First off, the delay in getting this up falls entirely upon me, as PGF had her part of it done for quite some time. I plead lack of time (literally, I wasn't home but maybe two hours a day this week other than sleep time), writer's block, and slight laziness and not being in the mood. Very sorry it took so long to get this up, but hope you enjoy it despite the wait.
It was a week later when I deemed it safe enough for Holmes to make the journey back to London. Indeed, I think I would have been hard-pressed to keep him at Weissberg any longer despite the Count's and Lady Cecilia's offers to stay, though the Lady herself had returned only that morning to Vienna, now that her brother was no longer in the Castle as her escort.
This only made Holmes more eager to leave, for he feared not only intimacy with clients, but also the sort of domestic bliss that would no doubt accompany the upcoming wedding. This combined with his boredom convinced me that a longer stay would only cause him to aggravate his health and I lost little time in securing us tickets for the passage home.
The morning of our departure was grey and drab, the sky heavy with a season of threatening storms that had really only just begun; this thought only made me long more for England and the coastal winds that kept such storms from our own shores.
It took me little time and incentive to pack our things, and soon they were loaded on the sleigh…however, when the final moment for departure came it was with mixed emotions, for due to the unfortunate size of the sleigh it was here that we had to part ways with our friends, and of course Alfie had grown quite attached to certain aspects of the estate itself.
Lachlan and Haight had stayed out the week with us, both refusing to budge until the official matters had been taken care of and it was clear that Holmes was out of immediate danger. And now as we ourselves prepared to leave, they saw us to the sleigh where Holmes was already bundled in his winter clothing and several blankets for the journey.
"You will stop in London on your way home," said my friend menacingly to the seaman, who stood by with a melancholy expression on his weather-beaten face. "Or we will come and find you."
Lachlan clasped Holmes's gloved hand in his own warmly. "I believe yeh. And I can promise you…after this little adventure the most excitement we'll be having is trying new foods at supper. Right, Renie?" He turned his head to give the reporter a pointed look.
Renie looked up from where he was trying to pry Alfie's arms from around his knees. "Right, don't worry about it, Mr. Holmes, I'll keep him in line."
Lachlan snorted and, after watching Renie's fruitless efforts, he gently tugged the Irregular loose and ruffled the boy's hair.
"You'll see that these gents make it safely back to England, will you lad? Only I wouldn't trust anyone else and Mr. Haight and I have some business to finish up here in Europe."
Alfie sniffed and nodded, making a valiant effort to halt the tears that brimmed in his eyes. "Oi will…" After a moment his composure crumbled again and he wrapped his arms once more around Renie's legs.
The reporter, his own eyes suspiciously bright, sniffed loudly and patted his head. "Have fun going home Alfie; I'll bring you something when we get done here."
The mention of a potential gift did a little to lift the lad's spirits and he nodded against the reporter's coat, releasing him at last.
"Oi'd like somefin from India, Oi've been reading 'bout the snakes they 'ave there."
The thought sent a chill up my spine…really…that was the last thing the boy needed, a hooded cobra.
"Goodbye, Haight," I said with regret, shaking the reporter's hand myself and smiling warmly. "And thank you for all your help."
Haight's grip was firm and enthusiastic. "My pleasure, Doctor. I'll be seeing both of you again soon. Just as soon as I figure out how to keep this old salt here out of trouble enough for his injuries to heal completely."
Lachlan snorted. "You act as if this sort of thing happens often."
"Its only been seven months since the Friesland," I reminded him with a pointed look at his arm.
He grumbled under his breath but said nothing more, making me smile and Holmes chuckle outright.
"Keep up the good work, Haight," my friend said. "It has been a pleasure working with a fellow as perceptive and intelligent as yourself."
"I could more than say the same, Mr. Holmes," Haight said, putting a hand to his hat. "I can't say it hasn't been a something of a dream of mine since I first started out."
In a rare display of emotion, Holmes' pale cheeks coloured somewhat and his smile was genuine when he nodded in reply to the young reporter.
Lachlan smiled and tugged the lad away from Holmes after a moment. "All right, lad, we'd best let them be off, you're not a well man yet, Holmes."
I coughed at this, and Lachlan shot me a glance. "I'm a sight better than he is, Doctor. But I'll try to rest a bit if it'll keep yeh happy."
"It would be a great relief to my mind, yes."
"All right then…you just make sure he gets home in one piece, will you? The world's not ready to get along without its only consulting detective yet."
"Or his Boswell, for that matter," Renie said with a grin at me.
I smiled one last time and gripped the sailor's hand. "Goodbye."
He nodded, gave a firm shake and stood back. "Good luck."
I climbed up and sat down in the seat beside Alfie, and with a light flick of the reins and a crack of the whip we were off, leaving the figures of our two friends increasingly dwindling in the distance. Alfie turned around in the seat and waved as we drew away, calling out reminders to Renie about his snake and to "Give the ruddy dog a pat for 'im."
I watched until they had vanished and then turned my attention to my two charges, making sure they were comfortable.
Alfie, now that he was finally on his way, seemed as though he would pass into brighter spirits soon, and the instant that the castle and the grounds were out of sight I saw Holmes visibly relax and settle back against the seat, closing his eyes.
I watched him, but not without any real concern for his safety. Physically he was healing nicely and as for his mental and emotional health, the further and sooner he got away from the place the better.
I could recall few times when I had seen him so gaunt and worn as he appeared then. This particular case had taken a great deal out of him…I could not be sure to the extent of the damage, for he was reticent about the affair as he always was. I could only surmise.
After a moment or two his eyes opened again and fixed on my face, as though he had sensed me watching him.
He smiled, and I was reassured to see that the expression was genuine.
"Don't worry, Watson." he said a trifle wearily. "I am quite all right."
I nodded but continued to watch as his eyes soon slipped shut again and at last his head lolled against the seat, unconsciously swaying with the movement of the sleigh.
Momentarily contented, I let myself rest a bit and closed my eyes, leaning my head back and taking my last few hours' worth of crisp Bavarian air.
The evening of the next day found us back in London at long last, dropping a very hyperactive child off at his grandmother's rundown but clean little tenement. At the sudden onslaught of fervent German that assaulted me as the door opened to reveal the elderly lady, I was grateful I had had the chance to practice my ear for the language the last month.
Alfie hugged his grandmother tightly, spieling off a long string of excited, stumbling words about his travels and adventures, much of which was highly exaggerated. His little grandmother's eyes grew wide as she glanced apprehensively at me, and I hastened to explain that the boy was perfectly fine, and we were sorry he had taken it upon himself to stow away with us, etc., etc.
I handed over Alfie's little valise with his new clothes in it, telling the longsuffering lady to keep it in repayment for being deprived of her grandson for the last four weeks – this with a stern look at our errant little urchin – and after being thanked profusely and extricating myself from a firm hug by the lad, I finally made it back to the cab where I had left Sherlock Holmes, bundled firmly against the late January wind.
The vehicle had clopped icily along the slushy streets for a good three minutes before he spoke, his breath puffing in slow clouds as he did so.
"We must begin to limit those children, Watson," he said with ponderous sobriety, as if only just speaking a thought that had long been maturing in his mind.
"Their activities for me, at any rate, Watson," he replied with a small sigh. "I should have sent him back the moment I found him, and I have come to realise that with those children's aid comes a great responsibility upon me of keeping them safe. A difficult balance, that, between using their services and keeping them out of relative danger."
I was silent, allowing him to turn over his words in his mind before voicing them.
"Moreover," he continued in a quieter tone, "the days of the Baker Street Irregulars are waning, my dear fellow – things have changed, and while there will always be lads in need of a quick copper or two, they have not the organization that Wiggins's little gang had five years ago."
"I imagine things rather fell apart for that bunch after your 'death', as they did for many of us," I ventured softly.
He sighed, sending a long, weary cloud of air swirling about us. "Quite so," I heard his murmur before a chilly silence settled over the cab, broken only by the jingling of harness and sounds of late-night traffic around us.
I had telegraphed Mrs. Hudson to expect us that night, and it was with a sense of positively joyful cheeriness sending a warmth spreading through me that I saw every light in 221B Baker Street was on, casting a warm welcoming glow upon the snowy exterior.
I hopped down from the cab and paid the driver, returning to assist my friend in stiffly climbing down from the seat. Despite his protests all the day that he was perfectly fit, he remained anything but and I could tell from the way he leaned too heavily upon my arm that the journey had wearied him nearly beyond reasonable endurance.
Mrs. Hudson had the door open before I could even think of reaching for my keys, exclaiming loudly as she always did when we returned from a case in worse condition than we started out.
"Doctor – Mr. Holmes! Bring those bags right straight in here, cabbie! Doctor, what –"
"It is quite all right, Mrs. Hudson," I hastened to assure her as we stumbled into the warm, cozy hall light.
"Really, you should be accustomed to our straggling in here at all hours in these conditions by now," Holmes interjected with a tired smile. I felt a tremour travel through my arm, transferred from him as he shivered under his coat.
Our worthy landlady's sharp eyes had not missed this, and she shooed us up the stairs without further ado, promising to have a hot supper brought up in a half-hour, as soon as the roast was done.
So tired was Holmes that he made no protest when I settled him in his favourite chair in front of the fire, took his outerwear and jacket which were stiff with cold, and helped him into his dressing-gown and slippers. I even received a weary murmur of thanks before his eyes closed and he settled back with a sigh of something near contentment.
I leaned toward the warm glowing coals in the fireplace, rubbing my hands together. Then I saw that Holmes was still shivering, no doubt still exhausted and in some pain from the arduous journey made with a damaged rib, not to mention the mental tension that still held a residual icy grip upon his senses.
I went into his room and pulled an extra blanket out of his wardrobe, returning to the sitting room to drape it about his shoulders and snatching the one from the arm of the settee to place about his legs. He only stirred sleepily but did not open his eyes, and I tiptoed out of the room so as to allow him to rest before attempting to eat our supper.
I busied myself in moving our bags to the proper locations, my hands now having nearly healed, leaving only a few tender areas which I was still keeping covered with a light bandage. I forced myself to unpack my things, knowing full well that I would certainly not feel like doing so in the morning, and I was very glad indeed when the distasteful task was finished. Then I returned to the cozy sitting room and stood for a moment basking in the comforting aura of home and hearth.
Holmes blinked a few times and sat up a little straighter, glancing at me. "Mrs. Hudson brought up tea, Watson, if you would care for some," said he, beginning to rise with a glance in the direction of his bedroom.
"No, just sit there," I admonished, crossing the room in one bound and pushing him gently back into the armchair. "What is it that you need, I'll get it for you."
"I am not an invalid, Doctor," he protested, but completely without either irritation or real vehemence.
"Yes, yes. Now what were you going to get?"
"Very well," he sighed, relapsing back into the chair. "There is a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with red twine in the trunk under my bed, Watson, if you would be so kind as to retrieve it for me."
After ten minutes of rooting around in heaven alone knew what in Holmes's trunk's disheveled contents, I located the small packet, roughly the size of a large book. I shoved the trunk back under the bed, brushed an errant dust-bunny off my sleeve, and returned with my prize to the sitting room.
"Is this it?"
"Yes, indeed," the detective said, an odd softness in his voice as he took the apparently innocuous object from my hands.
Knowing him as I did, I knew that if he had had me locate the thing and if he was only now pulling something out of what I knew to be his most personal effects contained in that trunk, that he intended to share whatever it was with me. I had only been privileged to view into his privacy a few scattered times over the years, and in consequence I gave him my undivided attention, standing quietly while he undid the twine and wrapping.
Finally the brown paper fell away to reveal a stack of folded papers and what appeared to be letters, as well as a worn photograph, the corners faded and somewhat wrinkled as if looked at too many times. For a moment the room was silent save the ticking of the clock and the wind whistling about our comfortable abode, and then Holmes sighed and handed the photograph up to me.
I took it without a word and turned it over in my hand to see. Two faces, fresh and exuberant with all the vitality of youth, looked back at me – one obviously my dear friend nearly twenty years younger, and the other an unfamiliar countenance to me, but a strong, well-built young fellow with a rakish, daredevil look and posture as the two of them lounged against a wall on what I assumed to be the Cambridge University campus.
I knew at once who the other was, and in consequence asked Holmes no unnecessary and very painful questions.
For a moment, I studied the faces of the two men in the picture – Holmes, his expression so blissfully free from the haunted, icy chill that so normally masked his features on a regular basis now, looking for all the world like any young fellow in the busy collegiate world, dressed in casual late summer clothes and actually smiling genuinely; a rare occurrence that even I saw little of nowadays.
The other, an equally carefree-looking face, fresh and honest but with a look that bespoke of inner mischief. Rather a good-looking fellow, too, I noted, with an athletic build, he was grinning and looking sideways at his friend as if to gauge his reaction to having his picture snapped, immortalizing the casual moment forever here.
My heart ached at the raw pain I now saw reflected in Sherlock Holmes's eyes, half-hidden in the mesmerizing flicker of the fire, as I looked up from the photograph to gaze at him. I felt a sudden tightening in my throat and chest at the difference now visible from the young fellow in the picture and the sombre, brooding detective staring unseeing into the glowing coals.
He made no move to show me the papers, and I of course made no move to ask about them, feeling honoured enough that he trusted me to view the visual proof of the tragedy I had only just found out about during this horrible case to end all dreadful cases.
Holmes had been staring into the fire this entire time, but his gaze now drifted from the flickering flames to the letters beside him, then to the window where we could see snow swirling outside. His hand came up unconsciously to rub absently at the place upon his side where he had taken the bullet aimed for me only a week before, and his other hand clenched suddenly upon the arm of the chair. Still he had made no sound, but it was obvious where his thoughts had drifted.
As a shiver then ran suddenly through his thin form as he sat there, huddled in the blanket I had put round him more for comfort than warmth, I carefully, almost reverently, set the photograph back in his lap and then went to the table, pouring him a cup of steaming tea and mixing a little milk into the brew to cool it slightly.
I then slowly returned to where my friend sat, unmoving and unspeaking, still staring into the fire.
I put one hand comfortingly on his shoulder and leaned round him to hand him the cup with the other, weighing in my mind what to say that might possibly help at the moment.
"You know, old fellow," I said softly, "that you need not worry so – I am capable of taking care of myself."
One thin, slightly shaking, hand reached to take the saucer, but the fingers of the other rested for only a brief instant upon the bandage still wrapped around my hand.
"Not always." I barely heard the low whisper, and as it was I could not be certain that was what he had said.
"Perhaps not," I sighed slowly, sadly, crouching beside his chair to pick up the papers and carefully replace them in the brown paper before laying the packet upon the nearby desk.
I stood for a moment, not knowing what to do or say, wondering if perhaps he would prefer to be left alone. As he made no move to even look my direction, I assumed the latter and turned toward the door, pausing before I reached it.
"Holmes," I spoke softly, turning back toward him.
Two inestimably weary eyes, filled with a deep ghostly pain, finally lifted from the steaming teacup to meet my gaze.
"I trust you, my dear fellow," I said simply. "You must now learn to start trusting yourself again."
For a moment we remained in that position, fixed in time, as the fire crackled and popped unnoticed, each of us looking at the other's soul, awkward and exposed and vulnerable. Then I finally, reluctantly, broke the searching gaze and time returned to normal around us as I opened the door to leave him alone with his thoughts.
I paused and turned back toward my friend. He was sitting upright now, his eyes glimmering in the firelight as he looked over at me.
"If you would not mind postponing your unpacking for a bit, my dear fellow, I should appreciate your company over dinner, which Mrs. Hudson should be bringing up in exactly three and one-half minutes," he said with a half-smile and a hesitant attempt at his normal off-hand tone of voice.
I met him halfway with a grin. "I believe I could make time in my schedule for that, Holmes."
He grinned, his features softening from the harsh gloom of earlier. "Thank you, Watson."
And somehow, in those three words, I received the oddest feeling that our coming repast was not what he was actually referring to.
"There it is, Renie my lad." Lachlan pointed at the high brick building, his honest face beaming with pleasure not only to be in his beloved England once again, but at the very spot where his life had so recently taken its radical turn. "221B."
Haight followed his friend's finger with an odd mixture of surprise at the seemingly ordinary atmosphere of the place combined with awe from all the stories he had heard about it.
In reality, ordinary was the last adjective anyone could use to describe that threshold, across which so many celebrated men and women, both criminal and legitimate, had passed.
"It's splendid," the American said, sticking his hands into his trouser pockets. "Are you certain that they'll be ready for us?"
"Mrs. Hudson will; I sent her a telegram near on two days ago. Gentlest lady you'll ever have the luck of meetin', she told me that they'd just finished up a case and nothing seemed about to come up, so they'll have time for us."
"Well, what are we waiting for then, Midshipman? Come on!"
Renie strode off across the street, dodging cabs and foot-traffic with the self-assurance that only a self-important American such as he could possess.
Lachlan grinned, shouldered his bag, and followed, enjoying for perhaps the hundredth time in two days the feeling of freedom that came with his now cast-free arm.
Haight stopped at the door, took a somewhat nervous breath, and paused with his hand over the bell.
"Should I?" He glanced at the seaman, who nodded.
"Go on, lad."
The reporter moved to do so…only to be interrupted by a loud clang from above that made both him and Lachlan snap their heads upward.
One of the windows had been thrust open and a thick, white vapour was billowing out of it, adding to the already existent smog.
"Holy cow!" Haight exclaimed, stepping backward to get a better look. Lachlan let out a stream of his characteristic curses.
In the midst of the cloud there appeared a light-haired figure, leaning almost hazardously far out of the window, coughing violently, his hand to his mouth.
"Doctor!" the seaman bellowed up in concern. "Are you all right?!"
Watson coughed again and managed to peer down at the two, his eyes streaming as he spoke with a hoarse, breathless voice.
"Lachlan! Haight! Yes…we are quite all right…it's just…"
This short speech was punctuated by choking and numerous gasps in a quest for clean air.
A second pair of shoulders and the lean face of Sherlock Holmes appeared suddenly beside him, coughing deeply from inside his lungs as though he had been in the thick of whatever had caused the fumes.
"There, Watson," he choked, "…that proves…that Thompson could not have murdered Wilson…though I didn't expect the reaction to be so…so…"
There was a sudden, very shrill (and obviously female) shriek from the lower rooms and both of the tenants looked behind them in sudden terror before gulping and disappearing inside.
Haight's brows flew upward to vanish in his hairline. "Gentlest lady I'll ever meet, eh?"
Lachlan merely shrugged, his blue eyes twinkling. He looked expectantly at Holmes and Watson as they burst through the door a moment later, still pulling on their overcoats.
"Lachlan," said Watson brightly. "Have you ever been to Simpson's in the Strand?"
And there it is, FINIS at long, long last. Thank you for reading and reviewing the Epic to End All Epics!