John Watson sinks into a doze and surfaces in a dream, falling past layers and layers of desert sand, sounds and images swirling and sifting through his hands like the dust that fills up his mouth and he's gasping for breath when he wakes up. There's sunshine on his hot eyelids and he had apparently fallen asleep leaning against a Plexiglas window. His bad shoulder is cramping fiercely from the pressure and he suppresses a grunt as he sits up straight again, orienting himself.
He is riding on a train, staring out at brown-gray meadows and trees with brilliant red-gold foliage that swirl in the wind as the train races past.
It's past peak time and the carriage is only at half capacity. John studies the other passengers out of habit and training and the off-balance wariness that he suspects will never leach out of his bloodstream. The presence of people and objects and concepts that he understand to exist surround him, but they all feel out of reach, as if he cannot touch them no matter how hard they press up against his space, his presence, his consciousness. The chilly air in the car seems to be stifling and he undoes the top three buttons of his blue chambray shirt, then tugs at the collar of the white vest underneath. It doesn't help.
John massages his aching leg. His cane is leaning against the blue upholstery of the empty seat next to him. He lets out a breath and closes his eyes against the glare of the twin lines of fluorescent lights overhead. Clenches and unclenches his left hand. Opens his eyes to stare at his watch and sees that it's 10:45 AM.
Three seats down and across the aisle a girl opens a can of Fanta, spills it on a passerby's shoe, apologises. Five seats back a man's mobile goes off, chiming with an annoyingly bright tune. A teenager listens to his radio without headphones.
A thin voice crackles over the sound system as the train begins to slow down. The next station stop will be Leamington Spa.
He has mostly nothing to do, these days. He applies for jobs that he doesn't get, flips through books he can't concentrate on, heats up instant meals that he doesn't particularly want to eat, tries to sleep through the days and nights but the dreams don't let him. Ella had said, you must go out and do something. Depression feeds on isolation. You need to connect to other people, preferably civilians. Adjust. The doctor in him knows she is psychologically correct. The cynic in him believes that psychology is mostly bullshit. But in the end, the pragmatist in him decides that just because his therapist is an idiot doesn't mean that rotting away in a shitty bedsit is the solution.
When the train comes to a full stop, John shifts his position to watch the sliding doors. Three men and one women exit. Two women and one man enter. The last passenger instantly stands out: tall and pale, dark curls, carrying himself differently than all the rest of the train. He's wearing a charcoal greatcoat and a looped blue scarf over a tailored suit and dark purple shirt. Poncey bastard, John's mind helpfully annotates. The man stands just in front of the closed doors, then surveys the train with a slow, steady turn of his head.
The train begins to move. The man walks off towards one end of the train, and John goes back to staring on the window until a voice calls to him.
"Afghanistan or Iraq?"
John turns, rubs at his eyes. The man in the coat is sitting across from him. "What?"
"Which was it, Afghanistan or Iraq?"
"Afghanistan," he says slowly, staring at the man, who gives him a flat look back.
"May I borrow your phone?"
John has qualms about strangers, but no great love for his phone. He reaches into a pocket of his worn black-leather jacket, fumbles around the few papers and receipts jammed inside, and hands over the device.
The man's fingers fly over the keypad, scrolls through something or other, and John sees his eyes darting back and forth for a minute. Then he is typing out a text for ten or so seconds, before handing the phone back. John reaches out and takes it, then blinks at the most recently sent text, which is still there on the screen: If brother has green ladder, arrest brother. He frowns and looks up from the cryptic message to meet the man's piercing gaze.
"How did you guess I was in Afghanistan?"
"I didn't guess, I observed. But forget that a moment. It seems you and I are both looking for new living arrangements. I've got my eye on a nice place in central London. Together we ought to be able to swing it. What do you say?"
"And how did you know I was looking for a flat?"
The man points to one of the papers that has fallen out of John's pocket. "You've got a couple of printouts from RightMove with today's date on it. I suppose it must be difficult to find something acceptable on an Army pension. How about it?"
"We've only just met," John says. "We don't know a thing about each other. I don't even know your name."
The other man heaves a long-suffering sigh.
"I know you were in an infantry regiment, and that you were recently invalided home from Afghanistan. It's probably because you were wounded in the leg, and you developed sepsis afterwards, which kept in you in hospital until you were discharged about a week ago. I know you trained in medicine before you joined the army -- surgery, probably. You were a very good doctor, but you're having a hard time finding work nonetheless. Enough to be going on with, don't you think? The name is Sherlock Holmes and the address is 221 Baker Street."
John's head is spinning, trying to wrap itself around the stranger's rapid, cool words.
"All right. My name's John Watson. How did you know all that?"
"Your haircut, your posture, they scream military. You're left-handed, but your right hand is callused, suggesting you were toting a gun, perhaps an assault rifle for quite some time. You were outside, wearing a helmet while on patrol in dangerous parts, as your tan line suggests," and he gestures to where John can still, almost, feel the ghost of strap across his chin.
"The cane suggests you suffered an injury to your leg, but you also have a small circular scar at your collarbone, the kind from a central line. Given a leg injury, the most likely reason for inserting a central line is to deliver high dose antibiotics and fluids for sepsis. That scar is quite fresh, so you were discharged from hospital recently. Your hair is still short, your tan hasn't even started to fade, so the timeline suggests you were wounded in action and that got you sent home. Add all that up and you get -- Afghanistan or Iraq.
"The addresses you last looked up on your phone are all hospitals and surgeries in London. You can't possibly be a patient at all of them, so you must be interviewing. You've had a lot of interviews; your record must be excellent. But you're also looking for a flat-share, so you haven't been hired. And what are you doing on this train? Army pensions don't go very far, besides, your clothes speak to your economising. You wouldn't be taking pleasure trips, and you weren't staying with someone else, no overnight bag. More likely, you were interviewing in Birmingham earlier this morning. You don't look happy, so it must have gone badly, like all the others. Now why is that? Likely it's because as soon as you step into a room and the interviewer sees that tremor in your dominant hand, they know you're unfit for a specialty that requires a steady touch -- surgery. How am I doing so far?"
Sherlock sits back, giving a bland expression at having laying bare the cold, sad facts of John Watson's present circumstance.
"That was -- brilliant," John says.
"Really?" Sherlock's pale gaze reminds him of Sheffield steel.
John raises his left hand and holds it parallel to the floor, staring at its skin and bones. The shaking is gone at this moment. He flexes his fingers, enjoying the quiet in the nerves.
"Yes. That was extraordinary. Quite extraordinary."
Sherlock cocks his head to the side. "That's not what people usually say."
"Why, what do they usually say?"
John laughs then, startling himself. "Most people don't appreciate being told the things they don't like about themselves."
Sherlock goes from inscrutable to a confused smile. He wears it badly, as if he had been preparing his face for a different expression altogether but unexpectedly found himself bringing this one out. "Whereas you do?"
"No, but I appreciate being lied to even less." John shrugs. "Can't stand it when other people try to deceive me about myself. At least you aren't doing that."
Sherlock pauses before saying, "Ah." Then, "Did I get anything wrong?"
John considers not telling, but it would be a shame. "It was the shoulder." As if on cue, his leg spasms and he doesn't school his expression fast enough as his hand grips the muscle hard. It's not a pained grimace, but an angry one, and he tries to look away from Sherlock but it's too late.
"Shoulder. So your leg is psychosomatic, then. Well, there's always something." Sherlock says, as the train begins to slow down again. His eyes narrow. "You're not proud of it -- to be expected, you're not that type. But you weren't upset earlier when I noted that you had been shot, rather, you only looked upset just now when you were reminded of what the shot did to you. So it's likely not merely something picked up in the course of crossfire, by random chance; it wasn't a pointless injury."
"Didn't get out of the way fast enough is all," John says with a straight face.
"Oh, no, this was really picked up in the course of duty, perhaps even going above and beyond it. Dragging someone back to safety, or treating someone else who went down, that sort of futile yet heroic action."
John doesn't expect to laugh, but he does. "When I woke up in hospital, the first conversation I could remember was my CO telling me off."
Sherlock quirks a smile. "Does your therapist know all this?"
"How do you know I have a therapist?"
"You have a psychosomatic limp, of course if you have a therapist. And she must be an idiot, since --"
The announcer comes on the PA system again. The next station stop will be Banbury. Please be sure to gather all your personal belongings before exiting the train. Mind the gap between the station and the platform.
Sherlock stops talking and looks around. Then he reaches inside his coat pocket and takes out his own phone -- which hasn't made a sound -- and frowns at it. He gets up quickly and strides through the train carriage's open doors, and by the time that John looks back at the seat to notice that the phone has been left on the seat, the phone's owner is out of view.
John blinks and, with the initiative that had made him both brave and foolish, grabs the phone. The other man snooped on his phone, and John feels not a tiny bit of vindictive pleasure as he pulls up the last text received. The timestamp places the text at just a few minutes before Sherlock would have gotten on the train.
Message Received From Archenemy @ 10:44 AM
Source Code seeding protocol has been initiated on your person. RECORDING INITIATED. Team standing by at next station. MH
Frowning in confusion, John gets up and jogs after the taller man, getting out of the train just in time -- the sliding doors clip his jacket as they close -- for no reason other than the nebulous but undeniable burning fact that there is something about this man, who is the first person John has been able to talk to, the first person who makes him feel at all alive, the first thing he has taken any interest in since he opened his eyes blearily in a hospital bed.
He races down the concrete platform and has almost caught up to the other man, when he realizes that he hasn't got his cane anymore, and the world tilts for a moment as he processes the development.
Sherlock turns and stares at him. "John? What are you doing here? Your stop is London Marylebone."
"How did you -- right, never mind that. You left your phone behind when you ran off. Is something the matter?" He asks, as if he has a right to know.
"You really want to know?" Sherlock's face is oddly pleased. "I'm on a mission. It could be dangerous."
"Could be even more dangerous to go it alone," John retorts. "Do you want some help?"
Sherlock approaches, one hand tucked behind his back and the other outstretched for the phone, head very slightly tilted and looking at John as if he is a particularly interesting specimen of some kind.
"You have no idea what I'm involved in. And yet you are saying you want to come along?"
"Yes," John says, and sets the phone into Sherlock's hand. When skin brushes skin, they both freeze like a frame in a movie.
Fifty meters away, an attendant is shouting all aboard. The train is about to pull out of the station.
"Your cane's gone," Sherlock says, his hand still on the phone that is still in John's hand, "and I said dangerous, and you offer to come. Oh, oh, I see now. It wasn't the war that did the damage, was it?"
There's a thudding in John's heart and a roar in his ears and he feels everything slot into place throughout his body, painfully correct like a thousand shattered bones being set all at once.
In the next instant a massive explosion from the train roars through the air and shakes the ground, pouring out searing heat and roiling fire and smoke. Sherlock's face is frozen in shock but John feels an absurd flash of nostalgia as he processes the second and third explosions that are spreading down the train cars, burning and exploding through the diesel fuel lines. In that moment he estimates the direction of the force and heat and explosion coming their way and then he tackles Sherlock onto the grass, covering the body with his own and pushing the head down, and the very last thing that John Watson feels is the warmth of an exhaled breath against his chest.
Please, God, let --