John’s voice scarcely registered in Sherlock’s ears before weight slammed into his back, knocking him off of his feet. Under most circumstances, he could have tucked and rolled even under the impact of John’s body (and it was John’s body, he recognized those jumper-clad arms wrapping around his waist even as he fell). But the crowd was so thick, and the tackle so sudden, Sherlock couldn’t keep himself from crashing into two other people. They all tumbled together in a tangle of arms and legs. His breath left his lungs in a pained whoosh as he landed face-down on the pavement. Weight crushed him, and his ears rang. Noises crashed over him, further stunning his senses as his brain tried to make sense of what was happening. A rumble. A hideously loud crunching noise that shook the ground. A scream.
Not just a scream, he realized as he struggled to draw in a breath. Screams. Lots of them.
Weight rolled off of him, and warm hands gripped his shoulders, gently tugging him upright. John’s face hovered inches from his own. “Sherlock. You okay?”
There was something strange about John’s voice, something faint but audible to his ears despite the ongoing screaming, something that sent a warning twinge up Sherlock’s spine. “Fine,” he rasped as he tried to identify what it was. “I’m fine.”
“Good.” And John was gone, sprinting away between one startled blink and the next.
Stunned, Sherlock watched him go, his eyes taking in everything, his mind automatically sorting what he saw into understanding.
What had been a busy London market moments before (very busy, a perfect target for the extortion ring we’ve been tracking) was a scene of utter chaos. At first glance, there were bodies everywhere. People screaming and crying and moaning, and more ominously, lying still. There were also bits of shattered glass, and fragments of wood and other debris, and black rubber streaks on the ground. Seeing the twisted mass of metal smashed halfway through a shop window only confirmed what he’d already deduced.
Delivery van, out of control from the skid marks left by the tyres, driver impaired or incapacitated.
(or was this deliberate? An escalation of the extortionists? A very grave escalation, well out of the range so far, not likely but possible)
Van careened through the crowd, driving through almost exactly where we’d been standing.
(60% chance either John or I or both would have been casualties if John hadn’t seen it coming and gotten us out of its path, what did John notice that I didn’t?)
The vehicle continued on in direct line…
(no signs of acceleration, van must have been travelling at least 80 KPH for momentum to carry it so far, how had the driver managed to build up that much speed in this area?)
…until it embedded itself in that shop window. Given modern safety devices and vehicular construction, the impact should not have killed the driver, if the driver was alive in the first place and this wasn’t caused by a heart attack or other medical event…he should still be alive to answer questions.
His thoughts steadied on that idea, and he shook off the last of the effects of his fall. He rose to his feet and started looking around the market. John could help him with the driver. John –
He froze as his eyes fastened on his friend. Despite the continuing bedlam, John was easy to pick out. He moved smoothly and confidently from person to person, and everywhere he went, he left a little oasis of order in his wake. He hardly seemed to pause, his analysis of each casualty accomplished in heartbeats, and then his hands moved, lightly touching a shoulder, or gently cupping a chin to turn a face into the light, or putting pressure on a bleeding wound. Then his head came up, his gaze levelled on a nearby onlooker, and somehow in the next few moments, that person was next to the casualty, doing whatever it was John had demonstrated for them to do, and John himself was hurrying on to the next person, the next wound, the next need. He moved confidently in a stride that wasn’t a walk but wasn’t quite a run, a serious but approachable look on his face, and everywhere he went, some of his calm confidence remained behind.
Sherlock found himself halfway to John before he realized he was walking, irresistibly drawn to this quietly authoritative and utterly confident stranger in the familiar woolly jumper. He’d almost become accustomed to John surprising him at random intervals – he never could seem to define John’s limits – but this was well beyond the usual. In the time they’d lived together, he’d seen Cranky John and Happy John and Stressed John and Ex-Soldier John and Giddy-With-Adrenaline-And-Too-Little-Sleep John and a hundred other versions of the man. But they were all still his John, easily recognizable as the man he knew.
He’d never met this John Watson before.
An older woman (mid to late sixties, limited income, careful with her money, arthritis in right knee and hip, never married, two cats, one ginger, one black) reached John first. “Doctor,” she said calmly, and then added, “Sir.”
John turned his head to look at her with that same expression of serene competence, and not a hint of surprise. “Do you need help?”
“No, sir, but I was a Sister in the QAs.* I can evaluate the lesser casualties, or I can assist you as needed until the aid cars arrive.” The woman spoke rapidly, but exhibited the same kind of focused calm that suffused John’s features.
John gave the woman a pleased smile of a sort Sherlock hadn’t seen before. “Thank you, Sister…?”
“…Sister Edith. If you would assist the walking wounded to a centralized location and keep them organized, that will help expedite treatment. I’ll call for you if I need expert assistance.”
“Yes, Doctor.” Sister Edith nodded briskly and walked away, using a similar rapid but unpanicked stride. Interestingly, there was no sign of her arthritis in her gait as she went, just cool purpose.
The whole exchange had taken less than twenty seconds. John started to turn towards the next casualty just as Sherlock reached his side. “John?” he asked, hearing his voice come out rather more breathless and higher than he’d intended.
John’s eyes flicked over him, taking in everything about him that he needed to know in a single glance. Sherlock shivered involuntarily. I wonder if that’s what other people feel like when I look at them, a small part of his mind whispered.
“Sherlock, what is it? I’m needed.”
“I know. How can I help?” It wasn’t at all what he had intended to say when he rose from the pavement in search of his friend, but it was somehow the only thing he could say. The John Watson he knew was an open book, full of complexities and contradictions but fairly easy to read for all that. This John Watson was utterly opaque and completely focused. He was unreadable, because there was nothing to him except professional concern.
“Come with me.” John moved swiftly to a young man lying on the street. He moaned faintly as they approached. One leg was twisted and bent at an impossible angle, and blood puddled underneath it, soaking through his black denims. Teenager, earbuds kept him from hearing the commotion until it was too late to get out of the way, excessive bleeding from compound fracture of both bones in his lower leg.
“Can you hear me?” John asked him while efficiently removing the teen’s belt from around his waist. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Pa – Patrick,” the teenager gasped. “Oh God, help me, it hurts - ”
“Help is on the way, Patrick, but I need you to stay calm.” John swiftly wrapped the belt around Patrick’s leg, just below the knee. He moved the limb as little as possible, but Patrick shrieked at the touch. John ignored the cry and tightened the belt as much as possible. “Hold this, and don’t let up the pressure,” he instructed Sherlock. “Keep him alert and don’t let him move.”
Sherlock nodded and took the end of the belt from John, careful not to lose pressure in the exchange.
John touched Patrick’s shoulder, and the teen raised dazed, pupil-wide eyes to John’s face. “Patrick, this is my friend Sherlock. He’s going to help you until the ambulances get here. I need you to stay awake and talk to him until then, all right?” John’s voice was both soothing and heartening, and Patrick responded to it like a thirsty plant being watered.
“O –okay. I can do that.”
“Good lad.” John’s hand tightened briefly around his shoulder, and then he was off again, moving purposefully towards yet another person who needed his help.
Sherlock’s eyes remained fixed on John even as he obediently tried to keep Patrick focused. “Tell me what music you were listening to.”
“Wha – how the hell did you know…?”
“One of your earbuds is tangled in your ear stud, and your phone screen – which is cracked in a way that won’t be fixable, I’m afraid – is paused on what I can only assume is an album cover, although why a band would choose such mediocre artwork is more than I can fathom.”
“That’s bollocks! I, oh piss off - ” Patrick’s voice broke as he groaned in agony.
Sherlock briefly took his eyes off of John to look at the boy just in time to see his eyes squeeze shut. He could hear sirens in the distance, finally, but he had to keep Patrick engaged. John had said so, and he knew about the effects of shock from his reading. Hearing Patrick’s pathetic attempt at cursing reminded him of an interesting article he’d read in one of John’s medical journals. “That’s good, Patrick. Swear at me.”
Patrick’s eyes shot open. “What?!?”
“Swearing. Medical studies have shown that uttering foul language reduces the perception of pain. Go on, curse.”
Incredulously, Patrick did just that, gasping out a sentence or two of mild profanity. Sherlock shook his head, disappointed. “No, no, you can do better than that, surely. Like this.” He demonstrated with a short sample of some of the more colourful invective he’d picked up from some of his informants.
By the time he was done, Patrick’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “Sodding hell! Where’d you learn that?”
“Here and there,” Sherlock said modestly.
“I didn’t even understand half of it,” Patrick complained.
“So use what you did understand. Go on, give it a try.”
Either he was inspired by Sherlock’s example, or he’d been startled out of his inhibitions, or Sherlock had really made him angry. Whichever, Patrick cut loose with a vivid diatribe. Sherlock mostly tuned him out, his attention divided between the teen’s colour and alertness, and following John’s progress. Nothing stopped him, nothing rattled him, not even the hysterical parent who latched onto his shoulder. John didn’t just cope, he shone, a calm oasis of sanity and comfort.
This is what he was meant to do, his mind whispered. Perhaps this is who he was, before the bullet.
It simply didn’t seem possible that John, or anyone, could help so many people in such a short time, and yet he did, and continued to do so even as the first responders arrived on scene, further obscuring Sherlock’s line of sight. Patrick continued to swear until an aid worker plunked to his knees beside him, yellow safety vest on, emergency kit out, a startled expression the only flaw in his professional appearance.
“There, you see? Help is here,” Sherlock told him. “Did it work?”
Patrick blinked. “I think so...”
“Good.” Sherlock got to his feet and looked for John. There were fewer people milling about now, the crowds and gawkers brought under control by police, but there were many more people moving the way John had, making him paradoxically more difficult to find. He found John more by his jumper than by anything else. His friend was crouched by two prone figures, and was exchanging words with another aid worker (new to his job, uniform doesn’t fit properly and work boots are uncreased) who’d clearly just arrived on the scene.
John’s body language as he spoke to the other man was more familiar to Sherlock than anything he’d seen since the tackle. It was something he’d rarely witnessed, but it was what he privately referred to as “John pulling rank” – only used when John pushed back against someone because knew he was right and someone else’s welfare was at stake. Sherlock hurried towards him, only barely registering the startled exclamation of the aid worker he left with Patrick, and Patrick’s own weakly-whispered thanks.
Two different police officers moved in Sherlock’s direction, and dodging them both took more time. He wasn’t about to be herded off to the sidelines, not without John. Another aid worker had joined the first before Sherlock could reach his friend. Between lip-reading and his acute hearing, Sherlock could just make out what the second worker said as Sherlock approached.
“Sod the regs, Bob, he’s right. And he’s not a civ, not if I know anything.” He crouched next to John, carefully applying more pressure to the area John pressed against. “You’re a doctor, yeah? And military too.”
“RAMC,” John stated quietly. “And I’ve seen more than my share of this kind of shrapnel wound.”
“I guess you have. I’m Phil. I served with the Steelbacks before I got my emergency qualification, but I’ll follow your lead on this. Bob, you help the other lady.”
Sherlock stood by silently, keeping out of the way of the men. John and Phil exchanged words rapidly, medical jargon flying back and forth as they worked seamlessly together to help the woman. Other aid workers swarmed around with stretchers, and in a very few minutes, both injured women were carefully transferred over and carried to waiting ambulances, Phil running beside John’s patient, his hands still applying supplemental pressure to the emergency bandages.
John drew a breath and turned his head, searching out the next person who needed his help, his whole being still focused and poised, ready for action. Sherlock gently touched him on his good shoulder.
“John. It’s handled.” Sherlock gestured at the swarm of emergency workers blanketing the scene.
John looked at him blankly for a moment, and then a small smile quirked his lips. All at once he was John again, readable, approachable, under-estimable John. John of the endless cups of tea and crap telly and midnight takeaway.
“Good,” he said. “That’s…good, yeah.” His smile strengthened, and he started to rise from where he’d been crouched.
Halfway up, John’s face twisted in agony, and he pitched forward as his legs gave out from under him. Shocked, Sherlock lunged for him a half-second too late. They both wound up on the ground, Sherlock’s knees aching from impacting the pavement with both his weight and part of John’s on them. He didn’t care; he’d kept John’s head from hitting the concrete. Frantically, he ran his eyes and hands over John’s body, searching for signs of injury. “John. John! Where are you hurt?”
There was so much blood on John’s clothes. Blood streaked across the front of his jumper in ruddy, random smears. Blood soaked the cuffs of his sleeves, despite John’s having pushed them up to keep them out of the way. Blood-drenched ragged splotches on his trousers, large patches of it around one knee, as if he’d knelt in it.
Which, of course, he had. Repeatedly.
Sherlock kept calling his friend’s name, trying to provoke a response, even while he thought Stupid, stupid, why didn’t I see, how did I not notice, can’t see his eyes, they’re tightly shut in pain, can’t tell if his pupils are abnormal, I thought they were okay, did he hit his head when he tackled me? Breathing harsh and ragged but strong, don’t think there’s anything wrong with his lungs, no chance of internal injury, not logical. Blood everywhere, from too many sources, can’t tell what’s theirs and what might be his, he’s shaking, don’t see any signs of obviously broken bones, he’s got sweat breaking out along his temples, but his skin feels clammy, he’s shaking, is it shock or just a reaction to the pain that is contorting his face out of all recognition, his legs gave way but they’re not shaking, not all of him is shaking…
His left hand is shaking.
I am an idiot!
“John. Look at me.” Sherlock practically commanded John to open his eyes, and was rewarded by narrow slits. He spoke unemotionally, factually. “It’s the leg, isn’t it?”
John’s mouth turned down even as his eyes opened wider, and Sherlock read shame and frustration and guilt on his face along with the pain. John gasped, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t say anything. Sherlock could sense memories lurking in the shadows of his eyes, clouding his vision, the past drowning out the present. Although Sherlock couldn’t know for certain what they contained, he could certainly deduce their general nature.
Sherlock tightened his grip on John and carefully eased him into what he hoped was a more comfortable position, talking to him all the while in a low, quiet voice. “It’s all right, John. This isn’t unexpected. In fact I should have predicted it. It was obvious, really.” He cleared his throat uneasily. “I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner.”
John blinked, faint surprise chasing away a few of the tense lines on his face. “Not…your fault,” he rasped. “It’s my head.”
“Yes. But I should have guessed. I should have known.” His voice dropped.
Before John could respond to that, another aid worker raced up to them. Her eyes went wide at the sight of all the blood on John’s clothes. “Just lie still,” she told John before fixing her attention on Sherlock. “Sir, I’ll need you to stand back while I examine him…”
Sherlock could feel John tense, muscles going rigid as he instinctively edged away from the woman and closer to Sherlock. “No need for that, I assure you,” he told her. “The blood isn’t his; he’s a doctor and was helping others at the scene. He’s just got a leg cramp from all that crouching down.” He leaned slightly towards the woman and gave her his most ingratiating smile. “It’s his old war wound,” he confided. “Gives him a bit of trouble now and then, but nothing to worry about.”
He could see the effect his words and manner had on the woman, but still she hesitated, her eyes darting between his confident expression and John’s pained features. “But…are you sure you don’t need assistance, doctor?”
Sherlock could sense the effort it took for John to give the woman a reassuring grin. “I’m sure.” He sucked in a breath. “I’ll just walk it out.”
If he hadn’t had hands on him the whole time, Sherlock was fairly certain John wouldn’t have made it upright. He could feel John shaking as he let Sherlock support most of his weight, but somehow he managed to mask most of his pain from his face. Sherlock gave the woman a triumphant look. “See? It’s all fine.”
She still didn’t look convinced, but stepped back when John gave her a reassuring nod.
Aware of her eyes upon them as they moved away, Sherlock slowly helped John out of the area. His friend leaned heavily on his arm, limping with each step. “Old war wound, eh? What a load,” John huffed.
Sherlock recognized the same pawky, graveyard humour John had used before in stressful situations where he wanted to break the tension. “It worked,” he pointed out. He hesitated, then added, “Just because it’s psychosomatic doesn’t mean the trauma that triggered it isn’t real. This reminded you of something, didn’t it? Something that happened in Afghanistan.”
John’s lips tightened, but he did not pull away. “Yes.”
And you don’t want to talk about it, Sherlock deduced at once, reading it in a dozen unmistakable signs. His curiosity twitched, but most unusually, the desire to know wasn’t paramount. He tightened his hold on John and changed the subject. “There’s too much chaos to flag down a taxi here, but we should be able to get one on the next corner. I’m surprised Mycroft doesn’t have one of his minions on hand. His office is slacking…”
Even as he continued to help John walk and verbally denigrate Mycroft, a corner of Sherlock’s mind busily plotted the impending demise of every article of clothing John was currently wearing. John will automatically try to save these clothes, try to get the blood out of them (he knows I have derived several effective methods for removing stains, saw me experimenting last month). He will dismiss any suggestion that we bin them, he’s still frugal with his money. He will also have a far greater incidence of nightmares and episodes of short temper every time he sees these clothes, much less wears them. Logically, it will be far better if I “accidentally” destroy them right away. John will be briefly angry, but better in the long term than if they remain in his possession. A plausible accident shouldn’t be too difficult to engineer…
After all, anything he could do to help John was worth doing.
*QAs: Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps.