Watson asked Holmes one night whether he could have taken him along in his hunt for Moriarty.
Holmes, drunk and mopey, responded that of course he could have, but Watson had not been his to take. He would hardly rip him away from his lovely wife.
What did that matter between friends? Watson asked. Wives were well used to waiting at home.
Holmes leaned against the windowsill, chewing on the mouth of his pipe. "Can you not see I was attempting to respect the strictures by which you live as a godfearing man, Watson? I could not mean that much to you, old boy."
Yet he had, came the protest.
Watson had pushed forward as he sometimes did in the middle of some passion, into battle as if he had never left the war. In truth, the war had never left him. He had grabbed Holmes by his lapels and curved him up, brought their faces close as if he did not wish to give his words the chance to dissolve into the ether.
"Do not speak to me about priorities and limits, Holmes."
Work had been a jealous mistress long before Mary had come into the picture. A custody battle for Holmes' heart Watson had lost before it could even begin. He had realised he could not expect as much as he wished from his friend.
Unbothered by the fact he had been lifted to his toes, Holmes stared over Watson's shoulder, into the London night outside.
"Why not?" he had asked softly. "Why not, Watson, when I wanted you to make such demands of me?"
What did it matter they were two men and Holmes was not interested in matters of the flesh? Holmes may not have wanted him in his bed, but he had wanted Watson in his life. In the place society would slot a wife for either of them.
Watson had let him down as his upset waned. He smoothed the wrinkles of his waistcoat with a bitter smile. Was that what they were to do, then, play mother and father? With that quip he retreated from the emotional intensity, as he always did.
He was English even in his embarrassment, Holmes told him with not a little fondness, letting him go, as he always did. They had Mrs. Hudson to keep house, he said, gesturing at the tea tray with a soiled cups and crumbs where there had been cake.
A beat, went by in which he added tobacco to his pipe and cracked the window, before taking a good puff to burn his lungs clean of the damp melancholy that clogged them. Watson busied himself with settling into an armchair, failing to get comfortable.
"Why ask now, Watson, when we laid such regrets to rest years ago?"
Watson blew out a breath and confessed how lonely he had grown in the years after Mary's death. It felt an awful lot like the void Holmes had left. Reflecting on the satisfaction he felt this night had led his mind upstream in time.
"An unnatural place to dwell, Watson, and far too much effort for an endeavour that only showed one the entropy to which all the universe was enslaved. Best to think on the present instead."
"There is only the end of the night to come, Holmes."
The present held only old men sharing tea and cake before they inevitably parted and Watson had to make his way back to a house where no one waited.
So Holmes released the offer he had imprisoned behind his teeth these many years.
“Then end our mutual suffering, my dear Watson, and come back.”
Watson regarded him for a dreadful moment, older, wearier, more grey than the man that had first lit up Holmes' tar pool of a life, but no less handsome. “You could not have made that sound more like a proposal if you tried, my friend,” said he, constitutionally incapable of being anything other than contrary.
Holmes turned to hide his smile, though not from his own dim reflection.
His eyes followed the smoke when he exhaled, carried up by the warmer air inside to the opened upper window pane and outside. His gaze lingered for a moment on the stars absent from that patch of dark sky.
He gave one wistful thought to a life where he could have taken his friend along with him to hunt down his nemesis. Where they had not had to do without each other.
Then he followed his own advice and turned his thoughts to what needed to happen to make his home theirs again.The newspapers presently decomposing on top of Watson's bed with the help of a variety of fungi would need to be relocated.