January 7, 2008
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Seventy Minutes to London

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by nlr alicia
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<< This story is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>

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On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.

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Setting: This is an extra scene set after the close of events described in Doctor Watson’s chronicle The Stock-Broker’s Clerk

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Content Warnings: Chaste slash. Train angst.

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“Don’t stir, gents!” Hall Pycroft turned on his way out of our first class train compartment. The youthful face under his crop of sleek yellow hair shone like a new-minted penny. “I’ll be back with a steaming pot of tea in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Strong tea, mind. Not the jumped-up ditch water we had on the way out to Birmingham. Here’s luck!”

He flashed a bright grin that seemed directed not only at my friend Sherlock Holmes and myself but at a large portion of the dark countryside speeding past our compartment window. There was a sharp click as the wood paneled passageway door slid shut and I heard his polished boot heels recede down the corridor outside.

The plush cabin seemed to darken perceptibly in the vacuum left by our young friend’s departure. The walls covered in flocked red satin and the garnet red leather banquette seats absorbed the scant illumination, returning it as a ruddy glow like morning light before a storm. The only brightness shone from the brass luggage rails over head.

As our train barreled through the night toward the lights of London, I glanced at Holmes sitting against the wall at the far end of the opposite banquette. As I watched he kicked out one long leg, braced his other knee against the window frame and leant back against the cushion looking as if he had just created a settee out of thin air.

“Seventy minutes to London,” he said as his eyes drifted closed. “I believe it will be some little time before Mr. Pycroft returns with his tea. You might use the interval to relax after this rather strenuous day.”

“I think I’ll review my notes on the case while they’re fresh in my mind,” I replied and tugged a rumpled newspaper from my jacket pocket.

My companion’s only response was a disinterested, “Hmn.”

I settled back on the banquette and unfolded the newspaper across my knees. It had been instrumental in the case Holmes had just completed, but I could not in all truth say that was why I had taken care to preserve it. My reasons had little to do with coolly rational deduction.

Only a few hours earlier the paper in my lap had been purchased by a man claiming to be Mr. Arthur Pinner of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited. What he had read on its pages had caused him to run into the next room and attempt self-destruction by hanging.

Holmes had bent over the newspaper after Pinner’s rescue, raking it with his keen eyes in search of the cause of the man’s bizarre actions. I remembered his shout of triumph as he hit upon the item that was the key to the mystery.

“Look at this, Watson,” he cried. “It is a London paper, an early edition of the Evening Standard. Here is what we want. Look at the headlines: ‘Crime in the City. Murder at Mawson & Williams’s. Gigantic Attempted Robbery. Capture of the Criminal.’ Here, Watson, we are all equally anxious to hear it, so kindly read it aloud to us.”

Now as my eyes ran blindly over the newsprint in my lap I remembered the pang that shot through me at Holmes’s words. Sharing the conclusion of a baffling case with my old friend was a pleasure I had experienced but rarely since my wedding, nearly a year before.

When Holmes had walked through the door of my medical practice in the Paddington district that very morning, it was the first I had seen of him in three months. I had read of some of his more public cases, of course, but since March he had been no more than a memory. Still it was a memory that burned like a slow fuse, ready to flare in an instant.

The previous December I had scoured my belongings for my best tartan scarf. At a loss, I cut the twine bindings on a battered portmanteau, unopened since I had packed it at Baker Street. There was the scarf under a stack of outdated medical journals. As I tugged it free the smell of rough-cut Virginia tobacco filled the air. It was the blend Holmes smoked on crisp winter nights when we walked together under glowing lamps along the Strand.

I carefully folded the scarf, returned it to the box and closed the lid. I told Mary I had lost it. Even then it was easier to tell simple untruths than to face the larger ones. It was harder to lie to myself.

I knew I missed Sherlock Holmes with an ache that went deeper than the old bullet wound in my shoulder. I missed the wry twist of his mouth when he put his lips to a cup of tea that had gone cold. I missed the way his nervous fingers plucked at a loose thread on the arm of his chair as he read. I missed the smell of violin rosin and sulfur. When I left Baker Street, I left all those little things behind and a thousand more.

But what I truly missed ran deeper, even, than I could confess to myself. When I lay alone in my bed, watching moonlight mark the hours with its steady march across the wall, I didn’t think of Baker Street. I didn’t think of violin music in the stillness of the night and I didn’t think of Sherlock Holmes. I stared up into the darkness and tried to remember why I thought I could be John Watson without them.

A wide sway of the train car jounced my hat from the seat beside me and I came to myself with a start. The wheels below chattered and whined as I bent forward to retrieve my bowler from the floor.

As I sat back and smoothed the newspaper across my knees I saw a flicker of movement and glanced up. Holmes was still sitting in the same supremely relaxed posture, his head lolling gently with the sway of the train. I watched his chiseled profile, highlighted by flashes from the lamps that flicked by outside our window at odd intervals.

I knew I had caused the breach between us and the burden of healing it was mine. As much as friendship, what we’d shared in our rooms at 221B Baker Street was the diamond certainty that come trial or triumph, neither would go it alone. I’d broken that unspoken compact and, what was worse, I had done it for the sake of a mistake.

I could not will things between us to be the way they had been, but I knew I must do what I could to make them better. Holmes had provided the opening by stopping at my door. The next few minutes, I decided, held my best hope. At that instant, I was resolved.

It was not a battle that could be won by gallant charge. Rather it would take gradual forward advances. The opening gambit was before me. I had to break the silence.

I was under no illusion that Holmes was actually asleep. I hadn’t observed him at close quarters and at great length for years without learning to see through his more obvious dodges. The subtle flare of his nostrils showed he was thinking through a problem.

It was part of our mutual accommodation that I would leave Holmes in peace when he indicated he required it and he would give such considerations as pretending not to notice my limp when it was more than usually pronounced.

But if I was any judge of his moods, and I knew without doubt that I was still, there was every indication he would not open his mouth again until our train pulled into the station. Checking my watch I calculated we had already sped well beyond Birmingham’s trailing suburbs and time was waning fast. I could not stand on subtlety.

I cleared my throat and said distinctly, “As you predicted, our Mr. Pycroft is taking some time with the tea.”

Holmes didn’t open his eyes as he answered, “There is one elderly steward on this night route and he is no doubt sound asleep in the engineer’s office. I wish Mr. Pycroft luck in sniffing him out.”

“You know this route well,” I said. If I’d hoped to draw him out I’d picked the wrong bait. He grunted and sunk lower in his seat. I would not be discouraged so easily.

“The lad was exceedingly pleased by the offer you made in the cab,” I said as I gave the newspaper in my hands a brisk shake that noisily reasserted its folds. I settled it back on my lap with a substantial rustle. “Do you think you think you can help him find a new position so quickly?”

Holmes made a great show of stirring himself, blinking and stretching as he sat up. “I said as much,” he answered gruffly. “I’m not in the habit of lying to clients no matter how credulous.”

“I suppose you must have many grateful former clients among the banks and insurance firms in the City,” I said lightly. “Have you had any recent cases in that quarter?”

“Life goes on, Watson,” he said, studying some scratches on the toe of his left boot with great interest. “With or with out my chronicler.”

I took my opening. “How are things at Baker Street these days?” I asked. “I trust the old rooms still defy the maid’s dust cloth and Mrs. Hudson’s patience?”

“Your aspidistra died,” Holmes said, flicking a bit of lint from his trouser knee.

I blinked. “My–?”

“The one by the fireplace. It died,” Holmes went on, speaking apparently to the window. “I have quite enough to worry about without concerning myself with your abandoned botany projects. I have never had an aptitude for practical gardening,” he said, sparing me a sardonic glance, “As you once took pains to point out.”

“Holmes,” I said, “Some day you will have to relinquish that old list of mine. I barely knew you when I wrote it. And besides,” I added despite my better judgment, “It was entirely accurate.”

“Far be it from me to question your diagnosis of my character, Doctor,” he said. “I am sure your many patients are duly grateful for your perspicacity.”

“Are you quite finished?” I said evenly. “I had hoped we could continue our conversation of the morning.”

“It was very like old times, wasn’t it?” Holmes answered distantly. He shrugged his shoulders and his long spare frame seemed to fill out like a glove slipped over an invisible hand. A moment later he sat tall and straight and regarded me with his brows arced quizzically over his blue-gray eyes.

Watching him re-embody himself as the famous Sherlock Holmes, I was forcibly reminded of his true talent as a mimic and actor. It was jolting to realize that, at that instant, I couldn’t be sure whether I was seeing the man or a performance of him.

The off-putting manner he’d adopted since boarding the train was becoming more worrying as the minutes ticked by. There was but one reason I could think that he should be in such a dark humor after an invigorating day spent on a case with many points of interest for his quick mind.

“You managed to resolve Mr. Pycroft’s problem with remarkable speed,” I said carefully. “Do you have another case lined up immediately?”

“I would have resolved it sooner were I not hampered by the summer railway schedule,” he said, returning to his examination of the window frame. “And, no, Doctor, I have no other cases to distract me from the black fit that’s sure to follow.”

“You’re dosing again,” I said. It was less a question than a request for confirmation.

He shrugged and glanced at the window. “I must occupy myself,” he said without inflection.

“I assume you have it with you now,” I said calmly. I schooled myself not to look for the telltale outline of the slim syringe case he sometimes pocketed when traveling.

His gaze remained fixed on the night outside as he answered. “I left it behind,” he said. “When our cabman turned through your neighborhood this morning…” His words trailed off.

I stared, rattled by the implication. “You didn’t mean to ask me to supply you–” I began.

He interrupted me with a withering glance. “Naturally, I didn’t,” he said. “You think my judgment has deteriorated so far as to think you’d support my filthy habit?” He flicked his hand in a dismissive gesture. “It simply crossed my mind to look for an alternative… distraction. It was purely impulsive. Through sheer good fortune you were free to come along. C’est tout.”

As I sat absorbing this revelation, I refolded the unread newspaper on my knee and tucked it back into my jacket pocket. My eye lit upon the dusty and somewhat careworn bowler sitting on the seat beside me.

“Well, I can’t offer very stimulating distraction at the moment,” I said, “But perhaps you could give my hat brim the benefit of your deductive powers.” I offered the object to him and went on, “I dropped it in the road yesterday. Would you care to tell me on what street? And you might give me the number of the hansom that nearly ran it over, just as a point of interest, of course.”

The corners of his lips, rather paler than normal I noticed, quirked in a smile. He gave a small wave of his slender fingers. “I had a chance to study it in the cab ride to the station this morning. I deduced, of course, that you had begun volunteering your services at the indigents’ infirmary in Petticoat Lane. I had planned to ask you about it at the proper moment, of course. You’ve quite spoiled the surprise.”

I laughed, amazed as ever at my friend’s powers of observation. His smile widened and it touched his eyes.

“As to the number of the offending cab, I confess I do have my limits. Although,” he said, spreading his hands palm-up in a gesture of self-deprecation, “I could possibly narrow it down to three given that it was a Friday.”

I chuckled and deposited my hat back on the seat beside me. “You dispensed with that little puzzle too easily,” I said as I cast a glance around the compartment in search of another means to tempt my friend’s interest. “What more diversion can I offer?”

When he didn’t respond immediately, I looked up. His angular face had taken on a distinct flush.

“Hum,” he said, “Yes. There is one thing… Doct–” He bit off the last word and his glance flicked from my face to the door.

The next instant there was a sharp click and the panel slid aside. Mr. Pycroft’s head appeared in the gap.

“Well, the steward’s got himself off God knows where,” he said, flashing a broad grin that belied the irritation in his words, “The bally train’s deserted. Seems to be running itself. I don’t know. If we wait for the station I could stand you something a bit heartier than railway tea… or I could keep looking?” He cocked one pale eyebrow in an amiable gesture that said it was all one to him.

Before I could come up with a plausible reason to send our young friend away Holmes jumped in.

“A pot of tea would be admirable,” he said briskly. “If there’s an open compartment in the last car the freight handlers will be there gambling. Offer to ignore them and they will be most accommodating.”

“Say no more,” said Mr. Pycroft with a bright laugh. The door closed with a snap.

As the young man’s footsteps faded, I turned to my companion. A cigarette flared in his hand and he exhaled a ribbon of gray smoke.

“Holmes, what were you about to say?” I asked, watching the smoke curl toward the top of the window.

“Phah,” he said lightly, “It’s of no consequence. You know you really must get by Baker Street sometime, old boy,” he rattled on. “I seem to have wound up with a pair of your best gloves and several collar buttons I can’t identify. Also Mrs. Hudson would be very glad to see you. She mentions it often.”

“That’s somewhat surprising,” I replied. “As she came to tea only last Wednesday. What you were going to ask me?”

Holmes gave me a sharp look then said flatly, “I would like your permission to sell our box at the opera. This season is closed but I believe I can get a reasonable price for next one.”

I frowned. “Certainly,” I said. “I have no objection.”

Holmes shifted in his seat and crossed his legs. The toe of his shoe began to bob in counterpoint to the rhythm of the train’s sway.

“You wouldn’t care to use it with Mrs. Watson?” he said.

The facets of our conversation suddenly snapped into sharp focus. We had arrived, I realized, at the fulfillment of observations Holmes had no doubt been compiling throughout the day. It was the very subject I’d hoped yet never sought to broach. I felt a sudden chill and glanced at the window. The landscape sleeting past was visible only as the dark silhouette of bare trees.

I deliberated before responding to Holmes’s question. “Mary,” I said at last, “Is not much enamored of musical performance. She has a particular aversion to opera.”

“You were not always a lover of opera yourself,” Holmes observed.

“I learned to appreciate it,” I replied, giving him a brief smile. “I don’t believe Mary will.”

After a pause he spoke again, looking at me levelly. “It’s not my place to ask…”

I sighed. “No,” I agreed, “And I’m very glad you did not let that stand in your way.”

Holmes waited while I gathered my thoughts.

“Mary and I are going through a rather… troubled time. We’ve been married ten months and…” I hesitated. It was wrong to discuss such things when I had not resolved them with my wife, I berated myself.

Before I could back down, Holmes said quietly, “Ten months is hardly enough time to start a family,”

His eyes met mine and the frank openness of his expression undid my reserve.

“That is true,” I said. “There are other difficulties. Mary is a wonderful woman.”

Holmes took a long drag on his cigarette and waited.

I set my shoulders and met my friend’s eyes resolutely. “The circumstances of my meeting Mary were fraught with incident. Unusually so,” I said. “Her strength of character shone in adversity. The challenges of running a small household are not so stimulating.”

Holmes’s expression didn’t change. I spoke on steadily. “For her part, she saw the two of us as ‘knights-errant.’ And a quiet residential medical practice doesn’t provide adequate scope for knight-errantry. It has been an adjustment on both our parts and a not very successful one, particularly of late. I’m sure you saw the travel cases at the top of the stairs when I went up to tell her I was coming with you.”

Holmes nodded.

I went on, “I remember you were waiting on the porch when I came down. I don’t have to ask if you heard the burden of our conversation before you stepped out. Mary plans to spend some time in the North. I don’t know if she’ll return.”

We sat in silence. At last I said, “You didn’t need to have these things explained.”

“I saw the signs,” he acknowledged, “The luggage. Unopened correspondence in your sitting room. Work that took you away from home. The state of your hat, un-brushed since yesterday. And there were the remains of your breakfast.”

“Cold ham,” I said and smiled in spite of myself. “Cold ham does not a bad marriage make,” I said with a half-hearted attempt at levity. “But it is not a promising sign.”

Holmes stood abruptly and turned to the window. With a sharp twist of his fingers he released the sash and dropped the upper pane a few inches. He flicked his half-smoked cigarette through the gap.

I saw sparks dash against the glass outside as cool wind brushed through my hair. In an instant Holmes had shut the window and reseated himself. He was closer now. We regarded each other across the space of a few hands-breadth.

“I didn’t wish it,” he said, his gray eyes fixed on mine.

“But you foresaw it,” I suggested.

He gave a small shrug. “You give me too much credit,” he said. “I don’t have second sight.”

I offered him a weary smile. “First sight might have been enough.” I sank back against the banquette feeling more myself than I had in a very long time.

I pressed a hand to my eyes and chuckled softly. “Holmes, I have always said you have a gift for helping people to unburden themselves. I never thought I would find it so personally beneficial.”

“Yes,” he said, “Hum.”

His voice sounded strangely distant. I lowered my hand and looked at him curiously.

“Holmes?” I said.

He was leaning forward in a curiously taut pose as if he might spring forward at any moment. His quick fingers beat out a strange rhythm against his knees.

I felt a sudden urge to reach out and still his hands. Instead, I rubbed my palms against my thighs.

“Watson– John,” he began.

I blinked in surprise. It was strange and peculiarly pleasing to hear my Christian name on his lips.

He continued to stare ahead as he spoke. “I should like to… I should unburden myself as well. When I said just now that I didn’t wish ill on your marriage, I never did, but…” He exhaled a long breath then said evenly. “But I imagined how it would be if you had not married. I would think to an ethicist that amounts to the same thing.”

I struggled to find a reaction that fit this confession. At last I settled for the one I truly felt.

“Despite any hypothetical ethicist’s views,” I said slowly, “I’m… glad.”

His head came up and he stared at me. The tension in his face made his angular features stand out in sharp relief. The eyes that held mine were strangely bright.

Instinct took over. I leant forward and reached for his hand. He jumped as our fingers met but I did not relinquish the touch. My hands seemed large and clumsy next to his.

I looked into his eyes and said quietly, “I too imagined it.”

He breathed out slowly. The tension in his hands relaxed until they were less like captured birds. He turned his hands together so that his fingers were held between my palms.

“Do you–” he said, then gave an impatient little toss of his head and began again. “If you found yourself free again,” he said, still studying our joined hands as he pronounced each word with deliberation, “Do you believe you could give me a second chance? Could you forgive me my blindness and come…” He looked up and met my eyes, “Would you come home?”

The breath stopped in my throat. I, forgive him? Forgive him for my mistake? For the second time that night, facets shifted and slotted into new configurations.

“Home. I– I don’t– ” I said dully, struggling to arrange the right sequence of words from those cascading through my mind.

I saw his lips tighten. I gripped his hands between my own. “No, Holmes, listen–” I began urgently.

His fingers pulled free of mine and his eyes turned steely as he slid back on the bench. I had opened my mouth to protest when his glance flicked toward the door and I heard footsteps clatter outside. I had just sat back when the door slid open and Hall Pycroft bounded into the tiny room holding aloft a battered metal teapot and two tin cups.

“Success!” he cried. I had just time to retrieve my hat before he heaved himself on to the banquette beside me and gave a bright laugh. “And with ten minutes yet to London.”

Pycroft bent forward, arranging the metal cups on the carpeted floor of the compartment and biting his lip in concentration as he poured out the tea. “Say,” he said as he filled the first cup and moved to the second, “Those fellows were right good sports, Mr. Holmes. I won twelve bob off them! All in all, what with not being arrested for murder and finding prospect of a new position, it’s just about the luckiest day of my life. This tea’s fairly hot, too!”

I sought Holmes’s eyes over Mr. Pycroft’s bowed head, but he was staring fixedly at the cups on the floor.

“Twelve bob!” Pycroft said and chuckled merrily. “It goes to show my old Ma was right. She used to say, my boy, the longest night in the world’s still got a sunrise after it.”

“Sugar,” Holmes said sternly.

Tea sloshed onto the carpet.

“Pardon?” said Pycroft, staring up at Holmes, confusion writ large in his young face.

“Dr. Watson is rather wrung out after this arduous day,” Holmes said calmly. “A bit of strong, sweet tea is just the thing. Do you have sugar?” He glanced expectantly at Mr. Pycroft’s breast pocket as though a casket of sugar might be hidden there.

“Ah,” said Mr. Pycroft with a valiant attempt at his exploded buoyancy. “I do not. But I think I saw some… somewhere…” His eyes went unfocussed as he seemed to mentally retrace his steps from one end of the train to the other.

He climbed to his feet and stood looking numbly at the teapot in his hand. “I’ll just leave this, shall I?” he said and held it out to Holmes who took it gravely.

“Certainly,” he said. “Do hurry back.”

The young man gave Holmes a shaky smile, glanced at me with something like despair and all but stumbled into the passage. He turned as if to speak, closed his mouth, and slid the door shut without another word.

I laughed shakily as Holmes bent forward to place the teapot beside the cups on the floor.

“Holmes,” I said. “I think you’re challenging our Mr. Pycroft’s near limitless faith in human kind.”

Holmes leant back in his seat, crossed his arms on his chest and regarding me steadily. His pale gray eyes had gone the color of slate. He spoke in the silence. “I would much prefer, Doctor,” he said stiffly, “If it is going to cause you such distress, that you erase our recent conversation from your mind. I do not think your hat can survive much more.”

I looked down to find the brim of my hat bent between my clenched hands. I dropped it at my feet. The time for thought was past. I moved and closed the distance between us in a step landing on one knee at Holmes’s feet. At my sudden action his muscles flexed and I think in his boxer’s instincts he might have struck me across the jaw had my hands not caught his at that moment.

“Holmes, listen,” I gasped. His hands jerked in mine but I held tight, fighting for control. I willed his staring eyes to meet mine. “There’s no time. Not enough time to tell you what a blind idiot I’ve been, to beg forgiveness, to show you my heart. It’s not possible–”

His eyes went wide and with a broken sigh he bent toward me. As he did I touched his face, holding it gently, lowering it toward mine. My lips found the corner of his mouth and I ran a trail of kisses across his lips. They parted and I uttered a small groan as I claimed his mouth. Virginia tobacco and violin music in the dark night, I thought nonsensically as I tasted his lips and tongue.

The carriage gave a sudden lurch and our lips parted. I gasped at the loss and reached out, but his strong fingers closed on mine. His dark pupils, his wet rose-colored lips, his tousled black hair with a curl falling across his pale forehead – all stood out in sharp relief.

“Time, Doctor,” he said under his breath. “Time.” A wild smile lit his eyes as he breathed, “And nothing more to say.”

He released my hands and pushed hard against my chest. I heard a click, the door slid, and I had just time to hurl myself back across the compartment when Hall Pycroft stepped in, looking a shadow of his ebullient self. I felt cold air brush my cheek. I looked over to see Holmes leaning easily against the open window frame, night wind ruffling his hair.

Mr. Pycroft waved the small silver casket vaguely in the air. “Sugar,” he said, hazarding a grin. “It was in the- oh, dear.” His face fell.

I followed his crestfallen gaze to the floor. The teapot was overturned and a dark puddle spreading on the carpet. I felt a cold, dampness on one knee of my trousers and quickly crossed my legs.

Holmes tutted sadly and turned away from the window. “Ah, well, Mr. Pycroft,” he said, reaching to the luggage rail above our heads and lifting down his silky top hat. “No matter. Journeys end, as the saying goes.” He ran a hand through his tousled hair and donned his hat.

“Yes,” Mr. Pycroft said and staggered slightly as the train gave a slight lurch and a hiss of steam sounded outside. He looked disconsolately at the sugar casket in his hand. “Well, we can but try, eh? But what a day, Mr. Holmes. What a day!” He grinned and something of the old merriment shone in his face as he tucked the sugar tin in his jacket pocket and bent toward the teapot and cups. “Theft and murder and such chicanery and me at the middle of it. I’ve never seen the like.”

“Indeed, Mr. Pycroft,” said Holmes as his eyes met mine over the young man’s back. “Watson, I think I promised you a case that would present certain unusual and outré features. Was I right in saying those are as dear to you as they are to me?”

“Without doubt, Holmes,” I said, grinning like a schoolboy as I retrieved my bent and battered hat. “I wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.”

A din of voices and rattling trolley wheels rose steadily as yellow gaslight brightened our window. Mr. Pycroft straightened.

“Well, that’s that,” he said as he placed the tea things tidily by the door. He stood and smoothed his formerly neat black suit. “I’m almost sorry this adventure is over. It was quite exciting, wasn’t it?”

“It had its points of interest,” Holmes said, ushering Pycroft through the sliding door into the passage. He half-turned and reached back toward me. I offered him my arm and his hand slipped around my elbow. We walked out toward the platform arm in arm as we had used to walk together down the Strand. It felt like coming home.

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It took several minutes to negotiate the platform, a good few to convince Mr. Pycroft that it was not necessary to stand us a round of drinks in the nearest pub, and a handful more to pack him into a cab back to Potter’s Terrace.

Through all this I took special care not to find myself standing alone with Holmes. At last I saw the retreating back of Mr. Pycroft’s cab round the corner and I turned to my friend. He was studying my face with a tenderness I had never known.

I swallowed hard and said, “I must talk with Mary.”

He nodded. “You will not have far to look for me,” he murmured under the din of the travelers shuffling past.

“As soon as I can,” I promised.

Holmes flashed a small smile and turned to go.

I reached out and touched him lightly on the sleeve. He spun back toward me, his lips parted.

“Later,” I said softly, “When you get back to Baker Street. You won’t–”

My words broke off. He stared at me for a moment then a smile touched the corners of his eyes.

“Don’t worry, Doctor,” he said. “I’m quite distracted enough.”

His fingers brushed mine so gently I might have thought I imagined it if the touch hadn’t left my skin burning. He turned quickly and walked away, slipping easily through the crowd. I watched the silhouette of his tall figure recede, fading into the shadows beyond the lamplight.

I made my way back to my small house to find it standing dark and chill despite the warm June night.

I would have much to do the next day. To start, I would have to arrange to meet Mary and prevail upon my neighbor to cover my absence. Meanwhile, there were a few hours yet remaining of night.

As I turned down the lamp and made my way upstairs, the words of old Mrs. Pycroft came back to me and I smiled in the dark. When this long night ended at last, it would be a very beautiful sunrise indeed.

fin.

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