From the street I can see the light burning, but I do not go up. I continue past our rooms, past Russell Square, half a mile till turning down a dim alleyway into my office.
I hang up my hat and my coat and I turn up the gas and spread my papers out on the desk. Later, I'll sleep on the cot that I keep for my patients. I'll return home after midnight, when I am sure his brandy has been drunk and his tobacco smoked, and I can avoid the veiled apology in his eyes.
Each morning when I wake before the sun rises, dress in near-silence and leave before breakfast, I tell myself it is not flight, nor is it cowardice.
It was to be expected, I told myself. He should have expected it.
At the conclusion of the Moran case he insisted we celebrate. Dinner at Simpson's, during which he chattered like an overwound child's toy and I drank too much wine, hoping it would help me sleep through the night.
As hard as it was for me to admit, I had, I must confess, become accustomed to his absence.
Not to the pain of his death, no, never to that, but to the silence that surrounded me, to the peace of my own thoughts, to the comfort I allowed myself in thinking, occasionally, on what Holmes might have said or done or thought, without the reality to contradict me. Having him by my side once more was a joy, yes (I insisted to myself), but it was also a shock, and if I must be honest, an intrusion.
And every time I looked up at him, seemingly carefree, taking simple pleasure in ordering dessert or discoursing on some minutiae, I was reminded with a stab of pain that he might well have been enjoying evenings like this for the past three years, while I mourned his untimely death.
His hand went to my elbow as I stepped into the cab, and I flinched as though he had burned me with the end of his cigar.
We did not speak again until we retired for the evening, and then it was only to say good night.
I slipped out the next morning before breakfast, and did not return until long after dark. And followed this with another such day, and another.
Only once did he attempt to pull me into conversation, looking up from his newspaper as I re-entered our rooms. 'Doctor,' he began. 'What do you think of the case of Major Edrington?'
'I'm sure I don't know,' I said brusquely, putting down my bag. 'I'm quite tired tonight, Holmes, and not really up to discussing it.'
His tone of bravado had irritated me, so I chose to ignore what I knew were lines of strain, of tension, around his eyes. I shrugged off my coat and went straight to my bedroom.
I lay awake long enough to see the curl of smoke snake beneath my door, and the light in the sitting room go out.
It had been three weeks, interminable to me, and I waited each day for the strain of our separation to ease, for the acquiescence to pain I had developed after his supposed death to return. I waited, in vain.
The footfalls down my office hall were heavy and I put aside my newspaper with a sigh, imagining it to be the building's housekeeper, who I chided about her health with little effect. "Really Flora," I called out as the steps neared the door, "you must take more care of yourself. I'll not be treating you gratis if you continue to ignore my advice."
"I shall keep that in mind," said Mycroft Holmes.
When I recovered from the shock of seeing Holmes' distinguished – and much more intimidating – brother at my threshold, I stammered an apology, which he waved off, and offered him a brandy, which he declined. He looked me over as though inspecting a laboratory specimen before he spoke. 'It will interest you to know, Doctor,' he began amiably, 'that I dined with my brother this evening.'
'Did you?' I hoped my tone was disinterested. 'How did you find him?'
'Most unwell.' His words were clipped, designed to strike at my sympathies. 'Oddly subdued. I asked after you, of course, only to hear that you and he had not spoken in quite some time, something I found curious, given that you room together. Moreover, he seemed pained by this state of affairs.' He paused. 'What quarrel has separated you?'
I studied my notes closely, trying not to bristle at this sudden intrusion into my private life by a man who has never been precisely interested in my well-being. 'He sent you to speak to me, then?'
'He did not. I come under my own power, though out of concern for him.' He settled himself, without being asked, into one of my chairs. 'He is distressed, doctor, anyone can see that. I'm surprised it has not yet registered with you.'
'It has,' I said, looking up into eyes that pinned me like a butterfly to cloth. 'I simply find myself unable to remedy the situation.'
'Unable, or unwilling?'
That angered me. 'You make assumptions, Mr. Holmes. Can your brother not fight his own battles?'
'In everything else, yes.' His face held its perfectly placid expression. 'But I know, better than anyone else, how obstinate he is, how carelessly he treats those dear to him. You would not be the first person he loved who was then driven off by his cavalier manner. I should not like to see him lose your friendship.'
Ignoring the twist of my heart at the word 'loved,' I tried to be cavalier in turn, smiling at him and saying lightly, 'He has not driven me off. I remain in residence at Baker Street, our partnership remains.'
'Yet he tells me you have barely been there since the conclusion of the Moran case, and often absent yourself from his company. Knowing him as you do, Doctor, you can imagine what it costs him to admit such things.'
'I think you overestimate both his regard for our partnership and his reaction to its present state.'
He sighed. 'Doctor, may I burden you with a confidence?' he asked.
I looked at him. 'Do I have any choice?'
'No,' he replied pleasantly. 'It concerns a time about a month ago, when he returned to London. I was, as you are no doubt aware, his first contact.'
More than aware, I thought sourly.
'This you do not know, Doctor. He originally planned, he told me that day, to dispense with Moran himself and leave the city again, without ever making himself known to you.
'I protested, asking him to consider how you would feel if it became public knowledge that he was indeed alive, and had abandoned you again, how detrimental it might be to his position if his former biographer turned against him. He insisted, however, that you would be better off without his influence in your life, and I could not move him from that position.'
"What of Watson's grief? Would it not ease his pain to know you are still alive?"
"Regrettable." He said it coolly, but his mouth hardened.
I impressed upon him the desirability of his re-establishing contact, but he was adamant.
"No, no. I'll not do it. I'll not interfere in his life at this point. I will deal with Moran, be gone, and we'll speak of it no more. There's no need."
"No need?" I turned and walked to the cabinet where I kept my cigars, and from the topmost drawer withdrew a magazine. Holding it out to him, I stared at him until he met my gaze. "Have you read this?"
He dropped his eyes again, lighting a cigarette with hands that shook ever so slightly. "You know I rarely read Watson's scribblings."
"Would you care to do so now?"
"No." He affected the airy tone that so often enraged his nemeses, but had little effect on me, except to make me more determined.
"Sherlock, from the time we were children I have been tidying up your disasters, soothing the feelings you hurt, repairing the damage to people or property that you leave in your reckless wake. No more. You may cut the only friend you've ever managed to make out of your miserable life, but not before you understand just what exactly it is that you're doing. Read it."
"I'll not engage in some maudlin exercise at your whim, Mycroft, merely because I need you to draw up a bank draft. What on earth has gotten into you?"
When he shook his head again, an expression of utter surprise on his face, I cleared my throat and read aloud,
A few words may suffice to tell the little that remains …
"Watson has never found a few words to suffice for anything," he scoffed, viciously striking another match on the windowsill, but I continued, loudly and clearly, making sure he heard every word.
… Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless, and there, deep down in that dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation …
If I have now been compelled to make a clear statement of his career, it is due to those injudicious champions who have endeavoured to clear his memory by attacks upon him whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.
At the end of my recital I expected laughter, or mockery. Instead, when I raised my head, I found him staring at me, ashen-faced. He repeated my words, your words, so softly I might have missed them had I not been listening carefully. "The best … and the wisest man … "
"Damn you, Mycroft," was all he said to me before he turned away.
'Do you know, Doctor,' Mycroft Holmes said cordially, rising deliberately to his feet and moving toward the door, 'even as a young child my brother preferred reason and persuasion to tantrum and emotional appeal? I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have seen him weep.'
He did not turn when I entered, though he must have heard my bag hit the floor and the door to Baker Street slam in its frame, must know my footsteps, he who knows every creak in every floorboard. He stood facing the fire, and from his straight back I could deduce (how he would smile to hear me use that word) nothing.
I have faced a host of enemies across a battlefield without quavering, but my heart quailed within me as I stood there, facing his silence. When a crack from a log breaking in the fireplace shattered the quiet of the room I leaped at the opening.
'Holmes,' I began, and saw him go very, very still. 'I've come to apologize to you for my meanness of the past several days—"
He dropped his pipe, tobacco not quite tamped down and scattering across the hearth-rug, and took a half-step toward me. And on his inscrutable face was an expression of terrible fear, as he wore only when confronted with some strength of feeling.
"You," he said softly. "You would apologize to me –"
"I have been less than charitable since your return—"
"My dear friend, I assure you I deserve neither your charity nor your regard—"
"Holmes, if you'd just let me say—"
"My intolerable cruelty towards you, which I cannot hope to overcome—"
"— what's done is done, and I refuse –"
"— I would not blame you if you chose –"
"—to deny myself your company!"
He stopped speaking then, his gaze downcast, and I cleared my throat nervously. "After all," I said feebly, hoping a joke would succeed in breaking his icy façade, "my dear fellow, without you, what would I find to write about?"
His head snapped up and for a moment, just a moment, his expression of terror collapsed into such joy and relief that it was as if a door had opened, and I saw concealed behind it the true cost of his self-imposed exile: in a brief tremor of his lips and the paleness of his skin, and before he turned back to the fireplace, I saw him close his eyes.
My dear friend's heart was indeed well-guarded, and capricious though it could be, I never again doubted my place in it. We settled in silence, comfortable this time, before the fire, and when I asked, he proceeded to tell me his theories on the Edrington case, and propose that tomorrow, we embark on an examination of it. Together.