By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.
I. One more moment to aim
Two shots rang out. Watson flinched and dodged as he had done under fire many times before, but this time, as he moved, his leg gave out beneath him. He tumbled to the ground, suddenly breathless. A shivering pain in his thigh blossomed into the jabs of a thousand thorns.
He lay on the worn planks of the floor and blinked upward. The sound of a brief scuffle was distant and somehow soothing. Then his field of vision was filled by the drawn, white face of Sherlock Holmes.
"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!" The look upon his features was remarkable, the most wonderful and startling transformation that Watson had ever seen. There was nothing languid about him now, nothing arrogant, only a pure, shaking fear, a need and vulnerability that pierced Watson to the core. So this was what it was like to be loved by Sherlock Holmes, he thought, with a haziness that tasted both of peace and regret.
"Holmes," he said with some little effort. "I...do beg your pardon."
"My pardon? My dear man!" The quaver in his voice was already receding before an air of brusque hope. "Even the best of us may find ourselves in the way of an injury now and again. Come, let me see to it, and we will turn our attention to this blackguard here."
Watson wanted to apologize again, but he lacked the breath to do it. He heard the sound of Holmes's pocket-knife; he felt the tugging and ripping at his trouser-leg. And then he heard nothing, a puzzled silence, the sort of hesitation that was anathema to Sherlock Holmes as others knew him.
The pale, strained face appeared again in his contracting field of vision. "Watson?" It was the barest whisper.
Watson shook his head slowly from one side to the other. "Femoral artery." He saw, rather than felt, Holmes catch up his hand and hold it against his cheek, saw him kiss it and close his eyes, his eyelashes casting fragile shadows. "So...sorry."
As Watson died, his life draining away into a dark and widening pool across the floor, he heard rhythmic sounds of crashing and muffled, meaty thumps. And then Killer Evans began to scream.
No living soul in daylight society ever saw Sherlock Holmes again. What was left of Evans lay strewn about the abattoir that had been Nathan Garrideb's room. Laid out neatly on a table was the body of John H. Watson, M.D., his wound washed clean, his arms folded carefully across his chest.
II. Both shots hit home
It was like a serpent's bite, the quick double stroke that sent him crumpling to the floor. He tried to rise, but only managed to prop himself up on his elbows; his leg had gone instantly numb and he could not move it.
He saw Holmes strike Killer Evans to the floor with one mighty blow from the butt of his pistol and roll him over in a swift search for weapons, handling him carelessly, roughly, as he might use an old piece of refuse. Then he fell to his knees at Watson's side, putting his arms round him without hesitation.
"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!" he cried, trying to lift him. But even the great hidden strength of Sherlock Holmes could not hide the fact that Watson's leg lay limp and shattered.
"I'm all right." Watson tried to speak soothingly to the wide, frightened eyes before him. He had seen wounds like this many a time before, though, and he knew better.
Holmes had always been able to see beneath his skin and read his thoughts rather than his words. He pulled back and regarded the twisted limb, and when he looked up, his features had lost their habitually diffident cast and were now wracked by a terrible grief.
Watson attempted a smile. "Leg might be done for, but what's that in the grand scheme, eh?"
Those thin, strong arms slid around him once more and held him with a gentle protectiveness. But within their encircling warmth, Holmes's body was soft and shaking against his, seeking comfort as much as bestowing it. And his words were of such an open, helpless cant that Watson's eyes pricked with tears. "No... Oh, no... Oh my dear..."
A rasping, muddy chuckle floated up from the other side of the room. "So-o-o, that's how it is, is it?"
Holmes froze in his embrace and slowly turned, pulling away to face the villain sprawled on his belly with blood trickling into his eyes.
"He goes into harm's way for you," Evans said, smirking, his eyes small and glittering in the dim light, "by day and by night? Does he also lie bleeding in the--what do you Britishers call it--the boudoir?"
Watson could not see Holmes's face, but he saw his spine straighten into steel. Holmes said nothing; he stalked across the room and delivered a powerful backhand blow to Evans's jaw that sent him sprawling and kept him quiet...though his eyes never lost their devilish light.
Holmes was careful, clearing the way for ambulance attendants to come and lift him. He was careful, and distant, and very correct. He did not ride in the ambulance coach. And when Watson woke and saw for the first time the smooth, empty blanket running down to the end of the mattress on that side, the chair by the bed was empty.
Watson recovered and took to his practice again, his artificial leg giving him a distinction, people passing him in the street with the respect and gravity accorded a war hero.
He felt Holmes was kind to him, in an attentive, firm, shuttered way. But never again did he ask Watson on a case. And never again, to Watson's memory, did they touch.
III. Three steps ahead
Holmes shouldered his way to the front, as if to seize Killer Evans at the very moment he emerged from his rathole. But Evans was quick, and fired two shots in succession like a staggered thunderclap. Holmes swayed and fell.
Gripping his pistol with both hands and aiming carefully, Watson shot Evans through the right foot. At such close range the ball did severe damage on its way out the other side, and Evans dropped, howling.
"Lord save me!" he cried. "I'm dying!"
Watson stooped to disarm the villain and cast a swift, critical eye on his handiwork. "You are not mortally wounded," he said, and turned away.
Holmes lay curled on one side, his breathing rapid and shallow. Watson eased him onto his back, checked his breath and his pulse, and dug in Holmes's trouser pocket for the knife he often carried. Two quick strokes were all that he needed to lay the wound bare to his practiced eyes and careful fingers.
"Watson... You're not hurt?" Holmes said feebly.
"Lie quiet now, Holmes."
Holmes struggled, his eyes blazing in his wan face. "For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"
"Hush." Watson lay one palm on Holmes's cheek, and he seemed to ease. He groped upward and pressed his own hand over Watson's.
"My dearest friend," he sighed. "I thought..."
Watson paused in his work, leaving his hand in Holmes's cold one, looking into his wide, searching eyes, eyes that shone now, without distance or shield. "What is it?"
"I thought there would be time. Time enough...for everything." His expression spoke of his heart, and of a fragile wonder kept too long hidden.
"I never thought I would leave you again," he said. "And this time, not to return." His eyelids fluttered closed and tightened as if he would weep.
Watson's breath caught in his throat. He gently freed his hand and tied the makeshift bandage tight about the wound. "That you certainly will not," he said in his strongest tones. "I lived through that once before. I am not eager to repeat it."
"But sometimes," said Holmes, "it cannot be helped."
"This is not that time." Watson passed his hand across Holmes's forehead. "For you are not mortally wounded either."
With the capture of the lamed and ruined Killer Evans, the case of the Three Garridebs was successfully put to rest. And so was Holmes, propped amidst a nest of pillows in the sitting-room of Baker Street. He had been quiet since their return, and of a stiff and silent disposition. Watson tended to his wound and tried not to press him. But at last he could tolerate this self-imposed isolation no longer.
"Holmes," he said, brandishing his thermometer.
Holmes opened his mouth obediently, showing the same chilly courtesy that had marked all their dealings since he lay on the floor of Garrideb's room nearly weeping with love and loss.
Watson slipped the thermometer in and took Holmes's wrist in his hand. "Now that I have your attention..."
Holmes looked up at him, alarmed.
"No, do not stir. I mustn't lose this reading, or I shall have to call in Anstruther for another consultation." And Anstruther had previously given Holmes such a lecture on diet, regular sleeping habits, even the consumption of his beloved shag, that Watson was sure the threat would be sufficient.
"Instead, you will listen to me." Holmes did not look receptive, but Watson simply shook his head. "Perhaps you think this behavior suits me. Perhaps you believe you will make me forget."
Holmes stilled, turning his face away, his pulse speeding under Watson's fingers.
"But I will not forget." He gave Holmes's arm a little shake, wrapping his hand comfortably around it, no longer pretending to count the beats of his heart. "Do you understand?"
Holmes's countenance darkened, and his muscles tightened against Watson's grip, but Watson would not release him. "No," he said with some force. "I could not forget, nor do I wish to."
A space passed of perhaps three long, drawn breaths, and then Holmes looked up once more. His lips were pale where he pressed them about the thermometer, but his eyes were as brave and innocent with hope as Watson had only seen once before.
"I prefer to have you here, Holmes," Watson said more gently, smiling into those eyes, "and to know who you are to me. And I to you."
Holmes tugged his arm free and seized Watson's hand in his with an air both nervous and determined. With his other hand, he removed the thermometer. "With your permission, then, Doctor," he said, laying the instrument on the end table.
And Watson knelt with him in joyful and grateful embrace.