Keep Calm, and Carry On
Rating: Eh, maybe PG13?
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Prompt: Poor Watson: He has a sudden and severe PTSD reaction while he and Holmes are on location snooping about, maybe on the verge of cracking a case. Whatever does Holmes do?
Watson doesn’t like it when Holmes sends him off by himself, into the darkness of a London night, alone, with only the most meager handful of vaguest directions and experiences enough to remind him that he best do as he’s told. He doesn’t like it at all, but he does it.
He does it because whenever he should attempt to hesitate at following the detective’s orders, leaving his thumbs where they are looped through his braces, his mouth set in that firm little line, Holmes invariably ducks his head a little into the upturned collar of his coat, peering out at his friend from beneath the rim of an horribly abused woolen newsboy cap (newly stolen, most like, from some poor villain) and there’s just nothing for it.
“You cooperation is essential to the success of this enterprise, dear doctor. I cannot see this to the end without my Boswell.”
Which is all just Holmes’s way of saying that he needs him, obviously, and so where Holmes tells him to go, Watson goes.
It is, after all, simply a question of following instructions. Bear left to the milliner’s shop with the ghastly orange monstrosity in the window. Turn right. Keep straight ahead. Three blocks. Keep out of lamplight. Most of it proceeds just like that, simply, with Holmes’s voice all matter-of-fact, dictating his moves.
The problem is one of time. Should they have been granted a longer cab ride, or an hour or so more back at Baker Street for Holmes to talk things over and go into greater detail on the precise manner in which he wants Watson to go ahead with the plan, then there would be more for Watson to distract himself with, more to think about.
He amuses himself for a little while with all the various possibilities, details that Holmes might have fixated on in order to craft Watson into the most believable of puppets. For goodness sakes, Watson, try to act naturally. Eyes up. Shoulders slightly slouched, there’s no need to draw attention to yourself with that narcissistic military bearing of yours. Shorten stride. One hand in pocket…
But there was no time, and Holmes was only ever able to burden him with the barest framework of a protocol, and so Watson’s mind begins to get the better of him.
Noises begin to reach him that, he is certain, cannot possibly be city noises. For a moment, the alley is too dark for him to see its walls, the breeze so brisk that it blows away all the blessedly close and compressed air, and he is suddenly out in the open, suddenly exposed to the eyes watching from the hills that his imagination builds up in the distance.
But this feeling is common enough. This is something he has quite learned to cope with. He still has Holmes’s instructions in his head, even if he must repeat them endlessly to keep from acknowledging that which exists beyond them, but he is perfectly alright all the same.
He stumbles over something in the road, and for a horrible split second it’s a human-shaped-something, but then he rights himself, pulls out the wrinkles in his waistcoat, and moves on.
The process repeats: some small, silly thing to startle him followed at once by that stiff-lipped recovery and realization of the truth. It’s all quite trivial, as he reminds himself continually, but that does not mean it’s not distracting. Distracting enough that he looks up after a little while to find that he hasn’t a clue where he is. So he turns his mind to getting back to where he started and very soon he has forgotten Holmes’s first and most emphatic instruction: Mind your step.
His stride slips, he falls, and he knows it’s just water and mud (maybe sewage) flooding the road, covering his coat, getting in under his shirt sleeves and fingernails, but he can’t see it and so his mind goes to places his feet haven’t been in a long while, and he imagines something far, far worse. He jerks abruptly up, down, away, and hits his head on a brick wall that seems to jut out of nowhere. A gash opens up in his temple, and suddenly the taste of blood in his mouth is real and not just some phantom out of memory. And that sets him off.
He runs, some forgotten instinct governing his every movement. His head swivels in all possible directions, he needs to see: the shadows are driving him mad. He wants Holmes’s senses. He wants to know when he’s being followed, wants to recognize the sound of revolver magazines spinning in back alleys, wants to realize when someone’s breathing suspiciously and that he should respond. But, of course, he doesn’t realize that what he wants is Holmes’s acuteness of sight and smell. There is no room for thoughts of Holmes in this fevered state of mind.
He has lost all conception of time. There may be a pale mist of morning making its way across the horizon, but he does not notice it. He is somewhere entirely different.
Until, that is, he runs headlong into a pair of wiry arms with a vice-like grip that makes his throat close up, his heart stop beating…
“Watson, you fool, you missed the rendezvous,” Holmes chastens, but there is no derision to be heard in his voice. What’s more, he’s wearing an expression that, were Watson in any condition to take notes, he might have, for the sake of Holmes’s public image, dimmed down to “uncharacteristically concerned,” but in his present state (the narrator in his head being far more reliable than the one that published in the Strand) he is able to more accurately identify the look as “sheer bloody panic.” How extraordinary.
Holmes lowers him to the ground, hiding them from passersby on the street. Watson feels his thumbs sliding carefully over the cut on his forehead, feeling for its edges amidst the crumbling shell of dried blood that must make him appear such an awful mess.
One hand comes to rest on the nape of Watson’s neck, and he can feel five fingers, like five little spots of firelight (was it that Holmes’s hands were always so impossibly warm, or had Watson’s blood lost all its own warmth in the course of the long night?) against the base of his scalp, an anchor.
“Look at me, Watson.” The doctor’s eyes have for five minutes been fixed to an unremarkable point upon the ground, his expression tense, but blank. The doctor himself is unaware of this. Holmes takes the other man’s chin together in his thumb and forefinger, and maneuvers Watson’s face up towards his own. “Look at me.”
As always, with the predictability of the simplest chemical phenomena, he does as he’s told. And this sets a great many other things in motion. His breathing begins to slow down, as does the racing rhythm of his heart. The shaking in his hands subsides, at least a little. The ashen pallor of his face recedes into something more like its usual self.
Holmes too appears to relax, the taut sinews of his neck no longer pulled so tight, his forehead smoothing. Before either of them can say another word, Holmes hoists him up, one arm around the doctor’s waist. In a curious haze, Watson watches as Holmes calls them a cab, carefully maneuvering his friend into the one seat (he does try to walk on his own, support himself, and he feels quite able to do so, but Holmes will not hear of it) and after a strange dawn ride to Baker Street he comes back to full consciousness sitting in a winged armchair, a cup of tea by his right hand and a flask of brandy at his left.
“I did not know which you would prefer,” says Holmes suddenly, looking up at Watson from where he is perched on the sofa opposite, knees drawn up under his chin. Watson knows the pose, usually employed for “three pipe problems” and applications of the deepest thought, in which he feels his mind is at its most productive with his body wound tight as a coiled spring.
“Thank you.” Watson opts for the tea, though there is still a slight jittery edge to his nerves that he feels could probably be better conquered by the brandy. Holmes does not speak, and does not look at Watson as drains the cup. They are silent for some time.
“Did you catch him?” asks Watson suddenly, causing Holmes to start and glance up suddenly with the look of a man who has just been pulled from the middle of a road before being run over. There is gratitude there, and something else.
“Catch who, my dear Watson?”
“The man, Holmes! Your suspect! Was he caught?” There is indeed something very queer in the way Holmes blinks up at him, obviously grasping his meaning but unable to focus on forming a response of his own. But really, Watson thinks, where else could his mind have been, but on the case? What else could command his full and complete attention?
“Er, no. No, he wasn’t. Can’t even blame it on the Yard this time, I’m afraid. The fault is entirely mine.” He takes another puff on his pipe, casually, but Watson can clearly identify the concealment in the gesture, the way his other fist clenches for a moment in violent self-loathing at the failure before reaching up to the Persian slipper to fetch some more tobacco.
“But how did it happen?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“How did he get away, Holmes?”
“Oh, well,” he actually looks sheepish at the question, and Watson is almost tempted to cut him off, to spare him the trouble of explaining himself, but he continues. “My attentions were…momentarily diverted, and he was given the opportunity to make his escape. However, I was granted the opportunity to point Inspector Gregson to a number of rather unmistakable clues left behind at his original base of operations that will doubtless dictate where and how he makes his attempted getaway. The police shall not be far behind for long.”
Watson frowns. “Diverted? What do you mean?”
Holmes takes a quick, deep breath in and out in what Watson realizes a moment too late (his mind still not quite up to full speed) is quite a good impersonation of one of his own long-suffering sighs.
“Searching for you, dear Doctor. And I’m afraid it took more skill and energy than I had previously anticipated. You managed to cover quite a distance.”
“But how on earth—“
“You are a most punctual man, Watson. Your failure to arrive at the scene at the appointed time, combined with some general misgivings, alerted me to the facts--”
“Wait one moment. ‘Some general misgivings?’ Holmes, that hardly sounds like a logical reason to abandon a chase mid-stride! And it certainly doesn’t sound like you! How can you expect—“
“There were eleven men left untouched in your regiment after the events at Maiwand Gulham, is that not correct? Two-hundred and eighty-six dead, thirty-two wounded according to the official numbers, and I have the nerve to send you out alone, quite nearly defenseless, scampering after a man who butchers women and children with absolute impunity.” As he speaks, Holmes rises from his chair and moves until he is crouched by Watson’s side, looking up at him with a face drawn hard by resolution.
“Holmes, that was some time ago. If you do not think me fit to assist you in your practice—“
“That is not what I mean, John. I have too often taken for granted your extraordinary strength of character, and I wish to make it known to you that I will no longer do so.” At this, he moves up onto his knees, leaned forward, and, in an extraordinary gesture of tenderness that he would most likely never admit to indulging in, rests his forehead against Watson’s own. Watson himself would have been content to remain in that pose forever, except that he hears the sound of running water in the near distance, and feels compelled to inquire about it.
“I asked Mrs. Hudson to draw you a bath,” admits Holmes after a moment, a hint of the endearingly bashful (a novelty that Watson finds he can’t get quite enough of) having crept back into his tone. “You do look quite a wreck, after all.”
And after helping Watson up out of his chair, they decide that it is only logical for Holmes to assist him in getting to the washroom as well. Of course.