"It is all too tiresome!" Dimmock said, finding refuge in his handkerchief, liberally sprinkled with cologne. "I'm just as much your family as Irene, and yet you stay at home with her and Mummy all day when you could be visiting here!"
Sherlock knew himself to be ill-blessed with patience, but he did his best to humour the whims of his half-brother, who seemed to have determined that a lack of a father had cast him utterly adrift. Sherlock forbore from noting that he'd been quite young himself when Sir Anders had died, and that even before that fateful christening, Sir Anders had hardly been the model of a doting father. Still, he reminded himself that Dimmock's mother was little better than an idiot, and that the boy had had no strong figure such as Lord Mycroft protecting him. "Have you need of me?" Sherlock enquired.
"It is not as though I have been coughing for my own amusement, brother!" Dimmock exclaimed, exercising his much-abused throat unnecessarily. Sherlock sighed and congratulated himself on the foresight that had prompted him to pack the cures of his own devising by which his brother swore.
"Let me fetch the proper tincture," he said, then nearly ran into his sister-in-law, who had entered the room silently and unacknowledged by her husband. "My dear, it's good to see you looking so hale at least," he said; much as he loathed such badinage, he had learnt that most people simply could not function without it, and so he partook to avoid inconvenience.
"Sherlock," Molly said, a flush lighting her face. "Have you heard? We're to have guests tonight, in addition to you, of course."
Sherlock had planned, under the guise of tending to his brother, to escape to the conservatory to study the hothouse flowers upon which the late Mrs. Hooper had depended for much of her cheer, but Molly's calculating eye warned him that his brother would be needed to make up the numbers for dinner. "I had not. Should I not stay behind and nurse Dimmock?"
"I'd forgotten those chaps were due today!" Dimmock cried, emerging from under his handkerchief. "Do you know, I believe I shall be able to converse this evening if I'm granted some rest before they arrive."
"Of course, my dear," Molly soothed.
"I've nothing to wear that's fit for company," Sherlock said, seeking refuge away from a boisterous party.
"You always look very well," Molly contradicted, as she privately thought that the loss of Sherlock's bloom over the years only made him look all the more fascinating and singular.
There was no point trying to glean information about the guests from Miss Anthea, whose chatter was voluble without ever once touching upon any sensible information. And Miss Sally had perhaps forgiven him for his coldness toward her sister but was not ready to act the confidante. It made no matter; this dinner would be one more interruption in his work, at which he laboured diligently though without any sense of satisfaction. One lost man in a world of men ought not to have made such a difference, he knew, but, oh, it did. He longed for John, who had whistled because Sherlock had made him happy, whose voice had spoken of love even when his lips shaped the prosaic word "vinegar," whose faith in Sherlock had been absolute. Even as he longed, Sherlock knew that the John who had received his letter might be very different indeed: wounded, certainly, as per the lists, but perhaps wary and cold too, after reading the letter Sherlock had written in his own heart's blood.
John had deserved better at his hands than to be pushed away without ceremony.
Sherlock dressed with indifferent care and lingered too long in the conservatory, not working but just refreshing himself with the varied fragrances of the roses. When he belatedly made his way to the drawing-room, he caught sight of a long back in a navy-blue frockcoat and paused inelegantly; he had not anticipated that the guest would be a naval man. The man turned, revealing a handsome but unknown face, and Sherlock sketched a hasty bow, but his relief at not recognising the naval officer was premature, for he heard, from one side of him, the voice that he would have known amongst a thousand others, and he went hot and then cold at the realisation that John Watson was less than five feet from him.
He bowed again in John's direction to give himself a moment's respite but then stood and bravely faced the man. Eight years had done nothing to temper John's beauty, born of good health and good cheer, and his captain's blue did marvellous things to his lovely eyes. Sherlock looked at the body he'd once clasped to his and saw the slight stiffness evident, even beneath the thick wool of the uniform, of John's left shoulder. In John's eyes he read shock and blushed for his own precipitous decline.
And yet, there was cause for some cheer; never again would he have to endure such a trying ordeal. "It is over," Sherlock said to himself when John offered his arm to Miss Anthea to escort her into dinner. "Our first meeting as men has happened, and I am still standing, still capable of thought. Whether he thought fondly of me all this time is surely insignificant; he could never love me as I am now."
It turned out that the handsome fellow – Captain Lestrade, though John familiarly called him "Gregory" – was a cousin of the late Mr. Hooper, and that since their merry band had lost one member, a man called "Harry," to marriage and an exceedingly beautiful wife, John and Lestrade had not let time or distance divide them. Sherlock instantly was awash in jealousy of Lestrade for keeping such splendid company and of the unnamed bride for winning John's evident approval. He wondered why they had chosen to stay at the Hoopers' rather than with their friend, but presumed a change of scenery had been advisable; Lestrade's marks of mourning were subtle but unmistakable.
He wished to close his ears to all of it – Dimmock's whine, the gaiety of the younger Hooper sisters, and Lestrade's earnest discussion with Molly of their shared genealogy – and simply listen to John's melodious voice. He was discussing the Navy with the Misses Hooper, who urged him to speak of the "brave boys" on the seas; Sherlock longed to hear more but dared not make his interest known, lest he should earn another pitying glance from John.
"The men of the navy are the bravest I've ever known," John agreed amiably, "and the women too."
"Ship followers, you mean?" Anthea asked.
"Nay, did not you know that for some years, women have been permitted to join the navy in their own person, and rise through the ranks? My sister – my friend, rather, close enough to be a sister – is one of them, and the fiercest warrior I've ever seen. There's no one can beat Captain Harville for prizes." So "Harry" was a woman, Sherlock realised, and more importantly, John had continued to find and claim his family as he journeyed through life. In all that generous heart, was there no more room for him?
"Unnatural," Dimmock expostulated. "Why should a woman wish to fight? What sort of husband would allow his wife to wear breeches and hose?"
"Harry hasn't a husband," John responded with equanimity. "She's wed to a woman –"
"Truly?" Sally asked. "I hadn't known – we hear so little from London –"
"You must know this much, Miss Sally," John said, smiling gallantly, "that there are some women so lovely that anyone with a heart open to love must wish to woo them, be the beholder male or female. You of course are one such, and Harry's Clara is another." Sherlock writhed inwardly at John's words, directed at another but still burnt into his warehouse of a brain.
"There was a female pirate, too, wasn't there? Not very long ago?" Molly put in, characteristically hesitant.
"She wasn't a pirate but a sailor. Rebecca Young, or rather, to give her the name under which she sailed, Billy Bridle," Sherlock said after a pause in which both of the naval gentlemen racked their brains for the name of a female pirate. "She died in 1833."
"I say, you've a mind like a miscellany," Captain Lestrade stated and Sherlock expected some witty rejoinder from one of the Misses Hooper, still leaning close to John like flies round a honeypot, but John simply pronounced, "Say, encyclopaedia, rather, and you'll be nearer the mark; it appears to all be carefully organised."
Sherlock felt flames light on his cheeks at the distant praise. How he longed for John to give those words full meaning and let him know he was truly forgiven! A heart open to love was what he had thrown away, and now, it was what beat futilely in his chest. "A newspaper article caught my eye," he demurred, and soon the meal was done.
For his part, John had heard the name "Sherlock" from Dimmock upon entering the room and prepared himself for an onslaught of the beauty and charm he remembered; he was dismayed at the vision of ill-health he found. What had happened to his poor darling, that his skin had gone from pearl to chalk, his eyes from sparkling to dull, his figure from soft and elastic to gaunt and brittle? John bowed to Sherlock as if meeting him for the first time, and indeed it felt as if a stranger stood in the place of the boy and man he'd loved so well.
He had expected a splendid man matched with a beautiful and accomplished husband or wife, or perhaps an intensely learned man with no time to devote to matters of the heart; Sherlock's letter had been quite clear that John had not met his standards as a lover or even a friend. But this haggard, unhappy figure was beyond John's comprehension, and he could not blame Gregory's hesitancy in speaking of him once they removed to the cottage that had been set aside for their particular use.
"So that was your Sherlock?" Gregory asked whilst drying his face, allowing the words to be muffled in the cloth.
"Indeed, but so altered I might have passed him on the street and not known him!" John wondered aloud. "Always in my mind he had the fresh glow of youth, that perfect ripening beauty. Care has weighed heavily on him since last I saw him."
"Come, come!" Gregory expostulated. "The boy seduced you into a declaration and then gave you up the next day; you must not be mastered by that tender heart of yours again, John."
John's private hope had been that Sherlock had been induced to break with him, but Lestrade's decisive words forced him to acknowledge the unlikelihood of so brilliant and headstrong a person as Sherlock being persuaded to disobey his own sweet will. He took his own turn at the ewer and determined to pursue a different topic. "How have you found your cousins? Do you remember them from long-ago days?"
"Molly, perhaps; there was a brown-haired child here when last I visited on leave, but the existence of the other two was surprise enough. Their father was a good man, of stern sense. Unless I'm much mistaken, Miss Sally's inherited his character and her mother's looks. She was quite the belle of the county in her day."
"Miss Sally's looks are most pleasing," John acknowledged; "there is something very fine in her eyes, and her intelligence is quite evident."
"Not but what Miss Anthea is most agreeable," Gregory said, recalling her unconscious and bewitching trick of letting her mouth fall open in mingled excitement and dread as he told – and, naturally, embellished – a tale of the hardships he'd undergone whilst defending the Fox against England's most bloodthirsty enemies.
"Yes," John agreed as a matter of course, though his mind was elsewhere.
A shooting-party should undoubtedly have been got up for the amusement of the two captains, had both not pronounced themselves disinclined to handle firearms on dry land. Sherlock had rather hoped they would go out and shoot, that he might have some cover for the thunderous beating of his heart whenever John was in proximity. In vain did he tell himself to consider all of this as an experiment in what stimulus was necessary to make his skin tingle with anticipation: was it the sound of John's voice, the heat of his body next to Sherlock's, or merely the sight of him caught by Sherlock's disobedient eyes in a series of gold-and-blue glimpses?
Still, some pastime must be offered, to show that the Hoopers were not entirely provincial, and as the weather had disobliged by being very wet and muddy, a ramble over the green and pleasant land of their holdings was declared impossible. Sherlock mutinously thought to himself that a solitary walk in the rain sounded positively restful, but could not take himself off without exciting comment. Finally Miss Anthea suggested a dance, with the ladies refreshing the memories of the naval gentlemen on the matter of the dances of their earlier youth, and the captains instructing the ladies on the latest fads from across the globe. As there were fewer ladies than gentlemen, Sherlock was asked to provide the music, and a servant brought the violin.
Playing his beloved violin had never been so dangerous a pastime, Sherlock reflected; John had once upon a time read him as easily as he would the freshly cut pages of a novel, and surely the music he made would speak just as directly to John's ready ear. Sherlock resolved not to allow any yearning tones to emanate from the instrument, playing instead a series of sprightly, quick-tempo melodies suitable for dancing. His eyes tracked John's upright figure, gliding through the movements with both gaiety and grace, though his shoulder was evidently not up to the stretching required by the ländler; by some stroke of luck or even intelligence – Sherlock grit his teeth as he had to acknowledge her claim to that quality – Sally had divined his injury and made a most elegant substitution so that her hand curled around the nape of John's neck, just touching the soft strands of his hair, rather than forcing his to meet hers high above their heads.
John, touched by Sally's delicacy and imagination, smiled on her warmly as their dance continued for a few measures more and then ended. During the applause for the musician, he felt his smile slipping at the sight of Sherlock, cheeks lit with a hectic flush and knuckles white with some tension. All of the medical instincts John had honed under Dr. Murray warned that Sherlock was seriously ill. He gave Sally's hands a gentle squeeze and left her, walking towards Sherlock, whose glassy eyes evidently saw him not. He tried to think solely as the doctor might, uncurling Sherlock's long fingers from the polished wood of the instrument, catching it as it fell from Sherlock's grasp. John felt his own neck redden as Sherlock's gaze went from soft to sharp and focused on him. "I fear you are unwell. Permit me to ring for a servant." Sherlock said nothing, and John doubted his own judgement when he was this close to the man he'd dreamt of for years that had been long and lonely.
"Sherlock can't be ill; he's our apothecary!" Dimmock cried, a foolish laugh breaking the declaration in two, and John kept determined hold of his temper.
"Then he has overtaxed his strength," John said firmly, uncaring how poor his manners were. The moment he raised his eyes to Sherlock's, however, Sherlock averted his gaze. So Sherlock felt he could very well do without any interference, John saw, feeling it like a blow. "My apologies; I have overstepped," he said, retreating one pace, bowing to the room before quitting it. He only realised once he crossed the threshold of the cottage that he still had hold of Sherlock's violin.
He set it carefully down on the nearest table, gritted his teeth, and made ready to apologise. Gregory's grey head appeared not very many minutes later. Before he could say a word, Gregory spoke. "I have made your excuses to the Hoopers."
"I should not have –"
"What? You should not have reached out a hand to help someone who needed you?" Gregory asked, surprising John into silence. "You would not be John Watson if you refrained. I have said nothing to you, but I would not have you think I am ignorant of how great a service you rendered me when you ensured that you were the one to bring me word that Sarah was dead. Harry I could not have borne just then – why should she be happy with one sister whilst I had lost the other? But you had lost someone too, and your care for me during those darkest days kept me afloat. Nay," he said, raising his hand, "I do not speak it only to have you deny it. Believe me, I beg of you, when I say you owe no apologies or excuses for your conduct then or now."
"I had realised," John said slowly, "that sojourning with Harry and Clara would likely be painful for you, but I had hoped – there has been an ease evident in your manner when you are tête-à-tête with Miss Anthea – I thought perhaps –"
"Do you see?" Gregory asked, a low laugh escaping his lips. "You are still seeking to mend me. I do find Anthea's company restful; her chatter is so inane as to allow me to pursue my own thoughts, which I assure you have not strayed far from what I have lost. Miss Sally enquired after the cause of your solicitous care of me, in fact."
"That girl sees much more than I had intended to reveal," John answered, chagrined at his own evident transparency. "Then she must also have seen –?"
"Nay, Mr. Sherlock Holmes is still too unaccountable to them after years of his company for even Sally to have plumbed his depths; all she supposed was that he had got overheated in that close room, and that your experienced eye had seen it first." Gregory smiled ruefully before delivering himself of a final word on the matter. "I do believe that, much as I needed you then, your Sherlock needs you just as much at present."
Conscious of his long-ago promise to his godfather, Sherlock breakfasted, but did so early, before he was likely to be bothered with any company. Several letters, still sealed, lay on his desk, including one from Lord Mycroft himself. Once he sat down to his correspondence, however, he found his hand clutched a pen in vain; his thoughts were disgracefully jumbled in his mind. Had it been more than compassion that had spurred John to his act of mercy, or would he have done the same for anyone else in the room?
One glance at his looking-glass assured Sherlock that it would be mad to ascribe John's intervention to any lingering devotion; his face was sallow and there were dark hollows beneath his eyes. He resolutely turned his back on his reflection and settled down to his neglected correspondence once more.
He slit open a letter from Dr. Lennox, expecting another update on the geological survey, but found instead an invitation to contribute to that survey by exploring the inland regions of Somersetshire and sending his observations and specimens – special attention to be paid to the amphibians to whose study Sherlock had long intended to devote himself – to the team in London. His mind whirled with the possibilities. Such a purpose would give meaning to the work for which he had been persuaded to forsake John all those long years ago, and would be healthful too, as nothing ran him down as too much time indoors amongst people, rather than out in the elements, focusing on the wonders of Nature. It would cost him more than a pang to give up seeing John, but the truly wrenching break had already been made years ago, and was renewed every day that Sherlock had to look upon those lambent eyes and trim form and eat his heart in silence.
With a gladdened spirit, he picked up his pen to answer Dr. Lennox's inquiry and wrote to Lord Mycroft in much the same vein. Fortified to face even his brother's incessant complaints, he rejoined the others, who were preparing to take a picnic luncheon out to the most picturesque landscape within the Hoopers' enclosure; the scheme was urged on by Captain Lestrade, who professed to be enchanted by Miss Anthea's watercolour of the spot, which had been framed and hung in pride of place. With no intention of eating or even conversing, Sherlock allowed himself to be urged to join the party, feeling rightly that such a glorious day should not be wasted on indoor pursuits.
With the wind buffeting his body and disordering his hair, Sherlock rambled as the mood took him, though taking care to keep as much distance as possible between himself and Molly and Dimmock. His thoughts died down to a contented silence as he raised his face to the sun and basked in its heat.
But even the sunshine, sparkling though it was, could not brighten his mood when he looked up to see John's and Sally's heads close together, dark and bright nearly touching as they examined a hedge-row of nuts, or worse, the sight of the two of them speaking quietly and seriously, undisturbed by even a stiff breeze that blew one of her loosed curls onto his sturdy shoulder.
John lifted his eyes from Sally's shyly proffered sketchbook after careful consideration. "These are splendid. You are most proficient with your pencils; it is as if you have shown me what exactly my unthinking gaze has carelessly swept over."
She shook her head earnestly. "My sister's –"
"Miss Anthea's watercolours do indeed capture the feelings she experienced at the time of their painting and invite the viewer's sympathy, but yours are so finely detailed as to instruct him instead." John returned the sketchbook to her and waited for her to break the ensuing silence.
"Captain Watson," she began, for all her hesitation still looking him in the eye, "I believe I have information you will find interesting, and perhaps even useful."
"Do not tell me we are at war again, I pray; I should be loath to leave you, much though I miss the Ardent."
"This has to do with circumstances more domestic," she began, seating herself on the step of a stile that had been warmed by the sun. "I do not think you would have heard how my sister came to marry Mr. Dimmock Holmes?"
"Indeed I have not," John responded, much surprised but not displeased by the prospective confidence.
"Dimmock is well enough, but her first choice was always Sherlock; she became infatuated with him the moment he returned to Holmes Hall after so many years with his uncle. It is not to injure her that I tell you this, though I must own that I will not appear in so fine a light as I would wish."
"Sherlock Holmes turned my sister's head but accepted no responsibility; he ignored her every hint, her every sigh. She grew ill and unhappy, and for that I blamed him. I did not allow myself to acknowledge that he too was fading, perhaps even more quickly than she, for then I might have understood he was truly ignorant of the havoc he wreaked." Her fine eyes were dark and deep and soft. "It is only with your arrival that I have seen him begin to live again, and I believe the same might be said of you."
John started as all of his thoughts were pulled away from inchoate images of Sherlock with Molly and toward a realisation of how clearly his every deed and word had betrayed the state of his heart. He smiled wryly. "I told Gregory you were far too sharp-eyed not to see through me," he remarked, confounded by the rosy flush that suffused her delicate features.
"You've spoken of me to him?" she asked, eyes averted at last as she breathed quickly and raised her face to let the passing breeze cool it.
"Indeed, my dear girl," he said, smiling, enjoying the rather novel ability to reciprocate her keenness. "He has suffered a terrible loss, but he is not insensible to beauty and wit and kindness, least of all when they are joined in a single person."
"Have I cause to hope, then?" she breathed quietly, leaning toward him.
"Have I?" he asked, not daring to look in Sherlock's direction, and she gave him a slight but decided nod.
There was an understanding between John and Sally, that much Sherlock could see very well, though there had been no formal congratulations or announcements made. It was evident in the way they turned to each other first, eyes fixed on each other, whenever her family or his friend offered any remark. Sherlock felt the full weight of agony in each breath he took at the thought of John as Sally's husband, devoted and loving, his love clearly requited; he would kiss her with that wonderfully expressive and talented mouth, hold her against the pliant firmness of his browned body, and stroke her skin with roughened hands taught to be tender.
He could bear no more. "I wish you all good-night."
"Sherlock, must you really go upon this expedition?" Molly asked wistfully.
"To look at bugs and vermin?" Dimmock chimed in. "That cannot be healthy, dear brother; you had much better stay on."
Sherlock gritted his teeth. "It is a splendid opportunity offered by a man whose intellect I respect most highly. I shall spend the morrow packing and set out the following morning."
"Where will you go?" John asked, and Sherlock's breath caught at the eyes John was raising to his face, which seemed larger than ever and gleamed with emotion.
"To Bath. I am to gather information on the geological details of the area, along with indigenous flora and fauna, for a survey that will, I am confident, advance our understanding of our world."
"To Bath!" John echoed, surprised. "I have determined to journey thence myself, as my parents settled quite comfortably there some two years ago. May I accompany you?"
Sherlock's racing heart felt lodged in his throat; he could scarcely draw breath at the proposition – to have John to himself for the full day's journey, to be able to add materially to John's happiness by seeing him united once more with his parents – such felicity was inconceivable!
"To Bath! Oh, how I have longed to try the waters, though I doubt they would do much for me," Dimmock put in, and Sherlock closed his eyes, recognising the evanescence of his dream.
"Why should not we all go? Surely some lodging might be found to suit our party?" Molly asked.
"With your leave, Sherlock, we'll all join you and John," Captain Lestrade said, his tone indicating a level of disapproval; Sherlock had his answer then and resolved to put away his dreams of John for good.
"The ladies are in need of some refreshment," John said, apologetically enough that Sherlock held his tongue. "There is an inn that looks most suitable; may we stop?"
The dining-room of the inn stood empty, and the landlord seemed more than pleased to stoke the fire and bring out a plentiful cold luncheon. A picnic spirit prevailed, and the party made merry. John took charge of carving and serving the meat, and though he affected to have lost count of the number of plates he made up, Sherlock's conviction was that John had, most delicately, contrived to put a hearty portion of the meal before him; though John was undoubtedly acting as a medical authority rather than as a lover, Sherlock could not do otherwise than oblige him by partaking without complaint.
The conversation quickly turned to John's parents, who had been resident in Bath since the spring of 1835. Anthea enquired artlessly if they had had need of the healing waters, and John's face brightened as he issued a sound negative. "They have always been of good health, fortunately, and wished to spend some years in a place where they were always assured of lively society and amusements." Sherlock found in this account the solution to one small mystery that had been puzzling him; clearly John had chosen to use the bulk of the prize-money he had won to support his parents in their dotage rather than buy himself the luxuries to which he had long been unaccustomed.
"What do they do there?" Sally asked.
"You shall know as soon as I do, for I have not been in Bath since they removed there. I believe, however, that the public concerts were a significant factor in their decision to settle in Bath."
This statement provoked an animated discussion of the concerts they might attend whilst visiting the town, which was broken only by the landlord's entrance with another several dishes. "Happen there's another gentleman wanting some luncheon," he said diffidently. "Would the ladies consent to his entrance?"
A hearty affirmative being given, the landlord bowed and exited, and shortly thereafter the door admitted a gentleman of about Lestrade's height with brown hair and beard. He bowed to the company at large, and Sherlock could not help approving of his careful observation of each of them, as it had so much the air of a scientific sensibility. As the man's eyes came to rest on him, Sherlock was surprised by the smile on the man's face as much as the bow made exclusively to him. Before any one of them could enquire after the man's name, the landlord bustled back in with an individual serving-dish and the man began to eat, quickly, as though he had some further engagement before the day was done.
Sherlock smiled at the sight of ink on the man's finger and turned back to his own party, only to find John's eyes on him.
Sherlock's mouth went dry when he saw that John had, by some mysterious process, contrived to look more splendid than ever, every button of his uniform positively gleaming and reflecting the radiance of his smile. John stood with his hands clasped at the small of his back – Sherlock recalled how well that sweet hollow had fit his hands – and waited impatiently for his knock to be answered. When at last the door was opened by a woman, aged and wrinkled and yet upright and hardy, he fairly launched himself forward; Sherlock observed that John must have learnt his trick of crying merry tears from the woman he called his mother, who was even now petting and caressing him as if he had been a child still and not a captain in the Navy.
John's mother recollected herself after only a moment and declined further introductions until she had seen her guests seated and refreshed. "You must be Captain Lestrade," said her husband, whom she had summoned and who bore the tea-tray with his own gnarled hands, and Lestrade stood to greet him properly. "The likeness of you he brought home was very fine."
Sherlock saw immediately that he had been recognised as well, though neither the farmer nor his wife understood how he had come to be part of John's travelling party. He resigned himself to disappointment – their demeanour made him sure he would have been happy in their company – only to feel Mrs. Croft's hand rest maternally on his arm as she handed him his tea. He felt absurdly warmed by the gesture and gave her his best smile once she found a seat next to John; she returned it even as her hand drifted protectively toward her son.
John felt himself to be quite in his element, though he had never set foot in Bath before; his parents' calm and cheer always settled him, and it was most pleasing to be able to repay the Hoopers' hospitality. The sight of Gregory conversing animatedly with his father was one that did his heart good, and his mother's laughter was as clear and delighted as that of the Misses Hooper. Even Dimmock had, by attaching himself to his wife, contrived to join a conversational circle. It was only Sherlock who remained silent, and at the sight of him, beautiful and altogether too fine for the plain and sturdy furniture with which his parents had equipped their house, John was forcibly reminded of the difference in their stations. That man at the inn who had evidently admired Sherlock had been a gentleman, not someone whose fortunes were dependent upon his recent entry into the officer class, and Sherlock had recognised that and smiled. That the smile had been absent-minded had wounded John all the more, for when had Sherlock ever been absent-minded, forgetful of anything else whilst his work remained?
Sherlock made all possible haste to remove himself from the Crofts' house as evening fell; seeing John made much of cast his mind back to their halcyon days with a sharpness that bordered on pain. He was surprised by Captain Lestrade requesting him to delay but a moment, more so when the captain announced his intention of putting up at a nearby inn and offering to share his room with Sherlock. Molly and Dimmock would take the next room, and Sally and Anthea the third, Captain Lestrade announced – rather high-handedly – and thus the matter was settled despite the protests of the Crofts. John, of course, was to stay with them, and Sherlock could not regret the distance between them. The work needed the whole of his attention, and John disordered his mind far too easily.
In the morning, he made his simple toilet of rough clothing suited to all weathers and walked to the river, carrying his supplies with him. He felt a thrill at the thought of the species he would encounter, though of course they would not be so very different from those he had seen before on his uncle's property. He made one quick sketch of the stretch of river before him and then dipped his net gently into the water. Some fronds and fallen leaves made up the entirety of his first haul, but the rhythm of the work was soothing and beneficial.
He was sketching a small fish with pink scales – quickly, to be able to return the pretty creature to the water before it expired – when he heard an unfamiliar voice at his elbow. "I neglected to ask your name, and have wished for the opportunity to rectify my error," said the man from the inn. "I had not thought to meet you here."
Sherlock dropped the end of his net overhastily into the water, splashing the tips of the stranger's polished boots. "I beg your pardon, you startled me, sir."
"Then it is I who must beg pardon," the man said, making an elaborate bow. "Sir William Anderson, at your service."
Sherlock read what he could from the man's person. "You are also here for Dr. Lennox's survey and have come to determine the lay of the land before beginning in earnest, as you carry no equipment with you, not even a pencil for taking measurements or notes. And yet you were engaged in writing this very morning, as the ink on your forefinger and a callus on the next indicate. What, pray, is your special field?"
"I am interested in all of life," Anderson proclaimed, "and am working toward a theory that will unify the entirety of our painstakingly gathered and verified knowledge about the evolution of living creatures. But, my dear sir, you have not granted me the one piece of information I have requested."
"Sherlock Holmes," Sherlock said, flushing wretchedly at his oversight.
"A name that has long intrigued me!" Anderson exclaimed, and Sherlock frowned, not understanding and wishing the man would modulate the volume of his voice; some of the wildlife was bound to be startled by any human incursion.
"We are relations, Sherlock," Anderson said, promptly embracing him. "Your father and mine were cousins, and I have lately inherited the title that was once your sire's from my own."
Sherlock was aware that he had long neglected all of his relations, with the exception of Lord Mycroft; they held no interest for him and he assumed the reverse was true for them, else they would have descended on Holmes Hall en masse, clamouring for his attention, which was needed elsewhere. "My sister remains at Holmes Hall, but my brother is here in Bath and would be most pleased to receive you."
"Good company can never come amiss," Anderson said heartily, and Sherlock nodded politely and turned his attention back to his drawing.
By the time dusk fell, Sherlock had not made much progress in investigating the amphibian life of the river, as Anderson had remained close at hand, his observations seeming far less focused than Sherlock's, though perhaps necessarily so, given the breadth of his topic. The sun was shooting crimson beams along the water when Sherlock began to walk back to his inn, Anderson accompanying him as his own lodgings were on the same street. Along the street came an upright, manly figure cloaked in a greatcoat that emphasized the breadth of the shoulders, and Sherlock could not help but recognise John, walking with an eager step back to his parents' house, a packet of letters in his hand.
Their paths would inevitably cross, but John, engrossed in the play of dying light on the buildings, failed to see him until the last possible moment. When he came to a halt in front of Sherlock, the last of the scarlet sun drew a line across his cheek, darkening his liquid eyes. "Good evening, Sherlock," John said, and Sherlock thought that it should not be too much to ask, that he get to hear John's voice pronouncing his name each day for the rest of his life.
"Good evening, John. May I present Sir William Anderson? Sir William, Captain John Watson of His Majesty's Navy."
John's expressive face went still, leaving only a mask of politeness. "The pleasure is mine, sir," he said with a formal bow.
"No, no, good sir, it must be mine," Anderson protested, though his bow was clumsy enough to require him to make use of Sherlock's steadying hand. Before Sherlock could disengage himself, John had nodded and departed, leaving Sherlock to turn as discreetly as he could to watch the last flutterings of the greatcoat's cape as he went.
The day being characterised by heavy rains and premature darkness, Sherlock was engaged upon research of a theoretical rather than a practical bent. Captain Lestrade was occupying the writing-table, composing a lengthy missive – no, Sherlock amended, not a letter with an audience, given the speed with which he both wrote and struck the words that poured from his pen. It might be an entry in a journal. Sherlock wondered if the act of writing was in any way cathartic for Lestrade, as his violin had been for him, then considered the catalyst for this outpouring of feeling. Though Lestrade usually partnered Anthea at whist, Sherlock had not discerned that he was motivated by any tender emotion; rather, it seemed to fall to him to do so, as John and Sally had implicitly claimed each other.
Sherlock caught himself before he abandoned his reading for yearning once more for John, though he smiled wryly at his mind's insistence that John was in fact perfectly applicable to his course of study. Anderson had outlined his theory of evolution for Sherlock only last night, while the river creatures sang in the dusk, speaking of traits passed from parent to child, and Sherlock had immediately thought of John's unknown natural parents, who must have shaped him to be thus. But had the Crofts had no influence on the child they had raised? Sherlock could not believe that to be so, though Anderson's theory stated that only biological inheritance had determined the balance of John's humours.
The second half of Anderson's theory was far more intriguing, as it dealt with the issue from the opposite direction: evolution of species through its individual members. It was Anderson's contention that a species could, in desiring an adaptation to better suit it to its environment, realise that desire and, consequently, pass that adaptation on to the subsequent generation. That required careful thought, and Sherlock could hardly bring his mind to bear on a problem of that scope with the agitated scratchings of Lestrade's pen disturbing the silence he sought.
"May I ask, is anything troubling you, Captain Lestrade?"
Sherlock was surprised to see Lestrade's eyes widen with what looked very like guilt. "I – I assure you –" the man began, strain overwriting his handsome features. "It is no use; I must speak with John."
Sherlock's heart beat more quickly at the very name. "Has something happened to your friend?"
"My friend," Lestrade repeated dully, closing his eyes as if to gather himself. "My truest friend, yes, to whom I have been false."
Sherlock stood abruptly, unable to contain his emotions. "Has Captain Watson suffered some injury at your hands?"
"I pray not," Lestrade said fervently, then snatched up his hat and greatcoat. "You must excuse me, Mr. Holmes."
Sherlock sat dumb as Lestrade swept out of the room, the candles' flames bending in the draft caused by his hasty departure. At long last he rose and approached the writing-desk, intent on copying fair the notes he had made the previous day, only to discover a remnant of Lestrade's writings. There was a poem – a draft, not a memory, Sherlock saw from the struck words and the fumbling for a rhyme scheme – on the page in front of him, a paean to the many charms of Miss Sally Hooper, and Sherlock reeled from the revelation. Was this a just repayment for John's generous attachment to his fellow captain? Sherlock burned with indignation, but could not quash the hope that bloomed within his heart, that Sally might requite Lestrade's feelings and thereby release John; a second thought, however convinced him of the futility of wishing. Having gained John, would any woman – would any thinking, feeling being – relinquish such a claim?
It was no use sitting quietly in his room and trying to impose order on his thoughts; he was tossed about like a ship in a tempest. Perhaps a public concert, as John had spoken of, would do him good. He donned fresh clothes and rang for a carriage.
He was in luck – the evening's concert featured the violin, and the programme indicated a selection of several of his favourite compositions. He had just seated himself when he caught sight John sitting with his parents a few rows ahead of him. The strong lines of his back and neck drew Sherlock's eyes irresistibly, and he discovered the overwhelming raptures of listening to Sarasate whilst fixing his gaze on John's bright beauty. There was a brief interval after the Sarasate, and Sherlock was startled to see Lestrade's tall form hastening down the aisle, evidently in search of John. When at last Lestrade found him, John looked up with a ready smile that quite turned Sherlock's heart over; he deliberately turned his back so as not to catch the eye of either gentleman as they made their way outside the concert-room, but fixed his attention on them as soon as they had safely passed.
Lestrade appeared to be quite at the end of his tether and to be pleading his case before John, who wore a shocked expression. Sherlock noted how fine John's mouth looked as it shaped the name "Sally" and turned away in despair. He had been quite right not to hope, after all.
John returned to his seat just before the next piece began, and Sherlock could just make out, through the tears welling in his eyes, John's crown of old-gold hair, precisely the colour of the gilt frames of all the portraits in Lord Mycroft's family collection.
John had, with his implicit agreement with Sally, determined to aid her in gaining the heart of his friend Lestrade. Both would gain very materially from the match; her intelligence and vivacity must cheer him out of his gloom, and his valour and good sense would allow him to offer her more congenial society than she could find with her sisters, however devoted to them she was. Still, though he could not deny Sally's charms, he spared a thought for the lost Sarah, with whom he had thought to see his friend happy, and hoped she would not be wounded by the speed with which Lestrade's heart had evidently mended.
Perhaps Lestrade had the right of it; certainly he had not gained anything by cleaving so tenaciously to the memory of Sherlock. His parents wished for nothing more than his felicity, to be sure, but their happiness would have been materially increased by sharing their lives with his spouse. But it was of no use to remonstrate thus. Sherlock Holmes had captured his heart in one summer and had never relinquished his hold. It did not matter that John could not offer Sherlock learned discussions of his work, like Anderson, or sweetness of temper like Molly. These various admirers had changed none of John's wishes, whatever effect they had on Sherlock, and John smiled grimly to himself, thinking of Sherlock's recovered bloom and beauty, before extinguishing the candles and lying in his bed.
Lestrade's happiness made him expansive, and he would not brook a refusal of his invitation to the Crofts' house for a small gathering. In vain Sherlock protested that he was currently occupied with his work; Lestrade reiterated that, as Sally's brother-in-law, Sherlock was required to attend the function. Sherlock relented with bad grace, unable to calibrate his own relief against John's certain sorrow. John would be keeping a brave face on, assuring even his own beloved parents that Sally and Lestrade belonged together. Sherlock did not think he could bear watching such a spectacle.
Indeed, John played his part so well that Sherlock began to think that John had missed his calling and the stage had lost the premier actor of their generation. His eyes seemed to brighten at the sight of Sally and Lestrade murmuring contentedly together, their uplifted air assuring all onlookers of the sincerity of their attachment, and Sherlock noted that the Crofts were similarly genuine in their felicitations. Sherlock could not doubt the evidence collected by his own eyes, which prompted him to wonder at the generosity of spirit John evinced. More than ever, he yearned to have John's heart open before him, to see if his own name was still writ there, however small.
A knock at the door brought about a lull in the gaiety, and Mrs. Croft excused herself to answer it. She was gone for some minutes, and Sherlock was startled to see his uncle following her when she returned. "Lord Mycroft," Mr. Croft greeted, bowing, and his son did the same, prompting a flurry of bows and curtseys.
"Uncle," Sherlock said last with his own bow. The years since he had last seen his uncle had been rendered in fine lines on the man's face, at once dear and distant; London had not left him unmarked.
"Dear child," Lord Mycroft said warmly. "Might I impose upon you to accompany me?"
No one dared refuse Lord Mycroft anything, and in any case Sherlock knew he had not added to the conviviality of the gathering. "Of course, Uncle," he murmured, unable to resist one last look at John, whose look of gravity became him extremely well.
Lord Mycroft insisted upon their sharing a meal, so Sherlock accompanied him to his lodging, where a bevy of servants had laid the table and were ready to serve a sumptuous repast. "Sherlock," Lord Mycroft said, as they waited for the clear soup to be brought in, "I have never forced your confidence, but have been blessed to know myself your chief confidant."
"Yes, Uncle," Sherlock said dutifully.
"And yet, child, it has been eight years since last we spoke about anything other than your work or mine; I can only conclude that either I have been denied an understanding of the workings of your heart, or that you have locked it up tight and impervious to any suitor." Lord Mycroft looked immensely wise, and Sherlock, recalling how much he missed this good man's warm esteem, could not answer.
"I have done you a great disservice, then," Lord Mycroft said quietly.
"No!" Sherlock protested. "No, Uncle, you mustn't –"
"But I have," Lord Mycroft said firmly. "I had not meant, in dissuading you from accepting the proposal of John Watson, to keep you from happiness, but that is very evidently what I have done. I had intended to safeguard you from the fortunes of the world and succeeded only in denying you its joys. Have my recent actions come too late?"
Sherlock was bewildered; though he had regretted his spurning of John almost from the moment he had carried it out, he had never assigned blame of any kind or degree to his uncle, who had earned the trust Sherlock placed in him many times over. "What means this apologia? To what recent actions do you refer?"
"I have some influence in public works, as you know, and I was able to persuade the organisers of the Geological Survey – who were, I assure you, already intent upon soliciting your participation – that the best location for your researches would be here in Bath."
"Because Bath is where the worthy parents of the worthy John Watson have lived for some years, and surely where he would spend the majority of his leave."
"Then . . . you have been following his career?" Sherlock asked, confusion slowing his thoughts and words.
"Indeed. You chose most wisely, though you had no way of knowing."
Sherlock struggled to master himself; how long had he wanted his uncle's blessing, only to receive it after John's mended heart had been freshly broken!
"You were but a child then, Sherlock, and now you have not only a tested love for him but also the esteem of men of science across the globe."
"But it is too late, Uncle," Sherlock said, trying desperately to keep his unhappiness dammed up. "He has sought – and lost – another, and looks on me only with pity and the ashes of love."
Lord Mycroft frowned. "That cannot be."
"Would you have me stake my future on the notion that I alone in all the wide world am capable of awakening him to that joy he deserves?" Sherlock burst out in a torrent of emotion.
"Yes," Lord Mycroft said, a small smile lightening his expression, "for that is the notion upon which John has staked his own life."
Lord Mycroft had noted his nephew's recent decline with great alarm. Though Sherlock had left his care shortly after breaking off his engagement with John, Lord Mycroft had not been unduly worried by the move; a change of scenery – away from the setting in which he had come to know the sailor – would surely do Sherlock good, and in any case his father's house was as suitable as any other place. Lord Mycroft had moved to London at the same time, fully expecting Sherlock to regain his vivacity and spirit in short order by throwing himself into his work.
Vagaries of business kept Lord Mycroft from his godson's side for far longer than he had intended, and Sherlock wrote faithfully of his studies and research. But the tone of these missives was dull and heavy, as if Sherlock had to summon all of his energies simply to put pen to paper. No mention was made of anything but his work, and Lord Mycroft began to suspect that Sherlock's heart had been pledged more fully than he had realised.
The Navy – and in particular, Lieutenant John H. Watson – became the focus of Lord Mycroft's attention then, and all of the reports painted the lieutenant as a man whose record was impeccable and whose heart was open to none. In battles, he laid his own life on the line without hesitation, and after a grievous injury, that valour had earned him swift promotion and numerous commendations. His prize-money, despatched to his parents, had been more than sufficient to allow them to acquire sub-tenants for the land they had farmed and move to a centre of leisure in their golden years; Lord Mycroft had paid strict attention to these transactions and filed the information away for later use. Promptly upon hearing of John's extended leave, he wrote to Dr. Lennox to beg his intercession in assigning Sherlock to Bath and its environs; for the rest, Lord Mycroft trusted the persistent and sincere attachment Sherlock and John shared to overcome any obstacle.
He justly claimed most of the credit for manoeuvring Sherlock into the same city as John, but would not deny that the correspondence he had recently begun had done much to cheer and assure him that his machinations would not be in vain; Mrs. Croft was a delightful correspondent.
"It is not done, my dear Sherlock, to come to Bath and fail to partake of the healthful water," Anderson said, leaning in so that their faces were intimately close.
"But I am not ill," Sherlock pointed out, "and we will surely be interrupted if we are in the Pump-Room for all of Bath to see. May we not continue our discussion elsewhere?"
"Do not deny 'all of Bath' the sight of you!" Anderson said, all charm, and Sherlock was obliged to follow him.
He was saved from having to swallow any sulphurous liquid by Anderson straightening from his courtly bow just in time to collide with John, who was making his way into a nearby tearoom. "I beg your pardon –" John began, before realising who had inadvertently waylaid him. "Please, join me for a cup of tea."
Sherlock readily assented, buoyed by his uncle's unqualified assertion that John loved him still and eager to gather what evidence he could. "I should enjoy a cup of tea far more than the water served to invalids," he proclaimed, watching John's face ease into a delightful smile. Anderson protested briefly but followed with alacrity.
"Have you errands to run, or only yourselves to amuse on this fine day?" John asked politely as they sat.
"We are engaged upon our work, my good man," Anderson corrected. "Sherlock and I have been debating some of the finer points quite rousingly, but I do not believe the matter would interest a layman."
"I see," John said, sounding much abashed and tucking his square chin toward his chest, and Sherlock frowned, remembering that John had not had the benefit of any formal education but had learnt as he went; he was very much a self-made man.
"John is hardly a layman," he reproved lightly. "He has performed surgeries and taught me much about anatomy." He meant it only insofar as John's treasured sketches went, but could not help recalling the tender caresses to which John had treated his body, and felt his face grow flushed and warm. John's cheek and ear went rather a becoming pink, though he had the presence of mind to hide both with a long sip from his teacup.
"Indeed?" Anderson riposted. "I should be interested to know your views, then, on the evolution of species, Captain."
"Cousin William's theory," Sherlock said, leaning forward to catch John's eye and speak with his own, "is that any given generation of a species can choose to adapt to a given environment, and then such adaptations as are made will be inherited by subsequent generations."
"Evolution, then, depends upon desire?" John asked, thoughtful lines wrinkling his brow. "I do not see how that follows."
"Take the giraffe," Anderson said quickly, before Sherlock could point out that John had unerringly placed his finger on the weakest point of the theory. "It consumes vast amounts of leaves each day. One day the herd realises that there are no more leaves within their territory – none that may be reached, in any case. But the giraffes do not die out; they simply stretch their necks to reach the leaves that grow higher on the trees, and thus they survive. Quod erat demonstrandum, giraffes have evolved long necks to ensure their own survival."
Sherlock had heard this example before, and waited for John to respond. "I do apologise, sir – I do not know what a giraffe is; I do not often spend time on land other than in England." John's eyes gleamed mischievously, though he had camouflaged their shine with a demure look downward before Anderson suspected a thing.
"Ah, yes, I see," Anderson responded. "Think, then, of the common, domestic frog. Whether it began on land and yearned for the water, or was born in the water and longed for land, it became 'amphibian' through its own choice. Do not you agree?"
"Surely that argues that all frogs became possessed of a singular desire at the same moment?" John asked pensively. "They sound far more harmonious than we human beings have managed, with our wars and empires."
"Simple creatures, my dear sir," Anderson dismissed, turning to Sherlock. "What say you, my dear Sherlock?"
Sherlock kept his eyes fixed on John. "I do not find the theory to have undergone sufficient rigorous proof for me to accept it, but the example you selected is captivating and worth consideration. A creature of the land longing for the water – half its life on one and half in the other – appears to have chosen the best of both worlds." His mind took him back to that glorious day in the lake, when he had been half in the water and wholly in John's strong arms, and he saw, above the teacups, John's eyes catch fire as the memory unfurled in his mind as well.
"It is a point we may discuss in greater detail tonight, dear cousin," Anderson agreed. "It is time we were leaving."
John stood, not tearing his eyes from Sherlock's, and Sherlock felt their magnetic pull as a shiver down his spine. "Good day to you, gentlemen."
"Good day," Sherlock said, turning to go and acutely conscious of every last inch of his body as it vibrated under John's glowing gaze.
"Bring your work along, if you must, but you will be joining us," Lestrade said firmly. "Mrs. Croft told me that Lord Mycroft insisted that I take responsibility for seeing that you eat and sleep regularly, and I have played truant all day."
"Your intended could tell you that I do very well without either food or rest," Sherlock pointed out, though only to rein in his spirit, dancing at the thought of seeing John again. He continued to make his fair copy of the notes he had made that day at the river.
"That is immaterial," Lestrade said. "Tidy your papers and let us be off."
His parents' house was once again full to bursting with the advent of six guests, but John found all his energies bent upon keeping Sherlock in view at all times. He appeared to be uncomfortable when the conversation turned to the wedding, though everyone else kept up a merry banter about wedding-clothes and special licenses. John sought some conversational tack to put him at ease, but nothing came to mind. At long last, he beckoned Sherlock toward the mantelpiece, where lay a small collection of stones. "I have begun to pocket any interestingly shaped rocks on my morning walks," he said self-deprecatingly, "though I could not name a single type. Would you be so good as to tell me what I have here?"
Sherlock's long, elegant fingers picked up and cradled one jagged specimen, glittering with chips even by firelight; it would sparkle more beautifully still in the sunshine. "Have you a steadier light?" he asked quietly, and John nodded, startled that his conversational gambit had been received thus.
"Of course," he said, leading the way to the small library where he was wont to spend late evenings; he lit a pair of candles and turned to find Sherlock still on the other side of the room. "Sherlock?" he asked, and then Sherlock strode across the floor and caught him in arms grown iron and John heard the sound of a sob caught in the long glory of Sherlock's throat that he needed to hush, and his mouth found Sherlock's, half-opened and soft.
"I have loved only you," John heard himself murmuring between sips from the nectar of Sherlock's ruby lips and Sherlock alternately shivered and stilled in his arms, seemingly unable to speak at all. "I cannot be parted from you again."
"No," Sherlock breathed, at long last, "we shall not, we shall never. John. I love you still."
John crushed him close at that, not quite able to believe that he held in his arms what he had lost so long ago. The words Sherlock finally found were enough to convince him that some part, at least, of his shock of joy was real: "I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune, that you love me now as you loved me then. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve, that you may never doubt me again, John."
1838 and on
John was not superstitious as sailors in Her Majesty's Navy were commonly supposed to be, but Sherlock indulged him in one small sentiment and carried that rock on all of their voyages. It was in his pocket whenever he disembarked to study the marine life of whatever area of the globe they had journeyed to. As a talisman, it served them well, John seeing in its fiery glitter the sparkle of Sherlock's eyes that had first captivated him, and Sherlock understanding the solid strength of stone to be analogous to John's steady heart. As a charm, it was highly effective, as the Ardent pulled through all its many battles with minimal damage and few losses. John and Sherlock credited it with much, this witness to the reunion that lasted the rest of their days.
As always, I'd love to know what you think!
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/425224.html.