For John, the war ended on a Tuesday.
Even with all of his experience in the field it took him a moment to realize what had happened. He'd spent his career hearing stories of people who had been shot, and one thing a lot of them seemed to have in common was that they didn't really feel the bullet that hit them right away, and they never heard it. Instead, first there was usually the jerk of impact, their body thrown suddenly and uncontrollably. Then a concentrated feeling of heat at the wound and a lesser spreading warmth. Then pain. Then a lot of pain. If they were lucky, at this point they would pass out.
John was not lucky.
That was hardly a surprise.
It took John a minute to recognize Bill Murray as the person pulling open his shirt, and he knew Bill, knew him well – had, in fact, just lost £50 to him the night before in their weekly poker game. He should've known him straightaway. Why hadn't he recognized him? Shock, he thought. Fucking hell. Somehow doctors always thought they were immune to involuntary body functions, that understanding them meant they could control them. Apparently not.
"John, can you hear me? John?"
Right. Bill. He was worrying Bill. The shock was making it hard to focus. "Mmpgh." Also hard to form actual words. That he had not been expecting. Had he?
"I'm going to take that as a yes," Bill said with a horrible facsimile of a smile. Never one for bedside manner, Bill. John had always meant to tell him. "Had to go and get shot, didn't you, Watson? Show us all up and win a medal, is that your plan?" He was pressing cloth onto John's left shoulder, pressing hard enough to make John's breath shudder. He moaned.
"Stop your bellyaching," Bill said quickly. Too quickly. That was always the giveaway. Patients could tell. John could tell. "It's nothing more than a scratch. You'll be up and about in time for our next game, I'll bet. You'd better be, anyway. Winning money off you is going to send my kids to university someday. Where else am I gonna find such a shit poker player?"
John managed a watery smile at that, because Bill was right. He was a shit poker player. Always had been. His body jerked as Bill and someone he couldn't see loaded him up on one of the stretchers and he closed his eyes. He knew what would happen next, knew the process intimately. That was the curse of being a doctor: you always knew exactly what to expect, even when not knowing would be so much better.
He'd been a patient in Army hospitals before. Even out of combat there were a thousand things that could – and did – malfunction in a man in his 40s, although John had always been rather lucky on that score, he thought. Still, waking up in one of the lumpy and uncomfortable beds post-surgery it took John a moment to sort out where he was, and remember why. He rubbed his eyes with his right hand, trying to get the strange disconnected quality of his thoughts under control. Thinking felt so very, very hard; a gargantuan exertion he wasn't really up to. He turned gingerly onto his left side and tried to see what the IV bag said. Whatever it was, it had to be bloody strong. He approved.
He closed his eyes again, just for a second, and lost another twelve hours.
When he woke up again he was able to remember things a little better. The fuzzy edges seemed to have receded a little, although thinking still took effort. Everything felt overwhelming and exhausting. His tongue clicked in his mouth and he realized he was dying of thirst, absolutely desperate for water. He tried to sit up and his left side screamed in agony.
"Probably not a good idea to move too much just yet," a voice he vaguely recognized said, and John blinked down at the foot of his bed. Captain Jensen was scribbling in his chart, and he looked up and gave John the tired smile that John had probably given a hundred of his own patients.
"How do you feel this morning?" Jensen asked, and John had to grit his teeth as he tried to push the pain back down.
"Fine," he finally managed. "Thirsty."
Jensen nodded, putting his chart down and coming around the bed to pour him a glass of water. He looked as weary and drawn as John had always felt during a particularly mad shift, which tended to be all of them.
"I didn't expect to see you in here," he said, helping John sit up by degrees so he could drink.
"I didn't expect to get shot," John said.
"I don't think many people do. It's not exactly the sort of thing they put in the brochure, is it? Recruiting would be a nightmare if they did."
"We'd still have joined up, though," John pointed out. The water tasted wonderful. He'd never really thought of water as having a taste before, but it certainly did then.
"Yeah, well, we're idiots," Jensen pointed out.
John snorted in agreement. "How bad?" he asked finally. There wasn't much point in putting it off.
"It could've been worse," Jensen told him. "We were worried the bullet might have been close to the heart, but it was lodged safely in the meat of the shoulder muscle. We were able to get it out in more or less one piece. We had to remove some of the muscle, so you may have decreased mobility in that arm for a time."
John knew well enough that 'for a time' actually meant possibly until you die. He took it with a straight face, though, trying not to let any of the sudden, crushing fear show. A surgeon couldn't have decreased mobility in his arms, obviously. Especially in his dominant arm. The rest of Jensen's words became a mere buzz of familiar background noise. Treatments, physical therapy, pain regimen. John probably could have recited it himself, and none of it mattered. They would send him home for this. Just because Jensen didn't say it straight out didn't make it any less true: this was his career over, and the shock of that might have been worse than the shock of getting shot.
He spent the next two days feeling sorry for himself.
He thought that was only fair.
One of the first things John had learned about the Army was that there was probably no less efficient system in the entire world. On the surface it was all streamlined processes and well-tested routines, but in reality it functioned on chaos and never-ending bureaucracy, fed by unnecessary paperwork. Trying to function as a doctor at a hospital in the middle of a war had led him to cut more corners and find more workarounds than he would ever have imagined just to get his patients what was needed.
That was why, four days after his surgery when by all rights he should have been on his way to Kandahar, he was not entirely surprised to still be stuck in his post-surgery ward, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for his orders to come through. He wondered if he would die of boredom first. He wondered if that would be a mercy.
On the fifth day he had a visitor. That was how he thought of it later, anyway, if only because he had no other way to reference it in his own mind. John woke to the soft sound of pages turning and opened his eyes to see a strange man standing at the end of his bed, reading over his chart. That in itself wasn't overly odd – there were always new people transferring in and out of a medical facility. Still: John would have sworn on his life the man was not medical personnel, and more importantly, that he wasn't military. He didn't have anything to back up either of those assertions but his own feelings, but when you work with certain groups of people your entire adult life you know how to recognize your own.
The man was of average height with straight black hair and fairly unremarkable features. He was dressed in civvies but stood with a tension that might have alarmed John if he hadn't just woken up. Since he had, his only reaction was to blink at him and start to turn to get a better look at him. As soon as he shifted his arm, the man's head snapped up. He eyed John sullenly for a moment before flipping the chart shut with a flick of his wrist and tossing it back on the foot of John's bed. He whirled on his heel and was out the door, leaving John staring at the space where he had stood.
Later he wondered who the man had been looking for.
On the sixth day there was a man in the bed next to him when he woke up. His new neighbor looked to be about the same age as John himself, with grey hair and brown eyes, a handsome face and quick smile. He was reading a book that he put aside when he saw John was awake.
"Hello," John said, yawning.
"Good morning. I'm Richard," he said with a mischievous smile. "Lieutenant Richard Bryant."
"Captain John Watson." They shook hands awkwardly in the space that separated the beds. Richard had a strong grip, a warm hand. His eyes had an intent look that seemed to be taking John's measure in a way that made John feel oddly exposed. He got the impression it wasn't possible to hide much from those eyes.
"What are you in for?" Richard asked.
"Shot," John answered shortly. "In the shoulder." It still felt new and raw and really didn't bear thinking about. "And you?"
"Appendicitis," Richard answered with a shrug. "Just a few days of recovery now."
"I'm sure it will be fine," John said reassuringly, flipping into hos worn, familiar doctor mode before he even realized it.
"That's what they tell me. No complications or anything. And you?"
"No," John answered, trying to swallow his bitterness. "No complications. Just some muscle damage. Not surprising, when that's where you get shot."
"Next time you'll have to try to get shot someplace else." Richard was still watching him closely. His eyes were kind.
"Sure," John snorted. "Next time." His right hand touched the bandage on his shoulder carefully. "Considering everything, I got off pretty lightly. There are lots of people worse off than I am."
Richard nodded thoughtfully. "That's one thing about war: there's always someone worse off. At least you'll be invalided home now, yeah? You must have family there that'll be glad to get you back."
"Not really," John said with a shrug. "Just a sister I don't talk to much. My parents are no longer living."
Richard cocked his head to the side. "What, no wife? Girlfriend?"
When John shook his head with a self-effacing chuckle, Richard smiled. He had a nice smile, John thought. The kind that made you want to see it rather a lot.
Richard's eyebrows went up. "Boyfriend?" he asked.
John wondered if he were imagining the question being somewhat pointed. He'd been single for far too bloody long, honestly. Then he just hoped he weren't blushing. Obviously he was imagining it. "No, no boyfriend."
"That's hard to believe," Richard said, and John was definitely blushing. Jesus, one smile from a handsome man and he was fourteen again. He blamed it on the morphine.
Richard was nice enough not to mention his blush. "You must have someone waiting for you at home."
Richard frowned. "Doesn't everyone? Or do you not want to tell me because it's a highly illicit affair and we've only just met?"
John snorted. "It's that exactly."
"Shagging a General, are you? I knew you looked the type." Besides a nice smile, Richard had the sort of low, gravelly voice that John privately thought of as a 'fuck me voice.' He didn't think he would mention that to Richard.
"I'd like to think I'd get better food, in that case. Possibly a cleaner bedpan."
"That's it, John. Dream big."
"Oh, I am, believe me."
"You're healing up nicely," Jensen said the next day as he took the cards from John to shuffle. "It's still too early to say how much mobility you'll be left with in that arm – it's possible you may regain much of it eventually, though from what I can see it's more likely you'll have somewhat less than full use. Physical therapy will be key, mind you. Lots of blokes ignore that bit of it; they think they can get by on their own. I shouldn't have to remind you, being a doctor yourself, so don't fall into that trap."
John nodded. It was a variation on a speech he'd given more than a few times himself. "Any idea when I'll be headed back to start the physio?" he asked. The waiting was becoming tedious, although John had to admit that having Richard there helped. A lot. He dealt the cards slowly with his right hand, trying to build up some dexterity.
Jensen pursed his mouth and gave John a look of amusement from behind his hand. "In such a hurry to leave?"
"He doesn't love us anymore," Richard chimed in.
John rolled his eyes at him. Richard just grinned back, that playful look back in his eyes.
The irony was that John didn't want to leave, not really. Once he did, it would start the chain reaction that would end up with him being no longer Captain John Watson. His whole identity would be gone. These stolen days in the hospital in Afghanistan were his last hurrah. Twenty-year-old John Watson would have approved of him spending them in bed, though would have been appalled that he was in bed alone. A far more mature John Watson wasn't much happier about the situation, though he was far more resigned. And used to it, frankly.
Jensen smiled over at him. "You're only a few days delayed, you know. For this outfit, that's nothing. When you're still here in six months they might start looking into it."
John sighed. "God, don't I know it. You'd think they'd be rushing people out of these beds as quick as they can to make room for the next bunch of unlucky bastards who step in front of bullets."
Richard winked at him. "Maybe they heard you complaining about the state of your bedpan. In that case I'm afraid you might be stuck here for the duration."
"God forbid. But you're right – I suppose they might be keeping me here on purpose." John flicked the cards in his hand. "There are a few people I haven't lost money to in the past week. It wouldn't be fair for me to get shipped out before I'm stripped completely clean. Bill's put the word out, apparently. Everyone's taking an interest."
Richard grinned. "Maybe you're just interesting."
"I'm really not."
"Must be something else, then," he said lightly.
"My pretty face?" John joked.
"Your sparkling wit, maybe."
"My gorgeous arse, you mean," John said.
Richard burst out laughing. "Definitely that. John Watson, Gorgeous Arse for Queen and Country."
John felt his face heat up and wondered when he had started blushing constantly again. It was more than a little pathetic, honestly.
"You don't seem very eager to leave, you know." Jensen was peering at him. "I think most men in your position would be more than ready to get on that plane, go home and settle down, finally."
"It's more complicated than that for me," John shrugged. "I feel like this is my real home."
"And here I thought my company might have something to do with it. You'll miss the desert?"
"I'll miss my life here," John said simply. "I never really was the settling down sort."
"So you like moving around?" Richard looked surprised, but rather pleased, John thought.
"As you pointed out, I haven't got any reason not to – no family waiting for me. No reason not to see the world as much as I like."
"What are your plans when you get home? Have you got any idea?"
John signed. He'd been trying not to think about it too much. "No, not really. I likely will have to find a job of some sort. No one can survive on just the pension, can they?"
"Depends how expensive your tastes are. If you can stay with your sister you can probably get by just fine."
"God, no," John said immediately.
"It's not that Harry's a bad person," John said. "She's really not. She always does mean well. It's just…"
"Sometimes meaning well isn't enough. I have sisters, too. And brothers. Believe me, I understand."
John nodded. "Yeah."
"If you're not going to stay with your sister, what are you going to do?" Jensen asked.
"Not sure yet. I've never really had much of a life outside the RAMC, to be honest. It's not something I've contemplated much, what I might do otherwise. It never seemed relevant."
"Well, now's the time. What do you want to do?"
John fell asleep that night still trying to answer that question.
The next morning the nurse who came to check Richard's bandages was one John had never seen before. She had long, curly dark hair that was swept back in a bun, though some bits had managed to escape and hang around her face. She nodded to John when she said hello but otherwise scowled and ignored him, even when John tried to give her his most charming smile.
"I think I might be getting a bit rusty," he complained to Richard when she had gone.
Richard snorted. "Believe me, that's not true. You're just not her type, I should think." He looked at John sideways as he ate his eggs. "Preparing to launch yourself on the unsuspecting single masses of London already? God help them."
"It's been a long time since I was properly trying to date," John admitted. "Years."
"You mean you haven't pulled at all over here? War isn't enough to get the blood flowing?"
"Blood, yeah. Quick shags in supply closets, yeah. But not actual dating. I wasn't complete rubbish at it, once upon a time, but that was ages ago."
"You've had leaves, surely?"
"Sure, but it's different when you know you're leaving in a few weeks. Everything is temporary. If it doesn't work out, there's no pressure."
"You like that feeling, though. Don't you? You said you liked the nomadic lifestyle; that feeling that everything is temporary has to be a big part of that."
"Yeah," John admitted.
"I'm sure you'll be fine." He sized John up with a look. "You're a natural flirt, and somehow you've got it through your thick head that you're not completely awful looking, because you're confident enough to have a go at a perfect stranger." He winked at John. "That's a good thing, by the way. And who knows – maybe you'll find yourself a civvie job that keeps you moving, anyway."
"I'm too old for most of those," John sighed.
"Experienced, you mean," Richard admonished. "You're not old, John. You have a lot of experience in many areas, and I'm sure there are loads of positions that can capitalize on that."
"I wish it were that easy."
"Maybe it is."
John wasn't wholly convinced, but let it go.
That afternoon there was an earnest looking blond young man that John immediately recognized as a civvie who stood awkwardly at the end of John's bed when he came back from the loo. He didn't seem to know what to do with himself when he saw John.
"Can I help you?" John asked, one hand tightening on his IV pole.
"I'm James Foreman." He offered his hand and John took it slowly. "I need you to come with me, Doctor Watson. Major Thompson has given us his office to use for a few hours."
"What for?" John asked, though not as rudely as he could have. He felt exposed in his hospital-issued dressing gown and pajamas, as if he might be able to negotiate this conversation better in his uniform. Actually, he thought he might. He curled his left hand against his thigh and swallowed hard.
Foreman looked momentarily disconcerted before his expression cleared. "I have some questions I'd like you to answer. Shouldn't be too difficult or taxing, I promise you." He gave John a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
John looked over at Richard, who gave him an amused half-smile and shrug in return.
"Questions?" John asked. "About what?"
"Just some preliminary background information. Nothing to worry about."
John opened his mouth but Foreman just shook his head. "In private please, Doctor."
John went. Civvies couldn't order him to do anything, but that didn't mean he actually had a choice.
The questions, as it turned out, were nothing like what he was expecting. John had expected to be asked about his getting shot, or possibly one of his patients. In an organization as big as the Army, crime was hardly uncommon, and prescription drugs did go missing from time to time, so that was a distant third possibility. Instead, he was asked about his habits, friends, and beliefs for what had to have been hours until his head was swimming and he was exhausted and rather fed up.
Not only were the questions invasive and no one's business, but how on earth did they know to ask about Harry's drinking? And Harry and Clara's problems? And – Jesus Christ – a pregnancy scare that had happened with a girl John had been seeing back at Bart's, decades ago. Questions about his parents and their friends, people he had never met and who had likely been dead for years, men he had served with a decade ago in Kosovo. He answered as best he could in the beginning, but toward the end could feel his blood boiling. He couldn't help but get a bit narky, really.
In the end, he yelled rather a lot, and he was allowed to go back to bed.
The next morning Richard was gone when John woke up. In his place, sitting on the bed opposite as formally and neatly as if it were a throne, was a tall man in a nice grey suit, as out of place as it was possible to be in Afghanistan. John stared at him. The man was holding a black umbrella in one hand, which was really out of place in the desert. He looked at John and the corners of his mouth went up. John wondered if that was his version of a smile.
"Good morning, Doctor Watson. I hoped we might have a little chat."
John sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and feeling the pull of his wound. He grimaced. Morning stiffness was the worst. When he looked back the man was still sitting there, watching him closely and not trying to hide that fact at all. Not a dream, then.
"Who are you?" John asked.
"Someone who is interested in your military career."
"What – "
"I will tell you whatever you want to know, but we need to go somewhere more private. Major Thompson –"
"– has given you the use of his office. Right." John was alert enough – years of being on-call had trained him well – but he still felt like he was in the middle of a dream, sleep-rumpled and unshaven, and the man was in a light grey bespoke suit complete with a pocket square. John wondered if it were on purpose, a way to intimidate, to make him feel even more ill-at-ease. Then he had to wonder why someone would be trying to intimidate him.
"I'd like to know what's going on here," John said, keeping his voice level.
"And I would like to explain it to you." The man inclined his head. "Shall I say you'll meet me in Thompson's office in" – he paused, visibly taking in John's appearance – "ten minutes?"
"Yeah," John said, swinging his legs out on the other side of his bed. "Fine." He pulled his IV down the hall to the loo with him, refusing to look back, though he would have sworn he felt eyes on his back the whole way.
The man sat behind Thompson's desk, his posture perfect, his hands folded neatly. "To answer your questions: my name is Mycroft Holmes. What's going on here is rather more complicated than can be explained easily."
"You're not military," John pointed out. "Am I – is this – ?" He had no idea what someone like Mycroft could possibly want with him, but he didn't think it could possibly be anything good.
Another quirk of those lips. "I am not military, it's true, but neither will you be in a few weeks."
John swallowed hard at the reminder.
Mycroft watched him closely. "Have you thought about your life going forward?"
That was not what John had been expecting. "I'm going to London. I have physical therapy – "
Mycroft shook his head slightly. "After that?" The tone was patient, but there was an undercurrent of something that might have been irritation, if John had chosen to examine it more closely.
"And nothing after that. Nothing too exciting, anyway. Find a flat. Maybe get a dog. Find a job, with any luck. I'm not really sure what that has to do with anything, to be honest."
"Of course you don't," Mycroft said dismissively. "That's hardly surprising, is it? The obvious fact is that you will not be able to work as a surgeon."
John lifted his chin, his jaw working. "No," he said through clenched teeth. "Not as a surgeon."
"So what kind of job are you going to try to find? Do you really think a man of your skills should be – what – a GP? In one of the horrible tiny clinics in the City, or possibly the lone doctor in some village in the middle of nowhere? Treating arthritis and shingles in an aging population?"
"It's admirable work," John said quickly.
"Hardly," came the clipped response. "It's beneath you, and you know it." The tone softened slightly. "But perhaps after your years of military service you want a less demanding position," he said smoothly. "Something that will give you plenty of time for crosswords and looking after your dog – do you really think that sort of thing would make you happy, John?"
John shrugged. "I'm not sure why that would matter to you," he said stiffly.
"I'm merely pointing out that you may want to consider other options."
"Like what?" John asked warily.
"You may, for instance, be in a prime situation to accept a position I would like to offer you."
That had been one of the last things John had expected him to say. It threw him completely for a loop. "What kind of position?"
Mycroft leaned forward, the chair creaking under him. "What do you think? You're obviously somewhat bright – I'm sure you've formed some opinion."
John tried to think of what might require this much ridiculous secrecy. "Government?" he guessed. "That man yesterday – I'm assuming he was with you? There were an awful lot of questions about people I knew, or know, and things I've done in my life. Security-clearance sort of questions, I imagine. Intelligence work, maybe?"
Mycroft's smile bared his teeth. "Perhaps."
"I don't know anything about intelligence," John said.
"Yes, I can tell," Mycroft said, and John rolled his eyes hard. "Although I have to say that name is something of a misnomer these days, considering the sort of trouble we've seen in the field lately."
"So – MI6?"
"God, no." Mycroft looked scandalized. "This would be something of a private operation, run by and through myself."
"A private spy operation? Is that even legal?"
"Yes," Mycroft said, looking perplexed at the question. "Of course."
John's brows knit. "Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?"
"John," Mycroft sighed, looking for all the world as if he were answering this question just to humor John, "my position in the government is a minor one, I'll grant you, but the work I do is both varied and extensive. The operation I run is considerably more agile than MI6, and answers to only the highest powers in government. Our actions are completely sanctioned, if not officially so for many reasons. It may look like a private operation to an outsider, but I assure you that our work is all for Queen and Country, the same as your work for the Army, Doctor."
"What kind of work is it, exactly?"
"I have a very specific posting in mind that needs someone of your particular skills, such as they are. I'm afraid the exact details are classified. I can't give you too many details unless you agree to take it and have completed at least a rudimentary training."
"I'd have to go in blind? That's asking rather a lot, isn't it?"
"Essentially blind, yes. I'm sure that does seem a bit unfair, but I don't imagine anything would be asked of you that would be beyond your abilities or trouble your conscience overly much."
"Would I be asked to kill people?"
He gave John a long look. "Do you imagine that would trouble your conscience? Honestly?"
John said nothing.
Mycroft smirked but didn't press the point. "You would only be required to do so in the most extreme of circumstances. Otherwise, your job would be to do what is required. I can assure you it would not be dull, and you would engage both your skill as a doctor and your mind."
"But not doing surgery."
"I see." When Mycroft didn't add anything, he let it go. "What kind of training would I get?"
"An abbreviated version, perhaps, in your case, since at least at first you will be working with a far more experienced agent in an assisting capacity. You will be taught the basics, but it will be a job that is far more about hands-on problem solving – an area of some expertise for you, I believe."
"Spying?" John asked, bemused.
Mycroft shook his head. "Security-sensitive training and work," he quibbled. "You would not be a spy."
"What's the difference, exactly?"
"You would be assisting in the gathering of information and tracking down individuals who have importance to the security of this country. Assist is the operative word here."
"Sounds like a pretty academic difference to me," John argued.
"I think you've been watching too many films, Doctor."
"Of course I have. It's not like I've really considered this kind of thing before, as an actual career." He stared at the floor, trying to gather his thoughts. "Why are you interested in recruiting me? I don't have anything like that in my background. You said you wanted me partly for my medical skills, but there must be loads of qualified physicians who are younger, more suitable."
"On the contrary, your maturity and experience under battlefield conditions are some of your most useful characteristics."
"What else?" John prodded. He wasn't sure he expected Mycroft to actually answer.
"Your lack of family and support network makes you a prime candidate as well. Also your stated desire to continue working abroad."
John's eyes narrowed at that. "You've been talking to Richard?"
One side of Mycroft's mouth quirked up. "We've been talking to many people about you."
"Not just since I was shot, either," John surmised. "You couldn't get all that in a week."
"No. You've been a person of interest for us for some time, since you were brought to our attention several years ago."
"Years?" John stared, his mind ticking back over events, trying to pinpoint exactly what might've – oh. Right. Of course. "I was awarded a CGC."
"Do you approach all invalided CGC recipients to be spies?"
"Not all of them," Mycroft shrugged. "And you won't be a spy."
John sat back in his chair, thinking. Mycroft continued watching him in a way that was still a little intimidating, although John supposed he was getting used to it. "Why are you talking to me here? Why not wait until I'm back in England and through my physio? Then you'd have a better idea of what I'm still capable of."
"We're approaching you here as a courtesy to you. Here you are still Captain John Watson, RAMC. This is your home in a way that England is not, not really. It seems more likely that you will make a rational decision about your future here."
John frowned. "Wouldn't you rather have me vulnerable, though? You're trying to recruit me; don't you want me to say yes?" he asked frankly.
"Despite what your films may have told you, this is a career like any other. A markedly dangerous one, perhaps, and one that requires certain skills, but most importantly, one that once begun is harder to quit than many others."
"Like the military."
"In many ways, yes. Your understanding of that sort of thing is another of your selling points."
"Do you need an answer right now, or can I think about it for a few days?"
"I don't need an answer right now, but I think you'll give me one anyway."
"You do? Awful sure of yourself, aren't you?"
"I think you just recognize that you don't have a lot of options, Doctor Watson. Even less that are remotely palatable."
"If I say no?"
"There would not be any negative consequences. You are quite welcome to languish, bored, in London or wherever else you like."
"That you for your permission," John said dryly. "If I say yes?"
"Then you will leave tomorrow for training with your case officer in conjunction with the physical therapy you will be given by the Army. Afterward, you will be given a posting."
John was silent for a long moment. He was pretending to weigh his options, but he'd already made his decision. The man sitting across from him knew it, too, as he sat there cool as a cucumber, his hands resting on his ludicrous umbrella. Still watching John.
"When do I fly out?"
Physical therapy was awful. Terrible. The people who ran it were sadists who milked his shoulder for every bit of pain they could wring out of it. John was lucky it was only his shoulder, he was told. The muscle would repair itself and adapt far better than an organ or bone damage, which of course he knew, had known. He didn't feel particularly lucky anyway, but he supposed that wasn't really the point.
Gradually, the torment rewarded him with increased mobility. He wore his arm in a sling most of the time that he wasn't actively doing physio, but even then he could feel the difference in tenderness of the muscle. There would be a scar – a pink scar that would gradually turn white and decorate the front of his shoulder for the rest of his life. John rather liked the idea of it – his own souvenir from the war, from his previous life.
In between sessions in the torture chamber of the physio building, John spent all of his time at a small, non-descript building in Clapham.
Before he got on the plane, Mycroft had handed him a thick folder of materials to read. It had also contained a bright green pass with his picture on it. He didn't ask where Mycroft had gotten the picture. He was learning.
The first time he went to the building, he stood at the door marked "loading dock" and pressed a small buzzer. The door opened and he went down a narrow hallway, knowing he had to be on at least two cameras. Probably more. At the end of the hall was a fortified guard booth, where he flashed the pass and stepped through a door, his arm in the sling attracting more attention than most people probably got.
He was directed to a lift and down more hallways to a larger training room. The hallways were empty and cramped. The building didn't inspire much confidence, even to someone with few other options, John thought. He was beginning to wonder if he might have made a mistake.
He turned at the familiar voice and blinked in surprise at the figure standing in the doorway.
"Richard?" He stared. The same grey hair, the same mischievous eyes. The smile was different, though – more hesitant.
"It's Greg, actually." He looked embarrassed. "Sorry about all that. I had to talk to you, and I couldn't exactly explain things before it was decided whether to pursue recruitment or not. Richard Bryant was a work name."
John stared. "You never had appendicitis?"
He stepped closer, watching John with the familiar clarity. "No, never did."
"But there were bandages," John said. "And an IV. The nurses changed it. I saw –"
"Well, of course. We do make it look real, especially in front of a doctor, you have no idea – but I don't think I was invested enough to actually get my appendix out just to approach you." He chuckled somewhat nervously. "Sally – she's around here, you'll meet her eventually – played my nurse, and we made sure not to let anyone else touch me. The paperwork to get us both in there was the worst bit."
John wished he wasn't wearing the sling so he could cross his arms properly. Instead he just glared a bit, which wasn't nearly as satisfying. "Why bother with all the subterfuge? Couldn't you have come right out and asked me whatever you wanted to know?"
"Not everything. What I really wanted to know was what you were like. Unfortunately, it's not the sort of thing you can ask. Everything had been highly checked out before we ever approached you, but it was all done behind the scenes, so to speak. We need someone to get to know you by talking to you, to see what you'd be like when you were hurt and under some stress. Not quite battlefield conditions, but your defenses were still down."
"When I was vulnerable and alone," John said, and didn't bother to hide his disgust. "Jesus. I thought you were a friend."
Greg held his hands up. "I am a friend. Or I could be. I am sorry, John. This is how we work potentials."
John sighed, sitting stiffly in one of the hard chairs. "I'm not entirely sure I'm cut out for this," he said steadily.
"Lying doesn't come naturally to everyone," Greg acknowledged. "But it's usually for a good reason."
"So it was all a lie, then? Even the flirting?"
"Oh, that was real enough – you're quite an attractive man."
John raised an eyebrow and Greg grinned.
"Ruggedly handsome, all right? Besides, you have a gorgeous arse, or so I've heard."
John snorted. "What would you have done if I had dragged you into a supply closet and tried to follow up on all that flirting? You must've had a plan."
"Enjoy it?" He shook his head. "Considering you were recovering from surgery it seemed unlikely. A calculated risk on my part. Besides, flirting with you was easy. A little too easy, actually. You got me in trouble."
"Good," John said.
They both laughed, which cleared some of the tension from the room.
Greg offered his hand. "Let's do this properly, shall we? I'm Greg Lestrade, and I'll be your case officer."
John shook it, trying not to smile. The grip was the same: firm and warm. "John Watson, and I'll be your trainee. Is that what I'm called?"
"Trainee works. Mycroft told me that he already has a posting in mind for you, so we're going to focus on things that will be useful to you there. Full training can take years, but he's impatient to get you out into the field."
"Is that usual, to have a position in mind for a new recruit?"
"Not particularly, but 'usual' isn't a thing that happens much around here. Every posting is different. You happen to have the medical skills he's looking for right now. That, and a few other things." He said the last with a twisting of his mouth that made John frown.
"What is this posting? Should I be worried?"
Greg shook his head. "Sorry. You'll get all the gory details after your training period. If, in that time, you decide that this sort of job isn't for you, it's better if you don't the more classified bits."
That wasn't terribly comforting. "It's not anything too horrible, is it?"
Greg looked thoughtful. "That depends on your definition of horrible, I think," he said. "Some people have found it to be quite difficult, in the end, which is why Mycroft was looking for a very specific set of skills and background to go in with. I personally think you'll do fine, John. And, if you don't, we will rotate you out again. All right?"
"Wonderful. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to start by talking about surveillance."
There were two main components of training: field exercises and theory. Although John worked with a handful of people who were at different stages of training, he tended to work mostly with Greg and his team: Sally Donovan, Mark Anderson, and Molly Hooper. Greg treated him with a reserve that he hadn't, that Richard hadn't, had in the hospital, and it bothered John more than he cared to admit that it had all been an act, and he hadn't been able to tell at all. Well, not all an act, maybe. Enough of one, though. He should have known.
He wasn't sure he was at all cut out for this sort of thing.
His first field exercise consisted of him walking from Earl's Court tube stop through Holland Park to Daunt Books and back and identifying all of the people following him. It was significantly more difficult than he had expected, although Greg said he had done better than most new recruits. War had sharpened his observational skills, apparently.
He did better the second time.
The third time he was instructed to meet an unidentified contact at Fix Coffee on Whitechapel St. John got there twenty minutes early and scanned the room quickly, trying to take in as much detail as he could while looking casual. Another Army trick: he instinctively noted all exits and potential weapons without even realizing he was doing it, so all he had to really concentrate on was, well, everything else.
He had no idea who the contact would be. His job afterward would be to lose his tail. That would be difficult. He still wasn't good at that sort of thing.
He took a seat at a small table with his back to the wall and opened the newspaper he'd brought with him, trying to appear engrossed in his reading while keeping an eye on people moving about the room.
He saw the shadow approaching him only a second before Mycroft Holmes sat in the chair opposite, looking as smug as John remembered. They hadn't seen each other since Afghanistan, but it didn't look like Mycroft had changed. He even had the same umbrella.
"Hello," John said, not bothering to hide his surprise.
"How have you been, John?" Mycroft asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Good. Greg has been keeping me updated on your progress. You're doing well."
Mycroft's eyes flicked to his arm. "Your physical therapist believes your arm will eventually regain 90% mobility."
John blinked, frowning. "How did you know that?"
Mycroft merely looked at him, ignoring the question. "Your marksmanship is also quite good."
"Thank you," John said again, unsure what Mycroft's point was. It didn't seem like he was the type to compliment John without there being a reason for it.
"We've sent a tentative date for your posting at the end of January. That gives you six more weeks of training."
John gaped at him. "I – will that be enough?"
"Not really," Mycroft recognized. He didn't look particularly perturbed. "But the agent you will be working with is extremely capable. The most we can hope for is that you don't get in his way overly much."
"You're not exactly inspiring confidence in my abilities."
Mycroft smirked. "You'll be fine. We don't often lose agents, John."
"But you do sometimes?"
"Accidents do happen, don't they?"
"Well," John snapped sarcastically. "This has been extremely helpful. Thank you so much for dropping by."
Mycroft lips quirked. He looked John over closely. "Despite my earlier reservations, I think you might do very well indeed. You may even be able to handle him, for a time." He stood. "Enjoy the exercise, Dr. Watson."
"He's taking an interest," Greg shrugged, when John asked about it.
"In me? Why? Does he do that with everyone?"
Greg paused, looking up from his scribbled notes. "Not everyone, no. Not this much of an interest, anyway. Look, it's not my place to explain things, okay? Let's just say he has a more personal stake in you doing well at this posting than most of them. He'll explain it himself at some point."
John just hoped that 'some point' was before he actually arrived at his posting and had to deal with whatever difficult situation awaited him. The way it was being danced around made him distinctly nervous, and he thought Mycroft was just enough of a bastard to let him suffer. He'd probably enjoy it.
John was given a blank Swiss passport that he would use for an emergency. That was hidden carefully in his luggage. He was also given a handgun, also hidden in his luggage, although Greg assured him that he would be able to fly into Düsseldorf without anyone searching him – the work name he was traveling under, Peter Salor, had extremely minor diplomatic status. Mycroft, apparently, could arrange almost anything. John still didn't know exactly what Mycroft's "minor" government position was. He thought he probably never would.
Otherwise, he packed only clothes and a new laptop he'd splurged on. His satellite phone was Mycroft-issued and supposedly secure, although he was cautioned against using it indiscreetly anyway.
He arrived at the Clapham address three hours before his flight to be briefed about his posting, his stomach already in knots. He didn't feel ready. Bugger that: he wasn't ready, and he knew it. He stood at attention (some habits were hard to break) while Mycroft finished sending a text. His lips quirked into an almost-smile when he saw John.
"I'm afraid Greg isn't here to see you off. Something's come up in Singapore, and there were a few things I wanted to say to you myself."
John nodded for lack of anything better to do.
"John, you're going to be part of Operation Shadow Play. I've always found code names somewhat tedious, but they do serve their purpose. There are, at this moment, only three principals involved in the operation: an agent, a support person, and a handler, which is you. You will, in effect, be in charge of all aspects of helping the agent that the support person is unable or untrained to do, which are myriad. You will also serve, for many reasons, as the point of contact between myself and the agent and Greg and the agent.
"I should warn you that there have been many handlers assigned to this particular agent, and none of them have lasted more than a month. Two of them had mental breakdowns shortly after leaving the posting."
John's eyes widened. Mycroft shrugged. "We think you'll do better. However, I need you to understand that going in. It will not be an easy posting, but unfortunately when left to his own devises things were even worse." Mycroft grimaced at the memory. "Therefore it is a necessity."
He sighed. "I don't relish telling you this, but you must go in prepared: the agent has, in the past, made a habit of taking large quantities of cocaine when the work was slow. We suspect he has resumed this habit, and it will be part of your job to get him clean again – and to keep him clean. I will trust your medical skill and your personal familiarity with addiction to assist you. He will fight you – he would fight you anyway – but that's neither here nor there. That is your job, and I expect you to do it. Do you have any questions?"
As a matter of fact, John had questions. A lot of questions, starting with where Mycroft got off throwing Harry's problems in his face, but the truth was he already knew the answer to that. Hell, Harry's drinking may well have been one of the factors in his recruiting, if his familiarity with addiction seemed to matter so much. Instead, he just shook his head.
"The driver will be outside to take you to the airport." No handshakes, but John hadn't been expecting one, really.
John picked up his bag and headed for the door.
"Oh, and one last thing," Mycroft said quietly behind him. His face was carefully blank when John looked at him. "He's my brother." His eyes seemed to bore into John. "Have a care, Doctor Watson."
John's flight into Düsseldorf was uneventful, at least. He had half expected to be pulled aside as he got off the plane and shuffled to customs with his fellow passengers, but there was no tap on the shoulder, no blokes with dogs waiting for him. Maybe he had seen too many films. He gave the immigration official a tight smile as he was scrutinized, but the man just waved him through after a bored once-over that made John worry for the state of international security. He resisted the urge to look behind him as he made his way to baggage.
He collected his bag from the carousel and went to find the Sky Train to the rail station. His instructions had been very specific for getting into the city: public transit only, no cabs. John hadn't asked why, but he was glad for the chance to see a bit of the city. He'd been to Germany once before, in the spring of his eighteenth year, with a girlfriend who had spoken the language like a native. There had always been girlfriends then, and they had managed to introduce him to the world in ways he hadn't even known to be grateful for, back when he was young and stupid.
At least he'd grown out of half that equation.
Taking the 7 train into the city, he stood near the door with his luggage and stared out the window, alternately watching the stations pass and using the reflection in the glass to watch his fellow passengers. If there were surveillance on him, he wondered if he would manage to see it.
The safe house Greg had mentioned was a row house in the middle of a residential street in District One. He rang the bell and waited, wishing he had been given a little more information about the other players in this operation besides the fact that one of them was Mycroft's brother who was also possibly a drug addict. Helpful information might've been nice, but John was beginning to suspect that wasn't the way things worked. It certainly never seemed to be the way his life worked, anyway.
The door was pulled open by an older woman who smiled widely when she saw him.
"Mrs. Hudson?" he asked. She didn't look much like an agent, but he supposed that was rather the point. Besides, who was he to talk?
"You must be Dr. Watson." She looked him up and down quickly. "Come in, come in."
He followed her inside, lugging his bag in behind him. She shut the door and looked him over again, more carefully. "Well, I'm glad they finally sent someone. He's very dear, you know, but he does need looking after, and my hip doesn't let me run all over the city after him. But you will do that, won't you?"
John opened his mouth to answer, but she was already nodding.
"Of course you will. You can go up and put your things away if you like. I'm afraid Sherlock's not in at the moment. He hardly has been, the last few days." She pointed him up a narrow staircase toward a shut door. "Just go on in; he never bothers to lock the door." She looked a bit sheepish. "I'm afraid you won't find us much for rules and regulations here. Mycroft has never been very happy about that. Never mind, though. I'll bring up some tea. Is there anything special you'd like for lunch? He doesn't eat much, never has, so there's no point waiting for him to turn up. Not you, though. You don't look like you skip many meals, which is much better."
John couldn't help but look down at his stomach, frowning.
"Go on, then," she continued, shooing him up the stairs. "Earl Grey all right?"
"Fine," John said, pulling his bag up the stairs. "That will be fine."
As she had said, the door wasn't locked. The upstairs flat was far more untidy than John had expected. The amount of what looked like chemistry equipment surprised him. He hadn't known that microscopic inquiries were the sort of thing usually was done by agents, but then there were probably a lot of things his abbreviated training hadn't covered.
The movies got a lot wrong about spies, apparently.
John dumped his bag on the bed in the unoccupied bedroom, unpacking with the efficiency of a soldier. By the time Mrs. Hudson returned with tea, he was back in the living room, a German language book open on his lap. Of all the things he had been expecting this first day, a good cuppa hadn't been on the list at all, but he was grateful for it. No matter how odd his new life might be, there was always tea, the last bastion of the English.
He was curious about Mrs. Hudson, and how she had ended up being part of all this, but he couldn't think of a way to ask that wasn't prying into business that was not his own. One of the first things that Greg had told him was never to ask any questions of other agents, because they just might answer them.
He didn't really want to know, he decided.
Mrs. Hudson poured the tea, tutting as she had to move books and crusted-over beakers out of her way. "He knew you were coming today, and I told him to move his things, but of course he's been busy with the job." She waved her hand vaguely and John nodded. "I'm sure he'll sort it all out when he gets home."
"Do you know where he's gone?"
"Oh, no. He tends to play his cards close to the chest, especially after that dreadful business in Copenhagen last year." She gave John a significant look and he nodded again, feeling lost. "I gave Mycroft an earful after that, not that it's made much difference. These boys: you can't ever tell them anything; they just go on just as they choose. I'm sure you've been briefed in all that, though."
"Right," John said, swallowing.
Mrs. Hudson set her cup down and seemed to consider him. "You seem a good sort. I do hope you'll stay. I know that Sherlock has a reputation for being a bit tetchy. You really mustn't mind him, or take anything to heart. He comes and goes at the oddest hours. You'll get used to that. Doesn't take the time to say where he's going, either – I know that drove some of his earlier handlers up the bloody wall. I'm sure it will be different with you, though," she said kindly, although her expression clearly stated that she doubted it. "Oh, the rows he's caused," she chuckled. "It's best if you let him do as he pleases, I expect. He's not the sort of person to change unless he sees a good reason for it."
"I see," John said, though he was fairly far from seeing, actually.
Mrs. Hudson patted him on the shoulder and left him staring moodily into his tea.
"I'll bring lunch up in an hour or so, all right? You just get settled in."
As it happened, Sherlock didn't come in until some point in the middle of the night. John went to bed with his gun under his pillow just after midnight, and woke up to the door to the loo banging shut at two. He hadn't heard the man come into the flat at all, which probably was not a very heartening observation on his second day as a spy.
He cracked open his bedroom door and peered at the fully-illuminated living room. The telly was on, though the sound was turned down, and newspapers covered the sofa. John shut his door and pulled on his clothes quickly. He didn't want to meet Sherlock for the first time in his pajamas.
The loo door opened and a tall man with dark hair came in.
"Hello," John said, holding out his hand. "I'm –"
He glared at John, shouldering past him to the kitchen. "I know who you are."
John blinked. Right. Down to business, then. "I was told to ask you for a status update," he said, following him through the room.
Sherlock snorted. "Of course you were." He pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. "Mycroft never could resist trying to assert his authority." He adjusted a slide on the microscope and leaned down to look into the eyepiece. "Too bad, though, because I'm busy."
"Doing what?" John asked, interested despite himself. There had to be a good explanation for all of the lab equipment.
Sherlock peered at him over the microscope. "Experiments," he said, ducking his head down again.
John had to close his eyes so he wouldn't roll them, so strong was urge. When he opened them again Sherlock was watching him, his lips drawn up in a smirk identical to Mycroft's. He frowned immediately when he saw John's expression.
"What?" he demanded.
"Nothing." When that obviously wasn't going to be enough, John shrugged. "You just reminded me of your brother."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "I am nothing like my brother," he snapped.
John blinked once. "You're right," he admitted. "He's a lot more terrifying, come to think of it."
For a split second Sherlock actually pouted at that, his lip stuck out like a petulant child's.
John couldn't hold back a bark of laughter, which only made it worse. Still, he couldn't exactly help it. The idea that this was the agent he'd been dreading meeting since he got on the plane was almost too much. There had been Sergeants who were actively scarier than Sherlock, despite his obvious desire to behave like an arse to everyone around him. John leaned against the doorframe and watched him.
Sherlock finally gave him an incredulous glare. "Are you going to stand there all day?"
"I need the status update," John said again, calmly.
"Ex-military," Sherlock muttered, rolling his eyes. "Mycroft never changes." He sniffed. "There is no status update. You might as well turn around and go home now. I don't need a babysitter."
"I didn't say you did," John said.
"But that is your job, isn't it? To be my babysitter?"
"It was phrased more as assisting," John said carefully.
Sherlock snorted. "Don't bother splitting hairs. You're my babysitter, and you're going to report back to my brother about everything I get up to. He wouldn't have bothered with you at all if you weren't the docile, loyal sort he could control. He's not paying you enough, you know. You might as well request a reassignment form from Mrs. Hudson. She keeps a whole stack of them for me. I hope you didn't bother unpacking."
"Oh, do shut up," John said irritably. He was happy to note Sherlock look a bit surprised. Just a bit, though. "We both know I'm not going anywhere. I'm here to do a job. You'll hardly be the worst patient I've ever had, so don't bother trying to scare me off."
Sherlock was looking at him with new interest. "You're a doctor." Half of his mouth twitched up. "That's new, at least. Come to get me to kick my filthy drug habit, have you?"
"That's part of it," John allowed. "But I don't think you'd need a doctor for that."
"But it helps," Sherlock maintained. "And Mycroft is nothing if not thorough. You're his ridiculous way of showing me he's serious this time."
John shrugged. "Maybe."
"You're not an addiction specialist, though," Sherlock said, his eyes sweeping John. "He's threatened that."
John swallowed. "My sister is an alcoholic," he said quietly. "I'm not sure how Mycroft found out about that, but –"
Sherlock huffed. "I'm sure you don't. When dealing with my brother, it's always best to assume he already knows everything. Anything else just wastes time."
"I'm getting that, thanks."
Sherlock turned back to his microscope. "I don't need a handler. Oh, I'm sorry, an assistant. This is just Mycroft's meddling. Besides, I don't need your help with the cocaine. Mycroft can believe whatever he likes; I have the situation under control."
John snorted. "Every addict believes that, you know. I think it might be the first sign of addiction."
Sherlock glared. "I'm certainly not every addict. The cocaine is necessary. This job is so dull without it."
"You think being a spy is dull?"
"Of course it is. How would you know? You obviously don't know anything at all about this sort of thing. I mean look at you. You're obviously not skilled at deception. You have no business in doing this sort of work. I don't know why they bothered recruiting you. Chances are you'll get yourself killed within a month."
"Anyone with the slightest observational skills can see everything you're thinking on your face." Sherlock looked up at him, his eyes narrowing. "Don't like me much, do you?"
"It doesn't take any observational skills to know that," John said dryly. "You're supposed to teach me," he pointed out.
Sherlock snorted and opened his mouth to argue when something seemed to occur to him. His mouth snapped back closed. "Ah," he said finally. "I see."
There was a silence as Sherlock calmly placed a new slide under the microscope.
"See what?" John finally asked.
"You. You're my project. Something to keep me occupied so I don't find a more interesting means of occupying myself. That's how Mycroft thinks." Sherlock snorted. "At least the last one was more entertaining."
John frowned. "How many handlers have you had?"
"Fifteen in the past three years."
"Did they all – are they – "
"They're not dead. They just requested reassignment."
"Oh. Good. That's good. Why?"
Sherlock smirked. "Working with me was apparently not to their taste."
"I can't imagine why not," John muttered.
"Unlike you, they were all experienced field agents. I only get the best. Or, had only gotten the best."
"So this isn't the way it usually works, then?" John asked.
"Well. Great. I did feel a little underprepared."
"He thinks I'll take you under my wing and protect you, but that's because he's an idiot. You'll be dead within a month, I'd wager."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," John sighed.
Sherlock shrugged, eyeing him coolly. "A month may be a generous estimate. You should get on the next plane."
John shook his head. "I don't think so. I may not know much about being a proper spy, but I do know how to be a doctor under less-than-ideal circumstances, and I do know a bit about addiction, which I'm guessing were my chief qualifications. So the drug issue is something I can handle, whether you want to help me or not."
"Of course I'm not going to help you." Sherlock stared at him. "I'm sure even you know that an unwilling intervention has less than a 20% chance of succeeding."
"This isn’t an intervention," John said calmly. "There are ways I can help you whether you want me to or not."
Sherlock sat back in his chair so quickly it creaked. "How were you planning on doing that, exactly?"
John just smiled slowly, turning on his heel and walking out of the room. He felt Sherlock's eyes on him all the way through the living room, but he didn't turn back around.
The violin woke him half an hour later. John didn't recognize the music – he'd never been much of a fan of classical music. Whatever it was sounded fast and angry, and John was fairly certain that it wasn't meant to be played that way. John got the feeling if it were a piano Sherlock would be pounding on the keys, throwing a wobbly.
John sighed, rolling over and pulling his pillow over his head. He had long ago learned to sleep through the roar of war; a violin in the middle of the night was nothing. No matter how like his brother he may be, it wasn't like Sherlock Holmes could possibly be worse than the Taliban. Could he?