Note: I had originally planned to alternate between Holmes' and Watson's points-of-view, but the plot dictated otherwise... Never fear, Holmes will take up the pen again soon!
Summer turned inexorably into autumn, but this year I welcomed the progression of the seasons, for even as the days grew longer and the air grew chillier, my health improved steadily in turn, my body nourished by Mrs Hudson's cooking and my brain by Holmes' cases.
I had not thought that Holmes himself paid a great deal of attention to my health, but in fact he must have noticed the filling out of my frame and the spring in my step, for he surprised me one evening by remarking:
"I must say, Watson, you're almost unrecognisable as the skeleton I was introduced to at Bart's last year."
Generally I bristled upon receiving comments on my appearance, particularly in relation to my sorry state since my return from the East, but to Holmes I always accorded a special licence. In fact, I was sadly flattered and bemused by the fact that he noticed my appearance at all. Fortunately we were sitting by a roaring fire, for the evening was one of London's damp foggy autumnal specialities, and the slight blush in my cheeks was probably not noticeable at all.
Holmes brought his long, thin fingers together in a steeple, and regarded me appraisingly over their tips. "Do you feel up to a cold and possibly dangerous vigil in Southwark tonight?"
I could feel myself grinning in a most idiotic manner. "By all means. When do we leave?"
He glanced at the clock above the mantle-piece. "In about half an hour. Wear your oldest, most disreputable clothes and bring your service revolver." He smiled back. "I shall be glad to have your steady hand by my side, my dear fellow."
I had accompanied Holmes on several of his investigations in the eight months I had known him, and had been privy to cases involving bank robbers disguised as cataleptic Russian noblemen, the theft of a most valuable piece of State property and all manner of other thrilling affairs, but this was the first time he had given any indication that I served as something more than a sounding board, a role which anyone could have filled. I hummed contentedly to myself as I rooted around my bedroom, looking out some sensible clothes and putting on my oldest shoes.
When I rejoined Holmes in the sitting room, he subjected me to a brief visual inspection, before nodding in satisfaction. He himself was dressed in a costume I had seen before, being the loose linen trousers and shabby soft cap of a labourer. When I reached unthinkingly for my overcoat, however, I earned myself a disapproving cluck of the tongue.
"Really, Watson, you cannot truly propose to spoil your eminently suitable attire by the addition of that monstrosity?"
I hesitated. Holmes' objection, I knew, arose from the pristine condition of the coat, a brand-new Ulster for which I had been saving all summer, to buy for the approaching winter months as a replacement for the threadbare affair which had travelled all the way back to Britain with me.
"I'm afraid I gave my old one to the Salvation Army," I said. "Dreadful lack of foresight on my part. How silly of me not to have foreseen this necessity."
Holmes disappeared into his bedroom, and came back carrying a shabby old greatcoat. Instead of handing it to me, he held it up for me to slip my arms into, in a gesture which I found peculiarly intimate.
"Perfect," he announced, settling the lapels of the coat on me, and then letting go and moving away before I could savour the moment. "Now to Southwark, my dear fellow."
The cab-driver, naturally, grumbled about being obliged to go south of the river, but eventually a half-crown persuaded him to at least deposit us at the far end of London Bridge.
"It's what I would have wanted in any case," Holmes murmured in my ear. "A cab would stand out like a sore thumb in those parts. We shall proceed on foot after that, in a more discreet fashion."
I was burning to learn the purpose of our excursion, and fortunately for me, Holmes was in a mood to gratify my curiosity.
"This is not a very interesting case, I'm afraid," he began as the cab moved off. "Not at all worthy of the exertion of my intellect, nor of a place in your annals."
There was a glint of amusement in his eyes as he said this, and I coughed to cover my confusion. I knew Holmes was aware of the records I had been keeping of his cases, thinking to turn them one day into a series of stories, but he rarely commented directly on the subject, and this reference had the effect of rendering me rather self-conscious.
Holmes was certainly aware of this, but he did not comment. "I promise you material worthy of your pen in the future, my dear Watson, but for the moment I hope you will forgive me for dragging you away from our comfortable fireside and making you brave the evening damp. With your help, I intend to track down the origin of a series of forged perpetual bonds which have been turning up around the city in recent months, all issued in the name of a small bank in the Midlands, my client in the case."
"And you believe the printing-press to be hidden in a tanning factory?" I guessed, inspired by the smell of one of Southwark's many such buildings, already wafting our way as we approached the river.
"Excellent, Watson!" He beamed at me. "Of course, it is really rather obvious, but you have done quite well all the same."
I had often observed the ire provoked in the inspectors of Scotland Yard by Holmes' condescending remarks, but for my own part, I believe I knew him well enough to take them in the spirit in which they were intended.
Holmes went on to explain further, "We shall simply follow the forgers to their warehouse - I already have an idea of where to find them this evening - then conceal ourselves in some convenient location to observe them, and gather enough evidence to set the police on them tomorrow."
This statement elicited a jolt of anxiety in the depths of my stomach. It was all very well for Holmes to talk airily of following, concealing oneself and so on, but I had had little experience with such covert operations, even in Afghanistan, and I was afraid I would betray us by some clumsy blunder.
"I do hope we shan't be too conspicuous," I said aloud.
Holmes swept me with his gaze, in that intent way of his which always obliged me to restrain myself from squirming under his scrutiny, and pray that I was not visibly blushing, as I was sadly prone to do.
"There is nothing more inconspicuous and innocuous than a man walking out with his young lady of an evening," he surprised me by saying. "Unfortunately, no young ladies of an adventurous disposition number among my acquaintances - indeed, no young ladies at all." He paused, and I hoped he was going to expound on the subject, but he said rather, "Never fear, the dark will aid us."
I sighed to myself. I should rather have liked to pursue a conversation about Holmes' lack of acquaintances among the fairer sex, but even had his interests turned out to lie with the other half of the population, as I sometimes suspected, there was nonetheless no reason that this should prove at all advantageous to me. I was undoubtedly doomed to admire him forever from afar.
The sun was setting as we crossed the river, transforming the dark, muddy water into gold. On the far bank we could see barges tied up by the wharfs belonging to the many warehouses and factories of the neighbourhood. We left the cab, and penetrated into a dark labyrinth of slums, overhung by the smell of tanning and all drowned in a grey autumnal drizzle.
I had had occasion to come to Guy's Hospital in the course of my studies, but once we had passed that I was in unknown territory. Holmes led the way, guiding me unerringly through the back streets. I wondered suddenly how long he had lived in London, and how he came to know it so well. For all I knew, he had been born here. We never discussed ourselves, I knew almost nothing about him, and yet I felt closer to him than I ever had to another living being. I was overcome by a sudden desire to know everything about him, from the first words he had spoken as an infant to the noise he would make if I ran my fingernail slowly and gently down the nape of his neck. I pushed the thought away, as I always did such thoughts, and concentrated on the task at hand.
We had come to a halt in a narrow street filled with public houses, lights and raucous noise. We were sufficiently close to the doorway of the nearest establishment, a few yards ahead, to be able to discern the faces of its patrons as they emerged. The rain was growing heavier, churning up the mud around our feet, but I was filled with excitement and delighted to be by Holmes' side. In the event, we were obliged to wait less than half an hour before Holmes perceived the two men we were awaiting.
The men took their leave of each other, and set off in opposite directions. For a moment I feared that Holmes and I would have to separate, each following one of the men, but thank goodness it was not so.
"That one's returning home, I believe," Holmes murmured, and we set off after the other.
It was not long before he came to a halt outside a warehouse adjacent to a tanning factory. He disappeared through a small side-door, and another man emerged a few minutes later.
"The Changing of the Guard," Holmes said softly in my ear. "Come along, let us find a back entrance."
He lead me down a narrow, murky alley to the back of the building, and by the light of a candle which he produced from his pocket we found a window set in the brick wall. It was held shut by a large iron padlock, which Holmes proceeded to open with a piece of wire, leaving me torn between admiration and horror.
"Where on earth did you learn to do that?"
I saw the flash of his teeth in the light of the candle as he grinned at me over his shoulder. "Never fear, Watson, I promise you I have never put my skills to immoral use. Come along, you first."
Once through the window, we found ourselves in a small, dark space about the size of our sitting room, and filled with crates and the smell of hide glue.
"Wait here," said Holmes, before disappearing silently through a door at the far end of the room.
He returned a few minutes later.
"The man we followed is on guard in the other room over a pile of freshly-printed bonds. The others should arrive some time during the night to take delivery, at which point I shall be able to form an idea of their number, composition, and general disposition." He grimaced. "Some day I shall be rich enough not to take cases which are so very lacking in any interest whatsoever."
"So long as you never become so rich as to no longer need to share rooms," I said without thinking.
Holmes looked up sharply, then gave me a fleeting smile, but only said, "We shall wait here until we hear voices in the other room."
We installed ourselves in reasonable comfort on some packing cases, hidden from the door by a pile of dust-covered empty crates which appeared not to have been moved in a decade.
The wait grew rather long, throughout our journey here we had set a brisk pace, the hour was late, and unfortunately these facts must have combined to cause me to doze off, for I found myself returning to consciousness some time later, struggling for a few moments to remember where I was.
I was now lying back on the line of cases where I had been seated, my legs swung up and a pair of thick linen sacks covering me in lieu of blankets.
"Holmes?" I said softly, sitting up.
A light flared nearby, and I saw Holmes' face above the match he cradled between his hands. He was smiling at me.
"Never fear, you haven't missed anything," he said. "All's been quiet."
The match burnt out, and we were plunged into darkness again, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I was moved by the solicitude Holmes had demonstrated in making me comfortable, and I rather wished I had been awake to feel his touch, yet I nonetheless felt a complete idiot, dozing off like an old coot after his Sunday lunch, instead of being able to keep vigil all night as a young man of scarcely thirty years should have been.
Before I could berate myself any further, we were startled by a sound from the window through which we had come. Someone else was climbing in!
The shadowy figure was soon followed by four more. We could make out little of the newcomers in the darkness, but I surmised them to be another band of criminals, here with intent to dispossess the forgers of their assets. Holmes and I stood stock-still, scarcely breathing.
Suddenly some idiot knocked over a pile of crates, which crashed to the floor with a thunderous noise. Shouts of alarm rang out from the neighbouring warehouse, and men began pouring into our little room, far more than I had believed to be there.
Holmes and I had been standing well back in the shadows. He began to edge towards the door, keeping close to the wall and drawing me with him. We escaped unscathed from the room containing the fight, and were starting to cross the other, larger warehouse, when a light flared and a shout rang out. Two men had been left to guard the bonds and the printing press. One of them came running towards us. Holmes darted past him and grabbed a paper-wrapped bundle from the pile they were guarding, an action which seemed to me entirely senseless. He then took off at a run, myself on his heels, and our pursuer scarcely four yards behind me.
I was in no condition to outrun the man, a fact of which Holmes was well aware, for he gasped, "Left, Watson. St Magnus'," before darting off to the right. I turned left, into a long deserted street, but no sound of footsteps followed. It was at this point that I understood Holmes' reasons for taking the bundle of bonds, though the revelation did little for my morale.
I interpreted the rest of his words to mean that we should meet at St Magnus the Martyr's church, just the other side of London Bridge. I limped all the way there, managing to reach my destination without losing my way more than thrice. I was still out of breath by the time I descended the steps on the other side of the bridge to stand before the church, my lungs burning and one hand on the cold stone of the church porch to support myself. A tall, thin shadow soon came running up to join me, and I wished I had had more time to collect myself. Holmes seemed scarcely out of breath, and I hated to have him see me like this, shattered and broken when I should have been in the prime of life, as he was. I wished I had had the foresight to conceal myself in the shadows of the church porch. To my surprise, however, he grasped my arm and pulled me into those very shadows.
"My dear Watson! You got away unscathed? No one touched you? Good Lord, what a shambles tonight has been!"
He was running his hands over me as if to confirm my lack of injury, but I was much too miserable to wonder at this uncustomary closeness.
"I'm sorry," I muttered. "I held you back. A fat lot of good I've been to you tonight. You must regret having ever met a useless old wreck like me - "
He cut me off. "Don't ever think that." I scarcely had time to think anything at all before he had drawn me toward him, and his lips were brushing my nose in the dark. I tilted my face automatically up toward his, and it appeared the most natural thing in the world when we found ourselves kissing.
Holmes had one hand cupped around the back of my neck, and the other on my shoulder. He held me lightly, one could almost say politely, as if uncertain of my response. Indeed I was somewhat in shock, wondering whether fatigue had turned my brain, but I knew I could not be imagining the surprising softness of his lips, or the gentle brush of his tongue against mine as it emerged briefly from his mouth, to disappear again instantly. I was strangely moved by his decorousness, but I could not long endure the electrifying touch of his lips against mine without responding with rather more heat and passion. I slipped my hand under the cape of his Ulster coat to encircle him with my arm and press him close to me. He seemed to appreciate this turn of events, for the hand on the back of my neck tightened, pressing my mouth against his.
Then I felt him still abruptly and pull his head backward, his body suddenly tense and stiff against mine.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, almost inaudibly.
"No, I assure you - " I began, although I knew already that he could not possibly be referring to his advance on me, for my lack of offence and anger could not have been more evident.
"I'm sorry," he said again. His hand brushed my cheek gently, then slid slowly down my arm as he stepped away. "I cannot - We should not - "
It was obvious then that he was apologising not for the embrace, but for ending it. I wished desperately that I could make out more of his expression in the dark.
"I beg you - " he said as he took another step back, though I am not sure whether even he knew what he was beseeching.
He turned and strode away.
"Holmes!" I cried, but he did not look back.
For a brief moment I saw the silhouette of his tall, spare form, uncharacteristically bowed over, as he passed from the churchyard into the gas-lit street, before disappearing from sight.
All of a sudden I realised that it was raining heavily, and that I was cold and damp. But I could still feel the warmth where Holmes' hands had held me, and where his body had pressed against mine.
My head still spinning, I walked slowly northward until I found a cab whose driver was already up and about in the early hours of that morning.
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