A/N Seems my writing muse is finally back – hopefully to stay. I'm very sorry about the long absence. Thank you to everyone who's reviewed and favourited my stories – I promise I'll finish up my Supernatural ones soon! Extra special thank you to Muffy Morrigan for never-ending support and encouragement.
The story takes place after The Reichenbach Fall, so spoilers for that episode.
Sound the Bugle
Gunfire filled the air around him as he crouched in the arid ditch. The sun was pounding down on his head, making him wish for the blessed shadow of the truck they had been driving in moments before. The truck was now a burning wreck, blown to pieces by an IED, and most of the men with it. John could hear the moans of some of the survivors, but the never-ceasing fire from the enemy prevented him from going to their aid. He risked a quick glance over the edge of the ditch, relying on his visual memory to take in more information than his conscious mind could absorb in that fraction of a second he had before a bullet would find him.
Bodies, strewn across the dusty road, some of them hanging from the still-burning truck. He could smell the burning flesh as a gust of wind drove the smoke towards him. He had to struggle not to gag. Most of them had been frighteningly still, a couple were hiding behind the wheels of the truck, a hiding place that was getting harder and harder to maintain as the fire ate away at their cover and the heat drove them from safety. It was only a few yards to the ditch where John was – how he had ended up there, he wasn't really sure, but he figured maybe the blast had thrown him into the air and off to the side of the road when the bomb had gone off – but to get there, they had to cross the line of fire from the enemy hiding in the building across the street.
John risked another glance, catching the frightened eye of one of the soldiers. He knew they had little time left, the heat from the fire had started competing with the burning sun on his face. He pulled out his handgun and signalled to them that he would give them cover fire. He wished he had been carrying a machine gun or even a hand grenade, but being a doctor, his main priority was a variety of medical equipment which, he had to admit, wasn't that much use in a gunfight.
Of course, they hadn't exactly been expecting a roadside bomb or gunfight in this area, so close to the British base. It was supposed to be a routine patient transport – or as routine as those things were in a war zone.
Routine had been blown to heaven half an hour after they left the base.
John closed his eyes and recalled the split-second memory of the house on the other side of the road. He had seen guns pointing out of two of the upper-story windows, none at the ground-floor ones. Taking a deep breath, he poked his head over the edge and nodded at the soldier at the car, then in a fluid movement raised his gun, shooting a rapid series of shots at first one window, then the other. The nearest soldier dove into the ditch next to him as soon as the fire from the windows ceased. John didn't spare him a second glance, but focused on changing the magazine of his gun and resuming his fire to let the other soldier get to safety. This time when he fired, he heard a yell from one of the windows, and the gunshots from the building stopped completely. In the sudden silence, broken only by the crackling from the burning truck, he could hear helicopters approaching in the distance. The smoke from the truck must have been seen from the base.
He turned to the soldier beside him and opened his mouth to issue an order, but the words stuck in his throat when he saw the man, fellow army doctor and long-term friend Richard Denby, covered in blood, pale red foam bubbling from his mouth. Frantically, he tore open the man's uniform to assess the damage to his chest, but Richard shook his head fractionally, his hand twitching against John's leg. John, understanding the gesture, grabbed his hand and held it as the last vestiges of life were drawn from his friend's shattered lungs.
Suddenly the nightmare changed, and instead of Richard Denby dying in front of him, it was Sherlock, dying in a rainy London street, head smashed in from a four-story drop from the roof of St. Bart's. Sherlock's long, bony fingers were grabbing his hand, and as the light of life left his eyes, the words "I'm sorry" echoed through the dream.
John woke with a scream, tears pouring down his cheeks as the nightmare called forth the emotions he so rigidly held in check when he was awake. Bloody traitorous subconscious, showing him just how weak he was. He fought to still his panicked breathing, forcing huge gulps of air past the knot that was tying his chest together. Breath by breath he got himself back under control, forcing the reality of the nightmare back into the chamber in his mind where it belonged, behind the door labelled "things we do not talk about, do not think about, and above all do not feel anything about".
He stared up at the bare ceiling, trying to rid himself of the emptiness that filled him every time he woke up. The emptiness that was a void where his best friend – and the purpose that friend had given him in his life – used to be.
Sherlock had been gone – he refused to think the word 'dead' – for four months. He hadn't been back to 221B Baker Street since that day, trusting Mrs. Hudson to take care of the flat until he was ready to go back, if that day should ever come. He filled his days with work at the clinic, taking as much overtime as he could and earning enough to pay his part of the rent as well as his new room. Mycroft had insisted on paying the other half of the rent out of Sherlock's estate for as long as John wanted to keep the flat.
He started when the alarm in his phone went off. He reached out for it on the bedside table, then swore when his trembling left hand fumbled it to the floor. The trembling had come back soon after that day, and was worse than ever. Some days he had to get one of the clinic nurses to help him give his patients injections, to his great chagrin.
Days like that made him feel more useless than ever.
His limp was back as well, giving his therapist a field day. He'd thought going back to her might help, but he'd been seeing her for a month and wasn't really feeling any better. She, of course, claimed it was due to his refusal to talk about that day. He knew she was probably right, but this was one thing she wasn't going to get him to talk about. Oh, he could tell her Sherlock was dead. But admit to her – to himself – how that made him feel, beyond the usual clichés about the six stages of grief?
Truth was, it felt like coming back from Afghanistan all over again. Mycroft had once told him that knowing Sherlock was like being at war in London. John knew now that was true. But when Mycroft claimed he was missing the war, it wasn't just the fighting or the action or the adrenaline he was missing. It was the purpose it gave him, doing what he was good at, with someone beside him he could trust and who valued his abilities and trusted him in return.
John sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, wiping away the drying tears the dream had caused and pushing the thoughts away. Then he rose to get ready for work.
Twelve hours later he left the clinic to head back to his room – he refused to think of it as 'home'. As soon as he had stepped down the last of the stairs – his leg was being particularly annoying today – a sleek black car pulled up along him, the back door opening to reveal the slender form of Anthea.
"Hello, John," she said.
John hesitated for a second, then turned and started walking down the pavement towards the closest Underground station.
The car followed him at a steady pace. Anthea – or whatever her real name was, John had never found out – had closed the door and instead rolled down the window. "He wants to talk to you," she said.
John stopped, debating for a second whether what he was about to was sensible, then mentally shrugged, figuring what the hell. He stopped and turned to face the car. "You don't say. Thank you, my non-existent powers of deduction hadn't told me that. Well, you can tell your oh-so-powerful master," he put as much sneer in his voice at the word as he could, "that I am not his puppet nor am I his lackey who jumps when he says jump. I have nothing to say to him and I cannot for the life of me imagine what he would have to say to me. No, scratch that. Just tell him this, you can write it on your little phone..." He leaned close to the window. "Go...To...Hell."
With that he turned away and headed down the stairs to the tube station without looking back.
He spent the rest of the evening half expecting someone to barge into his room and abduct him to meet Mycroft in some obscure location, but nothing happened.
He did put his gun on the bedside table when he went to sleep, though. Just in case.
John woke early the next morning after another terror-filled night, though thankfully without tears. He turned on the bedside lamp and rose to sit on the bed, rubbing his hands over his face to awaken himself. He reached for his cane, propped against the table...
On the desk across the room, sitting neatly on top of his closed laptop was a skull. Not just any skull, he realised, but THE skull, Sherlock's skull – well, not HIS, technically, but the one that should, at that moment, have been sitting on the mantelpiece in their flat in Baker Street.
He grabbed his gun and rose silently to his feet, stepping carefully across the room to check whether anyone was hiding in the bathroom before walking to the desk to stare at the skull.
Then he walked back to the bedside table, picked up his phone and shot off a text to Mycroft.
Is this some kind of joke? Threat?
Within seconds he got a reply.
I have no idea what you are talking about. It is 4.30 a.m.
John snapped a picture of the skull and sent it back.
Not my doing the reply said.
Before John could finish his reply, another text came in.
Must say though, it does wonders for the place.
John decided not answering was the better choice. He sat down at the desk, looking at the skull from all angles as if willing it to disclose who had put it there. He thought about calling Mrs. Hudson to ask if anyone had been to the flat, then figured she would probably be less pleased than Mycroft at being woken at that hour. And an angry Mrs. Hudson scared John more than Mycroft and all his minions ever could.
He finally picked up the skull to examine it closer, and as he did, a rolled-up piece of paper fell out of it. He studied the paper closely but could see no clue as to who could have put it there. The paper was held in place by an ordinary rubber band and was standard-issue white printing paper.
He took off the rubber band and unrolled the paper. "REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE" was printed on it. He frowned in puzzlement, then shook his head. If only Sherlock had been there, he would've been able to explain not only why but also who and even when the skull had been placed there.
"Remember who you are". He huffed bitterly; if only he knew who he was. Sure, he had titles to his name, he had roles he played, mainly at the clinic, but surely that couldn't be what was meant? He looked at the paper and rubber band again, both seemed ordinary, everyday standard issues that could be found in most households. Not even the chosen font told him anything, unless being the standard of standard in itself was a clue... He shook his head, deciding to let the mystery rest for the day.
Though he did check the door to his room (locked) and brought the gun into the bathroom with him while he showered and got ready for work. Just in case.
To be continued