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At least there didn’t seem to be any reporters around. Not that he could see, anyway. There might be some lurking behind the carefully-landscaped high-use shrubbery, he supposed, or mingling with the dog-walkers, joggers, and kid-cart pushers. But if there were, he couldn’t spot them. As far as he could tell, no one was giving him a second glance. Even the omnipresent CCTV cameras appeared to be paying no particular notice. Sitting on park bench by himself on a rare sunny afternoon, John Watson felt practically invisible.

That hadn’t happened in a while. Not since… before.  Really, not since well before. Even when people hadn’t seen him, he’d always been part of the centre of attention because of whom he’d been with.

His flatmate. His blog-subject. His friend. His… Sherlock had always defied easy definition. That hadn’t changed.

There’d never been any looking away from Sherlock. Not even at the end. Especially not at the end.

But there was nothing about or around John Watson to attract attention anymore, unless you were a reporter or a troll. Maybe they were one and the same; he wouldn’t put it past some of the reporters to be behind a portion of the letters, the graffiti, the vile packages, the phone calls, and the shouted insults. But not all. There were too many missives, too many accusations, too many hostile stares.  The only kind of attention he garnered these days was negative.

This was why he was sitting here in the park in the middle of the work day, out of a job. The clinic had been apologetic, but firm: budgets were tight, they were cutting back on staff hours, and as a part-time locum worker, his services would not be needed for the foreseeable future. What wasn’t said aloud (but was clearly understood by all parties) was that no one wanted to be treated by a deluded fool or a criminal accomplice (public opinion appeared equally divided), and that the extra security required by his presence at the clinic far outweighed the meagre income he could bring in from the few patients willing to be seen by him. He couldn’t even find it within himself to be angry with the clinic. He understood all too well the cost of being associated with him these days, and the clinic couldn’t really afford the negativity. They’d done their best to remain loyal to him during the initial… during the early days, when everything went to hell. Even though Sarah didn’t work there anymore, the new management and his fellow co-workers had been kind. They’d shown more loyalty to him, in fact, than many others. People he’d thought better of. People he’d thought were friends. People Sherlock had thought were… well, not entirely unsatisfactory, or so he’d claimed, but he’d trusted some of those who’d turned their backs on them, when everything went to hell.

If adversity showed you who your friends were, his only friend had told him that everything he’d thought was true was a lie, and then splattered himself all over the pavement. John had been left to clean up the mess, or drown in it.

Right now, John felt a lot closer to drowning.

He’d had to build himself back up from nothing once before, after Afghanistan. He’d been left with the ruins of his Army career, the physical destruction of his shoulder and his ability to operate, and nightly horrors that left him gasping and limping, crippled within and without. Even so, he’d had institutional support of a sort. Ella, his therapist. Temporary housing. Support groups, if he’d wanted to attend. And still he’d barely survived the experience.

Now? There were no support groups for this. And the dreams that haunted his nights now, and the doubts that shadowed his days, were far more crippling than the bullet he’d taken to his shoulder.

He’d started thinking about his gun again. So much so, he’d even gone to see Ella out of pure survival reflex.

It hadn’t helped. He’d seen the pity in her eyes, the disbelief, the certainty than he’d been used and deluded lurking behind her professional questions and clinical demeanour.

Everyone believed the worst – of him, of Sherlock, of everything they’d ever done. Thought him pathetic, useless, culpable in one sense or another. Sometimes he even thought Mrs. Hudson had shadows in her eyes when she looked at him.

And really, they weren’t that far wrong, were they? The world was wrong about Sherlock, but it wasn’t wrong when it judged John Watson useless. Guilty.

He hadn’t been able to keep Sherlock from falling, after all. Hadn’t been able to find the right words, provide enough of a reason to keep Sherlock from… doing what he’d done.

From finding a very final solution to the web dragging him down. For Sherlock, anyway, the selfish bastard. The web remained, fed and strengthened by Sherlock’s public plunge, dragging others down with him.

Maybe Sherlock was right, as he so often was, no matter what the world thought. Maybe it had been the only answer for him, the only solution he could believe in.

Maybe it was an answer for John, too. His dreams kept suggesting as much. John was so very tired of the dreams, of the doubt, of the emptiness. He tried, but he couldn’t see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Couldn’t even imagine it. Even if the press eventually got tired of him and left him alone – even if the hate mail and scorn faded away and everyone eventually forgot about him and Sherlock – what was there beyond that? What kind of life could he build? He might eventually be able to regain some kind of career as a doctor, given enough time and forgetfulness, but it would only remind him of all he’d been before and all that he couldn’t be again. A life of dull mediocrity, tedium, and careful hiding from his past seemed like the best-case scenario he could hope for. And it wouldn’t be enough. He couldn’t expect another Sherlock to come sweeping into his life. He couldn’t imagine anything, really. Nothing beyond the grey, bleak, painful blankness that was his life now.

If he wasn’t so sure that the scandal sheets would take his suicide as yet more confirmation that they were right about Sherlock, he might have pulled the trigger weeks ago. But there was only so much protection he could provide to a dead man. What use was it, anyway?

What use was any of it?

He kept trying to find an answer to that question. He was a soldier and doctor both, by nature and training determined to fight on, find a cure, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

But the soldier and doctor also both knew that some fights were unwinnable. When the cause was lost, so too was the doctor and soldier who had faithfully tried – and eventually failed – to serve.

A strange, high-pitched buzzing noise jolted John out of his dark thoughts.  He looked up just in time to see a tall, gangly man in a tan overcoat plop down on the other end of the park bench.

“Hullo. Thought I’d join you for a bit. Mind if we talk?” The fellow gave him an engaging grin, dark eyes sweeping over him, taking in everything. John had to give him credit; it was a far more direct and friendly approach than any other reporter had tried recently.

That didn’t mean he was going to go along with it, however. He started to lever himself to his feet, feeling his leg shooting phantom pains all throughout his knee and thigh. “Sorry. Not interested.”

“I really doubt that.”

“Oh?” John’s temper tried to rise, but it was too much effort. “Believe me, I - ” He broke off as the brown-haired man abruptly pointed something thin, short, and shiny at the CCTV camera across the way. It looked a bit like a pen, except the end glowed, and that high buzzy noise sounded again.

And the CCTV camera reversed its swivel towards them and went back in the other direction. It continued sweeping around, but now it stopped halfway every time, leaving the park bench unrecorded.

“Handy little device, this,” the other man continued on as if John hadn’t spoken. “Never underestimate the power of a sonic screwdriver.”

The gadget name was familiar, although the man in front of him looked absolutely nothing like the man from his Aunt Jo’s stories, not like any one of the three of them, particularly not the white-haired man with the young-old face. But his eyes – !

If you didn’t see his eyes, you’d think this man was possibly John’s own age, if that. He probably looked younger to most of the people wandering by, going on with their lives, paying them no attention.

If you looked into those dark eyes, you’d know immediately, as John did, that this was someone who’d seen untold years of life, love, loss, and pain. And if you were John Watson, Jo Grant Jones’ nephew, you’d know exactly who this had to be.

He collapsed back down onto the bench, feeling as if he’d just had the wind knocked out of him. “You’re a Doctor,” he stated, but not with any real emotion. He ought to be excited. He ought to be thrilled. It was what he had dreamed of as a child, hoped for practically his entire life.

It felt like ashes. Like nothing.

“The Doctor,” the not-young, not-human man corrected mildly.

“Not my Aunt Jo’s Doctor.”

“No, that was a while ago. Several lifetimes ago, really. A great woman, your aunt, up to everything from Autons to daffodils to UNIT paperwork. Always kept her chin up no matter what. It’s a rare gift, John, and I should know.” The Doctor’s mouth curved up in a half-smile, but the expression didn’t touch the sadness in his eyes.

Not just sadness. Grief. Raw, ragged, guilt-filled pain. John recognized it, kith and kin to the same terrible emotion he’d lived with since Sherlock died. “She’d love to see you again.”

“I’d like to think so. But as nice as that would be, I came to talk to you, not her.”

“Why?”

“Because I know a bit about loss, too.”

“Do you really?” Emotion clogged John’s throat. “You’ve your TARDIS. I came across it once, actually. You can travel in time and space. You never have to lose anybody. Can’t you just go back to whenever and see whoever you want?”

The Doctor just looked at him, no trace of a smile anywhere on his face. “No. I can’t. And even if I do, it’s not the same. I can’t let them see me, unless they don’t know me, and even then it’s too much of a risk.” His voice grew soft. “I can’t change anything. The past is the past, even for me. Especially for me.”

John felt the faint bit of hope he’d nurtured die stillborn in his chest. He’d known that. Known that even with the Doctor here, he couldn’t go back and save Sherlock. It hurt like hell, but he pushed it aside with the rest of his pain. Instinct and training both demanded that he focus, push past his own problems. Because John was a doctor. He recognized when someone was bleeding, even when it was on the inside where it couldn’t be seen. “You just lost someone too, didn’t you?”

The Doctor looked surprised but didn’t deny it. He turned away and stared straight ahead, eyes focused on some memory. “She’s not dead. I could go and see her right now, in fact. But to save her life, I had to erase every memory she had of me. She was my friend, maybe the best friend I’ve had in centuries, and I had to do that to her.  She can never remember anything about me, the places we went, the adventures we had, or the woman and hero she became. Absolutely nothing of any of it. She begged me not to do it, even though it was the only way, even knowing it would kill her to keep the memories. But I did it anyway, wiped it all clean.” 

It sounded horrible beyond words. John tried to imagine it and failed. But he spoke up anyway. “You did it to save her life.”

“Yes, I did. And it worked. I made sure she survived, even though it meant utterly betraying her.” His eyes refocused, and he turned to John. “So tell me, Doctor John Watson. How do I live with that?”

John shook his head. He didn’t have an answer for that, any more than he could explain why the Doctor knew his name. “I have no idea. You’re asking the wrong man.”

“No. I’m asking exactly the right one, because you’re living with it, too.” The Doctor’s expression was an indescribable mix of kindness and sorrow. “You couldn’t save him, John, any more than I could save Donna. And we have to go on.”

“Do we?” The question was as automatic as it was heartfelt. “I mean, you do. You’re the Doctor. You save the world and the Universe on a regular basis. You’re needed. But me? I’m just - ”

“You’re Doctor John Hamish Watson,” the Doctor interrupted him sternly before John could finish his sentence. He raised one hand and scrubbed it through his short dark-brown hair, a rueful expression wrinkling his face into something that would be comical if he wasn’t so serious. “And I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but you’re needed, too. You’re needed now, and you’ll be needed even more later. I should know. In fact, I do know.”

John stared at the Doctor, astonished almost beyond words. He could feel his heart beating in his chest in a way that he hadn’t since before Sherlock fell. “You’re joking.”

The Doctor shook his head. “I joke about many things, John, but I would never joke about this.” His half-smile grew wry. “Well, not to you, anyway.”

If the Doctor was lying, John couldn’t see it. And he didn’t think the Doctor would lie to him about something like this. John slumped back against the park bench, feeling abruptly lightheaded. He… he couldn’t process anything more than the dizziness, not just yet. Everything else was too enormous. But a heavy weight in his chest shifted, not lifted precisely, but moved. He took a deep breath, feeling the air filling his lungs. It didn’t hurt.

“All right?” The Doctor put a gentle hand on John’s good shoulder and peered at him.

“No,” John answered honestly. He was still hurt, still bewildered, still a jigsaw puzzle with ragged edges and a crucial piece missing. “But I think I might be, maybe. Someday.” He looked over at the Doctor. “How about you?”

“Me? Oh, I’m fine. Just fine.” The Doctor dismissed John’s concern with a wave of his hand before shoving both hands into his pockets and shuffling his trainers against the ground.

John raised an eyebrow. Reading the Doctor’s body language wasn’t all that different from reading Sherlock’s. “Yeah, sure. You’re fine. I’m just fine, too.”

The Doctor’s breath caught. It was just the briefest hesitation, but John heard it, saw the flash of pain that tightened those mobile features.

John scrambled for a distraction, for distance from the pain for both of them. “Could I ask you a favour, then?”

The Doctor shrugged. “It never hurts to ask. Unless you’re going to demand Jelly Babies, in which case the answer is no, and don’t even bother.”

“Can I see the inside of the TARDIS?” John blurted the words out in a rush before he could lose his courage. “My aunt described it, but I could never really picture it. And I’d really love to see it for myself.”

The Doctor hesitated, looking conflicted. Then a slow grin spread across his face. “Why not? It’s changed a bit since her day, but I think you’ll like it.”

John smiled in response, a small smile, but a real one. It felt strange on his face, like his skin had almost forgotten how. “I’m sure it will be brilliant.”