Author's note: Title courtesy of Neil Gaiman—and used to express the end of the old partnership and the beginning, in some ways, of a new one. I've had to grapple with many a plot end to make this fit into the Kanon, and I hope that I have succeeded. (I am not very sure whether Russell was still occupying her rooms in the Thomases' boarding house in the months before Christmas, and I cannot check as MREG is not with me. Also, for the purposes of this story, Holmes was already in London for about a week or so—depending on how long Russell took to finish her paper and come and find him.) This was merely a vague, half-arsed attempt at exploring what pushed Holmes to distract himself with the "maintenance of old skills", and to approach the subject, right then, that night, when Russell just so happened to see him at it.

Preludes and Nocturnes

By "Criminally Charming"

"Aye there, guv'nor."

The old, silk-tie'd, gold-cufflinked, top-hatted man stiffened and slowly turned his head to his left, where stooped a dirty old beggar, wearing veritable rags, a black tooth and a wicked smile.

"Wouldna happen to have tuppence to spare, would ye?"

The other—a banker, to all appearances—quickly dug into his waist coat pocket to produce some coins, and threw them at the speaker, hurrying away before anything else could be asked of him.

A vulgar "Aye, thank ye!" followed the banker down the busy London street. He didn't turn back, nor did he see the beggar slip into one of several deserted back alleys.

Sherlock Holmes spit his tooth jacket out and peeled off the rest of his disguise, a frown visible on his face. He did not enjoy begging; certainly he disconcerted a number of people in the act, and only did it for the sake of appearances.

Stuffing the rest of his disguise in a random trash bin, he emerged from the alley more or less respectable; at least, no spiteful or disgusted glares followed him as he entered a brick building, where one of his bolt-holes was hidden. This was one that Russell had not yet seen; and this one was truly a hole, just big enough for storage and a changing space. Convenient, but anything but comfortable.

A swift change of clothing, a cab ride, and an hour later, Holmes ambled contentedly down the lanes of daytime Oxford, on the way to Russell's dormitory building. He had just done with a particularly satisfying case for Mycroft: the man was bagged, and the mystery solved, leaving him carefree (for the moment) and with just enough time for a short, much-anticipated (though he would never admit it) meal with his apprentice.

He caught himself mentally. It would not do to keep thinking of Russell as his apprentice. But, he reasoned, it was only a term he used because… "partner" held too much meaning, carried too much weight than he was sure he could handle—even Watson, dependable, devoted Watson whom he had known for most of his life, had only ever been an "assistant". And to acknowledge her as his partner, his equal, when they were not working on any cases, easily led him into speculation about the other facets of their relationship. He could not afford to think on such things. Not yet, when she was so young, so unready.

Not so young, he remembered as he turned a corner. There was only about a week or so before her coming of age.

He shook his head and dodged a little boy being chased by a girl of similar age; nine, he deduced in a second. Not so much younger than Russell was, that day on the Downs.

It wouldn't do to think on this. It could wait. He had waited for nearly six years; surely he could wait a bit longer.

He knew, the moment that he got there, that perhaps he should have rung her, or sent her a wire—anything to let Russell know that he was coming. Often, in the past, he had summoned Watson to see him, without regard to the doctor's convenience, during a case or a whim, which (he admitted grudgingly) had disguised his want of companionship. But Watson had always come.

He stopped dead, on a corner several hundred yards from the dormitory and slightly obscured by a tall bush that a myopic or tasteless person might have called decorative. Perhaps it would not do to take Russell for granted in that manner.

A car was waiting in the drive, just in front of the building's doors. Holmes could see the man Thomas slip inside, carrying a rake, and come out again, tentatively posing a question to a man leaning on the car's side—the driver, Holmes thought, seeing the empty seats up front. But the back seat was by no means empty. A small group of girls, all of them twenty or so, were seated there, one of them with her bright red head poking out of the window, screaming in the direction of the door.

"Oh, come on now, Mary, we haven't got all day!"

He really, truly should have sent a wire.

Out strode Russell, wearing an ensemble with which he was unfamiliar (perhaps one bought during the post-Jerusalem separation, he thought absently, seeing the hem length of the austere wool skirt). On her arm was a gentleman—a boy—with dark hair, slightly older than Russ herself, holding several of what looked to be Russell's bags, and donning a grin that a girl might have thought rakish.

Certainly Russell seemed to think so, he thought almost spitefully, forgetting who and where he was, and now openly staring. The boy had attached himself to her, murmuring things in her ear and never missing an opportunity to touch her. She was laughing, conversing openly with her male escort and throwing a few jibes at the girls in the car, who seemed to be teasing her, or convincing her to go with them (an offer to which, at least, she looked to be steadily demurring, and he knew why: she had a train to catch, and the boy was going to accompany her to the station). And then he noticed a small green-and-red box, in Russell's hand, that had been slightly obscured by the Dark Hair's presence.

Sherlock Holmes realised belatedly that it was almost Christmas.

He should have remembered, of course, he thought, almost angrily, as he watched the English countryside whip by his window in a blur of grey and green. She was going home—ostensibly to spend the holidays in her (hated) aunt's company, but truly to finish a paper.

He couldn't go home to Sussex, now. Not now that she was there, and not now that she might come any time to see the discomfort, the—he would admit it—the hurt in his eyes. He couldn't go home now, for the most part, because home meant rest, meant close proximity to the Needle, meant books and boredom and far too much time for introspection. …and for the onslaught of loneliness, now that he knew what he was missing. The ill-disguised enjoyment in Dark Hair's eyes had shown him that.

Holmes intended to drop by to check on the Bees, to assure Mrs Hudson that his last case had left him in good condition (physically, at least), and to collect his driving outfit (and enough money to subsist for a week or two in London). Basil would do well for this occasion, he thought.

In the back of his mind, an odd sort of desperation clawed at him—and it would do so for many days, until it erupted in a confused stream of ill-chosen words, prompted by frustration and feelings that, though they had not exactly lain dormant, had been concealed for far, far too long.

Well, old man, he thought. Well, perhaps, for once, you were wrong.

Maybe it hadn't been so wise to wait for so long.

As the train came to a halt, Sherlock Holmes came to a decision.

© Kay C. Rivera

26 May 2003