"Leave the case alone," Watson says, but Holmes will do no such thing. This latest series of murders – always young scientists researching the practical applications of electricity, and always parts of their work missing – bears the invisible fingerprints of Professor Moriarty, and Holmes has never been able to step down from a challenge.
"They're going to kill you," Watson says, but Holmes pays no heed to the mysterious accidents that grow ever-more frequent around him. Moriarty favours subtlety over sheer violence, and Holmes has been making a living off the subtle for years now. He is well-experienced in these manners.
"Please," Watson says, looking truly anxious now, but Holmes merely flashes him a grin and pockets his revolver.
"Stop nagging, Mother Hen, and go home," he says, confident in his superior skills. "They won't kill me."
They don't kill him.
Moriarty eventually gives up on subtle. This, Holmes had anticipated. He had not, however, anticipated the Professor's fit of temper to be aimed at anything other than himself.
"Three bodies have been found," Lestrade says, his voice thick with sympathy. Holmes hates sympathy. "Two women and a man. We cannot be sure… the remains are… that is, the fire…" he breaks off, clears his throat, and looks at Clarkie, seeking assistance.
"The evidence suggests that the victims were the housekeeper, Mrs. Watson, and… and Doctor Watson, sir." Clarkie's words are quiet but certain, his face pale. A crime has touched him on an emotional level, but he is handling it far better than Lestrade.
Holmes isn't handling it at all.
"You will forgive me," he says, denial keeping his hands steady, his voice calm, his mouth from screaming, "if I prefer to examine the evidence for myself."
They let him; of course they do. Scotland Yard would be nothing without Sherlock Holmes, and they know it. And so he creeps through the ruins of a house at Cavendish Place, runs his fingers over blackened wood and ruined crockery, searches for anything Lestrade's men may have overlooked.
There isn't anything. For once, it seems, London's police force has done its work well, and it is with a sinking feeling that Holmes finally turns his attention to the corpses of two women and a man.
He recognises the ring on one woman's finger immediately, but it is the man's hand that breaks him, fingers curled and stained with silver. As if they were gripping a walking stick of rare, African snake wood with a metal pommel when their owner died.
He says nothing when he walks out of the morgue and into the street. He says nothing, and he thinks of nothing, because there is nothing to attract his thoughts in the first place.
There is nothing at all.
It takes nearly two weeks to bring Moriarty to justice. That's what Clarkie says, at least, and Holmes has no reason to doubt his word, for all that the days seem to him an endless blur without much detail to arrest his attention. His mind is focussed solely on the case, spinning and circling and skittering over the most innocuous minutiae, working and working until he is done, every mystery solved, no clue left to decipher.
Only one more element to take care of, and Holmes does not even attempt to peer beneath Moriarty's hood as he drives his knife into the man's chest and slices through the aorta. He has no interest in the villain's face, only in the blood that spills hot and slick over his fingers, delivering justice, if not peace.
Clarkie drags him away gently from the body, once again taking care to remove him from the scene of a crime before his fellow Yarders arrive to ask uncomfortable questions. Only, it is not Clarkie's face Holmes sees when the hand on his shoulder turns him around; not Clarkie's moustached features; not Clarkie's open concern. He raises dripping fingers to touch a familiar cheek – and his hands are shaking now; oh, how they are shaking – and tilts his head up at an angle that used to be as natural as breathing before he ruined it all… and then reality pulls him down like a chasm of water so cold he cannot breathe for all his head is still above the surface, for all his struggles have not yet ceased.
He jerks away, meeting Clarkie's wide-eyed gaze for one horrified instant before he stumbles backwards, not listening to his own words as he mutters an apology, turns around, runs. He needs to be elsewhere, quickly, before the torrent sweeps him away. He needs to be on his own.
He needs to be not-alone as well, but this he knows is a wish that will never be fulfilled. So he runs, and keeps on running, until he has reached Baker Street and locked the sitting room door behind him, seeking safety and refuge and finding only emptiness and silence.
Leave the case alone, the voice in his head says for the thousandth time, and for the thousandth time, Holmes would give everything he owns to have listened. For once in his life, he has solved a riddle only to feel defeat.
Please, the voice says, and the scream tears out of his throat like shards of glass, sharp and brittle and painful, taking all of his breath until he can but gasp as he doubles over, that broken thing inside him finally shattered altogether. He drags in a shuddering, agonised breath, but it isn't enough, his voice raw as he keens out his grief, his anger, his failure. He staggers, nearly falls, and the tea set hits the wall with a clash that seems to echo his inner torment. Something hot spills down his cheeks and he gasps again, his vision blurring as he swipes his chemistry set off the table, sends the globe crashing to the floor, scatters books and papers everywhere.
No one attempts to stop him and this too is wrong. There should be shouts, recriminations, perhaps a fist to his jaw instead of this endless, damnable silence. There should be worry, support, presence, anything but this.
Anything but this.
"I'm sorry," he gasps, clutching at his aching chest as he falls to his knees, "I'm sorry, so sorry, God, John," and there is nothing left for him, out there, on Earth, at all.
Perhaps that, too, is justice.
He has been lying curled up on the floor for hours when he hallucinates familiar footsteps ascending the stairs. The irony is enough to make him cough out a laugh; apparently, no drugs are needed after all to make him lose his mind. Perhaps Mycroft will be interested in that particular piece of insight. Holmes will tell him, as soon as he can bring himself to move. Which, in all honesty, might be a while.
The handle turns, but the door is locked and doesn't budge. Yet more silence reigns before the wood shivers under the force of a knock. "Holmes?"
Hallucinating; he is hallucinating; he must be. His breath catches as he listens to the spectre on the landing, at the same time willing it to leave him be and wishing for it to talk to him again. One more knock, an exasperated sigh, and then the door crashes into the room, frame splintering as the lock is kicked out of its resting place. A very vivid hallucination, then, Holmes decides even as his heart picks up its pace.
"Holmes." Watson looks terrible, his face pale and his eyes sunken, a large bruise covering the left side of his face. Blood is crusted on one eyebrow and his clothes are grimy, and his dishevelled appearance in the doorway must be the most beautiful sight on Earth.
Holmes doesn't speak. He doesn't dare to.
Watson's mouth twists into a small, tired smile as he takes in the room and its destruction. "I see you are redecorating."
Holmes clears his throat. It hurts. "I got tired of the wallpaper." His voice sounds rough, unsteady, nothing like his usual tone, and the look Watson gives him is at once worried and affectionate.
Watson walks slowly over to where Holmes still lies on the floor, his limp more pronounced without the aid of his cane, and can't entirely suppress a soft noise of pain as he sits down on a small mound of papers. His elbow comes to rest on Holmes's hip as if by accident. Holmes moves his legs so his knees bump into Watson's thigh, curled around him like a child around its favourite toy. They stay like that, the silence less malicious with every second that ticks by.
"Moriarty had me locked up in the cellar," Watson offers finally. Holmes shudders and curls tighter around him, his fingers fumbling until they find Watson's wrist and clench around it, Watson's pulse like the slow life-beat of the Earth itself.
They don't speak of Mary, or the case, or Moriarty's blood flaking on Holmes's hands. They do not speak of anything, both of them too raw for words. Holmes doesn't apologise, and Watson doesn't say he forgives him. Perhaps, in time, they will do these things.
For now, they will hope for healing.