A/n: I've been working on this one for a while, and though I may tweak more later, it's basically finished. It is simply an exploration of human emotions and actions, and--I should admit--much inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
"Well, well, someone looks pleased!" Holmes chuckled, looking over the paper at me.
"I was just thinking about one of my families. They've had a bad time of it--the father contracted a stubborn case of pneumonia--it just wouldn't go away, he was getting depressed about it. But I was just at the Blackburns' two days ago and he seemed in fine spirits, nearly recovered. Of course, it may be a while yet before he's back to his old--"
"You know him?"
"I met him just a minute ago through the obituaries. Rather a hello and goodbye—"
I ripped the paper from his hands, though my own were shaking so terribly I could barely read. "But—he seemed so happy—he didn't say anything—about—I thought he trusted me, I thought…"
Holmes took the paper back. "Are we absolutely certain it's the same man? He's beyond the reach of your skills, then; don't waste energy worrying about this."
I stared. "He was my patient, Holmes. I knew him for years. I knew…I know his children, they would always get into my bag, try the stethoscope on each other."
Holmes shrugged, falling back into his chair. "Such is life—or death, in this case. At least the children still have a mother."
"I know, but—"
"What are you going out for?"
I continued fumbling into my coat. "I'll—be back later."
"Make sure you're back in time for dinner, you know Mrs. Hudson's making a roast."
My legs seemed strangely numb beneath me as I stumbled down the stairs.
I walked for a long time down the streets, head down against the spring wind and London life.
I went back in time to my last visit, examining it in agonizing detail--as I would examine a foul, infected wound, I did not turn from the horror, nor spare a thought for myself. I was not content until I had recalled several moments which should surely have tipped me off—and once I had done so, I proceeded to take the mental images of his distant smile and absent way of patting his son on the head, and replay them countless times, grinding salt into my lacerated heart.
After a long time of walking--though time seemed quite relative and abstract--I stopped by a pub, ordered a drink and sat in a deserted corner. I blinked, and the shabby pub walls turned to the golden wallpaper that always made me feel cheery when visiting the Blackburn family.
"You'll never guess what my boy did the other day, Doctor Watson."
"Deep breath…once more…good, your lungs sound a bit better. Tim, your youngest?"
"Yes. It was very amusing…his mother was giving him a bath, and he was all soaped up with bubbles—when he decided he'd had enough and scampered to my room to visit me! He loves to visit me, you know. Anyway he left bubbles everywhere, a perfect trail through the house! I hope you don't mind my telling you, but it was quite an amusing sight. And Mrs. Blackburn's face made it even funnier. Don't tell her I said that, though." He laughed, but it turned to a painful cough, and he coloured as he fumbled for a handkerchief.
"Don't be embarrassed, Todd; you remember, I explained before what's happening in your lungs? It's normal to be coughing things up like that. So don't worry."
"I trust you, of course, Doctor," he said after he caught his breath. "I only wish I was better. I've been ill so long..." His face fell.
"You'll recover, just have patience. The human body is a wonderfully resilient thing when given a chance."
I found myself alone again in the corner, looking into the glass my hands gripped. It was strange how my throat and chest were burning before I had taken a sip.
When I had finished my drink, I recalled I hadn't had much to eat--nor was I used to drinking much.
I put it all out of my mind and had another round.
After I finished that glass, I decided to go home and rest by the fire--no, not the fire, I was feeling too flushed already. Just my room, that would be pleasant enough, to be by myself. And perhaps lie down...I wasn't feeling very well.
I paid for my drinks, made my way to the door and out to the fresh air. It helped my uneasy stomach a little, but I still needed to sit on the kerb and rest. One minute is all I need, then I'll be on my way home. Just one minute.
I watched the shadows lengthen and felt my head begin to ache. A cab paused beside me, I motioned it on.
A fine Doctor you are, to be sure...not only do you kill your patients with neglect, you have the self-control of a child. What is the matter with you? Anyone would think you were an intern...when I think of--I paused a moment, concentrating on keeping the alcohol inside me, then sank into a numb and even darker gloom.
Another cab clopped to a halt, and I let my head sink into my hands. Just move on, will you?
"On your feet, Watson; let's go home."
I looked up groggily. "Holmes? How'd you find me?"
He had hopped from the cab and was standing before me. "I'll explain later. Come on."
"Holmes, please don't—I can't get up right now, I don't feel well."
"You have only to get in the cab—"
"No, let go—I feel quite ill. I don't think I can manage a cab ride," I finished in a whisper.
Holmes blew out a breath, then motioned for the cabby to move on, before brushing off the kerb with a handkerchief and sitting beside me in the afternoon light. He tapped his fingers on his knees.
At last I spoke. "You were so kind to come looking for me, and I've only made more trouble for you. I didn't mean for that to happen, Holmes--I'm sorry," I concluded, wrapping my arms around myself against the stiffening wind.
He turned upon feeling me shudder. "The air is growing cooler--we need to get you home. Can you try to stand?"
"Yes, I'll try."
He put his hands under my arms and I was finally standing, somewhat wobbly, but on my feet.
"This way, Watson, I'll let you set the pace."
"Holmes, you don't want to walk that close to me--I must reek of whisky."
"I don't, eh?" He put his arm through mine. "For all our years of living together, there are still things you don't know about me."
I lay upon the couch, watching Holmes pour a cup of tea. He set it down to cool, then began taking off my shoes, which I had neglected to do. He spoke as he worked. "Watson, you are a Doctor--a title that has, of late, had quite a bit of importance attached to it. Our world is changing and the mind of people shifts from accepting failure, to seeing it as something...unforgivable, particularly in medicine." He dropped the shoes to the floor and picked up the teacup, blowing the steam carefully as he brought it to my side.
"This is not, of course, purely a medical matter. With any professional title come expectations, from without and within. They only heighten with each success, and it is all to easy to let the expectations...take control. Here you are, Watson; no sugar or cream tonight. Drink slowly...yes, like that."
I sipped the peppermint tea, watching him continue his pacing and pensive lecture. It all seemed dreamlike.
"When one's profession consists of helping people, the people of course become the most important variable. Everything depends on them. To lose that variable…or watch them lose themselves…is the greatest of failures, and hits the shatterpoint of the diamond one became. All the pressure, all the stress that crushed you into brilliance, gave a hidden weakness as well—a jewel with an Achilles heel."
He paused by the window, absently drawing on the glass with his finger. "Anyone who calls the world a simple place--well, they're the simple ones, that's all I have to say. Is the tea cool enough?"
"Holmes, what you said—"
He held up a hand. "We will speak no more of it tonight; I fear I've said too much already. Your mind needs rest, Watson, as does your body."
I relaxed against the cushions, finding a kind of relief in his words. "I am a little sleepy."
"You look exhausted. Here is an afghan; trade you for your overcoat. Ah, I can hold the tea a moment. But look, Watson." He pointed with a smile to my coat as he took it. "You asked how I found you…see the roughening of the material? You leaned against the buildings as you walked…and left a trail of fuzz for me to follow. Rather like Hansel and Gretel—oh dear, I shouldn't have made you laugh; take a breath—there…there. Tea staying down?"
"Y-yes. Don't feel badly, Holmes, it was worth the laugh; I haven't laughed all day, and it feels like longer."
He nodded, handing back my tea and tucking the afghan beneath my stocking feet. "Some days are like that, Watson. I know."
It was days later, standing before the window, that my breath cast a fog on the cold glass--and I came face to face with a little dancing man.