The papers hang from John's slack fingers.

"Mycroft, why on Earth would I be sent back? I was given a medical discharge, it's not something you can come back from." The soft hiss of oxygen through the nasal cannula is the only sound for a moment, until Mycroft clears his throat.

"It's simply a one year deployment, John. There is a shortage of experienced doctors such as yourself, and frankly, it would be a much better option than being confined to a safe house for the foreseeable future while Sherlock and I sort this out."

John's seeing red; the audacity of Mycroft presuming to make a decision this personal simply floors him.

"You must be joking," he says flatly. "Of all the things you could have thought up with that great Holmes brain, you want to send me back to a bloody war zone? Have you lost your mind? Need I remind you I was discharged for a reason?" The crawling fear along his spine is growing; shaking fingers and limps and a weak, shattered shoulder loom large in his mind. He looks at his hands, remembers blood and dust and years of sacrifice of himself, of his life. A life he's tried to push very far out of his mind.

"You underestimate your worth, Dr. Watson. And you've been proven to be healthy again, isn't that right?" Mycroft smiles, and it seems sinister, somehow.

John touches the bandage on his head and tries another tack.

"It's ridiculous. Sherlock isn't even awake yet, and I'm not leaving him to go gallivanting back to Afghanistan to play soldier. That life is behind me, now."

Mycroft sighs, steadies his weight with his umbrella. "John, your affection for my brother is very…heartening. I have no wish to cause either you or him distress. But, it is best you leave the country as soon as possible, and while it seems a bit of a contradiction, the hospital in Kandahar would be safer for you than the United Kingdom at the present. What better place to hide a soldier than amongst a battalion of soldiers?"

"And then let Sherlock face Moriarty alone."

"Sherlock will be incapable of doing much of anything for at least six weeks. It gives Moriarty a perfect opportunity to strike. As you seem to be his preferred method to get to Sherlock, keeping the two of you together will draw his fire before Sherlock is ready for it. No, John. Separation is for the best, and really, non-negotiable. This is the best option for all parties. And your country needs you."

John doesn't think his country needs a half-time doctor with a weak right shoulder and lot of baggage, the least of which being ugly nightmares that leave him sweating and weak. Now isn't the time to leave Sherlock; he'll need help in his recovery. More than that, he'll need someone to watch his back, be sure he isn't falling too far down the rabbit hole of Moriarty's games. He gets so caught up, sometimes, John thinks. How will he know when to stop?

Mycroft sees John starting to dig in his heels.

"I won't let him engage Mr. Moriarty alone, you know that. I will see he has the best care. He'll be under our… protection until he's well enough. It's even possible that by then, his little problem will have been solved. If things go well, we can always reinstate your medical discharge, or, if you find you prefer the safehouse, you can always send a message telling us so. The choice is yours."

"Why a deployment then? Why not just a civilian appointment?" John senses something not quite right, a little too much insistence on Mycroft's part to get him out of country, but his options seem to be limited. One doesn't go up against a Holmes without knowing everything, and John certainly doesn't, right now.

"Simply a precaution, in case things go on longer than we anticipate. And since you're going to be there, why not do something that will be worth your time and talents?"

The heart monitor beeps a quiet, reassuring rhythm. John can see his road before him, endless days of an isolated existence in a sterile safehouse, or thrown back into the midst of a demanding life he isn't sure he's ready for. He could go, and once he has a better handle on the situation and Sherlock is well, he could ask to come back. Possibly.

He steels himself and takes up the slim, white hand laying slack on the sheet.

"How long do I have?"

"Two days."

#########

John's spends a good chunk of the next two days being refitted for a uniform, digging out his old rucksack and packing up all of his pants and t-shirts and socks. He slips a picture of himself and Sherlock into his wallet, one that Lestrade had taken with an evidence camera at the end of a demanding day. The both of them are exhausted and filthy, sitting side by side on the ground with their heads tipped back and resting on the wall behind them, eyes closed, almost asleep. John smiles at the memory and draws his bag closed, dropping it by the door and heading for the hospital.

He's been spending every moment he can there, sitting next to Sherlock's bed, waiting as the drugs are dialed back and consciousness returns. Sherlock's cold, the only warm point where John's hand covers his. John's been talking, almost constantly, for two days.

"I don't want to go, you know. I want to stay here, help you. But Mycroft thinks this is the best way. I don't know that he's right about that, but once it's sorted, I can just send him a message and he'll reset my pension. Well, he says he will. And it's not like I won't be back. Don't turn my room into a laboratory, ok? I still have most of my things in there. Treat it like I'm going on extended holiday. With guns." Still no response. "Well, I won't have a gun most of the time. I've left you mine, by the way. I'm sure you'll find it, but I'm not telling you where it is. A little going-away present."

John shifts in his chair, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the bed. "It's not fair, you know. You've given me a life I never knew I wanted, and now I'm going back to the one I didn't realize I was fine with losing." He slides his hands around the back of his head, gripping his hair. "God, Sherlock, I want you awake so I can tell you this, tell you how it felt to see you with that laser sight on your head and not be able to do a damn thing about it. We have some serious things to discuss when I get home. Like your rotten habit of finding more trouble than you can get out of. And how it seems I can't ever leave you to it."

John sighs and drops his head on his arms on the edge of the bed. Just a few more minutes, and he'll go down for a cup of coffee.

Fingers in his hair wake him up later, when it's dark. He starts, disoriented for a moment, then realizes what he's feeling. His head snaps up, meeting Sherlock's open, but still heavy-lidded eyes.

"There you are." John smiles, relief washing through him. "How are you feeling?"

Sherlock frowns. "Arm?"

"Broken, yes. But you had a nasty hit to the head, kept you down for a little while to monitor swelling. You might be a bit fuzzy for a while, but I don't expect it to last long." John stops. He told Sherlock's unconscious self plenty of times that he was leaving, but doing it when he's awake twists John's gut with trepidation.

"Sherlock, listen, I need to tell you something." Those eyes focus on him for a moment, obviously trying to rally forces and clear away the fog. "Moriarty wasn't found, after the explosion. Mycroft is on it, but he thought – well, that I'd be better off stashed away, in a manner of speaking. So you can recover and focus. It also clears the field a bit, you know." Even in his own ears it sounds terrible, a dodge.

"When?"

"What time is it – oh. Five a.m. already. Um. I'm leaving in an hour. I'll be back, Sherlock. It's only a 12-month deployment at most, and I'll be home, back in Baker Street and harassing you to pick up your papers before you know it."

At the word "deployment," Sherlock's eyes grow wide and panicked. "What the hell has he done?" he rasps.

"I'll be commanding a field hospital on the border between Kandahar and Helmund. Well, field hospital and local clinic, more likely. It's quieter there, if that's what you're worried about. Not likely to get shot twice."

Sherlock closes his eyes and purses his lips. There's a crease in his forehead, right above the bridge of his nose. John reaches out and touches it. "Hey. None of that. Don't be mad at Mycroft. It's just a strategic retreat, is all. We'll figure something out."

Sherlock's heart monitor is beeping quite fast, and John places a hand on Sherlock's leg, trying to calm him.

"How dare he," Sherlock grits out, voice dragging through the syllables. "How dare he step in the middle of this. I need you, John, I need you here. He can't just lock you away like an annoying dog when it's convenient for him."

John still tries to be calm. "I agreed to go, Sherlock. It's not that long, and better for you, in the long run."

Sherlock snorts, rolls his eyes and looks away from John to stare at the wall. John doesn't want to argue with him any more, not when he has less than forty-five minutes until he has to leave.

"Can we not do this now? Just – finish this as soon as you can, and I'll be able to come home. Mycroft won't keep me there forever."

"Don't be so sure about that."

John chooses to ignore this, though the idea had crossed his mind. "I'll email when I get there, Anthea set it up. Now, I need to borrow your shower for a minute."

John takes his garment bag and crosses to the small bathroom. He takes a perfunctory shower, shaves, and dresses in the crisp new fatigues delivered last night. He isn't looking forward to spending twenty grueling traveling hours wrapped in camouflage, but it's better than it could be. He smoothes the jacket and looks down at the RAMC badge and the nametag stitched on the front.

Capt. John H. Watson

He takes a deep breath, straightens the blue beret over the plaster on his forehead, and steps out into Sherlock's room.

Sherlock takes one look and rolls his eyes. "Good God. Captain Watson, now, is it? Mycroft does so love to add flourish." He coughs, then groans.

"It's one rank promotion. And it doesn't matter, I won't be there long anyway. How are you feeling?"

"Terrible. Cast itches."

"Four more weeks of it." John looks at the clock. "Try not to kill your brother. Listen to your therapists, for once. You really want to use that arm later. And if you feel nauseous, tell your nurse. You do have at the very least a concussion, and being sedated for a day or so isn't going to help. Keep the dead things out of the kitchen. Leave my room alone, I'll need it later."

John stops, having run out of things to say that don't involve God, how I'll miss you, please don't get killed, or, I'll never be able to do this, it could go so very badly.

"I'll see you very soon. Please be careful." Without stopping to think too hard about it, he leans forward to press a kiss to Sherlock's forehead. When he starts to pull back, Sherlock grips him fiercely by the back of the neck.

"Please come back," Sherlock whispers urgently. "We have unfinished business, you and I. There are things – things we need to – "

It difficult to pull himself away from the precipice of something he can feel coming, but he can't be drawn into this conversation, not now. "When I see you again, we'll start over. Dinner at Angelo's and everything. In a year. Or sooner, if you're as good as you say you are."

Sherlock smiles. "I'm better."

################

John's first lungful of dry, dusty air when he steps off of the plane in Kandahar is at once depressing and familiar. It's already warm here, although the warmest season won't come for another couple of months.

"Captain Watson!" a voice calls. John turns and looks at the energetic young Lieutenant jogging up to him. He stops short and sketches a salute. "Liam Shepard, Captain Watson. I'm to drive you down to the province."

John returns the salute, although it's perfunctory at best. All of those habits he drilled into himself over almost a decade are somewhat rusty with disuse, although he has a feeling it won't take long to get his feet under him again.

The drive to the province takes over two hours, stopping twice for potential IEDs and once for a lorry stuck with two flat tires on the side of the road. The slow, torturous drive makes John twitchy; trying to focus on potential, immediate problems and worrying about Sherlock in the back of his mind is giving him a headache. It was almost like this last year was a dream, a strange interlude in his life that wasn't exactly real. He pulls out his wallet and retrieves the picture he'd hurriedly stuck in there two days before.

There's a crease now, a fold, that runs between Sherlock and himself. He smiles at the messy curls splayed over the wall, curls now shorn away by injury. He wonders how Sherlock will look when he sees him again. John places it carefully back in his wallet and turns his head to watch the passing scenery. Even the poppy fields, imperfectly hidden behind grasses and fabric hung between posts, make him think of Sherlock. He'd probably be trying to derive his own heroin, knowing him.

Lieutenant Shepard has been respectfully silent the entire drive, only pointing out some of the more interesting or important things on the road out of Kandahar. But John noticed his covert glance at the picture.

"My flatmate. We were injured in an…incident, in London, about four days ago. He's still in hospital, but you know how orders are." He shrugs. "Had to shave his head. He'll be beside himself once he gets a look in the mirror."

Shepard laughs. "Wouldn't be much good out here, would he? I prefer the clean look, myself." He lifts his helmet to show John his shaved head, in defiance of male pattern baldness set in early.

John chuckles, and turns to look out the window, tension starting to leave his body as it prepares for whatever this unpredictable country is ready to throw at it.

The field hospital is a collection of newly-built block buildings and supplementary tents clustered around a central courtyard, all ringed with fences and barbed wire. John hops out of the Land Rover and lifts his rucksack to his shoulder, taking in the place that will be his home for the next twelve months, glowing gold in the setting sun.

God, he'd kill for a shower right about now.

####################

To:

From:

Subject: Christ, it's warm here.

Sherlock:

Hope the last 36 hours are finding you more alert than you were when I left. And I hope that renewed wakefulness doesn't get you more cross with me than you were.

But I made it here. It's so depressingly the same as when I left almost a year ago, laying on a stretcher on a transport. The hospital isn't overwhelming, either; it's fairly small, only 60 beds, but the surrounding population isn't that large. Any heavy fighting breaks out, though, and we could be overrun.

I've got six good doctors with me, about two dozen nurses, a clerk, and a couple dozen more staff to help run the place, keep it clean and whatnot. A larger cadre of guards than I expected, but they're on their own mission, and not my charge. So far, everyone seems quite professional, though fairly nonplussed to have me dropped in their laps. Well, except Lt. Dean. I think he was looking for a promotion in place, as it were, and is pretty peeved it was snatched out from under his nose.

Hope your head is doing well, and that you're not too bored. Have one of Mycroft's minions help you email me back, all right? It's a bleak prospect, being here for so long without something insane of yours going on. Let me know when you're well enough to start work again; not too soon, I know how you are, but I'd be happy to come back when you're ready. We'll figure out a way.

Have you checked the mirror yet?

John

##########################

"See your head finally healed," Lt. Cole says, her trained nurse's eye giving him a good once over. "You should have known better than to keep rubbing at it."

John smiles. His head nurse is the bane of his existence, sometimes, but a jewel in a crisis and more than competent enough to run the entire hospital on her own. "Yes, Jane, fine, I do know. It barely left a scar. Let it go, will you? Bother me again when I fall and break my leg on that damn cart you insist on keeping outside the door of the operating theatre."

She rolls her eyes, refusing to engage in a bickering match that started the first time John stepped outside of the operating room and turned right instead of left (like everyone else knew to do), hit the cart, and went sprawling. A dirty look from her, and poorly-hidden snickers from everyone else got John laughing, right down there on the floor, and broke the ice of a team that for two days had looked at him like an interloper instead of a leader.

#######################

To:

From:

Subject: Are you there?

Sherlock:

I'm sure Anthea set this up properly, and you're getting my emails, but it's been almost two months, and I still haven't heard from you.

Are you out there? Have you picked up your violin yet? Killed Mycroft? Escaped your handlers? Probably all of those, knowing you.

It's been busy here, a firefight 25 miles south brought us five wounded today, but fortunately no dead. It was the first combat surgery I've done in over a year, as you're aware. My hands were more steady than I expected.

Thank you.

A line, a note, something, would be good. I worry, believe it or not. Moriarty is more than a match for you, Sherlock, and I think you know it.

Please, be careful. Let me help, if I can.

John

P.S. How's the hair?

#######################################.

The call shakes John from a dead sleep at four in the morning, a claxon signal for incoming wounded, and quite a few of them. He jumps out of bed, dresses, and hits the operating theatre at a full sprint.

"Six, Captain, in an IED attack. More on the way, three solders, three civilians. One child." Cole is pulling her gown over her scrubs, checking the instrument trays. "Hamilton and Archer are already in. You're set for Room 3, with the child. Shrapnel to the gut."

John stomps hard on the footpedal on the scrub in station, lathering his hands up to his elbows. The call for him to work on the child makes sense - he's seen plenty of shrapnel wounds, tended enough of them, both as a medic and as a surgeon. But he's never done work on someone so small as the six year old he finds waiting for him under sedation. It's tense, and he's sweating, stitching tiny veins and arteries, staunching as much bleeding as possible, finding everything he can and removing it without doing further damage. His hands almost start to tremble under the strain, until he pauses and looks up into the huge and worried eyes of Alice Murphy, the nurse assisting him. He takes a deep breath and finishes smoothly, snapping off the final stitches and checking the pulse ox monitor next to him. Stable.

He smiles at Murphy behind his mask, and her eyes light up like the dawn.

###############################.

Exercising in the dry shimmering heat of September seems unthinkable, but John spends most of his spare time in the barracks gym, fighting off boredom. It's been a drag, being out here in the back of nowhere, and long stretches of work supplemented with poker and exercise fill his time. He's grown to look forward to poker nights with Shepard and Cole and a few others, depending on shifts. Lt. Hamilton cleans up most nights that she's there, but John's gotten pretty good over the last few months, so those nights are fewer than they used to be.

He huffs a breath and finishes his final leg press, sets the weight back on the rest and pulls off his t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face and try to cool down.

"Jesus. It's true, then."

John turns sharply to see that Lt. Dean is standing behind him. "What's true?" he says, pulling his shirt back on.

"That you'd been shot. We'd all heard you'd been shot and shipped home on discharge."

"Yes, pretty much."

"Then what are you doing back here?" John glares at him. "If you don't mind my asking. Sir."

"I was told I was needed, for a short time. And I was recovered enough to come back. And that's all I'm saying about it." John stands up, crosses to the doors to head for the showers. That's all he needs right now, godawful rumors of misplaced heroism or rank cowardice, depending on who you ask.

"That's a fair bit of damage to come back from."

John rolls his eyes. "It's nothing. It was a bit of hard luck, like everyone else we see here."

Dean gives him a curt nod, but there's more respect in his eyes than John's seen before. "If you say so, sir."

When John gets back to his room after his shower, he opens his email, expecting it to be as utterly blank as it always is. Five months into his deployment, and not a single word from Sherlock on anything at all. He's worried that he's been gone so long without contact that Sherlock has forgotten him, and his promise to meet again at Angelo's when this is all over. He's beginning to be afraid of what he might go home to in seven months time.

John's thought a lot about what he'd like to say, how to approach a subject that had always seemed so forbidden but for the last days before he left. Moriarty was right in one thing – John knows Sherlock has a heart. He's just wondering how he might get a chance at claiming it.

He turns back to his computer, ready to send Sherlock a telling-off that will make him feel better, when he sees he has a message.

It's a picture.

A single twist of hair, a black lock just barely starting to curl, and the corner of a black eyebrow.

John can't help the laugh that bubbles out of his throat, pure joy loose at last.

###################################

To:

From:

Subject: That's it?

Sherlock:

While I'm pleased to know you're alive and that you still have hair, I think some kind of an update on what you're doing is in order. I've not heard a thing from you, and it's almost October. Starting to cool off here a touch, finally, although it never really gets cold. Which is good, as I forgot to req a jumper.

Managing a staff this size is more than I've done before, but so far everyone's made it easy by being professionals. Only a couple of problems, but having lived with you, food coloring in the showerheads and flour on the fans is amateur hour. Although Dean tried to up the ante a few times by wedging the ladies toilets' door closed. It really is like being at school. The weeks where there aren't any long-term patients are the worst; everyone gets bored and twitchy, and I'm reduced to organizing football matches and poker tournaments to keep it at bay.

I'm just glad they're not shooting the walls.

Or devising experiments.

Or trying to keep body parts in the fridge.

Because then it would be like home.

John

###################################

Liam Shepard turns out to be the hospital Quartermaster, in charge of stores and supplies, and John's been very impressed with the skill and good humor with which he discharges his duty. People were always after him for things – anything from paper toweling to scalpels came through his hands, and the never-ending nagging for things he wouldn't or couldn't provide didn't seem to drag on his spirits.

So when he sits down on the ground next to John one evening where he's hiding out in a small alcove on the back side of the hospital, John braces himself for an onslaught of cheer.

"Thought you might be out here. Heard anything yet from your 'flatmate?" John can hear the quotations in his voice. He's caught John enough times looking at the picture of himself and Sherlock and has asked after him once or twice. He's surmised enough to realize that the lack of more concrete news is worrying John, to the point of distraction some days.

John swallows. "No. Just the picture, a couple of weeks ago."

"Well, that's…good. I suppose. But you're still all tied up in knots over it."

"Because he's out doing something more immediately dangerous than he should be. And I should be there, helping him. Instead I'm here, waiting in a locked tower for him to get done doing it!" His voice breaks on the last, and he covers his face with his hands, scrubbing. "It's ridiculous, Shepard. It is. You and I both know that my appointment here was an odd one. But you don't even know the half of it." John's straying into dangerous territory now, months of frustration, near constant anticipation, boredom, and fear breaking down his normal defenses.

"Look," Shepard starts, "it's not a carousel ride out here, you know that. You're a damn fine doctor, John, and you've done good work here. I may not know what's going on with that bastard of a flatmate of yours, but you deserve more than to think you're wasting your life here, waiting for him." He trails off at the end, realizing his hand is on John's shoulder, probably having a minor panic attack at the fear he stepped over the line. "Sorry," he says, sheepishly, pulling his hand away.

"It's all right. I appreciate what you're trying to do, but it's bloody difficult being the one left behind."

"Yeah, and he left you behind in a warzone, of all places. That's dumping material, right there."

John snorts. "We aren't together, Liam. It's obviously the farthest thing you can get from it."

#################################

To:

From:

Subject: November, already.

Sherlock:

It's seven months in, and you better be in hospital or dead, because if you aren't, I'm going to murder you myself when I get back there, you arrogant bastard.

There. Now I feel better.

I dreamt of you the other night. Don't get smug – it was just us, in Baker Street, and you'd had the most enormous beaker in your hand, full of something black, and you were waving it about, pontificating like you do. I was just watching, waiting for the black whatever-it-was to go sloshing over the side, but it never did.

Do you have any idea what it feels like, wondering if you're ok, and what you're doing? Maybe Moriarty has you locked up in a cellar somewhere and I don't know about it.

You better hope that's the case, when I see you again.

John

###############################

"And that's a beautiful lady for the Captain, and, oh, Cole, only a ten for you. And an ace for Hamilton. Watch her, Watson. She'll gut you without remorse." Shepard is dealing, having lost most of his money earlier in the evening. It's a quiet night, everyone relaxed and comfortable, but it's giving John twitches.

Quiet nights in the middle of an insurgency are never good.

"And take your money when I'm done, too," Lt. Hamilton says, as she reaches up to flick a pile of bills on the table. "Call."

John groans. His pair of nines, Queen high is nothing to even start with, and a whole lot of air to bluff on. He drops his cards on the table. "I'm out."

Hamilton cackles gleefully when Cole drops a pair of Kings on the table, and triumphantly shows her flush. "Give it over, lads and ladies."

Grumbling surrounds the table and John pushes his chair back. "That's enough for me. Hamilton, give everyone a chance to win their money back for once, would you? I'm getting tired of the constant whinging every time anyone wants to go to Kabul on leave and doesn't have any cash."

Hamilton grins, a predatory flash of teeth. "Then they should know better than to play me, sir."

John points at her, right up on her nose. "Next time, Hamilton. You're going down."

"You wish. Sir." Hamilton's smiling, laughing, batting John's hand away from her face.

Until the warning for incoming patients sounds, and they bolt for the door, cards and chairs and money scattered in their wake.

############################

To:

From:

Subject: none

Sherlock:

I had a man die under my hands today.

When can I come home?

John

#################################

Christmas is fairly busy when the night before turns up with a car accident involving an American journalist and her photographer. They'd been traveling the road south, swerved to avoid some wandering livestock and dipped off of the side of the road into a ditch, flipping the car several times. The journalist, Kris, was thrown from the car, suffering a broken leg and collarbone and a lacerated spleen. John had worked on Kris for well over two hours; stopping the bleeding had been almost impossible. He'd collapsed against the wall in the hallway when he was done, all tired legs and frayed nerves and quiet pride at saving her life.

He needs to do another post-op check, so he wanders back down the ward and finds Kris' photographer, Michael, sitting next to her bed. He has one of her hands curled in his.

"Doing a little better?" Michael's eyes are bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, the product of spending almost 36 hours sitting in a chair. John remembers that kind of vigil and how exhausting and tense it can be.

"She did have a little broth a few hours ago. Seems to have stayed down." The yawn Michael lets loose cracks his jaw. He drops back into the chair with a sigh.

John looks over the chart and is satisfied with how things are looking so far. He looks to Michael, slumped over sideways, trying to stay upright and failing miserably.

"You really should get some rest, you know," John says kindly. "There's a small hostel down the road that would take you in for the night, and you can come with me and eat in the mess, if you like. You won't be much good to her when she gets out of here if you run yourself into the ground in the first day."

"I know," he says, rubbing his face. "And you've all been so incredible, how you've taken care of her. You saved her life, Doctor, and I owe you everything. But I just – I can't leave her. I'm the only one she has. I don't want her to wake up alone."

"You're not leaving her. You just need to take a little time to rest yourself. How long have you been working together?"

"Seven years. Since we got out of school. Couldn't believe we found a newsroom that would take the both of us, as a team. Thought we were the luckiest damn people on the planet."

John recognizes that look of affection tinged with quiet desperation; he's felt that way himself, after all. And the truth is that John knows that deep feeling of quiet devotion, commitment to the work. He realizes that there's more, too, than that. More in being sure of your place, having earned respect and admiration in return, that makes a partnership like Michael's and Kris' work. And something he didn't have, with Sherlock, he realizes suddenly. He was an assistant, not a partner. A gun toting dogsbody and handy Anderson deflector. He'd never be a consulting detective, never have the abilities Sherlock had cultivated from his very early days, but he does have something valuable. Something he'd tried hard to forget in the aftermath of injury, only turning to when he had no other options.

He's a doctor. And a damn good one.

###############################

To:

From:

Subject: Happy New Year, wanker.

Sherlock:

I hope the New Year finds you not dead. I wouldn't know, though, would I? Please, please, some kind of an update on where you are and what you're doing? Just a line. "I'm fine," or "He's dead," or "I'll see you soon."

Although I'm finding myself more content here then I'd ever expected. Almost nine months come and gone, and a little more than three to go.

I think I'll be sad to see it end, honestly (although if I do get to go home that likely means you've succeeded, which, despite everything else, is the point, after all). It's been more than I hoped for, and, I think, exactly what I needed. Perhaps I'll find a more permanent post when I get back to London.

John

###########################

"That picture's going to disintegrate if you don't stop fingering it all of the time," Lt. Shepard says, after finding John brooding again one evening after dinner. "I thought you said you weren't together."

John looks at the small photograph in his hands. The top and bottom of the center fold has started to fray, becoming a tear. The corners are soft and bent. John stuffs it back in his pocket.

"Let it go, Shepard. I told you, we're not."

"Could have fooled me. I've never seen anyone pine like you."

"Shut up! I don't pine!" John's laughing, now, maudlin mood lifting. He shoves Shepard in the shoulder, almost knocking him over.

"You do! It's disgusting! No wonder you've not gotten laid in, what, nine months? Everyone's frightened away by the eau du conifer you exude all over everything. It's putting off half the camp, you know."

John can barely see him, now, in the dusk, the air cooling quickly without the sun, and he shivers, chilled. It's always like this, he thinks. The time dragging on, isolation setting in, moodiness creeping up like a shadow to suck your life dry and making you maudlin or angry. Maudlin is his lot this time, it seems. He rubs his arms and suddenly feels hands over his.

"Although, it is only putting off half the camp. The other half is trying to figure out how to get in your pants."

John stills. Well, that's somewhat unexpected, and way, way beyond the line of fraternization rules. What's worse, he can't deny the spark of arousal he feels at the soft touch of another person's hands for the first time in months. Guilt starts to build in his gut.

But he's here, and Sherlock's there, and he's not waiting like Penelope at her weaving for Sherlock to make a grand declaration, no matter what he felt looming before he left. Three more months, and he's not sure if he's staying or going; the ache of loss, of Sherlock just leaving him here without a word is shifting, fueling bright anger at him, at the situation, and at his own weakness.

"Which half are you in, then, Lt. Shepard?" John asks quietly, moving one hand to place it on top of his.

"I've always been fond of a good challenge, myself," he says, and leans in.

################################

To:

From:

Subject: none

Sherlock:

I hate you some days, you do know that, right?

And could you blame me?

John

###################################

John laughs and catches Shepard's eye, a flash of naked lust that John hopes wasn't intercepted by anyone else in the dark, cramped room lit only by a single lamp over the table. He shuffles his way around the other players and heads for his room, the space between buildings dark and quiet in the January night. The lights of the hospital ward are lit, throwing shadows across the courtyard, alternating shifts of light and dark that make adjusting to the low light difficult. Shepard has caught him up, pushing him between the shoulder blades in a wordless request to hurry up and open the door, before he's seen. John unlocks his door swiftly and steps inside, grabbing the small box and little postcard from his mail basket and tossing them on his desk.

"You're a miserable loser, you know that," Liam says, before he pushes John against the wall for a bruising kiss. John tilts his head and gives as good as he gets as his hand snakes down between their bodies to cup Liam's erection.

"Yeah, but I'm a better winner. You should let me show you sometime." Liam's panting, John still stroking him through his clothes, "Although it looks like now might be good." John ducks out from under his arm and gets a good eyeful, Liam aroused and flushed from the top of his bald head down his neck, and he thinks, not for the first time, that he's a damned fine man, strong and well muscled, brown eyes warm and sparkling with humor. It'll be a wrench when he leaves, but John has no problem pushing that off for a later time and focusing on the here and now. Now being getting Liam's trousers down as fast as possible, and here being up against the wall, fast and hard, one hand stroking Liam's cock, his own pushed between Liam's thighs. It's quick and messy and needy, and John really needs to figure out what will clean the come off of the wall before it stains.

As John turns to find a towel to clean up with and Liam tries to catch his breath, the cardboard box on his desk catches his eye. It's small, perhaps five inches square, and covered with layers of packing tape. John walks slowly toward it, and by now, Liam has spotted it as well.

"Care package? Awfully small, isn't it?"

"Not sure. Just let me look." He steps slowly toward his desk, until he gets a look at the label on the top. His name and location is written in bold permanent marker in sharp, spiky writing that he knows like the back of his hand. His breath leaves him in a gasp as he grabs the package and his knife from his pocket and slices the tape in a single, fluid movement.

Liam steps up behind his shoulder, looking at the mass of cotton batting stuffed in the box. The top layer is lifted away by a shaking hand to reveal three shiny brass shell casings from a 9 mm pistol.

More precisely, a Browning L9A1.

John collapses on his bed in shock.

################################

Three brass casings lined up on his desk glint in the low light. So this was it, then. Sherlock finally disposed of that odious man, which hopefully closed his consulting business down for good. And that meant one thing, to John.

He could go home.

That utter, utter bastard, John thinks. Of course he would just send you some cryptic message, expecting that you'd drop whatever you're doing and run to him, even now. And dammit if you don't want to.

John knows the choice is there, the ability to say one word and be on a plane home tomorrow, most likely. And yet, his gut is telling him to stay, to finish what he started here, to at least get his team ready for him to leave, get someone in and show them the ropes. It's only two more months, and Sherlock could do with a little waiting on his end for once.

He growls, scrubbing his hands through his hair. The pull of his life with Sherlock is strong, and it's there for the taking; no, Sherlock wouldn't have sent a message like that if it weren't. And eight weeks is only time – enough time to complete his duty.

What if you don't go back at all? His mind whispers, traitorous thoughts dripping into his psyche like rain. Sherlock may never change, and this is where you belong, with your team. Where you're wanted. Where you're needed.

###############################

John wakes in the predawn light of a February morning, and his aching shoulder makes him seriously consider calling Mycroft right then and there, just to get back to the heated bathroom and deep bathtub in Baker Street. He's due a little time to himself today, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done. Quarterly store inventory was complete yesterday, so he needs to do his confirmation this afternoon. The mindless counting of stores will at least give him something to occupy himself while he sorts through what comes next.

The sun is slanting low by the time he gets around to it. A quick trip through the ward turned into a dash of emergency resuscitation after an elderly man had a heart attack while in recovery from a fall that broke his hip. John shakes his head. They've treated more civilians than soldiers, he thinks.

The tent where dry stores are kept is dim and warm from the sun, smelling like cardboard boxes and nylon. John takes up his clipboard with a sigh as he starts, prosaically, with the boxes of toilet paper and tries to settle his mind.

Days he's been here seem to drop off the calendar like leaves, months and months filled with saving lives and fear and heartbreak and petty annoyances. Almost two years ago, this life was ripped from him in a hail of gunfire, creating a hollowed-out shell that life with Sherlock went a long way to fill, in some respects, but certainly not in others. He hadn't realized how much of the John Watson that Mike Stamford had known was still there, trapped behind uncertainty and fear. Military life isn't for everyone, and as he counts and reflects, he's sure it's not for him, not forever. But it's something he needs, right now.

He suddenly realizes that Sherlock may just have to be willing to wait for him.

A sound outside catches his ear. He looks up, expecting Liam come to hassle him and try his best to make him lose count. But it isn't.

The tent flap lifts slowly, revealing a tall, lean frame silhouetted against the flame orange sky, face in shadow. John knows that posture, that graceful line of neck to shoulder to arm, and as tunnel vision starts to close in, the man speaks.

"It isn't Angelo's, but I thought it might do."

######################################

John doesn't pass out, not really, but it does go a bit dark and fuzzy for a moment, and when he gets himself back together, Sherlock is standing before him with a worried look in his eyes and his hands on John's upper arms. John's close enough to see the sun-bloomed freckles on the bridge of his nose, suddenly seeing, truly seeing, lightly tanned skin and close-cropped curls that make his heart ache.

John steps back, pulling himself from Sherlock's grasp. A tan t-shirt, dusty cargo trousers tucked into high-laced boots. The change is shocking, startling John into speaking.

"How the hell did you get here?"

"I walked. I hitched rides. I stole one, once. It's amazingly easy to get here through Pakistan when one has a motive." He stops, peering at John intently. "Are you all right?"

Johns stomach is roiling; the man he's been worrying over, thinking over, dreaming over constantly for ten months is standing in front of him, and all John wants to do is punch him.

He contents himself with a hard shove that sends Sherlock sprawling, surprised, into the boxes. John stands over him, curling his hands into fists.

"Do you have any idea, any idea at all, how long I've been waiting to hear from you? How worried I've been? Oh, of course you don't. You're Sherlock fucking Holmes, after all, so actually giving a damn about other people is beneath you!"

Sherlock scrambles to his feet. "John , please, I know you've been worried for me, I've gotten all of your messages, I just couldn't – "

"Couldn't what, Sherlock? Spare a thought for me? How utterly typical of you."

Sherlock's pacing, staying out of John's reach as much as possible. "No, I couldn't, Mycroft was tagging me every time I accessed that account. He traced everywhere I was, everywhere I was going, and thought about everywhere I could go, besides. He wanted to get Moriarty before me so he could take him alive. I couldn't let that happen, John, you know I couldn't." His voice is sharp, with a pleading edge that's begging John to understand, to see his side. John's mind flicks back to Mycroft's insistence that John would be happier here than in a safehouse – while he was right, John thinks perhaps his reasons weren't completely altruistic, after all.

"You did manage to send me one message. And you said you got mine. How did that work, then?"

"I accessed the account when Mycroft already knew where I was. I only had a short time to download all of your messages, and sent the one. I wanted to hear from you, I needed to know you were all right. If anyone managed to get to you where you were I'd never forgive Mycroft for the rest of his short life."

"And you never thought I'd want to hear from you at all? That's rubbish, Sherlock, and you know it." John's trying to hold his anger against the tide of Sherlock-logic being thrown at him. His defenses are low after almost a year of non-exposure. His anger is ebbing, the wash of adrenaline slowing.

"I'm sorry," Sherlock says simply. "I was wrong."

That throws him. Sherlock is never wrong. Mistaken, or misinformed, but never wrong. John stops stock still, feeling the pull to reach out, wrap that long body in his arms and not let go. Sherlock sees it, sees the hesitancy in John's posture and steps forward slightly, raising a hand to rest lightly on John's shoulder.

"I'm still angry at you," John says, stepping closer, "and I have a lot more to say. But it can wait." He closes the distance and hugs Sherlock hard, squeezing his eyes closed and feeling those long arms come up and wrap around his shoulders. Sherlock huffs a breath into John's hair, suspiciously silent but for a few quick breaths. John laughs, incredulous at what's just happened, out here, of all places.

He holds on, refusing to let go just yet.

"Jesus, I've missed you, you infuriating bastard."

Sherlock rests his cheek against John's head. "And I, you."

When Sherlock steps back, he seems flushed under his lightly tanned face. "I shall send Mycroft notice tonight," he says with finality, clapping his hands together and beaming.

"Notice? " John asks, dread settling in. "You mean, notice for you to get a plane home, right?"

"For us, John, for us to get a plane home. There's no need to stay any longer. You can come back to Baker Street with me and leave the sand flies behind."

John's always been good at going with his gut, and when the thought of leaving right now fills him with immediate dread, he stands up tall, his newfound determination burning in his heart and pouring into his lifted chin and squared shoulders. "Wait, Sherlock. I'm not going home quite yet."

Sherlock looks at him, completely floored. John muses that he's never quite seen that look on his face before. He rather likes it.

"What do you mean? You don't mean you're going to stay here," he says flatly.

"That's exactly what I do mean. Did you even stop to think about the fact that I've got almost 50 people and a dozen patients counting on me to run this place? I can't just leave."

Sherlock rolls his eyes. "I'm sure Mycroft and the Army will find a suitable replacement very quickly. This country is crawling with RAMC doctors."

John feels his temper starting to rise at the obvious fact that Sherlock thinks he's a replaceable figurehead with no actual responsibility. His obvious dismissal of John's own abilities (while still somewhat expected), stings.

"Your utter incomprehension of the most simple things is staggering, you know? Come with me."

John leads him out of the tent and across the courtyard, toward the hospital, and waves politely to Nurse Cole, who blatantly stares at the tall, rangy man striding next to her Captain, a man she's only seen in a picture and knows John fears for on a regular basis. The look on her face means gossip, and Sherlock's arrival will be all over the hospital by morning.

"I could take the grand tour later, John," Sherlock grumbles.

"Quiet, you. There's someone I want you to meet." But before John can get to the patient floor, he's approached by one of the nurses, asking him to sign off on acquiring a new shipment of opiates, which, given the number of trauma patients he's had lately, he's more than happy to do. Sherlock's silent, following closely on his heels, that complicated brain cataloguing and processing everything he's seeing.

John continues down the hall, greeted by the cheerful "Evening, Sir!" of the maintenance crew working on the overhead lights, and the "You really need to come look at this, Captain, I'm certain Pvt. Willard was given the wrong dosage…" of the charge nurse; a constant, twisting swirl of paperwork and decisions and interactions that have come to define his life. When he realizes Sherlock is no longer behind him, he stops and turns, right in the middle of the hall, in the center of the tightly controlled chaos that is a functioning hospital, grinning, his borrowed stethoscope wrapped around his neck.

Sherlock steps toward him slowly, like John's an alien creature that he's not sure he knows how to deal with quite yet, a look of wonder on his face.

"I've…obviously missed something important."

"Yes, you have. Eight weeks, and I'll be home. But I won't leave this behind, not entirely. I remember who I am, Sherlock. And I want to keep it that way."

################################.

John walks back across the courtyard after leaving Sherlock at the door of the hospital to go finish his confirmation ("My God, John, this is what you have to do in your spare time? I should have gotten here sooner." "Fuck off, you pretentious twat. I still have a job to do. Go find Bin Laden or something, let me get this done, would you?" "How difficult is it to find someone who died four years ago?") John had taken Sherlock to meet Kris and Michael, who were getting ready to leave the next day. The thoughtful look on Sherlock's face after Michael told him how John had saved not just Kris but himself, as well, told John a lot – namely, that Sherlock, for once, was actually listening. When he walked toward the gate of the hospital grounds, muttering about bureaucratic idiocy, his bag, and untrustworthy landlords, and threatening to come back in an hour, John went back to his work with a lighter heart.

As he unlocks his door in the early evening, he can see a small edge of light seeping out from the bottom. John knows for a fact he didn't leave his light on when he left, so that only means one thing.

Sherlock, lying nonchalantly on his bed, appropriating his laptop. John sighs. A locked door and a password never stopped him before, so why would it now?

Sherlock closes the laptop slowly, eyeing John carefully and seeming to weigh something in his mind. John can feel the tension rolling off of Sherlock in waves, despite the casual posture. When he speaks, his voice is low and dark.

"I told you before you left that we had unfinished business. I don't intend to leave it that way."

John stills. His best tactic, he knows, is to stall, put off whatever this might entail, and from the look on Sherlock's face, he's pretty sure he's got a good idea. He walked from Pakistan, for Christ's sake; that has to mean something. He's still not sure he's prepared for it; he feels too wound up from their discussion earlier to think clearly, and he knows that Sherlock knows it. He's good at finding weak spots and exploiting them, and John's got one hell of a weak spot glowing neon red.

"What business might that be?" he stutters, then clears his throat. He leans back against the door, about as far from Sherlock as his little space will permit.

Sherlock gets up slowly from the bed, prowling across the room and crowding John against the door, one hand on either side of John's head. "Us," he says simply. John closes his eyes and swallows, involuntarily.

And then - warm, soft lips press against his, forceful, insistent, and oh, so achingly sweet. Stunned paralysis ends when he feels a hand cup his jaw, tilting his head slightly for a better angle, and he moves his mouth against Sherlock's for a long, slow minute. He breaks away, panting. Sherlocks' eyes are closed and he licks his bottom lip.

"Really?" is about all John can say, at this point.

"You seem unconvinced. Shall I try again?" Sherlock swoops back in, capturing John's lips, kissing him as perfectly as if he did it every day, running his hands down John's sides and around to fit over the curve his arse. John pushes back against him, trying to gain the upper hand by pulling Sherlock's shirt from his trousers and running his hands along his waist, dipping lightly under the waistband and feeling the slight hollow along his spine. Sherlock shivers, moans into his mouth, and the sound is like nothing John ever thought he'd experience in his lifetime; a deep, undeniably erotic utterance that slips under his skin, warming him from the inside out.

The responsible side of John is screaming at him to stop, to be sure Sherlock got what he was trying to tell him, to demand and cajole and out and out require to be on equal footing from now on. But when Sherlock is murmuring "Please, John, please, I want you with me, please, give me this one thing…" it's difficult to resist. He's had the full force of Sherlock's intelligence, his attention, and his derision focused at him, but never his lust, his arousal, his attraction. It's a heady mix that makes John's head spin and leaves him incapable of any coherent thought. His body has taken over, allowing a year's pent up longing be the driving force behind the slight push he gives to Sherlock's shoulders. A questioning eyebrow greets him before Sherlock tries to kiss him again.

John pushes Sherlock back harder, causing him to stumble slightly, eyes wide and a bit worried. John smiles and stalks toward him, backing him back to his narrow bed until his knees hit and he drops gracelessly onto his rear. It's a rush, being a bit more in charge, and John takes full advantage of it when he pulls off his shirt and sees Sherlock's eyes go wide. Almost a year of regular workouts have brought John back into fighting form, muscles lean and developed. He smirks, and crouches down to spend an interminable amount of time unlacing Sherlock's boots and pulling off his socks. Bright blue eyes upbraid him for taking so long, and when he finally settles to kneel across Sherlock's hips, those eyes go dark and heavy with arousal. Sherlock's exploring fingers trace along John's abdomen, his chest and his shoulders, leaving goosebumps in their wake, and his curious hands trace and lift the shiny metal circles of the ID tags that rest on John's bare chest.

"My God, John. I stand corrected. You've spent your spare time very well."

"Glad you approve," John says. "But it wasn't for you."

"Of course not. But I can still appreciate it. And believe me, I do." Sherlock reaches up and pulls John down to him, kissing his neck and shifting his weight swiftly so John that finds himself on his back, looking up. Sherlock sits up, tearing off his own shirt and scrabbling for his belt, fighting to get himself undressed as quickly as possible. John laughs at his impatience, especially when Sherlock starts on John's own boots with abandon, then his trousers, unbuckling and unbuttoning and pulling down the zip, sliding them off with a flourish. John wonders if Sherlock's haste is fueled by fear, thinking he needs to claim John as quickly as possible before he changes his mind.

John feels the same impatience skittering along his nerves and pulls Sherlock to him, feeling Sherlock's warm skin pressed to his for the first time, his arousal hot and thick against John's hip. He kisses feather-light against Sherlock's neck, down his chest, one hand tangled in short cropped curls, one smoothing down a sharp hipbone and over a rear too gorgeous for words. Sherlock growls impatiently, nipping at John's lips, hips seeking friction, and John obliges him, curling a hand around Sherlock's cock, sliding his palm gently over the silky skin that heats and pulses at his touch.

When Sherlock responds in kind, John sucks in a sharp breath, pleasure racing like fire along his limbs. It takes a monumental effort to keep stroking, feeling that thin body tense next to his, feeling his own body coiling in return, a tight circle of pleasure given and received until he hears Sherlock's exclamation and feels warmth spreading over his hand and hip. A few more moments are all he needs, and that warmth is mingled with his own, and he breathes deep, completely wrung out physically and emotionally.

Sherlock leans forward and kisses him lightly, then climbs over John to fetch a towel. He cleans up and crawls back into the narrow bed, long body fitted tightly against John's and tucked up under John's arm. Soft little curls tickle John's chin, and he smiles, wondering how long Sherlock will keep his hair so short. Sherlock snuffles into his side and waits, quietly.

"This won't make me come home any sooner, you know." John's voice is gentle in the half-dark.

"I didn't think it would. I just wanted to be sure you knew what you'd be coming back to. It's not so bad a prospect, is it? Even if I'm not Lt. Shepard."

"How did you – wait. Of course you do." John sighs. "I'm not sorry I slept with him."

"I don't expect you to be sorry, John, for any of it. I didn't exactly make my intentions clear, before. Although, they certainly should be, now. And I don't share."

John groans at the prospect of his first breakup in years, lying with his hands over his face, until he feels Sherlock gently lift his dogtags from where they slipped sideways onto the pillows. Sherlock examines them, feels their weight and traces the tiny imprints of his name, blood type, and identification number stamped in the metal. He turns them over in his fingers, holds them gently in his hand, the chain still looped around John's neck.

"I do understand, you know. That this is who you are, even if you'd forgotten for a time. My work is important to me, and it appears yours is to you." He pauses. Takes a breath. "I will help you find a more permanent position, I promise. But I do need you, John. Working without you this last year was miserable."

John grins, knowing Sherlock's admission for what it is – a willingness to adapt, to consider someone else, possibly for the first time in his life. Not only that, but John remembers his own thrill in the chase, and the fascination of being involved in Sherlock's life.

"Well, perhaps I can find a spot at an A&E somewhere. That would give me 36 hour rotations on, and quite a few days off in between. It should still allow me a spot of crime-solving with you."

Sherlock brightens at the prospect of days with John's full attention and leans over to kiss him quickly. John yawns and stretches and looks at the clock – almost midnight, six hours until his call rotation.

"We need to get some sleep. I'm on soon, and you need to get ready for your trip home."

Sherlock grins. "No, I think I'll stay. I'm sure there are plenty of things that need doing in this country. Aren't they still looking for Ayman al-Zawahiri?"

John laughs, although the prospect of letting Sherlock loose on Afghanistan is frankly a terrifying one.

"No, you aren't allowed to engage al Qaeda on your own."

"But I won't be alone," Sherlock says with a smile. "In eight weeks, I'll have you."