After the cacophonous noise and heat of the pool and the accompanying explosion, the relative silence and peace of John's hospital room seemed completely alien and new. The only sounds were the soft murmuring of orderlies beyond the stolid wooden door, the shushed conspiratorial chatter of Mycroft's security detail blending with the hospital employee's voices, and the ever-present language of the machines focused on protecting the good doctor's remaining strength.
And then there was John. Completely, utterly silent, silent as a corpse that he would analyze and re-analyze to find the right cause of death. There was still a smear of blood on his scalp, where he'd hit the edge of the pool as they jumped in: scraped it, more like, his entire body being dragged across the edge by the force of Sherlock's powerful leap right into the center of the water. Several ribs were broken, one puncturing his left lung. His whole back was covered in shrapnel wounds and gashes; if he were awake, his sleeping position would be agony. He had lost so much blood that the hospital had been forced to call another hospital to ask for an emergency donation, in order to keep from entirely depleting their store of A1- plasma. His bad leg had been broken in three places, and for several months he would need a cane to walk, a cane which he would probably refuse to use. The irony, of course, was not lost on the tall, lanky man standing at the unconscious doctor's bedside, grasping his tightly bandaged hand with a calculated blend of carefulness, tenderness, and frustration. The shock alone should have been enough to kill Doctor Watson. If he were any other ex-army doctor, it probably would have.
Sherlock sighed. He was exhausted – beyond exhausted, really, standing resolutely in the twilight world between unintentional sleep and extremely intentional concentrated wakefulness – and his body ached, more than he had ever remembered aching even after being hit by cars or shot or strangled by Chinese henchmen, but he had no inclination toward resting and leaving his blogger to fight for his life alone. He held no romantic notions that his presence could actually alter John's chances for survival, but he didn't want to miss it, whatever it turned out to be. At any moment, John H Watson, his only true friend and confidante, could slip from the world, or, in a beautiful twist of fate, drag himself back toward it in true heroic fashion. No, leaving him, even for a nap, wouldn't do.
At the thought of heroes, Sherlock winced, flinching on his way to grabbing a sip from his fifth cup of tea that night. Heroes – John's hero. John had made him into a hero. It was a mantle he'd never wanted to bear, a burden too great for him to accept, and one that, ultimately, he would never feel worthy of. To be someone's hero was an uncomfortable, prickly weight of itself, but to be John's hero: no. It was too much for him, Sherlock knew, and if he'd let it continue, it would have been the unraveling of both of them, whether they realized it or not. To place such great trust in a friend, to exalt them to a height of impenetrable goodness, only served to chip away at the structure of the friendship with each word of praise or declaration of unwavering loyalty. And that wouldn't do. It couldn't. They needed each other, Sherlock knew; they needed each other much more than John would ever need a hero.
Which is why he'd been forced to nip John's hero worship in the bud, before it grew tendrils that squeezed the companionship out of them both. Sherlock remembered the moment then, sitting there by John's bedside – or deathbed, he didn't yet know which – sipping cheap hospital tea that tasted more of grey water than Earl Grey. The look in John's eyes had been unbearable, so he'd shoved the words out like one might push a dead body into a river or, he thought wryly, onto the top of a train. Yet even after that brutal, dismissive cut-down, John still assisted him, following him to crime scenes, even leaping atop a giant Czech assassin to protect him. Sherlock was struck with the eerie feeling that John was willing to sacrifice his life to save him, the world's only consulting detective, and that this scene – of the great detective, sitting vigil by the bedside of his wounded assistant – was the only logical way that the entire scenario could play out. No matter the circumstances or the danger, John would face any manifestation of mankind's malice, laying down his life to protect the man he admired more than any other. The thought was staggering; absurd to Sherlock's strictly logical mind, yes, but in a way, so terrifyingly human that it made him shiver.
A dreary rain began to beat against the glass of John's hospital room (private, on the top floor, all exits secured by trained agents handpicked by Mycroft). In the hallway, Sherlock's keen ears picked up the muffled clinking of Bakelite cups and dishes; meal service, probably sent up by his hen-picking brother to force him to choke down nourishment. Sherlock never ate while he was working; digestion slowed him down. Right now, his assignment was to watch over John, and his duty would not be hindered by his own needs for sleep or food. Tea was enough. He took another sip and again pushed himself back into reflection, looking out at the London night. Unconsciously, his fingers ghosted a melody across John's bandaged hand, as if he were a precious violin in desperate need of playing.
He'd never had any heroes as a child. Other boys his age had idolized football players or film stars or political leaders or great scientists. None of those had appealed to him. He had been – had thought he always would be – comfortably adrift in his own world of minute observations, where a whole day could pass examining the notches on a sea shell, reading its journey from ocean to shore by its scratches and imperfections alone. He had thrown himself into learning everything he could wrest from the grip of the world: about lying, about nature, about society, about crime, about violence and death and disease. When he was only seven he could tell when his mother was cheating at bridge by only the twitches at the edge of her mouth. He knew what friend's house his father had been to the night before by what scent of liquor was coloring his breath. These observations astounded and disturbed those around him, but he paid them no mind. It was only practice to him; practice for the big, unformed future that loomed menacingly ahead.
Mycroft had adored James Bond when they were growing up, much like the man lying comatose beside him. He would hide away at recess with the book propped up on his chubby knees, devouring each feat of daring that the suave secret agent undertook. When they were older, the elder brother would sneak into his little brother's room at night, clutching his VHS tapes of Sean Connery or Roger Moore, and beg Sherlock to put down the chemistry set and come watch the movies again: for the fiftieth time that month, as the bored curly haired teenager would remind him sardonically. Mycroft had always dreamed of being the man behind the gun, Sherlock knew. He wondered if his brother was disappointed in the fact that he would always be only the one pulling the strings, without the excitement, glamour, or women. Then again, his job paid well – very well – enough for him to press his neurotic concern on any acquaintance of Sherlock's he could intimidate into a black car.
He could read the childhood heroes of his other acquaintances easily, through their words or their private possessions or in the arrangements of their bookcases. Lestrade had longed to be his generation's King Arthur, as Sherlock deduced from the one time he visited the Detective Inspector's home. But Greg had put such childishness away when he found himself in police academy at his father's urging, buckling down to earn himself a mildly satisfying career constantly overshadowed by the genius of the sociopath he frequently regretted knowing. Anderson had mentioned Babe Ruth several times in unrelated conversations, leading Sherlock to dryly comment about how the police force suited him better than athletics, as knocking balls about didn't seem to rank high in his interests. Sally kept a quote from Marie Curie in her wallet, which the consulting detective knew only from the many instances he had spitefully pilfered money and breath mints from her purse.
But John – he didn't know John's childhood hero, didn't even pretend to know. He had always been so wrapped up in deducing the other man's split-second emotions, gauging his reaction to Sherlock's disgusting DIY experiments, learning about his military career from the look in his eyes when he examined a body. All he knew was that whatever John's adolescent passions had been, he had discarded them upon meeting Sherlock, and found himself a reluctant hero to take their place.
Sherlock stilled his thoughts as John suddenly shifted, ever so slightly, and the heart-rate monitored picked up pace. He put his cup of tea down – nearly spilled it in his haste – and devoted his attention fully to the wounded man in front of him.
"John? John H Watson, can you hear me? Please." He squeezed the doctor's hand – not too much, he didn't want to cause further damage – and leaned closer in order to hear John murmur.
"Sherlock," he said softly: his voice was so quiet and damaged that if Sherlock hadn't been so near, he would have mistaken it for just an exhale. But it was there: consonants slurred, syllables muddled together, but there nevertheless.
"I'm here, John. I promise." Struck by a sudden emotion he couldn't quite place, the detective pressed a kiss to John's bruised cheek, lightly, so as not to hurt him.
John seemed to relax, the tension he carried in his forehead and lips melting away. "Mmm," he replied.
It was just a contented rumble of the throat, a reflexive noise one would make just to acknowledge a comment, but to Sherlock, in that moment, it was everything. It was the confirmation he'd been waiting for, a sign that this wounded, damaged, fragile eggshell of a person had some strength in him yet. The detective wiped distractedly at his eyes to banish their dampness, and he smiled, just a little.
"John Watson, my blogger, I'd be lost without you," he whispered, moving close to see the slightest hint of a grin flash across the doctor's face.
"My hero," John whispered back with as much clarity as he could muster.
Sherlock didn't even think of correcting him. At any other time he would snap, hurl arguments and contradictions and spiteful reproofs. But in the moment, watching his dearest, only friend struggle back from the threshold of the dead, he couldn't think of anything he would rather be than John's hero. Perhaps being put on a pedestal wouldn't wound their friendship; perhaps the expected unraveling would never come, and John's loyalty would serve to wind their strands closer together, binding them in impenetrable bonds.
Sherlock gave a brilliant smile just in time for John to open his eyes, just slightly.
"Your hero. And I always will be."