Crucial

19 October, 2024

Saturday 19 October, 2024

John couldn't remember why it had been so important for Sherlock to chase the man down the alley. A case, of course. But the details were fuzzy.

Nothing new there, really. Even after all those years. Sherlock still had a way of assuming John noticed the same obscure, improbable minutiae he had, and John still had a way of misinterpreting what Sherlock considered tediously obvious.

Though at the moment in question, John was doing very well just to be sitting upright.

Trauma had a way of doing that.

What John did remember was that it was raining. Had been. For days. Relentlessly. It seemed an eternity since he had last been dry or warm. Or had a hot cuppa.

He remembered calling Greg as he ran, straining to spot Sherlock's form through the shadows and the downpour.

"We're close. Don't do anything stupid." It's how Greg had taken to ending the majority of calls exchanged between himself and the doctor.

Stupidity reigned supreme.

"Too late." John's patented sign off.

He recalled all of this huddled in the back of a cab. Soaked to his core, freezing, and covered in blood; he didn't even attempt to still the trembling. It was possible he was shivering because of the state he was in, but he didn't think so.

This was something else entirely.

"Wait, stop here. Right here," John forced the words from his raw throat and chattering teeth. "I'll just be a minute. Keep... just... don't leave," he pleaded with the driver.

Worried eyes met his in the rear view mirror. It was no small miracle the driver had actually let him in the car looking the way he did. "All right, mate. I'll be right here."

Attempting to run, but mostly just stumbling along, John fumbled at the door, pulling clumsily at the handle several times before the thought crossed his mind to push. The tinny clank of the bell above his head and the brightness of the manufactured lights inside the small shop were a shock to his senses.

"Doctor Watson!" Came a startled cry from behind the counter. Frail Mr. Nguyen, the owner of the pagoda wiped his hands on his apron and rushed around the counter. "Anh! Anh, Doctor Watson needs help! Get blankets. And tea. Run!" Mr. Nguyen commanded his teenage granddaughter, who had been sweeping in the corner.

"No, no... Mr. Nguyen. I just need a few things," John made his way to the wall cooler and paused only briefly before making his selection. "I'm okay, Annie. You don't have to get me anything," he made eye contact with the clearly frightened girl tightly gripping her broom. He glanced down at the state of his rain soaked, blood stained clothes. Right. He certainly didn't look okay. John glanced around the shop. There were only two other customers.

All eyes were on him.

"I'm sorry, I'm kind of in a rush." John sat the six pack of ale on the counter. No scotch. It had been so long since he’d been out to a pub night, he wasn’t sure what he even liked anymore. This would have to do.

With an unsteady hand he indicated to the racks of cigarettes. "Second row down, third from the left. Red label. Can I get one pack please?" The pagoda was one of few places left in London John even knew of that carried the hated and heavily banned indulgence. He hated that he knew where to find them; in his defense, it had been for a case and the blame could be placed solely on Sherlock.

"Doctor?" Mr. Nguyen's eyes widened. Taking in the distress on John's face, he decided against saying anything more, and gingerly placed the packet on the counter.

"Do you have any matches?" John's voice cracked as he asked the question, and he blinked against the tears that threatened to spill at any moment. Mr. Nguyen shook his head, but indicated a small display of lighters.

Panic rising, John glanced at the wall clock. He had to hurry. "No... it has to be matches. Does anyone have any matches?" He turned to the other customers. "Please." He was acutely aware he both looked and sounded utterly pathetic.

"Here dear," a tiny white haired woman approached him cautiously and placed a book of matches she had fished from her purse -- a relic of a past love -- into his hand. Her eyes only lingered a moment on the blood caked under his nails. Something in her concerned eyes reminded him of Mrs. Hudson and her not-your-housekeeper way of doting. He wanted nothing more than to hug her, to be embraced in return, and let this dear matronly woman comfort him. But he wouldn't dare spoil her finely pressed dress.

He ducked his head and mumbled his thanks. Shoving the matches in his pocket, John dug for his wallet. He had a wad of damp bills, but it was only enough for his cab fare.

His wallet. It had been in his pocket with his keys and mobile.

Oh.

John fought the urge to curse. He may have looked like a stark raving lunatic, but there was no need to behave as such.

The pocket in question was in his coat. And his coat was lying abandoned in a bloody, filthy puddle in a God forsaken alley. He sighed, and turned to leave.

"Sorry, Mr. Nguyen, I don't have my wallet. I wasted your time and worried you for nothing. Sorry... sorry." He hung his head and couldn't help it when an errant tear tracked down his filthy face.

"Doctor Watson? Here. Please... please, take this. It's a gift," Anh had found her voice, timid yet clear. She had placed the six pack and the cigarettes in a brown paper bag, and thrust it towards him.

"Oh, Annie, no. I can't. I can't pay." John shrugged his shoulders, defeated.

Mr. Nguyen took the bag and shoved it into John's hands. He tenderly patted John's shoulder. "You and Mr. Holmes helped us once. Please, let me do this for you."

Stifling a sob, John nodded quickly. "Thanks... Thank you." He hugged the bag to himself, glanced at the clock, and dashed back out into the rain.

"St. Bart's, please. As quickly as possible." John was barely in the cab before he made his request. "Please hurry."

With a sympathetic nod, the cabbie took off. John watched familiar streets pass by, not really recognizing any of it. The street lamps and headlights were all muted in the rain, causing the dark of night to seem even blacker, and more ominous, than John had ever experienced within the confines of this city that he loved. Everything seemed so off, so wrong.

London would never be right again.

How? What had happened? How had everything gone so wrong?

It was still just a blur. He couldn't piece it all together, couldn't recall the timeline. The diagnostician in him began compiling a list.

1. He never did catch up with Sherlock in the alley. God. Where was Sherlock? This was the first coherent thought he'd even had of him since he followed him into the ambush.

2. There was a feeling of real and true panic when he had realized he was pinned down, alone, behind the skip in a pitch dark alley. He hadn't been able to determine how many shooters there were, or even where they were exactly (high windows, or rooftops he supposed, but couldn’t be certain), just that the frequency of the shots indicated there were a lot of them, and they were professionally armed. The rain was so heavy it had distorted and muffled the concussive echo of the gunshots, and the lightning had proven disorienting in trying to spot the shooters.

3. He never had an opportunity to fire a shot. No. Scratch that. He didn't fire a shot because Sherlock had his gun. Right. That explained a lot.

4. When the flashing police lights started bouncing off the walls of the alley, he remembered screaming for Greg to stay away, to wait for backup. The strobes had added to the disorienting effect of the rain and lightning.

5. At some point Sally Donovan was sitting flat on her bum in the dirty alley, knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped protectively around her legs, rocking and mumbling to herself, completely unaware of the rain and chaos around her. She hadn't been injured, so he just walked away and left her sitting there.

"St. Bart's, mate," the driver interrupted John's list making. "Main entrance, or A&E?"

"What time is it?"

"11:38 pm."

"A&E then." John exhaled deeply. This late, the main entrance would be locked. Without his credentials, which were in his wallet in the alley, and being covered in blood, he didn't figure security would be inclined to buzz him in. The A&E entrance was always open, and he knew most everyone who worked back there.

As the cab came to a stop, John pulled the wad of cash from his pocket, and with shaking hands, attempted, and failed miserably, to sort the bills.

"Forget it, son." The driver was hardly older than John. "I don't want your money. You've been through hell, whatever that is, tonight. Just go," the driver turned back to look at John. "I don't know what you're gonna go do now, but you be careful, you hear me?" He stared at John, unblinking, daring him to argue back.

John's composure broke in that instant, and tears ran unchecked down his face. "I..." He didn't attempt to stifle the sob. "Thank you." He looked down at his blood stained hands. "God, I can't even shake your hand."

The driver smiled a sad little smile, and saluted John. A brief flash of clarity shone in John's eyes, and he quickly saluted back. "Thought so," the cabbie nodded knowingly, compassion in his eyes. "Seen too many soldiers with that look. I'm sorry about your mate." Startled, John looked up, and he started to speak, but the cabbie interrupted, "Never mind all that. You go now. And son, don't go and do something he would regret. Honor him, don't shame his memory."

"Yes, sir," John sniffed, trying, unsuccessfully, to compose himself. Sliding out of the car with the brown paper bag hugged tightly to his chest, he looked back and mouthed "Thank you," then hurried to the entrance.

The waiting area was mostly empty John noted with some relief. He glanced at the wall clock. 11:44. He attempted to duck past the reception desk without being noticed.

"Doctor Watson? Oh my God, are you okay? What happened?"

John sighed as a crowd of nurses and aides started gathering behind the reception desk. He didn't have the time, nor the energy, to explain, so he just held up one blood stained hand and shook his head to say "no." Before anyone could question him further he sprinted down a hall to the nearest bank of lifts. He pressed the button and waited.

Just as the door began to slide open, Molly appeared at the far end of the hall. She spotted John and gasped. "John? Are you... Where's... I just... I..." She picked up her pace to cover the distance between them.

Oh God. She didn't know. GOD. Why didn't she know?

John swore under his breath.

He should probably have been the one to tell her.

He wanted to tell her. To hold her up when she would inevitably collapse. Let her weep on his shoulder. Or pound her fists on his chest when he willingly, and deservedly, took the blame.

There was a time when he would have done anything just to live up to the idea of the man everyone seemed to think he was.

But he just couldn't.

He didn't have it in him anymore.

Maybe never again.

He was a failure.

Weak.

John hadn't meant to make eye contact with Molly, but he couldn't help it. And what she saw there stopped her in her tracks. Rather, what she didn't see there. It seemed the life had been completely drained from the vibrant blue, leaving behind despairingly, achingly dull grey.

"J-john?"

"I'm so sorry Molly," John managed, ragged, just barely above a whisper, as he ducked into the lift and frantically pressed the door close button. He heard her shout his name and then curse. Despite everything he choked out a laugh at that. Poor Molly. Sherlock had wrecked her self esteem all those years ago. John had ruined her sweet, verging on naïve, vocabulary. And now this. He wasn't sure her heart was going to survive this one.

He wasn't so sure his heart would survive either.

The lift door opened to the top floor, and John stepped out cautiously. The lights were dimmed so that patients could sleep, and there didn't seem to be much foot traffic in the hall. He located a wall clock. 11:49. He made his way as quietly as he could to the stairwell, and charged headlong up to the rooftop. Opening the door, he was stunned by the torrential rain still falling.

With more purpose than he'd felt since he stumbled out from that alley, John made his way to the ledge.

To the spot.

The spot that was synonymous with the greatest hurts, the deepest wounds, he had suffered in his life.

The spot where Sherlock had…

No. Don’t.

And where he and Greg had…

God. Please, just stop.

As he looked around, his emotions got the better of him once again, and he broke down and wept openly. Unashamed. John realized he had never stopped shaking, and suddenly his legs gave out. He expected a familiar twinge of pain to radiate up his right leg; the pain he experienced was different, far worse. He wasn't sure how he'd been standing at all. John twisted around and managed to sit down hard on the roof. The ledge was high enough that he was able to lean back against the short wall for support.

The brown paper bag in his arms had practically dissolved in the rain. He sat the package down, and fumbled with the cellophane wrapper around the pack of cigarettes. Finally getting one free, he prayed the matches were still dry. It took a few tries, but he finally got the thing lit, and he took a deep drag off of it. He didn't cough as he usually did. He actually felt a few seconds of warmth for the first time in... how long? Days?

No. No, it had only been not quite 36 hours.

Agonizingly long and torturous hours.

And only two hours since...

John snatched a can from the mess of a bag, snapped it open, and downed the whole thing. He couldn't remember if he'd had anything to eat or drink recently. He’d been dashing about London like a madman, chasing after Sherlock since yesterday afternoon. He figured he probably hadn’t had anything proper at least since then. Nicotine and alcohol would have to suffice.

Tossing the empty can aside, he opened another. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right. He drank down as much as he could in one drink and leaned his head back, exposing his face to the rain.

Maybe some of the blood and grime would wash away.

He reached for the pack of cigarettes. They were getting soggy. Nothing to be done about that now. The matches were completely ruined. He tried to light another cigarette with the embers of the spent one, but every one in the pack was soaked through. In disgust he flicked the glowing butt away. He couldn't even do this one thing right.

Nothing about any of this was right.

Leaning his head back once more, he screamed into the flowing inky blackness of the night sky as he had never screamed before.

Not when he had been shot in Afghanistan.

Not when Sherlock had jumped.

Not even when Mary had been murdered.

This scream was primal in its base; a culmination of those past screams, and all the screams that had been repressed in a ludicrous self-imposed demand for propriety. A scream that started in the very depths of his soul, and drudged up with it every sorrow, every hurt, every wrong, every nightmare, and every fear. It tore through his chest and splintered off pieces of his fragile heart. The midnight sky was shattered apart by the lightning all around him, and the heavy clouds continued to release the floods, as if their only purpose was to silence John's anguish by drowning him. So he raged right back at the storm, cracking to pieces in his own way as he screamed his lungs out. The falling rain had nothing on the deluge that poured from his eyes.

He screamed until he had no breath left, and his lungs could no longer handle the sharp intake of air required to continue.

He screamed until his throat was raw and his vocal cords gave out.

He screamed until his chapped lips cracked and bled.

And when he couldn't scream any more, he cursed. Every foul thing he had ever heard, and a few he had made up on his own. He swore in every language he knew. When he had exhausted his extensive vocabulary, he swallowed down what was left in the can at his side.

It was watered down from the rain. He cursed the rain.

The alcohol still burned his raw lips and throat. He cursed the alcohol, even as he opened another and forced it down too.

John was still shaking, but he didn't feel cold any longer. He didn't feel much of anything really. Everything was just kind of... fuzzy. Good. He was so tired of feeling cold.

So tired of feeling.

So tired.

So...

...going to die of hypothermia. The doctor part of John's mind was fighting to break through the murkiness, but everything was just... so... slow. Well done, idiot, you're in full blown shock now. And no way to get help, the doctor in his head chided him. "Oh shut up," he muttered out loud.

God, he was irritating even to himself. How could anyone ever stand to be around him?

Willing his fingers to work, John fumbled after another beer and finally got it open. There was no controlling the tremor in his hands. If he tried to set the can down, he'd probably spill it. Logical conclusion? Drink it all. Bloody brilliant, Watson. Wouldn't want shock and hypothermia to be the only cause of death. Better add alcohol poisoning for good measure.

"Shut up. Please... just shut up..." John begged the nagging in his head to stop. He threw the empty can in his hand as hard as he could, didn't really matter where, and picked up another can. He took a long drink, and suddenly even the alcohol turned against him. His stomach churned.

Just as well. If he was going to die, just get it over with.

Hmm. Bit not good, that. It's a shame, you're usually more rational than this John. Huh. John's inner Sherlock was talking now. He took another drink, just out of spite, not really sure who it was he was punishing. He dropped the empty can off to the side, and considered the last one.

One left. He could do it.

Or not. His stomach was truly angry now.

Leaning with his back against the wall, he pulled his knees up toward his chest, wrapped his arms around his legs, and rested his forehead on his knee. He knew he was in shock because his shoulders should have been aching, but he didn't feel a thing.

"Could really use a blanket right now," he whispered. John imagined Greg offering him a shock blanket, because that was what they did. They joked about "that one time" Sherlock had a shock blanket, and then it became their little inside joke, a coping mechanism when everything would go sideways, just like it always seemed to. John got a paper cut once, and Greg offered to run and get him a blanket. Sherlock said something hateful and bruised Greg's ego in front of a group of his officers. When Greg turned in exasperation to John, John actually had a blanket in hand.

John sniffed, and then laughed. And then he couldn't stop laughing. But there was no joy in this laughter. This laughter was the manic kind of laughter that hurts instead of heals, and if one really listens, it doesn't sound all that different from sobbing.

"God, Greg. Why couldn't you just listen to me?" He squeezed his eyes tight shut, but the tears wouldn't stop. How did he even have any tears left?

And locked up in his own mind, with the rain still pouring down, he found himself back in that horrid alley, unarmed and alone. Wartime training only helped if you had the equipment you needed. He had nothing to his advantage. He could hear Greg and the others charging down the alley. John had been certain he was going to die behind that skip, there wasn't any reason Greg, or Sally, or anyone else should die too.

"Greg, don't come any closer!" John had shouted. "There are too many of them, they're shooting down from above. Wait for backup!"

Several shots were fired in John's direction. He took cover just in time, but it was barely a miss. Bits of shattered brick exploded around his head.

"John!" Greg had screamed.

"I'm okay! I'm fine. Please, for the love of God, stay back!" John pleaded in response.

"Sally's calling for back up, John. Where's Sherlock?"

"No bloody idea. And he's got my gun, so I'm a sitting duck in here." That had been a mistake. There was another round of gunfire, only this time one of the bullets found its mark. Nothing serious he convinced himself. Outer right thigh. There wasn't even that much blood. Good. Major veins and arteries still intact. He wouldn't bleed out.

He'd definitely have a limp now.

The real problem was not that he had been hit. The issue was that the body has certain reflexes, and one of the things his body had learned experience in was being shot. He instantly tensed and sucked in a sharp breath, not so much in pain, though it did hurt (bullets had a way of doing that), but just out of the shock of actually having been shot. Again.

He admirably managed to keep from crying out.

Unfortunately, Greg knew John well enough to know that when he heard that sharp intake of breath something was not right. There was a splash and the sound of feet running through puddles.

John knew immediately that Greg had heard him.

"NO! Greg, no!" John wailed before he even saw him. Suddenly Greg was around the corner. Only a few steps away.

Then John could only watch in horror as a volley of bullets rained down.

Kevlar can only do so much... and there is precious little that can be done for the unfortunate soul who has a femoral artery nicked by one bullet, and a second bullet pass clean through his esophagus and rip through a jugular vein. Especially when the only person with any medical experience is trapped behind a skip, screaming obscenities because he has no other weapon in his arsenal.

By the time Sally and the other officers charged into the alley, and began firing blindly up into the rooftops, it was already too late.

It was all in how he fell.

When a person is trying to avoid injury during a fall, they reflexively reach out to brace themselves, often causing extremity damage.

If an individual has been injured before falling, they curl in on the injured area, in order to provide a buffer.

Greg had done neither of those things. One instant he was alive and upright, and the next he was heaped on the ground. The world didn't grind to a halt, there was no slow-motion, nor did the sound drop out. It wasn't graceful or poetic, as popular culture would have one believe.

For just the briefest of moments John felt as if someone had dropped this cursed, dank corner of London, storm clouds and all, directly in the center of the Helmand Province. There was the ineffective exchange of round after round of gunfire. Screaming. So much blood. It was all too familiar. Except these weren't soldiers. These were colleagues and friends.

And Greg.

His brother.

Despite his field training taking over, the obvious futility of triage being evident, John lunged out from his hiding place and knelt over Greg, trembling fingers assessing the damage.

No pulse.

No breath.

Pupils unresponsive.

He had to get the vest off.

Stand down, Watson. It'll do no good. He could hear the logical military part of his brain barking orders.

Defiantly, John pulled his pocket knife from his jacket and cut the straps on Greg's bulletproof vest. Yanking it away unceremoniously, he tossed it aside.

There was so much blood. Greg was completely covered in it. The longer John worked over Greg's body, the more of Greg's blood his own clothes soaked up. And it was still raining so hard, the blood was running in little rivers away from them, staining every puddle it came in contact with.

When someone finally got an emergency light set up, John thought it looked like a massacre had happened there, when really only one other officer had been hit, non-fatally.

He knew it would make no difference, but John took off his coat and placed it under Greg's head. The ground was too cold and filthy just to leave the man lying there that way. He pulled off his rain soaked jumper and clumsily wrapped it around the leg wound.

Greg wasn't bleeding any more. John ignored the observation that there likely wasn't anything left for him to bleed out.

He couldn't stop himself. John began inspecting the neck wound. Feverishly working to clear the airway. Anything. He had to keep his hands moving.

He vaguely noticed that the gunfire had stopped.

Good. They were safe now.

John began chest compressions.

"1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8..."

He could hear voices murmuring around him. He glanced up long enough to see every eye on him.

"...15 16 17 18 19..."

"Watson," a familiar voice. Dimmock.

"No." John growled resolutely. He kept going.

"John." Firmer.

"NO."

A hand on his shoulder. John wrenched away. "Dimmock, I swear to God if you don't step off right now, I. Will. Kill. You."

"Watson, you're bleeding. You're hit too. Let the medics..."

John jumped to his feet, and before Dimmock even had time to react, John had pinned him to the wall and was ready to take a swing.

John paused, looked at his blood stained fist, and back at Dimmock.

"I know, Watson. I get it. He's..." Dimmock's voice cracked.

John turned back toward Greg. No one else had moved. A few eyes registered pity for poor delusional John, but in the majority of faces he could see silent lips moving, begging him to keep trying, to not give up.

This was, after all, Chief Inspector Greg Lestrade, Scotland Yard's finest. C.I. Lestrade was never meant to bleed out in a dirty alley, he was destined for greatness. His promotion was set for the next month. This was never how Greg Lestrade was supposed to end.

And wasn't that Captain John Watson, the Doctor Watson? The Watson who was a war hero, who saved lives, solved mysteries, and reigned in consulting detectives? Certainly if anyone could fix this, it had to be him.

But Greg Lestrade did bleed out in a dirty alley.

And John Watson could not fix it.

He crouched down next to his lifeless friend, and tenderly took Greg's still, cold hand in his own. Gingerly he reached up and closed Greg's eyelids over his hollow empty eyes. John leaned down and brushed a tender kiss of brotherly love on Greg’s forehead. "You idiot," John whispered in the unhearing ear. "What are we supposed to do now? I don't know what to do now, Greg. How do I..." He knelt there and wept over his friend until medics pulled him away and tried to guide him to a waiting ambulance.

"NO! What are you... Let me go... No! NO..." John kicked and shoved and fought his way out of the firm grasp of the medics.

He couldn't stay there. He had to get to St. Bart's. He had promised Greg. They had sworn to each other. No matter what. It had to be now. The hour was late, he had to hurry and get there while today was still today.

So there John sat, on the rooftop of St. Bart's. Rain drenched, in shock, and not anywhere near drunk enough. Alone.

It had been twelve years since he'd had to mourn by himself. All those years Greg had been the one to help him muddle through the messy, human, emotional stuff.

Not that Sherlock was incapable. Sherlock helped in his own way, but usually his way was brilliant and calculated. And sometimes, calculated doesn't comfort the way it looks like it should on paper, or in a mind palace.

If Sherlock was the head, and John the heart, then Greg had been absolutely everything else. The strong hands that pulled Sherlock up out of addiction. The broad shoulders that had helped carry the weight of John's grief so many, many times. The steady voice of reason. The ready feet that knew when to stand their ground, and when to step aside and let someone else take the lead.

”Oi, you’re getting awfully maudlin in your old age.”

John kept his head resting on his knees, but turned his face to the right in time to see Greg use one of the soggy matches to light a sodden cigarette. “You’re not really here,” John managed to force a raspy whisper.

”Hmm. No.”

John closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. “So what, you’re going to haunt me now? Is this some kind of weird Shakespeare thing? Horatio back from the grave or something?”

”What? God, you never paid attention at all, did you? Horatio was the one who didn’t die. No wonder Sherlock gets so frustrated with you.”

“You’re here to insult me, then. I’ve got Sherlock for that, thanks.” John forced one eye open and warily looked Greg up and down. He looked much the same as he had in the alley, neck and leg wounds gaping, blood stained clothes, hollow lifeless eyes. “Couldn’t have showed up looking like your old self?”

”This is YOUR subconscious. I had nothing to do with the choice.”

“And why exactly did my subconscious send you here?” John let his eyes drift back closed and sighed. He was so tired. And something was troubling him about Greg’s presence, but he couldn’t quite reason it out. Just. Too. Tired.

”You shouldn’t have come here.”

“I pro… Promised you. We signed. And the…” John couldn’t summon the correct words. He pantomimed shaking hands lamely with his frigid, trembling right hand. “Why’re you here?”

”To keep you from doing something stupid. Like dying.”

"'Tis but a scratch,'" John mumbled, the corner of his mouth twitching upward.

"Don't."

"'Just a flesh wound.'"

"Idiot. A flesh wound caused by a bullet, which is still lodged in there by the way, and has drained approximately 1.37 liters of blood from your body. Not to mention the fact that you are sitting in the pouring rain, and that the temperature of the water soaking you through is 10 degrees Celsius. Your blood alcohol level is 0.110%, achieved in less than 45 minutes. And you've not taken the antibiotics necessary to maintain your immune system for nearly 48 hours. Gunshot wound resulting in hypovolemic shock. Hypothermia. Alcohol poisoning. Sepsis. You're dying."

"Don't forget broken heart." John's breath hitched painfully. He refused to make eye contact with the apparition. "How'd you know all that... stuffanyway?"

"Your subconscious, remember?"

John forced his eyes open and squinted at Greg. “What would it matter if I died?”

”The world needs John Watson.”

Forcing a breathy laugh, John closed his eyes again. “Well, John Watson nee... needs Greg Lestrade, and that’s... It’s just too bloody bad now, yeah?... The world can... sod off.” He considered opening his eyes to glare at Greg, but the effort just seemed too much.

”Molly needs you. And our girls.”

Greg was starting to sound less like himself, more like an old vinyl album being played too slow. “S’my fault. Molly is... gonna hate me…” John forced his eyes open once more. Greg was starting to look blurry. "Please... please. Don't go..."

"I'm already gone, John."

"Please..." Against his will, John's eyes drifted shut once more.

”Sherlock needs you.”

“Doesn’t. He… doesn’t.” John knew that somewhere, in some odd corner of his mind, he must have an organized and tidy list of reasons why Sherlock Holmes did not need John Watson. If he could just sleep for a few minutes… Just a few…

”Sherlock needs you to stay awake, John.”

“Tired.” John felt himself slipping. He wasn’t sure to where, but it wasn’t so bad.

Maybe that was a bit not good. But he couldn’t be be bothered to care anymore.

”John, stay awake. Wake up.”

Greg sounded slightly panicked. No, it wasn’t Greg. Someone else’s voice was mixing with Greg’s. That other voice, that was the one that was nearing hysterics.

”John? John, wake up. You have to wake up. You can’t… Just, stop this. Wake up, do you hear me? John. JOHN.”

The second voice was stronger than Greg’s. Closer now. John could feel it. No, that wasn’t right was it? Could he feel a voice?

“John. Please. Wake up. Help is coming. Just wake up, John.” The voice was so close. It sounded angry? Yes, a little. Hmm, disappointed. And definitely concerned. Afraid.

He couldn’t hear Greg at all anymore.

Greg was gone.

John's heart stuttered at the realization.

He felt reasonably certain the human heart wasn't meant to stutter. Was it medically possible for his heart to literally be broken?

It was all a bit not good.

"John." The voice was panicking again, which set John to panicking. "John Hamish Watson, you breathe."

Breathing. John wanted to breathe. It was exhausting, and at the moment, excruciating. But the voice wanted him to breathe, and he very desperately did not want to disappoint that voice. Not again.

Then John was falling. But no, that wasn't right at all. The voice was dragging him up. Lifting him, supporting him. And he wanted to help the voice, but he couldn't. God, his leg hurt so bloody badly, but he couldn't remember any of the really good obscenities.

Then the voice was cursing. Something was taking too long. He growled such vulgarities as they staggered along. And wasn't it something? To hear that posh, proper, rumbling voice full of concern for him, and swearing enough for the both of them. And there wasn't much he could do but huff a laugh about that.

But his laugh sounded more like a gasp than a laugh, and the voice misinterpreted. "John, please. Just hold on. I can't lose you too."

Oh.

OH.

sherlock... i'm trying. for you. i'm trying... i AM trying, Sherlock... It's so hard. Look, Sherlock... I'm breathing... for you I am trying... "Sher... sh..."

"John!" A sob more than a declaration. A single syllable infused with more emotion than could ever hope to be recorded, followed by a mumbled, frantic litany of please. pleasepleasepleaseplease. John please.

It was a shock to John's system as they transitioned from the pouring frigid rain to the relative dry of the stairwell down from the rooftop. His body shook violently with the temperature change. Sherlock only nearly stumbled once as he mostly carried (doing his best not to drag) John down the steps.

A nurse burst through the door as they reached the bottom of the steps, followed by an entire team. Sherlock was relieved of his burden, despite his spewed threats and insults, and John was whisked to the gurney waiting in the hallway. Even as the team sprinted along the corridor to the lifts, hands were poking and prodding, attaching oxygen, starting IV lines, and cutting away sodden blood soaked clothing.

Be it from the fact that he was thoroughly soaked and freezing, or the fact that he was now stained with the blood of his best friend, Sherlock stood helplessly quaking as he watched John be loaded into a lift to be rushed off to surgery. Several moments later, a matronly nurse assigned to that floor took pity on the stunned, pathetic, dripping man. She discovered the floor where he could eventually see John, escorted him to a family waiting area, and located a set of scrubs as well as a not terrible cup of hot tea for him.

"Can I call anyone for you, dear?"

Sherlock's brow creased as he looked at her with some confusion. Why would he need to call anyone? Lestrade would be here any moment, he was sure. Lestrade always came, especially where John was involved. It was rather surprising Lestrade wasn't already...

Sherlock blanched. He collapsed into the nearest molded plastic chair, leaned his head toward his knees, and tugged at his hair with both hands.

Oh God. ohgodohgodohgod. Greg. OH. GOD.

A hand landed gently on his shoulder.

Mycroft.

The elder Holmes was speaking softly to the nurse, who smiled wistfully down at Sherlock, and left them to be alone.

"Brother," Mycroft's tone was soft.

"Greg," was all Sherlock could manage to choke out. He kept his head down.

"I know. And, I am truly sorry."

For nearly half an hour they remained that way. Sherlock folded in on himself, and Mycroft standing watchful guard, hand protectively on his younger brother's shoulder.

"Sherlock?" A familiar voice broke the stillness.

Straightening up slowly, lifting red rimmed eyes and tear stained cheeks, Sherlock came face to face with the uncharacteristically sullen Dr. Matt MacGregor. "John?" Sherlock whispered, without any preface or note of recognition.

"Still in surgery. It looks like he's going to be fine, though. Recovery will be tedious."

The consulting detective narrowed his eyes. "And?"

"That obvious, huh? He, uhm... They had to resuscitate him twice. He lost a lot of blood, and all the alcohol played havoc with his system." Matt closed his eyes and sighed deeply. Looking Sherlock in the eyes once more, he continued. "He's going to be fine, Sherlock. I promise."

Releasing the shuddering breath he'd been holding, Sherlock slumped back in the chair. "Th-thanks. Thank you, Matt."

"What happened out there?" Matt asked softly, his tone full of concern.

Sherlock pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "I was... we were on a case. John and I got separated. There was an ambush. John got shot. Lestrade..." Sherlock's voice broke, and he folded in on himself again.

"Chief Inspector Greg Lestrade was killed in the line of duty this evening," Mycroft explained, with none of his usual matter-of-fact acidity. It was clear this invalided ex-military man was a friend of Dr. Watson's, and by extension, C.I. Lestrade. Tact must remain utmost in such situations.

Matt swore under his breath. "And John was there? Saw the whole thing?" He asked, voice gone thick with emotion as he fought to keep the tears at bay. Sherlock nodded nearly imperceptibly. Matt's profanities were a little louder, and shade more colorful this time. He took a steadying, intentional breath. "Okay. Okay. One thing at a time."

Sherlock looked up, confused.

"John needs us now. He needs you, Sherlock. He's going to be fine, but he's going to need to heal before he can mourn properly. He's going to need help. I will do all I can, but I know he's going to need..."

"He needs me." Understanding settled on Sherlock's face.


Tuesday, 22 October, 2024

"Comfy?" John's voice was thick with sleep and raspy from disuse. The harsh overhead lights burned his eyes. He ached all over, especially his right leg. He felt overly warm and his chest was constricted. All were simply explained, with the exception of the last two.

Oh, he could see the cause of his discomfort easily enough. He was just confused as to why he saw what he did.

John was laying just to the right of the center of the bed, hooked to monitors, IVs, and oxygen. His right thigh was heavily bandaged, and his leg was propped up. A hospital-issued-scrub clad Sherlock was crammed into the small space to John's left, laying on his side so that he could rest his head on John's chest, just above his heart.

Sherlock shook his head to indicate "no" silently in response to John's query.

"Okay... So then, why?" John couldn't quite reach the small cup of ice chips on the wheeled table just to his right. Sherlock reached it easily and held it steady as John fished out a few pieces with a plastic spoon. "Thanks." John patted Sherlock's back with his left hand, which Sherlock had been careful to make sure had remained free.

"It stopped. Twice." Sherlock placed the cup back on the table, but kept the side of his head pressed firmly to John's chest.

John's furled his brow. "What? What stopped? Sherlock?"

Sherlock sighed in frustration. "You died. Twice. Your heart stopped two times, John."

"And so you're making sure it's still beating?" John smiled sadly as Sherlock nodded his head in the affirmative. "Sherlock, I'm so sorry. I just..."

"Don't." Sherlock whispered.

"But Sherlock, I..."

"Please don't... This is my fault. I left you behind. You were shot. Your heart stopped twice. And Greg..." Sherlock brought a hand to his eyes and buried his face in John's chest.

John's breath caught in his throat. "Greg." Silent tears began to stream down his face. "Oh God. Oh..." He closed his eyes tight and laid back against his pillows.

"I thought it was you. I thought you had been killed." Sherlock's voice was tiny and muffled against John. The doctor inhaled sharply, but refrained from commentary. He rested his left hand on Sherlock's shoulder, who shuddered in return. "I found your jacket in a puddle of blood."

"Sherlock..."

"I thought... When they told me it wasn't you, that you'd only been shot, I was relieved. When they showed me Greg's body..." Sherlock sobbed into John's chest. "When I saw with my own eyes, I... was relieved it wasn't you." Mortified, Sherlock started to push himself up and off the bed, but John held him tight by the shoulder. "Later..." his voice wavered. "Here at the hospital, after I found you, when I saw you, is when I really truly realized Greg was gone."

"He was trying to get to me. To help me." John whispered. "I begged him not to, but he wouldn't listen. And... Oh God, Sherlock. It's my fault."

"No, John..."

"It is, Sherlock. He died because he was trying to get to me." John inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. "Mary was my fault; she died trying to protect me. Even you... you left to keep me safe."

"John." A hint of warning found its way into Sherlock's tone. "Don't. Do not do that." Sherlock pushed himself up so he could see John's face.

Eyes downcast, John spread his hands, palms up, in front of him. "I just... I..." He sighed and slumped deeper into the bed. "I don't know. I don't know how to do this. How to keep the people we care about safe. How to keep you safe. How to make this hurt less."

"Perhaps Mycroft was correct after all. Perhaps sentiment is a chemical defect. All lives do end, we both know this to be true. All hearts are broken eventually. Caring is most definitely not an advantage." With brow furled, Sherlock watched as a host of emotions manifested across his best friend's face. "It's become painfully obvious to me that I am not willing to, nor am I capable of, extracting myself from this friendship... this bond of brotherhood, that we share, you and I."

"Never. I will never be able to quit this... to walk away from us." John conceded.

"What options do we have then? Caring for others has caused nothing but pain and suffering. Do we proceed with cautious detachment? Just the two of us against the world?" Fingers steepled under his chin, Sherlock had begun a focused pace back and forth across the small room. "I am at the obvious advantage, in that prior to our acquaintance, I lived my life largely separated from other people. Not to mention the fact that I can easily delete the painful memories and current attachments. The process will be decidedly more difficult for you."

"Are you... Are we discussing cutting ties? With everyone, the only exceptions being one another? God, Sherlock. You can't just... You can't delete people. Would you really delete Greg? The one person who stood by you when you were an addict? Who essentially gave you the open door you needed to build your career? He bloody saved your life! Without him, you would've died just another junkie behind a skip somewhere. You and I would have never met!" Tears were streaming down John's face once more. "What about his girls? Would you really walk away? Never be called Uncle Sherlock again? And Molly. How would that work? Can you delete personal attachment, but leave just enough professional information to demand lab time and access to the morgue from her?"

Exasperated, Sherlock stopped pacing abruptly at John's side. "Then what exactly do you propose? What's your solution John? Because this hurts. I've been physically tortured to the point of near death, and this, losing Greg... this is more painful, more scarring, than that. When Mary died? That was worse than torture. And when I thought you were dead? If the day ever comes that you die before I do John, the coroner will need to be prepared to deal with two corpses, because I will not survive in this world without you. I refuse to even consider it."

Despite his tears, John huffed a laugh. "A bit not good, that. But... Thank you. I understand, more than you know. I barely survived the last time you died. I won't be able to the next time." John reached for his friend's hand. Sherlock acquiesced immediately. "When I saw Greg fall, I ran out to his body even though we were still under fire. I was a military doctor, that's what I was trained to do. But that was my cover... A small part of me actually ran out there hoping they'd kill me too, so I wouldn't have to live with losing my brother for the rest of my life." The doctor and the consulting detective tightened their grip on each other. "I don't know the answer, Sherlock. I don't have a plan. There aren't rules for these sorts of things. I think our only option is to muck through this together."

"Together," Sherlock whispered as he sat on the edge of John's bed, still holding tight to his friend's hand.

"We're going to be fine, Sherlock." John yawned, exhaustion both physical and emotional, finally overtaking him. Sherlock cast a sidelong, skeptical look at him. "We will be. It will be different than the fine we were with Greg here, holding things together. But we will. We'll figure it out."

"Go to sleep, John. I'll be here when you wake." Sherlock watched John as he drifted off and his breathing evened out. Ever so gently, Sherlock resumed his prior position, crammed onto the edge of John's bed, ear pressed to John's chest, needing to hear the beat, the most literal evidence of the heart of the best and wisest man he had ever known.

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