The screams of the men in the Jeep in front of Mary’s just begin to register as her head hits the dash. Next to her, Sergeant Sholto--who’d been in the middle of yet another off-colour joke when the explosion took out the other vehicle--lets out a stream of curses, and Mary looks up to see flames, glowing bright orange in the night. She squints her eyes against the glare, raising her hand to touch her forehead. She’s pretty sure she’s bleeding.
She must have stared at her hand for a good thirty seconds, because suddenly someone is shaking her, shouting, “Morstan, goddammit, get down!”
Mary draws in a shocked breath, suddenly realising that shots are ringing out all around her. She ducks down, fumbling at the strap that holds her gun to her chest.
“I thought this was supposed to be bloody routine!” she shouts, trying to figure out where to shoot when there’s nothing visible to aim for.
From the driver’s seat, Sholto huffs out a half-laugh. “You know how God feels about the plans of mice and men, Morstan.”
They fire into the dark, the only light coming from the fire still going strong in front of them. There are five of them in the vehicle, which provides decent cover, and eventually no shots answer their own. Either all of the insurgents have been shot, or they’ve fled. Probably some of both.
They do a quick head count, and miraculously, they’re all still mostly unharmed; the worst that’s come of this for them has been some whiplash and Mary’s banged-up head. That’s more than can be said for the poor bastards on the road in front of them, though.
“I’m going to go see if anyone’s alive,” she whispers in the sudden silence, reaching for the door handle.
A hand on her arm stops her. “Can’t let you do that. We can’t cover you when we can’t see.”
“And what do you want to do, sir? Wait until it gets light? They’ll all be dead by then.”
“They already are dead. There’s nothing we can do for them.”
“You don’t know that.” The radio crackles, and Mary uses the second-long distraction to bolt out of the vehicle. She hears quiet cursing behind her, but doesn’t stop moving.
She runs the twenty yards to the Jeep in a crouch, weapon at the ready. Her heart feels like it’s pounding up into her throat; she doesn’t know if she’s ever been this afraid before in her life.
The flames in the Jeep have mostly died down, but there’s still enough burning that she can see. Smoke burns her nostrils as she reaches to open the passenger door. When she touches the handle, though, she immediately draws back her hand with a hiss; the metal is scalding to the touch. She pulls off her jacket and tries again with the cloth wrapped around her hand, and manages to wrench the door open with a grunt.
Inside, two blackened and bloody corpses greet her. She lurches backward, gagging at the sight and the accompanying stench of burnt hair and flesh.
Willing herself not to retch, she draws in a few gulps of fresh air as she moves to the back of the Jeep. This door is easier to open, and she steels herself against the smell.
There are only two men here, and the one nearest her is obviously dead. But when she hops into the Jeep to check the other man’s pulse, he groans—he’s alive.
But not conscious, which is definitely a blessing. In the weak, flickering light, Mary can see that the man’s not in good condition—his breathing is labored, and is skin is raw and bloody where’s it’s not flat-out charred. Mary’s heart clenches at the sight, and she hopes to God she can save him.
She maneuvers herself over him somewhat awkwardly, doing her best not to jostle him, and opens the door on his side. She jumps out and waves both arms at the men waiting for her, still not wanting to shout. When one of them gets out and rushes toward her, she begins to pull the injured man from the vehicle as carefully as she can, feet first.
They carry him back to their Jeep slowly, trying to hold him as steady as possible. After all of this, it’d be really fucking stupid for the man to die just because they moved him the wrong way. Though it wasn’t as if they had too much choice; it was move him and risk injuring him more, or leave him to die.
“That was bloody idiotic, Morstan. Hurry up and get him in here so I can kill you for that stunt.”
Mary grins over her shoulder at the sergeant as she lifts the injured man’s feet into the vehicle; the other soldier has gone in backwards, pulling the man’s shoulders in, and Mary is the only one outside the vehicle, now. Now that she’s back to the safety of the vehicle, the adrenaline rushing through her veins is starting to wear off.
“Let’s just get to the nearest medical base, sir—he needs it. And in our rush, you’ll probably just up and forget all about any disciplinary action that might—“ She breaks off with a shout as her arm is jerked forward with the force of a shot that she hadn’t anticipated in the slightest. Not quite so safe yet, after all.
In a flash, they’re returning fire and she’s jumping into the front of the vehicle so she doesn’t get her head blown off too.
“How bad is it?” Sholto asks as he throws the Jeep into reverse and gets them the hell out of there.
“Just my arm,” Mary says, gritting her teeth.
“Well, wrap it up tight, or ‘just’ your arm will turn into ‘just’ death by loss of blood. It’s a long way from here to a surgery.”
Mary grimaces and does as told, even though the extra pressure hurts like hell. Then she holds on tight as they fly through the night, trying to outrun death.
It’s morning before the surgery to take the bullet from her arm is through, and bright sunlight streams through the window of the recovery room. Several nurses have been by, looking at machines Mary doesn’t know the exact uses of, and adjusting her morphine. Or at least she assumes it’s morphine, because she’s feeling good.
A doctor is standing by the end of her bed, looking at her chart. He looks tired, and Mary wonders if he’s the one who operated on her.
“Doctor—“ she pauses, coughing, and the doctor moves to a table nearby. He hands her a glass of water, and she drinks.
“It’s the anaesthesia that’s made your throat feel so dry. How’s your pain?”
“Pain? What pain?”
The doctor laughs, and she laughs with him for a moment, until she remembers what she’d meant to ask.
“The man who came in with me. Is he okay?”
The doctor’s face grows serious, and Mary’s heart sinks. “I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”
Mary looks down at her hands, one of which is fitted with an IV. “Then what I did was for nothing.”
A warm hand covers her own. “What you did was extraordinarily brave.”
She smiles a little sadly. “My dad always does say brave is just a synonym for stupid.”
His hand squeezes hers, and she looks up into surprisingly sympathetic eyes. The two of them stay that way for a moment, until the doctor clears his throat and moves back to her chart, which is still clipped to the end of her bed. Mary smiles, wondering if he knows that his ears turn red when he’s embarrassed.
“Either way, you were pretty lucky. There was no major damage done, and it looks like you’ll be able to return to active duty in a matter of weeks, though we’ll be able to be sure of that in a week or so.”
“Will I be staying here?”
The doctor nods. “As long as there are no complications, you’ll heal up well enough. We’re actually meant to take in soldiers who need to heal. It was just a coincidence that we were closest to you, instead of an emergency facility.”
Mary smiles. “Lucky me.”
He smiles back, holding her gaze for a moment, then turns to leave.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m John. John Watson.”
Mary leans back against her pillows and sighs contentedly, the drowsiness from the medication weighing her down pleasantly. Doctor John Watson, she thinks. Maybe getting shot wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Later that day, she’s moved to a small room in another building, where she’ll stay until she’s either invalided home or recovered enough to get back to work. It’s sparsely furnished and the view from the window is crap, but it has four solid walls, and that makes it practically luxuriant after what she’s gotten used to.
Sholto had left her personal belongings, and though there’s not much, Mary’s grateful they hadn’t been in the other Jeep. She spends her first night resting, and falls asleep looking at a picture she’d taken with her family before she’d left for Afghanistan. Everyone’s smiling happily at the camera, and she can’t help but think that she looks so young in the photo.
The next few days she spends wandering around the base, making sure to be back at her room at certain times to have her bandages changed or to take her pain medication. There isn’t really much to see; there’s a large mess hall attached to the surgery building—which also houses all of the offices and medical supplies—and an outside theatre, in addition to the barracks and a garage.
There are plenty of other soldiers on the mend here, and Mary spends some time with them, playing chess and talking about how strange it is to suddenly have nothing to do but heal. Mostly, though, she stays to herself, reading or doing crossword puzzles, and relishing the chance of some privacy.
She sees Doctor Watson on occasion, but he’s usually rushing from one place to another, or talking with his colleagues. She doesn’t catch him alone until she goes for a late lunch, and finds him nodding off over a ham sandwich in the nearly-empty mess hall.
She takes a seat across the table from him, and he starts. “Late night?”
He scrubs a hand over his face. “Mm, yeah, but nothing too exciting, I’m afraid. End of the month, time to catch up on paperwork.”
She laughs at the sour look on his face. “Not much of an office man, are you?”
He grins sheepishly. “No, I can’t say I am.”
They eat in silence for a moment, then Mary asks, “So, have you seen any action, then, or do they keep you cooped up here?”
To her surprise, John nods. “On and off. I’ve only been here for about a year. Before that, I was moved around a bit, but I served as an emergency medic for a while. I miss it sometimes.”
“The only people I’ve ever known to want more action have been the ones who haven’t actually seen any.”
John looks abashed. “Honestly, being in the midst of everything should have been terrible. And parts of it were, don’t get me wrong. Seeing men die, not being able to save them…but to tell the truth, a part of me felt more alive, more myself when I was there than I ever have.”
She considers him silently for a second, and he breaks eye contact. “I’ve said too much.”
“No. It’s just…you’re an interesting man, John Watson.”
“Still. I hardly know you, and here I am—“
She cuts him off, reaching across the table to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Well, we’ll just have to change that, won’t we?”
He smiles warmly. “Yes, I suppose we will.”
They take to having lunch together when John’s free, which is surprisingly often. Generally, the people who come to this base aren’t rushed in like Mary was; they’re simply transferred there for long-term care. At least, as long-term as it gets when you’re in the Army—too damaged and they invalid you home. Mary had almost expected that to be her case, despite John’s initial assurances, and when they’d told her a few days ago that she was clear to stay there to recover and then return to active service, she’d been surprised to feel a twinge of disappointment amidst the relief.
It’s not that she doesn’t miss home, doesn’t miss her family; the occasional letter or phone call from them brightens her day just as much as it would the next soldier. But she’d gotten over the initial bout of homesickness in her first month and had actually begun to enjoy herself. She doesn’t feel the same weariness that she sees in the men around her: she serves a purpose here, and she’s good at what she does. She has no reason to want to go home.
All the same, the disappointment had been there, if only briefly. She’s thought more about home in the past two weeks than in almost her entire tour so far. She isn’t sure if that means the break has been good for her or not.
During one of her lunches with John—on a day whose monotony had so far only been broken by a visit by Vicky, the nurse who checks on her the most often, bearing pain meds and tidbits of gossip from about the base (much of which, Vicky was delighted to point out, revolved around Mary and John)—he asks her about home.
“Most soldiers I know would have been delighted to have a ready-made excuse to go back home. You just seem eager to get back out there.” From anyone else, it might seem like an accusation. John just seems curious, in that patient way of his.
Mary shrugs. “It’s not that I don’t want to go home, really; I’d just rather be here. I signed up to do this, and I want to see it through.”
“The problem isn’t your family, then?”
“Nah, I’ve got nothing to run away from. They’re good people.” She spears a questionable-looking piece of beef, then asks, “How about you? Got family waiting for you back home?”
John shakes his head. “Just a sister. Our parents died a while back, and we haven’t been close since. When I told her I was enlisting, I might as well have been telling a stranger.”
“I can’t imagine that. Back home, family is everything. I’m the youngest of four—two sisters and a brother—and if they’d been anything less than completely supportive, my dad would have had their backsides.”
“He was proud of your decision to enlist, I take it?”
Mary smiles. “Eventually. When I announced my decision, he and I had a row that lasted three weeks. He tried everything to get me to change my mind—tried to forbid me, tried to pretend they’d stop giving me support, like I’d ever believe that, tried giving me the silent treatment. At one point he even tried telling me that the Army was no place for a young woman, ‘til I laughed in his face.”
John laughs at that, and Mary decides that his laugh lines are his best feature. “Yeah, somehow I can’t see you responding too well to that. Probably just made you more stubborn about it, I’d imagine.”
Mary grins. “Well, I didn’t think he believed that for a second; he was just getting desperate at that point. He should have seen it coming all along, really. I was always Daddy’s little girl, following in his footsteps as much as I could.” Once, when she was six, Mary had drawn a moustache just like her father’s on herself, in permanent marker. The look on her mother’s face when she’d seen it was one of Mary’s fondest memories. “He was a Major in his time, and he was always telling stories about what he and his army buddies would get up to. I wanted to be a hero just like him.
“Of course, he told me that it wasn’t going to be like the stories, that war was hard and could suck the life right out of a man. It was when I asked him if he truly thought I wasn’t up to it that he caved. Told me that I was a stubborn git, and I told him that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. After that, I couldn’t get him to quit bragging to his friends about me, though I could tell he was still worried.”
“Guess he was right to worry, wasn’t he?” John gestures to her bandaged arm with a grin, and Mary rolls her eyes.
“And he’ll never let me forget about it, I’m sure.”
“Sounds like you love him a lot.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
Mary had always fallen for men like her father: strong of will, charismatic, sometimes a bit overbearing. Sometimes a lot overbearing, which had ended more than one relationship. She is her father’s daughter, which means she’s not about to let anyone push her around. Especially when it’s because the bloke thinks that his decisions are what’s best for her—she can decide that on her own perfectly well, thank you very much.
But John isn’t like that. He’s quiet and unassuming, with a quick wit and a sarcastic sort of humour that has her laughing more than she’s done in a long time. She finds herself asking around about him when he’s in surgery or otherwise occupied, and he tends to be her chosen topic of conversation. She can’t help it; John’s far more interesting to her than most of the people she’s met here, and a hell of a lot cuter.
Eventually, Vicky’s had enough. Mary had caught her during a short break from the evening shift, and as happened more often than not, the conversation had come around to John.
“Would you just ask him out already? Christ! If I hear one more time about how dreamy Dr. Watson’s eyes are, I might hurl.”
Despite herself, Mary feels her face heat. “I never said a word about his eyes, and besides, where’d I ask him to? We’re in the middle of a bloody war zone, there’s nowhere to go!”
Vicky rolls her eyes and lights up a cigarette. “You know what I mean. Go with him to the Thursday night film they show in the mess, or something. Anything! If I didn’t have Andy back home, I’d be desperate to get a leg over.”
“What, and you can’t live vicariously through someone else? I won’t believe that he’s been celibate the whole time he’s been here.” Not only is John not the type, but Vicky’s hardly the only woman whom Mary’s caught eyeing John. She won’t admit the twinge of jealousy that makes her feel, not for the world.
“Hardly. The man’s a sucker for a pretty face—he’s slept with at least a third of the eligible nurses here. They’re just not nearly as talkative as they should be, is the problem.”
“And what makes you think I’m the type to kiss and tell, then?”
Vicky points her cigarette at Mary’s arm. “I control your pain medication, you have to talk to me.”
Mary glares. “He’s just running out of options, then, so I’m sure to have a chance? Not exactly a self-esteem booster, that.”
“Oh, don’t pout, it doesn’t look good on you. John Watson has spent more time with you alone than with any of them combined.”
Mary must look pleased, because as Vicky rises, her eyes roll again. “You look like a lovestruck school-girl, Mary. Ask the man out, or I’ll do it for you. It’s not like you’ve got forever, you know; you’ll be healed up and out of here soon enough.”
And with that, she stubs out her cigarette and goes back to work, leaving Mary alone with nothing to do but page through the not-so-mysterious mystery novel she’s reading, and think about John Watson.
The date goes well. The film’s no good, and the dinner beforehand is standard Army fare, which means that it’s also no good. But they have a good time, John whispering dry comments about the film while Mary shushes him loudly, giggling at the glares they get from all sides.
After the film, they walk slowly, hand in hand, chatting. Mary can’t remember the last time she’d had this much fun, been this content. A tension that she hadn’t even known was there has unwound, leaving her feeling light and happy.
They reach the barracks, which are divided between men and women. John stops, turning to her.
“I think this is about the time I get to give you a kiss goodnight.”
Mary grins, tugging on John’s collar to pull him down into a kiss, long and passionate. When he pulls back, panting, she says, a bit out of breath herself, “Or, it’s when you invite me in.”
He swallows. “Yeah. Yeah, I think—yeah, that could be it too.”
Mary laughs, and John grins a bit devilishly in return.
He invites her in.
Over the next couple of weeks, they settle into something of a routine; they continue their lunches, and several times a week they have dinner, too. Mary spends almost as much time in John’s bed as in her own.
When she’s not with John, though, Mary’s itching to get back to her duty. There’s really nothing to do here, and all of this leisure time is really beginning to get on her nerves.
Of course, there’s the part of her that doesn’t want to go, that wishes she wouldn’t heal quite so quickly. That part’s more than a bit besotted with John, and with good reason; he’s handsome, charming, good at his job, and he cares about people. Simply put, he’s a catch.
She tells him as much one day, over a lunch of what the Army tries to pass off as goulash, and he laughs.
“Well, I’m certainly glad you think so.”
“No, really. I’m surprised you haven’t been snatched up by one of the many nurses my good friend Vicky’s told me about,” she says, grinning.
John grins back, and leans over the table to take her hand. “Maybe I was just waiting for the right woman.”
“Mm, aren’t you just the charmer.”
“That’s me; if you don’t watch out, I might just charm the pants right off of you.”
Mary smirks. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
One night as she’s lying sweaty and sated next to a dozing John, Mary’s mind wanders, eventually coming to rest on the sort of thoughts she knows are almost inevitable for any soldier: thoughts of the changes that being a soldier have wrought, thoughts of going home a different person.
The thing is, she’s really under no illusions as to what will happen between her and John when she leaves—this won’t continue any further than it has, because wartime romance just doesn’t happen in real life. Or at least, it doesn’t go on when it’s time to go back to real life. The Army is a whole separate reality, it feels like.
And she’d known, going into it, that joining the Army would change her—and she doesn’t regret it—but she’d never really understood just how much it would become a part of her life, a part of who she is. She’s done well here, but when she finally goes home, who will she be? Will she be the carefree young girl who’d left home without a second thought, or the woman who’s seen death and narrowly escaped it herself? How will she separate the two? She knows that she’s not going to come home from the war with a partner, but will she ever be able to go back, build a family, build a life with someone who’s never seen action—never known what it’s like to fear for your life, to be too scared to move but to have to because your men’s lives, your friends’ lives, depend on it?
John sighs, reaching over to her, and settles close, breaking into her thoughts. She smiles, and runs her hand over his close-cropped blond hair. The future might be uncertain, but this, at least, is good. John has been good for her.
She wonders how he’ll cope with going home when his tour’s up—somehow she thinks he’ll have more of a rough time of it than she will, despite the fact that he’ll have a medical career to fall back on. But he’s alone back home; at least Mary’s got her family. And John seems to be in his element here. She is, too, to an extent, but John’s different; it’s not what he’s doing, she doesn’t think, but how it happens. She recalls what he’d said during the first real conversation they’d had, that seeing action made him feel alive—and she’s seen it in him when the call comes in that there are more wounded on their way in; his eyes brighten, just a bit. He likes saving people, she knows, which is why he’s a doctor. But she wonders if maybe it’s the rush that he’s really fond of.
Either way, going back to civilian life won’t be easy on either of them. She supposes it’s never easy, unless you’re career military—then you never have to leave. Mary doesn’t want that, but she’s still not sure of what she does want.
She sighs sleepily, and moves closer to John. Until she figures it out, this is more than enough for her.
Too soon, yet in some ways hardly soon enough, it’s time for Mary to be cleared to return to service—her arm is all healed up, and all that’s left is the official stuff. John does the exam himself.
“Fit as a fiddle,” he declares, his smile tinged with a bit of sadness.
Mary reaches up from the exam table and pulls him into a quick kiss. “Thank you, John,” she says, taking his hand. “This has been…wonderful.”
If they’d met some other time, or in some other place, she and John could have had something good. They have had something good, but now it’s time to go, and Mary has no regrets; she’ll miss John, but he’s not what she came here for.
It’s time to get back to work.