Defining That Elusive Quality

-This one's in answer to a special request from Igiveup.

I light my oldest, most comforting pipe with a shaking hand, my nerves still somewhat shattered from this nightmarish evening's events. Behind me, I can hear Watson's steady, labored breathing as he sleeps under the influence of the morphine Anstruther gave him an hour ago.

I start as the clock strikes eleven – proof of how shaken I am by this night's events is quite evident in the fact that even that most familiar noise is enough to make even my iron nerve to be on edge.

I must find some way to pull myself together. Watson shall awaken in two or three hours, and I cannot appear to be anything other than what he is accustomed to seeing me as. He will need normality in addition to medical care if his recovery is to be as easy as possible.

I had wanted for us both to take a short holiday until his leg has healed, at least enough for him to move without pain, but he would hear none of it. Dear chap, even in the amount of pain he was, Watson's first thought was still for me – how bored and moody I should be if dragged from London in the midst of a crime wave.

What had I ever done to deserve such devotion?

My thoughts turned back to that morning, over two decades ago, when I had first met the man that now lay before me on our sitting room's sofa.

You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive. My lips curled in a half-smile as I remembered the astonishment on his face at my swift deduction. How many times over these years had I rattled off a list of characteristics with the same flippant tone, and each time I had been rewarded with that same admiring grin that had so endeared him to me even on that first encounter.

Watson stirred slightly, an unconscious grimace of pain crossing his face, and I gently pulled the afghan up over his clenched hands. The horrible realization that his injury could have been so much worse still had not left me, its chilling reality still imprinted on my over-alert senses. If it had been worse, it would have been entirely my fault.

And that thought drove a chill through my soul that not even the roaring fire and the comforts of my favorite pipe could dispel.

I had known since our first encounter with John Garrideb, alias Killer Evans, that the man was quite dangerous. Yes, I had even warned Watson so as we waited for the man in that darkened room – but I had been dramatic and over-confident as usual, and I had never given a thought to the facts.

Our American cousins are most definitely much freer with their weapons than our own phlegmatic British citizens; I knew that with certainty. Why then had I not been doubly cautious with our night's quarry? Why had I not searched him for weapons the moment he turned round, instead of allowing my love of the dramatic to stand there and let loose a speech worthy of Watson's romantic scribblings instead?

What if Evans's aim had been truer, and he had killed Watson?

What would I have done? How could I have lived with that guilt?

Why did I insist on continually taking for granted the only thing in the world more dear to me than those little deductive problems I lived my empty life for the sole pleasure of solving?

Those moments in Nathan Garrideb's rooms following that awful confrontation will forever be imprinted indelibly on my memory. That instant when I saw the flash from Evans's gun and saw Watson drop to his knees beside me, crying out in pain, will ring with terrible clarity for years to come in my nightmares. Even now, I shiver at the remembrance.

I shall never forget the intense relief that washed over me, almost making me feel faint, when I bent over him and he looked up at me with one of his odd, fixing looks, trying to smile at me through the pain, telling me everything was all right.

Could that be similar to what he felt when I dropped my deception with Culverton Smith and revealed that I was perfectly all right? Could his justifiable anger be comparable to the feeling I had toward Evans tonight?

Half crazed from relief that Watson would be fine, and half demented with hatred toward the man that almost took the most important person in my life away without a second thought, I might have, in all deliberate seriousness, killed Evans had Watson not grasped my arm tightly, insisting that he was quite all right.

How many times had he done something of the kind, remonstrating with me when I became too irascible with Scotland Yard or timid clients? How many times had his unquestioning loyalty been the only buffer that bridged the deep gap between me and all others in my life save him alone? Just how much had I come, in the last twenty-odd years, to depend on the man sleeping restlessly before me?

Did Watson know how badly I needed him? How much I trusted and depended on him? Had I ever told him these thoughts which had just now come rushing unbidden to the forefront of my mind?

No, I doubted it. And as good as I had become at burying all feeling under my saturnine exterior, it would have taken a far greater detective than even I am to deduce what I truly felt underneath my cold ways.

Watson would awaken in less than an hour. I had under sixty minutes to decide what, if anything, I would say to him.

But, I reflected with a small smile, gazing down at the restless form of my dearest friend; I knew that, whatever I said or did not say, Watson would understand. For some odd reason, he always did. That one elusive quality that made him the only man to ever break past my self-made defenses.

And that, I rather think, is the truest definition of friendship I have ever heard of.

There you go, Igiveup!