John Watson could never be accused of being a soft man. Kind, caring, and thoughtful, perhaps. But soft? No, softness was reserved for those that had grown up in loving homes. His nurse had been the best his parents could afford after they were done spending what they wanted on drink and other vice, which is to say, she had not been unkind. But there is a vast gulf between loved and being provided for, and for John Watson, it was the latter. Luckily for him, he did not know any different.
School had been good for John Watson. He was good natured, easy going, smart, and athletic, and with his light features and quick smile he never wanted for friends. The rugby field provided a few, the library, a few more, and his dormitory the remainder. He grew adept at not returning home for holidays and other breaks, instead being the kind of boy no one much minded having around because he was polite and remembered his manners. He was always welcome at someone's house for a visit.
After school had been university and St. Bart's, and between the rugby, the lack of money, and his well-developed sense of unflappability, the Army was altogether not an unexpected place a man like John Watson would end up. And so he did -- first to Netley.
Then, there was a war on. There was always a war on. In the south of Africa, in the east of Africa, the west of Africa, in Malay, India, and New Zealand. In 1878, there was a war in Afghanistan and John Watson found himself aboard a transport to India through the Sinai and finally overland to Kandahar. In July of 1880, in a medical tent in the narrow pass between the high rocky peaks outside a village called Maiwand, John Watson struggled to keep his feet in sand so saturated with blood that it had turned to mud.
The wounded were dying before he could even attend to them, but he did his best. John Watson always did his best: on the rugby pitch, in the surgery at St. Bart's, and here in a medical tent as the great British Army was being routed by a larger and more vicious militia of tribesmen. John Watson pushed all that aside the same way he pushed aside the intestines of the man on his table while he picked bullet fragments out of his belly. He might survive if Watson could find them all and sew him up. He might not. At this point it was more luck than skill.
There was a moment's reprieve as there sometimes were in battles such as this. And Billy, bless his orderly Billy, had made tea. It was Afghan tea, hot and spiced and milky and sweet. It would keep them both going for the hours yet to come. Billy held the pot carefully as he approached, feet slipping and sliding in the carnage on the ground when the sharp report of rifles came, closer than they had been. Then an instant later shouts and cries just outside.
But John Watson didn't hear them over the sound of his own cry of terror. Billy had fallen forward, eyes wide, dead from the hole in the back of his head before he had even hit the ground. The tea had hit John Watson so sharply he had thought for an instant the bullet had hit him and the warm tea soaking his clothes was his own blood seeping out of him. Instead, it was just tea.
The tent collapsed over him as the frightened horses and men charged through, stumbling over and falling on the bodies that surrounded Watson. Watson was the only living thing in the tent, somehow still alive and unwounded, wet and sticky with tea and other soldiers' blood. He gasped for breath under the heavy canvas and wondered if this was what drowning felt like. There had been a child that had fallen into a bucket of water in the mews behind his house that had drowned -- he remembered the screams of the boy's mother when she found him and wondered if his own mother would've sounded like that if he died. He would never know as she had died years ago. He hadn't screamed as he read the words his father had written in the letter he had received at school informing him of her passing. Instead, he had gone to play rugby and not thought any more of it.
But John Watson didn't drown in a desert full of blood under a burial shroud of heavy oiled army canvas. No. Instead he fought his way free, gripping a small arms liberated from the body of a man beside him only to come face to face with a Jezial. This time, the bullet did hit him -- the shoulder -- before he raised the small arms and put a bullet between the man's eyes. It was the first time he had killed a man.
It was chaos and through it all he could smell fear, terror, and tea. At some point he stooped and liberated a bayoneted rifle from yet another dead British soldier and carried it with him as he ran for his life ahead of the Afghan warlords. The wound in his shoulder bothered him and he carried the rifle awkwardly, worried he wouldn't be able to lift and shoot it should the time come. The time came as he stumbled over what he thought were more dead: from the tangle of bodies, a tribesman lunged up at him with a short sword and thrust it into his thigh. He stumbled and tried to bring the rifle to bear, but instead settled on shoving the bayonet over and over into the man's stomach until his guts spilled out and he was dead. John Watson couldn't think of a worse way to die.
Wounded twice over and wet with blood and that bloody tea, he found the remains of the 66th and joined their retreat. Then, evacuated all the way to London, on his meager and with wounds in his shoulder and his leg that meant that he'd be looked at with pity, not pride, if he ever donned his uniform again.
In the end, that didn't matter.
Sherlock Holmes was like no one else John Watson had ever met before.
Sherlock Holmes would never be accused of being a soft man. Most would not even use the words kind, caring, or thoughtful, either. But John Watson had realized shortly after making Holmes' acquaintance that Sherlock Holmes was the softest man he knew. That softness was wrapped in a cold, calculating, brilliant brain, and the blood running through his veins was pumped by a clockwork heart. But the man? His soul? Soft.
John Watson saw it in the way that Holmes always did the right thing, even if it wasn't the correct thing. In the kindness and compassion he showed the grieving, distraught, and damaged. He had no patience for abusers of children and women alike, and although he was a champion under Queensbury rules, he never once raised his hand in anger towards even a dog. John Watson treated this knowledge like it was a secret and tucked it away into the locked tin box that held all his other secrets.
A man like John Watson was brimming full of secrets. Secrets about what it was like to know what alcohol did to a father, mother, and brother. What a drowned child had looked like in a bucket of water. What men begged for as they lay dying and what secrets they spilled. He couldn't hold any more secrets, so he wrote them down and put them in the box. Sometimes he wrote puzzles down too, like lists about what his flatmate knew and did not know. Sometimes those flatmates found those secrets, and John Watson decided it was too dangerous to write down any secrets at all.
The case the newspaper were calling the Ripper case was weighing heavy on his mind. He hadn't seen carnage like that outside of war, and he didn't want to think of the streets of East London as a war zone. Those women weren't cadavers on the table in the lecture theater; they weren't drawings in books; they weren't even the soldiers at Netley with their sports- and drilling-induced bumps and bruises. The victims of the the Ripper where torn open like soldiers of the British Raj and the Afghan tribesmen both. But at least they had understood the dangers.
John Watson had had nightmares his entire life. He had been at school, talking with friends in his dormitory late at night long after they should have all been abed, when he first learned that some people had good dreams. It was a foreign concept to him. Much like French was. He understood that Frenchmen could understand each other when they spoke French, but the mush of nasally sounds and half-coughs around marbles meant nothing to him, no matter how hard he tried to understand.
Edward Bennett was only the third person in John Watson's life that he had ever killed. Lestrade had thanked him as well as Holmes for his efforts, Mrs. Monk survived, and that Holmes had reassured him that he had saved both Holmes's life and his own in shooting Bennett did, it didn't make it any easier. It was no surprise that the horrors of Maiwand returned to plague him after he put a bullet in Edward Bennett's head. He awoke from a dream that was so real that he was convinced the sheet tangled in his legs was the oiled canvas of a British Army tent. Instead, it was only a sheet, and simply another Tuesday night bleeding into a Wednesday morning. The gas light in the street threw the limbs of the leaf-covered plane tree into dapples against his far wall, and he used that light to rise, find his slippers, pick up the candle, and make his way to the door. It would settle him to see that things were as they should be before he returned to bed and attempted to sleep again. He wished he could trouble Mrs. Hudson for a cup of tea -- black with no sugar or milk, not any more -- but he couldn't fathom waking her just for that.
It was no surprise when he awoke the same way the next three nights. The dreams were always of Afghanistan, although those dreams had not troubled him since he had arrived at Baker Street. Only, in his nightmares, it was he who lay on the ground as an Afghan stood over him and thrust a bayonet into his belly over and over. It was he who suffered a bullet between the eyes, and he who crashed into Billy spilling the tea everywhere. Only he wasn't dead before he hit the ground: he could feel everything as his body simply refused to die.
On the second night, he settled himself by rubbing liniment into his sore shoulder and leg. On the third, he cried. On the fourth he pulled his papers out of his tin box and feverishly wrote. Not about Afghanistan, much to his surprise, but rather about the client Holmes had solved a case for just the day before.
Watson remained in his room and stared at the dappled light on his wall until it faded with the dawn's more powerful light. He had covered eight pages, front and back, in a tight scrawl.
That afternoon he met Miss Kitty Winter and recognized the scars on her wrists for what they were. Holmes did too, and they took the case.
The nightmare that night differed only in that it was Kitty bringing him the tea and collapsing dead at his feet.
Even in the best of times, John Watson, china dealer, would have been a hard sell. But these weren't the best of times, he thought to himself when he attempted to set his cup in its saucer without clattering it from the fine tremor in his hands. But Holmes had asked, and despite his misgivings John Watson said yes because in his nightmares it was Kitty Winter who died. The china dealer ruse didn't last long, but as they stumbled into Gruner's study, John Watson realized that had never been its intent.
The noise in the study had startled both Watson and Gruner, but it was Gruner who immediately identified the source and bolted for his study. Watson followed him, sure that something was not quite going to plan. His did not have his revolver with him -- something Holmes had insisted on -- and so Watson was unsure what exactly he would do to stop Gruner, but he knew he would do something. They both burst into the room just in time to see Holmes darting from the window.
Gruner gave a shout of fury and bounded to the window, bumping a cup of tea that had been sitting on the edge of the desk and sloshing its contents. It was a hot cup of tea, obviously recently placed there, although Watson didn't know for what purpose. The smell assaulted him -- hot, sweet, sticky, milky -- and he leapt for Gruner. Holmes must be allowed to get away, Kitty must never be hurt again, and Watson, well, Watson just wanted to stop him. At least, that's what he tried to explain to Holmes later. Watson grabbed the cup and saucer, tea splashing all over his hands. He grabbed Gruner by the collar and hauled him back from the window. He broke the saucer on the side of the desk, clean, neat and sharp, and smashed it into Gruner's face. Over and over again. The man screamed. Watson held him down and watched the blood seep out from the jagged cuts. He could hear the sound of horsemen thundering down the hall of the house, shouting at him, screaming as they routed the 66th in the hot dry dust of the pass.
Then all of a sudden it wasn't an Afghan tribesman under his hands, but a German nobleman; it wasn't an Afghan screaming at him, but Holmes shouting from where he was hauling himself back into the house via the window; and it wasn't a herd of horsemen coming down the hall, but Kitty who had thrown open the door and was standing there all fury and fear holding a bottle in her hand.
Holmes was on him then, hauling Watson off of Gruner and holding him back from finishing what he started. Holmes was surprisingly strong for such a thin man, arms like steel bands around Watson's chest. Kitty was looking back and forth between the two of them, Gruner bloody on the ground and Watson shaking and panting, fight and fear bleeding out his whole body.
She stepped forward and raised the bottle. Holmes shouted for her to stop, but his arms were full of John Watson and she was deaf to his entreaties as she splashed the acid into Gruner's face, disfiguring him further and hiding the ribbons the sharp porcelain had cut. She looked at John Watson and he looked at her.
"My da was like him, after the Sepoys in India. Couldn't stand the smell of jasmine because of it. Would just snap. One day he didn't come back to us." She said to Holmes over the sound of Gruner's screams.
John Watson felt his body grow heavy, as if he were sick with enteric fever again. He looked down at his hands and saw the blood on them and wondered how it got there. Then he looked at Gruner.
Kitty lifted her chin. "I did it and that's all I'll say to them. I'll take my punishment for what I did and I'll tell them, Mr. Holmes, that you and the doctor tried to stop me. I'll tell them I was too quick for you and you did all you could."
"Let me go to him, Holmes, I can take care of him," John Watson said. The man was in agony and he did not like to see men in agony, no matter what the reason. Holmes let go and he knelt beside Gruner, doing his best to treat the wounds. The police would be here soon enough, he knew. He'd let Holmes handle it, even if it meant the truth would come out and he would be hauled away for assault. The least he could do is to ease the man's suffering in the meantime.
The rest of that day was lost to John Watson. He knew Holmes got him home and into his narrow little bed in his room with the view of the plane tree that sometimes danced in the wind as it stood sentinel. He fell into a dreamless sleep and woke as exhausted as he had been before. But it was dark when he made his way down to their sitting room, but Holmes was up, smoking and reading by gaslight in his chair.
There was a cold dinner at the table and he sat down to stare at it.
Holmes rustled the paper, but said nothing. Watson attempted to eat, but gave it up as a lost cause after a few minutes and instead just stared into middle distance.
John Watson cleared his throat quietly and Holmes set his paper down and turned to look at him.
"How is Miss Winter?" Watson asked.
"Quite well, considering. There was enough evidence of the Baron's crimes against her and others like her that she will be treated leniently." Holmes said, almost gently. He paused for a moment. "Smart pretty women usually are," he continued.
John Watson nodded.
"Violet de Merville wrote a letter on her behalf that also helped. Apparently she was quite horrified to discover Miss Winter had been telling the truth."
"Indeed," Watson replied, for lack of anything else to say. He was afraid to even ask, hoping that what he had done to the Baron was all part of a nightmare, a trick of his memory, a flight of fancy, a wish never realized, anything other than what the blood under his fingernails told him was the truth.
"Miss Winter spoke to me a bit more, as we waited for the police and you tended to your patient."
"Did she?" Watson asked. He couldn't fathom why this was important. He expected at any moment though he'd learn -- likely some convoluted attempt on the part of Holmes to break the news of his impending eviction from Baker street gently.
"I am afraid I do not know how to help you," Holmes said. Watson hung his head, dejectedly.
"But I am willing to do whatever it takes to help you. You proved yourself to be steady of nerves through the Bennett case, Watson. I do not doubt you nor your abilities and I find myself quite reliant on you. Miss Winter suggested that you find yourself something that will calm your nerves."
Watson raised his head to stare at Holmes. This was not the outcome he was expecting after this display of weakness. Holmes cocked his head at Watson's expression.
Holmes stepped forward and laid a hand on Watson's shoulder and squeezed once before he departed the sitting room for his bedroom, leaving John Watson alone with his thoughts.
Holmes may have retired for the night, but Watson was wide awake as he settled in at the desk by the window with fresh sheets of paper and a neatly trimmed pen. He started writing. Not the Ripper case: no, that one was not one he could tell now and may never be able to tell. Not of his time in Afghanistan: no, that was once more locked away in his mind and he hoped it would never return. He wrote of Kitty and Violet and the Baron, changing the details here and there until it was nothing more than an interesting story of love, hate, and betrayal. Eight pages covered in his tight script, messy and smudged and imperfect. He smiled.
Then he pulled out more paper and wrote some more. As he wrote, it felt as if the pain that had caused him to smash a saucer into a man's face, that had made his handle tremble for days as it clouded his mind and judgement, that had woken him night after night of reliving in vivid details the horrors of war, was slipping out of him and into the pages, contained in the black ink bleeding and blotting through.
Holmes found him the next morning. Still at the desk, but fast asleep and pen still clutched in his hand. The rustling of the papers woke John Watson from his sleep.
He looked at Holmes and Holmes looked at him.
"Does writing it down help?" Holmes asked in a careful voice.
"Yes," John Watson responded, equally carefully. "At least it seems to. I feel more...settled, I suppose."
"They aren't what I was expecting. They sacrifice accuracy and precision for entertainment value."
John Watson smiled and looked down at the papers and wondered how long Holmes had stood there reading while he slept. Certainly long enough to have formed an opinion. John Watson inclined his head. It was neither a yes or no, but rather simply a we'll have to see.
"Some of my work isn't suitable for…" Holmes trailed off and waved a hand over the sheets of paper. "Not even with adjustments."
"Of course not."
"I trust you'll keep those stories safely away."
"In a dispatch box at Cox and Company, if that is suitable?"
Holmes smiled, "It is sufficient."
They were both silent for a moment. Then John Watson asked carefully, "Are there any other requests?"
Holmes paused for a moment, but shook his head no. He reached out and patted John Watson on the shoulder, gently. "We'll be ok," he said softly, almost to himself.
"I'll be ok," Watson repeated to himself. He looked at his hands, messy with ink and wondered for the first time in his life if that perhaps peace was something he was capable of achieving.