Author's Note: The morning after The Empty House. Because I don't believe Watson wasn't angry.
ALL IS WELL
"Of course," he said, finishing his cigarette and tossing the stub into the fireplace, "You will wish to move back as soon as possible. We will put your practice on the market; a full partner will naturally have little time for patients."
I struggled to comprehend his words, feeling as though my brain had conjured them from nowhere despite having plainly seen his lips move. Quite suddenly it seemed as though the room were closing in around me; events were running ahead, out of my control. Much as they used to, a little voice inside me said, but I was no longer used to such things. My world, slow, mundane and grey though it might be, could not just be pushed aside.
"No," I head myself say.
Holmes stopped in his tracks on his way to the door to call for Mrs Hudson and turned, blinking at me in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
"No," I said again. "I am not willing to take such a step. Not yet."
"But, Watson, I am back – you have no need now of a separate establishment, a...a..." He appeared to stumble for the correct word and I supplied it for him.
"A life? A life outside of yours, do you mean?" I could hear the bitterness in my voice, and though I did not like it, did not want it to be there, nevertheless there it was. And there was anger with it. "Holmes, I have not been in a box for the last three years, sitting behind glass awaiting your return. For God's sake, man, I thought you were dead! I mourned you, grieved for you like a brother. My life changed, it had to change because I had no choice. While you were gallivanting around the world, I was still here, living, existing because it was all I knew how to do!"
Holmes's grey eyes narrowed and his mouth became a thin line. "I was not gallivanting, Watson. Do you not think that I would have returned earlier if I could, if I had not thought it would put you in danger - "
"Oh spare me the tales, Holmes," I snapped. "If Moran had found me such a threat he could easily have finished me off months ago. Or even yesterday outside the court."
"Moran only ignored you because he knew that you believed me to be dead. If he had thought you possessed but an inkling of my presence in London your life would not have been worth - "
"Have you ever lost anyone close to you, Holmes? A friend, perhaps?" I asked, cutting across him because I just could not stand to hear any more. Now that the adrenalin from the previous day's adventures had left my system my nerves felt stretched like the strings of a badly-tuned violin and I could not take any more stories.
He looked startled by the question, and swung away from me, towards the fireplace. His voice was even when he replied, but I did not miss his hesitation. "No."
"A relative, then?" I knew nothing of his family beyond his brother Mycroft – it struck me that I had no idea whether his parents were still alive, possibly buried somewhere on a country estate, wrapped in stultifying boredom that their sons had run to London to escape.
There was a long pause, during which I was presented with my friend's back, hollow beneath the familiar mouse-coloured fabric of his favourite dressing gown. Eventually he spoke, and his words were so soft that I almost missed them. "My mother," he said, and I felt a little of my anger dissipate.
"Were you close to her?"
"I adored her." He gave me a fleeting glance over his shoulder, and I could not fail to see the pain in his eyes. It was gone as suddenly as it had appeared, locked away behind his usual mask of indifference, but I had been allowed to discover its existence. "She died of consumption when I was barely ten years old."
I was reluctant now to drag up unpleasant memories, but if we were to return to something of our old relationship I had to make him understand what his disappearance had done to me. "Do you recall how you felt?" I asked him.
Holmes moved to the window, the blackened old clay pipe he had picked up still in his hand. The long fingers of the other toyed with the fringe of the blind as he said, "I can remember feeling numb, cold. For weeks I couldn't even cry and I thought there must be something wrong with me for who does not weep when he has lost his mother? I knew that my father thought me unnatural – he locked himself away in his study and would see no one; when he did finally emerge his eyes were red and bloodshot and for a time he no longer looked like the father I knew. Still I could not cry. I asked Mycroft if he thought I had done something terrible, so terrible that God would not allow me to weep – he told me that I was being ridiculous. And then... then it hit me. Grief crashed down upon me with all the force of that raging torrent in Switzerland. I felt as though I had been stabbed in the gut." He shot me a look from the corner of his eye, as if to ascertain that I was still listening, but did not turn his head. "The pain was so acute that I cut myself off from all around me – I never wanted to feel such agony again."
This time it was my turn to be silent. Holmes continued to stare out of the window, as though after such a confession he could not bring himself to look at me. At last, when I had carefully considered my words, I said,
"When I discovered your note at the Reichenbach Falls, I experienced that pain. In those first few moments I almost threw myself into the abyss after you." Holmes turned slightly, eyebrows raised in surprise, but said nothing and so I continued, "You are the best friend I have ever had, and I have spent the last three years trying to come to terms with your loss. My life lost all colour, almost all meaning. At times I thought I would go mad, expecting to hear your voice, to see you walk through that door. I even woke in the middle of the night, thinking I had heard violin music – I even came down here, thinking you had come back. It took a long time, and I had to leave Baker Street and my memories behind to do it, but eventually I accepted your death. I started my life again.
"And now, here you are, as if nothing had happened. Do the years I have lived since we last met mean nothing? Are you really so surprised at my anger, at my uncertainty? I went through the hell of bereavement, and for what? So you could play some great game?"
"Watson - " Holmes began, but I held up a hand to forestall him, determined to finish that which I had begun.
"You cannot expect everything to just fall back into place, Holmes," I told him, "Neither of us are the men we were three years ago. Too much has happened to us both. And those years cannot be wiped away, made to vanish with a flick of the wrist. Tell me truly: how would you have felt had your beloved mother returned to you some time after her death and explained that she had not thought it prudent to inform you of her continued existence?"
Holmes sighed, and glanced down at the pipe in his hand. "You feel betrayed."
"Should I not? How am I supposed to feel when I know that you told your brother and kept me in the dark?" I became aware that I was gripping the back of the chair I leant upon for support too tightly. Exhaling, I forced myself to let go.
"Oh, Watson. Believe me, had the choice been so simple I would have revealed my masquerade to you in a heartbeat. But I could not put your life in danger, not to save my own skin. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I had to see it through to the end." He discarded the pipe at last, and rounded the table to lay a hand on my shoulder. "I would never have willingly caused you such pain, my friend."
I laid my hand over his and gave it a brief squeeze. "I know."
Holmes, never comfortable with physical contact, withdrew, moving back towards the hearth. He pulled his dressing gown closer about his spare frame in an almost protective gesture. "Will you stay?" he enquired, his tone almost, but not quite, casual.
I did my best to match it. "Yes."
A smile quirked the corner of his mouth, and he curled up in his armchair, feet tucked beneath him in that eastern manner that had always been his wont, even before his travels. "Then do be a good fellow and ring for breakfast. I find that all this excitement has given me an appetite."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Not before time, Holmes," I said, reaching for the bell, "Not before time.