breathe.

It is a documented phenomenon, that in times of great stress or shock, that an event that would normally takes a mere heartbeat complete appears, to the observer, to span the course of several minutes.

Breathe: It is a dark alleyway, so far away from the gas streetlamps that their light does little good. There are three men, of the broad-shouldered, thick-jawed variety that is so common among the villainously-inclined lower class. One carries a crowbar the length of a man’s arm, and the others are unarmed.

Breathe: Holmes, engaging them. With that peculiar mad humor of his, he hails them as if for all the world is he one of their fellows. They are startled, they are angry: their boss had promised they would be unharassed, and Holmes has made a liar of him. There is shouting.

Breathe: A fight. It goes lightning-fast, contrary to everything that follows. Watson has his cane, Holmes has his fists; a typical Sunday afternoon.

Breathe: The moment.

Breathe: Watson has been in war, had been a soldier for nearly a year before his own injury, and he is not certain he has ever heard a gunshot quite so loud.

Breathe: He sees explosion of sparks and fancies he sees the gleam of the bullet itself, its lazy arc in the air.

Breathe: He hears Holmes’ pained grunt and suddenly the lean coiled presence at his back is ripped away, falling. He half-turns and watches his friend strike the ground, bouncing like a child’s rag-doll tossed carelessly aside.

Breathe: Cold certainty replaces the blood in his veins. It is dark and Holmes is not breathing. The name dies on his lips unspoken. The villains are fleeing, terrified of their boldness–they must be very inexperienced indeed, a voice says in Watson’s head (one that sounds like the dead man at his feet), to turn tail at a single gunshot.

Breathe: He falls to his knees and reaches out with trembling hands. His skin feels too hot and his chest too tight, and there is a terrible roaring of blood in his ears.

And then: “Ah! Damn!” Holmes sits up and pats himself down, a look of feline disgust wrinkling his brow and pinching his lips. After a moment, he reaches into his vest and produces his pocket-watch, shattered quite beyond repair. Holmes makes a sound of distress, prodding at the mess of gears and wires with the tip of his pinky, then looks up at Watson.

“This was my favorite watch,” he says. “It has served me well for many years, and see how all its loyal service is repaid! Who knows if I’ll be able to find another one quite so reliable, Watson, I–Watson?”

Watson, in the middle of Holmes’ ranting, has reached out; his hand now rests upon his friend’s narrow breast. He can feel the charred ripped edges where the bullet penetrated cloth, and it makes him shiver.

“Watson? Say something, man.” Holmes leans forward, and there is just enough light to catch the furrow of his brow and the frown that pinches the corners of his mouth. He seems nearly as distressed as he did over his watch. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

And in that moment the whole scene is absurd: here he is, kneeling in a filthy alley with his hand over solid unbroken skin and his friend pouting (pouting!) over his broken pocket-watch, begrudging to ask if he was all right. Overcome in a sudden impulse, Watson reaches further and hooks his long arms around his friend’s thin shoulders and hauls him in, ignoring the strenuous protests as he embraces his friend, alive and spitting complaints, squirming like a captured cat, but tolerating the embrace for long seconds.

“You are, perhaps,” Watson says, “as well as the wisest, the most foolish man I have ever met, Sherlock Holmes.”

“Ah. Well.” Holmes gives him an indulgent look, the sort usually turned upon unruly children. “That’s all well and good. Would you mind letting me go?”

“I’d mind very much,” Watson says, and over Sherlock Holmes’ indignant sputtered protests, he squeezes to feel the narrow body against his own, and laughs out of sheer bloody relief.

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