Again, many thanks to all of you who took the time to cheer me up last week! This was, as I said, never supposed to be this long, but anyway. Conclusion ahoy!
For an indeterminable period of time that seemed more like days than minutes or hours, I stalked the city in a blind fury, oblivious to the rain that still drizzled down in as dreary a mood as I was and completely careless as to where I went or ended up.
Finally, when a trickle of water worked its way under my collar and birthed a shiver that traveled the entire length of my spine, I decided to go fume indoors somewhere…but where, at this hour of the night? It was after midnight, and the only places open this time of the night were entirely too raucous and cheerful to be congenial to maintaining anger.
And I most definitely was not about to return to Baker Street.
The booming of Big Ben sounded rather near as it struck the half-hour, and I glanced up in surprise, seeing that my rambles had taken me to Westminster…only a block or two from Whitehall.
And thereby, only a few more blocks to Pall Mall.
Of course; Mycroft would be in such a foul mood after being awakened that he would be powder to my match, fueling my fury even more. And he might even be sympathetic for the way I had been played a fool.
I turned my collar up and set off for his lodgings in Pall Mall.
"Sherlock, what in the blazes are you doing here at this hour?"
My brother goes to bed without fail at precisely 10:00 each night and is not accustomed to rising outside his habitual 6:04 a.m. sharp; he can be a veritable bear when awoken at any (and every) other time of the day or night. And he looked rather formidable, clad in a black dressing-gown and growling worse than an enraged animal himself.
"Mycroft, I have to talk to you," I snapped brusquely.
He was not amused, not that I had thought he would be.
"Sherlock, no one should be about or even talking in this city at this hour of the morning!" he hissed, shutting the door behind us to keep the sound from waking the other residents of the flat. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"I'm sorry, brother, I did not realise it was so late, but this –"
"So late! Early, rather! It is almost one in the morning, Sherlock!"
The time made me realise…I'd no idea…where had the day gone? It seemed only this morning I was lying listlessly on our sofa in Baker Street, performing mathematical calculations in my head to pass the crawling seconds. Now I was caught up in a web of ridiculous red herrings and betrayed trusts.
My brother glared at me for a moment in silence before turning the gas up and collapsing on the closest chair that was sturdy enough to hold his ponderous bulk, motioning me to one across from him.
"It had better be a matter of national importance, Sherlock, to wake me at this ungodly hour. You know I dislike altering my habits!"
I returned his glare darkly, slouching down with a scowl after shedding my wet coat on his spotless linoleum (another reason he hated my visits, for he kept the place in a state of neatness bordering on a mausoleum and I took a childish pleasure in destroying it whenever possible).
"Well, spit it out, Sherlock, I haven't all day! Why the devil are you not home in bed like a decent person?"
I frowned and began to detail the events of the day in the worst possible terms, venting my anger and frustration on him and (I admit it now, to my shame) rather exaggerating certain details.
My brother listened to my pathetic story with a very strange expression on his face, alternating among disbelief, incredulity, what-the-devil-is-that-idiot-blathering-about, and what appeared to be a growing realisation…of what, I had no idea.
When I had finished my ranting and sat back angrily to take part in a glaring match with him, he completely annihilated my foul mood by bursting into a compulsive fit of uproarious laughter that would have woken every inhabitant of the house had they all not been older and even heavier sleepers than he.
Needless to say, I was astounded at his reaction and not a little put out. Nothing can possibly be more frustrating than to be laughed at when one is trying to remain incensed.
"Really, Mycroft," I said severely. "This is hardly the reaction I expected from you over such a serious matter."
"I can't believe he actually pulled that off…" My infernal brother's chortle was barely understandable, and I blinked in disbelief, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees to glare at him.
"What?" I gaped, aghast…did that mean he had prior knowledge of the ghastly business?
My brother sighed, a last fit of hiccoughing laughter running through his obese frame in a disgusting ripple before he subsided into his staid composure at last, the brief fit of insanity over – Jupiter was back in orbit, thank heavens.
"Sit back, Sherlock," he said calmly, his eyes awash with a light of respect that I had not seen in them in quite some time. And, more disconcertingly, I had the distinct feeling that the respect was not directed toward me.
"Mycroft, do not tell me you knew of this beforehand!" I growled, my ire deepening at the web of deception that had been so effectively woven round me by the one man I considered a trustworthy person.
"Of course I knew of it, you dolt," he snapped abruptly. "I even suggested the calling card bit as the easiest – and cheapest – way to ensure it drew your attention."
I felt my jaw grow slack and hit my collar.
"Close your mouth, Sherlock, that is a disgusting habit. Of course the Doctor came to me first – he freely admitted that, when trying to outwit a Holmes, he needed the help of an equally brilliant mind."
"And you helped him plan this – this farce," I spat. My own brother! "You took pleasure in making a fool of me –"
"Sherlock, that will be quite enough," my brother growled in a low rumble that rattled the china in the cabinet. "You are acting like a spoilt adolescent instead of a grown man, and I am disgusted and ashamed to call you any relation to me whatsoever. Keep your mouth closed for the duration of what I have to say, or I shall throw you out into the street, is that clear?"
Ever since my brother had made that identical threat when I had accidentally dyed his hair orange in that one horrible experiment in grammar school, I had always known the wisdom of doing what he said despite my pride.
I shut my mouth and sat back, though if he only knew what I was thinking…
Mycroft leaned back in his chair, folding his massive arms and looking calmly at me. "The Doctor had to notify me in any case; in the event that the Yard got into some trouble over the juggling of paperwork and the false reports, someone had to be willing to see that any evidence of such was destroyed – he would not let the men there suffer just to perform this for you, Sherlock."
"You…destroy Scotland Yard evidence?" I asked feebly.
I received the you-are-such-an-idiot-Sherlock eyeroll. "Who do you think destroyed the police reports that you and the Doctor had burgled Lord Murdle's estate last spring? You know the charges were dropped, but do you know how and why?"
I blinked, realisation dawning on me again for the second time that night.
"The Yard does only what Whitehall allows it to, Sherlock," my brother sighed impatiently with a wave of a fat hand. "I had to be notified and promised to take care of matters should they get out of hand. I am pleased that they did not; I really have not the time to bother with you at the moment. No offense meant, brother."
"So you were privy to the deception the entire time? How could you, Mycroft! I've been made an absolute fool of!" I snapped angrily, slamming my hand down on the side table.
"Honestly, Sherlock. I've never met a man so absolutely selfish as you are," my brother hissed in a fury I had only rarely seen.
I bristled, and he leant forward to repeat the words.
"You are the most self-centred individual in the country, without question!" he shot at me with that glare that could send ambassadors and dignitaries scurrying to do his bidding.
"You have a friend who, not as a Doctor, but as a friend, actually cares for you, though I cannot for the life of me understand why," Mycroft snapped. "And when he came to me yesterday, worried half to death about you and not well himself, telling me he was actually fearing for your sanity or permanent damage to your health due to your depression the last few weeks, I was more than happy to aid him in a plot – any plot, however simplistic – to try to yank you out of your selfish little dream-world."
"I have had fits of depression before, Mycroft, and you both know it!" I growled.
"Not like this one, and not as deep, and you know that, brother," he replied severely.
"It's just another of his ruses to make a point about my cocaine," I growled with a curse, wanting to throw something large and preferably sharp-cornered at my brother's insufferable head for his superiority. Why could Watson not leave well enough alone?
My brother's eyes softened in a sad sort of despair, and he shook his head. "This is not about seeing you off that infernal drug, Sherlock, though I wish to heaven you would allow him to help you with that as well. This is about wanting you to be happy."
Happy. Bah. The only time I was truly happy was when…
…when I was investigating a puzzle worthy enough to tax my brain…
Like a bucket of cold water over my burning, roiling anger, the knowledge that I had so badly over-reacted suddenly doused everything in its sickening plunge. I had not been deceived as a joke, a prank, but as an attempt to engage my attention when all else had failed over the last fortnight…
Watson knew what made me the happiest; and since he obviously could not actually commit crimes himself to give me that, he had done the next best thing and simulated them – no doubt just trying to bring me some enjoyment for as long as the deception could hold out.
Mycroft, annoying as always, read that entire train of thought on my face, and his sober eyes softened a bit. "You know, Sherlock, he did get those three Scotland Yarders to help him as well – they all must genuinely hold you in some sort of regard at least to be willing to go to that trouble for you."
"I warned him not to pick anyone he was not sure could be trusted," Mycroft remarked, leaning back in his chair comfortably. "He mentioned something about knowing the right men for the job, I agreed to cover their tracks if it came to it, and he left. I knew no more about it until you told me just now – but you have to admit it was a rather good plan, Sherlock."
I nodded slowly, reluctantly. Too good, actually…I would have carried the investigation on for quite a bit longer had Lestrade not accidentally messed up the time differences.
My brother's voice dropped its stern tone into a softer one as he went on.
"Someday, brother mine, you must realise that there really is more to life than your petty problems."
The last little bit of inflammatory anger suddenly left me deflated and unhappy in the knowledge that I had behaved absolutely deplorably to a group of men whom I actually should have been thanking for a gallant, if somewhat insufficient, effort to rouse me from my boredom and depression.
My first order of business in the morning would be to call upon three rather (atypically) decent specimens of the Yard's constabulary.
My elder brother looked at me, and his eyes softened even more from their usual icy gleam. "I believe you should be heading home now, Sherlock. And you might check on the Doctor, brother, he did look a bit peaked when he was here this morning."
I nodded mechanically, picking my coat up from the floor with a wave of remorse for my atrocious conduct. I owed Watson an apology for my churlish behaviour, and by heaven I would give him one if I had to choke my pride down the entire way back to Baker Street to do so…which very likely was what I would have to do.
Mycroft's large face creased in an even larger smile as he let me out. I barely registered the words he said in parting, my mind already traveling the path back to my flat.
In retrospect, I do hope that I thanked him…
I jumped out of the cab and tossed the driver the fare and a tip, very grateful indeed that I had found a vehicle before leaving the Whitehall district, for the weather was simply miserable. Warm rain was almost more annoying than cold rain, in my opinion, because it first gave the illusion of pleasantness and then quickly spiraled downward into a soaking freezing chill that bit to the bone.
I unlatched the door and let myself in, hanging my sopping coat in the hall quietly so as not to awaken Mrs. Hudson. As I neared the top of the stairs, I could see from the flickering light under the sitting room door that the fire was still burning, and so I noiselessly opened the door and stepped in, stopping with a sigh of remorse at the sight that met me.
Watson was fast asleep on the couch I had been sprawled upon earlier (though it had been pulled as close to the fire as it could get without being singed), an afghan haphazardly twisted round his legs. But atop of the newspapers I had left littering the floor lay a journal, a dulled pencil, a thermometer, and a bottle and spoon with a sticky residue adhering to the bowl. I frowned in remorse and picked up the bottle to read the label, noticing that my friend's breathing was rather hoarse and heavy.
He had been dosing himself with a tonic. I glanced at his face, which was rather flushed and not from the fire, either. A small damp washrag lay beside his head on the couch, no doubt having slid off when he moved in his sleep.
He had been waiting up for me to return but had finally succumbed to slumber when I had been so late, the dear chap. When I laid a hand lightly on his forehead and found that he was indeed in a low fever, I noted with some surprise a very uncomfortable tightening sensation in the vicinity of my chest that must be the rarely (for me) felt one of guilt. And I realised I was far more worried than I should ever admit to a soul.
I remembered the slightly glazed, over-bright look in his eyes before I had left the Yard and suddenly wanted to kick myself from Baker Street to Euston Station. He had been ill, not emotional. But he had left the flat hoping to reach Lestrade in time to prevent my finding out the truth and continuing the performance for a bit longer.
How long had he been feeling thus? I suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea what had been going on around me in this house for the last week or two. I had been so self-centred in my depression that I had not paid attention to anything around me that was actually important. Mycroft, much as I hated and refused to admit it, was correct as always – I was being incredibly selfish.
When I withdrew my hand Watson stirred uneasily, a sudden coughing fit overtaking him for a moment before it passed and he took a wheezing breath, unconsciously shivering despite the heat of the blaze.
I hastily piled an enormous amount of coal on the fire and dashed noiselessly into my room to yank the covers off my bed – I would not be needing them tonight, certainly – and then returned to the sitting room to put them over him. I was ridiculously glad to see his shivering cease after a few moments, and only when it had did I replace the cold cloth on his head.
When I did so, he murmured something unintelligible, turning his head, and then his eyes flickered open slowly, fever-bright and glinting in the glow from the fire. I mentally called myself every name in the book for what I had said earlier…was the damage reparable?
He blinked sleepily for a moment before his eyes fastened upon my face, which I hoped conveyed the deep worry gnawing at my conscience.
It must not have, for he frowned and struggled to sit up before I pushed him gently back down, noting with another twinge of worry that he did not even attempt to fight my hand. That did not stop his speaking, however.
"Tried to wait up for you," he said hoarsely, obviously making a polite effort to not cough in my face. "I – wanted to apologise…"
"No, my dear Watson," I said softly, steeling myself for what I was about to – what I had to – say; I did not make a regular habit of apologising for my actions and it never failed to grate on my nerves more even than a policeman's plodding slowness on a case. But…this was one instance where it had to be done; he deserved that much from me at least after his efforts.
"You've nothing to apologise for, Watson; rather I do. I…I am very sorry, old friend, for reacting so selfishly to your trying to help me."
I breathed a sigh of relief and felt the perspiration of nervousness (or from the inferno I had rather stupidly just created in our fireplace) trickle down my neck and hit my collar. I had said the rehearsed words – rehearsed the entire way back in the cab, I might add – and it was over with, thank heaven.
Perhaps I should make a habit of regularly apologising for things…it gave one a rather good, almost…clean…feeling inside. Strange, very strange…but not altogether unpleasant. I filed that interesting fact away for later; I had more pressing matters to attend to here.
My friend was about to answer me when his face contorted and his hand clenched. I reached out in concern, but he waved me hastily away, turning his head against the back of the couch and sneezing violently three times in succession.
I tried not to laugh at the petulant face he pulled when he turned back towards me. I reached out to pull the blankets up further round him as he shivered, letting my hand rest on his shoulder for a moment in a rare gesture – and one I should never have made had I not thought he was half-drugged with cough syrup and not quite aware of what was going on around him at the moment.
"How high is your fever?" I asked softly. Did I need to call another doctor?
He shook his head with a grimace. "Not very, just enough to be annoying. Been hovering under 100 all afternoon," he whispered hoarsely.
All afternoon…and I had been completely oblivious. Powers of observation, indeed. "Do you need anything?"
He sneezed again, sending me a very I-am-not-amused glare when I threw up my arms and ducked for cover in mock panic.
"You are horrid," he muttered grumpily, burrowing down under the blankets with a childish scowl.
I chuckled, feeling the tense worry lessen and lighten in my heart at the return of his sense of humour.
"No, I don't need anything," he muttered with a faint grin, closing his eyes again. "Thank you, Holmes."
I wanted to return the gesture of gratitude, for it was I who should have been far more grateful than I was…but somehow I could not bring myself to say more than I already had. Whether from pride or stubbornness, I did not know, but apologising had apparently been my limit tonight and my tongue would not form the words I wanted to say but could not.
I frowned and watched until his breathing had grown slow and steady once more. Then I crouched wearily and began to pick up the items scattered on the floor, placing the thermometer and tonic bottle into the open black physician's bag that lay beside the couch.
As I lifted the well-loved journal from the carpet, the pencil fell from where it had been marking the page bearing the freshest writing, and when my name caught my eye I began to skim the paragraphs of clear, firm hand, slightly shaky due to the chill he had obviously caught in his excursions to set up this drama for my benefit.
Holmes found out tonight, it read. Neither Lestrade, Hopkins, nor I had caught onto the time difference in Lestrade's story of the first body found. Holmes always did say I had no natural turn for deception, and obviously that is quite correct.
He was angry, very angry. I cannot blame him, but actually I should far rather he be angry than in the midst of a depressive darkness as he has been for the past three weeks. Better he explodes in my direction, much better that he does whatever he should like to me, than to destroy himself with that infernal drug and the horror of a mind gone mad with inactivity.
He probably is running about the city now, hurt and angry…I do hope he remembered his umbrella for the rain is simply terrible…If only he would realise this is not about the drug, though I do wish he would allow me to at least attempt to help him with his dependency.
I would not care what it took to banish that dismal, empty look from his eyes that has been there for weeks now, I would do anything for him were it in my power. He simply does not understand that seeing him in that dark state is nearly as painful to me as it is to him. Holmes might be killing his brain cells slowly with that drug, but it is killing me much more slowly, and far more painfully.
And I can do nothing, as is evidenced by my single attempt and my consequential failure tonight. Helplessness is an even worse feeling than failure, I rather think. Both together are nigh on unbearable.
I closed my eyes and the journal at the same time, remaining in that kneeling position for an undetermined few moments before gently replacing the book beside him on the floor, feeling as if I had just trespassed into a private estate – only accompanied by far more guilt than usual on one such of those ventures.
As I carefully placed the pencil back into the proper page, my eyes fell upon the syringe and cocaine-bottle that I had hidden from view under the couch upon Lestrade's arrival the morning before.
And two more items went into Watson's bag that night before I snapped, and locked, it.
Then I tucked a stray corner of the coverlet under his elbow where it had fallen down and reached for my oldest clay pipe.
No. I set the pipe back. He was having enough trouble breathing and coughing without my aggravating it.
I went to the window and lifted my Stradivarius from its case instead, running a finger over its lovely finish before lifting it gently to my shoulder. I had a good deal of very heavy thinking to do on a problem that I found myself, for the first time in a very long time, completely at a loss to unravel or begin to explain.
And I would not be needing aught else than my music and my mind for the rest of the night at least.
For with friends like this remarkable man who, for some unknown reason, had decided I was worth wasting affection on, who needed any artificial means of banishing depression?
Ha, you thought it was going to be "...then who needs enemies?," didn't you? :)