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Title: Until Then
Recipient: [livejournal.com profile] capt_facepalm
Author: [livejournal.com profile] spacemutineer
Rating: PG
Characters: John Watson, Sherlock Holmes
Warnings: None
Summary: When waiting for the return of a friend, keeping a token of friendship is the key to holding on.
Author's Notes: Knowledge of His Last Bow is helpful but not required for this story. Written for [livejournal.com profile] capt_facepalm and the Spring 2014 [livejournal.com profile] acd_holmesfest exchange. Special thanks to my beyond helpful beta, [livejournal.com profile] tweedisgood – you are the absolute best.


Watson shifted in the driver's seat, restless and uncomfortable in a borrowed professional's hat and jacket. After two long years, this was at last the end of his wait. The sun fell behind a dense copse of trees in the distance leaving behind only a fire red line, and the would-be chauffeur parked his car. Across the span of the sky, the colors seeped from pink to violet to blue-black. A hot summer day gradually cooled into a hot summer night. It was humid and the air was as thick and heavy as honey.


He'll be here.


He'll be here.


The doctor tried to wear his anxiety as boredom for the benefit of anyone watching from the station. He flipped open his watch to see forty-seven seconds had passed since the last time he'd looked. In the guise of finding a match, he checked his pockets again for his supplies as if they had somehow moved in the interim. Everything was in its place, hidden away: a small bottle of chloroform, a sponge to deliver it. And in his other pocket, an item that had been waiting for its owner for over two years.


***


Dr. Watson had a few patients still remaining then in 1912. The last of his flock, they made him look young in his greying and achy sixtieth year, but like the best flowers for a retiree's garden, they were easy to care for with just a little tending.


Four of them had appointments for the coming day, then a heavy caseload. To prepare, he went to bed early, but his slumber was destined to be broken early as well.


"Watson. Watson, wake up. I need to speak with you."


The doctor surfaced from the depths of a dream into consciousness almost as dim as the early dawn outside. At first, he could not make out the man leaning over his bed and jostling him, but although the voice was altered by age, Watson knew it even in his sleep.


"Holmes? What are you doing here? What time is it?" Watson squeezed his bleary eyes, but to his surprise the detective was still there when he opened them again, not an apparition at all. It had been nearly three years since Sherlock Holmes had last stepped foot in London. It was surely not for nothing he was here now. Surreptitious, he kept his long neck bowed to stay in the shadows of the small dark hours of the morning, and kept his hand cupped around a tiny candle to douse the light. "Something's wrong."


"Quiet, I have but moments," he said, urgently but low. "I stole even this time, slipping away from my rather inconveniently attentive minders."


"Your minders? Holmes, what is happen-"


"No, there isn't time," he interrupted. "Just listen. I've taken a case, Watson. It is unexpected and unsolicited, but it is also something I cannot in good conscience decline. This morning, I depart England for my destination, and it will more likely be a matter of years rather than months until I return."


If Watson had been half-asleep until that point, he was no longer.


"Years? Where are you going?"


His eyes were flint in the low light. "I can't tell you that."


"But you shall be returning."


"I have every intention and expectation. I cannot claim to you this task is free of risk. It is not. But I retain full belief in my capabilities, as much as I ever had."


Watson tried to read his friend over, but although he was surely seeing signs that would have told him everything about what was happening with Holmes, he could perceive little beyond the fact the man was several days without rest. The crow's feet were settling ever deeper into his gaunt and sober face.


"You'll need help. Whatever it is, you should not go into this case alone."


The detective shook his head grimly.


"There is danger enough for one, Watson. With two, risk becomes certainty. Your implied offer is generous, but with regret, I must refuse it."


"Will there be no way to contact you?"


"No, and you must not try, do you hear me?" he said in a voice suddenly steeled. "Do not attempt to contact me, and do not attempt to find me. This is in your interest as in mine. Frankly, if you speak too loudly of my whereabouts, it is entirely possible you may be investigated for treason."


"Treason!"


"Well, I was expressly forbidden from telling you anything by a certain person of no small gravity. And I believe I have held to that agreement. You know nothing whatsoever of importance. But you do know enough so you should not be overly concerned by another of my extended disappearances."


He paused, selecting his words during a weighted exhale that flickered the miniature flame in his hands. "I couldn't leave without telling you, Watson. I would not inflict that particular wound again if I knew a way to prevent it."


"Holmes..."


The detective changed the subject quickly, digging into his coat to pull out something small and slender.


"Here, your house key. I can't take it with me where I'm going. I should have left it at home and simply broken in to see you, but I dropped it into my pocket without thinking in my flurry of preparations. My apologies."


He deposited the key onto the table beside the bed and stood to go.


"Holmes, wait," Watson called, reaching to catch him by the forearm as his friend turned to leave. "You will be cautious, won't you?"


"Of course I will. I always am."


"No, you are not." Watson stared into him. "When you're able, as soon as it is safe, I want you to contact me. Whenever that may be, and wherever from. And if you ever should believe you need to contact me, don't wait. Just act."


The corner of Sherlock Holmes' lip curled into an appreciative half-smile. He nodded and his bony fingers grasped the doctor's good shoulder. He was always careful about that choice.


"Until then, my dear Watson."


He rose and Watson started to rise with him. Perhaps he should have followed Holmes down the stairs and out into the street, a dreaming shadow trailing in his wake, if the detective had not pushed him back down.


"No, keep to bed, the housekeeper comes. There you are, that's a good man." He blew out the tiny candle he held. "You neglected to lock your back gate again last night, am I right? Perfect, that will spare me the climb. Take care of yourself, John."


And then Sherlock Holmes was gone, this time scrambling his spindly limbs through the too-small space of the bedroom window, which he made sure to close tightly behind him before disappearing. A stunned minute or two of held breaths passed before Watson's housekeeper arrived early for the day's labours. She unlocked the door with a noisy clatter after its last opening had been silent.


Watson blinked at his window and the empty early morning sky behind it.


Did that just happen? Was it not a dream?


His blurry memory of the meeting, half awake and confused, seemed questionable. The brass key glinting on his bedside table did not.


Holmes was here. And now he was gone.


Mrs. Upton knocked gently on the bedroom door, testing to see if her employer was awake. "Dr. Watson, good morning!" she said in her usual sing-song when her suspicions were confirmed. "Will you be wanting your tea yet, sir?"


Watson spoke to the still-closed door.


"Did you see anyone... That is to say, on your way in this morning, did you happen to notice anything out of... Or... Ah. Nevermind, Mrs. Upton. No tea, thank you."


"Is something wrong, sir?"


Watson hesitated. Something was wrong, terribly wrong, but he had no way of knowing what it was, and certainly no way to stop it.


***


The day was a blur of bland reassurances to cooing blue haired ladies and grumbling bald headed gentlemen. Holmes' key sat in the bottom of Watson's pocket like a stone. He felt nervous to have it with him but unwilling to part with it. After a quartet of distracted appointments, Watson came home and secreted it away in a space between drawers where no eyes could see it.


For weeks after, late at night when he couldn't sleep he would snake his arm into his desk to confirm it still existed. Watson was certain someone would come to question him about Holmes and the key's presence would give them both away. He thought of destroying it. On anxious evening walks in those early weeks, he imagined pulling the key from its oubliette and throwing it into the black river.


But he never did, and for two excellent reasons. First, a practical matter he thought of over and over as he nervously carried it around that very first day and tried to reassure himself: a man should not have to have an explanation for owning an extra copy of his own house key.


The second reason was the actual deciding factor. Without Holmes' key, how could Watson ever be sure his meeting with the man had truly been real? It seemed every bit as a dream – spontaneous, bizarre, fleeting. But it happened. If he slipped into believing it was a sleep fiction, Watson might let slip his guard too. A word dropped casually here or a forgetful telegram there, and he could damn the both of them. It was unthinkable. So into the crevices of the desk it went, the last strange clue of his friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes.


As for the man that clue was entrusted to, Watson wondered. He worried. He doubted. In his head he made elaborate plans of action to take and decided against all of them, even if that clandestine voyage to Sussex really would have revealed everything and that five minute telephone call to Mycroft Holmes probably could have answered the sneaking suspicion that Holmes' brother and not the King was the detective's mysterious certain person of no small gravity.


When it came to it, Watson did nothing because Watson trusted Holmes. The man acted for good; he knew that. That was true, even if nothing else was. In the end, Holmes had a good reason for what was happening, what he was doing, whatever it was. But like so many of his plans, that reason simply wasn't clear. At least not yet, and the great detective was known well for working according to his own timetable.


In some of the darker nights after disconcertingly average days, as the doctor sat in his armchair and watched a telephone fail to ring, the thought returned to him that he could be worrying for nothing. Holmes very well could have been at his house at that very moment, relaxed and safe behind a book or a bunsen burner, and Watson would never know. Similarly, his friend could have been dead already, cut down in the pursuit of this case by some ruthless malefactor or simply collapsed from an attack of his abused heart in some lonesome faraway land. Either way, Watson would have no idea. He would likely never have any idea.


Years. For God's sake, the man said years. More than one. How many more? He gave no upper limit.


Time passed slowly. Days became weeks; weeks became months. Seasons blew in and breezed back out again, and gradually Holmes' prediction came true, as his predictions so frequently did.


***


Without patients, August was a month of lull, particularly in that swelter of 1914. Even if you could lift your suitcase before it melted to the floor, travel was out of the question. Across Europe, political threats swirled even as the winds refused to. A partially contented retiree, Watson kept himself busy reading the latest in the newspaper and contemplating how best to get to Simpson's for lunch while soaking through the least of his clothes. He'd just decided that day on chancing a cab when the telegram came.


It was signed one Reginald Penny III, and if Watson hadn't fallen into the habit of reading telegrams out loud from years of working with Holmes, perhaps he would have put it aside as another of the many common appeals from his readers. The text itself sang the praises of the writer's own extensive set of, in this case fictional detective stories, and invited Watson to a public reading for his opinion. It was entirely similar to a hundred other requests Watson had received like it, save one detail. Read aloud, it rhymed.


That curiosity was enough to attract his attention. Why would it be rhyming? It wasn't poetry, it was only an invitation to a literature reading. Wasn't it? He read through the words again, getting nothing new. But the rhythm, it was complex, unusual and yet familiar.


He'd read a message like this before. Long ago. Yes, that's right. Wasn't one of Holmes' old codes based on rhyme?


Electricity jolted through his spine and every nerve, toe to fingertip. Watson scrambled to his notebooks stacked in his foot locker, tossing the first two he picked up to the floor after a cursory glance. No, these were all wrong. But which was right? John cursed himself under his breath for his aged memory. There was no time for this. He had to think.


It was one with an animal… Not the snake, not the mongoose… What was it? The cormorant at the lighthouse? No, the alligator shoes!


Knowing what one is looking for makes problem solving so much easier. Watson learned that well from Holmes. What else did Holmes have to tell him? The key he'd written of the code would give him the way to know.


Even with the key, the translation was heavy going. Watson was never half the linguist Holmes was, even Holmes as a child when he'd devised this code to send messages to his brother at boarding school. Luckily for the man in the alligator shoes, Mycroft had remembered it all those many years later. And luckily for Watson now, he'd remembered to take care at the time to leave himself detailed if arcane instructions in his notes. He wrote down everything for just this reason – you never know when information will be useful again. Another thing he'd learned from Holmes.


It required concentration, but letter by letter, he scratched out the message.


H - E - L


Gradually he uncovered sounds, then words. And suddenly Watson could hear Holmes' voice through the page, casual and cool, as if this greeting were any everyday occurrence.


"Hello, Doctor."


Watson jumped in his seat. They were just words scrawled on a page, but he had waited so long for them, for any words at all, and there they were at last. He couldn't help but smile.


H - E - L - L - O
D - O - C - T - O - R


The next word came too slowly, and was worrisome when it finally arrived.


N - E - E - D


Need what? The wait for each word was agony. He pressed on.


N - E - E - D
D - R - I - V - E - R
C - A - R
C - H - C - L - 3


The last word was gibberish at first glance. No vowels, a number, nonsense… Unless it was not a word at all but rather a chemical symbol. CHCl3. Along with a chauffeur, Holmes was asking for CHCl3. Of course the doctor knew instantly the meaning. What his friend had planned was a confrontation, because what he wanted was chloroform.


H - A - R - W - I - C - H
S - T - A - T - I - O - N
S - U - N - D - A - Y
D - U - S - K


Sunday? But Sunday was three days away yet, an eternity. Watson was ready to leave now, ready to go, ready to help. All he could do instead was finish the message.


U - N - T - I - L
T - H - E - N


"Easy for you to say," Watson replied to a sheet of paper.


***


The last twenty minutes of their strange intermission were the longest. Watson's legs cramped inside the car, and he tapped his feet to keep them moving. Around him people milled about on their way to and from the station, none of whom the doctor knew. Or at least none whom he could identify. He took out a folded newspaper and propped it on the steering wheel to give himself something to pretend to stare at instead of the passers-by.


He finished skimming a vapid article in the society columns about the proposed marriage of one shipping magnate to the daughter of another and took to skimming the crowd again. Three decades of looking for Sherlock Holmes incognito in a crowd, and Watson still came up dry more than half the time. He sighed and settled back again. This was apparently the moment the man in grey by the corner had been waiting for. He tossed his cigarette away and kicked himself out of his backward lean into the bricks of the station.


Watson should have noticed this one sooner. Sherlock Holmes is a master of disguise, but there is only so much one can do to cover a six and a half foot frame. He was ever thinner now too, and seemed all the taller for it. His spindly legs made swift work of the distance between them.


Along with a hideous yet possibly not false little beard, Holmes had the nub of a withered cigar clamped in his teeth, two affectations carefully chosen to roughen his normal polish. He lifted an arm to ensure Watson's attention and stepped briskly up to the door. His chauffeur was expending all of his effort trying to look half as nonchalant. As his character, the detective leaned into the window to address his driver for the night.


"Awful sorry to keep you waiting, Hamish," Holmes said in a casual false accent to his fellow actor. "Hasn't been too long I hope, has it?"


Watson opened his mouth to respond with whatever words his stunned mind could conjure but Sherlock Holmes – or whatever his name currently was – did not pause for an answer as he jumped into the back seat. "Hey, could you step on it? We got somewhere to be tonight, you and me."


He was American, or at least he was for tonight. A fast talking Irish American, to be specific. Perhaps he'd been American for the last two years. In the car, he carried himself like a trained but excitable setter, calm but squirming as he looked about and held a parcel wrapped in brown paper close to his vest.


"It's no difficulty, sir," Watson said in his own attempted character for the benefit of any unknown observers. "Part of the job. Waiting is just the driver's lot, y'see."


He pulled away from the station and tried to keep his eyes on the road. He found it virtually impossible, given his passenger. When they came up to speed, a much smoother and far more familiar English voice emerged from the back seat.


"Waiting is all too often the doctor's lot also, but that does not make one any less appreciative of the effort involved. Ah, my dear Watson, it is good to see you again. I knew you'd come, and perfectly prepared."


Without looking back, using a sense he'd developed over decades, Watson could feel Holmes' analytical focus upon him almost as a physical force, electricity. It was always odd, and always oddly thrilling. Even in this low light the detective read him through like a palimpsest to discover what about him was different now and what was the same.


"But you must be wondering just who it is you'll be drugging into unconsciousness with those particular tools you brought this evening, my boy. Will 'a German spy' suffice for now in lieu of explication? We are so dreadfully pressed for time."


A German spy. Heavens. You have been busy. Watson swallowed and tried not to imagine the intense work that must have been required from his friend to reach this moment.


"Holmes, I have something for you," Watson found himself saying instead of anything that would have made more sense. "Something that belongs to you."


Sherlock Holmes fell silent a moment, then chuckled just audibly over Watson's shoulder. "You do, don't you? In your left coat pocket, you've what I left you. What belongs to me. Perfectly prepared, indeed. Well, Watson, it will be my honor to take back the key to your home, but I'm afraid we have one task yet ahead of us until then, my friend, and it is a vital one. Our long work in this case is nearly at its end, but the danger may only be beginning for the rest of the world."


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