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an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong

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I couldn’t get to Holmes fast enough, that afternoon.

I’d traveled by train and by automobile and then on foot, my wounded leg be damned, my twice-wounded shoulder twice consigned to hell. There had been no answer to my calls, and the mud from the journey home from the front had been scarcely dry on my boots. My bags were still packed and I left them so, on the floor of the entryway to my house, when I saw the newspaper headline.

DR. JOHN WATSON, FAMED BIOGRAPHER OF DETECTIVE SHERLOCK HOLMES, FEARED KILLED IN COMBAT.

Blast the Daily Mail. Blast their irresponsible, sensational scandal-mongering and blast their inability to do so much as send a note to confirm what was obviously wrong information from some agency tasked with counting men like beans, who had taken my wounding as fatal and handed out word as such.

My first thought was of my fellow soldiers, dogged like this with rumors of their own demises -- was some other John Watson’s family expecting him invalided home? -- and my second thought was of Holmes.

We had written each other almost daily during our separation, the last and most significant of our lives, and reading through the airy, dismissive lines of his missives had assured me his work with his brother to end the war was wearing on him, as was my absence. He had not wanted me to go, and I worried for him equally. We may have misunderstood each other deeply at times, but in this, the beginning of our old age, we knew one another’s worth.

This was why the trip was necessary.

The door to the cottage was open, and I stepped through it into a shaded hallway, calling out his name. No answer came but the wind off the ocean through the window, and my eyes landed on a piece of paper, crumpled, on the table beneath the telephone.

REGRET TO INFORM.

The telegram was dated that morning. It was smudged almost beyond reading, the ink run with water, the paper damp through as though someone had clutched it to them, as though someone -- oh, Holmes -- had broken his heart upon it.

MISSING SUSPECTED KILLED IN ACTION, ACCORDING TO MAIL REPORT.

I would find the so-called journalist who had written that piece, I had been thinking on the train, and I would show him what it meant to die twice. I added to that urgent task severely upbraiding whoever -- it was unsigned, could not have been Lestrade or Mycroft, they would have come in person, surely -- had been so thoughtless as to inform Holmes of my “death.” I would have words with them both. I would have words with everyone who had made this happen.

But first, to Holmes. I knew where he went to think, even here: the open ocean’s roar soothed him even when that sound was echoed by the German guns. I followed a well-trod path through the grass, past his tangled patch of medicinal plants and his neat row of hives, which had grown by two in my absence.

He stood at the cliff’s edge, without a jacket, his trousers cuffed and scuffed from recent work in the garden. His white shirt’s sleeves were rolled to his elbows, and on his sinewy arms I could see several small scars from bee-stings, and age spots, and white lines where the sun had tanned his skin and missed the creases in it.

He must have heard me approaching but he did not turn around to see who it was.

“Holmes,” I said. “Holmes, I’m sorry. It was a mistake.”

He went very, very still. Did he think me a ghost, a figment of a mad imagination? Surely he could not distrust his own senses so. I tried again.

“I tried to ‘phone but no one answered. Your housekeeper --”

“I sent her away.” He sounded distant and distracted, the way he often did when concealing some strong emotion. He spoke as if to a stranger. “I wanted no one.”

“Holmes, I was wounded, I arrived home yesterday,” I pleaded. “I got here as quickly as I could. I saw that telegram. You, you must have ‘phoned the War Office, your brother, asked for evidence, asked for proof! You could not possibly have thought --”

“Of course I thought.” The wind off the ocean was fierce. It whipped my coat around me and blew back his hair, streaked with gray and thinner than I remembered. Some of that gray was my doing. “I knew my Watson.”

His laugh was dark and bitter, and it reminded me of his panic in the days after I’d re-enlisted: the trembling hands, the endless cigarettes, his footsteps on the creaking board outside my bedroom door when he thought I slept. The stiff unbearable dignity of his goodbye.

“I knew when you enlisted that you would endanger yourself. I knew you would do anything to save another living soul, even some poor fellow half blown to bits with no chance of survival. I knew you would throw yourself headlong into battle if it meant keeping but one tick from the butcher’s tally. I knew.”

He had been so afraid, and I’d promised him: I would do everything I could to safeguard my life, and return to him whole. He thought I had broken that promise, and there was no small amount of anger in him now, running like a river underneath the grief that pressed down upon him. His fear had so quickly eclipsed his lifelong detective’s training.

We were both so much older now. Sorrow came easier, at our ages, than skepticism.

“Do you know what I asked myself, when I saw the telegraph boy standing on the doorstep this morning?”

My throat closed in sympathy, and I took another step toward him, only to be halted when he held up his hand.

“Holmes, please look at me.”

He shook his bowed head. “I asked myself if this is what I deserved.”

“Holmes.”

“And as I wept over that telegram until I was blinded …”

His voice was low and hoarse, and still he did not face me.

“I asked myself, is this what he felt?”

I let the question rest a moment, studying the line of his shoulders. The repeating rise of the ocean below us was not the falls of Reichenbach, but it was the sound of water all the same.

“You know it was,” I said softly. “You watched me.”

And you did nothing, was the unspoken ending to that sentence. You did not call out to me, you did not run as fast as injured, aged legs would carry you to reassure me that you lived. You saw me suffer, and you looked away.

At this he turned, however, and did something that took my breath away. He bowed down -- slowly, arthritically, but bent the knee for all the world like a knight before his sovereign, and he looked at me, directly and fully, his eyes locked on mine.

They were overbright, rimmed in red, and the angles of his face were smudged with telegraph ink and lines of salt that cut through the shadows. He must have pressed his face to the page, over and over, must have spent as many tears upon it as I had, once upon a time, on another note of farewell.

“Were you to ask the same of me,” he said, “I would not deny you.”

The mere idea of his pain had been unbearable just a few moments ago. In the cottage, simply holding that dampened piece of paper had made my heart ache to comfort him. As much as the confirmation of his depth of feeling awoke something raw in me, I did not think that I could bear for a single second to watch him weep.

By the time I opened my mouth to say so, a drop caught the light as it fell, and another traced its way down to his clenched and trembling jaw. Then there was nothing to do but go to him, raise him up, and embrace him as strongly as I could with my one good arm, bending his shuddering head to my shoulder.

“Don’t cry, please, my dear fellow,” I murmured, as if shushing a wounded child. We stood, the wind sweeping the long field grasses around us both, as wrapped in each other as it was possible for two to be. “I’m here. I am alive.”

His breath caught in my ear. Barely knowing my own thoughts, I pressed my lips to his forehead.

“I came out of the abyss for you,” I whispered. “Just as you did, for me.”

“You,” he said, sandpapered down to nothing, “you are my dearest, and best, that I have ever known, and I could not” and then he broke down entirely.

How long we held each other there, I knew not. He choked out apologies for long-ago slights, all forgotten, for every unkind word he ever spoke to me, for every moment of less than perfect concord. I tried to tell him how his weekly, sometimes-daily letters saved me from the despair of the trenches, how I read them over and over, desperate for a world to return to once the war had ended.

I know we stayed past sunset, until my nonsense words of comfort were as worn out as his tears, until he believed I was not a fever dream or revenant returned to torment him, until we were both near collapse from exhaustion.

I know that being worthy of being mourned by such a man as he was the highest honor I could ask for, however much I would sacrifice to spare him such suffering. Had I ever doubted his love before, had I ever questioned his steadfast loyalty, that afternoon on the cliffside would have washed those uncertainties away.

I know that once we made our stumbling, shaken way back to the cottage, still half-tangled in one another’s arms, the first thing he did was light a fire, and into it consigned the telegram.

It curled at the edges and turned into dust, the ashes settling into the hearth, sparks drifting upward and, taking the salt with them, disappearing into the air.