One moment's hesitation is, alas, all that is required. In the beginning, it had taken Holmes less than days to adjust to Watson's lean presence at his shoulder. Those habits are unfortunately proving considerably more difficult to break. Forgetting is harder.
And so he pauses for one, two, seconds – an unpardonably long break for an intellect such as his own. He is mentally dividing the intruders into two halves: those best suited for Watson's cane and those who will succumb more easily to his own fists. But it is past midnight in Baker Street and there is only Holmes and poor Mrs Hudson at home.
He waves the woman back downstairs behind a locked door and, as he is a British gentleman, he acts according to his character and makes do.
There are seven of them and he incapacitates five, at least partially. Not a bad count, he thinks, though his faculties are starting to betray him. Eyes blurred, breath laboured, thoughts turning strangely. He recognises the beginnings of a loss of consciousness. It is a state he knows intimately, though familiarity does not make him any more willing to yield.
They stop kicking him when it becomes clear he is incapable of returning blows. So he is left to lie there while they rifle through his possessions like the unworthy offerings in a pawnshop.
Holmes has enough awareness to note that, though they lift a few of the more valuable items, they appear to be searching for something specific. This is to do with a case, then, and not simply a random act of thievery. In truth he had suspected that already, as there would be little reason to send seven men to overturn the small lodgings without a particular goal in mind.
There is little use in protesting, but when one of them places rough hands on his violin, he cannot stop himself. The effort is too much: he dissolves into spasms of coughing and his vision goes black.
* * * *
When Holmes wakes, he pushes away the hand which is cupping his aching jaw.
Watson murmurs, "My dear Holmes, must you go to such efforts to call me down here?"
"I didn't send for you."
Watson finally pulls his hand away. "No. I know you didn't."
"In fact, I was quite clear on the fact that I would obey your wishes as regards matrimonial bliss. In short, that I would stay away. I hardly expected you to be the one to break the agreement."
"It was not my agreement," Watson says. "I was quite clear that I remained, as ever, both your friend and your physician."
"And in which capacity do you visit?"
Watson strips Holmes's shirt from his shoulders, effectively answering that question. He stretches his hand behind him to a tea tray which seems to have magicked its way into the room. Watson passes Holmes a cup of tea. "Drink this. Your hands are shaking."
Holmes asks, "Mrs Hudson?"
"Quite well. She, incidentally, is the one you should berate for my presence."
Watson regards the cuts and bruises marking Holmes's chest. He stands. "Stay there." Watson walks to the drinks cabinet – it is undamaged – and pours a generous measure of whiskey. Returning it to Holmes, he remarks, "This may sting."
What follows is an interminable amount of bone-prodding and skin-stitching. Shallow wounds and barely-shifted bones, but Watson is thorough and seldom sees injury in the same light as Holmes.
Lulled by the alcohol and the sudden relief of pain now that his shoulder is moving freely again, Holmes says, "They took the violin."
Watson stills. "What?"
"Isn't that an extraordinary thing to steal? It has some value of course, but there are items here which would fetch a far greater price. And besides I am quite convinced they were here for some particular purpose. The last case, perhaps, or the one before. Some piece of evidence, I gather, though without taking stock of the missing I can't-."
"Holmes." Watson places his hand on Holmes's uncovered shoulder.
"What?" His head is spinning.
"You should sleep."
"No. I must think this through. Here and now while the details are fresh." They become less fresh as he is sitting. Holmes half-suspects Watson of drugging the tea: an act of dubious morality which would normally be quite beyond him, but their own lines have never quite matched societal expectation.
His body is failing him for the second time that night. His eyes drift closed without command.
Watson stands up.
"Leaving already?" Holmes asks. "I suppose I shall see you in another two months, shall I?"
"Don't pout. It doesn't suit you."
"Well, where is it that you go in such a hurry? Mary will be asleep, will she not, or is she the sort to sit in bed fretting about your whereabouts? The wedding was less than four months ago you know…"
"I do know," Watson says. "And hush. I forgive you now because you look only a few steps up from an animated corpse. But I expect you to be in a better humour when I see you next. Which will be soon. Now sleep, damn you. Your body needs the rest, even if your mind rebels."
"I shall hold you to that, you know. Make no assurances you don't intend to follow through."
"I promise," Watson says. His expression is quite serious. "I'll see you soon."
* * * *
He wakes after a few hours. Dawn is creeping in at the edges of the curtains which Watson had so thoughtfully drawn before he left.
Holmes bathes enough to remove the worst of the blood, while not disturbing Watson's handiwork. He returns to the study to survey the damage to the room.
There is a creak on the staircase, much too early for Mrs Hudson or Lestrade, and anyway he recognises the tread. It is a variant on one of the sounds he knows best in the world: Watson with his limp pronounced. The weather is not cold enough to be disturbing him and last night his steps were quick and sure.
The door creaks open and Watson appears in the space. There is blood on his knuckles where they fold around the doorframe. Holmes can hear Mrs Hudson fussing in the background.
Watson takes a step into the room and, as Holmes predicted, he is limping more profoundly than usual. His teeth are white in his muddied, bloodied face. He smiles – a tight feral thing – and takes something from behind his back. "I heard you lost this. You ought to be more careful, Holmes."
Holmes mutely takes the violin. There is a little grazed spot of wood at the neck; he works at it with his finger. "That was unnecessary," he says eventually.
"Yes, well, I doubt they know how to handle a precision instrument, Holmes, they were hardly more than common thugs. Far too easy to track down from here. But it will mend, I'm sure."
"Not the violin," he says. "Your mission, if you would call it that. An unnecessary danger."
"Being your friend is an unnecessary danger," Watson says. "I do it anyway. I am anyway. Despite the rest."
Holmes is tempted to ask 'and what do you mean by that?' but he knows how Watson will answer and the question at any rate sounds sour in his mind. He refrains and says, "I am not a demanding man," instead.
Watson laughs. "If you insist, old man."
"It is true," Holmes says. "I require very little from life. A problem with which to occupy my mind. I will grant I may require more challenge than most men. Secondly, an outlet." He gestures with the violin but Watson's eyes drift to the leather case, untouched in the corner of the room. Holmes continues, "And some measure of companionship. Men have waged wars to protect less."
"And to think," Watson muses with a small smile, "all you did was try and prevent my marriage."
Watson talks over him. "I have recovered your violin. I have no case to offer you but Mrs Hudson will bring along the newspaper soon. And as for the other – how would it be if I stayed for breakfast and helped you look through the paper?"
It pains him to shrug – both in the pull of abused muscles and the down turned corners of Watson's mouth. Holmes is too raw, still, to pretend. "Stay," he says, "if you are sure you won't be missed."
Watson nods. "Mary understands," he says, and walks away to make himself presentable. 'As you do not' goes unspoken.
Mrs Hudson brings them tea and toast, and Watson's promised paper. Watson shifts some of the debris away from the chair and sits down. Holmes sits on the floor. He is there already and there seems little point in disturbing the bandages by moving. Watson passes him the tea and toast, and begins to read from the paper.
There is little of interest, but there is a sweet familiarity in the routine. Naturally Holmes must disturb it. Because this is after, not before, and he will not allow himself to fall into that false security again. He asks, "What does she understand?"
Watson stops his reading abruptly. "I'm sorry?" He bends down, in near contortions to get his ear near Holmes mouth. Holmes wonders idly how much of the preceding years were simply Watson bending to fit a shape which did not suit him. The difference in them is not only height.
"What does she understand – Mary – that I do not? What powers of perception has she obtained which I so sorely lack? Tell me, in short, my friend, her advantages."
Watson coughs. "Holmes."
"No, go ahead, please. Enlighten me." When Watson stays longer in silence, Holmes puts down the teacup and lifts the violin. There is a little smudge of blood on the tailpiece. He wonders if it belongs to Watson or one of the thieves. From the positioning and the whorl of fingerprint, he suspects it came from Watson's hand lifting it in the rescue, though that does not speak to the original source. There is simply not enough evidence. He starts to play.
Watson says, "She understands that… She understands that it is not necessary to have all of my parts, all of the time, to have all of the regard. All of the… devotion. She understands that such things are infinite."
Holmes recalls her saying something of the kind. He had doubted it then. He says, "An intriguing notion but I believe you will find that even the gentler emotions such as these, once split, are thereby halved. Or worse."
"We must agree to disagree." Watson shrugs, above Holmes's head, and makes a small noise of pain. Holmes turns. Watson's mouth is pinched with the effort of keeping the sound in.
Holmes blinks at him. "What on earth did you do to yourself?"
"A bruise, no more. And the old aches. They remind me sometimes that they haven't gone away, that's all."
"Again," Holmes says, but this time his hand is on that spot of blood at the breast of Watson's white shirt, "it was unnecessary."
"And again, I say, you are wrong." Watson's voice is light; his heart beats evenly. There is something compelling about his utter certainty. Holmes wonders at it.
"And why is that?" Holmes asks. "What could be so important about this violin of mine that you risked a den of thieves to bring it back to me?"
Watson looks down at him steadily. Holmes is kneeling at the foot of the chair and Watson is still sitting – again that curve of his spine that cannot be comfortable. Yet he maintains the stance, maintains his gaze. Watson says, "One: to prove to you that not everything you fear lost is gone forever."
Holmes exhales, not wholly steady. "And the second?"
Watson sighs and taps his knee with his fingertips, a nervous habit he has picked up somewhere. "Two: because, and more fool me, I thought perhaps it would make you happy. Is that too little an answer for you?"
Holmes traps Watson's anxious fingers under his hand. He thinks the answer through once, twice, and concludes. "No, Watson, that will be quite sufficient."
"All right then."
"Quite. Now, if you would care to resume your examination of the newspaper, I believe that the bank robbery on page three may be related to the group I was investigating. Which, now that I think about it with a cooler head, is clearly also related to the burglary. Given their especial desire for that set of notes on the safe, which would have revealed the robbery to have been planned with the assistance of some employee of the…" He pauses. "Watson?"
Watson is smiling and leaning back in the chair. He looks tired and of course he did not have the benefit of Holmes's few hours of sleep. Watson says, "I'm listening, I promise. Go on."
Holmes leans back against the foot of the chair, alongside Watson's legs. He wraps one hand securely around the neck of his poor abused violin, and leaves the other free to move in the air and illustrate the finer points to Watson. He does not need to look up to know that Watson listens.
It is not the whole: there are those parts which Watson will give to his patients in the afternoon and to Mary in the evening. He has this: Watson's sensitive inquiries when a point is unclear or unfinished, his even breath in the air three feet above Holmes's head, and a spot of blood on the violin like a seal of proof. At some point soon Holmes will have to decide whether that is enough.