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The War

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget he was a soldier once, but as he sits by the window in a busy pub on a Friday night, the reminder stares him dead in the face.

“John Watson,” the man says with a broad smile, pushing his snout into a mug of cider before coming back up to finish his thought; “haven’t seen you since Afghanistan, heard you went and got yourself shot.”

John nods, idly sipping his pint as he tries not to make eye contact with the obnoxious surgeon he hadn’t liked much back then either. “Yeah, sounds about right.”

“Well what happened, son?”

The barest hint of a strained smile tugs at the corner of his mouth and John answers into his glass dryly; “I went and got myself shot.”

It isn’t a proud memory, or even the sort of thing to write home about. In light of his recent notoriety on Sherlock’s coattails he can hardly even call it heroic. He was a solider doing his job and happened to be in the same exact place a bullet happened to be at that same time. It could have been anyone out on that round.

“Come on,” the man groaned, “what’s your sob story?”

“I haven’t got one. I was shot, I was discharged.”

“Nobody just gets shot, Watson...” the man rolls his eyes, clearing his mug and holding it up for another.

“Yes, actually, they do. People just get shot all the time, every day. Right here in London even.”

“Weren’t in London then.”

John sighs and briefly considers leaving, but that would mean finding some reason to stay out of the flat a while longer or go back while Sherlock was still in his foul mood. “I told you, it’s nothing.”

“Nothin’ about you is nothin’. You saved my life back then, you know that? I’d have died if anyone else took that shrapnel out of m’ back.”

Trying in vain not to frown, John gestures to the man’s wheelchair and replies; “If they’d have got a surgeon you’d probably have walked in here.”

It’s enough to draw the older man’s lips to a sour frown, but clearly not enough to stop his curiosity. “If it’s nothin’, then out with it. I’m bored, entertain an old man.”

“You’re forty-one, Roger. Hardly an old man...”

“Don’t feel it. Still bored.”

John sighs again; nearly certain the word ‘bored’ should be stricken from the English vocabulary. After a long pause, he orders another pint to stare blindly into before starting; “A few weeks after your discharge we received two new physicians – barely out of school.”

“Sounds ‘bout right.”

“There was a bomb in the field...” as if fighting in a city were anything like the ‘battlefield’ people back home liked to imagine they were in, some great stretch of uninhabited wasteland where soldiers faced off instead of civilians (even women and children) with automatic rifles and bombs; “...and we were responsible for first response and moving the wounded.”

Roger’s frown deepens and he shakes his head, taking a fresh cider when the server arrived – watching Watson’s go untouched. “Could have been anyone.”

“I know that.” John shoots back defensively; “I already told you that.” He drains the bottom of his first and then spends a long moment curling the wet edges of his napkin with his thumbnail. “But it was me. I was out there and I was their superior officer and I ordered them to stand down while I assessed the wounded.”

“You were doing your job.”

“I was foolish.” He looks up with a hardened gaze few men have seen, the wound always fresh in his mind. “I thought I was safe.”

A long silence falls between them, John slumps back in his chair and stares out the window across the street until the man asks; “Aint that how it is now, though? Gettin’ in with that Holmes bloke?”

“Shut up,” John whispers, turning back to him; “you don’t know anything about Sherlock Holmes.”

Roger raises an eyebrow, then chuckles under his breath. “I know a man that plays with killers ain’t much different than the war. Still puttin’ your head on the block for somethin’ you got no stake in.”

“I... I don’t follow.” His face slackens, the anger burrowing deep as he swallows it down with cold beer. He can’t help but recall what the elder Holmes had told him what seems like an age ago... he doesn’t fear the war; part of him still needs it.

The older man runs his thumb over the control for his chair, his voice dropping from the almost boisterous baritone to a low whisper; “None of us were over there for the Crown. We went because we wanted to do what we could, ‘cause we thought it were the right thing.... ‘cause there was nothing else to do.” He shrugs, lifting a shaky hand to point at him; “That’s you, I bet my life on it. Don’t matter who you’re with, long as it feels like you’re doing something good ‘cause otherwise you ain’t nothin’.”

“That’s a... double negative... you mean I’m ‘not anything’.”

“No, you’re somethin’, all right. Out there savin’ people solvin’ mysteries.” He laughs again, the whisper lifting back to his previous tone. “Just wonder if you don’t do it for ‘im more than you.”

“What?” His brow wrinkles and he takes another ragged swallow in the face of something he’s heard from more than one person since he met Sherlock Holmes. “I don’t... do it... for Sherlock. I do it because... because it’s the right thing to do, damn it. Don’t you ever wish you could really help people? Real people with faces and families and important lives?”

“You don’t save them, John.” The man laughs again, somewhat more reservedly than before. “I’ve read your blog... you see to it that he eats, you carry his papers and pay his bills on time... you’re an assistant. And you put your neck out there every time because you need him to give you a purpose.”

“That’s not true,” John pushes up out of his chair, grabbing onto the back for support as he feels the dull ache in his leg and through his bones – the reminder ringing back without his cane to lean on. “I do good, honest work... and no, I’m not out there treating ear infections and sprained ankles but I am doctor and I save lives.”

The man looks up at him, quiet for a long moment as Watson pushes off the chair and stumbles toward the door – dropping a pair of bills on the table for their drinks. “Don’t forget, Doctor Watson,” he says quietly, leaving his back turned toward his old acquaintance; “they kicked you out of the war.”

He doesn’t stop, only stands at the street with his arm braced against his hip. It’s not until John slips into the back of the cab that he mutters under his breath; “That doesn’t mean the war is over.”