A/N: Sorry for the long wait, and thank you for you reviews and comments and pokes at me for keeping going with this. I hope this last part does not disappoint.
It was not the first time that I had been obliged to move an injured man through enemy lines, a fact that now proved to be fortuitous. I did not lose time devising any cumbrous means of transport, for I knew from experience that, despite all our modern methods of caring for the sick and injured, there was nothing more mobile, flexible, and protective than the age-old expedient of a man carrying another in his arms.
Despite my half-acknowledged expectations, no hail of bullets descended to greet us as I exited onto the road, cradling my poor friend close to me. Instead, a sense of quiet pervaded the rural surroundings of the inn, and despite my intention to remain vigilant, I found myself relaxing slightly. After all, I reasoned, there was always the outside chance that Lestrade might have misinterpreted the situation. The closed carriage was there, a few yards away from me; within moments, surely Holmes would be safe.
I do not know what warned me - possibly a suggestion of movement, caught out of the corner of my eye, from one of the doorways across the road. In any case, suddenly I felt an impulse to turn around to face back to the door to the inn, my back to the potential threat and Holmes shielded by my body. And indeed, there was the report of a gunshot and a thump against my shoulder, all very familiar to me from my time in Afghanistan - I had been hit by a small-calibre weapon.
Before my arm could give out, and even before my brain registered the pain, I had gone down to my knees in a controlled fall lest I drop my precious burden. Holmes groaned as his injured leg hit the ground none-too-gently, and I slipped my newly freed hand into my coat pocket for my revolver.
Lestrade cried a warning; he and two constables moved in on our position to cover us; there was the sound of more gunshots; I tried to twist around to catch sight of our attackers, and then the pain from my wound finally and devastatingly registered. For a moment, my senses swam and there was a roaring in my ears; I blinked furiously, trying to see something, anything, my nearly numb fingers cramped in a death grip about my revolver, ready to shoot. Holmes shouted my name, and as my vision returned, I found myself lying on the ground and his hand was wrestling my revolver from my grasp.
Then he had it, and the shots fired close to my ears were deafening as he kept squeezing the trigger. To this day, I have no idea where he found the strength to aim nor how he managed to see where he was shooting; for not only was the smoke from the gunpowder obstructing our view in the still morning air, but also I was certain that he must still be feeling the disorienting effects from the cocktail of drugs he had been given.
Dropping the spent gun, he levered himself up upon one arm, his free hand reaching for me. It was covered in blood, and I feared that he had been wounded again. It was only later that I realized that the blood upon his hand was mine. Then his eyes found mine; there was an expression of such intense relief in his that I wondered, for a confused minute, what it was I had missed. The next moment, his wiry arms hooked themselves under my shoulders, and, amazingly, he levered himself to his feet and me along with him, and then we stumbled together towards the safety of the carriage, where our impromptu coachman was having his hands full calming the horses.
I had just reached the door and was turning to help Holmes up, when he, suddenly and with a strangled groan, became a dead weight – the pain of walking on his injury had become too much even for his iron self control. Gritting my teeth against the searing pain in my shoulder, I held him up as best as I could and half dragged, half pushed him into the carriage while all around us, constables were shouting at each other and the occasional gun shot ricocheted off the walls.
Then the carriage was moving, jerking and shaking along the uneven road, leaving me to secure my unconscious friend by holding him with my good arm while keeping my head underneath the windows until we were out of the danger zone. It was some time before I was able to relax, as it seemed from what I could see through the small back window of the carriage that there was no sign of pursuit.
Carefully, I twisted and moved my injured shoulder, relieved to find that the damage seemed to be purely superficial, if deucedly painful when moved; sufficiently so to surprise a groan out of me.
Holmes chose that moment to return to consciousness. "Watson," he gasped, looking around confusedly for a second before focusing on me. "Watson." Beyond this repetition of my name, he said nothing more, and merely continued to look at me, the same wondrous relief in his eyes I had seen before.
"Holmes," I said, "how are you feeling? Are you in pain?"
He shook his head, not so much, I felt, in response to my question as in denial of the entire topic. I saw his eyes flick to the side, and his expression changed. Raising his bloodied hands, he pointed at my shoulder. "Watson, you're bleeding."
"I know. It's only superficial."
He continued to look at the blood-soaked material of my coat, blinking slowly, his face assuming an expression that I had never seen before. "They hurt you." The words were not so much whispered as hissed. "I'm going to - ugh." He had twisted his body around as if trying to get upright, but was obviously dissuaded from fully sitting up by the pain from his wound.
And then, to my surprise, he smacked his fist into the upholstery in a violent discharge of rage and hate. "They hurt you!" he hissed. "Stop the carriage! Nobody hurts my Watson with impunity. I shall tear them apart..." He trailed off with a strangled gasp and panted, groaning.
I blinked with a sudden upsurge of emotion at this evidence of Holmes' regard for me. While I had long suspected that he harboured a fierce temper underneath his habitually detached manner, it was nevertheless startling to find that his capacity for cold, logical reasoning could be distorted like this.
"I'm fine, Holmes," I tried to assure him, disconcerted by this new side of him. "The police have them. We're going home."
He nodded. "Home. Good. Do not let me get near them. I won't be responsible for my actions." His eyes were closed; there was a fine sheen of sweat upon his brow, and I could tell that his temperature was still elevated. "Not responsible. These men are capable of anything. Anything, Watson." He trailed off.
I felt that this was an opportunity that I could not let pass un-seized. If ever Holmes were to be persuaded to talk about his ordeal, it would be now, when he was not yet sufficiently resettled in his mind to hide behind his façade of impassibility – and now I knew with certainty that it was but a façade.
"You're angry at what they did," I probed, feeling my way cautiously.
His eyes were still closed. "Damned right I'm angry. They hurt you." Despite his clipped words, his voice held a dreamy quality that told me he was not fully conscious.
"They did things to you as well, Holmes," I ventured. "How does that make you feel?"
"I don't wish to think about that," he told me, still with a distinct vehemence underneath the dreaminess.
This obviously required a tactical approach, and a speedy one. Once Holmes recovered his equilibrium sufficiently to return to his taciturn self, I should never get him to unburden himself, and I have ever believed that wounds of the soul must be treated like any other wound – lanced and cleaned swiftly lest they later begin to fester.
"I am angry at what they did to you," I told him softly, taking his hand. "I've been worried sick. You were gone for a whole week, and I had no word, nothing. Then we found you in such a sorry state, and when I realized what happened to you, I swear I should have forgotten myself at the slightest provocation."
He looked at me, then to the side, but he said nothing.
"So you see, I understand that you are angry. I, too, am very angry, because I know what they did to you."
His gaze flicked back to me. "You know? You do." And so did he, clearly, for his face paled considerably as he remembered. Then he looked at his hand in mine, and his mouth tightened.
"I believe you're disgusted," I hazarded, "and you think that I should be, too." After all, he had said something to that effect before, in his delirium.
"I don't understand how you can stand to touch me," he confirmed, his voice brittle.
"You feel dirty."
"I shall never feel clean again."
"You were bound, gagged. Subjected to their whims. They drugged you into complete helplessness. And then they – hurt you."
He closed his eyes and turned his head away. "Please, stop."
I hardened my heart. As painful as it is to lance the boil, as great is the relief when the poison finally exits the wound. "You had no idea what was real and what was not. You had no way to fight them, to prevent what they did to you. All you could do was live through it."
He was breathing rapidly, his lips trembling. "Watson, please." But still, in spite of his weakened system, in spite of the fever, his composure held.
This man was much too strong to break with cruelty, but I had another weapon at my disposal. "It kills me to think of it, Holmes," I said intently, tightening my hold about him. "To think of you in that position. The man I love, at the mercy of these… beasts." I fear that my own voice was none too steady. In trying to affect him, I was driving a figurative knife into my own breast.
Then I stroked my hand over his head, down his back, and finally lowered my mouth to kiss him.
He broke, and shattered, and I was there to gather the pieces in my hands.
The journey back to Baker Street was an experience upon which I should much prefer not to dwell. Quite apart from the exertions of the journey itself, exertions that required me to carry my injured friend to and from to train, the cab, and finally into our lodgings, there was Holmes' brittle self-control that, once broken, could not be subjected to the slightest strain. He would hide his face against my body as often and as much as he could, or he would place his arm across his eyes when I was too far away. His breathing was audible and much too fast, and the thin sheen of sweat that indicated his fevered state was still evident upon his too-pale face.
Finally, we reached our lodgings, and when I had finished bringing my friend into his bed, I myself felt quite ready to drop where I stood. However, there was not yet time to rest. My own wound required cleaning and dressing. I needed to make arrangements for the care of Holmes – a night nurse for the next few nights at least, and a full restocking of my medical supplies. Mrs Hudson needed to be informed. All these thoughts crossed through my mind, but I could not get myself to move for a long time.
Holmes was lying upon his side, face hidden in the bedclothes, arms wrapped around himself as if trying to receive comfort from his own touch. I stared at him from maybe a yard away, remembering how he had clung to me, and the distance between us felt unbearable. He needed me. He was still so brittle.
But those were fanciful thoughts unbecoming of a professional, so I made myself leave his bedroom and went for my desk and the telegram forms upon it. I left the door open, I assured myself, so Holmes would be able to hear me, and I him. It would have to be enough.
I wrote three telegrams in rapid succession and had just removed my damaged shirt and waistcoat when there was a knock upon our door.
Mrs. Hudson entered. She truly is a most remarkable woman – and inured against shock through constant exposure, it is true -, so she merely blinked as she saw my half-naked and bloodied person. "Oh doctor," she said, for all the world as if I were a particularly wayward child, "what have you done and got yourself into again? Have you found –"
"Yes, Mrs. Hudson, I found Holmes. He will be fine."
She smiled in evident relief, but then the smile left her face. "'Will be...'? So he is... ? Is there anything I can do, doctor? And if you don't mind my saying so, you look absolutely done in yourself. If I knew it would do any good at all, I should tell you to get some rest before you drop."
I gave her a staunch smile, touched by her concern, yet quite unwilling to abandon my post. "It looks worse than it is, Mrs. Hudson," I said, gesturing at the blood on my shoulder. "But I would appreciate some hot water, and a sandwich or two, if you would. Oh, and please see that these get sent." I handed her the telegrams.
"But of course." She looked about to add more, but then she merely gave me a brisk nod and left our sitting-room.
I leaned back in my desk chair, my eyes fixed upon the door to Holmes' bedroom and the darkened room beyond. The need to be back with my friend was almost physical, and so I hurried to tend to my injury, making thorough use of the hot water Mrs. Hudson brought up presently, and closing the flesh wound with three stitches applied with my left hand with the aid of a mirror held in my right while most of my attention was in the next room, listening to any sound Holmes might make.
But I heard nothing. Paradoxically, this did not reassure me, and so, as soon as I was done, I hurried back to my friend's side, only to find him in the same position as I had left him, deeply asleep. I felt weak with relief, the physician in me reassured at this sign of beginning recuperation, even as another part of me stung with something akin to disappointment. No trembling hands reaching for me; no more need for my arms around him.
Appalled at this evidence of my own selfishness, I retreated into the sitting-room, telling myself fiercely that I should be glad of my friend's improvement and ashamed of myself. He was my patient, and I was dangerously close to abusing his state of helplessness for my own needs. Was I not aware of Holmes' habitual aversion to all things emotional? No matter the insights I might have gained, was it not my duty as his friend to respect his preferences and not impose my own wishes upon him, now that he was so needy for reasons beyond his control? Did I not know how much his own behaviour now would distress him later, when he was well again, and how reprehensible it was of me to encourage said behaviour?
Such were my thoughts as I sat upon my customary chair by the unlit fire, and I could only find peace upon the resolution to curb my impulses from now on, leave my friend his space, let him retreat back into his shell, and allow things to continue as they had before.
I must have fallen asleep, for it was hours later when Holmes' voice caused me to come awake with a start.
My neck straightened with a painful crackle. "I'm here, Holmes." Levering myself to my feet, I found my mouth dry, my shoulder sore, my arms stiff from past exertions, and my legs still weak with exhaustion. Obviously, carrying my friend to and fro on top of all the excitement of the past week had left its mark upon my body.
And so, my entrance into his chamber was less than graceful. He peered at me out of hooded eyes, taking in my appearance and giving a strange little half smile. "There you are," he said softly. "I thought that maybe you'd gone out." His voice was almost without inflection.
I shook my head, attempting to make sense of his manner. This was a marked change from the desperate, near hysterical man I had held in my arms on the way here. He appeared lucid, in full possession of his faculties, and wary.
Once again, I was stabbed by the most acute sense of disappointment, and I smiled to cover it. "You are looking much better, my dear fellow," I said. He needed the doctor more now than the friend, and had I not resolved to give him what he needed, and not what I wanted him to need?
Still that wary look. "Much better," he confirmed. "You, on the other hand..."
I rubbed my neck. "Fell asleep in my chair," I muttered, shrugging in what I felt was a good approximation of indifference. "Mrs. Hudson brought up sandwiches. You should try to eat a bite. And I should have a look at that leg of yours."
There was a pause. Holmes' eyes fairly bored into mine, and it was all I could do to return his gaze. Would he, who so rarely missed anything, be able to see through my pretence, or would he know about my inappropriate desires just from looking at me? I called upon the full extent of my dissembling abilities and attempted to affect complete nonchalance.
Finally, he looked away and closed his eyes. "In a minute, Watson," he said, suddenly appearing frail and tired. "Surely there's no hurry, now that the crisis is over."
I took a deep breath, not knowing how I felt. I should be happy that things were returning to normal, but my being was suffused with conflict. "I shall let you rest," I said, turning to go, and telling myself that this was what I wanted.
After all, I had known heaven of a sort, if only for a few hours. That was more than most men ever did. It would have to be enough.
When evening came, Holmes proceeded to provide further proof of his amazing recuperative powers by first dismissing the night nurse I had taken some trouble to find for him, and then by moving to the dinner table under his own power and even eating a bite or two without too much prompting. By then, all trace of the drugs had dissipated completely, and my friend once again appeared fully alert and in complete possession of his faculties.
As for myself, I had spent the day in much the same way as the hours before it, but by now, I had come to accept the fact that recent events had woken a need within me that would not soon die, and that instead I would have to live with for as long as I shared the life and friendship of Sherlock Holmes. For now, this need was inchoate, undefined even before my own scrutiny, for I dared not look at it too closely lest it turn me into something I should hardly be able to accept.
Not even Lestrade's triumphant wire letting me know that Scotland Yard had been successful in finding the miscreants and apprehending all the bidders associated with the whole sordid business had been sufficient to distract me from my thoughts.
Dinner was a silent affair, with both of us, I think, lost in our own thoughts, the way soldiers are that have nearly died in a battle. Now and then, I sensed Holmes' gaze upon me, and more often than not, I could feel my face heat up in response. For myself, I kept my own gaze upon Mrs. Hudson's excellent roast, for if I looked my friend in the eye, surely he would be able to surmise my thoughts and know me for the deviant I was barely acknowledging myself to be.
In a moment of inspiration, similarly to a bolt of lightning in the night that will light up the darkest road, I saw my life stretch on like this – myself forever unable to meet Holmes' gaze, and him forever striving to penetrate my silence. This would be intolerable. I needed to gather my resolve and end this now.
Of course, he chose that moment to act. "Watson." The sole mention of my name drew my eyes up to his at once. To my surprise, they were not the eyes of the dispassionate detective I had expected. Instead, I fancied seeing in them a glimmer of some unnamed turmoil.
I at once looked him over – his leg elevated properly, clean bandages unchanged from my treatment an hour ago; his skin not quite his usual pallor, but neither feverish, and quite dry; his hands steady as he held his knife and fork – in short, I could see nothing physically wrong with him. "Holmes?"
For a minute or more, he did not reply and merely looked at me with that same expression in his eyes. "Did I dream it?" he finally asked, then apparently realized that I could not possibly answer that question. "I do not meant what happened when I got this -" he pointed at his leg, "and you, that." A long, thin finger pointed at my shoulder. "Everything be something of a blur, but I do know that none of it was a dream. But I did have dreams while these things happened, and you featured heavily in most of them."
He paused, and I nodded. "I know." Be real this time, he had said to me when I found him. The memory still had the power to make my soul ache.
"I remember you saying something to me, something monumental," he went on, breaking eye contact to look down at his hands that were still holding the cutlery. He put it down and steepled his fingers in front of him in a gesture that was reassuringly Holmesian. "And then doing something even more monumental. So monumental, in fact, that I can scarcely conceive that it was no dream."
I found myself holding my breath in hope. If he remembered my heartfelt if foolish words and still had not thrown me out of our lodgings, then possibly my situation was not quite as hopeless as I had thought. "I said a lot of things," I said, the sudden surge of heart making me reckless. "I should not have thought that you would term them 'monumental', though. 'Sentimental', possibly."
At that, he looked up once more, his eyes shining. "Certainly sentimental," he agreed thoughtfully, as if discoursing upon some academic topic. "Words such as 'foolish' and even 'dangerous' come to mind as well. And what you did after you said it might even be termed 'criminal'. Provided, of course, that none of it was a dream."
"Oh, it was no dream," I said, grinning like a loon, completely reassured by his manner. "And I have never been afraid to break the law in a good cause."
He leaned back in his chair and regarded me with a slight smile, the first truly glad expression I had seen from him since I had found him. "As I very well know, my dear Watson," he said softly. "But that bears the question: Is what we are not quite discussing a good cause? For myself, I have only the barest theoretical knowledge of the thing, save as a motivation for crime. I never would have fancied myself as an active participant, so to speak. But, like you have followed me everywhere, I am ready to follow you in this." He smiled more widely at my no doubt dumbfounded expression. "And now cease your worrying, Watson. If you can still call me friend after what happened to me, then I can most certainly hold you in the same regard as I did before you said those words and did that deed."
Not much remains to tell, now, in order to conclude this rambling narrative. That night, Holmes and I shared a bed for the first time for purposes other than practical ones, with both of us reasonably sound and in full possession of our faculties. I should like to be able to report that our first coming together thus was athletic and physically glorious, but the truth is that I was much too wary due to my friend's injuries, and Holmes still much too weak and tired from his ordeal for anything more than sharing body warmth and some extended caresses.
And yet, even that mere promise of things to come, that mere holding and being held by the one I loved, was much more satisfying, for me at least, than the stolen affection I had so gloried in before could ever be. I still feel guilty whenever I remember my unprofessional behaviour during Holmes' rescue – never more so than when Holmes, during his more demonstrative moments, calls me his moral anchor, or north star, or whatever else flattering simile he may think up.
Be that as it may, we are now committed to this course, wherever it may lead us. As I am writing this in the early morning hours, Holmes is lying deeply asleep next to me, and I exult in the knowledge that, once I have finished this last sentence and closed my little note-book, I shall be free to rejoin him under the covers and hold him to my heart's content, knowing that this is where we, both of us, want to be.