The brougham drew to a halt outside the familiar steps of 221b Baker Street. Holding Mary's hand in mine, I stared up at the windows, but from the outside there was no clue as to whether my old companion's room was inhabited or as silent and empty as that fateful night after they bore his body away.
How could I have been so mistaken? There had been no breath of life within him, no pulse; I had been certain of that - both there, and later at the morgue. Was it possible that the action of the morphine and absinthe had somehow acted not to still that great heart forever, but to slow it, suppressing breathing until I could not detect either? I could not see how he could survive such a thing, and yet -
I glanced across at Lestrade and Clarky, who nodded reassuringly to me. Lestrade opened the door and held it open for me, and Mary patted my hand gently. I climbed down from the carriage with a heavy heart, hopeful and yet full of dread. Drawing in a deep breath, I steeled myself then strode up the broad steps to the front door and rang the bell.
Light, quick footsteps pattered down the stairs within, and then the door was flung open and Mrs Hudson threw herself into my arms. "Oh, Dr Watson, it is a miracle! I'm so glad you came - he's been asking for you!" She tugged at my arm eagerly; such a change from last I had seen her as she beamed joyfully at me. "Oh, it is indeed such a marvellous miracle!"
I looked back at my wife and the two officers; Lestrade gestured towards me as if to say, 'after you,' and Mary was smiling encouragement. Turning back, I followed the landlady, leaning heavily upon my cane.
The strains of a Mozart symphony played on a violin echoed down the hallway, and my heart tightened within my chest, my throat suddenly constricted and my eyes burning hotly with unshed tears. The ghostly refrain seemed to beckon me on; it was one of my favourite pieces. It died away as I reached the top; Mrs Hudson stood to one side and gestured me towards the open door to Holmes' room. I approached on leaden feet until I reached the threshold. Removing my hat and letting both hat and cane fall from suddenly-nerveless fingers, I stared into the room.
Holmes lay upon the couch, cradling his beloved Stradivarius in his arms. His head rested upon soft pillows, his hair scattered across the white cotton like black silk. He was clad in his favourite old tatty dressing gown, and the big eiderdown quilt from his bed was tucked about his thin frame. His eyes were closed, his face pale but with a faint contented smile. As I stared, devouring the sight of him, he turned his face towards me and those beautiful soft brown eyes opened and the smile deepened.
"John," he murmured, and held out a slender white hand towards me, his fingertips raw with recent wounds, nails broken and torn. I cried out softly and ran to him, falling to my knees at his side and cradling his poor hand in both of mine, drawing his fingers to my lips and kissing them, wetting them with my tears. "John, John," he murmured, stroking my hair gently with his free hand. "Shhh, shhh, it's alright, everything's going to be alright." I shook my head, not relinquishing the hold upon his hand, my body wracked with sobs.
"John, look at me. Please." A note of distress crept into his weak voice, and it was this which made me look up at last. He stared down at me, his brow furrowed with concern. "I don't understand... John, you look terrible. What is wrong?"
I gaped at him. Could it be possible that he was completely ignorant of the role I had played in his terrible ordeal? That the ragged state of the fingertips I still cradled in my hand was entirely my fault?
"Holmes... how much do you remember of what happened to you?"
He frowned thoughtfully, his hand stilling and falling back to lie upon the coverlet. "Fragments," he admitted. "I remember feeling so incredibly tired..." His voice tailed off. After a moment, he continued slowly, his gaze unfocused as he attempted to dredge up half-formed memories of drug-addled dreams, separating hallucination from truth. "I knew I'd taken too much when I felt my heart slowing. I heard Mrs Hudson knock and then enter. She screamed, and then she presumably called the police. I was aware of someone taking my hand, and then nothing... hallucinations, perhaps. The mind can invent the most fantastical dreams when deprived of sight and touch, Watson; I believe you yourself told me thus once." He glanced at me and smiled that brief, quirky smile of his before continuing. "I remember nothing more, really, until I awoke inside my coffin within the family crypt."
He shuddered then, and his face turned a little grey. His voice fell as he slowly continued. "I don't mind admitting, dear fellow, that I was perhaps a little hysterical for some minutes there. It's a nasty feeling, to wake up in one's grave, Watson." He shuddered then, and fell silent, brooding no doubt upon his misadventure.
He had no idea that I was the author of his misfortune in that regard. I drew a deep breath and lowered my gaze, uncertain as to how to proceed. Lestrade, Mary and Clarky had respectfully remained outside the room, but if I said nothing they would know. And sooner or later Holmes himself would know, or at least guess-
I glanced up, and saw from his face that he knew - or at least, had guessed. My face had once again betrayed me.
"I forgive you," he said quietly. "You could not have known."
My lips twisted into a bitter smile. "'No girl wants to marry a doctor who can't tell if a man's dead or not.' Your words to me, the Blackwood case. Remember?"
He sat up at that. "Watson, my dear chap, I didn't mean-"
I dropped his hand and turned away. Drawing my knees up to my chest, I hugged them with my arms and rested my chin upon them. "Doesn't matter what you meant, does it? They're thinking it. They're all thinking it; what good's a doctor who can't tell if a man's dead or not. Isn't that right, Inspector?" I called out, raising my voice so that the eavesdroppers in the hall could hear. I heard a muffled sob; Mary or Mrs Hudson, I couldn't tell.
I pressed my forehead to my knees and closed my eyes.
"I failed you, when you needed me the most," I whispered. "How can you bear to look at me after what I've done to you?"
"How can I bear not to?" he whispered.
I lifted my head and stared at him.
"What use is my life without someone to share it?"
Behind me, I heard the door being gently closed but paid it no heed. I could barely breathe for the sudden feeling of hope that sprang forth within my chest. I opened my mouth to speak, but a single finger laid lightly upon my lips, stilling my tongue. He raised an eyebrow at me before continuing. "Was it not Socrates who said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living'? John, if this experience has taught me nothing, at the least it has taught me this: not only am I quite lost without my Boswell, I find that without him the prospect of life is dull, tedious and unendurable."
I stared at him wordlessly; there was something strange about the look in his eyes. With a start, I realised what it was: vulnerability. Holmes was deliberately laying his heart bare before me.
I turned to him and lifted my hands to that familiar, well-loved face, and gently I kissed the soft warm lips.
~~~ FIN ~~~