During her funeral, he begins to wonder if he is going deaf. There seems to be no sound left in the world, the shape of the preacher's mouth as he gives the eulogy gaping like an empty hole. John can only hear the roaring of blood in his ears, the rasping sound of his inhales and exhales, his treacherous body that goes on living and living in spite of everything.
Small things seem so jarring. The flash of sunlight catching on a gilded angel behind the pulpit; the liver-spotted hands of the woman three seats down as she twists her handkerchief into trembling knots, the thin film of dust lining the slots of the pew in front of him.
He wonders if this is what it was like for Holmes, this endless battery of observation, then banishes the thought. He cannot think of Holmes now without losing what tenuous grip he still has on his sanity. He'll run absolutely screaming mad right here in the church, and that's a disrespect that he will not do to his Mary.
(He doesn't remember if it was like this at Holmes' funeral, because by the time the service started he was too almost drunk to stand and had to lean on both Simza and Mary to walk in a straight line. Holmes, unlike Mary, wouldn't have minded that in the least. It might even have made him laugh.)
After the service, after they sink her coffin into the maw of the earth and he throws a handful of dry dark sod on top, after: he stands still and dry-cheeked and ramrod straight while the rest of the mourners file past him, clapping his shoulder, touching his elbow solicitously, murmuring their consolations.
Then they are all gone and there is only the preacher, and the sturdy lads with shovels who have been waiting discreetly by to fill in the grave.
John turns on his heel and walks back to the street where some considerate person has called him a cab. His stride doesn't falter, his eyes don't well up with tears, his clenched hands do not tremble, and his voice is steady when he instructs the cabbie to drop him off at 221b Baker Street.
On the inside, he feels as though he is being boiled alive in acid.
The rooms are much the same as they were when he lived here with Holmes. He's been keeping them for the past three years, ostensibly because it's convenient for him to have rooms in the heart of London. The real reasons aren't something he's ever been able--or perhaps just willing--to articulate to himself.
Mary understood that, of course. Mary understood so many things that he wasn't quite able to articulate.
Mrs. Hudson's windows are dark. John doesn't know if she's asleep or away, and he walks softly in case of the former. He steps over the creaking top step automatically--a habit developed over years of sneaking in with Holmes like a pair of schoolboys attempting to avoid a caning--and pushes open the door on the first landing.
The air inside is dusty, and he can smell the ghosts of tobacco and cordite, hard strange chemical odors from Holmes' experiments. He inhales, eyes closed, and for a single absurd moment he actually feels comforted. Holmes could be sitting right there, bent over the table at the window working at some odoriferous concoction, pipe clamped between his teeth and eyes blown dark by whatever dubious substance he imbibed most recently, looking up with bright manic glee as John comes through the door, my dear Watson, you won't believe--
John sighs, and opens his eyes. The room is empty. The glass tubes on the table are empty, clean, reflecting the moonlight. The tears he's been holding back by main force of will since Mary breathed her last two days ago are suddenly very close.
It says something, he thinks, that on the night of Mary's funeral it is the absence of Holmes that finally undoes him.
They are both gone now. It isn't the first time he's thought it but here, standing in the empty shell of the place that was once home, he finally feels the full weight of it. They are both gone. He's alone.
It may be the realization that makes him sway on his feet. It may simply be that he has neither eaten nor slept in the better part of a week. Why isn't important; what is important is that he gropes for the nearby edge of a bookshelf to keep from falling flat on his face, and something slips away under his fingers to clatter on the floor.
It's a carved teak-wood box. John drops clumsily to his knees, his game leg communicating its displeasure with a deep aching cramp that he ignores, fumbles at the clasp of the box with hands that are trembling even though he knows what he'll find inside.
Two syringes, metal grips and glass tubes and long, wicked needles. Just the syringes, of course. Holmes never kept his intoxicants where Mrs. Hudson might find them and pour them down the drain.
That's no matter, though. John knows where they are.
He pulls out one of the syringes and holds it up to the thin moonlight like a man inspecting a good cigar. Again he can hear his own blood pounding in his ears, the hateful sound of it his only company in this empty place.
Fine, he thinks, with a sudden cold triumph. Fine, then. If that's the way of it.
His hands are steady. There should be fear, he thinks vaguely, drawing the smoky liquid into the syringe with a practiced hand. There should certainly be fear, for his immortal soul if nothing else.
He considers this for a moment: considers dying, considers Hell, and the idea brings with it nothing but a dull sort of relief. He's already failed the two people he loved most in the world: not fast enough to save Holmes, not skilled enough to save Mary. Perhaps Hell is as much as he deserves.
He sets the syringe aside and rolls up his sleeve, neatly and methodically. His exposed forearm is white and smooth in the moonlight, and he remembers Holmes' arms, twisted with sinew and scarred by the marks of his long-standing drug habit. Ugly, except not really.
Seven percent solution of cocaine, to stave off the boredom.
John's solution is considerably more than seven percent, and it isn't cocaine he's using, but it's his whole damned life that he's trying to stave off and that calls for something a bit stronger.
He taps the vein in the hollow of his elbow, slides the needle in and depresses the plunger, quick and smooth and easy as anything. The drug enters his system quickly: one breath, two breaths, and then a hot gray blankness rolling up over him as he falls back to the floor.
Distantly, he thinks he can hear the sound of footsteps, the frantic echo of an impossible voice. Warm hands on his arm, his face, Watson, can you hear me? Watson? Wake up, please don't--
Holmes, he thinks, and smiles. Perhaps it isn't Hell that he's headed to after all.
Perhaps Mary will be there, too.
Darkness follows on the wave of gray, and he knows no more.
He wakes to sunlight and the smell of tobacco. Sunlight and the smell of cheap shag tobacco and the roughness of a carpet beneath his back and familiar, impossible hands clumsily checking his pulse, the familiar, impossible voice above his head, counting out the beats of his heart.
It didn't work, then. This can't be Hell--the company alone is enough to tell him that--and he hurts too much to be in Heaven. Ergo, he is alive.
Apparently satisfied that his damnable heart is still functioning, the voice stops counting. The fingers leave his throat, and settle gently over his heart. His shirt, he realizes vaguely, has been torn open; the rough palm rests directly against his skin. There is a sigh. "I'm sorry, my dear Watson. I meant to be back in England in time for her funeral." A pause, then, "I really am so very sorry."
Holmes never apologizes. For anything. Also, Holmes has been dead for three years. Therefore, it is a hallucination. He is hallucinating. He still doesn't open his eyes.
No. This isn't real, and if he opens his eyes, all he'll see is the dusty room and the dark paneled ceiling and the huge yawning emptiness and there isn't enough morphine in the rooms for him to make a second attempt.
"As a physician, I'm sure you're aware that one's heart rate increases as one moves from a state of unconsciousness to a state of consciousness. A purely physiological response, and nearly impossible to control." A pause. "Watson, I know you're awake."
So familiar, so very familiar, the infuriating bastard. He still doesn't open his eyes, but he can't quite keep his lips from moving, from shaping the name. "Holmes."
"Ah, so you do know me, then. Excellent." There's something imperfectly concealed beneath the flippant tone, something John can't quite read.
There's nothing to read, of course. Holmes is dead. He's dead.
"You're dead," John informs him. His voice doesn't sound like his own; his lips and tongue feel thick, numb. His thoughts feel thick and numb as well, and perhaps that excuses the inanity of his next words. "I saw you die."
"Technically, you only saw me fall. Mycroft did advise me against concealing the truth from you, but under the circumstances--" Another sigh. The fingers flex against his skin, then still. "Well, it seemed best at the time. And there was Mary to think of, as well. I am so very sorry."
It's the mention of Mary's name that does it. John's nose burns, and his eyes sting, overflow with the hot tears that he's been holding back for days. He opens them, and for a moment the world seems to be made up of blurry, distorted shapes, wavering as if through a rain-drenched window.
Then he blinks, and there's only Holmes, leaning over him to peer into his face. He looks older: there's more gray in his hair, deeper shadows beneath his eyes. His chin is unshaven and he's wearing the tattered blue shirt of a day laborer. His eyes are dark and tired and terribly, wonderfully familiar. John breathes in sharply, realizes distantly that his ribs feel as though an elephant has been dancing upon them in the recent past: chest compressions, no doubt. He reaches up weakly with one flailing arm, and Holmes catches his wrist in a gentle, implacable grip.
John gasps again, sobs, more tears spilling down the sides of his face. It's an awful sort of joy that's filling him up, something raw-edged and sharp and nearly indistinguishable from grief. "I ought to thrash you," he whispers.
Holmes' mouth tilts into a lopsided smile, warm and worried and as sincere as John has ever seen him. "My dear fellow," he says, "I look forward to it."