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Title: Readers
Author: [livejournal.com profile] spacemutineer
Rating: G
Warnings: angst
Word Count: 2750
Beta Thanks: [livejournal.com profile] tweedisgood, who is wonderful, encouraging, and absolutely irreplaceable.
Author's Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] stellinia in the Autumn 2014 [livejournal.com profile] acd_holmesfest exchange.
Summary: In the retirement years, when Watson is "beyond my ken" as Holmes describes it, the author struggles to maintain connection with his readers.


He blamed me, of course, but what else was he to do? Simply accept that we were growing grey, that once-sharpened reflexes were gradually slowing? Acquiesce into wool slippers and long afternoon naps? Was Sherlock Holmes to willingly don that most dreaded of descriptors, retired? You might as well have used the words he would be certain you meant instead. Elderly. Decrepit.

Holmes was driving himself to death in those last years of our work, trying to fight off the incoming tide of time and age through activity and raw determination. But there was no denying the reality, for either of us. I could feel the teeth of years gnawing at old injuries and older joints. The same was true for him, even if he hid it better, as he hid better nearly everything about himself.

Gentle tactics and talk proved futile over the space of long weeks and months. When I finally announced my own retirement in an attempt to force his hand, Sherlock Holmes read between the lines instantly. I think he had been expecting the moment to come, or perhaps dreading it.

"You believe me incompetent," he said, his eyes cold smoke and steel. "After all these years, you of all people have no faith in my abilities. That is all I needed to know."

Within a fortnight, Holmes had decamped unannounced to the quiet countryside he had long previously reviled, and his natural reticence became near total silence. I believed at first that time would soften his insult, but the will of Sherlock Holmes does not bend so easily. All correspondences with him, be they business discussions about his biographies as I wrote them or more personal missives of attempted explanation and soft apology, resulted in the same reliable reply. A single word, delivered promptly by telegram only.

"Understood."

It was obvious he did not.

I continued to write, to him and of him, but I heard nothing of substance from Holmes for years.

===

The greengrocer's boy was new and young besides, not more than fourteen, and his eyes widened with that by then familiar recognition from across the counter. I picked up the first apple within my grasp and studied it, noting every feature and flaw of the mottled yellow-green skin, but it was to no avail.

"Sir? 'M sorry to bother you, but you are Dr. John Watson, aren't you, sir?"

Too late. Now I was caught. But that was inevitable, as it always was. By the time I noticed them, they had noticed me, and there was no escape. I turned and smiled down at the obvious delight in the face of the lad and nodded my assent.

"I knew it! Dr. Watson himself! Happy to meet ya, truly I am. My name's Joshua." His thin hand grabbed mine and shook with vigor. "Oh, Dr. Watson, I have to tell you. I just love Sherlock Holmes, sir. I've read all his stories, you know. Every last one, a dozen times a piece, easy!" His lip twitched as he realized what he had forgotten. "Your stories 'bout him, I mean."

Of course that was what he meant. It was always what they meant, even if it was not always what they said.

"Quite an honor. Thank you." I squeezed eager little bony fingers and patted his hand. "It's good to meet a reader, particularly one as avid as you are."

"Avid wouldn't be the half of it, sir." Joshua shifted his weight back and forth and nibbled at his lip like a babe waiting for a sweet. I knew what was to follow.

"D'ya see him often, sir? Mr. Holmes?"

There it was. Adults tried to grease the wheels of polite conversation a little more before they revealed the real reason they approached me, but a child did not have time for such pleasantries. His directness was welcome. If one must pull the bandage from an open wound, best to do it quickly.

"I don't, I'm afraid. Mr. Holmes and I are retired. He lives in Sussex now."

Young Joshua looked crestfallen. The readers always looked a bit crestfallen when the conversation reached that inevitable point, because I had answered the question within their question. Their words said 'Do you see him?' but the meaning behind them was invariable and clear: 'Can I see him?'

The truth was the same for them as it was for me, as was the regret.

===

Herbert Smith, my longtime editor, peeked over the top of my latest submission and raised his voluminous eyebrows at me.

"Watson, you cannot possibly wish me to print this. You realize you're confessing to multiple legal offenses, correct? In your account here, you break into this Milverton's house, you stand aside and witness his death, and then you burn the contents of his safe before you flee from the police, lie to an inspector, and allow a murderess to walk free. And all this is to go in my magazine?"

"Indeed it is. For one thing, Milverton is an alias, of course, and the details of him and all others are sufficiently vague and misdirected to ensure no one can trace them to any individual, nor any crime. Two, even if they did trace them, it would be for naught, as the legal limitations have long expired. Third, any lies to police were of omission only, and in any case, they were Holmes' doing, not mine."

"But that's just it!," he said, dropping the manuscript with a harumph. "You have implicated Mr. Holmes as the instigator in all of these crimes, some of them rather heinous. You have him securing a cruel false engagement to an innocent housemaid then abandoning her without another thought when she had served his ends. And that is beside the numerous illegal acts he perpetrates in your tale, with your eager help, I might add. I have grown accustomed to much, working with you, but we are not talking about your everyday light breaking and entering or theft here. We are discussing the concealment of a cold-blooded murder!"

He winced at the loudness of his own voice rising in his excitement and reverberating through the office. He lowered his tone.

"Just tell me you got Holmes' permission, Watson. You did discuss this with him first, yes? Watson?"

He looked at me and his face dropped. There was a reason I usually lost at poker.

"I informed him of my plans," I said.

"And his reply?"

"The same as his reply has been to everything else since he left."

"This is impossible, Watson. Silence is not approval. I should never have allowed you to go on in this way as long as you have."

I could hear the worry in his voice. Over the years, Smith had developed a certain wariness toward Sherlock Holmes. I suppose it began the first time they met at Baker Street, when Holmes appeared laughing through the blood of a broken nose after his capture of the McCarroll ransomer. Smith regarded him as a force of nature, the way one would regard a thunderstorm. He had learned enough of Holmes to wonder at him, to fear him, but not enough to understand him.

"Smith, I have told you. He is not going to contact you. You should have no concern over that."

Smith bristled in disagreement. "He would have every right to bring a suit against me if I allowed this to go to print. Either I would be printing egregious libel, or Sherlock Holmes is a honorless cad and a felon, and I associate and profit with his willing accomplice."

"We have discussed this. Holmes does not care in the slightest about any negative portrayal, particularly not if it is only his personal reputation at stake. He likely will be to some degree indignant about my depiction of his work here, given my usual embellishments for atmosphere that he sees as dilutions of his art with mine. But I promise you, he will not say one word about any of it."

My editor looked down at the typed words and sighed. If anyone could know which way the whirlwind would blow, it would be me.

"If I so much as get a telegram, Watson, I will be putting all blame on your shoulders, you understand that."

"If Holmes has any problem with what I have written, I am the one he will confront, not you. Print it."

===

What little I knew of Holmes' retired life I gleaned from second-hand reports or the odd mention in the newspapers.

He was keeping bees, I heard. Their meticulous nature appealed to his senses. His country house was distant and quiet, or so said Mrs. Hudson, the only person I knew to have actually seen it. His life seemed generally quiet too, as far as I could tell, although his uncanny knack for attracting trouble apparently never left him. Once, I read in the Chronicle of a strange adventure which pitted Sherlock Holmes against one of the most savage and deadly killers he'd ever faced in his long career: a washed-up tropical jellyfish.

I wished like mad I had been there to witness it.

We had grown into a rhythm of sorts. I would send Holmes a letter every few months, an inquiry on what was new with him and an update of sorts of the status on my end – my near-term plans for both my writing and myself, and a summary of London's newest intrigues, say, or some bit of news concerning one of our mutual acquaintances. Regardless of the content, he could be relied upon to send back his one word response within a day.

"Understood."

At least I knew he was alive. In our history together, there was a time when I did not know even that.

As the years went on, it became harder to write those letters to him, and even harder to write of our adventures together. The stories were crystalline shards of memory, clear and beautiful and as cutting as razors. The letters were blunt force trauma, the sensation of smashing my head forever into the same brick wall of sheer obstinacy and pride.

I never truly knew if he read anything I wrote. After my initial burst of adventures published in the first year of Holmes' retirement met no response, my output trailed down to a trickle. Three stories in five years met the printed page, and throughout from Holmes there was still nothing but the barest acknowledgements of existence. I gradually found I could not bear to put pen to paper anymore, for him or for me, and silence on one end became a silence on both that continued on into the distance like an empty horizon.

One early Tuesday morning, that mutual neglect ended abruptly in the arrival of an unsolicited telegram from Sussex to my door. I remember feeling exhausted just making the exchange with the telegram boy. What on earth was Holmes telling me he understood now, I wondered. Perhaps he was replying to an old letter? He'd never missed a reply that I could remember. Was this a duplicate, the symptom perhaps of the same creeping forgetfulness all men face at our age?

I opened the envelope. It was none of those things.

"Your readers have not heard from you in some time," said the words on the small page. "Why not tell them of the Cornish horror – strangest case I have handled and perhaps the most revealing."

The first two whole sentences Sherlock Holmes had directed to me in years were instructions on which of his biographies to write next. I leaned onto the doorframe, staring at the text, trying to read the meaning between the few lines. How many times had I watched Holmes pour over a mysterious message and glean its fruits within seconds? I struggled for a few minutes just to get past the raw shock of it myself.

"Your readers have not heard from you in some time." Did he include himself in that number? The implication certainly seemed there, but I learned from years with Holmes that my first instincts were not always the best. That fact never stopped me from having them.

Holmes wished me to write of "the Cornish horror", as he put it. He could only be referring to the awful Tregennis murders. That was a bizarre case of greed and love and death that we stumbled upon in Mounts Bay while I was struggling to get Holmes to bother to keep still just long enough to recover from pneumonia.

In the end, two people lost their lives and two others lost their sanity. For Holmes and I, it was one of the nearest brushes with death we ever endured, and it came at his doing and my acquiescence. He had his hypothesis and wanted to know it was correct, come all cost, so I assisted him. By God, he found his answer. We both did.

As we collapsed together, heaving on the grass in those first moments after I dragged him screaming from the house, I was not sure he would live. I was not sure I would either, for that matter. If that fear the poison induced in me, that hideous, inhuman, wholly unnatural fear, lingered much longer, I wouldn't have wanted to.

Despite his physical weakness at the time, Holmes with his sharpened mind recovered much faster from the mental effects of the drug than did I. When I managed to come round from that black place to myself once more, I found his hand upon my cheek, searching for consciousness. He was calling my name.

“Watson? Upon my word, Watson!” said Holmes with an unsteady voice when at last he could tell I understood him. He looked stricken, sicker in that moment than he ever did in even the depths of pneumonia. "I owe you..." he gasped. "I owe you both my thanks and an apology. Good lord, it was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, but doubly so for a friend. I... John, I really am very sorry."

I had never seen him as he was in that moment. At all times Holmes guarded his heart as fiercely as a knight defends a castle fortress. He never allowed this much of himself to be exposed to another's judgement, not ever. But in that moment, for that small instant of time, he had allowed it for me. It felt like an honor. It felt like relief.

"You know that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you," I said. He bowed his weary head and I pulled him closer. "We do this together, Holmes. You know that."

And in that moment, he did. He truly did.

I realized all at once that I was still leaning in my doorway, telegram yet dangling in my hand. Checking my watch, I discovered I had been lost in the crashing waves of this reminiscence for the better part of half an hour. The effect was so overwhelming that the doctor in me wondered if it was not in fact some latent, lingering effect on the nervous system from exposure to that terrible devil's foot root all those years before. My heart had a distinctly less scientific explanation.

"...and perhaps the most revealing," Holmes had said in his telegram. Is this what he meant? Did he too recall that moment of honesty, that flicker of connection between us that we let slip from our grasp and fall away? Was his memory of that day even half as powerful, half as moving as mine?

Only then did it occur to me that with the astonishing strength of his imagination, this memory that we shared was likely far stronger and even more all-consuming for Holmes than it was for me, although I doubted that he could ever tell me something so intimate so explicitly.

I sat down at once to complete the request. "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" was written all in one day, that very day, and on this day I hold it in print, published now for the world to see in the latest issue of The Strand.

As I look over the text, I feel that old familiar knot of nerves pulling taught down in my stomach. My fingers twitch on the paper. My pulse strums faster.

I can only imagine what my reader's reaction will be.
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