There have been times in the face that is the life of Sherlock Holmes (more times than he cares to admit, if he is honest) where he has wished he were not so damnably clever: that his instinctive ability to adapt can size up a situation in the space of a heartbeat and formulate a distinct and exact plan were not quite so well-known. Even if he miscalculates once, it is only ever once.
He wishes he were not so clever, and he wishes that Watson did not know him quite so well. He never does anything without a reason, and Watson knows this full and well. He has the feeling that the good doctor will be very angry with him for a long time to come.
So be it, then; Holmes has never expected to ever be remembered fondly.
Observe the scene: a villain, as they often are, clutching a slim briefcase of vital papers in one hand and brandishing a gun with the other. A handful of hired thugs lurk as well; most of them have been dealt with, but there are enough to be distractions. Watson is keeping watch over them, looming menacingly, and so he does not see the gun that is pointed at him; he is too distracted to take too much note of what the ringleader is shrieking.
There are, of course, a handful of outcomes: one, the gun will go wild. (Unlikely; the man in question is a noted crackshot, and even in his rage at being foiled his hand is steady.)
Two, the bullet will strike precisely in the center of John Watson’s back, neatly fracturing his spine, rendering him either crippled (a forty percent chance) or dead (sixty–possibly seventy, depending on how the man angles the gun–ah; seventy, then).
Three … well.
He does not bother to shout Watson’s name first; there isn’t the time and he has to move, because if he is too slow the bullet will simply graze him. He runs and he tackles Watson with all his not-inconsiderable strength. The good doctor lets out a shout of surprise that is echoed by the roar of the gun going off; he half-turns and oh–
Twice before in his life, Holmes has been shot. It is an agonizing feeling–both times they merely grazed him, his life saved by his quick reflexes. Today, it is not his life he intends to save.
What happens next, he isn’t entirely sure: his entire world is reduced to a red haze of pain. It is really quite disturbing; he cannot remember ever having his perception of things so uniquely and absolutely dulled. He thinks he hears shouting, and the sound of blows, but he can feel nothing but the horrible spreading pain in his back. He can hardly breathe. He cannot tell precisely where he was hit, because it hurts all over. However, he thinks: there is blood pouring out of him, and more than is healthy.
Then he is being moved–or not moved so much as lifted up; he blinks his eyes open with effort and finds himself clutched to John Watson’s breast, much the way a young lady of society might press her handkerchief. The good doctor is shouting something–at him? at someone else? ah, it’s hard to say–and he wants to say Watson, my dear fellow, don’t shout so, but the words catch in his throat and bubble out as a cough instead.
Holmes? Holmes, don’t you dare–damn you, man, stay with me! Do you hear me, I forbid you to do anything foolish!
Ah, he thinks, a painful laugh rattling, scraping in his lungs, but it’s too late for that, my dear Watson. I have already done many foolish things, the least of which was being involved with you.
Holmes, what are you–
You see, Watson, he continues on, with a merry madness–it pours out of him like blood–I have had the most horrible misfortune to think more highly of you than any other being living or dead in this world; and yet you have found someone who suits you much better! If that is not being foolish, to pine like one of those ridiculous heroines in a penny dreadful, then surely nothing is.
There are footsteps coming–or maybe it’s just the sound of his own heartbeat, thunderously loud in his ears–and he can’t help but smile a little; it’s all so terribly funny. He closes his eyes, and he thinks that he must be grateful to have had what he did, and that at least John Watson will go home safe and whole. He cannot ask for more than that.
Satisfied, he lets himself sink into darkness.
And then he opens his eyes to light.
Not much of it, certainly: there is a lamp burning at his bedside with a dull yellow glow, casting flickering shadows across the walls. He is lying on his belly, his cheek pressed to the pillow. He shifts and there is a horrible aching pain spread all across his back.
“Ah,” he says, and his voice is low and rough and sounds nothing like himself. It surprises him so much that he stops to consider it.
“You’re awake, then,” says a voice to his side. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to turn his head, and there is John Watson, his own personal devil, seated beside him. That familiar face is hardly pleased, though: there is a tremendous frown sitting on his brow, his mouth a thin unforgiving line under the softening edge of his mustache. His eyes are dark with so many things, but all he says, once he knows he has Holmes’ attention, is, “You are an idiot.”
“Watson,” Holmes says, wincing as he tries to move–it takes far longer than he should, and now that the moment is no longer so immediate, he can feel that he was shot high in the back, nearly in the shoulder–a dangerous area, to be certain, but not necessarily automatically fatal. Damn. “If you’ve any fondness for me, do be gentle with me. I am more resilient than I might have thought, I think, but I am still quite–”
“You are an idiot,” Watson cuts him off, more warmly than before. “A hundred times–a thousand times–an idiot. What on earth were you thinking?”
Holmes licks his lips; they are dry and taste sour. “Ah. Well. I would imagine that would have been obvious. There was very little time, and you were rather distracted, so–”
“Damnit, Holmes!” Watson cries, lurching to his feet; the force of his movement knocks his chair over and sends it skittering. “If you are going to say such things, at least say them when you aren’t–when you’re not–” His face twists, and then he turns away, covering his face with one hand.
“Oh, dear,” Holmes murmurs. “I’d no idea you were so given to listening to the ravings of madmen, my dear doctor; you mustn’t let yourself be so distracted. I’ve been led to understand that very little good comes of it.”
“Holmes,” Watson says, and it is worse than before–his voice is dried to a husk of sound, tired and fragile with things that are impossible to decipher. “Why did you say those things?”
“You’ll have to remind me,” Holmes says. He rolls onto his stomach again fully, pressing his face fully into the pillow. “Or better yet, don’t. Call it a moment of madness. The last confessions of a dying man.”
“You weren’t dying,” Watson snaps almost immediately. “As if I would have allowed that.”
“Yes, yes,” Holmes says into the pillow. “My bad, old boy, now if you’d just let me sleep–”
“Holmes.” There is a warning note in Watson’s normally gentle voice. He’s angry. Of course he’s angry; Doctor John Watson is a kindhearted man, and even if his erstwhile former roommate and associate drives him to distraction, never allowing him peace even though he’s moved out and taken up new lodgings with his lovely new bride–he will feel for the man, as he feels for anyone injured and in need of his tender care. Holmes does not bother to lift his head; he has had enough of terrible confessions to last the rest of his blasted lifespan, however many months or years that might be.
“Holmes, look at me.”
“I’m afraid I’m quite tired,” Holmes says, muffled into the pillow. “I daresay I will fall asleep and find this all to be quite a terrible dream. If you ask me later, I shall say I forgot everything.”
Finally he lifts his head and forces his aching eyes to focus on Watson’s face, pale and flushed both, angry and confused. In spite of himself, he smiles at that, as gently as he can–he has always found it within himself an especial tenderness for Watson, even if his own particular brand of kindness is too rough and clumsy to have any affect on a man well-used to the softness of a woman’s touch.
“Watson,” he says softly. “I assure you, with all of my considerable intelligence, that if we are to carry this conversation any further, both you and I will regret the outcome, whatever it may be–and not only that, but your lovely wife may be the one most damaged.”
Watson’s eyes darken. His mouth opens. His throat works. His mouth closes.
“You see,” Holmes says. “Let it go, my dear boy. Perhaps in a decade or so, we could meet and laugh over this. Not now, though.”
“Holmes,” Watson says, and there is more than enough answer in his voice. Holmes lets his head sink back into the pillow and closes his eyes. They say nothing more, because there is nothing else to say, but before he sleeps again, he knows he does not imagine the tentative hand that smoothes its way slowly but surely through his hair.