The room is shadowy and still, the only sounds being the faint drag of his breath and the rustle of his sheets as he shifts, attempting to ease the bone deep ache in shoulder and leg. Beyond the curtained window London is as dark as it ever gets. Which is not very dark at all; the street lights and shop signs illuminate his window along with the passing cabs and late night pub goers weaving their way home. The familiar sounds of the city at night are reassuring as he focuses on breathing, slow and even, and trying not to think about anything at all, just like Ella suggested.
As usual it doesn't work, his mind ending up flitting between multiple trains of thought; from the mundane - must write a shopping list - to the ridiculous - would Ella believe me if I taped my fingers up and told her I haven't started the bloody stupid blog because I've broken them - and then passing over first the state of Harry and then the state of his bank account. Neither of which are good.
The sharp stab of worry those last two thoughts generate is enough to make him abandon the daft "mediation" altogether. Instead he lets his mind wander where it will. A wail from an ambulance screaming through the night a few streets away reminds him briefly of his rotation at Bart’s A&E, just before it was closed. God, that was more years ago than he cares to remember. Back before his gilt edged dreams of becoming a GP in central London were tarnished by the reality of the situation and he'd turned to the Army in his search for satisfaction.
He sighs and rolls, wrapping the sheet more securely round himself. A bellow from a drunk outside gives instant recall to Colour Sergeant Collins and the hours out on the parade square during those first weeks at Sandhurst. Fuck that had been awful. He genuinely hadn’t thought something as simple as drill would almost be his undoing. Still, he’d bullied his sleep deprived brain into sorting his feet out and, in the end, everything had just gelled. He’d barely had time to blink before he had a pip on his shoulder, a commission in 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and a life that fitted him like a second skin.
Faces and names from his Brecon infantry training flit through his head as his nose fills with a mix of gun oil, boot polish, and mud that those memories always conjure.
His hands twist into the sheets and he gives a shuddering sigh as a different scent creeps into his consciousness; parched, arid earth overlaid with a faint hint of muddy water. He inhales deeply, the uniquely familiar smell filling him with a yearning so strong his chest hurts.
He inhales again, head shifting restlessly on the pillow.
The corner of his mouth twitches.
His eyelids flicker.
The heat is a physical presence; resting on his shoulders, pressing him down into the lee of the compound wall and stealing the breath from his lips. At his back Matt takes harsh gulps from his water bottle while Jonesy intersperses encouragement with swearwords as the rest of his men race into place behind them. They've only been on patrol for an hour but, between the Afghan sun and the body armour, it feels like much longer.
It is quiet. Too quiet. Somewhere off to the left a door creaks in response to what little wind there is but there are no sounds to indicate this cluster of buildings are still occupied.
Doesn’t mean they’re empty, though.
He smiles broadly, not caring that his dry lips crack and split; there isn't anywhere he'd rather be or anything he'd rather be doing.
Staring out from under the rim of his helmet he squints through midday heat, that creates a shimmering haze above the golden beige dust of the rough roadway, to focus on what is hemming them on the right; a stone specked, clay coloured ditch, rough hedge and the lush fields beyond. He’s aware that it’s beautiful - the chest high crop of poppies a verdant green interspersed with flashes of white and purple flowers that glint and glimmer in the glare of the white bright sun floating high in the startling azure sky – but that isn’t what he sees.
All John's appreciation for the landscape is set aside as he focuses on spotting the hints of clothing between the covering greenery that would indicate the presence of dickers or actual insurgents. A puff of wind that feels warmer even than the air surrounding him sets the poppies rustling, just as the hair on the back of his neck stands up. His eyes flick up and to the left just in time to see a flash of blood red cloth disappear below the top of a compound wall. Somewhere in front of him an insect begins to buzz as he starts to twist towards his team.
‘11 o'clock. On it, Boss,’ Matt says in his ear before he’s even swivelled half way. A good job too, the buzz becoming a growl as it grows louder and, turning back, he sees a rickety motorbike appear round the hedge at the far end of the track.
‘Stay down,’ he orders, pressing his back to the wall as sliding upward onto his feet for a better view.
It’s going slowly. Too slowly. Is it carrying one rider or two? Can he see weapons?
His eyes are blurring and a sudden heaviness that is nothing to do with the heat fills his body.
Reinforcing his order with a hand signal he begins to inch forward, shaking his head in a desperate attempt to clear his vision. Between the heat haze and the sweat crowding the corners of his eyes everything is distorted, the world pulsing in and out of focus.
He blinks hard, taking refuge for a moment in the blessed darkness inside his own head and finds himself sinking like a stone into the blackness.
For an instant he knows he is asleep and strains for the strands of the dream he is leaving. It was a good dream. A good patrol. One of his best days. He doesn’t want to move on because he knows what will come next and he has no wish to relive it again.
But his will is not his own and his struggle is futile. His awareness thins and fades, images and memories blurring and wavering, flashes of gold and green and crimson playing behind his eyes until something dark lurches inside him and he’s falling, twisting, tumbling.
The roaring purr of the Apache almost drowns out the ringing in his ears from the hellfire missile it just sent booming into the compound on the far side of the open field in front of them. He glances up through the scrubby brown branches of the tree he’s leaning against, watching the sleek black, insect-like, machine pass overhead. It gleams like polished onyx against the pale, white gold of the sun-bleached sky but it doesn’t hold his attention. Masum, clad in the deep-woods combat gear that the ANA favour, is gripping his shoulder and frantically waving at the plume of smoke that is already starting to disperse. He doesn’t need the accompanying liquid babble of broken English and Pashto to understand what’s upset the man. He can see for himself. The smoke is rising not from the compound they’d called the strike on but from one two to the right - the one the second ANA team had already reached.
He's turning to Hale, his JTAC for the op, lips already framing a less than complimentary question about the parentage and intelligence of the Apache gunner, when the possibility of a blue on blue, of having killed the men he’s supposed to be fighting alongside thanks to a fuck up over a map, becomes the secondary problem.
‘Contact! Flat and freeze!’ he yells as bullets snap and crack around them. The lads drop as one behind the scant protection offered by the yellowing edge of the ruined courtyard they’re currently holed up in. He alone remains upright, using the thin tree truck as cover, scanning the ground ahead as he hears Hale report over the comms channel: 'Contact. Wait. Out.'
‘Two firing points,’ he says to Hale, who has wriggled to his side. He gestures quickly to the different patches of the tangle of criss-crossing hedges running to left of them before dropping to the ground himself. ‘They must have used the ANA storming that compound as cover for their own movements.’
'Boss?' Matt calls as the rate of fire on their position increases.
'Return fire. Seven and eleven o’clock,' he orders and the lads obey enthusiastically. ‘Yeah, that’s right! Make them jump!’
Initially their response halts the enemy’s fire and for a second his hopes rise but then an RPG howls out of what he'd thought was an empty patch of scrub, screaming over their heads and on, over the top of the wall behind them. The wall that, up to a few minutes ago, he’d been thinking of an asset given that they'd been using for cover from the group of insurgents on the other side of the village. Now it's more of a hindrance than a help, framing them and offering an obvious target to the bastards in front. The small arms fire from the field resumes twofold, along with another RPG – that still, thankfully, misses them by miles - and within a couple of minutes they are struggling to maintain a response.
He and Hale share a look. The insurgent firing the RPG may have appalling aim but the bullets, now a positive hail storm of them, are getting more accurate by the second. They’re pinned and they need to get out of there and fast. It only takes a few words and gestures to convey to Hale what he’s thinking.
‘At least they might hit the right compound this time,’ is the sardonic response he gets to his request to call in Air again, before Hale thumbs on the radio and starts giving positions.
‘We’re moving when the strike hits Compound D,' John screams above the din. 'Matt and Jonesy lead out. Head for Compound B. Go hard, go fast and don’t fucking stop for anything!’
He twists to face Masum. ‘Get your men to follow us. Fast. In the meantime, if they want to sling some RPG’s at the idiot in the hedge, show him how it should be done, they’re more than welcome.’
Masum nods, a wickedly bright grin flashing in his swarthy face before yelling the orders at his men whilst another wildly inaccurate RPG whooshes past. John can practically feel the eagerness of those behind him. Say what you like about the ANA's discipline, he thinks to himself as he readies his rifle, but they don't lack courage.
‘Strike in three!’ Hale shouts.
He heaves in a deep breath and raises his own rifle. The boom of the hellfire from the Apache pulses through them all. 'Go, go, go!' he screams, gratified when Matt and Jonesy explode up and off, the others spraying a final volley in the direction of the insurgents before pounding after them.
He bolts to the far edge of the courtyard and drops, spraying the landscape with covering fire even as he orders Hale, who has dropped with him, to ‘Move it, Hale. For fucks sake, just run!’
Hale does, feet thudding over the lip and down into the field as an RPG, far more accurately fired by the ANA, slams directly into the closest of the enemy firing positions.
One last burst from his rifle and he goes, head down and feet pumping, concentrating on nothing but covering the ground as fast as he can. All he can hear is his own breath, harsh in his chest, and the whistle and zing of bullets dancing round him.
Then he’s knocked off his feet, the main force of the blow hitting his left side and …
And he’s awake, gasping for air and pushing up, groping for a rifle he no longer possesses as he stares blindly into the bland room.
He knows where he is instantly. At no point in his life before his discharge from the Army has he ever spent time anywhere so non-descript and characterless. Never before has he been unable to find the will to make some sort of mark on his surroundings.
Right now though he wishes he’d done something to the place because the rest of the memory is refusing to leave him, playing out as a waking dream in vivid technicolor over the bland, featureless grey-white walls surrounding him
His first thought was that Hale had triggered an IED and he scrabbled desperately at the burnt yellow-green grass in an effort to get up and go to him. Only he couldn't, falling back as a spark of pain ignited just below his left collar bone. He has no memory of dropping his rifle, or any idea where it's ended up, nor does he care. He's too busy clutching at the burning spot in his shoulder which quickly turns into an inferno; a jagged lance of flame piercing him from chest right through to his shoulder blade. The sheer, wrenching violence of the sensation - along with the wetness growing under his hand and the fact that he can't feel his left arm at all - tells him everything he needed to know.
Shot, through and through, probably nicked the subclavian artery along with his nerves. Possibly chipped his clavicle too.
He's correct on all counts.
Not that it matters, he can’t tell anyone; it's all he can do to remain conscious. He can hear shouts - Hale's voice, at full volume, moving back toward him and calling for Murray, their combat medic - but he struggles to see, the blackness slowly closing down around him despite his attempts to defeat it.
His last memory of Afghanistan - before he eventually regained consciousness to see stark white sheets and hear the strangely comforting Brummie twang of the nursing team at Selly Oak Hospital - is not of the mix of scrubby grass and earth of the field where he’s fallen, or the blistering blue sky that frames Hale and Murray's tanned and dirt smeared faces as they lean over him.
No, his last memory is of making a desperate plea for his life as he stares at his own hand, watching the crimson and ruby beads of his blood, shimmering like the finest of jewels in the blazing Afghan sun, forcing themselves between his rapidly paling fingers.
As the memory falls away he lifts his head to the ceiling, still gasping for air.
There’s a burning in his shoulder, a phantom pain in his leg and an aching gulf of emptiness in his gut.
A sob erupts from the depth of his throat and he drops back onto the bed, presses his face into the pillow and wishes, not for the first time, that he hadn't thought those words and that God hadn't listened because this ... This beige and grey existence of someone called John Watson who only bears a superficial likeness to the man whose memories he relives night after night, isn't what he'd wanted to live for.
The intervening days don't help shift the ravaging gloom, blurring together as they do into a bland stream of inconsequential events that make him want to scream his boredom to the world.
Except who would listen?
He's lost count of the times people have looked through him rather than at him since the Army sent him back to the real world with nothing more than a pension, a pat on the back and therapy once a fortnight. Between needing the cane for his decided-to-be-useless leg and his unobtrusive civvies - bought back when actually wanted to blend into the background whilst on leave - he's more effectively camouflaged than he ever was in his combat gear.
Today is no exception; he’s almost bowled over as he turns into Russell Square Gardens, the sweat ridden jogger responsible not even bothering to utter an apology on his way past. Crippled middle-aged men in boring clothing clearly don’t warrant such a waste of breath.
God, how could he have been so naïve as to think coming London would somehow fix his malaise? Granted those first two weeks in Alnwick with Harry had been appalling but he should have realised that having to confront her drinking and the mess she’d made of her own life wasn’t what had leached the colour from his. It had been a convenient lie at the time, to tell her that he needed London to heal, but a lie all the same. Because here he is, four months later, feeling exactly the same, if not worse. This city used to spark him off, bring a smile unbidden to his face and make his toes and fingertips tingle with anticipation. This was the place where anything was possible.
Now it just is. Another obstacle for him to deal with, day after day.
Tightening his grip on the cane he limps across the gardens, continuing past the café. He’s no longer in the mood for the coffee he'd promised himself for getting half way thought his four mile walk. After all, he doesn't have anyone to share the milestones of his recovery with, such as they are. Nor do they really matter. It isn’t like he has anything or anyone to get better for. At least, he thinks as he speeds up, there aren’t so many people on the garden paths to bump into or ignore me.
He’s so intent on getting the hell out of there that the first cry of ‘John’ barely registers. John is such a generic name and the citizens of London have proven time and again that he is unnoticeable, so the call cannot be for him. Yet the shout is repeated, louder this time and with his surname along with it. His body turns of his own accord and he sees … there is something familiar about the plump, earnest looking man hurrying over but it’s old familiarty, from several lifetimes ago, and it takes Mike naming himself for John to place his friend.
He isn’t quite sure how he ends up agreeing to a coffee, having been deliberately rude in the hopes it would put Mike off. But whereas he certainly isn’t the John Mike used to know, Mike is - other than a few extra pounds - very much as he always was; kind, unflappable and generous to a fault. In other words, not an easy man to say no to.
Which is, he supposes half an hour later, why he’s now walking down a corridor in Bart’s, about to be introduced to a mysterious man who might be looking for a flatmate. He follows Mike through the door of the lab not really knowing what to expect, other than a man a bit younger than them. If he’s honest he’s still reeling from how much of an abrupt departure from normal his day has taken and the strange unfamiliarity of a once familiar building.
All of which fades into the background as the tall, lanky, alienesque stranger that Mike has apparently brought him to meet starts telling him his own life story without so much a brief glance. It’s fact, not fiction, he thinks as the man rattles on in his unnervingly deep voice, and it’s completely marvellous. John feels like a light has been switched on or, more accurately, as if this man is a prism and by seeing the world through his changeable eyes, John’s own vision has been restored. The world once again glowing in the whole spectrum of colour.
By the time the man is darting out the door, saying with a wink that his name is Sherlock Holmes, John knows he is lost.
Thirty six hours later, when they stroll away from a crime scene together to get Chinese, John also knows he has been found.