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The Skeleton Winter

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It is November, and what's left of Joanna Watson has returned to England.

Invalided, crippled, and defunct, the worst injury she has sustained is not to her shoulder, or to her leg, but to her way of thinking. She can't see anything in the proper light. Her mind's eye is still blinded by the sun that baked the dirt of Afghanistan. She had been shot. She had lain for hours where she fell, burning with delirium, sticky with blood, covered in dust and flies. She wakes from nightmares with sweat-soaked blankets tangled tight around her neck and shoulders, thinking she's still there, that night has fallen and the misshapen lump under her head is the body of her patrol leader, who died because Joanna lost consciousness, and her hands, applying pressure to the holes in chest, fell slack.

Everything Joanna Watson used to be bled out of her under the glaring eye of a foreign sun. There is nothing for her in England, in the damp, misty grey world outside the windows of her bedsit.

"How do you feel about being home again?" is the very first thing her therapist asks her, because Joanna has no idea how to begin, and Ella thinks the question a safe one.

"It's fine," says Joanna. She looks to the left, and to the right. There are wide, bare picture windows in Ella's office, and the room is filled with milky winter light. "Bad weather."

Ella tracks the movement of her eye. A moment of silence passes, then she suggests Joanna might acquire a UV lamp.

At first, Joanna makes an effort in therapy, makes an effort with her sister, because human contact, however uncomfortable, at least makes her feel something. But even that changes, the discomfort worn away by the monotony of routine. The days stretch on, interminable in their sameness, and Joanna becomes aware that the inside of her head is as grey and featureless as the view from the window of her bedsit.

One night she wakes from a nightmare, hair clinging damply to the back of her neck, and gasps out a sob. She rolls onto her back and stares up at the ceiling, wondering how she is meant to live in a world that so obviously no longer has any place for her, when she no longer has the strength of will to make a place for herself.

She thinks about the gun in the drawer of her desk, and wonders if somewhere in that thought lies a false assumption.

*

Sherlock Holmes is bloody amazing. In the winter of her mind he is fire on the frost, a beacon in the fog.

He may be the first person since the war who has looked at Joanna and really, properly seen her. Not just a short, wasted woman with awkward chin-length hair and dubiously feminine scar tissue, but the lost soldier in search of a new mission.

Sherlock has purpose, and all the arrogant self-assurance of a man who has carved out his own place in life, in the teeth of everyone who ever told him that he didn't fit, that he didn't belong. This, even more than his rapid-fire brilliance, is what draws Joanna in. She craves that sort of devil-may-care, I-may-be-a-freak-but-you-need-me nonchalance that Sherlock exudes. And thanks to Sherlock, she finds some small part of it, because Sherlock doubts everything but himself, and since he wastes no time conceiving of Joanna as an extension of himself, there is no room for doubt where she is concerned, either.

"You are very loyal, very quickly," Mycroft Holmes says to her, sounding amused, skeptical, as though he suspects Joanna is acting a part to him, for some reason of her own.

But the reason for her loyalty is very simple, and the fact that Mycroft doesn't see it tells her that even his frightening omniscience has limits.

People come to a point in their lives when they have only two choices left: to change, or to die.

Since Afghanistan, Joanna has been, not a woman, but a ghost haunting a woman's body. When she meets Sherlock, she is weeks, maybe days, from making that final decision to--move on. As ghosts are meant to do.

But Sherlock expects things from her. And Joanna takes astonishing pleasure in rising to his challenges.

She knows that enlisting as the only recruit in Sherlock's private army isn't going to make her less damaged. But Sherlock puts her damage to good use. Joanna thinks that is by far the best thing that could have happened to her.

It may, in fact, be the only thing that could have saved her.

So it doesn't surprise her in the least that she chooses to kill a man for Sherlock's sake less than 24 hours after she meets him. Killing is lawful for a soldier under one of two conditions: to save her own life, or the life of a brother-in-arms.

When Joanna kills for Sherlock, both conditions are met.

*

Objectively speaking, Joanna knows that Sherlock is fucking gorgeous. Not her type, exactly, except in the sense that anyone as beautiful as Sherlock is everyone's type.

And, objectively speaking, Joanna knows that she is attractive to some men, Sherlock probably included. But coming from anyone other than Sherlock, that sort of attention repulses her. Since getting shot, Joanna looks at herself in the mirror and sees a stranger. Where once she was sturdy and solid, now she appears frail. She never regained the weight and muscle mass she lost in the hospital, and she is thirty-six now--far from old, but past the age where complete recovery would have been possible. She knows that many men find fragile-looking women appealing, but she can't help feeling, however irrationally, that the men who like her like this are rejecting, betraying the woman she used to be. She finds them contemptible, for not preferring her old strength.

Sherlock is different. He hardly seems to notice her appearance, except when it offers data to help him puzzle out the things about her he still finds mysterious.

"You've just applied perfume, which means you're also wearing make-up," he calls to her from the sitting room, while she's standing in front of the loo mirror, getting ready to go out. "You only wear perfume and make-up when you're going to see your sister, because she nags you when she doesn't feel you've taken sufficient pains with your toilette. She thinks you should find a man to date, to lessen my influence over you."

Joanna knows that Sherlock is attracted to her, because in a world where appealing to a man's sexuality can lead to marriage or to murder, every woman over the age of thirteen is a master of observation and deduction. She's not sure if Sherlock's noticed that he's attracted to her, though, because dating isn't his area, which means that in some ways he is very stupid indeed.

It doesn't really matter to her whether he notices or not. If they did anything about it, chances are good that it would go spectacularly wrong, and she would lose him, and then she would lose everything.

She is attracted to Sherlock almost in spite of his being gorgeous. If she passed him in the street, she would dismiss him, not so much as being out of her league as being below her level. She would never look at a man who looked like Sherlock and suspect him of being brilliant. In that sense, he must know a little of what it feels like to be a woman.

Sherlock appeals to Joanna's sexuality in a primal way that no amount of physical beauty could possibly do. These days, he is the only person on planet earth who can draw her out of her mind and back into her body. Forced introspection is dangerous for someone in Joanna's condition, and she was a woman of action even before she became so spectacularly broken. In her body is precisely where she wants to be.

But during the dry spells, when there aren't any cases on, and too many predictable, colorless days pass in a row, Joanna realizes that her ability to tolerate the inside of her own head depends entirely on Sherlock being there to drag her out of it. The same stagnation that drives Sherlock to shoot at the wall and take drugs makes Joanna sit in her room, with her back to the grey world outside her window, and clean her gun.

Appearances are deceptive. Physically, Joanna looks slight, but she is much stronger than she seems. Mentally, even Sherlock thinks she's sane enough to be going on with, but Joanna knows that, not long ago, she was half prepared to put the Browning to a more ignoble use than it had seen before.

She is two, maybe two and a half weeks of trying and failing to live a normal, risk-free life, before that starts to feel like a viable solution again.

Joanna needs the work. In this, she and Sherlock are more alike than he may ever realize.

*

Because the quiet is dangerous, and because it has been quiet for nine fuzzy, snow-grey days when she finds the first letter, Joanna's response is not precisely--rational.

To the casual reader, the letter might pass for nothing more sinister than a love note from a secret admirer--an awkward admirer, certainly, to declare himself by such primary-school methods, but nothing to worry about, maybe even tantalizing to one's vanity. But to the trained eye (and Joanna's must qualify, by now) the author is obviously in a dangerous frame of mind. He wants Joanna, but he believes she has already rejected him. He is rather angry about that.

Automatically, she puts the letter aside to take home to Sherlock. Then she pauses. Looks at the letter again.

Places it in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet, then locks it.

Another woman might keep the letter secret because she was frightened, or in denial as to what it means. Joanna decides to keep it secret because it is a puzzle. Because it might be a bit dangerous. And because, if Sherlock gets anywhere near it, the whole thing will be over in two seconds flat. It is only a flimsy little mystery, and it will evaporate like a drop of water in the inferno of his intellect.

Joanna doesn't want it to be over. It is something new to think about, after all, and it may eventually give her something to do. She is in rather desperate need of both those things. Besides, the risk, at present, is negligible. Joanna knows a thing or two about cases like this. There will be several degrees of escalation before the risk spreads from her to the people around her.

There is time, in other words, to enjoy it.

I am completely cracked, she thinks, and then dismisses the thought. It isn't exactly new information.

In exposing herself to a calculated degree of risk, she is taking care of herself in the only way she knows that works. Her sister, to say nothing of her therapist, would probably have her sectioned, but their opinions ceased to be relevant when they proved useless in fighting the static in her head.

What Sherlock will think, she's not precisely certain. But that is partly the point.

*

Two more letters arrive in the mail over the next seven days, their contents in much the same vein as the first. Joanna reads them carefully, extracts all the clues they seem to offer, then files them away, with a satisfied little hum.

It doesn't cure her, by any stretch. The monotony is still oppressive. Sherlock disappears for three days to live with the homeless, in the hopes of sniffing out a case that hasn't yet come to the attention of Lestrade. He doesn't invite Joanna to join him, and she puts twelve hour shifts in at the clinic, not because the work is a very effective distraction, but because she hopes to spot a likely candidate for her letter-writer among her repeat patients.

On the fourth day of Sherlock's absence, another letter arrives, and Joanna, reading it, recognizes the escalation she has been waiting for. Her admirer is more than angry, now. He wants to punish her for not noticing him.

But Joanna doesn't have time to make up her mind whether it's time to do something about the situation, because finally, finally, Sherlock texts her: new case. come home at once.

In an almost more than metaphorical sense, sunlight cracks the heavy winter clouds in her brain, and she barely pauses to lock the latest letter away before she grabs for her coat.