Just One Breath
a watson h/c story
<< These stories are inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>
On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.
Content Warnings: Coursing undercurrents of slash. Coursing underground rivers. Coursing blood. Mild coursing. :p
“Left or right?” Holmes’s voice rang off the damp stone walls as he charged up the tunnel behind me. I pointed down the left branch of the passage.
“You watch the right,” he called as he pelted past kicking up a shower of chill spray from the stream running down the center of the stone floor. “There’s a join ahead and he may double back.” I heard the tight grin in his voice. “We’ll have him yet, Watson. By God, we’ll have him.”
He bounded across the dark stream, his hand torch reflecting back splinters of yellow light and casting his lean form on the walls as a crazily flickering silhouette. The rhythm of his running steps lost a beat as he skidded around the next bend then the lantern light slivered and vanished. I listened to his footfalls fading in the distance for a moment longer then the sound was swallowed up by the gaping darkness.
The instant I was sure he was out of hearing I let my lantern clatter to the floor. Its beam rocked across the tunnel roof as my left hand shot out to brace against the chill stone wall.
My lungs were crying out to gasp in the heavy, damp air, but I forced myself to count out short, shallow breaths. The bunched muscles in my arm burned and icy stalks of pain lanced out through my chest and gut. My legs felt like rubber. I braced a knee against the wall and leaned in heavily, trying not to turn any more than required, yet as I drew in a shallow breath the knife buried in my right side shifted, pulling at the skin. Fresh pain arced through me in searing waves. I gasped in a shuddering breath and darkness closed in at the edges of my vision.
The cold, wet stone under my palm steadied me as much as my stiff arm had done. It was a welcome distraction from the warm blood running down my side.
After what seemed an eternity balanced between consciousness and oblivion, the panicky urge to suck in gouts of air began to recede. When at last I felt my rational mind come to the fore, I fought the instinct to feel for the blade. Touching it would make it no more or less real. The thing now, I told myself, was to stay upright. I had to keep my feet and keep my watch until Holmes returned.
I knew Sherlock Holmes was a more than match for a butcher like Jack Rance in an even contest. And the field was level now. Still I breathed a little easier when I heard Holmes’s distinctive, sure tread ringing out on the stones. Lamplight juddered around the curve ahead and I blinked in the sudden glare.
“Done and done,” he called as he approached, his clear voice ringing off the stones. “I had to execute one of your own flying tackles to lay him by the heels,” he said, glancing down at his knees. “These trousers will never be the same. I left our friend Mr. Rance cuffed and sleeping, uncomfortably I trust, a few turnings down stream. I’ll need your help to drag him back up to Houndsditch. If it weren’t for the fact the tide would soon come in and wash him away like so much flotsam, I’d be tempted to go in search of a hot toddy before we retrieve him.”
I was grateful I’d been able to turn so that the projecting hilt of the knife was hidden as Holmes approached. If I could have spared him from the sight entirely I would have.
“It’s just as well you didn’t get very far,” he said, taking a quick leap back across the stream. I noticed with a vague sense of unease it was wider than it had been just a few minutes before. “It’s quite a maze down here,” he went on. “When they were burying these old rivers under the City they had very little regard for those of us who’d have to chase down them in years to come. I’d hate to lose you under Whitechapel. Mrs. Hudson would never forgive me.”
He drew closer and glanced at my fallen lamp then peered at me curiously. “You look done in, old man. Surely the chase wasn’t as tiring as all that. You’ve got the wind of a professional athlete. You quite outpaced me back at the first branching…” His voice faltered. “Watson?”
“Holmes,” I began carefully, “I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems,” I began, but before I could draw breath to continue I was blinking in the beam of his lantern as it played over my face. My friend was almost obscured in the darkness beyond the ring of light, but I heard his steps quicken. He all but skidded to a stop beside me.
The beam of his lantern shifted down and I found him staring fixedly at the knife hilt projecting from my side as though he couldn’t comprehend its meaning. He drew in a breath and the light shifted crazily for a moment.
“I don’t think there’s much internal damage,” I said evenly, hoping he wouldn’t hear the pain in my voice. I wasn’t sure he even heard my words. His eyes met mine and I was stunned into silence.
Over the years I’d seen my friend anxious, sorrowful, sympathetic, even enraged, but I’d never seen anything like the look of naked horror I beheld at that moment. In the next instant he’d dropped his gaze back to the wound, pursing his lips and looking for the world as if he were trying to determine the origin of a particularly rare type of tobacco ash.
“It’s a throwing knife,” he said flatly. “Rance was waiting in ambush. Just there.” Holmes inclined his head toward the branch of the tunnel. “It happened moments before I reached the last turning and saw you, yes?”
I nodded carefully. “Yes. I saw him and knew I couldn’t reach him first. I turned to call back a warning. It happened so quickly.”
“A ‘yes’ would have sufficed,” he said tersely. “I’ll thank you not to volunteer extraneous information. What I need to know, I’ll ask.” I blinked at the rebuke, but held my tongue. His eyes met mine then flicked away.
“You’re fortunate the weather has been so dismal,” he went on and I heard the brittle attempt at humor in his voice. “Thanks to your overcoat it’s not buried to the hilt.” He hesitated for just an instant. “But I imagine it’s deep enough.”
He looked up and I met his eyes steadily. A silent assent passed between us and I willed myself to remain still as, with an evident effort, he reached out and gently shifted the draped fabric of my coat aside. He performed the action with such care I barely felt the movement.
He stood in silence for a moment. “Your coat seems to have absorbed a great deal of blood,” he said simply. “If I may.” He touched the pulse at the side of my throat. His fingertips were hot against my skin.
Holmes cleared his throat, stepping back and crossing his arms. I noticed he kept the beam of his lantern trained on my side as he spoke. “I know something about injuries of this kind. And I know enough not to try to remove the blade, but beyond that…” His lips tightened as he seemed to struggle for the right question to ask. His eyes met mine. “Tell me. How bad is it?”
“If I may venture a reply…” I said evenly and was pleased to see a small smile quirk the corner of his mouth. I returned it with as much assurance as I could muster. “I don’t think there’s internal bleeding.” I hesitated. “Not enough to require immediate measures to stem it,” I added resolving to be as frank as I could for I knew he’d want all the facts at his disposal.
Forcing myself to breath slowly and evenly I went on, “It is difficult to tell from this vantage point,” I said, and was rewarded with another tight smile, “But I think the knife hilt projects from the latissimus dorsi, distal to the thoracic vertebrae.” He cocked an eyebrow at this. “There is a thickness of muscle there that should have protected vital organs.”
“Are you able to walk at all?”
I nodded. “I can try.”
The smile that quirked his mouth this time had no humor in it. “I might have anticipated that answer. I shall rephrase the question. Is it advisable that you walk?”
I considered my answer and I knew, were our positions reversed, I would wish for an honest response.
“No,” I said. “I don’t believe so.”
He pursed his lips and fell to studying me again. It was a moment before I understood what he was considering.
“Holmes, it’s a good quarter of an hour back to the tunnel entrance, the water is rising, and I outweigh you by a significant amount. As strong as you are, it’s not possible.”
His eyes met mine and there was a fire there that was startling. “I think you might be surprised what I’m capable of at the moment,” he said coolly. “But I will bow to your better judgment.”
Holmes cast a glance up the tunnel in the direction we’d come. “All right. I am going back up. With luck…” He hesitated. “With luck I’ll find able bodied help immediately and be back in less than the quarter hour.” He looked back at me. “You clearly can’t lean against that wall even that long.”
It wasn’t a question and I didn’t treat it as such. “I think I can sit with your help.”
“As you pointed out, the water is rising,” Holmes said dubiously, glancing around us. The buried river was indeed showing the inexorable effects of the moon, hidden so high above by street and subbasement and the detritus of centuries of habitation on its long buried shores.
He bent to set the lamp by his feet. “We’ll do the best we can.”
I extended my free hand. As he took it, our eyes met. I saw a flicker of some unidentifiable emotion in his gaze then he was steadying my arm with a hand on my wrist and one on my elbow. My senses seemed to be tuned to a high, vibrating pitch. I heard the creak of shoe leather as Holmes leant forward, braced to take my weight.
By inches we moved together until we both knelt on the damp ground. Then I eased back too far on my heels and the blade shifted. I stiffened and felt a sudden weight like a burning coal deep in my chest. Without thinking I sucked in a sharp breath. I bit down on the cry that caught in my throat.
Holmes’s grip tightened on my arm. I exhaled a short breath and had the instant desire to suck in as much air as my chest would hold.
I just nodded. It was at least a minute before I could manage to regulate my breathing enough to murmur, “I’ll be fine.”
“Yes, of course you will,” Holmes answered tightly. “I can’t imagine why you’re sitting here playing on my sympathy like this. Once again, Doctor, this time with greater emphasis, I ask you to please stop talking.”
I didn’t bother to look up, just concentrated on moving as he helped me ease down so I sat leaning against the wall, my legs doubled up beside me. When at last I ventured a glance he was staring over his shoulder.
“The toshers may come this way,” he said under his breath. “If Horace has his boys with him…” He looked back and met my staring eyes. “Toshers scour the tunnels looking for anything that might be resold. Horace Fossett and his boys work this branch. If they’re out this evening they’ll be coming in with the tide. If you hear footsteps, dowse your light before you speak. Otherwise they’ll think you’re with the force. The City frowns on freelance scavengers, especially those employing school age boys. Are you as comfortable as could be expected?”
I had to smile at the practical question. I nodded, but kept my silence.
Holmes pursed his lips. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” No sooner had he rocked back on his heels and stood than a keening wail echoed up the tunnel toward us from the direction of the river.
“Rance. The water’s rising. Holmes,” I hissed. “You can’t let him drown.”
“Can’t I?” he snarled.
I blinked, but didn’t back down. “Holmes.”
His shoulders stiffened and he half turned back toward the tunnel mouth. In that split second I feared he would pretend I hadn’t spoken. Then without a word or a glance at me, he bent, snatched up the lantern, and started down the tunnel toward the wail that vibrated up from the depths of the darkness.
Within a half dozen steps he was running, his feet pounding down the stone passage. Water sprayed up behind him, catching the lantern light and shining like embers, then he was gone around the turn.
I listened, every nerve straining. The wailing seemed to rise until it filled the walls of the tunnel. After what felt like an age, it cut off abruptly. I heard two voices, one high and whining, one a low growl. I couldn’t make out the words. There was a brief exchange then a sharp sound that caromed off the walls, echoing in my ears.
I waited, staring into the blackness. There was a glimmer of light, so faint I thought I’d imagined it, then splashing footfalls and Holmes careened around the curve, skidding in the stream. He reached my side, and dropped to his knees, breathing heavily.
Without waiting for me to try to voice the question, he panted, “I let him go and advised him to try his luck with the river. It would have taken too much energy to haul him back.” He met my eyes. “It wasn’t a difficult choice.”
I realized I was shivering. I tried to stiffen my quaking limbs, but that only made it more obvious. My friend’s gaze hardened.
“Damn him. Damn him to hell,” he growled. “I’ll show him the way myself if–” He exhaled a long breath then quickly shrugged out of his jacket. “I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t wait any longer.” He draped the jacket across my chest, tucking it around my shoulders. His hands brushed the skin at my throat and stilled.
In the dim glow of the lamplight the sharp angles of his face were pale as marble. His breath was coming in short gasps that echoed mine. “You’re so cold,” he whispered. He leant forward on his toes. His voice was no more than breath on my skin. “Wait for me. You will wait for me until I come back.”
I hadn’t the power to answer. I closed my eyes and nodded once. His lips brushed my cheek and before I could register the sensation, he’d rocked back on his heels and stood.
As he bent to snatch up the fallen lantern there was an echo of distant voices and the splashing of several pairs of feet.
Holmes’s shout rebounded off the walls like thunder. “Horace! Is that you?”
There was a second’s hesitation then a gruff voice called back. “Scott? What’re you–”
Holmes was already running toward the voice. “Both boys? Thank God. Get out of that mack. I need you.”
There was a clatter of feet and a confusion of sound and voices. My vision was strangely blurred and I blinked in the sudden glare of several lamps. I saw Holmes’s shirt before me, bright in the yellow glow. A warm hand encircled my clenched fist and held it tight then I felt hands under my arms and knees.
The world shifted and my thoughts fled like birds before a storm as a wall of pain arced through my chest and I was choking, retching, straining for air that was broken glass. I doubled forward before strong hands caught my shoulders, pulling me back. I had the sensation of being weightless then there was more movement and I hadn’t breath enough to cry out. Darkness crashed in around me, burying me under its weight. Then there was no pain, no sound, no air, no light.
I felt a breath in my throat and then another. They burned like coals in my chest, but the darkness lightened and lifted. There were low words in my ear. “Breathe, John,” a voice murmured. “Just breathe. Slowly. One breath. And another. Don’t leave me. You can’t leave me. Please, just breathe.” The words were soft and rhythmic and as soothing as a light rain.
My sight returned and I looked up into gray eyes. They glistened in the moonlight. Fingers brushed my damp forehead and stroked the hair back from my face. I exhaled and the world faded away.
White ceiling. White walls. Antiseptic. Hospital. The thoughts sleeted through my mind without need for recognition. It was a world as familiar as my chair by the fire at Baker Street and… Holmes.
I blinked and he was there, sitting forward in the chair pulled up next to my hospital bed. He looked very serious. His voice came to me as if from another room and then the words gradually took shape, “…there? Can you hear me?”
My mouth moved to form an answer.
“Just blink,” he snapped.
I obeyed without thinking.
He sat back in his chair muttering, “I tire of telling you to keep quiet. They say doctors make the worst patients, but I really won’t stand for this kind of thing when we get home.”
I found myself smiling and the corners of his expressive mouth turned up in an answering smile that touched his gray eyes.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
I raised my eyebrows.
He shook his head. “Just… thank you.”
Our eyes met and I saw some emotion flicker in those gray depths. This time I recognized it. It was the same emotion that beat like wings in my chest.
I smiled again and Holmes leant forward and brushed his fingers across my forehead. My eyes drifted closed and the last thought that lingered in my mind as the world faded away was of his breath mingled with mine.