John Watson was a good man: a man who, as a teenager, had chosen to dedicate his life to saving lives; a man who, as a young man, had set foot on the path of selfless duty, to save the lives of those who risked all in combat, for Queen and country.
A man who, as he lay dying, looked at the soldier bleeding out a few feet away, and felt only regret that he hadn’t placed the pressure bandage in time to save the other man’s life.
A man who died without regret, content with the life he’d lived.
There are altars to the powers of Hell everywhere — places considered cursed, where the barrier between the worlds is thinnest, either by accidental collision of the planes or by design.
(There are altars to the powers of Heaven, too. Really, the only difference between Heaven and Hell, other than politics, is a change of address. At the heart of it all, the power stays the same.)
These altars are, for the most part, dormant. It takes a special kind of boost to get them working. Spilled blood and ended lives are a good way, almost infallible, but one can, in a pinch, make do with anything. Prayers, chanting, even meditation — all of it works. It’s all about the intent, you see.
Human are perceptive enough, in their own way, that in most cases, these altars have been found and suitably decorated. In ages past, this took the form of sacred groves, huts where priests meditated to the sound of their own breathing, or community grounds visited during a seasonal pilgrimage. In later years, the humans built temples and churches and, in many cases, actual physical altars.
Once or twice, perhaps through planning committee accidents, humans ended up building a particularly prosperous shopping mall on these sacred sites.
Whatever was there, though, these sites remained intrinsically unchanged. Humanity’s trappings were just the packaging. The contents stayed the same, so to speak. And both sides, Heaven and Hell, watched these sites, some with more diligence than others, because these altars... Well, they might better be described as portals. Gates. Conduits for power and prayers, wishes and dreams and nightmares. Souls.
And, of course, angels and demons.
Blood and power. Blood and power. Blood and power flowed across the miniscule rip between the worlds, a crack through which one might pass unseen, if one were nimble and stealthy and very, very clever.
It came through on the passing energy of a dying breath, the last beat of a failing heart, the final splatter of blood that no longer pumped but instead poured into gravity’s embrace. For one instant, a passage of time so small that one measure of Planck time would be an eternity by comparison, the world screamed at the invasion, because what came through was not meant to be — not here, in the world of humans and mammals and insects and reptiles and amphibians, not in a world where the laws of physics and chemistry and science were laws and not merely suggestions, because what came through was neither human nor mammal and obeyed no laws of science. It was other.
And then it disappeared, following the flow of power that faded, and the portal snapped shut in its wake as it hid, stretching and folding and realigning itself to fill the matter and cells that made up a human body, because in a world of humans, there was no better place to hide than among them. And while the body changed, the body remained intrinsically human, a shape in which the lungs expanded and contracted, the heart pumped and blood moved, and mitochondria oxidized biochemicals into energy, and neurons fired and sparked as an inhuman intelligence settled and made itself comfortable, like a human moving into a new house, rearranging the furniture and unpacking clothing and putting up shelves for books.
John Watson’s eyes opened, and for the first time, it — no, he — saw sunlight on bloody sand, and it was more beautiful than his memory of what he thought Heaven had once been. For one glorious, wonderful, unbelievably perfect moment, the world was more beautiful than anything else in all the planes and all the universe.
And then, everything went dark as it — no, he — realized the downside to being human: it hurt.
Getting shot had one positive outcome for the thing which was called, by other humans, John Watson. (Or ‘Captain’ or ‘Doc’ or ‘Johnny’, which he loathed, or any other number of names, because names had no power over humans, and they could call themselves whatever they pleased.)
Actually, there were two positive outcomes. First off, it provided a body in which to hide. And second, nobody expected any sort of interaction beyond flailing and occasionally screaming. Memories stored in the brain cells provided optional nuances that could be applied to the flailing and screaming: things like clutching fabric and issuing threats, or shouts that humans considered ‘oaths’ or ‘swearing’ or ‘cursing’, though these oaths held no power to the oathholder or oathsworn, and none of the curses actually did anything satisfying.
Well, on one occasion it did, but that’s because while humans held no power to make their curses stick, Captain-Doc John call-me-Johnny-and-you-will-grow-unpleasant-tentacles Watson did have that power and used it, entirely unintentionally, when he didn’t realize that he should let the anaesthesia send him into unconsciousness so the surgeons (not torturers, he realized) could get on with their work. As soon as his body’s memories told him what was going on, he repaired the curse, scrubbed the unpleasant memory from all the humans, and allowed the anaesthesia to do its work.
Unconsciousness, that awkward separation of mind and body, gave him an extended chance to rifle through the body’s memories. It was much like reading a book. Before this time, the entity that had existed before John Watson had rather enjoyed absorbing knowledge, though that had once been an actual biological process. Thinking was also a biological process, but not in the same way.
In any case, John Watson learned — or perhaps it would be better to say he remembered — that he had a sister and another sister who wasn’t biologically related but was an oath-sister and progenitors, neither of whom were living, and no certainty of any offspring, though apparently humans did that sort of thing without actually realizing it. He was a doctor, an expert in rebuilding damage to human bodies. And when he remembered all that knowledge, he was able to precisely understand the damage that the bullet had caused, damage traumatic enough to have shocked John Watson’s soul to its ultimate rest, leaving the body conveniently available for use.
And with that knowledge came the understanding that John Watson would probably end up going home — not Hell, of course, but back to a nation a quarter of the way around the Earth. That would be convenient. The humans there wouldn’t have recent experiences with John Watson, and thus wouldn’t pick up on any oddities of behavior. How very convenient.
The key to the whole charade, of course, was to live as a human. All John Watson had to do was act just like the rest of them, and they’d never have reason to believe he was anything but one of them. Of course, that meant adopting a routine of sleeping and eliminating biological waste, which were his first concerns while in what his borrowed memories told him was a ‘field hospital’.
He had to suppress his self’s inclination to just heal the most obvious damage, because that would be noticeable. He did, however, take the time to repair more subtle damage to the lungs (minor exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals), liver (more chemical damage, though not in marked quantity for the past few years), mutated skin cells (caused by solar radiation), and time, though he did leave the cosmetic effects of time untouched. Humans would notice if the pigmentation-free hair and excess folds of skin suddenly disappeared.
Food came next, once the doctors took out the intravenous nutrient supply. At first, that was inconvenient and seemed rather silly. Why on earth would humans not just hook themselves up to IV nutrition and forget about the fuss?
Then he actually ate.
And another phrase came to mind: toe-curling pleasure. A thousand subtle tastes and textures slid over his tongue, lighting up pleasure centers deep in his brain. Tea, he identified, with additives like artificial sweetener and artificial creamer. A sandwich, white bread and lettuce and tomato, and by all the powers of Heaven and Hell, something his brain recognized as bacon.
“Those MREs really that bad, cutie?” asked the female who’d brought him the meal.
He identified her as American (accent, phrasing) and a nurse (uniform, actions) and within the parameters that his memory said was attractive (tall, high cheekbones, low body fat ratio, curved lips, blue eyes). A smile was the proper response, so he did that before he picked up something else on the plate. His memories stopped him from eating the napkin, and he put it to its intended use instead, scrubbing at his lips and the incredibly inconvenient growth of hair on his face. He analyzed her words, recognized MREs as falling under the soldiers-complain-about category, and his memories supplied an experience for him to contrast with eating the sandwich and tea.
“Terrible,” he answered honestly one full second after her question — an eternity for his consciousness, but time ran so very slowly here. It was relaxing.
Her lips curved even more, showing straight white teeth. “Well, you seem to be doing much better,” she said, looking from where he lay on the uncomfortable bed to the machines beside him. More softly, she told him, “Finish that up and I’ll bring you a surprise.” She closed one eye for a moment.
Not that he needed incentive, but he nodded — a convenient, universal sort of response — and ate another bite of his sandwich. Now that he knew what to expect, he was able to analyze more subtle sensations (flavors, his memory supplied), and the second bite was even better than the first.
But that was nothing compared to the surprise that the nurse (“Call me Lisa, cutie.”) brought him later: chocolate.
Imagine that. The forces of Heaven and Hell had been at War for so long that not even the eldest on either side actually remembered why. And what had the humans been doing? Inventing chocolate.
Coming here might well have been the best decision he’d ever made.
Humans who were ‘in hospital’ were permitted to act within a broader set of parameters than that generally permitted for humans who were healthy. Those who’d been in combat, especially subject to experiences considered mentally traumatic, were given far more latitude in the judgement of what was and wasn’t ‘normal’. So it was that none of the doctors, nurses, specialists, and physiotherapists realized that the thing that claimed to be John Watson actually wasn’t.
(He didn’t actually claim to be John Watson, at least not at first. That was the name on the identity tags, which he found incredibly useful — though the fact that his first name had been spelled JH had given him a moment of confusion until he realized those letters were initials standing for John Hamish. In any case, his True Name was irrelevant, at least as far as the humans were concerned. None of them knew it, and most would go insane if they tried to read it, much less pronounce it. So, ‘John Hamish Watson’ suited just fine.)
The problem came weeks after he’d integrated comfortably into his human body and his human routine. He’d been doing just fine, or so he’d assumed. He’d been put on a plane (which seemed horribly unsafe, flying based solely on rather shaky scientific principles rather than good, useful wings) and sent somewhere damp and cold, away from the desert and the altar where he’d come through. And that was good — distance was good, because the last thing he wanted was for someone else to slip through, recognize him, and either attack him or, worse, try and send him back.
But the whole flying thing — human flying — was unnerving, so when he was finally alone, he pulled off his shirt —
(And clothing was very strange, but very good when it was soft and not so good when it was scratchy, stiff, or embedded with artificial ballistic plates.)
— and sank into his self. And at his back, wings spread, unseen at first, shifting from a place that was other, slowly melting into the human world and becoming real.
It felt good in a way that food was good, if not even better. He stretched his wings, tips brushing against the walls, and ruffled up his feathers, reveling in the new experience of air traveling between the quills, and he stretched some more, until his wing smashed into a table. The lamp went flying, and he almost lashed out with power that crackled over his body, sparking along his feathers.
And then the door clicked, a faint shush of sound as a human hand skimmed over the knob, and he had an infinitely long moment in which to hide his wings from human sight and to try and pick up the lamp, because by then he’d learned that when humans dropped things, they picked up those things.
The door opened. He twisted to look, and his body, still balanced for wings that he no longer had, went crashing down next to the overturned table and lamp. And all of it had happened in no time at all — not even a half-second had passed since the time he’d knocked over the lamp — which now crashed spectacularly into the room before going dark.
And that was how he’d got himself into his present mess.
Real injuries were difficult to deal with. Remembering to sustain fake injuries was a bloody headache, pun intended. (Humans were so very clever with language; just one more thing to love about them.)
Real injuries merited doctors. Apparently, fake ones did, too, only this new doctor wanted to root around through his psyche to help him come to realizations about himself and to acclimatize to living life as a civilian. Which was useful — it really was — because ‘civilian’ was another word for ‘human’, in a lot of ways. And if there was something that his memories didn’t cover, he’d learned he could simply ask Doctor Ella Thompson, and she’d guide him to the right response or behavior or way to avoid an awkward situation.
But his blasted leg was another matter altogether, because he really, really couldn’t explain that he’d knocked over a lamp with his wings and overbalanced, and the doctor had assumed it was because of some sort of limp for which there was no physiological cause.
At least the therapy gave him something to do, though — a routine that reminded him he couldn’t sit and watch humans, fascinating as they were, all the time. Eventually someone would notice.
He hadn’t existed for this long, though, without learning how to be clever. He could watch humans, as long as he moved around and didn’t focus on one in particular. And there was another human with whom he was expected to associate — the sister — though he’d been trying to avoid that as long as possible. If anyone would pick up on odd behavior, human-John versus demon-John, it would be her, or so he assumed.
Wrongly, as it turned out. They met at a pub (because that’s what most humans did — met at pubs) and she was already so drunk (chemically distanced from reality) that he could’ve taken out his wings and smacked her in the head, and she might not have noticed.
“Still love ’er,” Harry (his sister) slurred, blinking glassy eyes at him as she stared across the table. She picked up her pint and drained the rest of it, then shoved the empty glass his way. “She’s beau’ifull. Why’d she hafta go an’ leave?”
Because you’re ridiculously tedious, he thought, though he knew not to say it. A world full of possibilities and experiences and reality, and this was what Harry did for fun? This was physically and mentally damaging, expensive and time-consuming, and if she was really that desperate for something with which to fill her time, she could go feed the ducks in the park.
(He’d discovered the ducks at a park three days after being sent — via unsafe airplane, again — to London. He almost regretted taking a human body. Ducks had a surprisingly rich society, though they were a bit lacking philosophically. Still, they were good to talk to, when no humans were around.)
Instead, he picked up her empty glass and went to go buy more. That was also what humans did.
When he came back with two fresh pints (privately wishing the pub had more food than just snacks and chips), Harry snatched at hers and slumped even farther forward, almost lying on the table now. “’M I really tha’ bad?” she asked.
“Maybe she’ll change her mind,” he answered. John Watson had been a very understanding, empathic man, perhaps because his memories were full of situations just like this. The phrase ‘navigating an emotional minefield’ often came to mind whenever Harry’s name surfaced in his memories.
“You always liked ’er,” Harry said, only it came out like an accusation. Her tears were still there, but now her eyes were narrowed, her jaw tight — aggression, he recognized. “You always liked ’er. Always tryin’ ta steal my girls.”
The hard kick under the table caught him entirely by surprise.
He managed not to set the pub on fire, though it was a close thing. Instead, he said, “Right. That’s enough, Harry. Let’s get you home.”
And he didn’t set her on fire, either, even when she threw up on him. All in all, he thought he was adjusting to human life quite nicely.