The room is empty except for a bed, a desk, and a chair. It smells faintly musty as all hotels do, despite the window open to let in the night air. The man who opened it has been sitting in the chair for hours, motionless, listening to his companion sleep in the next room. They had engaged adjoining rooms, as they had all those years ago while running about the country whenever someone saw fit to bring them a really interesting case. It is of these cases that the man is thinking of now, sitting motionless in the chair with his sleek black head down and his hands dangling between his naked knees.
The man sitting in the hotel chair stirs, stretches a little. Then he rises and goes over to study himself in the mirror.
He has done this repeatedly over the last couple of days, to reassure himself that now he looks as he always looked. Two years of being a completely different person have taken their toll on him; two years of being an Irish motor mechanic with wild hair and a goatee and a broad assortment of slang, two years of constantly slouching to disguise his height.
But now, thinks the man—now he can be recognized as what he is.
He smiles faintly at the mirror—watches his reflection grin twitchily back. It had been hard, to break himself of the quick twitchy grin, to force his face to hold the smile for longer than the fraction of a second. But Altamont the car mechanic would not have had such a character trait, and so he had ironed it out.
It feels good to wear his own personality again. To gesture as rapidly as he wants, to snap, to drawl, to raise his eyebrows in that supercilious, sardonic fashion that always infuriates his acquaintances.
He tries it, insolent, eyes heavy-lidded, and smiles again at the results. Twitchy smile. He rubs his hands together and smoothes his hair back. It is slicked back now, not the haphazard fluff Altamont always wore it in, and his sharp angular chin is cleanshaven now. Altogether, he thinks as he considers the years and studies his own angular reflection in the mirror, he looks much the same as he always has. Still the same dark circles under his eyes, still the pain line between the smooth arched brows. Yes, the years have been kind to him, altogether: hollowed his face a little more, traced a few lines across his forehead, added the faintest tinge of silver to the black hair at his temples. There are faint lines at the corners of his eyes, the result of years of sharp smiling. He tilts his head to the side, enamoured for the moment by his own reflection: so long since he has seen himself, really seen himself. And, ah, his once sharp jawline is beginning to show the first signs of sagging. Not unexpected: he is, after all, fifty-six. He never was, and never will be, an Adonis.
Whoever heard of a sickly-pale Adonis with dark circles and a face both hard and angular? Adonis was a young golden-haired boy anyway, the kind of empty-headed fop he has always despised.
He smiles again, studying his face with exaggerated vanity. What Watson would say if he caught him like this—ah, he would think his charges of vanity justified. But he is not vain. Not about his looks, at any rate.
Pale eyes, the same as ever. He could have hid them with contact lenses but he wanted something of himself to remain in the characterization. Bright, brilliant eyes, Robard had called them. Ha! Still as brilliant ever, even after all these years of being kicked about by the Fates like a football. For all the good it did him.
He sobers and turns quickly away from the mirror, suddenly serious. The world is at war. And he—he is getting older. He would never have believed it a few years ago, but it is true. And Watson—oh, God, Watson. Poor Watson is nearly sixty, reddish-blond hair gone grey, though the heavy compact body is in as good shape as ever. Holmes should know.
After leaving Von Bork in the custody of the police they had come back to the hotel together and talked til dawn. Two years of complete separation, and seven years of alienation, had taken their toll. At the end Watson had cried and said he was sorry, sorry he had ever left Holmes, abandoned him in Baker Street for a wife and the promise of a happy domestic life, one without the constant abrasions, the quarrels, the long silences.
Holmes had muttered, "Hush, don't speak of it now, it's all over anyway."
Sherlock Holmes frowns, tightens the dressing gown around himself. He has nothing on beneath the dressing-gown and he can feel the coolness of the pre-dawn air.
What was it Watson had said last night?
The corner of his mouth twitches.
"You know," Watson had said, "you call me the one fixed point in a changing age, but really I think it is you—you who do not change, Holmes. Truly, you never do seem to change the slightest bit. You are the same arrogant, cerebral, maddening, unloveable creature as ever. I can't for the life of me imagine why I care for you, but I do. I should not, perhaps, but I do."
And Holmes had replied, his voice suddenly scratchy with suppressed emotion, "Your forbearance does you great credit."
Holmes shakes his head and sits back down in the chair to stare at his own hands, turning them over. Still the same long-fingered strong hands he has always had. Outwardly, perhaps, he does not change. But internally—internally is a different matter.
He is stronger now than he was. He knows, of course, that Watson still is the better man. Holmes's old scars still hurt. The nightmares still come. The old cravings still torment him, and the black fits, and the nervous attacks. They grow worse as he grows older. But at some point he has resolved to live with the hurt instead of running from it.
The most recent wound is Watson's. Watson had left him, once again, for a wife. He had said he needed the stability of a relationship—a real relationship. Holmes was not good enough.
Back then in 1903 Holmes had been blinded with cold rage, so sick he could not see straight. And in a moment of hate he had thrown away everything he held dear and retired to the country to live in solitude, alone with his hate and his betrayal.
But he had not touched the cocaine. He had wanted to, desperately at times, but he had not done it. Because he loved Watson.
And then the government, with Mycroft at the back of it, had hauled him out of his self-imposed exile, forced him to use the great brain he was wilfully letting rust.
In the meantime Watson's wife had died. And now—now he has Watson back. There had been hurt on both sides, of course. They had both said unforgiveable things. But all that vanished when Watson held out his hands with tears in his eyes and said, "Holmes," in that unbearably husky voice.
Holmes had been trembling himself that time. But he had brushed it all aside in favor of a brusque, "Come along, Watson. The game is afoot."
He had driven Watson to marriage. He knows this now. He had been, once again, inadequate. He could not give of himself; he could not show all the emotions he held inside. And eventually Watson grew tired of waiting and went to find his fulfillment someplace else.
Holmes leans his head on his hand and sighs—harshly. He has always been inadequate, a brain rather than a heart, cold to everyone around him. He has always been this way. Now that he is older he is beginning to realize his mistake, but by now—by now it is too late to change. He is hardened. He will not crack down his walls. Those who have lived in isolation all their lives go mad if suddenly exposed to outsiders. Thus it is with him. The emptiness is more comfortable, with all its hurt, than love. He is safe here.
He has gone to all corners of the world to escape the loneliness, but the reality is that he carries it—will always carry it—inside him. Along with the rejection and the old scars.
He loves Watson, to be sure. He will always love Watson. But he will not permit himself to show it in any way other than those strange guilty times he is momentarily caught off-guard. He would let Watson do anything to him except open the iron box in which his heart is locked.
And now, after this one brief night…he and Watson will once again go their separate ways: he to another government assignment, Watson off to the Front. It seems so final. For a moment Holmes wishes wildly for the early days, so long ago—ages ago—when it was just they two in Baker Street, out to fight injustice and solve the unsolveable. But now—now police organizations worldwide are implementing his methods, methods he had shown again and again to Scotland Yard only to be laughed at for a fool, an amateur. An eccentric, they had called him. Half-mad. Perhaps he was.
He rubs his forehead. The world he has lived in for most of his life is gone. No more gaslamps, horsedrawn carriages, top hats, or anything else. In its place are electric lights, automobiles, aeroplanes, submarines. Without him even noticing in his hermit's cottage in Sussex the world has changed. He will keep up with it, of course. He always does. But he knows with a sudden pang that seems to go through him that he is a man out of place.
Still, he may have some use left yet. He refuses to become a redundancy. He has kept up with the latest criminological developments—he could not help it, it seems. And he still has one of the greatest brains of his generation.
An eyebrow jerks.
A sharp intellect is all one needs for a weapon. The brain before the cudgel. This business with Von Bork proves it.
Still, there is Watson. In his typical patriotic, hopelessly romantic fashion, he has volunteered his services as a surgeon on the Front. Off he goes to battle, perhaps to get his shoulder shattered a second time. Poor brave Watson. Always facing his demons as Holmes has never faced his.
Holmes clenches his trembling fists.
They may never see each other again.
Suddenly he wants to protect Watson, protect him from the bullets and the horror he knows is coming for the world. This war will change everything, he can feel it in his bones. After this nothing will be the same.
He wants to stop it. He wants the world to remain as it is. He wants to keep Watson trapped in a world without time, the world he grew up in and lived in for all his life. He does not want to watch himself and Watson grow old and die, become only a memory and a handful of exaggerated stories, stories that do not tell the half, the secret feelings that have torn him apart for decades.
But he cannot. All he can do is stand by. A gentleman in an age of ruffians.
He is not aware of the sob until it escapes him. When he raises his trembling fingers to his face he feels that it is wet.
Really, Holmes. Where is your Ideal Reasoner pose?
He slams his fist on the chair arm, so hard he hurts himself. Acceptance, that has always been his problem; acceptance of the inevitable. He has outwitted so many in his life that he thinks he can outwit the Fates themselves, and so he struggles. Futilely.
Another sob comes, and then another. He is seeing the shattering of his world as he stands by helplessly. Seeing the result of all his hard-won emotional control. Emptiness.
And it is too late. Too late, too late…
He clenches his eyes shut, tightens his jaw—presses his fingers to his temples. Control. Control, even at the cost of all the small happinesses he has ever had.
When he has composed himself he goes back to the mirror. His momentary weakness did not last long, so there are no signs. But the look in his eyes frightens him. It is utter emptiness—a hollowness terrible to see. And it is of his own making.
But he is stronger now. He will not run. He will face whatever is dealt out to him, face it like a man.
He whirls quickly. Watson is standing there, wrapped in a dressing gown, hair tousled from sleep. Something seems to squeeze Holmes's throat. Moriarty's cold hands. Taunting laughter: I won after all…
Love hurts. Oh, how it hurts.
"Yes, my dear fellow," he says carelessly, one eyebrow arched in amusement. The discrepancy between what he feels and what he displays never fails to spark in him a sense of bitter irony.
Watson laughs. "Holmes, you are the vainest man I have ever seen. Trying to read the secrets of your soul, are you?"
"Indeed." He is the one person he has never figured out.
Watson cocks his head. "Well, stop reading and come over here. I have to leave by nine and I want to see you a little longer."
He spreads his arms mockingly. "Here I am."
"Oh, you and your theatrics! You never do change, do you." He sobers. "I…I did not realized how much I had missed you…until I saw you last night."
Holmes does not know what to say. So he says nothing. Merely looks at Watson.
"I did miss you," Watson mutters, and wipes at his eyes. "God, how I missed you. Holmes, I am so sorry—"
"Never mention it, my dear fellow; it is all over and done with." Not what he had wanted to say. But if Watson persists in this broken, despairing behavior Holmes will humiliate himself by bursting into tears.
"It's not, and you know it. I know you, Sherlock Holmes; you never forget. And so I apologize, once again."
Before he knows what he is doing Holmes has Watson by the arms, gripping him hard. "Stay with me," he whispers, his voice taut with urgency. "Please, Watson, I beg of you. Please stay."
Watson shakes his head. "I cannot, Holmes. I've signed up."
"Watson—" Holmes hears the choke in his own voice, hates it, steadies it before continuing. "Watson, I have no one."
Watson smiles, bittersweet, tears shining in his eyes. He brushes Holmes's cheek with his hand. "Nor do I, Holmes. Nor do I."
Holmes drops his hands. He feels numb. He wishes he went over that damned waterfall in 1891.
"But really," Watson continues contemplatively, "sometimes I think this is the way it was meant to be. Just you and I, together. No one else. Just us two. And really…sometimes I think all the years apart were just water under the bridge as it were. I think I shall always come back to you, Holmes. I don't know why."
"I know why," Holmes whispers. He is shaking violently and unable to control it. When Watson reaches out a hand to touch him he jerks back instinctively.
No. No, that is not the way. That was how he lost Watson in the first place.
Slowly he reaches out a hand to take Watson's, and then without quite realizing how they are in each other's arms, embracing fiercely. Nothing sexual here, just the fierce passion of two who are inextricably bound together without quite understanding why. Watson is crying again and Holmes is concentrating with all his focus in order not to lose his emotional control.
Watson backs off, takes his friend by the shoulders and squeezes. A friend who sticketh closer than a brother, closer than a lover.
"I'll come back to you, Holmes," he says fondly. "I shall always come back to you. Remember that."
"I shall," Holmes whispers. He wants to say something more, wants to say everything he has always had in him and been unable to utter, but once again he falters and stands silent, face an emotionless mask.
No matter; Watson reads it in his eyes. He smiles through his tears and takes Holmes's hand.
"Come on, old friend," he says, "we have a few more hours together. Let us spend them wisely."
Holmes nods and manages a sardonic smile. "As wisely as such a foolish man as I can."
"Nonsense," says Watson without thinking, "you're the best and wisest man I have ever known."
"Ha!" A jerk of a black eyebrow, eyes bright with irony, a quick twitchy smile. "Absolute rubbish."
"Oh, you think so?"
"Of course. Do you dispute me?"
They dissolve into the old bickering as they head toward the bedroom together, arm in arm.