Worth the Wounds
Summary: How does one heal a fractured friendship? John does not trust easily, and his trust, once lost, is almost impossible to recover. John would love to trust Sherlock again, but there's something he needs to know before that can happen – and he's willing to find out even at the cost of his own life.
SPOILER ALERT: Sherlock is one of my favorite shows, and I love the dynamics of the friendship between the two main characters. I've always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes in his many interpretations, and this one-shot character study is inspired both by Arthur Conan Doyle's short story The Three Garridebs and spoilers I've read for Sherlock's upcoming series 3. NOTE: that last part is very important for you to know, because this story alludes to the events of the episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," AND to recently released spoilers for the upcoming episode, "The Empty Hearse," which will air later in 2013/early 2014. If you don't want to be "spoiled," I would advise you to stay well clear of this story for now.
Not a lot of action here – as I said, it's a character study. But there is some resolution.
Shortly before John Watson's first combat deployment, his mentor, retired Army doctor Colonel Alistair Fraser, gave him a copy of a short story by an American author named Ernest Hemingway. The story, titled "Indian Camp," is told from the point of view of a child who accompanies his father, a country doctor, to a Native American or "Indian" camp to deliver a pregnant woman of her baby. At the camp, the doctor is forced to perform an emergency caesarean section using a jackknife. Afterwards, the woman's husband (who had been confined to a nearby bunk with an injured foot) is discovered dead, having slit his own throat during the operation because he was unable to bear the sound of his suffering wife's anguished cries.
When John asked Fraser why he felt the young doctor/solider needed to read this particular story, the older man drew his attention to one particular passage:
"Oh, Daddy, can't you give her something to make her stop screaming?" asked Nick.
"No. I haven't any anesthetic," his father said. "But her screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important."
The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.
"Lad," Fraser now said gravely to John, "you're going to have to do a lot of hard things over there. You're right for this job…you're a good man with a good heart. You're a good doctor, but you're also a good soldier…you've got grit, and I'm confident you'll always be able to do what you have to do. Sometimes a combat doctor has to hurt in order to heal. But what I want you to remember, is…don't ever kid yourself that the screams are not important. You might have to block 'em out now and then so you can get the job done, but they're important, John. Oh, yes."
John hadn't been in Afghanistan six weeks when he understood what Fraser meant. Within his first week he'd been forced to perform a field tracheotomy on one wounded soldier and stop another from bleeding out by applying a powerful haemostatic agent* that did an effective job of making the wound clot, but caused searing burns to the patient's surrounding flesh. In neither case did he have the luxury of anesthetic, and while John's marvelous nerve had kept his skilled hands steady, the deeply compassionate part of him shrank inside at having to cause such pain to the patients in his care – pain that he suspected (and would later learn from bitter experience) would haunt their dreams long after their wounds had healed.
As a doctor, John learned to distance himself from his patients' pain, but only temporarily, because, as Colonel Fraser had told him, the pain was important. Oh, yes.
Mary Morstan was a sensible woman. That was why, when John shouted at her impatiently from the taxi, she had gone at once and then said nothing.
She had promised Sherlock she would intercede with John on Sherlock's behalf…more for John's sake than Sherlock's, truth to be told, for she had learned how important Sherlock's memory was to John over the time she had learnt to know him, how much the maddening detective had become entwined with John's own identity. But she was a smart enough woman to know when not to push an issue. And it wasn't until a night and a day had passed (a night and a day during which her usually sunny-tempered fiancé brooded as he went about his business and spoke only when addressed, and then only in terse, one-word responses) that she finally felt the time was right.
It was late. They were lying in bed with the light off, side by side, holding hands in the dark. John was lying on his back. She knew he was awake, staring at the ceiling. She opened the conversation with a single, straight-to-the heart question.
"Are you sorry to learn that he's alive?"
She heard him catch his breath, as though the gently phrased question, posed in her softest tones, had struck him square in the solar plexus with the force of a ball peen hammer.
"God, no…it's…it's a bloody miracle, is what it is." He gave a snort that might have been disguising a sob. "One more miracle."
But his tone was bitter.
Since learning about what John had come to think of privately as the Grand Deception, he had found his thoughts going back to the story, back to "Indian Camp." And John realizes that what he can't explain to Sherlock, or even to Mary, is that he can't help feeling that his own pain was important, even if it was necessary in the end. Forgiving Sherlock for the initial deception – as horrific and traumatizing for John as it had been – was actually relatively easy. John understood that the detective had been backed into a corner, and had done what he had had to do to save the lives of John, Greg Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson as well as his own. No, it was the part afterwards that John could not get past – the long, weary months of intense, agonizing grief, the guilt he had felt for not being able to stop his best friend from taking his own life, the awful belief that John himself had killed Sherlock by bringing him into the public eye and making a target of him with that bloody blog. Images of Sherlock smashed on the pavement while John tried desperately to reach him joined the all-too-vivid memories of war to haunt John's sleep for years afterwards; he had been utterly unable to return to Baker Street after he had moved out of it a week after Sherlock's supposed death; he'd had to go back to therapy, for God's sake!
He could almost imagine Sherlock saying, with bewildered impatience, "Reichenbach? But that was ages ago! Why would he still be upset?!"
Months of work and nothing but work, long hours spent at the surgery, trying to fill every empty minute so he wouldn't have to think. Nights interrupted by horrific visions, wheezing in the dark, trying to calm his racing heart, only the thought of how much it would hurt Mrs. Hudson keeping him from loading his Browning and raising it to his temple. Later, hours spent on the street, ministering to Sherlock's homeless network (who slowly came to love and trust him) made him feel somewhat useful again. Time spent with Lestrade, Mike Stamford and Bill Murray, trying to build a new dynamic, trying to make sense of things. And then came Mary, who made life worth living again.
Now, lying in the dark with Mary, John closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. All of that, and the cocky, arrogant bastard had bragged about how he'd pulled it off, had bounced up to him out of the clear blue, revealing himself with a flourish (voila!) and looking like he expected John to once again say, "Brilliant! Amazing! Extraordinary!" Like the doctor from Hemingway's story, Sherlock had been exalted on a post-operative "high," heedless of the suffering he had recklessly left in his wake.
And John, nearly overcome with incredulous, bewildered joy, had taken a powerhouse swing at his resurrected friend, stopping just short of breaking his nose.
John knew that Sherlock thought he was angry with him. It's true that John had been angry at first. But it wasn't anger that kept John from falling easily back into their old camaraderie. It was fear. For the first time in his life, John Watson was afraid of Sherlock Holmes, and he used anger to disguise that fear.
"Trust issues" was the term his therapist Ella used to describe his fear/wariness of other people, and it was what was getting in the way of John's forgiving Sherlock now. He was thrilled that Sherlock was alive, in awe of his cleverness in pulling off such a stunt, and amazed by all his old friend had accomplished during his time away. But John had been hurt, and hurt badly, and now he was afraid.
"Could it be that you have decided to trust Sherlock Holmes, of all people?" Mycroft Holmes had asked at their first meeting. And John had.
John Watson's nature was made up of fascinating contradictions. The same hands that skillfully healed horrific battlefield injuries were equally skilled at dealing them out. His affable personality, kindness and instinctive compassion so made people think of him as warm and friendly that it took them a long time to notice that he held his cards close, giving very little of himself away. He came off as an easygoing, always-in-control, laidback bloke, but underneath he was an adrenaline junkie.
Even people who felt they knew John well were sometimes puzzled by his conduct towards his sister Harriet. It wasn't that he was cruel to her – far from it. Rather, it was that the compassion that he offered so liberally to his patients and friends was not so much in evidence with Harry. He was kind and helpful, but not overly attentive, holding himself a little at a distance. People who had only ever met Harry when she was sober didn't quite understand this, for when she was sober, Harry Watson was friendly and warm, seeming to possess the same affability and compassion as her brother. She also spoke of her little brother John with great warmth and affection, and people who only saw the surface of their relationship often thought to themselves what a shame it is that that kind, good Dr. Watson did not seem quite as devoted to his sister as she was to him. They did not realize that Harriet Watson had a tongue like an adder when she was drunk, and a tendency to run away from her problems.
John and Harriet's father had been an alcoholic – bloody mean drunk, is how John would have described him had he been at all inclined to discuss it (he never was, not even with his therapist). A laboring man, he would stop at the pub on his way from work, then head home pissed, pissed off, and looking for someone on whom he could take out his frustrations. Even as a boy, John had a heart filled with courage and a strong protective instinct, and so he often would deliberately provoke the man, turning his father's anger towards himself before he could vent it on John's mother and sister.
The most interesting nights were the ones when Jack Watson wore his rings.
John had adored his big sister, and she had made rash promises of getting a job when she was big enough and taking him and their mother away. Instead, she ran away herself at sixteen, and though she did get her life sorted and reestablish contact with her family, John never really forgot her abandonment. He forgave her, yes…but he never forgot.
It didn't help that Harry followed in their father's footsteps when it came to drink. John himself could have a pint or two and leave it at that, but Harry took it to extremes from the beginning. And though she was not, like her father before her, a physically violent drunk, she was still a mean one, and John had been on the receiving side of her sharp tongue more than he cared to recall. No confidence he ever shared with her, no fear, no sensitive feeling was sacrosanct when she was in one of those moods, and John had learned not to trust her. He loved her; he wanted to help her and he worried about her, but he was as wary of her as he would have been of a wasp in the room.
He was too much of a gentleman – and too private a person – to tell people this, though.
His reticence in talking about himself was, perhaps, another reason John had been drawn to Sherlock from the beginning. Sherlock didn't ask deeply personal questions, and he could usually deduce the answers for himself without having to ask.
That, and how much John admired Sherlock's amazing mind. Sherlock reminded John a bit of his CO in Afghanistan, a man very different in personality and ability from Sherlock, but somehow able to inspire the same admiration and loyalty in John.
It was as though they had been born to be friends.
"What would it take for you to be able to trust him again?" Mary asked.
He took so long to reply that she had begun to think he wouldn't. But after a long silence, he finally spoke.
"I always had faith that…he had a great heart. As well as a great brain." He fell silent again, thinking about Sherlock's contradictions…the man who had torn a vest of explosives from his friend's body with seemingly barely restrained panic, yet had also seen nothing wrong with drugging the same friend's coffee with a hallucinogenic drug, all while knowing that friend suffered from PTSD. The man who had leapt off a roof to protect his friends, then left them to mourn him for years.
John was not Sherlock Holmes. He could not reconcile the evidence in his own mind enough to come to a definitive conclusion. Was there a great heart there, or was the great detective merely playing the game to win after all by whatever means necessary? Was John a friend, or was he a chess piece?
John had followed Sherlock with humble but single-minded service, and Sherlock had shown him that he would smash John to pieces if he felt it necessary. John was not so foolish to believe that the detective wouldn't do it again…Sherlock would continue to insult him, deceive him and manipulate him if he thought it was necessary to the success of the Work. John bore it because he loved Sherlock and admired him; because he believed that Sherlock was something rare and precious, something to be guarded and protected – a life worth more than John's own. He still believed it. But John wasn't so unselfish to keep doing so without some return, some proof that Sherlock cared enough about John to regret his suffering, or so unselfish as to hope that Sherlock might feel some suffering himself, however mild, were their positions reversed and it was John who had "died."
"If he said he was sorry," he finally continued aloud, "if he said he was sorry and bloody meant it, and wasn't just saying it because he thinks that's what it would take to fix everything" (the bastard, with his perplexed, 'I said I was sorry...isn't that what people do?'), "then maybe…maybe I could trust him again."
John sighed, squeezed Mary's hand, then let it go and turned over, settling himself down on his pillow. "He won't, though. He's like a child…no sense of empathy at all. He won't because he can't imagine what it's like for the other bloke…he just doesn't see."
John did not remember the fire.
He remembered being grabbed off the street in front of 221B, remembered fighting, remembered the sting of the syringe as it pierced his neck.
He remembered coming to groggy consciousness in an under-construction car park to see Sebastian Moran, an old acquaintance/enemy from his Army days who was also the man John had once unknowingly referred to as "his [Moriarty's] John Watson" in his blog.
He remembered struggling weakly and ineffectually, still under the influence of the drug they had injected him with, as the men who had apprehended him held him firmly between them while Moran worked him over, a set of brass knuckles slipped over one heavy fist. He remembered the sound of his ribs cracking and the feel of a couple of his teeth being knocked loose.
He remembered lying on the cold, concrete floor, hands shackled behind his back, and how, when Moran got too close while explaining that it was time to fulfill Jim Moriarty's promise to burn Sherlock's heart out of him, John had spit in the man's face. He remembered Moran's look of fury just before he grabbed a fistful of John's hair and smashed his face into the concrete, breaking his nose, and he remembered thinking it was worth it as stars exploded before his eyes and he lost consciousness.
John did not remember being taken from that place and stowed beneath a tall pile of scrap wood, nor did he remember Sherlock crying his name and burning his own hands as he threw bits of flaming debris aside in his desperate attempt to reach John, already singed and covered with soot. He did not remember Sherlock grabbing him up from the would-be pyre and dragging him to safety while John's fiancée wept and screamed his name.
What John did remember next was Mary's sobs, and the feel of her soft hands tenderly cradling his own right one, mindful of his broken fingers. But when he heard her voice urging him to wake up, he actually tried at first not to respond – it was so much easier to remain in the dark, dull stupor into which he had fallen, on the far side of the suffering he had undergone. It wasn't until he heard the breathless baritone of his former flat-mate that his curiosity was piqued enough to entice him to surface toward a world of pain.
"John, wake up. Please. John…John, listen to me…please, please open your eyes. You'll be okay. You have to be okay, John, for God's sake, please!"
Never had he heard Sherlock sound like that, so anxious, so afraid. Could it really be Sherlock? The pain was terrible…John's whole body ached, his broken ribs were making it difficult to breathe, his head was pounding, his throat was raw and his eyes stung from the smoke, while the searing pain from the fresh burns almost obliterated every other pain, but he had to know…he had to know if his faith really was to be restored after all.
John forced his burning eyes open, and Sherlock's paper-white face slowly swam into focus.
Sherlock was crouched over him on the frosty grass. Unmindful of his scorched palms, he gripped John's aching left shoulder with one hand and John's left hand with his other.
Sherlock was crying.
John had seen Sherlock produce fake tears before; the detective seemed to have a talent for making his eyes water at will when seeking to manipulate. But this was different…his habitually sardonic lips were trembling, his grey eyes were dim with tears and looked raw, and his nose was running. John supposed that the smoke and flying embers he could detect all around them could have contributed to these last, but he was sure they were not the cause of the deeply distraught expression on Sherlock's face, nor of the shaking shoulders and pleading tone.
And there it was…the evidence John had been looking for, the evidence that Sherlock Holmes was possessed of a great heart as well as a great brain. It might be the only time in John's life he would see it, but that didn't matter now he knew it was there. That one glimpse was all John's loyal, generous heart needed to forgive Sherlock for years of pain and silence, and he would remember it all his life even though he didn't have long to contemplate it. For in the next moment a knifelike pain spiked through his head and chest, and with a small groan he again lost consciousness.
But John remembered. When he awakened in hospital three days later to a dozen joyful kisses all over his face from Mary and one tender one on his forehead from Mrs. Hudson, he remembered that look on Sherlock's face and decided that the restoration of his faith was easily worth the wounds he had suffered. And when Sherlock stepped forward and, for once humble and deeply sincere, apologized again for deceiving him for so long (this time meaning it with all his proud heart), John waved the apology away at once.
Sherlock had already been forgiven.
*My husband, who is former military, tells me that the haemostatic agents John would have used at the time of his service would indeed cause severe burns to the patients they were meant to help. Since 2010-2011, thankfully, newer versions are available that stop bleeding quickly without burning the surrounding skin.