I'm a path of cinders
Burning under your feet
Landspítali Islands – The National University Hospital of Iceland, Reykjavik
"He's stable, but his circulation still requires some support. No respirator – he's been breathing fine on his own with just supplemental oxygen." The ITU doctor's English has a strong Icelandic accent, and he's sporting a rehearsed smile which Sherlock finds macabre.
Why is he smiling? John is ill.
Smiles are not reassuring, nor are they useful. Pointless social placation for idiots. Smiles can be used to hide uncomfortable truths and to cushion a crushing reveal.
Sherlock's heartbeat is drumming against the bony halls of his skull, and he feels like a trapdoor is about to be sprung underneath him. His whole being is waiting for more information, for a sentence starting with 'however'.
However, he's dying. However, he has irreparable brain damage. However, he will never wake up. However, he will never come home. However, you've lost him, haven't you, you bloody selfish idiot.
The however never comes. At least Sherlock doesn't think so. In his current state, words might not even pierce through the haze of panic that's clouding his judgement.
"He's quite delirious, though," the doctor warns Mycroft more than him. He must be addressing the man because Sherlock's panic and confusion must be bleeding out and cracking his facade that was never so carefully constructed and impenetrable as he would have wanted to believe. When it comes to John, it appears it's like spun glass.
He wants to kick his brother for projecting such fiscal calm.
Sherlock flinches when his own name registers in his ears. He manages to blink back into his surroundings, swivels his head around and soon becomes face to face with Mycroft who is sitting right by his side in an identical, worn, wooden chair.
"Were you listening?" his brother asks. His usual, exasperated tone is not being employed – this one is a rare variety, one that is openly bleeding concern. Sherlock shakes his head slightly to try to keep the synaesthesia at bay, lest everything gain a tint of cerise. This is what happens to him when he can't keep his cool: senses threaten to swirl together into an overwhelming maelstrom of cerebral noise. He focuses on the hospital's faint, ambient smell of antiseptic and that seems to help.
Even Mycroft has been genuinely concerned about John, then. Interesting. Sherlock wonders which one the man worries about more right now, John or him – he has always thought Sherlock quite brittle when it comes to crises. Mycroft always, always underestimates people.
Then again, he may be overestimating Sherlock's ability to function right now.
The doctor is watching him, probably trying to gauge the meaning of Mycroft's question. His smile has waned, and he's now regarding Sherlock with the confusion of someone trying to decide what sort of language to use, how much to simplify things. It's an expression Sherlock hates – he's seen it plenty of times, in his youth, usually when people have been informed of certain diagnoses he had been given at an early age. John has never cared about any of that, assuming he even knows about them.
"As I said, he's relatively stable," the doctor finally tells them both.
"Stable?" Sherlock repeats, because he'd been distracted by the man's facial antics. The fear that gnaws at his guts like a persistent rodent must be still lowering his IQ at least by thirty points. Hateful.
"The laparotomy went well. The gastric surgeon repaired the small traumatic lesion in his descending colon and irrigated the abdominal cavity. Extended-spectrum antibiotics seem to be kicking in quite well already. He's young and healthy, which makes his prognosis good."
The words sound like gibberish to Sherlock, and he's compelled to ask if John is alright. Usually, he has no trouble understanding medical jargon, but his brain feels like damp cotton.
"You must excuse my brother; he's had a taxing few days," Mycroft tells the doctor dryly.
Sherlock wants to shove him into the nearest garbage chute for making such excuses.
He also wants the doctor to redo all the tests on John, maybe order a brain scan or two just to be on the safe side. Have they made sure they've found everything that's wrong with John? Are these good doctors? Couldn't Mycroft find some that are even better? Couldn't he have them flown in from somewhere?
Stable. That's good, isn't it? It has to be. "He's going to be alright?" he directs his words to the doctor and sounds more pleading that is dignified. He needs more data, he needs reassurance, he needs promises, and he knows it's a pipe dream in an uncertain, unfair universe, but---
"Well," the doctor vacillates, "Complications are possible, but I'd say it is most likely he'll pull through just fine once the septic shock settles."
'He'll pull through.' That translates to not dying right now. That's something. That's definitely something. Can he trust these doctors? Has Mycroft done a background check?
"How long?" Sherlock then asks and wants to bite his tongue for uttering such an unprecise, lazily formulated thing. He blinks, trying to ground himself with sensory information he alone controls. He isn't quite sure what he intended to ask, but it must've been important.
"How long what?" the doctor asks.
Next to him, Mycroft shifts in his seat. "What my brother is likely attempting to inquire is, how long until Dr Watson can be discharged or transported back to Britain?"
Mycroft always pronounces Britain with humble reverence like it's the most glorious thing on the planet. His patriotism, to Sherlock, has always appeared to be one of the rare genuine things about the man. Everything else is a carefully constructed theatrical performance; his whole life steered as though he's always managing an intelligence operation.
"Assuming no complications develop, he likely needs to be kept under observation for approximately a week. He could be transported by Medevac after a few days, provided that a hospital bed awaits him at the London end."
The doctor had probably told Sherlock about the likely duration of the full recuperation period, but he'd been too wrapped up in his own head to hear it. Embarrassing. "Three days. Then medical flight home. Not to a hospital. Home," Sherlock demands, and the doctor's eyebrows go up.
Mycroft's face, at first headed for a frown, sets into something resembling realisation. "While home nursing staff and all the necessary equipment can be arranged--"
Sherlock shoots him a dirty glance, sensing there will be a stern no arriving at the station of Mycroft's train of thought by the end of that sentence. "There will be no nurses. I'm going to look after him."
The doctor looks disinterested. Any conversation regarding what happens to his patient in London later hardly concerns him, so he's probably wanting to get onto looking after other patients now that the acute matter is settled.
Mycroft, however, is anything but done with the topic. He looks both curious and alarmed as he studies Sherlock's expression. He must be trying to work out what has prompted this insistence on taking on such an uncharacteristic duty.
Sherlock hardly knows himself why letting no one else sort this out feels so important. Shouldn't John enjoy all the best modern medicine has to offer? Why does he suddenly want to shove John into a box and hide him under the bed?
Looking at Mycroft, Sherlock suspects that a scolding reminiscent of their childhood is about to be delivered. He's half-tempted to stick out his tongue but knows that it would most likely not be conducive to the swift conclusion of the discussion.
"You have no medical training, not to mention that you're not exactly---" Mycroft suddenly pauses as though he was about to say something insulting. It's rare for Mycroft to pull his punches. It must mean he's read something on Sherlock's face indicating a mental state more fragile than usual.
"We survived out there just fine," Sherlock says pointedly, wanting to dissipate suspicions that he may not have been listening, "I doubt looking after an IV for fluids, pain medications and antibiotics requires much training."
"You're not a doctor. You won't know what to monitor." Mycroft argues condescendingly.
"I'm not, but he is," Sherlock barks at him.
Dr Jakobsson has probably picked up on the disbelief in Mycroft's tone because he perks up as well. "Dr Watson will not be able to do much beyond resting for weeks. He'll need assistance with meals, moving around---"
Sherlock flicks a dismissive hand at the doctor, not even looking at him. "Obvious. He's been ill before, and we've been fine."
"This is not the flu," Mycroft scoffs.
Sherlock knows he should argue, should make his case, but in the end, he opts for silence, merely knitting his lips tightly together and attempting to stare the other two current occupants of the room down.
Mycroft takes on the challenge for a minute, then rolls his eyes and performs an exasperated exhalation. "Let's postpone this discussion until we actually get to that point. May we see him now?"
Sherlock wants to slap himself when realisation dawns: that's what he had wanted to ask – how long until he can see John?
"I'll call the ward and find out what the situation is," Doctor Jakobsson promises. He digs out a phone and makes the call. Sherlock can only decipher a few words through his knowledge of Norwegian – Icelandic is rather far from both that and Danish, even though there are grammatical similarities and some words are almost the same.
"He has woken up from anaesthesia, but he's still tired and confused. You can see him, but we'll have to keep it brief," the doctor promises.
He's about to be reunited with John. Now that it's finally happening, why does the thought of doing what Sherlock has wanted the most, ever since they got separated out there, fill him with such dread?
Mycroft's glance sweeps him from top to bottom, takes in his bird's nest of tangled hair, the shadows of sleep deprivation and the sleeve of a brown, damp hospital pyjama sticking out from his coat. It hardly matters what his brother thinks of his personal grooming right now.
"Are you sure you want to do this right now?" Mycroft asks austerely.
Sherlock wants to scream. Why must he bicker with these idiots, when he needs to go to John?
Then again, it doesn't matter what he wants right now – the only important thing is that he tries to fix this, tries to repair what he has wrecked, if that's even possible. John hadn't needed Sherlock to survive in Afghanistan, but there he'd had his trained comrades by his side. Here, in the land neither of them had planned on travelling to, he had had no one else to rely on besides Sherlock.
He needs to survey the damage, no matter how much it hurts. He has let sentiment creep into his life disguised in jumpers and tea and shared smiles in the dark after cases, and this is the result.
"Follow me," Doctor Jakobsson says, and they trail behind the man through several sets of doors.
Sherlock is vaguely aware that he should probably be registering the route in case he needs to return this way, but his thoughts feel as though they've been scattered in the wind, and nothing he might try to memorise right now would probably stick.
'Gjörgæsludeildir – Intensive Care Unit' is what a sign above a pair of sliding doors says.
Suddenly, it sinks in where exactly they're going.
Just as they're about to walk through, Sherlock makes a U-turn with the smoothness of trying to lose someone tailing him and disappears into a restroom in the corridor.
He stands in front of the mirror, taking in the visage of himself.
His hair is a mess, his hands full of stinging scrapes since clambering over the sharp rocks of the lava fields known as hrauns in Icelandic had made him stumble numerous times. His shoes are wet and ruined, but thankfully they had been placed next to his trolley at the other hospital, so he's wearing them. His toes feel macerated – sore yet numb from what is probably frostbite. His trousers and shirt had been rain-soaked and ruined, so in their stead, he's wearing the almost formless, and thus rather ill-fitting, ugly, brown hospital pyjama under his Belstaff coat. He's also sporting a pair of heelless tube socks ubiquitous in many a public hospital.
The cold that seemed to have seeped into his very bones is gone, but it has left in its wake an enervated exhaustion. He's still shivering, as though his inner thermostat has gone utterly mad. It's warm in the hospital, but he doesn't want to give up the shield of his coat.
He'd had a space blanket in the hospital. The sound it had made when he moved around it in had made him feel as though someone was shoving an ice pick into his eardrum. Somehow, it had reminded of John popping bubble wrap at home. It drives Sherlock absolutely crazy because he never knows when the next horrid pop will come. He should have explained it to John how much it bothers him, but sometimes he lets the man have his innocent fun since he allows Sherlock much graver crimes in the context of flatmateship.
There are many things he ought to have said out loud. Why has he wasted so much time being silent in the flat when he could have been talking to John?
There's dirt under his cuticles. He needs to look presentable, or John might worry, and that won't be good for him. Not in his state. He rinses his hands under the tap – the water smells very mildly of sulphur – curious – and attempts to coax soap out of the wall dispenser without success. It isn't empty, but there isn't a lever to operate it in sight, and if it has a movement detector then he has no idea how to activate it.
The universe is now mocking him in the form of a plastic soap dispenser.
He slams his palm on the offending contraption to no avail. He takes a fist to it. He may have also yelled some select expletives. Still no soap.
Mycroft slips into the restroom, all composed empathy and unconcealed worry and carrying the bag containing the clothes he'd brought for Sherlock. Of course the man had been sensible enough to bring some from home. Mycroft is always useful in a crisis. He relishes them.
Well, perhaps not this one.
"Why are you having a row with a soap dispenser?" Mycroft asks, raising his brows as he takes in the scene. He puts down his briefcase on the floor. It's an expensive leather one – a bag the likes of which he wouldn't usually be willing to put down anywhere in a public restroom.
Sherlock doesn't reply. He leans on the sink, chest heaving. He lets his head droop down, dirty curls cascading over his eyes to hide the sting of saltwater pooling into the corners of his eyes.
He doesn't remember any details of what the doctor had said anymore. He isn't even sure if they had been conversing in English, or whether Mycroft had used his flight time from London City to Reykjavik to supplement his passable Norwegian with whatever extra letters and grammar would turn it into Icelandic?
He should have been better prepared for the possibility of ending up in this country. He chastises himself for not learning Icelandic. Then again; would that have allowed him to formulate an escape plan earlier, one that would have spared John from all this? Perhaps not, because a sheep farmer had told him – a sheep farmer he'd met in the middle of the wilderness who had helped him – that here everyone speaks English. There's a historical reason for it, US army barracks in Keflavik, shut down in the early 2000s----
"Sherlock? You're not listening, are you?"
Sherlock looks down. "I can't go see him wearing this." He then laughs. Nothing is funny but he laughs, and that sound ricochets around the bleakly blue-grey tiling of the restroom and gets louder than feels comfortable. He realises he has a headache, but that's only fair. John must be feeling far worse.
Mycroft joins him by the row of sinks and passes him his clothes. Sherlock stands clueless, holding the bag of garments. Judging by the feeling of a hard edge against his knee, it probably also contains dry shoes.
"You are admittedly of substantial intellect, but you do so lack common sense. He'll not care about your attire at this point, although I agree that it might not be a good idea to bring all that mud in your shoes into an intensive care unit. He'll care about seeing you if he's in a state fit to even realise you're present."
Sherlock has science, and he has John, why would he need common sense?
He manages to change clothes, after which Mycroft intervenes and redoes three of his dress shirt buttons since he had apparently skipped one on the left side and his collar has ended up all crooked because of it.
"He's going to be fine," Mycroft says tentatively, as though sounding the phrase out. It's an empty consolation since Mycroft is not in a position to offer such promises.
Sherlock runs a shaky hand through his curls, trying to get them away from his face. His legs don't seem to be willing to propel him away from the mirror.
Mycroft regards him with pity, his face looking rather jet-lagged. The flight from London to Reykjavik is not long, but he must not have had much sleep since Sherlock's whereabouts had become unknown. "We need to put you in a bed. They must have told you repeatedly at the A&E you absconded from that you're exhausted and dehydrated. You need rest. You can barely stand."
Sherlock's head snaps around to glare at him. "Not until I've----"
Mycroft nods. "Of course. Not until you've seen him. Do you need a moment alone before we go in?"
Sherlock shakes his head fervently but still doesn't make a move towards the door.
The worst edge of the panic is receding, and he now feels similar to when the last bits of post-case adrenaline begin to dissipate. Usually this state would devolve to him becoming first ravenous and then sleepy, and John would then lead him to bed after making sure he'd filled his stomach with takeout.
John has been there for him so long now that he suddenly realises he doesn't remember how to do those things on his own – how to fulfil the stupid needs of the transport without being mollycoddled just a little. He should feel pathetic over that, really, but John does not do these things because Sherlock can't, he does them because he wants to and because that is how the world is supposed to work when everything is fine.
It's not fine, now, because John could have died and Sherlock feels cast adrift even by the theoretical possibility.
He doesn't know what to say to John. He tells Mycroft as much, fingers still curled around the edge of the sink like a lifeline. He never tells Mycroft these things, because Lord knows what the man will do with such knowledge of his weaknesses. Mycroft could easily be mean at this point, remind him that this is what it's like for everybody else when Sherlock keeps almost getting himself killed. He could point that out, relish the sweet nectar of giving Sherlock a taste of his own medicine, but he doesn't.
This is one of the reasons he has not banished Mycroft from his life: when push comes to shove, his brother can be reasonable and is capable of containing the told-you-sos that must be threatening to break out of his brain like the contents of a well-beaten pinata. That, and he fixes things when they get broken.
Mycroft can't fix this.
He places his palm on Sherlock's shoulder, fixing Sherlock's gaze with his own. The contact is grounding. It's bearable. His brother is one of the only people allowed to touch Sherlock, and he only does it under exceptional circumstances.
"John Watson is stable, but still fighting off the remains of septic shock. There's nothing you can do at this point except hover and worry, neither of which is going to do him much good. We are going to see him briefly, and then you and I are going to take a taxi to an acceptable hotel. You are going to eat, you are going to sleep, and in the morning, we'll come back. Is that understood?"
Mycroft's fingers curl into Sherlock's stiff shoulder muscles. If he doesn't reply, there will be a slight shake performed soon, and his brain feels scrambled enough already.
"Yes," Sherlock croaks with a hoarse voice, swallowing down unshed tears.
When they reach the doors of the intensive care unit, he still tastes salt water and fear.