"You should be sleeping, you know."
Watson caught his open eyes over the pages of his book. The doctor tucked his marker into the yellow-backed sea melodrama he was reading by the light of the small bedside candle.
"It's late. You need rest, Holmes."
The stillness of the small hours of the morning hung in the air, heavy like dew just about to settle. Exhaustion left Holmes hopelessly swallowed by the benthic depths of his bed, unable to escape, but the natural calm of the scene ensured he did not care. He only wished Watson hadn't noticed his wakefulness, not that his attentive doctor would likely miss such a development. Simply watching Watson recline in the soft candlelit shadows and read was a more effective restorative than any of the medicines inside the physician's bag of tricks.
"How do you feel? Is there something you need?"
The question struck Holmes as absurd at first. What could he possibly need? He had not considered he would ever require anything again, as warm and eased as he was in those moments. But Watson had asked, and the seed planted took root with speed and vehemence. It was possible to need something more than this somehow, and on knowing that, one requirement came so insistently to the fore that Holmes could do little but abide it.
"Thirsty... I am thirsty, Watson. Have you any water?"
"Of course. Allow me." The doctor was ever prepared. Watson picked up the small glass he had at the ready on the bedside table and he tipped it forward to Holmes' lips. "Gently," he said after Holmes took several initial overeager gulps. "A little at a time, that's right."
The water tasted cool and fresh but no amount could satisfy him. If anything, the more he drank, the thirstier Holmes became. On reaching the empty bottom of the glass, he collapsed back into the mound of pillows in his sickbed, spent and frustrated by the effort.
"Not enough? Let me see if I can't remedy that for you. Try to rest, Holmes. I won't be long."
"No, please wait," Holmes tried to respond, but his throat was too dry by then for even those small words, and the doctor disappeared from the room.
Holmes shifted under his blankets but their texture now scratched at his skin. It felt as if he were wrapped not in linen and cotton but rough hessian and sisal. The mattress pressing hard at his back was every bit as cozy as a wooden plank. His nerves jangled with intermittent sparks of pain that began everywhere in his body but inevitably ended in his left arm. Holmes' breath came ever faster in the stagnant and smothering atmosphere.
He should never have allowed Watson to leave. Something was terribly wrong.
A loud noise startled him from the hall. A sharp shout carried into an irregular rumble punctuated by frequent louder clatters. The source was difficult to discern. Was it Watson? Bizarrely, it almost sounded like two men instead. It almost sounded like a fight.
The noises outside intensified.
Then all sound at once vanished to silence, save the rasp of Holmes' own stifled breathing echoing back at him. Multiple attempts at calling Watson's name resulted in failure. Holmes' voice was lost inside his scoured throat.
He waited, listening. After a time, the sound of footsteps returned to the hallway. But these steps were wrong in their details.
Longer stride, taller.
Thinner carriage and weight.
Before he could notice, the footsteps were loud and directly beside him. The tiny flame of Watson's reading candle blew out. From the forbidding dark that remained, a voice came, empty and cruel.
"Wake up, you son of a bitch. I have something for you."
A violent hand tore the heavy gunny sack off of Holmes' head. Light flooded everywhere around him instead of existing only as what little managed to flicker through a jagged nail hole in sackcloth. Holmes' readjusting eyes stung as he winced against the glow, barely able to see. At least there was fresh air for his deprived lungs now instead of naught but his own hot breath cycled back to him. His temples pounded while he blinked and fought to regain his bearings.
"You weren't meant to be napping, Mr. Holmes. Shame. I was hoping you might have heard the good news. Are you listening now? Snap to it, man!"
Holmes couldn't help a small groan as awareness of the situation hit him full force along with an open hand across his face. Focus returned, and immediately Holmes wished it had not.
He was a hostage, handcuffed to a chair in a storage closet on a steam ship out of Den Helder called the Friesland. The freshly broken arm that had gotten him caught ached hideously behind him, unset and twisted into cuffing position at the chair leg. The tight iron manacles and his intermittent struggles against them had chafed his skin raw.
He tried to cough but only succeeded in sputtering against his gag again. His throat was parched and his muscles weak. Days of captivity without food or water will do that to a man. Two full days, he thought. Three at most. It couldn't be longer or he would be too busy succumbing to dehydration to be contemplating such things. But time estimation beyond this crude analysis was difficult. Until he'd woken, he did not know he had been asleep. Now he was unsure how long he'd been out and dreaming of distant comforts.
The man slapping him with all eagerness was one Evander Thorne, brilliant Charleston engineer and perennial hard luck case. That the credit and possession of his prized creation, the prototype engine of the Friesland – a technological marvel by all reports – was swindled away from him was pitiable. His reaction to this duplicity was decidedly not. Two shipwrights and an innocent sailor laid dead already, sprawled across the Southwick docks. Left to his devices, Thorne's plans were to make Holmes number four.
Thorne clearly wanted to continue his abuse of the detective but he was too physically tired himself for more such amusements. In any case, he had Holmes' attention, which was his true intent. Evander Thorne looked rough, freshly battered and bruised, but never more triumphant.
"Good, you're listening." The engineer sneered and Holmes could see blood from a loosened incisor caked between his gums and drying on his lips to a thin red crust. "Now come on. I have two very impressive things to show you."
Battered or not, Thorne dragged Holmes' chair backwards out of the storage closet and into the engine room with only the slightest difficulty. The same could not be said for Holmes. Every stuttering movement by the chair's legs dragging against the wood floor he could feel rattling in the very marrow of his bones.
"You know, it just wasn't sporting, Mr. Holmes. Not sporting at all, but you English never did believe in fair play. Look at your fox hunts. A bunch of you mincing ninnies dress up in your Sunday finest, prance around on horses, and have a pack of over-bred hounds corner a helpless animal so you can shoot it and feel proud of yourselves for your accomplishment. Well, I'd like to see you worthless fops try your hand against a real opponent, say an American gray wolf, all muscle and teeth. You believe you're a valiant man? You think you can hunt? I want to see you try it when your prey hunts you right back. Your little dogs won't be much good to you when the wolf gets a hold of their throats. This one certainly wasn't."
Abruptly, he pivoted Holmes about on one chair leg, and dropped him with a leaden jolt. While the ensuing flash of pain passed, Thorne took Holmes' head in one meat claw and jerked it toward the port side wall. Vision focused and the pain returned anew. This one bore a name.
"Oh, look at your beady little eyes get big. Now, don't trouble yourself there too much, Mr. Holmes. I left him breathing yet." Thorne looked over at his subject. And kept looking, confused. "At least I thought I did."
The maniac turned back toward Holmes and shrugged. "Well, I can't rightly say it was going to do him much good either way, of course. The minute we get out of sight of shore you're both headed over the side. Dead weight and all that, you understand."
If John Watson did still breathe, it was so shallowly as to be imperceptible under the mahogany tweed of his coat, at least to Holmes' bleary eyes. He lay unmoving on the ground on his side. His clothing was damp and a dark halo of blood and broken glass spread about at his head. Holmes' attempts to wake him garbled to gibberish behind the gag down his throat.
Exasperated, Thorne rolled his eyes. "Even if he is alive he can't understand you, Mr. Holmes. No one can. Hell, I'm standing right here and I can't. It's the benefit of a gag, you know. Why don't you just do us both a favor and keep quiet for a bit? You'll be on your way too before you know it and we'll all be better off."
The tension in Thorne's thick frame relented as the physical effects of his battle excitement began to fade. He loosened his tie and collar for comfort and the fabric ends hung free beneath his swelling mottled face as he made occasional adjustments to the great machine. Watson had held his own and then some against this degenerate, that much was obvious. Holmes took in the engine room and its inhabitants, squinted at smudged footprints and the scattered detritus of the room, and the scene played out backwards in his mind.
A bottle of hastily wielded champagne hit Watson in the side of the head, and he collapsed in a wide splash of wine and glass and blood.
A close-quarters scuffle ended when Thorne lit upon his nearest viable weapon at hand.
Distracted, Watson was off his guard when he was tackled, leading him to fire too low and too late to hit his oncoming attacker.
The doctor took a staggering step backwards, and the engineer took advantage of his brief opportunity to deflect Watson's revolver and intent.
Thorne pivoted on his heels after fleeing to say something provocative, words even resolute Watson could not abide.
An initial confrontation rife with verbal accusation and physical threat lead to a rather one-sided fistfight as a rapid form of interrogation.
John Watson hunted down and boarded the disguised ship of a known murderer at no small difficulty and at dire, unaccounted personal risk.
"I'll say it's odd having you here," Evander Thorne said with a crooked smile as he turned knobs and monitored various dials. "I had imagined I'd be toasting myself and my extraordinary success alone as I sailed to my vindication. Instead, I'm here with a busted lip and you, at least for now. The worst part is your errand boy there got himself christened instead of the ship, so now my toast is out of the question too. Ah, well, I suppose I should thank the doctor for sparing me a future headache when I cracked his skull. That champagne really is a dreadful vintage. You never waste the good stuff on a ship, after all, even this one."
Thorne laughed, baring those horrible bloodstained teeth again.
"In a way, I'm glad you're here. They say you are one of the smartest men on the planet, Mr. Holmes. A scientist. Serves well then that you should be the inaugural passenger on a ship designed by a true genius. If I weren't sure you'd try to stab me with what's left of that bottle, I'd release you to look at the workings of my prototype in action. It truly is remarkable to any scientific eye. May I present to you the Thorne Engine, a wholly unique power generation assembly in a triangular compression array. Art and beauty in chromium alloy steel. Never has there been a steam system even half as efficient. I would say you simply must see it perform at top speed in the open ocean, but you'll be drowning by then, of course. I suppose you'll have to settle for admiring the wake it produces instead."
Thorne looked enormously pleased with himself, blissful in his enjoyment of the vast rumbling engine as pistons whirred, steam hissed, and the machine propelled them forward through the shallows and out to sea.
But it was then the scraping noise began.
High and piercing came the sound of metal upon metal, unnatural and awful like the gnashing of a steel giant's loose teeth. Thorne started and tilted his engineer's ear up to locate the noise to a point, but it seemed to originate throughout the enormous device. He tapped a gauge demanding answers, and the needle inside wobbled before it dropped hard to its zero point. When his captor turned around, for the first time Holmes saw fear in Evander Thorne's eyes.
"What have you done?" he bellowed, accusing Holmes of vandalism they both knew he could never have committed. Thorne corrected himself. "What did he do?"
Had Holmes both the ability to speak and any inclination to answer, he might have mentioned that Watson's now-forgotten bullet may not have met its intended target but it tore through the lower workings of the engine instead, leaving a wound steadily bleeding hydraulic fluid into a shallow puddle at Thorne's heels. As he had neither, Holmes sat silent and instead wondered when the flammable liquid might encounter one of the numerous sparks now spewing in bursts from the dying machine.
"We've got to shut it off!" Thorne shouted to no one in particular. He turned down every knob within his reach but rather than silence it, his efforts seemed only to make the shuddering engine groan more heavily. It shrieked its resistance as it began vibrating itself to pieces. One bolt fell off, then another. A third shot into the air, ricocheting off the ceiling. Thorne ducked and shouted an assortment of panicked obscenities. At the panel, he flipped various controls on and off, all to no avail. Meanwhile, larger and larger pieces of the mechanism flew off in random directions. Three rivets here, all in a row along a seam, pop pop pop. Two switches there, springing off at an acute angle and skittering in tandem across the floor. A valve went, followed by a long lever.
It was the lever's failure that changed the situation. It pierced cleanly through the air like an archer's arrow before embedding itself four inches deep into its direct line destination. As it happened, that particular destination turned out to be the center of Evander Thorne's sternum as he turned to view yet another set of pegged gauges.
Sputtering as he staggered backwards from the blow, Thorne pawed limply at the steel rod now protruding from his chest. Dark blood spilled from his gaped mouth but his eyes were already empty glass marbles rolling back into his head as he tumbled to the ground. The lever stood at a nearly perfect perpendicular angle out of his supine body, a ready-made burial marker for an engineer's corpse while it twitched its last.
Shock and horror probably would have been the correct responses to viewing Thorne's grotesque demise, but Sherlock Holmes had no time for such indulgences. He was far too busy tangling with the awe induced by the still-raging murderer itself. The prototype engine screamed with a violent metallic roar and threw off its brushed steel cover in pieces, the first of which careened barely a foot above Holmes' head and bounced off the back wall. Another splash of sparks erupted and the spilled hydraulic fluid finally caught in a spectacular blue flame that spread quickly to the machinery. Black smoke poured from every crevice.
Holmes tested his iron bonds again with all available strength and considered his options. With rope, it might have been possible. It was amazing what necessity and a willingness to dislocate multiple joints at once could do. With his deprived weakness and injury, it would have been a significant challenge. But bound in manacles instead of rope, and with nothing to pick the lock, there was no realistic recourse for him, not in the time he had. He would do the only thing he could do instead.
The pistons in their cylinders, now exposed, pumped in a silver-white blur. A whistling noise of multiple pitches like a tin kettle orchestra rang through the air. The bolted-down engine made a pair of large lurching jolts of such force that the frame of the ship cried out under the strain in an organic, almost living sound of pure distress. The rattling shook the walls, the floor, the chair beneath him. Holmes found himself trembling too.
At last, the engine destroyed itself by launching all three of its exotic pistons out at once with a dense boom so low and so loud that Holmes flinched under the sound as much as the great burst of force. One of the rocketing pistons shot straight up into the air, all the way through the top deck of the ship, leaving the black of the night above just visible in the hole remaining. The other two pistons burst out at both sides, piercing the hull simultaneously as thin, cylindrical cannon balls.
The holes left behind in the hull were almost perfect in their circularity and in turn, those holes allowed for the incoming flow of almost perfectly circular columns of seawater. At least the Thorne engine was no longer tearing itself apart. Instead of noisy clattering machinery, there was only the sound of spraying water pouring everywhere. Everywhere excepting where it needed to go, that is, as the hydraulic fluid fire spread from the mechanism to packaged cargo stacked tall against the far wall. A dark smoke cloud began spilling upside down across the ceiling like a sea of roiling ink. A heartbeat later, when he could process at all cogently again, there was only one thought in Holmes' mind.
It was possible that Watson could still be alive.
If only yelling behind his gag at the body on the floor did not make Holmes cough so. By the time he could stop his helpless jag of heaving against the fabric stuffed into his throat, he finally found the answer he was driven to know.
Watson was not only alive, he was even working to push himself up lopsided out of the rising flood. The shock of cold seawater on his skin had done what muffled barking could not, and Watson was awake, although much less so than Holmes would have hoped. His head hung loose between his sloped shoulders.
Holmes kicked at his chair to get the doctor's attention. It made a pathetic amount of sound compared to the noise of streaming water spilling through the room, but it was all that he could do.
Look at me.
I know you're wounded, but you have to look at me.
Damn it all, John, turn your head and look at me!
Silent psychic demands ended up working rather better than incoherent stifled roars, or more likely they were exactly the same level of useless. Coincidence or not, Watson at last turned his head and looked lost for a moment before the slow-dawning realization of what he was seeing broke through his fog. The doctor dragged himself into an approximation of standing and staggered his way across the room.
"Oh, Holmes," he said with a noticeable slur as he pulled away the captive's gag. Watson half collapsed into an embrace around Holmes' shoulders that the detective could not match, still cuffed to the chair and coughing his raw throat clear. "Sherlock, thank God. Thorne told me the worst and I… I believed him."
Holmes tried to stay logical. He tried to focus on the plan for their survival solidifying in his mind. But he found himself leaning into the warm and bristled give of Watson's several days unshaven neck with his weary head anyway, even as he shook it in vehement disagreement over the delay. His voice scratched badly when he could muster it.
"No, the key, Watson. We need the key. Grateful to see you breathing as well, but this reunion will be less poignant underwater. Please, Thorne lies dead along the bulkhead. The key to my handcuffs sits in his right breast pocket. Go, Watson, hurry."
Hurrying was not in the realm of Watson's capabilities at that moment. Reaching out for every nearby surface as aid in staying upright, he did as he was told and sloshed and shambled off-kilter toward the villain, who was sunk to the floor with a sixteen inch steel rod protruding from his chest. It was fortunate for the detective the lever did not bury itself in the key three inches to the right instead.
When he returned, Watson had the lock open quicker than anticipated but the process of being freed from the chair was more of an ordeal. Sleep five hours with an arm lying in an awkward position in bed and one may well wake up sore. Spend some fifty hours or more bound to a chair with a fractured arm cuffed in an awkward position, and one may find oneself in a state approaching agony upon returning the limb to its proper orientation.
"Broken, isn't it?" Although it was phrased as a question, it was not. "And you've been beaten. Have you had any food? Any water?"
"Watson, there isn't time for this," Holmes snarled through gritted teeth. "We have to find a way off the ship. If you have not noticed, we are sinking."
"That would be a no. Can you walk?"
Holmes, determined to prove his capability, rose to his feet in the now shin-deep water and shook out numb leg muscles uncomfortably reluctant to support his weight. Unable to prevent it despite every effort, he stumbled back into the chair. Holmes knew his legs, prickling from a thousand invisible bee stings, needed only to get blood back into them to function, but they seemed to take it from his brain. The world had a curious slow spin to it. When he moved his head, reality took a moment to snap back into position.
He looked up at Watson, who frowned down in worry back at him, but the doctor's air of medical mastery was easily betrayed by the fact he was unable to keep his own head from drooping. He held onto the chair back with all the grip he could rally. Like the detective wishing to give an impression of remaining strength, Watson was working hard to appear far more coherent than he was in truth.
"You can't," he said in his best concerned physician tone.
"Yes, I can. I will. I need only a moment or two."
Need or not, there were no more moments left to spare. The water was now lapping upward at Holmes' knees. Black smoke clouded above them as flames climbed the far bare wall, stretching toward the ceiling. Holmes took an unsteady breath and struggled back to his feet.
"Take my arm. Keep your head low. We have to get up on deck," he said. If they were going to wobble, they would likely be more stable if they wobbled together.
And so they did, managing to teeter through the flood and up the stairs. At least it was stairs they had to climb and not a ladder, although the detective's overactive imagination provided several suggested images of that averted disaster. Combined will and determination supplanted missing balance and strength, and together they worked their way up the narrow steps.
By the time they found themselves out on the deck, the ship was beginning to list toward starboard, and already unsteady movement became ever more so. Holmes scanned the deck for options. At first, all he could see was the tilting, smoky bow, the moaning wind, the waves of the choppy, livid ocean. And of course, the two of them. Beyond lay the safety of land and aid, the far windows alluringly bright and shimmering in the overwhelming dark. In between there was only night and water, so much night and so much water, all of it black and deep and unforgiving.
Holmes forced himself to focus. To see and deduce. What could he see? First, no lifeboats. The optimum strategy was out at once. The next best option was not promising either. One old cork vest lay abandoned on its side by the near railing. If it had a companion, Holmes could not locate it, and with the smoke pouring from below and catching the wind on deck now, it was becoming difficult to consistently see much of anything past an arm's reach. By the life vest, Holmes stopped before acting, unable to think fast enough and straining for more speed. Watson spoke instead.
"You have to take it, Holmes. Don't argue."
"Ludicrous. It must be yours. You have a serious head wound."
"And you are barely standing from dehydration and injury. For me, if I can stay awake, I can stay afloat. But as weak as you are, and with a broken limb? You cannot make this swim, Holmes. You know I am right."
"I do not know that. Pray what happens if you can't stay awake? Watson, there has to be another way."
"If there were another way, you would have already proposed it." Watson took the life vest and readied the straps with clumsy fingers. "Here, help me balance. We've not much time."
The vest was over Holmes' head before he could speak, not that there was anything remaining for him to say. There was nothing left to argue if one was confined to logic, no matter how one might wish with all his heart otherwise. Holmes held Watson by the elbow with his good hand and Watson, still dizzy, head swaying gently, busily snapped buckles and tied knots. When he was finished, he patted Holmes on the shoulder and nodded.
His meaning was clear. It was time.
The hollow roar of the fire moving up through the hull was now loud enough to hear over the waves. It would be out onto the deck soon and from there would burn free in the open air. Holmes braced himself for one last moment. With the list of the ship, it was a relatively short drop from the stern, but the roiling water still would require a sheer free fall to reach. Watson watched him, waiting for him to go first. He took a long deep breath to hold and Holmes relinquished his grip on the railing.
The cork vest turned out to be immensely useful to him in those first seconds when the shock of cold water made every joint and muscle in his body seize involuntarily.
"Holmes? No, don't fight," he said as the detective sputtered and struggled to keep his face out of the depths. For his part, Watson seemed somewhat invigorated by the brisk sea, perhaps benefiting from his rugged Northern blood. "Let's roll you onto your back. There, that should be better."
Thankfully, it was. Adjusted as much as one could be to the bracing choppy water and now able to float face up, Holmes gathered his bearings and caught his breath. Watson treaded next to him, remarkably more capable than expected in the water, where serious vertigo did not much hinder forward momentum. He tugged intermittently at Holmes' cork vest, pulling him on and steering him towards shore. Holmes spent his time grappling with pins and needles legs and trying to employ his one functional arm as an inferior oar.
It was difficult going. The sea was rough as they slowly traversed. Several heavy sets of waves hit them in succession, but they managed to continue until a tall breaker crashed hard over their heads, splashing Holmes blind and nearly turning him over once more.
It took a long moment before Holmes gathered himself again, this time without help. Watson had only a minute before been paddling beside him. Now there was naught but rough water. Holmes craned his stiff neck to each side and used up what was left of his rasping voice shouting Watson's name, inhaling as much water as air in the process, but if there was a reply to his cries over the waves he could not hear it. The outcome was as inevitable as it was sickening.
He should have predicted it. He should have known. Under any other conditions, he would have. They had differing buoyancies, differing levels of strength, and were attempting an extended swim in turbulent water. How else was this to end? It was stupid, idiotic not to have prepared. He was not certain what preparation would have meant in this context, but there had to have been something to do. Even a warning to his friend, however hopeless, would have been better than the nothing he gave him.
Alone in the ocean, Holmes tried his best not to imagine Watson similarly struggling by himself. He was a strong swimmer, Holmes knew, but with a serious head injury and nothing to keep him above water but his own dwindling energy...
And even that was only if...
Instead, Holmes poured his concentration into kicking and gazing up at the night sky arching wide above him. The distant suns were neutral onlookers to his drama, peering down at him through the clouds of his hot breath in the cold moist air. Too weak to give himself much propulsion through the waves, he attempted to steer with one cooperating arm and hope the current would do most of the work in carrying him ashore.
Time moved, surely, but Sherlock Holmes could not feel it.
A jolt woke him from a fainting spell he had not even noticed. Startled, he flailed, kicking out with his functioning limbs and hitting something unexpected, something mostly solid.
His feet were dragging on sand.
Good lord. He'd made it to shore.
An early attempt to stand was ill-advised and quickly thwarted in a splash. He used his limited energy to work his legs in the water instead. The incoming waves continued their assistance until his back ran aground like a beached ship.
Holmes laid there on the shore, actually laid outstretched for the first time in days, and relished the cool air rushing through him in uneven bursts while the shallow water splashed about his body. Loose pebbles rattled beneath him with the current, in and out like breathing. Above him, the stars sparkled in the cloudless night. When he could lift his head, he saw the last remnants of the ship still aflame, although assuredly not for much longer.
Around him stretched empty beach and the contents one would thus expect: mud and sand, rocks and old wood, general detritus. But little else that Holmes could see. There were no other people in sight at all. The detective's warbled shouts brought no response. He summoned up whatever strength he had left and slowly Holmes hauled himself to his feet.
Watson had to be here somewhere. He had to be, despite the numerous alternative likelihoods Holmes' mind insisted on supplying to him in unsparing detail.
Calling and scanning, Holmes stumbled gradually along the waterline. It took time for the detective to perceive a body slumped against a wood post down the beach, but when he saw it, he hurried towards it as quickly as his woozy, dehydrated equilibrium would allow him, an interminable slog.
Holmes deduced what he could in the meantime with the few visual clues he had. Watson had chanced across a small piece of broken plank floating away from the ship's explosion after their separation and finished his swim in a more direct path than Holmes had drifted. The shorter voyage had still been too much for him given constant contention with the current. On reaching land, all Watson had energy to do was crawl on all fours to high ground to rest and faint.
Faint, at best. Watson gave no response to his name repeated in increasingly frantic rasped tones. At his side at long last, Holmes dropped hard to his knees, his broken arm dangling useless at his side. The detective pressed his still viable fingers to the side of Watson's throat to discern a pulse, slow but strong, and Holmes exhaled a breath he had not realized he'd been holding. The doctor's eyelids flickered open.
"Oh, there you are," Watson said sleepily. "Been looking all over for you."
Holmes laughed then, crouched there holding Watson's cheek, both of them drenched in saltwater and relief, but the mirth caught inside his chest.
Unlike anything before it in the length of his life, what happened next occurred entirely without any plan whatsoever, nor even the shadow of a concrete thought. Holmes simply leaned in and pressed his lips to Watson's. He kissed him. Without thinking, without caution, and soon without abandon, he kissed him.
But when Watson made a low, wordless sound into his mouth, the spell was severed instantly. Holmes opened his eyes, realized what he'd done, what he was doing, and mortified, tried to pull away as quickly as he could manage. With a strength the detective did not believe the doctor still had left in him, Watson grabbed his fleeing wrist. Holmes' fingers twitched in the air, bound in place.
"My apologies. I was overcome and I... that is to say, exhaustion and exertion temporarily overtook my senses and I never intended–"
"No." Watson pulled Holmes toward himself with the hand he had captured. "You intended it."
The second kiss that followed was at Watson's initiation, and was cut all too short by Holmes' embarrassingly amateur mistake of forgetting to breathe. It was different than the first: rougher, wetter, with more weight and force behind it; a quicksilver amalgam of heat and release and, above all things, belonging.
The detective stared, dangerously short of breath, adrift in total confusion. All his renowned logic gave him no help whatsoever here.
"But you… you never told me."
Watson relaxed back to rest his damaged head and he released Holmes' arm. His fingers grazed over the sodden hair at Holmes' temple and settled onto the nape of the detective's neck, sliding into place between the sinews as if they were made to fit there.
"You are Sherlock Holmes," he said. "I have never needed to tell you anything."
Holmes struggled to concoct a reply, to think at all clearly, to remain upright. Undone at all three, he toppled over onto his side in the sand, but Watson's hand never left him as he breathed and waited in vain for his heart to slow to a level conducive to proper human functionality. For his part, the doctor was regaining at least a little more of his own coherence. He stroked what he could reach of Holmes' hair and peered down the beach.
"Here they come. I wondered when they'd see the fire."
Their rescuers, townsmen attracted by the smoke and flames at sea, approached with raised voices and torches.
"Halloa? Can anyone hear us?" one cried down the long sand expanse. "Is anyone there?"
"We are," Watson shouted with the last of his formidable strength. "We're still here." He smiled down at Holmes with as much reassurance as his concussion would allow him to muster. Ringed in tender moonlight and touched by the breeze of the sea, he looked to Holmes like he was floating.
The torches turned their way and more shouting voices followed, although by then, Holmes could no longer understand their words. Soon, he could understand nothing at all.