A/N: Well, guys, here is the conclusion of the story; I hope it meets with everyone's approval. I've really had fun writing this, and your comments have been lovely, so thanks again :)
It took the better part of an hour for Scotland Yard to arrive on the scene, by which time my bad leg had become uncomfortably stiff, and I was beginning to worry that our unconscious prisoner would awaken and wander off before he could be taken into custody. I enlisted the help of a passing constable to maneuver Holmes upright, but he sagged against me almost immediately, and I was obliged to support nearly all of his weight as we made our unsteady way toward one of the police carriages. Given his semi-conscious state, it was not difficult to convince the officials that our statements would have to be given at a later time, and I was, at last, permitted to take my friend home to rest.
Getting him up the front steps and into the bedroom was a formidable task, as he provided very little assistance in the matter, but I breathed a sigh of relief once he was settled comfortably on the bed. He was asleep the instant his body touched the coverlet, and after a moment's hesitation, I pulled off his boots and left him to it. I hadn't the energy to struggle with undressing him or tucking him between the sheets, and in his current state, I doubted very much that he would mind.
As for myself, I had finally reached the limit of my endurance, both mental and physical. Between my sleepless night and the morning's thoroughly exhausting activities, I summarily canceled my patient appointments for the day without a shred of guilt. After taking a few moments to return the recently invaded sitting room to some semblance of order, I proceeded down the hallway, drew the blinds, and crawled wearily into my own bed. My last coherent thought was a fervent wish not to be disturbed until suppertime, at least.
Astoundingly, for the first time in the past several days, the fates aligned in my favor; I was allowed to sleep straight through until the following morning, when Mary woke me at last to say that Lestrade had arrived to discuss the case. After a hurried attempt to make myself presentable, I entered the sitting room to find the inspector surveying the remains of the broken window with an air of quiet amazement. Not surprisingly, he was already engaged in conversation with Holmes, who was lounging in an armchair across from him, still wearing his rumpled clothing from the day before and looking much brighter and more alert than I felt. It didn't seem fair, in a way, but I had given up my envy of his extraordinarily resilient constitution long ago.
Holmes glanced up as I pulled the door closed behind me. "Impeccable timing, Watson," he stated, by way of greeting. "I was just enlightening the inspector on the events of yesterday morning."
"I see." I eyed him warily, taking a seat in the other armchair. "Well, I don't suppose I have much to add; as you know, my role was relatively brief. I only arrived on the scene after you had already leaped out the window, chasing a dangerous criminal through the streets like a madman." Pointedly, I raised an eyebrow in his direction, daring him to contradict my words.
"Apprehending the suspect, I believe, is the phrase you're looking for," he answered crisply. I considered setting the record straight as to who, exactly, had apprehended the suspect, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. In any case, his attention was already elsewhere, as he pressed Lestrade for details on the status of the investigation.
"Oh, he's been very helpful," said the inspector, in answer to Holmes' queries about their progress in questioning his assailant. "He was the same man who attacked you the first time, I take it?"
"He was," Holmes confirmed, mouth twitching wryly. "I confess, I was most grateful for Watson's assistance—it would have been thoroughly embarrassing to be bested twice in a row." His eyes flicked toward me for the briefest instant, allowing me to glimpse the sincerity behind the remark, before he returned his attention to our guest.
"Well," Lestrade continued heavily, "It took some doing, but he's given us a lot to work with—we've got names and details on the rest of the ring. The boys are making arrests as we speak." He was clearly pleased with the outcome of the case, although he tried to suppress it beneath his habitual mask of professionalism, and he nodded at Holmes in grudging appreciation.
My friend, characteristically, brushed aside the implied thanks with a careless wave of his hand. "Excellent," he declared, eyes gleaming with satisfaction as he leaned back in his chair. He inclined his head graciously toward Lestrade with only the barest hint of a smile. "You are to be congratulated, Inspector—Scotland Yard has prevailed again."
Lestrade gave a long-suffering sigh as he rose from his seat, ignoring the taunt with the ease of long practice. To my surprise, he turned to me, extending his hand. "It's been a pleasure working with you again, Doctor," he said, with an odd sort of formality. "Thank you for your help."
I nodded wordlessly, returning his handshake, but something inside me ached at the unaccustomed display of politeness. It was the kind of courteous thanks given to someone who has provided aid that was not expected or required, and I was startled at how much it stung. I was a married man and a busy doctor now; it was no longer usual for me to assist with Holmes' cases, and never before had I felt my new position so keenly.
I saw the inspector out, leaving Holmes to his own devices in the sitting room. After he had gone, I stood in the foyer for a time, struggling to sort out my thoughts. The case was concluded, and Holmes was rapidly recovering, and in the whirlwind of the past few days, I had never stopped to think about what would happen next. But now, of course, it was obvious; Holmes would soon return to Baker Street, and we would resume our relations as they had existed since my marriage. My life would return to normal, allowing me to focus once more on my medical practice, and I would call on my friend occasionally for short social visits, with no need to involve myself in his tumultuous affairs. It should have been a distinct relief, but I felt only a vague emptiness, and a curious sense of loss.
Feeling as though I had decided something, although I wasn't quite certain what, I wandered back down the hallway in something of a daze. Such was my preoccupation that I nearly collided with Mary, rounding the corner from the kitchen. She laughed, sidestepping me easily, but her face became serious again as she took in my expression.
"What's the matter, John?" Her voice was kind and concerned, as always, and I struggled for the words to explain something that I didn't fully understand myself.
"Mary, I—" I stopped, not knowing how to finish. "I can't give it up." Reluctantly, I met her eyes, begging her to understand. Without my ever realizing it, working cases with Holmes had become as much a part of my life as my practice, or even my marriage, and I could not set aside one for the other.
Confusion showed on her delicate features, as my words doubtless made no sense without context, but I glanced past her into the sitting room. She followed my gaze to where it rested on my eccentric, unpredictable friend, still curled contentedly in his chair, and her face cleared in comprehension.
Regarding me with a resigned little half-smile, she shook her head gently. "John," she said at last, "I never asked you to." With that, she leaned in to press a light, reassuring kiss to my cheek, and continued on down the hall. I watched her go, as the heavy knot inside me began to untangle itself.
Perhaps, I thought. Perhaps, somehow, it would be possible to make everything work.
As I had expected, Holmes was back in his own rooms within the week, and the house soon returned to its usual, peaceful state. I was, of course, pleased to see him recovering well, but I cannot deny that I missed his ubiquitous presence almost at once. And so it was that, less than a day after his departure from my home, I found myself on the doorstep of 221b Baker Street just in time for afternoon tea.
Mrs. Hudson greeted me warmly, as ever, inquiring about my practice and my wife. I sometimes suspected that she regretted my absence nearly as much as Holmes did, given that I had exercised some control, however slight, over his disruptive activities. With a last, backward glance, she returned to the kitchen to prepare a tray for us as I ascended the familiar staircase, pausing to knock lightly on the door at the top before entering.
The discordant plucking of violin strings drifting from Holmes' study suggested that he had been lost in some reverie, but the sounds stopped as I closed the door behind me, and my friend emerged moments later, surprise evident on his face.
"Watson," he cried, clearly pleased to see me. "Come, sit down." He waved me toward my usual chair, sprawling across the settee in his habitual careless manner. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? Surely you cannot be longing for my company already—you've only just got me out of your spare room."
"Hardly," I scoffed, because it was part of our game. "It's been a great relief, actually. You are an unusually trying houseguest."
"I do my best," he agreed, barely suppressing a smile.
As luck would have it, we were forced to suspend our conversation briefly as Mrs. Hudson entered with tea and sandwiches, and I was spared the difficulty of explaining why I had come. In truth, I wasn't sure myself, and had no desire to admit it. Holmes glanced up at his landlady in mild annoyance at the interruption as she bustled about, setting out the plates and teacups, and I thanked her for us both. At last, the door clicked shut behind her, and for a time there was no sound except the soft clinking of cups against saucers.
I took the opportunity to observe Holmes as he ate; discreetly, I hoped, although there was little chance that he wouldn't notice. He looked well, apart from a certain stiffness in his bearing and the sling that still supported his injured arm, and I was deeply gratified to see it. After the events of the past few days, it was not easy to banish my well-established concerns for his health, and I supposed, reluctantly, that it was partly for this reason that I had wanted to see him. Not surprisingly, he soon raised an exasperated eyebrow, setting down the remains of his sandwich with a theatrical sigh.
"Well, Doctor," he drawled, with sardonic emphasis on the title, "if you wish to examine me, I'd be much obliged if you could wait until I've finished eating. It's rather distracting, you see."
Caught, I smiled ruefully. "My apologies." With an effort, I returned my attention to Mrs. Hudson's excellent meal, and we finished our tea in silence.
At length, I replaced my cup and saucer on the tray with an air of finality, suddenly tense. Here, it would be entirely appropriate for me to take my leave; I had assured myself that Holmes was fine, and we had enjoyed a brief, pleasant interlude together. Nothing more was expected in the course of a simple social call, and there were undoubtedly things that I could be doing back at my office. Catching up on my patient records, perhaps, or organizing my appointment book. Necessary tasks, but the thought of them was stifling, at the moment, and I made no move to stand.
Holmes watched me curiously, knowing as well as I did that this was the point where my visits usually ended, and I felt a tiny rush of satisfaction at my ability to disconcert him from time to time. I stretched deliberately, extending my feet in front of me and relaxing more deeply into the armchair. "So tell me," I said conversationally, "have you managed to find yourself a new case?"
"As a matter of fact," he replied, with a gratifying spark of enthusiasm, "I've been sorting through the post that arrived while I was away, and there is a rather intriguing letter in the stack from a prospective client." I waited, as he seemed to hesitate for a moment, strangely uncertain. "I had thought of paying the gentleman a visit this afternoon. I wonder if, perhaps, you have time for a short trip?" He studied his teacup with determined nonchalance, but I did not miss the shrouded glimmer of eagerness in his eyes as he glanced up at me.
I made a show of checking my watch. "Well, as you know, I'm a busy man these days."
"Of course," he acknowledged, his face carefully expressionless.
"However," I continued, allowing the corner of my mouth to turn up at last, "as it happens, I have no appointments scheduled for this afternoon." I snapped the watch shut and returned it to my pocket, observing him intently for his reaction.
He sat very still. "It seems," he ventured cautiously, "that we have some time, then, before you must return."
"We do, indeed." I confirmed, leaning forward in my chair. "I am yours to command."
Finally certain of my intentions, he raised his eyes to mine and favored me with a rare, unguarded smile, full of open affection. It was an expression that very few people in the world, apart from myself, have ever been privileged to see, and it struck me, not for the first time, what a very great honor it was to call Sherlock Holmes my friend.
He cleared his throat. "And I am very glad of it," he answered quietly. In the next instant, he seemed to shake himself out of his uncharacteristic sentimentality, returning to the business at hand. "But come Watson, I must give you the details." He handed me the letter to read for myself as he collected his coat and hat, and by the time we reached the stairs, he was discoursing rapidly on the various routes of inquiry we might pursue in the case.
A light drizzle was falling, and I employed my umbrella as we stepped into the street. Holmes, naturally, had neglected to bring his, and so was obliged to crowd awkwardly beneath mine to keep dry. We fell into step as easily as ever, two complementary parts of a single whole, and my spirits were unaccountably light in spite of the rain.