'What a lovely thing a rose is! There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.'
Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.
To Holmes' annoyance, Watson brings his volume of The Complete Works of Shakespeare to read on the Woking train. This is not normally an issue, despite his atrocious taste in reading material, as Watson never reads aloud unless requested. This time, however, the play that the doctor is currently perusing catches Holmes' eye: Romeo and Juliet. A familiar work, painfully remembered from his Oxford days, thanks to a seeming throng of limelight-hungry hams masquerading as professors of English literature.
The Bard is rather like society, he muses: excellent in small, select doses, nauseating in large quantities. As for that particular work, remarkable only for its revolting sentimentality, he wishes his friend joy of it, provided Watson doesn't feel the need to share the bounty.
They arrive at Briarbrae to find that not only the grounds but also the house is entirely given over to roses. Unbidden, a line from the scorned play passes through Holmes' mind: That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Blindingly obvious, one would have thought, with no bearing on the matter at hand, and therefore completely irrelevant. So why can he not dislodge the quote from its inconvenient perch at the back of his brain?
Watson's delight is apparent as he introduces his old schoolfellow, Percy Phelps. As Holmes shakes hands with the pale and worn young man, another strange thought occurs. In all the time he has known the doctor, this is the first time Watson has ever taken him to meet… well… anyone. Out of all of their mutual acquaintances, only one has not required Holmes to perform introductions: Stamford, on that fateful first meeting.
As they listen to the particulars of the case, it becomes clearer what sort of a man the diplomat is, and why he and Watson were such friends at school. The detective wonders idly what Watson was like back in his youth, and is surprised to feel a pang of envy towards Phelps, envy that is curiously tinged with sympathy. To someone who remembers Watson as a boy, how must it feel to compare that memory with the reality of the man before him?
After his ordeal in Maiwand, how much of that energetic, hopeful youth is truly left of his friend? Only Phelps can tell, but Holmes knows better than to ask. The past is another country, he reminds himself sternly. Whatever version of the doctor it is who walks with him now, he would never trade him for the younger, scars and nightmares notwithstanding.
As Phelps concludes his account of the mystery, Holmes' gaze darts to where Watson sits, leaning over his journal, scribbling the last notes, injured leg extended slightly. The detective closes his eyes and sits immobile, masking any outward sign of the sudden wave of gratitude that washes over him: gratitude to whatever powers that be, God or otherwise, that have seen fit to throw the two of them together.
It could so easily have been different, the variables infinite and too horrifying to contemplate, even for Holmes. Yet here they are, living and working side by side - much to the bewilderment of those around them, particularly the Yarders, familiar as they are with Holmes' anti-social demeanour. Any of them, if asked at the beginning, would have laid odds that the abrasive, lone-eagle detective would part ways with his poor, unsuspecting fellow lodger within a month.
Whatever Providence is responsible for sparking this unlikely partnership, they must surely be goodness itself. For it is only goodness which gives extras... and yet...
Although he cannot say when, or how, or even why it happened, this particular extra has become a necessity, as much a part of his life as the air he breathes. His doctor, his Boswell, his friend and brother-in-arms, is the one luxury he cannot do without.
A rose by another name… is John Watson.
Sorry this one took so long! Pinning Holmes' thoughts down on paper is like trying to corner Moriarty at a crime scene. R&R, please!
PS: To canon readers wondering why I've left all mention of Mary out, I forgot this adventure was set after Watson's marriage until I'd finished writing. So just think of this as an AU timeline where the Sign of Four case hasn't happened – yet! You can put those tomatoes down…