Head pounding in time with pulse; vision blurred; location unfamiliar. Most recent memory entailed to investigate the sounds of a scuffle in alleyway off Market Street. Most probable conclusion: Holmes has been successfully lured into an ambush.
He attempts to roll up to his knees, and to put a hand to the back of his head, and discovers he can do neither. Blinking away his double-vision, he notes the shackle and chain around one ankle - but only one - fastened to a ring bolted into the floor. As for his hand...
White canvas. Arms folded across torso, fastened into place behind. Leather strap buckled around forearms. Fingers trapped inside the ends of sleeves, move with difficulty; collar of garment biting into neck somewhat, like a badly fitting coat or...
... or a straitjacket.
His arms jerk reflexively, but the fabric is stiff, the buckles are drawn up tight, and all he sees is a little twitch for his efforts. He is, he realizes, quite effectively immobilized.
Well, he thinks to himself, this could be problematic.
He needs data, data which he can synthesize into an accurate assessment of his location, his captors, and the degree of danger he now faces.
Sight is first: The space is dim; craning his neck, he can find but one window, with planks nailed across it in such a way that only a few gaps admit feeble light from without. It is difficult to tell whether it is evening, whether the window faces away from the sun, or whether it is simply too filthy with dust and soot to permit anything brighter to illuminate his surroundings. Above him the ceiling is flat, but the bare bones of the building's timbers are visible; the two walls he can see are likewise. Nothing is painted. The other two walls, and any entrances into the room, are hidden behind stacked wooden crates. The floor is bare wood apart from the motheaten woolen blanket on which he is laying. Everything is gray, of one shade or another.
Holmes struggles to sit up, to try and take in more of his surroundings, but the effort makes the pounding in his head increase to the point where he fears he may pass out again.
Sound, then. He waits patiently, and is rewarded with the rumble of a train in the near-to-middle distance. It moves slowly, but without stopping, until at last it fades to nothing. Beneath that sound he catches, once, a steam-whistle of the pitch most commonly used by the smaller freight boats of the Thames, the ones that mostly carry lightweight cargo. It echoes weirdly, though, the sound twisted about by winding streets or possibly fog, and he can't be sure of how far away it is, nor in what direction. Apart from those sounds, however, there is nothing - no rattle of traffic, no voices, no wind skirling about the walls. It is silent within as well, so far as he can tell - no rats, no people bickering or eating or snoring.
Smells: Dust predominates. There isn't a lot of it that Holmes can see, but there is nothing else immediately apparent. No lamp oil or candles, nor even coal smoke; no foods cooking or spoiling; not sewage nor chamberpot nor slaughterhouse offal. No blood. No perfume.
Conclusions: He is in a shack, or an abandoned house, or a little-used warehouse, somewhere within half a mile of the Thames but not so close as to be able to hear the industry and bustle that bracket the riverbanks at all hours. Potentially the building is in an alley off the main streets. Potentially he is near a manufactory, granary, or other railroad hub.
In other words, he could be almost anywhere in London that doesn't see a lot of traffic. He simply doesn't have enough facts from which to draw conclusions.
Watson is not here, which after a moment's deliberation he chooses to list as an asset in his predicament. If he remains missing long enough, Watson will certainly come looking for him. He might even succeed in finding him.
There is no captor in evidence, either, not at the moment, but it is folly to assume that he, or they, won't return sooner or later. They wouldn't go to the trouble of keeping him both alive and secure if there wasn't some use planned for him.
Watson's assertions to the contrary, Holmes can be patient at need; he gathers his facts meticulously, sets his traps with care and deliberation. He will simply treat this as another case; he will wait until he has the information he needs.
It's not as if he has any other choice.
Hours pass in which the light seeping through the boarded-up window does not change. The distorted quality of sound does not change; another train comes by, but he still cannot determine how far away it might be.
He played through an entire sonata in his head earlier, but otherwise the only indication he's had of time passing has been one of slowly increasing discomfort. The straitjacket is tight; it is possible to breathe normally, but not to take a deep breath. Holmes hasn't bothered trying to shout, convinced as he is that no one is near enough to hear him, but he also is beginning to fear that he couldn't draw enough breath to project his voice beyond the confines of this room.
His shoulders and arms have begun to ache. He needs to visit a water-closet. His head has not stopped pounding. The effort it takes even to clench a fist is vexing. The inability to move, itself, triggers instincts familiar to every animal ever confined to a cage.
Boredom is being supplanted by apprehension.
Watson looked up from Mr. MacLaren's swollen joints; it wasn't like their landlady to intrude when he was seeing someone. With a frown, he opened the door to his consulting room, just far enough to peer out without compromising the elderly gentleman's privacy.
"Mrs. Hudson. What is it?"
"I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but it's one of Mr. Holmes' pack of boys."
And it wasn't like either her or the "Irregulars", as Holmes called them, to involve Watson in their business. They always dealt with his flatmate, or left a message if he happened to be out. "Didn't you tell him that Holmes isn't in?"
Mrs. Hudson glanced over her shoulder. When she turned back to face Watson, she was biting her lip. "I tried, sir. He says it's you he wants to see."
Watson frowned, then nodded. A few minutes later, Mr. MacLaren was on his way, Watson was turning up the gaslight in the sitting room, and Mrs. Hudson was showing in a scruffy young man with gangly, half-grown features. The way he was wringing his cap in his hand would have been comical, if it weren't for the expression of alarm on his face.
"Hullo, lad - Jacob, isn't it?" At the boy's nod, Watson sat down and picked up a pen. "You've a message for Mr. Holmes, I take it?"
"No sir. It's a missage about Mr. Holmes, sir. They took im."
Watson looked up sharply. "Explain."
"I eard it from Davey, an he eard it from Short Henry, an Short Henry says e saw the whole thing. Bunch o brawlers in an alley wiv a beggar-man, an Mr. Holmes stops and looks. Next thing e knows, the beggar-man coshed Mr. Holmes square on is head, and the brawlers isn't brawlin no more, they's carryin im off someplace."
He nodded vigorously at Watson's look of shock. "Short Henry followed em to where they took im, an he sent Davey, an Davey sent me." Jacob's voice cracked; he gulped, and blinked several times, hard, before going on.
"They took im, sir. What do ye want us to do?"
It is dusk, as nearly as Holmes can tell, when his captors return.
Their booted feet clump across the wooden floor; their clothing appears brown, nondescript, but in the near-darkness the details he needs to identify them are almost impossible to collect. The only real light comes from a lantern one of the men carries, swinging into the room and around the crates in a wild play of light and shadow. Before Holmes can make use of it, before his eyes can adjust to the sudden brightness, the man sets the lamp down beside his head, so close that he can smell the kerosene, and feel the heat from the flame on his face.
The sudden glare plunges the rest of the room into complete darkness; only the man himself is still visible, and his head is covered by what appears to be a cloth bag, completely obscuring his features. Holmes' eyes water, and he tries to roll away, but a heel connects with his shoulder before he can do more than turn his head. All he is able to catch is that the others, all of them, are wearing fabric over their faces as well.
Draw them out, he thinks. Make them say something.
"It's about time you got-" is all he manages before his head is jerked backward, rough fingers tearing at his hair and digging into his scalp.
"Nice to hear you've missed us, Mr. Holmes," says the one in front of him. "You'll be wondering why you're here - that's easy. We've work to be doing that don't bear interrupting, and you - well, you've made a name for yourself as an interferin' busybody. Can't have that."
Holmes swallows, carefully. He has been here long enough to become thirsty, but not long enough to want these fellows to know about it. The fist in his hair has not released its grip.
"So what happens now?"
The man tsk-tsks as if disappointed. "See what I mean? Busybody. Can't keep your questions to yourself." He stands up, and disappears into the darkness behind the glare of the lantern. "But I'll answer you," he says, "just this once."
Holmes can see nothing, but he hears the man - the leader, he guesses - take a couple of steps away and then back, hears the rustle of fabric as he rummages through his pockets for something.
"We can't kill you, much as we'd like it," he says. "The police like you too much; but we can't be trippin over you here, either, not when we've got our work to be about. So we'll just put you away for a bit, and do what we can to keep you from followin us home. Your friends will probably find you. Eventually."
"And how do you expec-" but his head is jerked backward again, hard enough this time to send little shooting agonies down and across his neck; and while he is gasping at the pain of it, the leader of the men swoops down, pries his mouth open and stuffs something inside. It is scratchy, and tastes musty, and silences him utterly as it fills his mouth. Holmes kicks out uselessly as a second strip of cloth is wound around his head, twice, three times across his lips, sealing the gag in.
When it is finished, Holmes pants for breath through his nose, little muffled grunts barely making themselves heard behind the fabric. The fingers in his hair pull away, and he is shoved flat onto his back. The knot on the back of his head is throbbing again, and now there are hands at each temple, holding him tightly. He glares up; the man has pulled something else out of his pocket - a candle; and now he is lighting it in the lantern's flame.
He holds it up high, and a drop of wax splatters onto Holmes' cheek. He inhales sharply; his head jerks involuntarily, and one arm, but the hands and the straitjacket hold him perfectly still.
"You might want to close your eyes for this," says the voice.
The boy, Jacob, led Watson on foot through a labyrinth of back alleys and mews, avoiding the main thoroughfares. It wasn't the most direct path they could have taken, thought Watson, but no matter; for all his knees-and-elbows, awkward appearance, Jacob knew this part of the city like the back of his grubby hands, and they moved quickly.
Another of Holmes' urchins was waiting for them when they arrived, in an alcove just off Market Street. This one wore a floppy hat and a coat several sizes too large; Watson bit back a smile when he recognized it as one of Holmes' castoffs.
"I'm Davey," he said. "Short Henry said to make sure you came here first. He said this was where Mr. Holmes got hit. He said you'd want to look it over, like."
"I will," said Watson, "but I thought your friend already knew where these men had taken Mr. Holmes. I'd like to go there first."
"I ain't let nobody come through here," said Davey. "I remember Mr. Holmes din't like no one to go stompin through someplace till he had a look, right?" At the doctor's nod, he went on, "I can take you to Short Henry now, if you want. Jacob, mate, kin you stay here?"
"Let me round up some o me brothers, an aye, we can keep it. Safe as houses, till ye get back."
"No need," grinned Davey. He whistled once, high and piercing like a cabbie's call, and boys seemed to rise up out of the shadows: two on the roofs, two more at the opposite end of the alley, and another across the street from where they were standing.
"Smart lads, both of you," said Watson. Jacob smiled, the two boys took turns spitting on the ground, and the hunt continued.
The first drops sear as they strike Holmes' eyelids, right and left, back and forth. He struggles as hard as he's ever had to in his life, but everything, everything is hampered, thwarted, stifled. Useless.
He cries out and there is almost no sound as the gag nearly chokes him; tries to yank his head away, but the thug holding him down has a grip like a vise; attempts to bring his arms up to shield his face, but the straitjacket reduces his motion to mere twitches. He twists his body, trying to roll, and the shackle bites hard into his leg before he can do more than bend his knee.
And all the while the wax drips, back and forth, right and left, an occasional drop spattering his nose or his forehead. The searing burn subsides and is replaced by a sullen, constant heat, like dying embers; like bitter tears; like shame.
He tries to kick out, to buck with his hips, but his heels find no purchase as the blanket tangles beneath him, and when he arches, the straitjacket nearly squeezes the breath out of him. He cannot even begin to open his eyes; his eyelids do not so much as twitch behind the encasing wax. They have been sealed shut.
Behind the sounds of his struggle - such as they are - Holmes hears one of the other men chuckle, someone who had been silent until now. "Look at im," he hears, and strangely this calms him. He is trembling, immobile, blinded; but he can still hear. He can still collect data. He still has something to connect him with his surroundings.
Then they wrench his head to the side. The strip of cloth wound around his head cuts into the side of his mouth.
"We'll just say our goodbyes now, Mr. Holmes," says their leader.
And he feels the first drops strike, and ooze into his ear.
When it is over, Holmes is pulled to his feet by hands gripping at his collar and arms. He can feel the damage his ankle has suffered, as he struggled against the shackle; the skin might be broken, and it's already beginning to swell.
This is the first time he's been upright in, if he had to guess, possibly twelve hours, and he is left light-headed. He staggers for a moment, then manages to stand still, his legs wide apart, head down, body bowed. There is a fumbling at his ankle, then out of nowhere he is shoved roughly forward.
His balance is gone. He cannot hold his arms out to steady himself, cannot see to orient his body, and sounds now, when he can hear any, are watery and faraway, and he cannot put them into any sort of meaningful context. Watson told him once that the ears have something to do with a person's ability to balance, and he must have been right, because Holmes is not only having difficulty holding himself upright; he's not entirely certain he knows where "up" is.
He is humiliated to hear himself cry out as he falls, the sound almost completely stifled by the gag, but still managing to fill his head. It is the only thing he can hear.
Before he can hit the floor again, somebody catches him; he is given no time to reorient himself before he is shoved again, though not as hard this time. The next person to catch him waits for him to get his feet under him, then takes him by the shoulders and guides him from behind.
Distantly, faintly, he hears a click; there is the briefest moment of fresh air on his face before someone pulls a bag over his head. To his disbelief, the odor of burlap fills his nostrils; it occurs to him firstly, that he has been taken outside, and secondly, that he could probably be marched past a slaughterhouse in this condition and not realize it. Even his sense of smell has been rendered useless to him.
The hands on his shoulders tug him to a stop. He flinches in surprise when someone grabs his legs and he is hoisted into the air, landing on his side with a thump. A brief rocking motion, then a jerk, then the vibration of wheels on cobblestones.
They are moving him, but to where?
He was too late.
He was too late.
Watson and his new guide, Davey, had moved as quickly as traffic and his old wound would permit, but it had still taken them nearly two hours, on foot, to reach the spot where, according to Short Henry, the kidnappers had taken Holmes. The sun was setting as they approached the industrial quarter of the city, where roads and rail and river intersected in a mass of arteries whose heart, the manufactories, pumped goods out through London, Britain, and the rest of the world.
A block away, Watson had looked up to see billowing smoke filling the sky ahead. He and Davey had broken into a run, rounded a corner, and nearly been run over by the fire brigade wagons clattering past.
He and Davey followed them, until the boy tugged at his sleeve and pulled him over to a lamp-post where a dwarf stood, his arms wound around his torso and tears running down his face. "Short" Henry. Of course.
Watson remembered him now, or at least, remembered his story; he'd looked normal enough at birth that his deformity wasn't discovered until he was nearly a year old. Then his father had abandoned his mother, claiming she'd commited adultery. The stigma of bearing a child that everyone believed to be illegitimate was too much for her - she'd discovered gin by the time he was four, and by the time he was six she'd found her grave. The constables had borne her away on a plank, and that was the last he'd ever seen of her.
Sherlock Holmes, in employing him as an informant, had not only saved him from starvation; he had saved Henry's dignity. At seventeen, he was the oldest of the Irregulars, and fiercely loyal even in comparison to the other boys.
And now he stared up at Watson, his features contorted into a rictus of grief. He didn't say anything; he didn't have to.
Watson was too late.
The fire wagon came back toward them, walking this time, but Watson scarcely noticed; he was struggling not to be sick in the street. It wasn't till one of the firemen laughed, easily, relaxed, that the significance hit him.
"Gentlemen - a moment, if you please," he called.
The entire conversation couldn't have taken five minutes. No, there were no bodies; some fool had broken into the building, a customs office for a small import/export company, and knocked over a lantern, and probably fled. Yes, they were absolutely certain there were no bodies; the fire had destroyed some crates filled with straw, a common enough packing material for shipments, scorched a wall, and nothing more. The firemen were all quite certain that even if the building had been occupied, everyone could have gotten away safely.
"Easiest alarm we've had to answer in a month, I'd wager, and glad of it," said one.
"Aye, we don't let it get about, but firemen are lazy bastards," laughed another. "We're happiest with nothing to do, if you take my meaning."
Watson nodded. "I was an army surgeon once," he said. "I understand exactly what you mean."
The first one had twitched the reins, and the wagon had continued on its way, with promises to drink to Watson's health and to laziness floating behind them.
When he stepped back across to the streetlamp, he saw Short Henry leaning against the post, weak with relief.
"Inspectors will be here soon," said Henry.
The doctor nodded, already crouching down in the doorway of the customs house to see if there was anything that might stand out from the debris and mud left from the fire. He hadn't anything like Holmes' level of expertise, but he'd learned a few things over the years. Perhaps he'd get lucky.
"You're sure this was the place?" he asked.
"I -" Henry stopped, then sighed. "I think so. After they knocked Mr. Holmes down, I heard em talking. This was the place they was goin to bring him, if I heard right." He paused, kicking at the doorframe. "If I wasn't so slow, maybe this wouldn't uv happened."
Watson stood, and moved further into the office. "What do you mean?"
"Well," said Henry, "I tried to follow them - those men - but I couldn't keep up. And I couldn't hop onto their wagon or they'd uv seen me. And if they saw me once, they'd remember me. Not a lot of dwarfs around, even in a city this big."
"So what did you do?"
"I got here, quick as I could. Still took most of the day. And then I had to find someone to send back to you, and someone to watch that place where the fight happened." Watson could hear him swallow once, hard. "If I was faster, I'd uv got here quicker, got word to you quicker. I could be sure this was the right place. Maybe I could uv been some real help."
That stopped Watson in his tracks. "Henry Cromwell. Do you even hear what you're saying? Holmes keeps irregular hours, surely you know that. If it weren't for you, I doubt I would even realize yet that anything was amiss. And your idea to protect the site where the kidnappers struck was brilliant - I can tell you from personal experience that it's more than many of the constabulary would have done. They wouldn't even have considered it necessary. But you did." He laid a hand on the young man's shoulder. "You may not have the fastest legs in London, but your quick thinking may well end up saving Holmes' life."
Henry turned away, and coughed; Watson could see him fighting not to cry again. Finally he cleared his throat, and said in a low voice, "Thank you, sir."
"No thanks needed," said Watson. "It's the simple truth. Help me look around in here, will you?"
It was Watson who pulled a loose plank back from the boarded-up window in what was probably the main office of the customs house. It was Henry Cromwell who held up a ragged wool blanket in one hand, and a lone shackle dangling at the end of a chain bolted to the floor in the other.
"Why would you need one of these for importing and shipping?" he asked.
Watson examined the ring and the bolt. "This is new," he said. "The edges are still sharp, and," he held it up to the light, "there are wool fibers and fresh blood on them."
They shared a look of grim satisfaction.
There is something that most authors of potboiler romances and adventure-tales neglect to mention, when discussing the trials and tribulations endured by their stalwart heroes. Of gun and knife wounds, they wax lyrical; of torture and torment inflicted by a dastardly villain, they neglect not the slightest detail.
Of the need to dig latrines, squat over privies, or visit the water-closet, these masters of fiction are curiously silent.
Observation: Holmes has been bound for the better part of a day, with no recourse to the civilized amenities. His discomfort is acute to the point of pain, and the rattling of his conveyance does nothing to help.
Inference: His captors have no intention of releasing him even for the time it would take to use a chamberpot.
Conclusion: Sooner or later, Holmes will have no choice but to wet himself.
Justification: There is a measure of petty vengeance to be had on his abductors. Presumably they will have to lay hands on him again eventually, and if soaking himself in his own urine is the only way to make the experience unpleasant for them, then so be it.
Besides, Watson has accused him more than once of having no shame. Perhaps if he permits himself for the time being to believe that, he will not feel quite so humiliated when the inevitable happens.
After an unknowable length of time, he is startled by hands grasping him under his arms; as they hoist him into a sitting position, he lets go. His relief is, thankfully, at least as intense as his shame as the hot liquid spreads across the front of his trousers, between his legs and throughout his drawers. As he is pulled upright, more of it trickles down the back of his legs, wetting his socks and making his ankle sting viciously where the skin has been broken.
A second pair of hands wraps around his legs and lifts, then drops him with a cry filled with disgust that even he can hear. If his predicament weren't so grim, his is sure that he would find this highly amusing.
He does not see the punch coming, of course, and it takes him in the stomach with such force that he is left nauseated and gasping for air through his nose. He doubles over and the one holding him under the arms lets him drop, hard, onto his knees. A second blow, this one across his face, knocks him flat. The hot puddle beneath him begins to seep into the straitjacket and, to his chagrin, the back of the burlap bag over his head.
He probably should have expected that, he thinks, as he tries to raise his head. Nevertheless, having played even such a minor trick against his assailants is almost worth the pain.
They loop a belt about his legs - Holmes can feel the buckle biting into the flesh just behind his knees - and use it in addition to his collar to lift and haul him about. He is carried a short distance, then flung unceremoniously onto another surface, harder and more solid, whose vibrations do not match those of wheels over pavement; with growing dread, he remembers hearing the sound of slow-moving trains, earlier in the day. He both hears and feels the scrambling as his kidnappers - no, he realizes, only one of them - climb aboard as well. This must be a freight car, then, open at the sides.
We're just going to put you away for awhile, they said. Your friends will probably find you, they said. With an ache, he realizes that Watson might only now be wondering where he has gotten off to; might only now be considering whether or not something is amiss, whether or not to inquire of Mrs. Hudson or to search for a note on Holmes' desk.
Eventually, his friend will come looking for him; but he has been abducted without the opportunity to leave behind even the slightest clue (well, he corrects himself, possibly he has managed to leave one, albeit messily). He has been sequestered in an unknown location, and now he is aboard a train which could be headed nearly anywhere.
How is Watson to find him now?
Time passes; whether it is a few hours, or only a few moments, Holmes has no way of knowing. He is not a man prone to emotional displays; he trusts logic above all else for its ability to shine a clear light on difficult puzzles.
But logic can see no way out of his captivity, not under his own power. And the bindings themselves seem to be affecting the primitive parts of his mind, his instincts and nerves, places where logic is refused in favor of fight-or-flight, tooth and claw and fire and darkness.
He holds off the fear as best he can, but his primitive brain is not listening to his rationalizations. The helplessness, the uncertainty, reverberate through him until he is near panic. His breath is coming faster and faster and he can feel sweat trickling across his forehead and down his sides.
He needs data. No, he needs input, of any kind, even if it is useless to solving his way out of this place - and he cannot obtain it. He needs to see; needs light, desperately, and without making the decision to do so he finds that he is rubbing his head frantically against the floor, trying to dislodge the hardened wax sealing his eyes shut. When that fails, when he forgets and tries to move his arms, the straitjacket grips him implacably, and suddenly the panic breaks free.
He is thrashing in the restraints, writhing about, kicking with legs still trapped by the belt they had looped around his knees the last time they moved him. He bucks, he hits his head against the floor, he gets stuck on his stomach for a few moments, he snarls and wails. And all the while, he sees nothing, hears only his own muffled, bestial grunting, smells nothing but burlap and his own piss, and he can barely breathe as the gag stifles his mouth and the hood covers his nose and the straitjacket constricts his chest. His hands claw uselessly within the entrapping canvas sleeves.
It is unfortunate that Holmes is for the most part fit and healthy, for it takes a long, long time for his struggles to stop. He is left panting through his nose, moaning softly with each exhalation, unable to get his breath back. He rolls his head back, kicks once or twice more, and finally subsides, exhausted.
He had meant to ask, earlier, how they expected to keep him from tracking them back down, but now he knows. Even the best marksman in the world will hit nothing if he does not have his gun.
One by one, they have stripped away all of Holmes' weapons. What he is only now realizing is that in so doing, they have also removed all his defenses; and if he is not careful, they will also succeed in breaking his will, his mind, his very humanity.
Henry was correct; the Inspectors did arrive on the scene, gratifyingly quickly, and Watson was more than pleased when he recognized that one of the men was Constable Clark.
"Oh, it's you, Doctor," he said, as they shook hands. "We'd got a report that someone was rummaging about in here after the fire. You'll be here with Mr. Holmes, then; he's around the back, I take it?"
"I should be so fortunate," said Watson. "No, Clarkey, I am not here with Holmes, I am here for him. He's gone missing, and I've reason to believe he was brought here."
"God in Heaven!" said Clark.
"And who's this miscreant?" growled the other, a man Watson did not recognize, portly and red-faced, with hair to match, whom Clark introduced as Constable Slane. He had Short Henry by one arm and was dragging him into the middle of the room.
"This young man is Henry Cromwell, and if you value my word at all, Constable, then you will believe that he is no miscreant but an honest laborer." Henry stood proudly and glared at the officer until he let go, mumbling apologies. "More than that, Mr. Cromwell witnessed the attack on Holmes earlier today, and kept his wits about him well enough that we are able to stand here and try to pick up Holmes' trail, rather than casting about witlessly or worse, not yet realizing that anything had happened to him at all. Were I in your position, officers, I should collect a statement from him while the memories are still fresh."
Clark nodded. "Is there anything else we can do to help, Doctor?"
"Bring me light, if you please," said Watson. "And if you know anything about this place, I should be glad to hear it."
The office had a second door, smaller than the first, that led down a short passage and opened onto the rear of the building. The information seemed clear enough: A Tobias Smith operated as an importer of small decorative items; while the operation was small, he'd done well enough. "You see how the walls are all knocked bare?" said Clark. "Mr. Smith had just hired in some men to refurbish and improve upon the place when he took a fever and died."
"So the business is closed?"
"No one is sure," said Clark. "The barristers are still figuring out who it rightfully should go to - his family, his business associates, that sort of thing. The place has been standing empty these past few months while they sort through all the paperwork."
"Well, I guess he isn't the arsonist, then," muttered Watson.
"Arson?" cried Slane. "Firemen said a drunk tipped a lantern over, nothing more."
"Bit difficult to tip a lantern over and have it shatter halfway up the wall, don't you think?" Watson called over his shoulder. "Go back and look if you like, but mind you don't cut yourself; there's glass everywhere underneath the scorch on the far wall."
He, Short Henry, and Constable Clark all stepped out of the passage into a tiny courtyard, just barely large enough to fit a four-wheeler pulled by no more than two horses. It was invisible from the front of the building, and not at all easy to see even from the alley onto which it opened. Henry let out a breath.
"Now I see why I thought he was dead, sir," he said. "They'd uv took him right out from under me nose and I couldn't uv seen it."
"I'm guessing that's exactly what they did," said Watson. "Here. You see these tracks?" Wheel-marks cut directly through the courtyard, just missing a fresh pile of horse dung. The tracks themselves were overlaid with a great many footprints, but one set leaped out to Watson's gaze.
"I'd know these shoes anywhere," he cried.
"Mr. Holmes', I take it?" said Clark.
"No, actually," said Watson. "The shoes are mine. Holmes, the cad, insists on stealing them whenever he doesn't want to get his own dirty."
"What do you make uv em, sir?" said Henry.
Watson dropped to his knees. "Let me see. The hoof-marks all aim that way, so the cab, or cart, would have been on this side of the courtyard; no, it was a wagon, and they led Holmes to the back of it. Look, see how this set of prints comes round to the other side and then shuffles about? They would have lifted him in; then, this fellow with the notch in his heel climbed into the back; it looks as though our other gentleman came up to the front, perhaps to drive; and two more, no, three more sets of footprints lead off through the gate in the same direction as the wagon."
"You're as sharp-eyed as Mr. Holmes himself," said the constable.
"Not at all," he replied. "But I haven't lived with him for years for nothing."
Watson, the constables Clark and Slane, and the Irregulars Davey and Short Henry scoured the cobblestones, foot by foot, tracing the wagon's path from the customs house. They were incredibly fortunate, in that this part of the district tended to empty in the evenings as laborers returned home to their families; it would have taken very little traffic to obliterate the traces left behind.
The fact that they had anything at all to follow was a terrific stroke of luck; even so, they lost the trail at every intersection, and it was a painstaking effort to confirm that these wheelmarks through the grit bore the same wavering pattern as those, or that the nails from this horseshoe-print scratched the stones in the same was as that. Nevertheless, Constable Clark was familiar with Holmes' methods, Slane was a ready learner despite his original display of stubbornness, and the Irregulars were fanatics obsessed with doing everything in their power to come to the aid of their hero. They commandeered extra lamps from the local bobbies, examined every trace meticulously, and, for all that Watson was bursting to sprint to Holmes' side, they inched their way inexorably forward.
It was well past dark when they arrived at the railyard. Here the pavement gave way to gravel and mud, and the clues became much easier to follow - but the story they told, only too clearly, sent their spirits plummeting. Judging from the shuffling footprints, the men had brought their wagon up alongside one of the rails, stopped for some few moments, then carried something heavy from the wagon and left it on the train. The odor of urine hung faintly around the greatest concentration of footprints; it turned Watson's stomach to think that the men must have felt themselves so safe from observation that one of them could take a moment to relieve himself while the rest disposed of Holmes' (no doubt unconscious) body like so much garbage.
The train was nowhere to be seen. The tracks led into a turnabout with several sidings, but Watson did not hold out much hope that they would discover the detective hidden in any of the cars parked there. There were no streetlights, the moon was hidden behind the clouds, and the rail offices themselves were deserted. Watson pinched the bridge of his nose with grimy fingers. "What are we to do now?" he muttered, to no one in particular.
"If I may, Doctor," said Slane, "I've an idea, but it will have to wait till morning before we can do anything with it."
"I should be glad to hear of any idea at all," he replied.
"Well, then," said Slane. "My brother-in-law works the rails, not here in London, mind; but he told me once that they take as much care with their trains as a shepherd does with his flock. They have to, so as not to misplace their freight, you understand. And I remember him saying that in the bigger hubs, like this, they take extra steps to track everything. Everything, Doctor - not just where the trains are bound, but what's in each and every car, what rail they come in from, whether they're parked on the sidings for any length of time - all of it."
"You're saying that the rail clerks might have some information on the train that sat here, some few hours ago?" asked Watson.
"That's the shape of it, Doctor," said Slane. "We tell them we want the train that was on this rail and none other, and when we think it passed through - I'd eat my hat if they couldn't produce a stack of paper to tell us where it's gotten to, and all the stops along the way, and the colors the cars were all painted, I shouldn't wonder."
"That information would be invaluable," exclaimed Clark.
"It certainly would, Clarkey," said Watson. "Constable Slane, it was a brilliant thought, and I thank you. I wish we needn't wait till morning, but I suppose there's nothing for it, and these two lads are done in besides. We're for Baker Street, if you promise that you'll notify me on the instant you have information we can use."
"Count on it, sir," said Slane. "These offices likely open at five - no later, at any rate - and we'll begin as soon as the clerk unlocks the door. By the time you arrive, we ought to have found the trail again."
"May Providence smile on your efforts," said Watson. The men shook hands all around, then went their separate ways into the night.
Naturally, he did not sleep. He rested in the cab ride home, a little; once there, he ate, and made sure Mrs. Hudson brought up enough to share with Henry and young Davey; then he sent the youths away with instructions as to the Market Street alley, that it might be kept clear for Holmes to investigate on his return.
For Holmes would return, Watson was sure of it. He refused to permit himself to doubt the possibility, just as he refused to admit that his hopes had been dashed when he returned to their flat and did not find a wire waiting for him. It was absurd, of course, but he couldn't help but half-expect Mrs. Hudson to hand him a little slip of paper reading, "Abducted mid morning STOP acted part of victim STOP gang in custody by dinner STOP will return by midnight train FULL STOP".
No such luck, alas, he thought as he undressed. Instead, he was here, in safety and warmth, while his closest friend, confidant and partner faced his ordeal alone. God only knew what he had suffered up to this point; Watson had worked with Holmes on more than one kidnapping, and his imagination was only too willing to provide suggestions as to what Holmes might be forced to endure.
And that was assuming that he had actually been kidnapped at all. There was no ransom note as yet; and so far as he could recall, kidnappers did not generally like to move their captives about. It gave them too many opportunities to be caught, or for the victims to escape. Watson was sure that they had taken Holmes onto that train, but from the traces he'd seen, it hadn't looked as if any guards had gone with him. Why wouldn't they have done so?
At least the majority of kidnap victims were considered by their abductors to be more valuable alive. And moving bodies was a difficult business as well, so it didn't make sense that they would have thrown a corpse onto a freight car, either.
These were small comforts, but he would take them. There were far, far too many hours between now and the moment that the hunt could resume; he would take whatever solace he could find to see him through.
The train moves; there is vibration and rocking, and a chill wind that blows across Holmes' wet clothing. Bit by bit, he regains his composure. He must remain calm, he reminds himself. He must not, above all else, permit these cretins to have any more of him than they have already managed to take. He will not participate in his own undoing.
As an exercise, then, he takes stock. The obvious: he is bound, he is blinded and deafened and muted, he is hooded like a falcon not permitted to hunt without its master; this much has been done to him.
The results: his ribs ache from constriction, from his chest around to his back; his shoulders are squeezed tightly and the muscles of his arms burn; his wrists feel fatigued, strangely enough; his fingers are stiff and cold. The buckle from the belt wrapped around his legs is biting into the tender flesh behind his knee; his ankle is swollen and cut. He cannot lie flat on his back or the buckles there will pinch and bite along his spine. His stomach is no doubt bruised from the force of the blow he received earlier; his face throbs in time with the knot on the back of his head. Holmes has not eaten in a day, although he is somewhat used to hunger; the thirst is of greater concern to him, and it is growing acute.
Strange lights and swirling patterns manifest behind his closed lids, and the only thing he hears is a distant roar like flowing water, interspersed on occasion with something like strange whispers that seem to be coming from behind him.
He feels dizzy when he tries to raise his head, and vertigo makes it difficult to keep track of the differences between vertical and horizontal. But for all the things that lie, for the moment, beyond his grasp, they have not taken his mind, and he will not allow it to be taken.
A sudden jolt shakes the floor of the car, startling him out of his thoughts. Further shocks repeat at intervals, and he recognizes the sensation of the train slowing down; first the engine brakes, then the links between the cars all collapse into one another in succession, causing the jolts. The train would have done the same thing in reverse when it first started moving; Holmes had missed it simply because he had been deposited here after the cars were already in motion.
He jumps again when a hand takes the collar of his straitjacket; belatedly he remembers the rocking as one of his captors had climbed into the car after him. Knuckles press against the side of his neck, and the collar pulls tight as he is dragged across the floor in a series of hard tugs. There is a break, then the dragging resumes and he feels his body hanging in the air, supported only by his legs still inside the train car, and the fist clutching his collar. With another yank, his legs drop out from beneath him to strike the ground; Holmes winces as his ankle protests the impact.
At first he thinks the thug might release the belt around his knees, since forcing Holmes to walk would make the man's job easier; instead, his feet struggle futilely for purchase and his lower legs scrape painfully in the crushed stone near the track as he is pulled along. His weight pulls the collar almost unbearably tight, but before he is able to struggle against it, stone gives way to smooth ground, and he is dropped pitilessly onto his shoulders.
He lies there for a moment, catching his breath; he suspects his tormentor is doing the same. Then a heel plants itself against his hip and pushes, and to his terror he feels himself roll, slowly at first and then faster, down an embankment.
He is buffeted about helplessly; he tucks his chin in and his legs up as best he can, but the blows seem to strike him everywhere at once. At last he fetches up against something large and very, very hard, striking it first with his shoulder, then arching painfully as his back and legs take the impact. Thus checked, momentum holds him on his back for an instant, then he pitches forward again and is still.
For a while, there is nothing but pain, nausea, and the struggle to breathe. When he is able to think again, his first thought is that it is a miracle he did not strike head-first; without his arms free to protect himself, he could easily have broken his neck. His second thought is the awareness that, away from the motion of the train, the silence is absolute. There is no vibration, no wind; he has been dumped in the no-man's land between railroad stations, and if he could hear anything at all, it would likely only be the sound of crickets in the underbrush.
His third thought is that, even if he were free, it is unlikely he would be able to climb back up the sides of the ditch, or ravine, in which he now lies. His ribs are bruised and may be cracked, his lower back is in agony, and it feels as though he may have twisted one knee too badly to walk on.
Holmes squirms, trying to find a position that makes it easier to breathe, and remembers the story of Bell's first use of his great invention. Bell was in the basement and spilled acid on himself, and shouted into the telephone for his assistant.
"Watson - come here - I need you."
His back sends sheets of pain down the backs of his legs, and he bites back a groan. I need you, Watson, he thinks. Hurry.
Five o'clock found Watson already dressed and in a hansom making for the railyard, his medical bag and a small valise at his side. The wait had been interminable, and in the end he decided to give up any pretense at sleep. He could safely say that he finally understood Holmes' intense dislike for suspending "the game" as he often called it, for any reason. The worry was maddening, and what Watson felt now for Holmes - the desperate need to do something, to fly to his aid, to see him safely home - it seemed Holmes felt on every case.
God help the officious bureaucrat who tried to delay their search, he thought as the cab rounded a corner. He would tear the place apart to get the information he needed, and if necessary, he didn't think he would mind tearing apart a sniveling clerk or pompous station manager, either.
Luckily it didn't come to that; instead, he arrived to find the constables already there, the office's lights ablaze, and no less then five clerks sorting feverishly through their files and papers from the day before.
"What have you found?" he asked.
The rail office, bless them, were as organized as Slane had promised. Only three trains had passed through that specific track the entire day, and only one of those fit the likely time window they sought. Its final destination was Edinburgh, with several stops in between. Watson's stomach turned.
"It will take forever to search all the stations on that route," he cried in dismay.
One of the clerks looked up from his work. "Begging your pardon, sir," he said, "but it will be easier than you think. We inspect the cars at each stop - tracking the freight mostly, but keeping thieves and vagrants from catching a free ride, too. The constables have already sent out a wire to every station from here to Edinburgh; if the fellow you're after is on those cars, they'll spot him, make no mistake."
Watson passed his hand across his brow. "And if - forgive me - if they don't find someone?"
"Well, then, your man would have to have gotten off the car before it reached the station. It's how the freeloaders do it, you see; they get on once the train is already on its way, but before it's gotten up to speed. Then they hop off again as the engine is slowing down to pull into the depot. That track you've got us aimed at, sir, that's no siding; the cars wouldn't have been stopped there. They had to hop it while it was already moving."
Slane cleared his throat. "That doesn't sound very helpful," he said, but the clerk was already shaking his head earnestly.
"No, sir, don't you see? If they hopped the train, they have to be somewhere between here and the very first stop on the route, and not more than half a mile from the station at that. If it were daytime, a freeloader would just walk a bit past the station, and wait for the train to start back up again before he hopped aboard, but they mostly just find a billet at night - sleep under a bridge, or in the station, or something like."
"But these are no ordinary wandering vagabonds," said Watson. "Are you absolutely certain they couldn't have continued at night? A man's life rests on the answer; I beg you to think carefully."
The first man's face fell; he began to shake his head, but the telegraph began to chatter at another desk, and everyone froze. The telegraph operator scribbled furiously for a moment, then jumped up with a cry. "That train only made it to Hawking before it stopped for the night," he exclaimed. "I've got it right here! One of the cars needed cleaning out; some lout spoiled the floor with his own filth and they decided to hold the train while they looked for the freeloaders that did it."
Watson started up from his chair. "How far is -" he began, but the first man cut him off. "It's only the second stop on the route, sir," he said. "It's twenty miles out, but remember you've only got the half-mile leading up to those two stations to search. If we hold them at Hawking, and reroute traffic while you look, the fellow won't have any trains to hop to make his escape."
Within minutes, the railmen had made the arrangements, and Watson was aboard a special headed north: One engine, one coal car, and one passenger compartment, carrying their search party. The track was theirs.
Holmes is drifting.
Time passes, but there is nothing in it to mark its shape. His pained gasps gradually subside to the shallow, constricted breathing of before; he still must hold himself carefully against the pain, but his heart slows, and he no longer feels as if he is about to suffocate.
He has no idea how long this takes.
Pain recedes, then returns, then recedes again; Holmes has no way to know how long this takes, either.
He grows colder, his clothing clammy and revolting against his skin, until he starts to shiver and the movement brings back all his pain with renewed intensity. Just as he thinks he can steel his mind against it, make it bearable in some way, the tremors increase until his body is wracked with shuddering, violent and impossible to control. He groans, but of course the sound is swallowed by the gag still filling his mouth. Sparks flash in the enforced darkness, and he can feel his eyes rolling back in his head...
And then Holmes wakes, still shivering slightly, and that is worse. He had not known he was losing consciousness, had not even expected to be able to sleep while bound; but the silence is deeper than anything he has ever experienced, and apart from phantom lights behind his eyes, the darkness is just as complete. Holmes imagines it could even be restful, in the right circumstances.
He is uncertain whether the choked coughs that arise in response to this thought are laughter or sobs; either way, they are too close to the edge of an abyss he refuses to explore, and with an effort, he gets himself back under control.
Time passes, with Holmes carried only loosely in its embrace. There is cold, and there is pain. There is another episode of instinctual, atavistic panic in which he struggles in his bonds to the point, the very brink, of unconsciousness; the thought of losing himself in the nothingness for a second time is even more terrifying than his immobility, and is the only thing that stops his struggles.
There is thirst; there is piss, when he can no longer contain it; there is shit, because it is either that or add the excruciating cramping of his bowel to the pain already clawing into his lower back and abdomen.
But none of these things feels real to him; or if they feel real, they do not tether him to reality to any appreciable degree. The phantom lights, haunting whispers, occasional faces that appear in his mind do nothing to help. Nothing seems capable of touching the conviction that he is adrift, a tiny vessel on an immense dark sea, rudderless and lost.
Thoughts of Watson are his only anchor. But Holmes is so very, very tired, and it is becoming difficult to think at all.
Watson was stunned.
How could they not have found him?
Everything had seemed so straightforward; the special approached the first station at Gallowswalk and slowed down, then stopped well short of the platform. The men clambered out of the car, spread out, and searched. They were looking for tents, makeshift shelters, places where overhanging branches might provide some protection against the elements; failing that, they were looking for signs that men had climbed down from the freight car that had passed through in the night. Would they have taken the trouble to hide their footprints in the dark?
But there was nothing; the traces they did find indicated older, well-established haunts used many times by the freeloaders along this rail corridor. One of them was even marked - painted stones pointed the way to a tiny rock overhang that had clearly sheltered several campfires. But there was nothing recent.
They'd looked for hours before boarding the passenger car once more. Everyone was silent during the brief trip to Hawking, and the search there had a much grimmer feel to it. It was if the men had given up on locating Holmes, and now were searching for a corpse.
Once again, they found nothing. The ground here was flatter, nearly bare except for a handful of scraggly bushes growing amid the long grass; there were very few places where someone could shelter, if they were so inclined.
Watson caught the others glancing his way, more than once. Their sympathy twisted in his chest, and finally he turned his back on them, and the train, and began walking.
Get hold of yourself, old man, he thought. Holmes would tell you himself that no one vanishes into thin air. There must be some indication; you've merely overlooked it, that's all.
His stick clattered against the gravel. But how? he wondered. We scoured the track, both before and after the stations. We must have searched a quarter-mile or better in either direction; we went back along the tracks to search behind the special for a hundred yards or more...
Wait a moment. Watson halted, frowning. He checked his memory, double-checked the limits of their search, then turned round and made for the train as fast as he could, shouting for the engineer as he ran.
The others gathered round as he reached the coal car. "Driver!" he shouted again, and the engineer popped his head out of his little window. "Come down this instant, if you please," he said. "I want a word."
The engineer, a fellow named Haraldson, was young and had a vacant look about him; Watson felt his temper rising and fought to control it. "How quickly can you bring this special to a stop when it reaches a station?" he asked.
"We're light and fast, sir," said Haraldson. "We can go full steam almost till we're at the platform afore we -"
"How far, man? How far away from the station do you usually brake?"
"I - maybe two hundred yards - of course I stopped well short today... can I ask what this is about, sir?"
"How far short is 'well short', in your estimation?" Watson snapped.
"You said you wanted to search the tracks," stammered Haraldson. "I gave you a quarter mile, easy."
Watson reached out with one hand and took him by his shirtfront. "The man at the London office said that a loaded freight slows down as much as half a mile away from the depot! A vagrant could jump on or off anywhere in that stretch, am I correct? Answer me!"
To his credit, the fool realized his mistake almost immediately. "Oh, no. We've overshot. I'm sorry, sir. I'm so sorry!"
"I've no time for your apologies, and neither has Sherlock Holmes," snarled the doctor. He closed his eyes and uncurled his fingers from the man's shirtfront. It was an effort of will not to send him sprawling then and there; instead he spun on his heel and made for the steps.
"Everyone, back aboard," he ordered. "We haven't finished at Gallowswalk."
It was the smell that alerted them. The sun was low in the sky and the wind had picked up; the special had returned to Gallowswalk with all speed and the men were scouring new ground, just south of their previous search, when one of the railmen stood quickly, with a cry of "Faugh!" and a hand over his face.
"What is it?" Watson called. He crossed the tracks and moved quickly to the railman's side, when another gust brought the reek to him as well.
"Never mind, I smell it too," he said. The lengthening shadows filled a narrow, steep-sided ravine, obscuring whatever lay at the bottom. "Give me your lamp," said Watson.
Ants. There are ants crawling up his legs; when Holmes moves, or when another stab of pain shoots down from his spine, the prickling sensation disappears. Another hallucination, perhaps.
The cold has seeped into his joints, but his body is too exhausted to do more than shiver for brief intervals. He can raise his head, a little; whenever he feels something strange, like dripping water on his neck, or when the illusory lights flash and startle him, he stirs feebly. Sometimes the noises startle as well, and then he is able to jerk his legs. His injured ankle is too swollen to bend, but he can slide his feet across the ground; a few inches, back and forth, all told.
But there is nothing else he is able to do. Thirst has swollen his tongue and dried his throat to the point that no sound emerges from it, even when he wills himself to shout through the gag. His arms cramped from lack of movement, then they went numb, and finally lost their strength altogether; the rest of his body hurts too much to attempt any other movement.
When he remembers it, he tries to focus his thoughts, but he knows that before long, he will lose consciousness again (Holmes); he doesn't want to, but Watson has nagged him any number of times -
there is only so long a man can remain alert before he simply must rest...
"Holmes." Ah, yes; voices calling his name in the dark, he has already endured this hallucination once. Really, madness is supposed to be linked with creativity, why can't his mind come up with something new -
Something touches his neck, hot against his chilled flesh, and he flinches back from it. The sensation doesn't vanish; it is burning, and solid, and real, and he feels the burlap slide across his face, and fresh air stinging on his abraded skin, and hands on his head, hands he can actually recognize and they belong to the voice shouting at him through the barrier -
"Holmes! Can you hear me?"
- and they are real. They are Watson. Watson has come.
Holmes is so weak, too exhausted to answer, but Watson is demanding a response, so he turns his head in Watson's hands as best he can, slides his face until he can feel the man's palm on his cheek and smell, by God, he can smell everything; sewage and wool and wet grass and Watson's cologne on his cuff, and the leather of his gloves even though his hand is bare; and he presses his face into Watson's hand, feeble and shaky as a newborn colt, but nonetheless he presses as hard as he is able. And he breathes, letting the scents wash over him.
Watson was his anchor; now, when he inhales Watson is a line, mooring him, drawing him back, no longer drifting because Watson is pulling him, with each breath, closer and closer to home.
Watson heard the railman scrambling down the bank behind him, and ignored it; Holmes was alive, at least semi-conscious, and he had to get him out of this pit. Had to. The sun was about to set, and the semi-darkness wasn't enough for Watson to see the extent of his friend's injuries; but what he could see (the filth, the hood, the bindings, for God's sake what did they do to his eyes?) was combining with two days' worry for his friend and threatening to shove his medical training aside in favor of a killing rage.
Tearing his gaze away, Watson took a deep breath, then called over his shoulder, "We've found him. He's alive, but injured. Tell the men to bring more light, and get -"
He was interrupted by the sound of gagging. Careful to keep his hand under Holmes' head, he Whirled around, snapping, "What is the matter with you?"
"I'm - sorry sir," said the railman, "the stink of it - I can't -"
"Stop where you are," Watson cut him off. "Do not even dare to think I will permit you to retch in the presence of my patient. If you're going to waste my time letting a little smell affect you so badly, then you can take your delicate sensibilities out of this ravine and bring me someone who might actually be of some use; and you can tell them to bring more light and the cot from the train car while you're about it. Don't stand there gaping - move!"
Lamps were shining overhead almost before he had finished speaking, as the rest of the search party clambered down the bank. "Leave your lights on that boulder. Constable Clark, bring me water, and if you've a knife I should be grateful to borrow it. You and you, get back to the train and get me that cot. The cot, man - stretcher, plank, I don't care what you call it, we have an injured man and we need to get him out of here, what are you waiting around for?"
His hands had already accepted Clark's knife and were swiftly cutting through a belt cinched round Holmes's knees, a pair of sodden straps from the straightjacket reaching between his legs, another buckled around his forearms.
He had to stop, clenching his teeth against another wave of anger, when he noticed that his captors had used a modification on this straitjacket that was usually reserved as a last resort for calming the most violent mental patients - the strap around his upper arms prevented struggling, but its true purpose was to be tightened across the chest, if need be, to the point that the victim had difficulty breathing, thus hampering their ability to scream and encouraging them to remain still rather than waste their breath fighting the restraints. In Watson's experience it was not humane, and too tempting to use even when it wasn't needed.
This strap was cruelly tight, digging into Holmes' upper arms so deeply that when he cut it, it snapped back and caught him across the wrist. Holmes stirred in response, arching his back a little and rolling his head; Watson stopped him with a hand on his cheek.
"It's all right, old boy, I've got you," he murmured, slipping the blade carefully in between the gag and his skin. The fabric parted easily, and Watson removed it as gently as he could. The rag had cut into the edges of Holmes' mouth and was spotted with dried blood; Clarkey had returned with a canteen of water, so Watson wetted his handkerchief to soften the crust, then peeled it away. When the binding was gone he wet Holmes's lips, then picked a wad of burlap out from between his friend's jaws.
Holmes gagged once, then coughed weakly as he worked his jaw from side to side. He closed his mouth, and Watson watched carefully as he tried to swallow around a swollen tongue. My God, he thought, how long had they left him like this? He had been missing for more than a day, and they hadn't even seen fit to give him water.
"No, Holmes," he said, leaning down close to his ear. "Don't try to speak, not yet. Here, it's water - only take a little," he added, pulling the canteen away as Holmes choked and spat. "Only a little, let it wet your mouth first before you try to drink.
"You're going to be all right, my boy," he said over and over, as the men brought the stretcher down and made ready to put him on it. "Everything is going to be all right."
The Gallowswalk station had little to recommend it beyond proximity, being more of a freight interchange than a proper village; the stop devoted more of its resources to the trains that passed through than to the people who rode them. Nevertheless, Watson decided, London was simply too far away; Holmes needed care immediately, and there was very little Watson could do for him aboard a moving train.
Apart from the depot, Gallowswalk boasted a public house that catered mainly to the railmen, an inn that doubled as post office, bank, and laundry, and little else. The inn itself was run by two women, both widows; the first, Widow McClellan, was a shrew the likes of which Watson had never met in his life. The aging harpy clearly did not care that Watson was a doctor with a patient; in fact, she wouldn't even let them cross the courtyard, carrying Holmes between them on his stretcher, before she was scolding them from an open window, threatening to have them thrown out for "smelling up the place" before they'd even properly arrived.
As it turned out, though, the laundry portion of the inn was managed separately by her cousin, the Widow Blair, a plainly dressed woman with an open, kindly face, who gave a cry of sympathy as soon as she caught sight of Watson and his company standing under the gaslight. Widow Blair lost no time in leading them round to the back of the building.
"Please, bring him in here," she said, pulling a key from her apron. "I've only just put out the fires for the evening; the water will still be hot, and you may use as much as you wish."
Watson soon found himself in a large, open room where the air was heavy with damp heat and every surface was scrubbed spotless; he doubted he'd have been able to find better in any London hospital. Within moments they had Holmes up on a table, stretcher and all, while their hostess brought blankets and clean linens, lit lamps, and began filling a wash basin for him to use.
Though she was generous, and offered to help, he didn't allow her to stay. His professional ministrations were about to violate the boundaries of politeness, decency, and personal privacy; the least he could do for his friend was to conduct them without witnesses.
He shrugged out of his coat and set it aside. "Holmes?" he said, as he removed his cuffs and began rolling up his sleeves. "Are you still with me?"
To Watson's relief, his friend moved his head, though the motion was too brief to really call it a nod. Holmes was a pitiful sight, still lying huddled on his side on the stretcher; he had fought them when they tried to roll him flat onto his back. The underbrush had been wrecked all along the slope above him, and there was blood seeping through the back of the straitjacket and staining part of the boulder he'd been lying against when they'd found him. Watson could only hope that he hadn't sustained any internal injuries from the impact against that jutting knob of stone.
Holmes' hair was dull with grime and stuck to his face, there was a terrible bruise on his cheek, and his lips were cracked and grey with exhaustion, pain, or shock. His skin was too pale, where it wasn't scraped or battered or burned, and he was too still. Ordinarily Sherlock Holmes was a man who moved constantly, his mind never at rest and his every gesture reflecting the quickness of his thoughts; now he lay motionless under the blanket, as if simply breathing was too tiring for him to waste energy doing anything else.
Watson rested a hand on Holmes' hair, his thumb stroking the outer edge of his ear. "You wouldn't let me take these out on the train," he said, working at the edges of the clod of wax there. "I should have realized the noise would be too much for you; but it's quiet here. May I?"
His friend nodded, then gave a little gasp as the first plug came free. "All right?" asked Watson. Holmes swallowed, and was still; Watson picked drippings out of his hair carefully, and used his scope to check the inside of Holmes' ear. "We're in luck," he murmured, "there doesn't appear to be any damage. I suspect you'll be a bit sensitive to loud noises for a day or two as you adjust, but nothing more serious than that."
He stood and pulled back the blanket covering Holmes' shoulders. "I'll take care of the other one once we get you turned over," he reassured softly; "but I need to wait until the very end before I clear your eyes." Holmes rolled his head fretfully against the cot; still unable to speak, his breath huffed his distress. "I know, old friend," said Watson; "but I need rather a lot of light for my examination, and I don't think your eyes could stand it just now. I only want to spare you more pain, my dear boy; bear up, just a little while longer."
The buckles down the back of the straitjacket were crusted with dirt, and the straps were stiff with the mud and other fluids soaked into them. Taking a pair of heavy scissors from his bag, Watson lifted the fabric away from Holmes' neck and cut the hateful thing apart from collar to waist.
Holmes is drifting again; but the experience this time is so very, very different.
Before, he was lost within his own mind, with no way to pull himself back to the world around him; he was cold, and suffering, and afraid. Threats could materialize out of nowhere and he would not realize their existence until they had already touched him.
Now, while he is still chilled, moist heat bathes every bit of exposed skin and soaks into him with every breath. Now, there is still pain, but already Watson has relieved him of most of it merely by loosing his bonds; he has eased his thirst and made it possible for him to breathe normally. Simply having enough water and air has done a great deal for the pounding in his head and throughout his body.
And now, instead of fear, he has only trust. Watson will never allow harm to come to him. Holmes is still blinded, but if Watson says this is necessary, then he will endure it.
In the meantime, he is safe.
Holmes is drifitng, but instead of floating away from the world, he is awash in it - the smells of soap, linen, and wet stone comfort him even as his own stench assaults his nose; the sounds of dripping water, of Watson's feet brushing the floor as he shifts his weight, even the hiss of fuel burning in a nearby lamp are all newly intriguing to him. It is as if he is hearing them all for the first time, and they all soothe him.
He shivers as Watson's scissors slide down his spine twice more, as the good doctor cuts first through his waistcoat and then his shirt. The metal is cold against his skin, and he has no doubt that the blades are very sharp - Watson is always conscientious with his implements - but it does not even occur to him to be concerned. His Watson could cut every scrap of clothing from his body, in inch-sized fragments, and Holmes knows he would not sustain so much as a scratch.
He is exhausted, and warm and safe, and so he permits himself to doze while Watson peels the filthy garments away from his skin and folds them back over his shoulders. Watson pauses every few moments to offer Holmes more water, and he rouses himself to drink, but he feels no need to move beyond that.
His left arm is finally freed from the constricting fabric, but he merely lets it rest limply in Watson's hands, utterly relaxed while his friend inspects the bicep, where the strap of the jacket pinched deeply, and checks that circulation has been fully restored. It has, although Holmes is still not quite able to tell him so (and anyway, Watson would check despite his protests, even if he could speak); Holmes' arms are both filled with pins-and-needles, and while his hands are stiff with cold, he moves them easily when Watson asks him to.
Watson finishes with his arm, so Holmes drags it up to curl beneath his chin before he subsides once more. It is the way he always sleeps.
The doctor continues, as meticulous and methodical as always, inspecting as much of Holmes's exposed flesh as he can reach. Occasionally his explorations are painful, as he probes a bruise or locates a cracked rib; for the most part, however, his closest friend's hands are as comforting as they are competent, and Holmes permits himself to be, for once, completely passive.
That changes, however, when Watson takes hold of the waistband of his trousers and begins to cut.
The sound, barely voiced as it was, startled Watson from his work. He glanced up and saw Holmes dragging his arm back to reach for him, groping until his fingers found and clutched at Watson's wrist.
"Have I hurt you?" he asked quietly, but Holmes was already shaking his head, the movement little more than a weary twitch. Watson stepped around the table to face his friend; Holmes swallowed painfully, so Watson cradled his head in the crook of one arm and offered him another drink from the water flask. Holmes drank sloppily, the tip of his swollen tongue showing between his teeth; he wiped his face with the back of his free hand.
"You," he began. His voice was so raw that it made Watson wince to hear him; he almost had to cough each syllable past his abraded throat, slurring the words on a thickened tongue that would not cooperate. "I'm - I don't -" he swallowed again, grimacing in pain or frustration.
"Holmes, really, you mustn't try -" said Watson, but Holmes squeezed his wrist again; he waited, and finally, with a roll of his head, his friend said only, "Foul."
Watson immediately understood.
"Holmes," he sighed, "you'll forgive me, I'm sure, for trying to put words into your mouth, but am I to believe that you think I will be disgusted, or find your condition repulsive, or in some other way think less of you, because of the state you're in?"
His friend held very still.
"I'm afraid I can't defeat your misgivings with a single, concise, logical argument, old boy," he said, keeping his tone light, "so instead I shall simply bombard you with multiple perspectives on the matter until you give over and let me get on with things, will that be all right with you?"
Holmes's mouth quirked, amused by the familiar sound of the almost-continual bickering and ribbing they'd exchanged over the years. Watson picked up his scissors again, knowing he'd already won.
"First of all," he said, snipping through the waistband, "speaking not even as a doctor but as a reasonable human being - I'm sure you've heard of our kind before - you've been held prisoner for more than a day and could not possibly have been expected to refrain, to hold it in if you will, for such a long time. Whatever state your drawers are in now is no fault of yours."
The blades of the scissors made quick work of one trouser leg, and he deftly pulled the fabric out of the way to begin on the next. "Second, and still speaking not as a doctor, but as a former medical student, I can assure you that urination and defecation are both perfectly natural bodily functions, which I've had to clean up more times than I could possibly count, and which do not bother me in the slightest - with the possible exception of dealing with a patient afflicted by dysentery, which you are not."
Gently, he lifted Holmes' leg and pulled steadily, gathering the fabric from front to back and collecting nearly the entire mess in its folds. "Third, speaking as someone who would really like to sleep in a bed tonight, I can tell you that the proprietor of this inn is a witch straight out of fairy tales who will take any excuse whatsoever to turn us away, and quite frankly, my friend, you stink." He glanced up at an odd sound, and was relieved to see Holmes actually attempt an exhausted chuckle. "We have the great good fortune to be tucked away in a laundry at the moment, and I have every intention of dumping you into a bleachery vat and holding you under until you pick up a scrub brush and have at yourself."
He dumped the entire sodden, crusted, filthy mess into an empty bin. "Finally," he said quietly, twitching the blanket back over Holmes' now-naked body, "and this time I am speaking as a doctor - the last time I faced a patient who smelled of shit it was because he'd been disemboweled, by two bullets and a bayonet, and he didn't survive his wounds. The last time one of my patients was covered in urine, it was because I was amputating his foot and we'd run out of everything - laudanum, morphine, and ether - and he soiled himself from the pain of it, and he didn't survive either." Watson's throat grew tight, and he swallowed hard before continuing. "And you think I might turn away at the sight of you? Holmes, you idiot, you're alive. You're a mess, but you're by and large an intact mess. I'm not revolted - I'm rejoicing."
Watson stopped, forcing himself to breathe deeply; Holmes shifted his arm again, and covered Watson's hand with his own. The doctor cleared his throat, blinking rapidly. "Yes. Well. Enough of your arguing, then, Holmes; I haven't finished my examination, and really," he couldn't help himself, "I daresay all this complaining does not become you."
And so, Holmes permits himself to drift once more; perhaps if he were less tired, more in control, he would have protested more or resisted Watson's care, the unwanted intimacy of, well, of having his arse wiped as if he were a baby or a decrepit, senile wreck of a man.
But after all, he thinks muzzily, this is Watson. Watson his flatmate, Watson his partner, Watson his closest confidant, and to be sure this is by no means the worst activity in which the doctor has found him - he is, after all, wounded and in need of tending, and this is neither the first nor likely to be the last such occasion.
Merely the smelliest; smiling aggravates the damage to his face, but the thought is still amusing.
His friend the doctor continues, working down each leg in turn, helping him to roll to his other side, finally peeling the straitjacket away from him once and for all. The verdict: his torso and upper legs are covered in bruises, deep enough to bruise ribs on one side, though only one has cracked; there are numerous cuts and scrapes across his face, head, knee and ankle; a nasty lump on the back of his head that probably indicates a mild concussion; and of course, he is suffering from dehydration and lack of nourishment.
The worst injury is that done to his lower back when he landed at the bottom of the embankment; Watson tells him that he impacted against a boulder with a protruding corner and that he is lucky not to have punctured a kidney against it. Instead he struck a nerve cluster near the spine, which is why every time he moves it sends shooting agonies to other locations along his back and legs. Watson assures him that while this will take the longest to recover from, with rest it will heal completely.
The only thing left for Watson to examine are his eyes; but the skin is delicate and possibly burned, and the wax is embedded in his lashes and eyebrows. From the sound of it, Watson is unsure, at first, how best to proceed; then Holmes hears splashing in a basin hear his head, and the next thing he knows Watson has a damp sponge and is wringing it out into his hair.
The water is blissfully hot; Holmes cannot help the sigh that escapes, and Watson chuckles. Carefully, he wets Holmes' forehead and face, and when Holmes makes no protest, he lays a damp cloth directly across his eyes. The heat soaks into the wax as Watson moves the blanket back and proceeds, with breathtaking gentleness and care, to wet and rinse every inch of him.
The water stings his cuts, naturally; and wherever his skin is wet, the air seems bracingly cold and he can feel the tingle of gooseflesh across his arms and chest, and he simply does not care. This, despite the pain and weariness - or perhaps because of them - may be the most sensual thing he's ever experienced. He does not even flinch when Watson reaches his groin, cleansing between his thighs, turning him partway to reach his buttocks, then moving on; the sensations of hot water, cool air, and clean, gloriously clean skin are enough to silence any protest he might have been tempted to offer.
Rather than aggravate his wounds by rubbing them dry, Watson simply drapes a towel over each area of his body as he progresses, then leaves them all in place and covers him again with the blanket when, too soon, he is done.
Lastly, the cloth over his eyes is lifted away. His bath had gone uninterrupted save for two instances, during which Watson filled the basin with clean water and changed the wet cloth, keeping it as hot as Holmes would tolerate. Now the wax is soft, and Watson cautiously turns it back, rinsing as he goes, picking stray bits out of his eyebrows, checking for blistering or other damage.
The blackness is replaced with red. His eyelids feel so light as to be nonexistent, and Watson has to remind him to keep them closed while he finishes. There is a metallic scraping, and the red dims slightly; he listens as Watson moves about the table, blowing out flame after flame as the smoky smell from the extinguished lamps reaches his nose, and the red fades further.
Finally, he feels Watson's hands on his face and he can wait no longer. He blinks, once, twice, and yes, his eyelids are tender, and his eyes sting a bit as they start to water; but the pain he had feared he might feel on his eyes themselves is entirely absent. He blinks again, focusing, and finds himself looking at Watson.
"Well, hello there," says Watson; his smile holds as much relief as good humor.
"'Ways... nice... t'see you," says Holmes.
Watson was exhausted.
At his request, Widow Blair had returned to the laundry, not long after he had finished tending to Holmes' injuries; Holmes himself, freed from his restraints and finally clean, had fallen deeply asleep while Watson was still dressing his ankle. As arranged, Widow Blair had procured a room for them while he worked, and brought two sturdy lads with her to carry Holmes' stretcher; Holmes had not even stirred when they picked him up.
Now the detective was in his bed, still naked but buried under several blankets; the sound of his breathing, slow and deep, filled the little room. It was warm, thanks to the little woodstove nestled in one corner, and completely dark except for a single beam of moonlight coming through the window. The light glimmered on the edge of a bottle, and a glass, and a plate, all sitting on the little table between the room's two beds.
Watson, for his part, sat on the edge of his own mattress, his shoes off and braces undone, his shirt half-unbuttoned. He'd managed to finish the plate and one glass of wine before fatigue overtook him; but he hadn't quite finished undressing before his hands had started to shake. Now he slouched forward, his forearms braced on his knees, as he waited for the reaction to pass.
It was always like this for him, always had been; under fire he was cool and collected - or sharp and demanding, if need be - when he held a patient's life in his hands, nothing else mattered, and nothing frightened him. But once the patient was stable, once his instincts finally registered that the danger was past - well, that was when the tension, the worry, the care, call it what you will, finally caught up to him. He'd break into a sweat, his heart would race, and his hands would tremble beyond his capacity to contain them. Sometimes he would even come close to tears, if the reaction were particularly strong.
It was always stronger when the patient in question was Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes. They'd searched, and Watson had barely slept, had forgotten to eat, while they hunted his friend. But they found him, and alive; and Watson had seen to it that he'd make a full recovery; now they were indoors and warm, and safe, so now Watson could finally let himself feel: the dread, the "what ifs", the shock when he first laid eyes on Holmes and saw what had been done to him, all the desperation and anguish that had been lying in wait for the past two days.
It was good that Holmes was asleep, he thought; the man was so collected, always in control, no doubt he'd scorn such a display of weakness if he ever caught Watson trembling like a maid in the aftermath of disaster. Watson sighed. Let him scoff; for all his skill, and there was no doubt that he'd saved lives in his own way, he'd never done it with a scalpel in his hand, blood up to his elbows and bombs exploding all around him. For that matter, he'd never pulled a living child from a dead mother's womb in a genteel manor house, either.
He hoped Holmes wouldn't see him like this, ever, but if it happened he wouldn't apologize. In a way, Watson welcomed the reaction, once it came; it was how he knew the crisis was truly over.
Eventually, his hands stilled; he finished undressing, pulled a nightshirt out of his valise, and collapsed into bed.
It is dark.
It is silent.
He is in pain.
He is lying on his side, and when he shifts his arms encounter resistance, something trapping them to his sides.
It is happening again; perhaps it never stopped.
He remembered Watson; or perhaps he hallucinated him. He feels feverish, hot and sweaty and weak. The nothing looms, the abyss at the bottom of which is only madness.
With a gasp, Holmes jerks against his bonds. Agony stabs into his lower back, and his eyes -
His eyes fly open.
Data, he thinks. I need - but his eyes are ahead of him, already darting about, and his ears are registering sounds as his nose is collecting scent, and for an instant, it is all too much after his enforced isolation; too much of everything, coming at him like this after such a long time with nothing.
He is panting slightly, overwhelmed, and for a moment the walls smell gray and the blankets sound bright, and the light is slightly scratchy. He screws his eyes shut, holding his breath for the space of a few heartbeats, willing himself back into calm, or at least into a state that heads in that general direction. It isn't the first time that Holmes has experienced such a thing, but the episodes are rare, and disconcerting, to say the least.
One thing at a time, then.
Auditory: Sparrows scold one another somewhere nearby; below him, male voices converse, the words indistinct, punctuated by the scrape and echo of horseshoes plodding slowly across an enclosed courtyard. Burning wood shifts in its grate, sending up sparks with a faint crackle.
Olfactory: He exhales, and on his next breath in he notes the scent of wool and clean linen, the hot-metal odor of a small stove, and the faintest hint of wood polish. Equally importantly, he does not smell burlap, nor stale urine, artifacts of his recent captivity.
Optical: He opens his eyes cautiously, confused at first when all he takes in is an expanse of dull blankness. He blinks, and realizes he is staring at a wall, dimly lit, the plaster painted some pale color that registers as cream or gray in the pre-dawn light.
Looking down his body, he is relieved, and a little sheepish, to discover that his arms are pinned simply because he is in bed, and has gotten himself tangled among the blankets. There are quite a lot of them; he pulls himself free carefully - movement is still painful - and confirms that yes, beneath the linen, he is entirely nude barring a few bandages here and there. There is discomfort of another sort as he remembers Watson - so it wasn't a hallucination, then, he thinks - removing his soiled clothes and bathing him, sponge-bathing him of all things, wiping him clean from head to toe.
Wincing, he manages to turn over to look at the rest of the room. There is the stove, in the corner; there, the window through which he can hear the birds and the stablehands. Along the far wall is a wardrobe with one door hanging crookedly on its hinges, and a small table with two stools, holding what appears from his vantage point to be only one plate and a partially drunk bottle of wine. Here is a little side table with a pitcher and washbasin, and a mirror that reflects nothing from this angle; there is a second bed, with a blue coverlet, and in it lies Dr. Watson, still fast asleep.
Holmes lay in bed for as long as he could stand it. He was a bit nonplussed at first when the light began to dim rather than brighten, until the pattering of rain and a far-off rumble of thunder cleared the matter up for him. Watson slept through it, even through the heaviest part of the rain, when the thunder sounded nearby and the rain hissed on the cobblestones. Holmes would have preferred to rest longer as well, but the trickling water reminded him, only too forcefully, that he needed to find a toilet first.
He managed to get himself upright, sitting on the edge of the bed with the blankets rumpled across his lap, but anything more was beyond him for the time being. The injury to his back was sending hateful telegrams all along his nerves every time he so much as shifted his weight; the back of his head had commenced its pounding again, and this time it came accompanied by a throb in his face that was making him dizzy. His knee and ankle were no better, both swollen and clearly unable to take his weight. For that matter, he had to use one arm even to support himself while seated, and the muscles there were beginning to tremble.
It would be embarrassing to have to wake Watson and ask for his help, he thought; on the other hand, it would be completely humiliating to wake the doctor by crashing to the floor as soon as he attempted to stand. He sighed, and chose the lesser evil.
"Watson," he said. His voice was still hoarse but otherwise none the worse for his ordeal, but Watson didn't even stir.
"Watson," he called, a little louder. No response; Holmes narrowed his eyes in impatience. When had the man become such a heavy sleeper? "Watson!"
His friend stirred, and Holmes sat a little straighter on the bed; but he only rolled over with a heavy sigh before settling once more.
Annoyed, Holmes scooped up his pillow in one trembling arm, hissing when the motion sent tongues of lightning down each leg; mustering his strength he heaved the cushion as hard as he could, all of five feet, to land on his partner's head.
The effect was dramatic, and entirely satisfactory.
"I've already told you, I'm well enough to travel."
"And I've already told you, repeatedly, that you are not." Watson repressed a sigh and continued preparing Holmes' tea, keeping his back to the man currently sulking in bed.
"I think I have a better understanding of my pain tolerance than you do, old chap, as it is, after all, my body that is injured and not yours."
"I've no doubt you can ignore pain, Holmes," said Watson. "I've seen you do it before; likewise I've no doubt about your abilities as an actor. However," he glanced over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised, "I would find your protests much easier to believe if you didn't go chalk-white every time you attempted to stand." Two strides took him to Holmes' side, tea in hand. "Drink."
"I suppose you've drugged it to keep me from defying your wishes," Holmes muttered.
"Why no," he replied, "I haven't, but that's a brilliant idea and I'll be sure to take it into account next time." Holmes glared; he could terrify criminals and intimidate the best and bravest of Scotland Yard with that look when the mood was upon him - and, Watson thought, it certainly was upon him now - but long exposure to his friend's quirks had rendered the good doctor immune. No doubt to Holmes' eternal vexation, he added mentally.
Fuming, Holmes brought the cup to his lips, clearly intending to toss the entire thing back in one go so he could slap the cup dramatically into Watson's hand, or send it flying across the room. Instead, he froze with a tiny gasp, his eyes going wide and tightening the fingers of both hands as another spasm swept through him. Watson watched, keeping his expression neutral, as Holmes adjusted his posture, took a deep breath, and sipped his tea with something more closely approximating his usual dignity.
"Don't say it," he growled in an undertone.
"Don't say that you told me so. Don't remind me how often you've warned me against sudden movements, and for the love of heaven don't tell me that I'd recover all the more quickly if I were to just listen to you." Moving gingerly, he managed to bring the half-full cup down to rest in his lap.
"Wouldn't dream of it," said Watson. "For one thing, it wouldn't do any good. You're an appalling patient, you know."
Holmes ignored this with regal disdain. "At least tell me where my clothes have gotten to."
"I had them burned." Holmes opened his mouth, and Watson held up a hand to forestall him. "Don't be ridiculous; they were beyond salvaging even before I cut them apart."
"Watson! How am I to get out of here if I can't even get dressed?" he hissed, his face frozen in a blend of outrage, indignation, and embarrassment that Watson couldn't help but find amusing. It was a petty vengeance, but given the way his patient had been acting all morning, Watson fancied that he'd rather earned it.
"But you can't even get dressed," he replied. "You tried to put on my slippers and nearly passed out. That's rather the point."
"Is this how you intend to keep me here, then? You think I won't be able to leave because you've rendered me-" Holmes stopped, a flush beginning to spread across his bruised face.
"What, naked?" said Watson mildly.
Holmes said nothing. Watson let him stew for a moment, then he sighed.
"It would serve you right, you know," he finally said. "As it happens, I anticipated the need before I came after you. You've a full change of clothing in my valise."
Holmes closed his eyes, leaning into his pillows and resting his head against the board. "Ah. I see." He sighed wearily and turned his face toward the wall. "Thank you, then," he murmured.
"You're welcome," said Watson quietly. "Now - why don't you tell me what's really bothering you?"
"Nothing is the matter whatever," said Holmes. Watson frowned at the monotone creeping into his speech; always, when his friend fell into one of his blacker moods, the life would drain out of his voice just as it did from his expressions, as he faded into listlessness and apathy.
"Nonsense," said Watson. "You seem entirely too eager to return to London, despite being in no condition to travel. I know you realize the shape you're in, even if you don't like it. What I don't understand is why."
"I've risked my health before," he replied.
"In the middle of a case, yes," Watson pointed out. "This is different."
"You think I have no case?" said Holmes bitterly.
"On the contrary," said Watson. "But you of all people ought to recognize the tactical importance of beginning your pursuit in fighting condition, even if you do tend to drive yourself to exhaustion once you've begun. Even then, weariness and self-starvation are not nearly so detrimental when you are chasing ruffians through the street."
He rested a hand on his friend's arm. "Holmes," he said gently, "you can barely stand. How in the world could you expect to handle even one of these men in a fight?"
"I would manage," he flared. "I should have been able to before. I should have been able to escape on my own. I should've -" He cut off with a cry, followed by a hiss of pain. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists in the blankets, knuckles going white with the strain.
"Easy, old man," Watson murmured, helping him to lie back. Holmes did not appear to hear him, his face turning red, then white with agony as the spasm rippled through his lower back. He gulped, throwing an arm across his eyes, rigid with pain and keening, low in his throat, as his legs twitched involuntarily.
The fit passed, and Holmes went limp, panting in uneven, shuddering gasps. His hands shook as he passed them over his face, and his chest shone with sweat. "I hate this," he said conversationally, his voice muffled behind his hands.
"I know," said Watson. Holmes swallowed once, twice, his adam's apple bobbing under pale skin as he fought to regain his calm.
"I hate this," he said again. He rubbed his knuckles across reddened eyelids, glancing at Watson once before turning away.
"I know," repeated Watson. "You were saying something just now, before you were interrupted."
"I was saying that I hate this," snapped Holmes, but it was clear his heart wasn't in the protest.
"No, that wasn't it," he replied. "If I understand you correctly, you seem most upset not at what was done to you, but at the fact you were unable to manage entirely on your own. Am I right?"
"They were thugs," said Holmes. "I should have been able to see through their ruse in the alley, before they even struck." He turned to look at Watson again, his eye's searching his friend's face for understanding. "And then afterward - there is no reason I should not have managed to get away from them - they left me alone for hours, Watson - there is no reason I couldn't have -" he stopped, unable to meet Watson's gaze. "No reason, none, none at all," he said, half to himself.
"You mean apart from being concussed and chained to the floor?" Watson retorted. "I saw where you were being held, you know; I also saw that there were at least six of them against you. No matter how high an opinion you may have of yourself, old boy, you are still human. There are limits to your capabilities."
"They took everything," he whispered, "and I hate them for it."
"What do you mean?"
He struggled to sit up, his face tight with anger. "They - how do I - very well, a metaphor. Find the world's greatest marksman, Watson. Find him, and stand him in front of a simple target, something he could hit in his sleep if he so wished. Then take away his gun. Put the bullet in his hand, if you like, only make certain he has no pistol, no rifle, nothing whatsoever with which to fire it, and see how he fares." He settled back into the pillows, reaching for his cup of tea with shaking hands. "That is what they did to me, Watson. I do not know whom I hate more, them, or myself for permitting it to happen."
Watson was silent for a moment, chin in hand. Finally he said, "If I may, Holmes, I daresay that while your metaphor is apt, it is also not entirely correct. I don't deny that your mind is a powerful weapon indeed, but that's just it. They didn't take that away from you, they only made it difficult - nearly impossible - for you to use it. If you like, they took the bullets out of your pistol so that you couldn't fire it at them, as you certainly would have given half a chance, and as they certainly deserve."
Holmes looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "But to permit myself to be disarmed in such a manner," he began.
"And there is something else, come to think of it," countered Watson. "You are so accustomed to thinking of yourself as unique, and perhaps you are; however, that is not the same thing as having only one weapon at your disposal. It only means that yours is the sharpest."
"We were talking of guns," sniffed Holmes.
"Hush. We are using metaphors and we are talking about your abilities, which these brutes worked carefully to disable. At the very least you may take comfort in the fact that they did not underestimate your skills," he pointed out. "But they made the same error in judgment that you did, and that is to assume that you had only your own mind, your own singular blade or gun or bullets or whatever you prefer, at your disposal. And that, my dear boy, is simply not the case, whether you wish to admit it or not."
"I do not reside in two bodies, so far as I know," muttered Holmes.
"Don't be dense," said Watson. "It doesn't become you. You did not escape on your own, true, but you were found. I found you. How do you think that occurred? Luck? Now you insult me and my skills, which you trained."
"You've been adding weapons to your arsenal from the very beginning of your career, you arrogant fool," said Watson with a smile. "Your own Irregulars serve as eyes and ears when your own do not suffice, and have for years; in this case they served as your voice as well, since they not only witnessed the attack on your person, they had the wit to notify me immediately upon uncovering your whereabouts. Not to mention the fact that you've depended on my right arm, my own revolver quite literally, for some time now. And you've managed to provide at least rudimentary instruction to half the London constabulary in how to preserve the scene of a crime, inspect it for evidence, and identify and follow tracks. You would have been quite pleased with Clarkey's efforts, come to that."
"I - Yes, I see," said Holmes. "Forgive me, Watson. The thought simply never occurred to me."
"I am making allowances for you on account of your injury," said Watson, "but I should be grateful if you were to remember in future that you do not operate in a vacuum."
Clouds were scudding across the afternoon sky, pushed by a brisk wind; it was early yet, but Watson had lit the lamps and was sitting at the table, when Holmes' voice startled him.
"What are you doing?" His voice was husky and slurred a little, but his eyes when Watson turned to look at him were alert enough. He lay on his side, legs bent and head pillowed in the crook of one arm; the angle hid the worst of his bruises, and the lamplight gave his bare arms a golden tone.
"Hullo," said Watson. "I'm sorry, I thought you were still asleep."
"I was," he replied, with the slightest roll of his shoulder. "You didn't wake me, never fear; in fact, I think I might almost be hungry, a little."
"You're in luck, then," said the doctor. "We've cold roast chicken and good bread with butter, or I'm told that dinner will be roast lamb and peas if you care to wait for it."
"Either would be acceptable," said Holmes, "though I refuse to eat without at least wearing a pair of drawers and a dressing gown."
"That can be arranged," said Watson with a smile. He reached across and opened the room's tiny wardrobe. "If you take it slowly and carefully, you might even be ready to sit at the table."
"How civilized," he drawled. "But not likely, I'm afraid. Perhaps for breakfast tomorrow - which reminds me: what day is it?" He frowned thoughtfully, sliding his feet out of bed and lowering them, carefully, until he could feel the floorboards with his toes. "It was Thursday when I stepped out on my errands, as I recall, but I fear the time has quite gotten away from me since then."
"It's Saturday," Watson replied. He dropped the clothing on Holmes' pillow, bending low to wrap his arms about the taller man's chest. "Your man Short Henry Cromwell raised the alarm, and got word to me Thursday afternoon; we interrupted our search a little after midnight, then started up again as soon as the freight rail office opened Friday morning." He waited till Holmes was upright, then stepped back, looking at his hands. "I'm sorry to say we didn't find you till nearly sunset."
"More than twenty-four hours," Holmes breathed. "I never would have guessed it was so long." He pulled the dressing gown up over one shoulder, wincing a little as he put his arms through the sleeves. "But you didn't answer my question."
"Hm? Ah, yes," said Watson. "We've received a few telegrams; I was just looking them over and trying to decide how best to respond."
Holmes was reaching for his underdrawers, so Watson turned his back, stepping across to the table and picking up the messages. "I'd sent the constables home with messages to deliver, and instructions as to the scene of the crime - or scenes, rather," he said over his shoulder. "I have one message from Clarkey telling me that both the alley and the customs house have been barricaded until you can have a closer look at them. Let's see... Mrs. Hudson thanks me for letting her know that we're both all right, asks if she should send anything, and informs us that Inspector Lestrade has come to call; and finally - how interesting - Lestrade himself wishes you a speedy recovery and asks me to notify him as soon as you are well enough for a consultation."
"Does he say why?"
"Indeed he does. In fact he sent two telegrams, one to each of us, and I daresay yours is the more interesting. I don't suppose the investigation of multiple arson falls within your areas of expertise?"
"Multiple, you say?"
"One on Thursday, or two if you count the customs house where you were being held; then two more yesterday, and another as of noon today, when he sent the wire. He also says that, excepting the customs house, all four fires appear to have been set in a similar manner."
"Fascinating," said Holmes. His voice had taken on a dangerous edge. "Did I tell you earlier that the men who took me were so generous as to volunteer their motives for doing so?"
Watson turned around, his eyebrows raised.
"They told me that they had work to be about, and needed me out of the way while they did it." His eyes were alight in his battered face. "Arson is messy work, old boy, and risky besides - one cannot hang about to make certain all traces of one's activity have been erased by the fire. Interesting coincidence, the timing of these fires, don't you think?"
"I doubt that it is coincidence at all," said Watson, beginning to catch his friend's excitement.
"Wire Lestrade," commanded Holmes. "Have him come tonight, if he can, or first thing tomorrow if he must. He will bring with him certain of my books, which you will wire Mrs. Hudson to prepare; and you should be ready to return to London on my behalf. I may send you back with Lestrade, in fact."
"Employing your weapons, I take it?"
"Indeed. You were entirely correct, Watson, and I applaud you for it. These scoundrels have made a grievous error in judgment in thinking that they have rendered me ineffective. Lestrade and the rest shall be my hands, the Irregulars shall be my eyes and ears, and you shall be all of that and more - my legs, my voice, and my proxy in all things, until I recover.
"Let them continue in the belief that they were successful; let them believe they have neutralized the threat I represent to them; it was you, my good man, who showed me that they are mistaken in that belief. I intend to see to it that their mistake costs them more dearly than they ever imagined.
"Now, where is that roast chicken you promised me? Fill the plate, if you please; I am starving."
I wrote this sometime beginning early February and ending around April of 2010. It was originally posted on the Sherlock Holmes Kinkmeme on LiveJournal.
It's my first post to FFnet and I am still figuring out formatting and such, so please let me know if there are any problems with reading it. At the moment I'm trying to get it not to be one giant one-shot, but I don't know how well that's working.
Reviews are, of course, always appreciated.