Story: Auld Reekie (part 1 of 6)
Warnings: non-explicit slash
Disclaimer: The characters don't belong to me...
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It was to Sherlock Holmes that the vast majority of the post which arrived at 221b Baker Street was addressed. Aside from my correspondence with the editor of The Strand, I only received occasional letters from the few school and university friends I had kept in touch with, or advertisements from manufacturers of medical equipment who seemed unaware that I was not currently in practice. One morning, however, in early summer 1882 we received for the first time a letter which was addressed to both of us.
Holmes passed it to me across the breakfast table. I stared at the heavy cream-coloured envelope in surprise. I cannot deny that it also gave me a certain ridiculous feeling of pleasure to see our names written thus side-by-side: Dr. J. H. Watson and Mr. S. Holmes.
"It's addressed to you too, Holmes," I said, rather stupidly.
He did not look up from his work of methodically opening his correspondence and sorting it into piles. "Primarily to you, my dear fellow, as you will find when you open it."
"Why do you say that?"
He glanced up briefly. "Really, Watson, I hope you are merely humouring me. Aside from the obvious fact that your name is listed first, although Mr Holmes and Dr Watson sounds so much better..." I let that pass without comment. "... there is the Edinburgh postmark, and the fact that you received a Christmas card addressed in the same handwriting."
"I did?" Without further ado, I ripped open the envelope and looked at the foot of the letter. "I say! It's from Alistair Gordon."
"You will never develop your eye if you persist in cheating thus," Holmes said, but mildly, since he was clearly awaiting with curiosity my exposition of the contents of the letter.
I began to read aloud:
My dear Watson,
I do hope your friend Mr. Holmes will forgive my having taken the liberty of adding his name to the envelope of this missive. In the event of your being away from home, I trust he will nevertheless have opened and read this letter, for Mildred is in such a taking, and his help would be greatly appreciated.
Holmes interrupted. "Who is this fellow, Watson? Besides the obvious: that he is Scottish, fairly well off, and neurotic."
I smiled to myself, for I must admit that seeing Holmes betray a flash of jealousy was a guilty pleasure of mine. In this case, clearly, he did not appreciate my being anyone else's 'dear Watson'.
I hastened to reassure him. "It is true that Gordon did always insist on planning carefully for every eventuality, however remote and unlikely. I don't know that I would medically class him as a neurotic, however. In any case, he is an old friend from my Edinburgh school days, now a barrister, and quite rich, as you say – I suppose you got that from the stationery? I was his best man, as a matter of fact, when he married the Mildred he refers to. They were childhood sweethearts."
"I see," said Holmes, mollified. "Please go on."
I resumed reading:
Indeed, when I have placed all the facts before you, I am sure you will appreciate the urgency of my appeal. The situation is thus: Two days ago, upon coming downstairs in the morning, we discovered a man lying dead in our hallway, shot through the heart. We had never seen him before in our lives, and his presence in the house remains a mystery.
The back door was open, although the lock had not been forced. There were no valuables missing from the house. The constabulary are of the opinion that at least two men broke into our house with the intention of burglary, having somehow picked the lock or obtained keys. Subsequently, for whatever reason, a fight broke out between them, and one shot the other and then took fright and fled.
Notwithstanding its plausibility, Mildred and I are not entirely convinced by this explanation, for the dead man seemed quite soberly dressed and respectable-looking, even if not particularly well-off. In addition, although no tools of the burglar's trade were discovered on his person, his pockets did contain a few silver and copper coins. I do not see why his supposed accomplice in burglary would take the time to retrieve any tools, while leaving the money.
Mildred is of the same mind as I am, and has hardly slept a wink since this terrible event. This is why I take the liberty of extending an invitation to come North to you and your friend Mr. Holmes. My dear Watson, please do urge him to bring his skills to bear on this problem.
It would be pleasant to see you in Edinburgh again in any case, my dear chap.
I folded the letter back up, raising an eyebrow at Holmes. He returned my look with a smile.
"I must say that the thought of investigating your boyhood haunts holds a definite appeal. You know I am constantly avid for any opportunity to increase my encyclopedic knowledge on the subject of John H. Watson M.D."
"And the case?"
He shrugged. "It is impossible to say anything at present. It may well be that the police are correct in their assumptions, be they ever so dense as their London colleagues. Your friend does give the impression in his letter of being slightly high-strung, and burglars can be dressed as respectably as any man. Nevertheless, it would ungallant in the extreme of us to ignore the sufferings of poor Mrs. Gordon." He stood up from the breakfast table. "You will wire your friend to say we are coming, and buy two tickets on the sleeper to Edinburgh tonight. I have one or two other purchases I wish to make."
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That afternoon, when I returned to Baker Street with two second-class sleeper tickets in my pocket, I found Holmes pouring over an Ordnance Survey map of Edinburgh. A cheap guidebook to the city lay open on the desk beside him. I was surprised, for I had never seen my friend prepare with such thoroughness for a case whose interest he had not yet even determined, and I said as much.
He put out a hand to pull me to his side while he went on studying the map. "It is not every day I have the opportunity to visit the town which formed my Watson," he said. "Indeed, knowing what I now do of this gruesome city, it seems I have to thank God you even managed to reach the age of eighteen, and escape with your life."
I laughed. "Well, Holmes, if you will insist on buying a penny-dreadful guidebook, instead of one of those excellent brochures by Mr. Thomas Cook, you are bound to finish with a biassed view of the city."
"I have no interest in learning which architect designed which particular hideous building, or how many times Her Majesty has visited," he said absently, underlining a paragraph in red ink.
I leant forward to take a closer look. "I suppose you are reading about Burke and Hare, the grave-robbers, and their ilk?"
He was already deep in the world of murderers, hangmen and hauntings again, and did not answer. I kissed the top of his head, and went to pack a small suitcase for myself, and another for Holmes. When I returned to the sitting room, he was busy in the corner of the room where his chemistry equipment was set up. I hoped that he was closing down his experiments, and making everything safe for an extended absence.
"Dinner at Simpson's?" he asked without looking round.
I hesitated. "I was rather planning on staying here tonight, if you don't mind, old chap."
That made him look around sharply. "By yourself?"
"No, of course not. I had intended for both of us to stay in."
"Fine," he said, already turning back to the Leibig condenser he was cleaning. "As you prefer."
I tidied the papers on my desk a little, and put my latest unfinished manuscript into a paper folder along with some blank sheets to write on in the train. Then I sat down in my armchair, idly flicking through an old edition of The Lancet, my mind on other things.
Suddenly Holmes' voice emerged from his corner, making me jump. "What is it, Watson?"
I turned to face him. He was draining some sort of nasty brown liquid from a burette into a basin, and continued to speak without looking at me:
"You evidently have something on your mind, some matter which is related to your preference regarding this evening's plans. It's not the first time you have made such a request, with that particular tone of voice and that particular look on your face."
I prevaricated. "Sometimes it's pleasant to simply stay in... "
"Watson," he said in a warning tone, facing me now, his glassware abandoned.
I took a deep breath, and plunged into the gathering storm. "It's nothing, really, I assure you. It's merely – sometimes, when we're in public, and I touch your shoulder without thinking, or smile at you in a particular fashion, or – oh, a thousand other unconscious gestures! – you look at me in a way that turns me cold. And this, even though in many cases they are things I have been doing since we first met, and things to which you never objected, before Christmas."
He was frowning, but to my surprise he seemed more thoughtful than irritated. "Before Christmas, I must admit," he said slowly, "such actions on your part were what fuelled my dreams and kindled my hopes. But before Christmas, we had nothing to hide but unspoken fantasies. I do not think I am being unreasonable now in recommending caution."
"I know. I'm not criticising you, Holmes. Merely trying to explain myself."
He was still staring at me, his keen eyes fixed with intensity on my face. "That's not all, is it?"
His assumption was perfectly correct. I had not voiced my true nightmare, which was that someday I would be too careless, and he would become too impatient, or too scared, and leave me.
But I said only: "Your basin is running over, Holmes."
He exclaimed, and turned back to quickly twist the burette's tap, before the receptacle below it could overflow any further.
In the event, we spent the evening curled up in my armchair, which was the broader of the two. With Holmes' arms around me, I read through a significant portion of my latest sea novel, while he devoured a densely written German text illustrated with rather gruesome pictures.
After a few hours, I noticed that Holmes was no longer turning any pages of his own book, and that his gaze was directed towards the pages of mine.
"You're reading my novel!" I exclaimed.
He started a little, but did not deny it. "And perfectly dreadful it is too. No wonder you cannot manage to master any skills of any use, when you are cluttering your head with such rubbish."
I could not help but be hurt. Instead of pointing out my status as a qualified and experienced doctor, I said in a cold voice: "Nobody was forcing you to read it."
He closed his own book, and placed one hand over mine. "I want to be as close to you as humanly possible," he said simply, "and how can I be any closer than if we are reading the same page, our minds thinking the same thoughts?"
He took my breath away. It was one of those rare glimpses of his soul that made up for every unconsciously cruel comment or slight his brutally honest nature inflicted on me. Indeed, they made up for everything a thousand times over, without difficulty.
Holmes never seemed to notice when he had said something earth-shattering. On this occasion, he slid himself out from behind me, and stretched languidly, treating me to an excellent view of his long lean back. Still overwhelmed by his words, I reflected with regret that that night we would be sharing our second-class carriage with four others.
Holmes had clearly been thinking something similar, for he said slowly: "One day, Watson, I shall be rich, and we shall travel alone together in first class, and hire whole suites of rooms at Le Meurice, and visit all the opera houses of Europe, and I shall take you out to dinner every evening."
"Not if I grow rich first," I said.
He turned back to look at me, still curled up in my armchair, and gave me an amused look. "It's rather more likely to be me, you know."
I smiled back, not in the least offended. He would have found it rather difficult to offend me, at that moment. He disappeared into his bedroom, and I tried to return to the adventures of the plucky midshipman abandoned on a South Sea island. After a while Holmes reappeared, went to his suitcase and opened it, probably checking that I had remembered to include his lockpick's set.
"One day, Watson," he said over his shoulder, "I shall take you to visit the settings of my own youth. I spent a large part of my formative years on the Continent, you know."
This caused me to raise my eyes sharply to him once more. Holmes rarely spoke of the future, or of what part he saw me playing in it, and now he had just done so twice in a matter of ten minutes. I did not have long to ponder on this, however, for Holmes was already throwing me my coat and donning his own.
I followed him down the stairs and out onto the street, the excitement of the journey already mounting in me, and my nightmares of earlier in the evening entirely forgotten. I could not think of anything better at that moment than returning to my native city with the man who loved me by my side.
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