the blue carbuncle, sir?”
Holmes cocked his head and rummaged through the annals of his long memory.
“Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is—they are the devil’s pet baits,” he mused. “For a stone not yet twenty years old, the blue carbuncle already has a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of it.”
He strolled to the mantle and began to fill the pipe he always smoked at the start of a new case. “The stone is now the property of the Countess of Morcar,” he concluded, “or, I should say, it was before it was stolen this morning.”
“You have it, Mr. Holmes,” said Lestrade, “I’m on my way to the Hotel Cosmopolitan now.”
“Tell me the facts,” said Holmes, ignoring the warning shot that fired from Watson’s eyes.
“Bit of a puzzle. Only three people could have taken it—her ladyship’s maid Catherine Cusack, James Ryder, the upper-attendant at the Hotel and the plumber John Horner. They’ve each been detained for questioning.”
Lestrade took a sip of port before broaching the reason for his visit. He hated asking Sherlock Holmes for help, but neither did he want to give up his holiday. “I know it’s rather an inconvenient time,” he started hesitantly, “but I would be much obliged for any assistance you and Dr. Watson could provide, Mr. Holmes. We’d like to have this cleared up by the day’s end, you understand.”
Holmes felt Watson tense in preamble to the argument he was about to pitch to keep the detective at bay. But Holmes was feeling generous after all, and decided to surprise his roommate by raising his pipe into the air in a dramatic show of deference. “Alas, I regret! I shan’t be taking any cases until after the feast of St. Stephen’s. I cannot, however, speak for Dr. Watson.”
Holmes smiled around the stem of his pipe as he watched the startled joy bloom over Watson’s face. The doctor stepped forward with formal military attention.
“Well, Inspector, it just so happens I’ve a round to do at St. Bart’s later this morning. I’d be happy to accompany you to the Hotel Cosmopolitan on my way,” Watson replied generously. “Holmes must remain home to convalesce, but I’m sure you and I can make something of the investigation.”
“Much obliged, Doctor,” Lestrade replied. He drained the rest of his glass to cover his relief over having been spared an afternoon of smug reproaches. “I’ve a cab and two constables waiting downstairs,” he said, and plunked his empty glass on the table.
“Two minutes,” Watson called after after him, and the inspector waved in acknowledgment on his way out.
Holmes turned an enlivened expression on his friend. “So. Watson. The case is in your hands.”
Watson fought to contain his eagerness. He imagined there would be no better way to earn permanent esteem in the man’s heart than to solve a case on his own when Holmes was indisposed.
“I shan’t be very long, I promise you that,” Watson assured him once he mastered himself. “I mean to spend the afternoon and evening here as planned.”
Holmes saw that gleam leap to Watson’s eye, the same one that shimmered like an unexpected beacon of light on that remarkable day last week. He watched Watson jog up the stairs to change, fondly noting the stiffness with which he usually carried himself to cover his limp had fallen away. He must be happy, thought Holmes.
He cast his mind back to that singular moment when those odd stirrings he’d been feeling were answered with a kiss as delicate as a brush of lace. He blushed, his fingers absently touching his lips at the memory. Perhaps it was the slight upward tilt of Watson’s face as though he were glancing at the sun that had made it so charming. Or perhaps it was the intimate smile that followed. Either way, this new situation of theirs was currently more exciting to Holmes than a forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal, even if it was stolen.
Of course, he never would have agreed to remain willfully idle at Baker Street if he wasn’t practically vibrating with curiosity over what exactly Watson intended to do with him. It was clear the man had an ulterior motive for bidding him to remain unencumbered over the holidays; he had been a little too deliberate in his efforts to frame it in dire medical terms.
Come to think of it, now might be a good time to surprise him again.
As Watson’s tread scaled down the stairs, Holmes quickly checked the frame of the sitting room door, his great mind whirring with activity. Was it too forward? Would it be better to let Watson lead the way since he had more experience? What did one do with one’s tongue when involved in the act of kissing? Would the Countess offer a reward for the recovery of the blue carbuncle?
He was leaning in the doorway wearing a deep frown when Watson reached the landing, medical bag in hand.
“I’m off then,” he said.
Holmes did not appear to hear him.
“Tell the Countess to consider offering a reward, one that’s large enough to induce a greedy thief or his accomplice to come forward,” Holmes advised the floor.
“I shall certainly do so.”
Holmes shoved that thought aside and turned his attention to the other ones. What a curious sensation, he noted as adrenaline sluiced through his veins. It was almost like the flood of warmth that followed the prick of the needle, only instead of plunging him into a euphoric vacuum, this reaction felt more like a match had been set to the end of every one of his nerves. He welcomed it with an addict’s appetite.
“So, it seems...” he started, as a nervous tremor shot up his spine.
“Yes?” Watson pulled his coat from its hook and placed his hat on his head.
“It seems that Mrs. Hudson has been here,” Holmes said, and immediately berated himself for such awkward phrasing. What on earth was wrong with him?
Watson was confused. He glanced past Holmes and looked for the tea tray.
Holmes reddened and shook his head. His eyes guided Watson’s to the sprig of mistletoe that dangled over them. Watson flushed and Holmes was suddenly unable to swallow.
Get a hold of yourself, you bloody fool, barked his conscience.
“In the tidings of the season,” Holmes announced boldly, and like a nervous schoolboy he quickly planted a small peck on Watson’s cheek. “I am not averse to all traditions, you see,” he hastily added.
“Well, in that case,” said Watson, correctly surmising that the gesture begged for reciprocation. Heart pounding, he rocked forward and grazed his lips across Holmes’s mouth, pausing just long enough to capture and release them before he straightened again.
Watson watched him carefully for signs of response. But Holmes, that inscrutable creature, opened his eyes and quickly lowered them to the ground as his mouth squirmed around what might have been a grin.
* * *
“Dr. Watson, how came you to the Hotel Cosmopolitan?” ventured one of the Times reporters that had mothed to the steps of the hotel following the arrest.
“My colleague Sherlock Holmes and I are often commissioned to assist the Yard,” he answered, and a murmur of appreciation rustled through the swarm of press agents.
“And what is your assessment of the arrest of John Horner?” called another voice from the back.
“We have strong reason to believe he stole the blue carbuncle following his plumbing duties in her ladyship’s dressing room. John Ryder, the upper-attendant, has attested that he left Horner’s company for a short while, and returned to find the bureau forced open and the Moroccan casket in which the jewel was kept lying open and empty upon the dressing-table. Horner was brought in for questioning this morning, and when he was unable to furnish a convincing account of his actions, taken into custody.”
Watson was rather enjoying himself. Holmes rarely spoke to reporters, preferring instead to let the Yard take the credit for his cases. Just once Watson wanted to see them receive proper dues in the paper.
“Has the jewel been recovered, sir?” asked a young man who seemed intent on transcribing Watson’s every word.
“I’m afraid not, no,” confessed Watson. “While our logical deductions have led us to the thief, the jewel remains at large.”
Several voices overlapped in asking the same question: “Has a reward been offered?”
Watson was particularly pleased to answer that, as it had been his gentle persistence that convinced the rather belligerent Countess to submit to reason.
“Yes, the sum is a thousand pounds,” he stated importantly.
Another crescendo of excitement rose from the crowd. This was a good bit of detail indeed, and they began hurtling questions at him faster than he could respond. It was suddenly all too much.
“No further questions at this time,” Watson said quickly, side-stepping the reporters and scampering down the steps.
A few minutes later Watson was in a cab swaying towards St. Bart’s. Holmes would likely see the story in the early edition of the Times before he had a chance to speak with him, but Watson was sure he would be proud of how smoothly and professionally he had handled things.
* * *
“How’s my favourite patient today?”
“I’m ready to leap out of this bed and marry the most handsome doctor at St. Bart’s the moment he asks me,” she replied playfully.
Dorthea Winchester was well past her seventieth year, but her eyes danced with the gay life of a woman half her age.
“It looks like the infection has receded considerably, and you can probably go home today,” he told her, pressing two fingers on her radial artery.
“Probably is not in my vocabulary, sir. I intend to be dancing around the tree with my newest grandchild by this evening.”
Watson chuckled as he adjusted his stethoscope. “I wish all my patients had your courage and determination, Mrs. Winchester. It would make my job a good deal easier.”
She smiled, and went on, “This is Annabel’s third, and is she ever thrilled to finally have a daughter! I told her, ‘Annabel,’ I said, ‘you must be thankful that the good Lord gives you a healthy child. Never mind if it’s another boy. Boys have their merits.’ And do you know what she said to me, Dr. Watson?”
He had been concentrating on the patter of her heart, and looked up to see her small face beaming with pride.
“She said, ‘I only want to have a girl so I can raise her to be just like her grandmother.’ Well, I tell you, doctor, my heart just about burst from my chest! I count my blessings every day for such a family. Honestly, how does one old lady get to be so lucky?”
He smiled and unhooked the stethoscope from his ears. “Certainly luck is a part of it, but strong families come from loving homes and you, my good lady, have provided your children with the very finest example.”
Her watery chocolate-brown eyes brimmed with emotion. “Oh, Dr. Watson, you are too kind. You remind me so much of my late husband.” Her arthritic fingers curled snugly around his arm. “Someone is going to be very fortunate to love you one day.”
Watson blushed, less from her sweet words than from the sudden image of a certain detective’s parted lips flashing into his mind.
Their second kiss was even more delicious than the first. That Holmes was ready to welcome a physical relationship was obvious. What was less clear was whether he attached any emotional significance to it or not. But Watson filed this bit of uncertainty away to be studied at another time.
“Well, Mrs. Winchester, there is one more test I’d like to conduct before I discharge you, just to make certain you and your granddaughter can dance around the tree tonight.”
Her impish spirit resurfaced. “I suspect you’re keeping me here to make love to me, but I suppose I can play along.”
The two laughed together as he made a note on her chart. Watson squeezed her hand in a warm goodbye and promised to return at the end of the afternoon.
* * *
It was just past one when Watson returned to Baker Street. A spot of lunch, some companionable conversation and a good pipe would fortify him before he returned to work. He hoped Holmes would be waiting for him in the doorway where he'd left him, ready to continue what had seemed more like a beginning than a farewell.
But he found Holmes precisely where he expected to—stretched on the settee, half-buried under a sheaf of newspapers.
“Quite a story, isn’t it, Watson?” rang a strident tone from behind the Globe.
“Seemed fairly cut and dried despite the fact that the jewel is still missing,” Watson answered with the easy confidence he had earned. He helped himself to the tray of sandwiches on the table, and poured a cup of tea.
“And you’re quite certain it’s this Horner fellow?” Holmes crinkled the paper into three folds and tossed it beside him before bringing a challenging stare to his friend.
Watson smiled over the rim of his cup. “I know you how you hate to believe the solution of a crime could be so overt, Holmes, but yes, the evidence was overwhelming.”
“Did her ladyship’s dressing-room show signs of having been ransacked?”
“Why, no, it was generally tidy,” Watson replied evenly. He wondered why Holmes hadn’t thanked him yet getting their names acknowledged in the press.
“Who sent for Horner to solder the grate?” Holmes asked more pointedly.
“I suppose it would have been one of the hotel attendants since the Countess had been abroad until early this morning. Listen, Holmes, did you notice that I mentioned—“
Holmes rattled on past him. “Did you not find it odd that he should receive a plumbing commission on the very day of the crime, in a dressing-room in which he had presumably never been, and would therefore likely be unaware of the location and possibly even the existence of the jewel?”
Watson shifted uncomfortably. Holmes was speaking to him in the defiant tone he usually reserved Lestrade. “Well, I suppose it’s…”
Holmes shook his head. “You really have done remarkably badly, Watson."
This remark, uttered with usual off-handedness, was a bruising rebuke. Watson turned his gaze down to the floorboards and tried to think of something constructive to say.
Something between a growl and a sigh pushed its way from the back of Holmes’s throat. He dismounted the settee and went into his bedroom.
“I can return to the Hotel,” Watson offered meekly, “and look around the room again.”
“Do not trouble yourself,” called Holmes. “If anything you have given the real criminal a clear path of escape. Returning to the scene of the crime will be of little use now.”
Watson’s high spirits collapsed under the realization that he was out of his depth. He wished they could forget the entire matter, but now it was too late.
In a few minutes Holmes emerged from his room. Gone were the pleasantly rumpled night shirt and the softly rustling dressing gown, gone was the look of serene anticipation that he had been wearing all that morning, gone was the relaxed posture and lazy lope of a man whose personal radius has dwindled agreeably to the perimeter of his sitting room.
Holmes was fully attired in his professional clothes and purposefully gathering his things, his nostrils flaring the way they always did when he began ordering his thoughts with rigorous discipline.
“Oh, Holmes, you mustn’t—“ Watson started, but he already knew he'd lost the argument.
Holmes halted his words with a raised palm. “If we’re going to get anywhere with this case, then I shall have to take possession. There is no other choice.”
“And,” he added even more sharply, thrusting his hands into his gloves, “I would appreciate it if you would refrain from crowing about the application of my methods to the press, particularly when they have led you to an erroneous conclusion.”
With this, Holmes snatched away the last vestiges of Watson’s dignity and all his illusions of competence. The doctor felt even more foolish as he huffed and hawed a clumsy apology.
Holmes flapped his hand dismissively while he gathered his ulster coat and his hat. He paused at the door.
“Are you coming?”
“I’ve got to get back to the hospital,” Watson muttered, head bent to avoid the unforgiving glare that made the morning’s affectionate exchange fade into the unreality of a gauzy dream.
Holmes nodded primly, and in one long stride he swept out of the room.