He should have expected the dream.
He now frequently went days at a time without waking up with his heart pounding, sweat prickling around his hairline, gasping for breath. Weeks at a time, sometimes.
But those days and weeks generally didn’t involve helicopter rides, the muzzle of a gun at the nape of his neck, Americans with shorn heads … or his comrades collapsing bonelessly to the floor, muttering nonsense as they lost consciousness.
So John should have expected the dream.
The helicopter hadn’t stirred up any unpleasant memories at the time. It was so much smaller than a Chinook, all bubbly window and spacious viewscreen, and the ground rushing past was shades of green and gold and divided so neatly into field and pasture and common. The sound was different too – the buzzing of a bumblebee in a warm garden, not the deep throbbing of a tiger’s purr. He’d enjoyed the ride immensely, truth be told.
But it was his first time in a helicopter since … well, since his last time in a helicopter. Which had been … well, possibly his last time in a helicopter.
So yes, the dream really was quite predictable.
He’d checked on Sherlock again before returning to his laptop at the table in the sitting room. His flatmate hadn’t stirred since his outburst in the late afternoon, but his pulse and respirations were normal now, and John knew all that was left now was for him to sleep off the remains of the drug. Still, John felt fidgety about him. Nervous, keyed up, as though some rare and random complication might yet arise. He found himself checking on Sherlock every thirty minutes, and then every quarter-hour. He felt himself slipping from a sense of friendly caretaking into professional mode, taking measurements silently but formally, formulating his observations into passable charting notes. Finally, he told himself – firmly – to stop fussing, close the door, have a cup of tea, and try to blog.
But the words wouldn’t come, and the empty text box with its flashing cursor just made him more fidgety. He wanted to write about the breathtaking panorama of central London unfolding under his feet, of the ground rushing and the sound of the wind and the knowledge that access to that airspace was simply not given – not unless you were Mycroft, at least. But it had been made clear that the morning’s trip to the palace was Not Blog Material.
He wound up on the sofa, staring at a magazine he’d already read, turning over the day in his mind. Finally, though, he must have dozed off.
His whole body is heavier, weighed down, burdened. His range of movement is constricted, his shoulders stiff against some burden, and his whole body is thrumming, vibrating at a low, gut-churning frequency, like a panicked heartbeat being played on fast-forward though bass speakers. It takes several breaths to orient himself, to understand.
He’s in full body armor, sidearmed, flak-jacketed, and helmeted. The bandoliers across his chest, though, hold syringes, vials, and tubing, not ammunition. He’s crouching in the belly of a Chinook helicopter, he’s running standard trauma procedures in his head, almost meditatively – and he’s absolutely high on adrenaline.
He’s been on duty for 8 hours and is on his third run of the shift. He’s already stabilized a seven year old girl who followed a goat into a firefight and kept a nearly disemboweled Dane alive long enough for him to die on an operating table back at base, and now they’re heading towards a team of Americans who triggered an IED while trying to clear the main road into their base. The immediate area is secure, and air command judged the RAF was in a better position to get the wounded lieutenant back to a hospital before he bled out of the stumps where both his legs used to be. A second man has a faceful of shrapnel but is apparently relatively stable.
Their security team are crouching out of the way, near the exits. Next to John, paramedics McFetters and Donohue are running their own checks, getting ready for landing, when they’re going to be the medics who actually leave the safety of the chopper -- with security escort -- to take charge of the wounded. Across the way, flight nurse Murray grins at him. She’s the only other Army sod on this flight; the paramedics and the Quick response team on MERT are RAF, but they let the Army loan them their trauma docs and the occasional ER nurse, and he and Murray have both rotated through this service several times already. She’s the nurse he’d most want with him for a difficult case, and they’ve become good friends on this tour. Billie’s a strapping lass, taller and fairer than John, and the lads jokingly call her their Valkyrie. The ones who have seen Apocalypse Now sometimes hum Wagner under their breaths at the pilot hits the landing zone and the paramedics and security rush out.
The smoke signal from the ground team has let off is visible, the color telling their pilot it’s safe to land. John prepares himself for the rush, the jolt, the extreme clarity that accompanies this moment. Team out, meet the Americans, get the MIST and throw the two injured men onboard. The moment he gets his hands on the casualties, the trauma “Golden Hour” clock stops ticking. John, Billie, and the rest are, for all intents and purposes, a functional trauma ER, and they pride themselves on the fact that they can save wounded men who, less than a decade ago, would have bled out into the sands of a foreign country.
Except this time, of all times, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, it goes all pear-shaped. Suddenly, and very quickly.
John isn’t looking out at the retrieval team, so he hears the gunfire without registering its import. Behind him, though, he hears Murray yelling “What the bloody fuck!?” and whips around. Looking out through the tail entrance, he sees the security team bringing rifles up to firing position, sees the end of one of the casualty stretchers has dropped to the ground, sees a paramedic rolling in the dirt, pressing his face into the sand. Puffs of dust mark bullets hitting the earth around the team outside. He hears screaming.
Over his headset, the pilot is yelling something, but more shots, more yelling, mean John can’t register what he’s saying. The Americans are returning fire, covering their evacuation, and he can hear the much louder shout of the armaments on the escort chopper. The ground team are hauling one stretcher onboard, but the second … the men carrying it are both down, and Danny McFetters is trying to haul Liam Donohue back on board, and John runs to the hatch to get a shoulder under Liam’s other arm.
They deposit Liam on the floor next to the American casualty. The squad medic has already done the first necessary things, and both stumps are firmly tourniqueted. John looks back over his shoulder, out the hatch, and sees the rest of the team struggling to get themselves and the other stretcher aboard. They’re yelling “Go! Go! Go!” as the last man’s second foot hits the ramp, and the world tilts and jerks as the pilot takes off.
John bends over Donohue where he’s curled on the floor; Murray is running the checklist on the more badly injured of the two casualties they were sent to retrieve, and those men have had at least some treatment, whereas Liam seems to be bleeding heavily from somewhere, which needs to be dealt with quickly. John makes short work of anesthetizing the double amputee, which will ensure that what Murray and McFetters have to do to him next is somewhat more humane, and then he grabs a gauze pack and starts unfastening Liam’s body armor, looking for the bullet hole. He glances back and sees how low to the ground they are, wonders why they’re not gaining altitude faster. He’d like to be out of the line of fire and would think that straight up would be preferable to hovering like a giant target over the Afghan countryside.
Beside him, Murray announces she’s punched a central line into the American’s sternum and is starting to deliver blood directly into his bone to replace some of his massive loss. John nods, turns back to Liam, and starts reeling out haemostatic gauze and stuffing it as deep into the ugly exit wound in the man’s lower abdomen as his fingers will push. It’s not good, but they’re not far from Bastion, and all they have to do is keep him from bleeding out until they get there.
The chopper still isn’t behaving properly, though. John is just processing this, realizing that some of the bullets must have been targeted at its mechanicals, when he sees bullets pocking the wall above his head. They’re still under fire from the ground. More metallic pongs and pings, and he drops down over Donohue to shield him, trying to protect him from further injury from bits of shrapnel He wonders where their escort chopper is, why he can’t hear them returning fire at whoever is taking potshots at the nearly-unarmed Chinook.
And then the whole world tilts, slams up, around, and sideways, and something punches him in the side, hard. He’s still face-down over Donohue, but they’re not where they were, they’re sliding, sliding toward the still-open rear door, because the floor is tilting. And he hears a surprisingly calm voice in his ears, as the pilot announces “And that’s it for the left stabilizers. The hydraulics have been hit, and we’re going to have to make an unscheduled stop. ”
He jams his feet against a bulkhead to stop them sliding further. He sees McFetters lose his grip on the second American’s stretcher, tumble and slam hard against the wall of supplies next to him. Beneath him, Liam is screaming. John swears, realizing he hasn’t yet gotten any morphine into the man. Automatically, he reaches for the syringe stashed in its pouch on the front of his jacket, but his left arm refuses to obey, He pushes up on his right arm to roll off his injured teammate and get the painkillers, but the motion fills his chest with a surge of white agony.
“Ahhh, SHIT!” He prides himself on not revealing anger or fear to patients, but the curse is involuntary, and the groan that accompanies it causes Murray to spin to look at him.
“Watson? Johnny? Oh fuck...”
And there’s a big bump and another slide, a wild sideways slew that slams John and Liam sideways against the bulkhead again, another bump, and the motion and vibration of flight stop. The stillness that follows is uncanny. For a moment, everyone is silent, listening to the rotors spin down. And then some starts to scream again, but John can't see who.
The security team are staggering to their feet and crowding to the doors, unslinging rifles and swinging out the tail gun, but Murray is crawling towards him, and he finally looks down and over, and sees what has turned her face so pale. Blood is running – gushing, really – down the armpit of his flak jacket and down his side under it. The motion of trying to roll off Donohue has smeared blood out the neckline of the jacket as well. He’s been hit through his armhole, and John and Billie both know immediately that many of the possible trajectories of such a shot are truly ugly. Depending on which way the bullet has ricocheted inside his body, John’s “Golden Hour” may be much closer to a “Platinum Ten Minutes.”
Might as well finish up what he was doing, he reasons, and he fishes out that morphine syringe and jams it into Liam. Someone might as well get some relief.
“Looks like we landed near something shelter-shaped,” Murray tells him as she jabs him with his own dose of morphine. He can’t hold himself up and off Liam anymore, and collapses, rolling onto his back in a motion that causes more of that awful, wrenching, pain. “Here’s hoping the Terries don’t have a good angle on us,” she continues, “Because I really do not want to have to haul your arse over my shoulder to what passes for a stable in this shithole.” She’s unclasping his vest with one hand, other hand on his throat feeling for his pulse.
“No way to tie this one off, Watson,” she mutters. He nods; the problem with chest and belly wounds is that they cannot be clamped off with tourniquets until the surgeons are involved. The best Murray will be able to do is stuff him full of the same gauze he’s used on Donohue and then tamp down on the exterior wounds with elastic bandages. That may keep his blood in his body, but it’s not going to keep it in his veins.
Next to him, too close to him, Donohue is screaming again, calling for Doc Watson, and his mum, and his Valkryie, and God and drugs and mum again, and John can barely hear Murray over the din as she reports to the flight crew up front how very, very fucked up it is in the back of this bus. John reaches over with his good hand and grabs Donohue’s.
“Liam! Liam! It’s Doctor Watson!” It’s getting harder to speak loudly enough for the other man to hear him, since he can’t seem to take a deep breath with something sitting on his fucking chest like this. “I’m here, Liam! I’ve got you! I’ve given you morphine. You’ve got as much morphine in you as I can give you. It should be working by now…. Can’t you feel it? Feel it taking hold?”
His pathetic ruse works. Donohue’s cries quiet, and John shifts his head as much as he can, putting his mouth close to the other man’s ear as he continues to talk. “See? We’re taking care of you. We’ll get you back to the hospital and the best damn surgeons in any man’s army will give you all the best drugs.”
He has to stop as Murray lifts him slightly to strap an unwieldy pad of bandages onto him. He can’t stifle a yelp, but he tries to turn the sob that follows it into a laugh. “How’s it looking there, Billie?” He tries to smile at her.
“Fucking brilliant, Johnny” she replies. “Absofuckinlutely fan-fucking-tastic.” She grins at him, and she’s not fooling him. They are officially fucked, and fucked hard. He knows, for himself, that he is in serious shit. He’s on the ground, in hostile territory, in a non-functional helicopter full of other injured people, with a gaping hole someplace in his shoulder.
“Please God, let me live.”
The world is graying at the edges, which he decides is probably good because he won’t have to see Murray and their patients shot to death in front of him when the locals figure out their exact position and show up en masse. He feels the sting as someone gets IV access, wants to compliment the technique because they got it In one go and he’s a hard stick at the best of times, but speaking has become too hard, and even breathing seems to be more trouble than it’s worth, and John just lets go of reality for a bit.
He regains consciousness briefly as Murray is carrying the foot end of a stretcher out of the wounded Chinook. The pain is still there, throbbing, but seems oddly distant, like it’s happening to a body that is almost, but not quite, in the same place as his. Murray must have dosed him up good. It’s dark now, and all around are different voices with flat vowels and drawn-out syllables. The face above him at the head of the stretcher is ruddy and weathered, and grinning at him.
“We’ve gotcha, Doc,” the man announces. “We get to pay you Brits back for that assist you gave the last month. Gonna be a tight squeeze, but we’ll get all y’all outta here in one go.” Ah, it’s the American Air Force then, in Blackhawks full of full-on crazy paramedics. John realizes if he’s still alive to be able to process that thought, there’s a good chance this team of bloody-minded paratroopers in medic uniforms will be able get him back to a hospital. He grins up at the man looking down at him, and tries to joke, “I hear PJs like to ride on the skids for fun. .. that’d make more room for the rest of us…”
But nothing comes out, his voice is gone and he realizes its because someone – almost certainly Murray, has put a tube through a hole in his neck to restore his airway. He licks his lips and tastes blood – lots of it, and he wonders if she even bothered with the by-the-book two attempts at getting a tube into him non-surgically, or went straight for the cricothyrotomy kit. Technically, if anyone on the MERT team was doing that procedure, it should have been him – but self-intubation is one of those cowboy-medic myths, and he knows she’s damn good at what she does.
The stretcher jolts as it’s pushed on board the chopper, and the American is right, jamming all the passengers of the much larger aircraft on board a Pavehawk is not simple, nor comfortable, and something is delaying them from reattaching his oxygen to the supply tanks, and despite the noise and fear and chaos, John passes out again. The last thing he remembers is Murray is holding his good right hand and using her body to try to stabilize his stretcher as the overloaded bird groans and jerks its way into the air.
When he wakes again, 72 hours later, he’s in hospital in England. Harry is asleep in an uncomfortable chair next to the window, looking drawn and rumpled. His entire left arm is immobilized: wrapped, braced, splinted, padded, and tractioned. His mouth is dry and sticky and tastes of blood and latex, but what pain there is is dull and diffuse, not acute. He’s cold, the light coming into the drab beige room through the tiny window is dim and grey and has a peevish late-afternoon slant even though the clock says it’s only 15:30.
This waking is confusing, disorienting, horrifying.
He feels like Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz; England is Kansas, there’s no color anywhere and the people around him are familiar yet strangers, a panoply of pale smiling faces in proper civilian scrubs. And he knows, as soon as he wakes, that he’s not going to get to go back to the Emerald City.
John woke, shaking and breathless, from his dream of waking to numb and cold and silence. He was still on the sofa, and his neck was stiff and his shoulder cramping. The light coming in the window over his head was dim but natural, and he could see that the streetlights were off and day was breaking, misty and diffuse. He pushed himself upright and tried to collect himself, elbows on knees, head in hands, deep breaths on a four-count inheale, four count hold, four count exhale until he could feel his heart rate returning to normal. He had moved his left arm in to rest right against his body and was rubbing the close-cropped fuzz at the back of his neck over and over with his right hand when he sensed someone behind him. Sherlock. Of course.
“Did I wake you?”
“No. Been sleeping since yesterday. Did you sit up on the sofa all night, John?”
“Um, yeah. I mean, no. Apparently I fell asleep for at least a bit at the end there, so….” He let the sentence fall away. “Feeling better, Sherlock? Slept off the last of it? Not too hung over, I hope – I tried to get some fluids into you last night, but you were having none of that.”
Sherlock looked down at the floor and ran his hands through his own hair, mirroring John’s earlier gesture. “Fine. I’m fine. Slept like a baby, really. Very restful. Just going to ….”
John remained where he was seated, breathing deeply. After a moment, he took his left wrist in his right hand and began to massage it tentatively. He was still doing this when a mug of tea was placed beside him. He picked it up automatically and took a tentative sip, found that it was perfectly hot and not too strong and only a little too sweet, but sugar was good for shock, right?
“Was it the helicopter?” His flatmate’s voice, deep and sonorous, from behind him again. “You were saying something about helicopters just before you sat up.”
He had been making noise, then. Damn. “Um, yeah, yeah. Probably. Noisy buggers, all over Afghanistan. Always bringing more patients.” His left hand, curled around the mug, twitched. He switched hands and shoved the traitorous one into his right armpit.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” he repeated, trying to turn the conversation back around on Sherlock. That drug she gave you can have some side effects and aftereffects. I mean… yeah, its safe but they… we… used to use it in hospital, so I know it can…”
Sherlock interrupted him, but not casually, not impatiently. “Headache, short-term memory issues, and particularly vivid dreaming. Yes, I know. As, I’m sure, do you.”
John stopped. Opened his mouth, closed it again. Met Sherlock’s gaze with a challenge. “I do. Yes, Sherlock, I do.”
“Standard practice in airway management involves prior anesthesia. The scar in the hollow of your throat suggests particularly aggressive surgical airway management. You probably were given a much higher dose than I received, repeatedly over hours or days.”
John shrugged at this. “Days. I woke up in hospital in Birmingham with Harry next to me, tearfully confessing her most recent sins to my recently-comatose body. After getting shot and then dreaming about getting shot in glorious vivid Technicolor for God knows how long, at first I thought I must have wound up in hell.”
“Hell isn’t other people, John. It’s very specific other people. Like siblings.” Sherlock’s smile at that relaxed John’s vigilance somewhat, and he dropped his slightly aggressive posture a bit and picked the mug back up.
“Do you want me to tell Mycroft that helicopters are out as a rule?” Sherlock went on after a moment.
“Not bloody likely, Sherlock! Seeing London from the air like that? Amazing. Absolutely amazing! Not of course, that it’s likely to ever happen again. You and your … sodding pants. It’s a bit too much to ask for a second invitation.”
Sherlock nodded, raising his own cup to his mouth and taking a slow sip of his tea. “Yes, well,” he said. “I think we can do better, anyway. Play our cards right and the next flight will be to Balmoral. Buzzing the Dales at low altitude, maybe overflying Edinburg by night….”
John couldn’t help but grin, now. Because working with Sherlock was an awful lot like getting to go back to Oz a second time. Working with Sherlock, London was revealing herself as the Emerald City, the Scarlet City, with a life and color all her own. It made him feel like he hadn’t been sent home to sit out the fight, merely transferred from one front to another.
John was no longer able to fulfill the purpose he’d trained for, but he had a purpose again. A good one. If sometimes the bad guys got away, as they – she! – had yesterday, there’d always be a next day with another chance. Sherlock would always see to that.