'The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.'
Thomas Szasz (b. 1920)
A little over an hour later, Lestrade was pushing me out of his office into the stone corridor of the Scotland Yard's office wing.
I cannot remember ever feeling that nervous at any previous point in my career – it had taken me an hour to even cogitate the things I wished to say, and I knew I still did not have them phrased correctly. How I wished then for Watson's magnificent gift of wordplay!
I fidgeted nervously with my cuff-links as Lestrade led the way through the station to the morgue, although I knew the way probably as well as he now, having trod it numerous times over the years.
"You look like you're about to go to an execution, Mr. Holmes," the man remarked, looking back at my pale, worried face.
I felt it. If Watson refused to hear me out, then this was it – the end of what had been the best ten years of my life, spent in the company of a man that was everything I wished I could possibly be – loyal, self-sacrificing, wise, kind-hearted and affectionate – everything I was not and probably never would be.
He did say that he had already forgiven me – such was the man's nature. But forgiveness alone cannot repair a rift between two people, no matter who they are or how great the amount of love between them.
And I realized just then that I was turning into a foolish sentimentalist, spouting clichés that belonged only in the pages of romantic periodicals such as the Strand Magazine. I shook myself sternly and pulled my emotions under a tight rein – I had to think clearly for this to work.
We passed through the large stone doors into the morgue, and Lestrade pointed wordlessly to a smaller examining room off to the side, where I could see a bright light coming from the open door.
"So, Lestrade, what did you say this unfortunate chap died of?" I said in a loud voice, knowing it would carry to the room, "and where is the body?"
"It's an odd business, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade played along with me, "he's over in that room there – and I think you'll be extremely intrigued by the marks on the man's throat. Bad business, this."
"It is a good thing I had to bring that air-gun along today, Lestrade, or I might have missed a very pretty little problem," I returned as we neared the door. I could see no movement from inside the room – but at least he had not shut the door.
"The autopsy has been done already, Mr. Holmes, so you can putter around with the poor devil all you like – oh, Doctor, I thought you were done by now!"
Lestrade's face was a picture of just the right balance of embarrassment and surprise as we reached the doorway, and I took back mentally every unkind thing I had ever said about the man.
My friend – or was he yet my friend? – had straightened up, stiffening sharply as he realized we were coming into the room, and he glared at Lestrade with a slightly venomous glare, pointedly ignoring me.
"I was just about to finish up here, Lestrade," he said in that same eerie calm voice he had used in my presence earlier.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Doctor. But, at any rate, can I leave Mr. Holmes with you – I have some paperwork to attend to, and the Chief Inspector told me to have your friend look at the body. I freely confess we are out of our depth," Lestrade went on glibly.
"Which is your usual state, Lestrade," I interjected, to keep up the appearance that the official suspected nothing wrong between us.
I was very much pleased to see Watson smile before he could stop himself, though he just as quickly erased the grin from his face.
"He was found along the banks of the Thames, Mr. Holmes, and – well, but of course, what am I thinking. The Doctor I am sure can give you the details. I shall see you both later, I assume? I will be in my office, gentlemen."
To hear Lestrade, one would never suspect that those speeches had been carefully scripted and rehearsed by us both, and the man's small nod and smile were nothing out of the ordinary as he shut the door, leaving the two of us in the small examining room.
I cleared my throat, hoping my innate near-frantic nervousness was not evident upon my face.
"I did not know you were a police surgeon."
Oh, well done. You come here to reconcile and that's the best you can manage.
"I ran into monetary difficulties after – after Mary's death, with the expenses, and I needed the extra money. Chance meeting with Lestrade got me the in-road that I needed and I have helped out on occasion over the last six months or so," he returned quietly, beginning to put away his medical instruments.
I cleared my throat again.
"So, what did the poor chap die of?"
Stop stalling. He is not going to let you talk forever.
"Not drowning, as they thought when I started the examination. No water in the lungs, although the body was dripping wet when found. Strangulation by someone with exceedingly sharp and very long fingernails," he returned in a flat voice, snapping his case shut and walking round me.
"Sound deductions," I replied a trifle uneasily, "can you tell me any more?"
For the love of heaven, say something other than cold facts!
"I am going to write up my report now, I am sure Lestrade can get a copy to you as soon as I am finished," he said, only briefly glancing at me before turning the doorknob.
As I knew it would be, it was locked.
Watson looked puzzled, shook the knob, and tried again, finally realizing it was locked. Then he whirled round, fixing a fierce angry glower upon me.
"You are responsible for this, Holmes. You are not on this case at all, are you?" he snapped.
"At the moment, I am engaged upon a more important matter than a drowned fisherman," I replied tentatively, looking nervously at him from across the dead man's examination table.
"And what, pray tell, can be more important to you than one of your deductive puzzles?" he snapped once again, tossing his bag down on the floor and folding his arms across his chest, scowling at me.
I took a deep breath.
"Admitting to you that I have made the mistake of my life," I said, glad that my voice was holding steady, so far at least.
"Yes, really. Confound it, Watson! You are not making this very easy on me, you know that?"
"You didn't make the last three years very easy on me, Holmes!"
You certainly deserved that statement, and much more.
I swallowed hard and pulled my irritation back under control.
"I was wrong, Watson, more wrong than I have ever been in my life. I have no words possible to – to tell you how sorry I am, what a fool I have been, deceiving you so," I said, my voice softening despite myself.
"I have already told you I forgave you for the deception, Holmes," he sighed, leaning wearily against the wall, rubbing at his temples, where I suddenly noticed with a pang of deep remorse how much grey hair had begun to mix with the brown, "I know your reasons were sound enough."
"I did not come here to ask for your forgiveness, Watson – in fact, it would rather make me feel better if you were not so confoundedly altruistic at times."
He glanced up to meet my look, and for the first time I saw his hard, cold gaze soften.
"Why did you come, then?"
"To – to –" I stopped, not sure of what I was supposed to say; I never had been in possession of Watson's gift of words, and now was no exception. I was flustered, nervous, and – I will freely admit it – scared. I ran my hand through my hair uneasily.
"You told me earlier, Watson, that you had forgiven me, but you could not forget," I said at last.
"Well, I have come here to ask you to never, please, make sure that you never forget what I have done," I said, my voice just a shade unsteady.
That got his attention, and for the first time he looked at me directly in the eyes.
"I need you to not forget, because I need you to constantly remind me of how heartless I can be," I said.
And this time it was I who could not meet his eyes; I had not the courage.
"I need you to never let me forget the pain I have caused by my disregard for anyone's feelings but my own, and especially the irreparable damage I have brought to yours."
I heard slow, measured footsteps as Watson walked round the examining table, consciously or unconsciously removing the barrier between us that we had been talking over.
"Irreparable is a rather strong word, my dear fellow," I heard him say quietly.
At hearing the more affectionate phrase, I finally mustered enough courage to look up at him, but he was staring at a spreading crack in the stone wall, his face a mask. I could deduce nothing from his features.
"I don't suppose it would do any good for me to apologize once again," I whispered.
"There is no need for that, Holmes; I told you I have already forgiven you," he said, looking up at me. "I forgave you the moment you appeared in my study – I would have paid or endured anything, even three years of that deep of a grief, to get you back alive and safe. I am not angry with you. A little hurt, perhaps, still – but not angry."
I was stunned at the words, uttered in a very simple, matter-of-fact tone.
"Then – then why all that of this morning?" I whispered.
"I needed time to adjust, Holmes, and I still do," Watson replied honestly, looking at me squarely, "it was a severe shock, and various aspects of it, emotionally and physically, have to be dealt with. I cannot just drop back into place where we left off, my dear fellow, it will take a bit of time."
A ray of hope was breaking its sunny way through the storm clouds looming around my heart.
"Then – "
"I lost my temper this morning, Holmes, because I simply needed to get out of that room, to get back to some kind of familiar normality, before my mind overloaded," he explained wearily, "and you would not let me leave. I had to get out of there for a while – the memories were too numerous and too sharp after such an extraordinary day."
"Why did you not tell me?"
"Because, to be quite honest, I was more bitter than anything else with you right then," Watson replied frankly.
I lowered my eyes again, shamed beyond measure.
"I needed something to grip onto, to anchor my life back down from where it was suddenly upheaved yesterday," he went on, "hence the work – the autopsy and so on. I needed routine to calm myself back down."
"Then – you are not really –"
"No, Holmes, I am not really going to pointedly ignore your return to life for the rest of the decade," he said, a fond smile finally breaking over his face as he saw the immense undisguised relief flood through mine, "I just need some time, time to adjust."
"Oh, we have plenty of that," I sighed, sagging against the wall in my relief.
"You really thought that I was going to ignore you for an indefinite period of time?" he asked incredulously, seeing my expression.
"Well, yes! I would not have blamed you if you had told me you never wanted to see me again," I murmured despondently, guilt once again flooding my being, "I would certainly have deserved it."
"Hmm. Yes, you probably would," he agreed with me, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth, "but no man gets forgiven because he deserves it, old chap – not even Sherlock Holmes."
"Thank the dear Lord for that," I said fervently, straightening up and nervously running a finger around my collar. Then in an impulsive gesture, I hesitantly extended my hand in an offering of thanks and friendship.
My dear friend grinned at me, the old Watson shining through at long last, and he moved a little closer to shake it firmly, his grip lingering for a moment. Then he stood leaning casually against the wall with his hands in his trouser pockets, looking up at me.
"So, Holmes," he went on mischievously, a tiny twinkle dancing back into those hazel eyes, "how long is it going to be before Lestrade comes back to unlock that door? I have to say, if we were going to have this discussion, I should much have preferred to have had it somewhere other than over a partially-dissected corpse."
"Your sense of humor has most definitely gotten rather morbid in three years, Watson!"
"Well now it matches your ghastly sarcasm, so what are you worried about?"
I laughed, for the first time all day, relief once again washing over me at the knowledge that now I could feel all would be right again. It might take weeks, even months, but it would all be made right.
"Are you hungry, Watson?"
"After just performing an autopsy?" he asked incredulously.
"Well, I mean –"
Watson chuckled softly.
"If that is an invitation to dinner, Holmes, I should be glad to accept," he said at last, grinning at me.
I was about to reply when the door opened.
"I say, gentlemen, I am so very sorry – some idiot new rookie in here came by and must have locked the thing!" Lestrade exclaimed, continuing the now unnecessary deception, "I apologize for the inconven –"
"Oh, do stow it, Lestrade," Watson snorted, moving over to pick up his black bag, "neither you nor Mr. Holmes are as good at fooling someone of my experience with your escapades as you think you are."
I gave a shout of gleeful laughter at the policeman's dumbfounded expression as he looked at me with a glare that clearly said, "Why did I agree to this in the first place?"
I brought my laughter down to a controlled chortle as I followed Watson out into the morgue, brushing past the police inspector. Watson grinned at me as we heard the official spluttering behind us like a leaking steam engine as we made our way down the corridor.
"Yes, my dear fellow?"
"What I said earlier," his voice was very hesitant, "about – about your going to the Diogenes Club if –"
"Yes, I remember."
"Well, I – I didn't really mean that, you know."
"Of course not. Just as I did not mean it when I so foolishly said yesterday that I was afraid you would betray my secret if I told you I was alive," I replied softly, "a poor choice of words, nothing more."
He nodded understandingly, and I realized then that all really was forgiven.
"How long will it take you to finish that report, Watson?"
"Maybe fifteen minutes," he replied, digging through his pockets for his notebook.
"Is Simpson's all right?"
"Holmes, I –"
"It's all right, old chap, I am paying," I reassured him, realizing he probably was indeed cutting expenses closely.
For a moment I was afraid he would be too proud to accept my offer, but he seemed to realize this was an effort on my part to try to make amends, a peace offering so to speak, and he finally acquiesced with a smile.
"Lestrade, do hurry up! Mr. Holmes and I have an engagement elsewhere!" he called back amusedly, and the puffing Scotland Yarder and I shared a knowing grin as he caught up with us.
All was indeed right again, or at least was on its way to being so.
That remarkable man that I was fortunate enough to be able to name my only friend had truly and completely forgiven me. Such a self-sacrificing love I still yet can barely comprehend; and though I should like to, I doubt that I am capable of returning it worthily.
But despite your forgiveness, Watson, I shall never forget, I promise you that. It shall not happen again, I swear.
Finis - reviews are always welcome!