Title: In the Forests of the Night
Characters/Pairings: John Watson,Sebastian Moran, Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes
Word Count: 8942
Warnings: (ACD canon, so speculative) apparent and actual character death, violence, descriptions of war, speculation as to Season 2 of Sherlock. Spoilers for ACD canon, esp. FINA and EMPT, with spoilery inferences from Season 2 promotional titles and pictures. Also warning for not-very-nice!Mycroft.
Summary: When Sherlock Holmes dies, he doesn't just take Jim Moriarty and half of London's biggest crime syndicate with him – he takes the battlefield. And John does miss it; so much so that he re-enlists and is re-deployed to Afghanistan, under Mycroft Holmes's recommendation, as an army sniper. Still coming to terms with his loss, he encounters another lieutenant who's recently lost a commanding officer, and unwittingly forms the most dangerous comradeship of his life. War is not a study in black and white, and loyalties are not so easily defined – especially when the most dangerous man John has ever met is working each and all from behind the scenes.
Disclaimer: BBC, Gatiss, Moffat, etc. own the characters and show concepts as well as the Doctor Who reference. William Blake owns the poem from which the title is taken. I own the speculation and writing style. :P
In the Forests of the Night
It was ironic, really. John had, since he returned from Afghanistan, possessed one of the most modern mobile phones to hit the market, as well as a laptop and the other basic gadgets which the march of civilisation demanded. However, that did not mean he knew how to use them beyond what he could figure out by a few seconds' fiddling with the object in question, and who in their right minds actually read technical manuals these days unless they came free on the electronic device? Sherlock had always teased him about his search-and-peck typing skills (did you even touch a keyboard before the Army, John?) and the fact that Sherlock got more usage out of the iPhone than John did (You could barely find the camera, John; and you still haven't found out how to switch your ringtone from that dreadful pop song) and that they might as well trade the mobiles and be done with it. Sherlock always had called it behind the times, and he had always retorted with technologically-challenged and I have better things to do when I get bored, unlike some people I could mention, Sherlock.
Regardless, John hadn't known that a person could delay a message being sent for hours if they chose to do so.
It was therefore ironic, that the most important message he had and would ever receive came to him in this exact way.
New Text Message (1/4)
John, There will come
a day when, I hope,
you will be able to
forgive me for this.
But this is the only
way to minimize
the danger to you.
There is a flash drive
hidden in the box
of mummified fingers
under the sink. Give it
to Lestrade, and tell
him to close the net.
Also, that I am sorry.
You are sole
Hudson & rent will
be cared for indef.
Do not allow Mycroft
to bully or patronize
And live, John.
Halfway across the city, working with Lestrade over a colossal stack of paper trails in an effort to pin down the leaders of different branches of the Moriarty syndicate, his phone had beeped to announce the first message's arrival, and it had frozen him in his tracks with horror.
Lestrade's desk phone had begun to ring.
And the whole world had gone to hell.
He hadn't found out until after it was all over, that the message had been sent from Sherlock's shattered mobile a good two hours before the detective was pronounced dead at the scene.
The evening had been surreal, unbelievable, numbing. He'd known they were close, but Sherlock had acted so utterly normally (Bored, John! Entertain me, John! Buy the milk, John! Go have a paperwork party with Lestrade, and see if you can pocket a spare ID while you're at it, John!) that he'd never suspected another pool-esque scenario. And he should have known, given Sherlock's history, but John had had no inkling that they were that tangibly close to finally taking Jim Moriarty down. Down being the key word, ironically, as apparently the two had faced off on a bloody rooftop this time around, and neither had survived.
No one could survive a fall off a four-story building, and yet Sherlock had defied the laws of science and safety so often that the knowledge that he had not, not in this case, was inconceivable. John had been vaguely aware of going into severe shock at the scene, brought on by stress and grief and the fact that Mycroft Holmes had a cordon of men in black around the scene four-deep and would not let him through to see the bodies.
"You do not want to see him, John; trust me," the voice had said, silky-smooth and dangerous, as a white-faced Lestrade pushed him back to collapse more than sit on the closest set of steps. "There is not much left to see, I'm afraid."
He'd not been able to convince the man otherwise, and granted his mind seemed strangely unable to formulate protests or anything other than a sort of despairing moan as he gave up the attempt.
Two things happened simultaneously: One, his medical mind had picked out the death-knell of a paramedic calling a final failure to resuscitate.
Two, his phone beeped again.
New Message from: Sherlock Holmes (4/4)
...and the rest of the evening had faded into blissful void, a mesh of sirens and blue lights and blood-pressure cuffs and Mycroft's ridiculous umbrella and someone saying Yes, Moriarty is a confirmed casualty, and Lestrade's face, looking ten years older from wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes.
He woke up in an unfamiliar house (Lestrade's spare room, and with the aftertaste of a mild hangover in his mouth), and found he had to face the world, having in one night lost both the London battlefield he'd grown to love, as well as his commanding officer, who was also his closest friend.
Mrs. Hudson had cried for the better part of two hours into his shoulder. He had not shed a tear, had not been able to feel the grief which obviously tore at their longsuffering and magnificent landlady. He had not been able to feel much of anything; it was as if all the light and pure energy which had always made him feel so alive around Sherlock Holmes had fallen four stories that rainy night and died with the man. He planned a small memorial service with Mycroft, who was less than helpful (he hadn't expected effusive emotion, but the man could at least look like he'd lost his baby brother, for the love of decency), and had carried it off with a composure that made well-meaning and worried NSY-ers whisper behind his back about the true nature of his relationship with Sherlock.
He didn't care enough to even respond, and he was the first to leave the memorial site.
Later that evening, he was shocked to find that Sherlock had not only given him power of attorney shortly after their first case, but had also made him the sole beneficiary of what was a not-inconsiderable amount of money (for the sake of his sanity he dared not think of how much that said about the self-professed sociopath). The complete monthly rent on 221B would automatically be paid for a year after Sherlock's death out of his trust fund, after which John had the power to decide whether or not to keep the house. If he decided to move on, Mrs. Hudson would still receive the same amount of money, so as to not force her to re-list the flat and find new tenants.
The idea of living alone in the flat, and knowing that the rent had been paid by his dead flatmate so that John would not have financial worries for at least twelve months following, was not appealing, even if it did warm his heart for a few moments after reading the particulars. He could always box up Sherlock's things and advert for another flatmate, or even live by himself, but putting away the physical things would not erase memories – even if he had wanted to erase them, which he did not.
How could one reclusive genius with sociopathic tendencies, and one partially-invalided ex-soldier with sporadic PTSD, have become so intertwined in a little over a year that just the idea of living alone again was nothing short of heartbreaking?
So when Mycroft had suggested he re-enlist in the QDG (Medical discharge, Mycroft; you don't just go back after one of those. British government, Doctor; I assure you I can both deploy and recall you at my convenience should I choose to do so), he signed the papers without even reading them through first. (1)
Twenty-four hours later, he was in Germany, sitting on his standard-issue bunk (re-adjusting from the comforts of civilian life wasn't quite as painless as he'd anticipated) and staring at an email on his laptop.
He'd had a very tiny, very excusable, very brief meltdown when he'd opened it to find that at some point in the last week Sherlock had yet again guessed his password and had left Notepad up in a browsing window. Really, John? Sh3rlock stay 0ut im warn1ng y0u? Surely you can do better than that. By the way, we're out of eggs again. Also I borrowed your field kit, needed rubbing alcohol.
Biting his lip until he tasted blood, he hesitated for a moment, mouse cursor hovering over the X, before minimizing the window instead of closing it. Resolutely ignoring the photo folder in his desktop's upper left corner (shared photos courtesy of Lestrade and his people at NSY) that said Sherlock_n_Shock_Blankt – did the man permeate every part of his life? – he returned to Mycroft's email.
It was terse, to the point, and thoroughly impersonal. He wondered anew at the almost scary lack of grief the man showed for his brother's murder, and wished he felt a fraction of it.
Or could even let a fraction of it out; he still didn't think it had quite set in yet, and he hadn't even shed a tear for Sherlock. Medically speaking, he knew the danger in that; emotionally speaking, he didn't quite know what was wrong with him.
Practically speaking, he could do nothing to change what had happened, and could only hope the future might mute the pain of the present.
Your unique skills are more useful to us in the field, than in the hospital or even on a medical team in combat. I trust you will not be bored during your somewhat specialized service. Despite the inherent danger in your situation, you no doubt will be grateful for the opportunity to perform, if I read your desires correctly. And I believe I do.
Should you require anything, you have but to contact me; I owe Sherlock that much at least.
Welcome back to the war, Doctor.
P.S. Moriarty's London syndicate has been all but eradicated. Final operations went into effect this evening, successful. You have no reason to return to London until you are prepared to do so. Still awaiting word on the Paris, Minsk, Los Angeles, Bombay branches.
Attached was a copy of his paperwork. He'd been placed as a sniper, little surprise there if Mycroft was puppeteering, and he wondered numbly what it said about him as both a doctor and a human being that he was rather more ready to kill for a living than to heal.
Physician, heal thyself had never seemed more ironic. He could dress a wound, yes – but how could he possibly aid another man to vanquish his demons, when his own dreams had turned from chlorine and laser sights and drowning now to massive head trauma and blood, so much blood, and the grey of London pavement and the blue of Sherlock's scarf all drenched in that wash of scarlet?
No, better this direct, clean form of distant execution than an endless stream of dying men at his fingertips.
Footsteps – bootsteps, he had to get used to that after listening to Sherlock's designer footwear pacing about at all hours – approached and stopped in front of him. He looked up, not exactly welcoming company but knowing he had to become accustomed to it now in mass, as it would be constant for twelve months or longer, dependent upon his own decisions and Mycroft's busybodying.
"Yeah, that's me." He snapped the laptop lid closed and set it on the bunk, standing up to greet the man standing before him.
Unlike most of the younger generation he'd been traveling with, this man was older, around his own age – and had obviously seen as much action and 'trouble,' as Sherlock had put it long ago, as he had. Possibly part of a sniper section as well, as he wasn't of command rank and few older men were part of this detachment except for those in more experienced roles. Tall but not threateningly so, sandy hair and keen warm-brown eyes, and an inquisitive smile; a refreshing change from his mind's constant barrage of images which were all dark hair and steel eyes and blue and grey and black.
"Terribly sorry, didn't mean to interrupt," the man said genially. "I could come back?"
"No, no, you're fine. Pleased to meet you," he replied. "Ah…and you are?"
"I'm to be your spotter, apparently," the fellow said, his eyes glinting as they took stock of each other. (2)
Well, Big Brother did work quickly, and had a hand in this no doubt. John appreciated the effort, though he had the sinking feeling that when Mycroft Holmes decided to call in his favors, half the world would be forced to come running (weirdly enough he could totally see the apocalypse being like that Doctor Who finale). At least he hadn't been paired up with some idiot barely old enough to shave, much less actively take out the Taliban.
"My spotter," he repeated, a little surprised.
A callused hand extended his direction, and he shook it, liking the man and his apparent good-nature instantly.
"Sebastian Moran," his new partner said, smiling. "Shall I show you around, then?"
A week later they were in a Forward Base in Helmand. (3)
John was adjusting more quickly than he'd at first anticipated; the rigorous refresher and training for army sniping was good for both mind and body in keeping him from thinking about what he'd left behind in foggy London. The amity of his fellow soldiers, especially the energy of the young ones, was something he'd missed upon being invalided out, and he thrived in the environment. Everyone loves a man who can tell a good story – and tell them he could, once the pain of remembrance had dulled from excruciating to merely an aching sense of loss, of incompleteness, of universal wrongness. He liked the fellows in his regiment, and found an instant camaraderie in Sebastian, who appeared to be a very genial and well-read gentleman, brilliant in his own way, fiercely loyal too. Their third week out the man saved his life, and was unparalleled in experience with army sniping. John was actually beginning to enjoy himself by the fifth month abroad; the pain of his world being turned upside down was ebbing, and the steady routine of doing what he was good at helped in a shift back to some semblance of normality.
All things considered, he believed he was doing remarkably well, and so the meltdown, when it did happen, was a complete shock.
It was ridiculous, really, what set it off. They'd had a successful night (they were assigned for the present to the night battlefield, and after taking out criminals with a handgun in the dank streets of London this was child's play), he and Sebastian had taken out five Taliban, which was a good show for their time of evening, and after a quick bite to eat were preparing to turn in for what remained of the night.
John was sitting on his bunk, laptop on his legs, scouring through emails as quickly as a patchy-at-best wifi signal would allow (he'd been surprised to pick it up at all outside the rec areas, but wouldn't be at all shocked to find out Mycroft had something to do with boosting it, probably had him chipped with something, he wouldn't be at all surprised). Mostly simple messages from friends back in London, though there was one short e-card from Harry and a few pieces of spam.
The last was an email from Lestrade, whom he hadn't talked to since he left, other than to send the man a letter thanking him for his hospitality the night…the night Sherlock died.
I hope this finds you in better shape than you were last we met. Things have been quiet without His Highness around, I have to say – except for those odd moments when I wish I could call him about a case, even if he'd make me feel like an idiot. I'm sure you miss him the same, Doctor.
It's been almost five months now, I can't really believe it, but I thought it was long enough that I can send you this without being too insensitive.
Do email if you have the time; the boys (and Sally, though she's really one of the boys) ask about you from time to time and I'd like to have something to tell them, you know?
[..]Attachment: Sherlock_being_stupid | View | Download
John smiled, though he felt guilty about the lack of communication and vowed to fix that this week if possible, and clicked on the View link, which brought up his vid-player.
All it was, was random footage from the security cameras at New Scotland Yard – a sixty-second clip of Sherlock sitting in Donovan's desk chair and whirling himself around in it at a dangerous speed, coat flying all about him, while grinning maniacally at whoever stopped to stare.
John watched it to the end, and then hit Replay, and then began to giggle so hard he cried a little.
And then he couldn't seem to stop.
He hadn't shed a tear all through the long nights and the memorial service and everything else, hadn't been able to despite it all – and he was paying for it now, his medical mind realized. The laptop slid precariously toward the edge of the bunk, and he could barely make himself care, could only fumble blindly for it and hope to God he could be quiet and not draw attention to himself in a busy barracks.
He missed; the laptop went sliding down the blanket to the floor and that was so going to cost him and Mycroft would foot the bill but he didn't want anything else from the impossible man –
Tanned hands caught the notebook deftly, and deposited it on the bunk opposite.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, what's going on, John?" Sebastian's concerned voice sounded in his ear as the bunk creaked under the partial weight of another body. "You all right?"
"Fine," he managed after a moment, swiping roughly at his face and managing a smile up at the taller man. "Sorry, just…news from home, something hit me all of a sudden. I'm fine, really. Just…fine." Why could he not stop crying, for pity's sake.
"Well you don't look it," Sebastian replied bluntly, sitting on the opposite end of the bunk, arm resting loosely on half-crossed legs. The man's dark eyes regarded him keenly. "Bad news?"
"Old news," he answered, wishing his voice wasn't so hoarse. He dashed away another tear impatiently, and realized the tremor was back in his hand for the first time in months; it had better be gone by tomorrow or he'd have to trade Sebastian sniper for spotter. "But bad, yeah."
Sebastian retrieved the laptop and handed it back, glancing briefly at the screen. Something flickered through his expression, John didn't know quite what – probably wondering why such a stupid video would set him off into a self-indulgent crying fit. "Old video," he explained, grinning blurrily. "First time I've seen a visual reminder in…however long it's been. God, he was such an idiot sometimes."
"Who?" The careful question was phrased with concern, but also curiosity. "Your friend, the one you tell the lads so many stories about?"
John nodded. "Sherlock. He was fantastically brilliant, could name you off a spiel of deductions a mile long about anything and everything – and then he'd go and do something utterly ridiculous like this." He clicked Play once more, and the clip began again. He fell into a fit of giggles at the creeped-out look Anderson gave the detective when he edged past, and kept laughing until the video ran out again.
Sebastian was grinning, eyebrows raised. "This is a man with an IQ of 180?"
John nodded, smiling, and downloaded the clip to his desktop. "He also spray painted smiley faces on the lounge walls, and when he did decide to eat would consume an entire half-gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream in one sitting and then whine like a toddler about how his stomach hurt all night."
"He was." A lump rose in his throat, bitter and painful, though he felt the better for having released some of the grief which he'd firmly ignored through the last few months. "He really, really was."
"That why you re-enlisted, then?" Sebastian asked carefully.
He shot his friend a quick look, but without irritation; it was a logical conclusion. "He was my best friend, Sherlock was. Nothing more, but that's nothing to be ashamed of," he said simply. "Everything was just so…quiet, without him. I couldn't take it. You know how it is when you lose a commanding officer."
The other man nodded slowly, and ran a thoughtful hand through sandy hair. "How did…I don't want to be too personal…"
"How did he die, you mean?" John asked bluntly, and Sebastian nodded.
John snapped the laptop shut with a loud crack, anger lending force to his hands. "He was playing a hero that didn't exist," he said bitterly, and left to use the lavatory, leaving his spotter sitting on the bed, watching him.
Another four months dashed by, all a whirl of battlefield and impromptu medical duty and killing and adrenaline and that one memorable evening when Sebastian laughed fondly at him because he rescued a drenched kitten from a mud puddle and it repaid him by scratching him across the face before crawling into his vest, purring its little head off – until he stood in the sun one afternoon and realized it had been three-quarters of a year since he'd traded London's ghosts to take up residence with demons.
And, more importantly, he was learning to live again. Sherlock had always treated him as an equal – an army doctor, a good one, and a bizarre sort of combination bodyguard, clerical assistant, PR rep, personal dietician, and the one and only friend the genius had. He'd been Sherlock's partner, colleague, friend, and heaven only knew what else – an equal, on a level playing field due to different strengths and weaknesses. But to everyone else, he'd been seen as the Freak's keeper, Sherlock's shadow, 'that flatmate of Sherlock's,' and generally as a decent sort but not especially brilliant in any particular area.
That had changed now; he'd forgotten the sense of belonging, of rightness, he had felt as a competent field medic, right up through the point that an IED had shot the vehicle he'd been traveling in and, even wounded, he had saved the life of his neighboring soldier by applying a tourniquet to the man's leg before passing out himself.
Now, he and Sebastian had a bit of a reputation as the camp's prize sniper team, and though it disturbed him a bit how proud he was of the fact that he was known for taking lives, it didn't change anything and so he accepted it. Sebastian reveled in it, but then the man was also a big game hunter when he was on leave (he had stories about taking down injured tigers that made John resolve very very firmly to never get on the man's bad side) and so it was hardly surprising.
Sebastian was a shark, too, at the odd card game they played when, as one of the Americans put it, they weren't busy gettin' shot at. John was a gambler, and Sebastian a bluffer, and so they made the perfect team during poker tournaments. John had never had much time for cards before, other than the odd time-killing game of solitaire on his laptop, but found that it was actually enjoyable. He was, really, learning to live again, and part of that was putting the past behind and finding new things to occupy his time other than running about London after a mad genius.
He'd begun blogging again periodically, when time permitted (which wasn't often), and was quite surprised to see the large following he'd amassed during the months since his deployment. He'd not looked at the blog for months after Sherlock's death, partly because the sheer ghastly amount of well-meaning messages was sickening and partly because he suspected the remnants of Moriarty's syndicate were behind the massive amount of trolling going on. He'd locked all comments, and basically had shut it down for six months until Mycroft had told him the channels had cleared and better firewalls were in place both on his blog and Sherlock's old website.
But he had little time for that or any other less active pursuits; he and Sebastian were gradually making their mark in the ranks as a sniping team and there was talk of promotion to Corporal and Lance-Corporal, giving them command of their own units. Frankly, John did not want the responsibility of a whole new set of lives weighing upon his shoulders, and if he accepted it meant a more lengthy term than the one he'd initially accepted from Mycroft. While he had needed this break from London and all the memories it held, he was not certain he wanted to lock himself into another long stint along the Afghan war zone.
And there were times like this one, when he would wake in the chill of a desert morning with the ache in his left shoulder burning like a poker stuck into the flesh and bone, that he regretted redeployment at all, and cursed Mycroft Holmes with every insult he knew in both English and Arabic.
"Bad this morning, then?"
It was slightly creepy, how Sebastian always seemed to materialize silently in his vicinity but gave fair warning before moving in on someone else. The man slinked along like a cat, and it was more than a little disturbing, in John's opinion, when you were on the receiving end.
"Rather," he muttered, ramming his foot into the left boot and beginning to lace it up.
"Odd that you could have got back into the thick of it with a game shoulder – no offense, mate – isn't it?"
"It's not debilitating." John frowned defensively.
Sebastian grinned. "Never said it was, just that it's a bit odd. Nine times out of ten medical discharges have a horrid time of trying to get back into active forward duty, especially with a history of RAMC. Not got a family member in the War Office, do you? Plain old John Watson has friends in high places that can make you disappear and no one will ever find the body?"
"You watch too many Bond movies," John snorted. Obviously, he could never and would never divulge Mycroft Holmes's name and occupation, what little he knew or suspected of it, to anyone, and anyway who would believe him? He hated not being truthful but he was a soldier, and soldiers kept secrets better than any other people on the planet.
It was at that juncture that he found a camel spider in his right boot (4), and the ensuing screaming (not shrieking, very definitely not shrieking, not shrieking at all, thank you) and dancing around and throwing the boot at the wall effectively diverted the conversation better than he ever could have if he'd had ten years to plan it.
Sebastian was still giggling about the whole thing (you're so cute when you shriek like a girl, John. I know where you sleep, and have performed an emergency amputation in under forty seconds, Sebastian.) when they went to morning exercises, and he found himself jumping at every scuttling shadow the rest of the week.
He was more creeped out by the fact that Mycroft sent him a routine check-in email that night, reminding him of the Official Secrets Act, than he was by the whole spider fiasco.
Yeah, he wouldn't be surprised to find he was chipped with something or his laptop was being bugged, even all the way out here in the depths of Afghanistan. He and Sherlock never had found the third bug Mycroft had quite openly informed them he had in their flat. He grinned to himself, remembering how Sherlock had sworn it was hidden inside the television, and had taken the entire thing apart one evening out of boredom and left the pieces all over the lounge floor, before using Mycroft's credit card to buy a new one online and have it delivered.
The memory was a painful ache, but a deep and cathartic one that spoke of healing, not the agonizing clarity which characterized those first few horrible months where every little thing reminded him of a life destroyed prematurely. The knowledge that Sherlock had gotten him out of the way so he would not meet the same fate was of absolutely no consolation, but he was slowly coming to realize that could not be changed and that continuing to blame himself was nonproductive.
He would never forgive Sherlock for his stupid self-sacrificing, but for the first time he thought he might be able to forgive himself.
Another month passed, and another. Christmas, his first abroad, came and went, and he spent a bit of precious downtime writing long letters to Mrs. Hudson and Sarah, and surprising Lestrade (and Donovan, when she heard the DI's pleased exclamation) by Skype on late Christmas Eve. Of Mycroft Holmes, he heard only a one-line email wishing him the compliments of the season and updating him on the Moriarty syndicate's trials, which were drawing to a close.
John found himself strangely not caring how many of the smaller fish went free. All that mattered was that the net had captured the main one, but dragged the fisherman down in the process.
Sebastian told him in no uncertain terms later that day that he was being unseasonably morose and broody, and coerced him into a haphazard rugby game which ended in him vowing to never again let the idiot convince him to undertake something so brutal with men half his age. He got his revenge later in the evening, when a centipede practically the length of his arm crawled over his spotter's hand as they lay silent, waiting for the opportunity to pick off the enemy.
And so it continued; the days passed quickly, fleeting, and he grew to enjoy the work and the environment. Besides Sebastian the regiment was full of bright young faces, and while their posting was one of the more dangerous they had not yet seen a really terrible skirmish; no casualties during his near-year there, which was a pleasant change from being an RAMC medic on the front lines.
Then, two months later and fourteen months total after his re-deployment, it all blew up spectacularly in his face.
It shouldn't have bothered him so much, given that he had lived with Sherlock Holmes for over a year and the man had absolutely no sense of personal space or privacy. Sherlock had actually taken joy in hacking into anything John had, whether that was his lockbox or his laptop or anything in between, and so he'd long ago learned to keep an external hard drive of that which he did not want London's keenest observer learning.
In retrospect, therefore, it should not have bothered him as much as it did, when he returned early from an inspection of the medical station, and found Sebastian crouched beside his bed, using his laptop.
In the army, one learns to relinquish all sense of privacy, and yet some things are just not done; hacking a fellow's password for his laptop is just one of those understoods. John was Not. Happy. Sebastian barely had time to look guilty before John was yanking the device out of his hands, swearing at the man for the first time since they'd met.
"Honestly, can't a bloke have a bit of privacy?" he demanded. "You'd think –"
He froze, because what was up on the screen wasn't his photo albums, wasn't a web browser for research, wasn't iTunes or YouTube, wasn't anything Sebastian would have needed to 'borrow' for a bit. No, his friend and sniping partner had been reading his emails – deleted, but apparently not completely (John was a bit clueless when it came to these things, everyone knew that) – emails from Mycroft Holmes.
He looked up into the barrel of a loaded Army Browning.
"Drop it," Sebastian said quietly, flicking the safety off. "And believe me, I wish there was another way, John."
Numbly, he released the laptop, and felt his world shatter for the second time in fourteen months.
"I thought you were specifically stationed here to lure me into betraying myself, you know," Sebastian said conversationally, as they moved through the dim light of an Afghan desert night.
It was a bit hard to be civil when being forced to walk across rough terrain with one's hands tied behind one's back, in addition to having both a handgun and a rifle pointed in one's general direction by a man one knows to be a crack shot; John thought he could be forgiven the somewhat crude response, and only wished he had a hand free to make an accompanying gesture.
Sebastian ignored him. "But then I realized – you really have no ulterior motives, you're no more than a puppet, whose strings are held by someone so high up not even Jim could discover a name," the man mused thoughtfully. "Never suspected it was a family member, though. Did you really have no idea?"
"That you were anything more than just a comrade-at-arms?" John asked bitterly. "Never. Sherlock always did say I was too trusting."
Hurt showed in the warm brown eyes. "You don't think it was all a lie, do you, John?"
"As I have yet to find out what the truth is, that's a working hypothesis, yes."
"Be careful, there's loose ground here. Really, though, John – I haven't been entirely lying this last year. I really did enjoy getting to know you."
That made it even more galling. "What makes it worse is that the feeling was mutual," he snapped, struggling to remain calm as their progress took them further from friendly forces and closer to enemy lines. Fists clenched tight against the ropes, he could tell there was no way he'd be freeing himself; Moran knew his capabilities too well, far too well.
"Oh, come now, John. You can hardly fault me for loyalty to a commanding officer, now can you?"
"Your commanding officer strapped me into a bomb vest at one point, after killing dozens of innocent people," he replied dryly. "You'll pardon me if I find it difficult to regard the man with trust."
"Yes, that was a wee bit over the top, even for Jim," Sebastian snorted. "Melodramatic was practically his middle name. But did it really never occur to you, all things considered, John, that the man who was holding a sniper rifle on you at the pool was connected with the army?"
John was silent, turning his face away so the betrayal wouldn't be easily seen.
"Jim gave me hell for not just putting a bullet in you when you jumped him," Sebastian continued, actually grinning. "But anyone daft enough or brave enough to pull a stunt like that deserved a chance to live."
"So you were the sniper at the pool." There had been only one, Sherlock had deduced that much, only one but with a device which simulated multiple laser sights.
"Just so." Sebastian paused, and consulted his mobile, which was bleeping out a GPS signal. "And I was there the night Jim pulled Sherlock over the side of that building with him, by the way. Stupid fool."
"Which one?" John asked bitterly.
The man raised an eyebrow in silent agreement. "Had a bead on you that night, too, just no laser to show it, if you care to know."
John glanced sideways at him, trying to ignore the trickle of perspiration which rolled down his temple. "Why didn't you shoot me, there and then?" he asked, genuinely curious.
Sebastian gave a half-shrug with the arm holding the Browning. "Would you shoot a man in the back for nothing more than blind loyalty to a commander?"
"Depends on who his commander is," John answered, deathly quiet, and his meaning was quite clear; if he got the chance, they were both going out together.
"I couldn't do it, if you really want to know," Sebastian added, sighing. "Going soft, I suppose. Jim probably took two days to stop rolling in his grave over letting you live, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
The man's thin lips tightened under the slight sandy moustache. "Because I know what it felt like, that night," he finally said, jaw clenched.
John looked at him, really looked, and then glanced away again.
"Your wrists are bleeding, stop pulling on those. I didn't tie them tight enough to cause damage but you're doing a fair job of it on your own."
"Stop acting as if you care," he spat, with enough venom that his erstwhile sniping partner backed up a step out of pure self-preserving instinct. "What exactly are you planning to do, now that I know you were just using me to discover who's been systematically destroying the international branches of your syndicate?"
Sebastian looked genuinely surprised. "D'you really think that's what I was doing?"
"What, then?" They had reached the relative tiny shelter of a clump of scraggly trees, and Moran had halted to scan the surrounding area. John slumped against a small tree, bracing his hands against its sand-papery trunk, and took a deep breath to clear his head. If he was going to get out of this alive, he would have to outwit the hunter, the man who knew him better than any other in his regiment.
And he was going to get out of this alive, if for no other reason than to draw and quarter Mycroft Holmes for manipulating him like the grieving fool he had been.
"I'd no idea who you were until I was assigned, and even then didn't suspect you were the same man until I met you. Then I thought your hush-hush friend in the government had hired you to flush me out – strategic retreat, you know, after London blew up in our faces – or at least spy on me. Then I realised you really knew nothing about me, never suspected me – that your mysterious person in high places was using you without your knowledge, nothing more. It quite honestly was quite a shock to discover that."
"Why is that, exactly?"
Sebastian looked at him warmly. "Because you're a dangerous man, John Watson. Far too dangerous, and too brilliant to be manipulated by anyone other than someone you trust."
He was weirdly flattered by the compliment, and that in itself showed the true bizarreness of the situation – of his life in general, come to think of it. It was no wonder he needed a therapist.
"Frankly I was hoping to have a proper confrontation between us, but your discovery tonight forced my hand. You do understand there are only two options open to me."
"Convince me to join you, or kill me," John supplied bluntly.
"Quite so. Frankly, I would much prefer the former; John Clay is going in the Thames as soon as I return to London, for he's made a pretty hash of what's left of Jim's organization, and I will be needing a lieutenant upon whom I can rely." Sandy eyebrows waggled tolerantly at his rising defiance. "Think about it, Doctor; I would force you to do nothing which would compromise your moral sensibilities, that could easily be arranged as you would be more commander than active agent. You have already killed a man illegally; what are a few more if need be?" Sebastian's dark voice darkened even more, dangerous, enticing. "And your life would most certainly never lack interest again, John. You know as well as I the possibilities."
Lips pressed tightly into a thin line, John glared defiantly at him.
"You might at least consider the offer; I have precisely one more hour before I must make a final decision," Sebastian continued affably. "I really do not want to kill you, John; I have to admit your company has been…refreshing, and – at the risk of sounding mawkish – something of a great gift after the…painful events of a year ago."
"You'll forgive me if I have little sympathy for your loss," he snarled lowly.
"Of course." A respectful nod. "But besides that," he continued, placing the mobile in an inside pocket and zipping the flap, "you are far too dangerous a man to allow to live fighting for the opposition. It is your choice, and while I would regret such a waste of potential it is the decent thing to offer."
"You have no idea whom you're dealing with," John said, feeling himself teetering on the verge of hysterical laughter. "You thought Sherlock was dangerous; his brother is someone even I would hesitate to cross – and you think you can take him on when you get back to London?"
"I don't need to take him on, so to speak, John; I merely need to know my enemy," the sniper replied, checking down the sight of the Browning. "Jim could not, try as he might, find out a name to go with the mysterious presence which thwarted our moles at every turn. It's rather fitting, actually, that you and I should be brought together by his manipulation of the deaths of our leaders, is it not?"
"If you make it back to London first, you may assassinate him with my full sanction."
Sebastian gave a sharp bark of laughter. "You see, we could get along quite well," he said, smiling. "One of your duties would be to feed him the information I tell you to, and oversee the majority of the organization's operations. Nothing spectacularly against your principles like beating up old ladies or experimenting on the homeless."
John shook his head, offering his friend – enemy, he ignored the flash of pain that mental rename caused – a grim smile. "At least have the courtesy to not insult me any further, Sebastian," he said quietly.
The warmth disappeared from the golden eyes, and the sniper's features hardened. "That is your final answer, then."
"It is my only answer," John replied, eyeing distances between himself and the nearest shelter – that clump of scrub – and how fast he knew Moran could re-aim. "And –"
They both froze, as the unmistakable drone of a helicopter – large, army issue – began to draw rapidly nearer.
Sebastian whirled on him, gun aimed unswervingly at John's head. "You're chipped with a transmitter, aren't you?" he snarled, all amicability vanished in the face of imminent capture. "That infernal meddling busybody chipped you before he sent you in! All this time, you've been feeding him information for months!"
"Not to my knowledge, but I wouldn't put it past him," John muttered, edging backward a fraction, away from the gun. He could easily out-roll Moran's aim and take cover, but not remain so long enough for him to get his hands in front of him. And he really, really did not want to be shot twice in the same shoulder; he'd never have any sort of mobility in that arm again if he were.
The steady drone of the helicopter rapidly grew to a deafening pitch from out of the darkness, and even as John was evaluating his chances of taking Moran down with a rabbit-kick and getting the guns a sufficient distance from his deadly trigger fingers, the harsh glare of a half-dozen spotlights suddenly electrified the night all around them. Temporarily blinded, he ducked his head in an attempt to hide his eyes, twisting against the ropes which bound his hands behind him. Beside him, Moran had thrown up one arm to shield his vision, leaving the Browning aimed haphazardly at the ground.
John screwed up his eyelids against the harsh light, breathed a quick Arabic prayer, and body-slammed the man.
He was compact, but considerably smaller than Sebastian, and so while he succeeded in knocking the man down from surprise factor alone, the sniper was collected enough to keep hold of the handgun, letting loose a wild shot as he fell. John faintly heard it ping against metal far above them. He had rolled after the impact, frantically jerking his hands under his legs and up in front of him, only just in time to scramble awkwardly for cover as Moran began aiming half-blind in his direction.
He tripped over something – his own feet, probably, given his luck so far today – and went sprawling on the ground, head fetching up against the sand hard enough that he saw stars, dark spots against the blazing white of spotlights. When they cleared, Moran was standing, Army Browning aimed directly at his head. Point-blank range, and obviously the man's superior night vision had kicked in. There was no way he could miss.
John struggled to heave in a breath, oxygen having fled his lungs with the impact, and blinked against the glare, eyes watering. Behind them, vague dark shapes slid from cables down from what must be at least two army choppers. He coughed, gasped in a hoarse breath, and met Sebastian's eyes – and saw indecision.
His friend of over a year, his fellow sniper and army comrade…Moriarty's second-in-command, the chief-of-staff of Sherlock Holmes's murderer was hesitatingabout killing him.
John finally managed to heave a deep breath, and held it.
"…I'm sorry," Sebastian said at last. "I really am sorry, John."
John would never forget the look of surprise on Moran's face, when four Special Ops riflemen opened fire behind them.
He lay for a moment, stunned, blinking against the light as he watched Moran's body fall limply forward, blood blossoming out all over the khaki-and-sand-coloured sniper's uniform. Then, staggering to unsteady feet, he hauled himself upright, struggling against his bound wrists. A closer look at Sebastian revealed that one of the riflemen had impeccable aim for head shots. This corpse was the man who'd somewhat awkwardly comforted him when he wept for the first time over Sherlock's death, the one who'd saved his life three separate times while they were out on reconnaissance – the one whom he'd practically lived with for a month longer than he'd lived with Sherlock. His friend, who had turned out to be his most dangerous enemy.
Whose brain matter was currently spattering his shoes.
Dropping onto hands and knees to vomit while having one's wrists tied was thoroughly unpleasant.
A few moments later, his rebelling stomach clenching against a fresh wave of nausea, he pulled himself painfully back to his feet, and turned to face the shadowy figures of what had to be Mycroft's tracking team. Despite their apropos arrival, he could cheerfully have planted a bomb in the governmental official's bedroom without a second thought. Spying, manipulating, and chipping, indeed.
The murmur of voices was unintelligible above the thropping of the helicopter, and he was moving forward to attempt conversation when a last dark-garbed figure dropped from the cables, landing gracefully on the sand with a thump.
He half-hoped it was Mycroft, because he was very much in the mood to deliver the hardest right hook he was capable of producing.
The man hurried toward him in an oddly familiar gait, and yanked off the dark mask and night-goggles as he came into view.
He backpedaled a full five steps, futilely trying to brace himself against a wall that wasn't there, and realised a bit too late that he was shaking so badly he would be lucky to stay standing for another ten seconds.
"I swear before heaven, John, this was not my doing," Sherlock Holmes said fervently, moving toward him with hands outstretched.
In his defense, it had been a completely rubbish evening, completed by one friend's betrayal and having his brains blown out, and another friend reappearing from the dead. If he never heard another zombie joke in his life, it would not be long enough.
The strangled noise which emerged from his throat only caused Sherlock's eyes to sharpen with what looked weirdly like concern. "John?" he asked hesitantly, stopping at a safe distance.
The pounding in his head could have been from the knock it took against the ground, or from the helicopter overhead, or from the fact that a dead man was talking to him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "You're dead," he murmured stupidly.
"No, though I was close to it for months," was the quiet reply, in that sort of gentle calming tone people used on skittish animals or frightened children. "By the time I recovered enough to know who and where I was Mycroft had already deployed you. I swear to you I only just last week managed to escape the guards around the safe house he dumped me in, and it is more lack of time to argue than consideration for my feelings that made him let me come along tonight."
Sand choked his throat, stung his eyes, and they watered far too much just for removing grit, he thought. "…Head trauma," he supplied mechanically, after another closer look. If Sherlock was still dead and John was completely mad at last, then he would at least go out deducing like the Master.
Sherlock – whoever it was – nodded, touching the side of his head, indicating a scar in the close-cropped, nearly shorn hair. "And numerous broken bones, internal injuries, etc. Six months before I came round, four more before I could walk again, and still having a few mental issues which require regular medical supervision. One does not fall four stories, even onto the cushion of another body, and spring right back, John, though I am steadily improving."
"Your hair," he heard himself say faintly.
"Your hair," he repeated, waving a hand in its general direction.
Sherlock cocked his head, a smile quirking at his lips. "What of it? It will grow back once the injury ceases to need probing by your medical colleagues."
"It's rubbish," he gasped, as his knees refused to hold him any longer. Three long steps and Sherlock caught him as he collapsed. "Horrible look for you," he half-sobbed as an afterthought into Sherlock's black uniform.
A vibration of laughter built and throbbed in the detective's chest, he could feel it from where he was squashed against Sherlock's front, still-bound arms trapped between them. For a moment he considered just passing out, because he rather thought he was entitled, what with the shock and all, but Sherlock I-have-a-ridiculously-oversized-personal-space-bubble Holmes was actually hugging him, swaying them gently from side to side in the night wind, and it was nice.
Sand was still making his eyes water. "If you knew all this time and let me think you were dead –"
"I didn't, I promise you I didn't. By the time I was capable of even comprehending the situation, Mycroft had me secured in a safe house and I could do nothing," Sherlock said softly into his hair. "Never in a hundred years, John, would I do such a thing."
"But you'll send me across London to get me out of the way while you confront a madman, and that's different how?"
The arms around him tightened. "I will not apologise for keeping you out of the line of fire. John, you must understand, things had come to such a head that –"
"Shut up," he gasped, bound hands clenched in Sherlock's dark shirt. "Just…shut up before I try to hit you and hurt myself."
The detective drew back slightly, gently lifting his wrists and examining where they'd been torn raw by the rough hemp. "I am sorry, John," he said softly.
Sherlock Holmes did not apologise; John knew that quite well. Apparently, however, it was the night for surprises.
"We'll get that rope off you in the 'copter, where I can see what I'm doing. Here," Sherlock said, as he one-handedly snatched a blanket (not orange, the hysterical part of his mind noted with nostalgic disappointment) and water bottle from a carefully-approaching black-garbed rifleman. "Shock, yes?"
John nodded, gulping down a good swallow of the cold water.
Sherlock threaded one arm through his bound ones and pulled him close. "Can you walk, do you think?"
He swallowed, and then smiled, and then laughed. "Ready when you are."
Subject: A Good Man Goes to War
I believe any debts I may have owed you, sir, have been paid in full, with interest.
I have been reliably informed, by a source whose opinion I respect, that I am an extremely dangerous man, Mycroft. See that you remember that.
Any instructions, sir? -A
Double the guard around the place; just as a precaution, you understand. –M
(1) According to my research, the regimental tie John wears in TGG is that of the 1st Queen's Dragoon Guards.
(2) In the British army at least (I didn't research the American side of it) in Afghanistan, snipers work in pairs; a more experienced one is the spotter, and the most accurate marksman is the sniper.
(3) Helmand is the tumultuous province in Afghanistan where the British forces are currently stationed
(4) If you don't know what a camel spider is, Google them. They scare the crap out of me, so be forewarned – if you hate spiders, you may just want to take my word for it.