A Telling Touch
Dedicated to and beta'ed by the wonderful JezebelGoldstone. I love you, darling.
Rating: M (war, violence, crime; sexual content later on)
Genre: Hurt/Comfort, Romance, Drama
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognise in this is my own. The story is, though.
Spoiler warnings: Contains spoilers for the complete first and second series, especially for TRF.
Author's note: This story is almost completed on my computer already, so updates will come in on a regular basis at least twice a week- on Mondays and Fridays. Plan is, though, to finish this before New Year's Eve, so updates might increase as we progress.
Part 1: The War Within
"Helpless now I stand
Never will I break
Nor stop to fight."
Date: April 26th, 2013. 1400 hours.
Position: Talil base camp (34° 50′ 25.35″ N, 36° 39′ 29.35″ E), Homs province, Syria.
"Mind if I join you?"
John's heart skipped a beat as a deep voice reached his ears from just a few inches next to where he was sitting at the big cantina tent table in the middle of nowhere and "brooding", as Bill Murray liked to call it, over an old photograph. Only a second later, his brain caught up and he silently berated himself for still getting his hopes up after all this time, while the complete wrong person in shape of one Major Dean McAllistair sank down next to him on the hard bench, reaching around him in a half hug and boldly clasping his (thankfully) right shoulder. McAllistair wasn't exactly known for his subtlety- or his self-control, for that matter- so every bloody soldier in camp knew by now that one hardly could escape the often rigorous socialising attempts of the new Major. Or his curiosity. John had long since given up his initial instinct to keep his reasons for being back in war private and stopped to only stare at the tattered picture of him and Sherlock in the relative darkness of his tent in between sorties. Almost six months after having arrived in the endless olive fields of Syria, every single one of his fellow comrades had found out some way or another that Captain John H. Watson was mourning. And that he had nothing to lose anymore.
It made him reckless, yes. But he also saved many more soldier, rebel and civilian lives than he would have, if he'd still given a damn about what might or might not happen to him. Other than his team mates, who all had their families and lives back in England to come home to, John's home was buried six feet deep in a London cemetery.
"I got no choice whatsoever, now, do I, Major?" John half joked at the black-haired intruder sitting far too close for his liking, and forced a grin on his face. He really would have preferred to spend his break alone.
McAllistair just bellowed his roaring laugh and, while scooting even closer in order to look over John's shoulder at the picture, casually slid his hand down John's back to rest at his right hip.
"You're staring at that pic again? Where was it taken anyway? Always wondered. Looks like a crime scene of some sorts…" He furrowed his brows and attempted to get a better look at the two men leaning against a barely lit brick wall, trying to get their breaths back after having caught a fugitive drug smuggler. The taller of the duet steadying himself with a tentative hand on the other's shoulder, both smiling like mad and utterly oblivious to the officers bustling around them.
John's nerves stood on end now, though he didn't quite see the reason for that. McAllistair wasn't the brightest fellow, but he usually wasn't cause to worry either.
John frowned. "It was. Another bad guy off the streets. Good night for justice and leg work," he resisted clicking the "k" of that last word. He was getting better at thinking about his best friend and accepting his life without him, but that didn't mean the pain abated.
John had learned to blend in as best as possible, joking and playing poker with his team and the other soldiers in camp- trying to hide the fact that his smile never quite reached his eyes these days. He concentrated on patrols and in surgery, often for more than 48 hours straight without a single hour of rest. He ate and slept to keep functioning. He'd even learned to play the guitar from some of the local rebels in order to get his mind off wandering in endless circles. In addition, this proved quite useful when the team was sitting together after another day in gunpowder and blood, telling stories at the bonfires as a replacement for the telly to just let their brains go offline for a few. Those times had, miraculously, even become some sort of favourite for John after he had finally been able to start talking about his adventures with the world's only consulting detective again. Without having to fight off the suffocating lump in his throat each time he only so much as thought about it, that is.
Most of his comrades either knew the truth about Sherlock and Moriarty because of John's blog, like Murray did, or were constantly on and off tours all over the Middle East and therefore unable to catch up on the gossip the British press still occasionally blabbed in the first place. As it was, Sherlock's cases provided more material for interesting campfire discussions than John could have guessed. And it somehow managed to soothe the cramped clod in his chest at least a bit, knowing that there was still a place in the world- even if it only was a goddamned war hole like Syria happened to be these days- where the young genius still got the appreciation he deserved.
"One of the cases again, then?" McAllistair's rumbling question broke through John's reverie. "Didn't the two of you have some kind of, I dunno, private place or something?" McAllistair looked up at him, which brought his face so close to John's that he could smell the Arabian beer on his hot breath. "Maybe some photos of domestic bliss would help you better than this."
His voice dropped even further, turning into some kind of a scratchy purr. John's stomach churned in discomfort and reminded him of the little fact that he had missed lunch today because of the bleeding casualty they had gotten in this morning. Poor bloke had managed to drive his Panther through a minefield and had caught one or two.
"So tell me, mate, what were the two of you up to when the cameras went off? Share a bit."
John sighed. Although summer hadn't nearly come yet, the area was already turning into a fucking furnace- about 30°C- and he had made a habit of rolling up his sleeves and undoing his uniform shirt around midday, whenever he wasn't operating or patrolling. The sun was burning down mercilessly on the small camp. But right at this moment, he regretted his bare arms and his almost naked torso, because it made him all the more aware of McAllistair's close presence. John's patience was slowly but steadily wearing thin.
Wordlessly, John put the photo back in the breast pocket of his shirt.
He never talked about his old home. To no one, not even Murray. Not even to his sister back in Essex. Not even to his oh-so-persistent therapist until he'd quit the sessions, realising that it wouldn't help. It wouldn't heal. Part of him had known the moment he'd shot the cabbie. The rest of him had caught up with it as he'd stood before the grave, the world crashing down in brutal clearness.
There was Sherlock and then there was nothing.
John had accepted this truth about his life at some point in order to at least be able to keep going. He was a soldier. He was a doctor. He was a brother with a sister in AA rehab. He was needed. He had to keep going.
So John never talked about what the self-proclaimed sociopath had meant to him. About what he never had said to the one person who really truly deserved to know. About how John hadn't realised that their time was running out, that there wouldn't be a second chance. Not for them. Never for them.
"Look…" he turned on the bench towards the Major, hooking up his left leg and folding it in front of him to rest on the bench- freeing him from the half embrace without turning away from his superior disrespectfully, "is there actually something I can help you with, McAllistair?"
McAllistair's hand, rid of its former place at John's hip, now landed on his left knee with a tight grip. "I don't know. Can you?"
John just stared at the younger man, unable to believe what was quite clearly going on and desperately wanting to think that McAllistair was just taking the piss. But the hand now started creeping up his thigh, the wooden table successfully obscuring the movement from the eyes of his comrades on the other side of the makeshift cantina.
"You know, Watson, I observed you for quite some time. And you should know by now that some places in the army are far more accepting of this kind of… situation… than most people might think."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Because he could very much handle getting hit on and diplomatically turning down the offer, mind you. This was war, after all, and people had a tendency to crave some peaceful intimacy and tried to act on it whenever they so much as sensed an opportunity, but-
"Well, I think you do. Think about the benefits," another squeeze, "I only want to help, you see? Maybe you should be more careful where you choose to daydream. Or, better yet, get relief when it's offered. Simple, really," he even had the guts to nonchalantly shrug at that. "Some had to learn that the hard way, you know."
- But letting himself be threatened and pushed was so not gonna happen, mate.
"Well, thanks for your concern. But I'm neither gay nor bi nor interested. Or someone to be scared into bed." John briskly pushed the hand clamped on his leg aside, standing. "And somehow I have a hunch that there might actually be some higher ups interested in this very conversation. Sir. "
With that he turned and started to walk away, but-
"Come on, don't be such a child. Stop being so picky."
- McAllistair's baritone coming up right behind him made him stop dead in his tracks-
"Just pretend! It shouldn't be that big a deal, I even look a bit like that freak of -"
There was a quite satisfying crack of the nasal bone as John's fist connected hard with his superior officer's face. McAllistair struggled backwards a few steps, holding his bleeding nose and fixing John with a cold stare, obviously not used to lower ranks speaking their mind in front of him.
"You call him that one more time," John breathed dangerously, "- just once- and I will shove that nose up your brain. Fair warning."
"How dare you?" McAllistair growled and launched himself at John in blind rage, initiating a fistfight in the dry sand of the steppe that finally managed to get John's mind off of Sherlock for a short while. He had inkling that this wasn't the kind of help McAllistair had had in mind, but this one he was glad to take, thank you very much.
He was not even spitting blood yet, though, when Murray and Fontaig, a young Lance Corporal only recently deployed at Talil base camp, pulled them apart.
John didn't resist Murray's grip as he was forced a few steps back, breathing heavily. He tried to concentrate on getting his frustration back under the rather delicate layer of control he was wearing like a second skin these days. Always feeling like he was on the verge of exploding.
Murray and John had the advantage of being equal in rank by now and therefore didn't need to officially justify their years-old silent agreement to not doubt each other's decisions anymore. They had pulled one another out of fights more times than John could count. And in the rather dangerous state of mind he was currently in, John was quite grateful that Murray happened to be in his camp. He had a hunch, though, about who he had to thank for that coincidence.
Poor Fontaig, on the other hand, had to let the Major go as soon as he'd succeeded in pulling him back a few paces, and McAllistair was flinging himself at John again the moment he'd recovered his balance. Murray reflexively loosened his grip on his arms in response to the new round of attacks so that John could defend himself.
And here it is again, the ranking minefield, John thought as he buried his fist into the solar plexus of the Major. Every single nutter in the army was well aware that standing by when a fight was going on could just as easily get you reprimanded as turning against your superior officer- and Fontaig was inexperienced and had a lot to lose.
John was hit quite effectively across his chin, just as a small figure threw herself with wide open arms into the middle of the fight.
"Shut up, you crazy lot!" sweet Mary Morstan's steady voice clearly topped the deeper ones of the men, instinct and long forgotten manners silencing them all together.
When she had their attention she smiled openly at the gathered crowd. "Thanks for your help, gentlemen. I think we can handle it from here."
Without further ado and seemingly oblivious to the gobsmacked stares she got from the bystanders, she took hold of John's arm and carefully led him to a nearby table and her first aid kit. John was sure that Murray would be waiting nearby, though- he could still feel the furious glares of McAllistair prickling his neck.
Upon arriving, she quietly stepped closer and looked up at John with a somewhat rueful smile. John winced. After having worked for him and, well, on him as a nurse since last Christmas, she was now capable of seeing right through him.
"I thought you promised to only fight for your own dignity for a change, Captain." Carefully, she touched his chin and began wiping away the blood that now steadily dripped out of a small cut right below his lower lip.
"Just couldn't resist the prospect of meeting you again." John grinned; promptly earning himself a smack upside the head for playfully winking at her.
"And here I was, believing that you'd actually know the way to your own surgery," she shook her strawberry blond head in mock wonder.
"Hmm… might work next time?" He tried a hopeful smile.
"Yeah, you know- Hope dies last. It's worth a try, I guess." Shrugging, she grinned and dutifully checked the cut again for the possible need of stitches, but seemed satisfied so far.
"Will I live, you think, Nurse Morstan?"
Mary sighed at that, all mockery vanished from her gaze. "Your body is just fine, John. But that's never really the problem, is it?"
John closed his eyes against the soft caress on his cheek. How many times had he wondered just why in hell it couldn't have been Mary? Why he hadn't met her on an earlier tour. Sweet, funny, kind, beautiful, flawless Mary Morstan. Dating, falling in love, building a family, settling down. Even as it was now, John could still sometimes feel that telling little spark, a fluttering of ashes thought long gone cold, and he knew they would have been just perfect together.
If it were different.
But John had experienced the one-in-a million kind of roaring fire, burning over nerves throughout his whole body, shaking him to the core. Warm, steady, home.
And he knew that anything less would never be enough for him again.
Abruptly brought back to the present, John heard all hell breaking loose around him. Turning in the direction of the uproar-
"HELP! Help please!"
A young boy in his early teens with two little girls, barely older than four or five, came running to the camp border and waved an obviously hurriedly self-made rebel flag, stumbling while they tried to go even faster over the hot stony underground, "HELP! We no bad! Please! Help!"
Murray and John dashed towards where they were held back by the guards just outside the camp now, assault rifles pointed at them hesitantly. As they came closer, John could make out their bashed up, barely covered bodies- cuts and bruises almost everywhere. He was just in time to reach them as the smallest of the children had managed to stumble past one officer and fell into John's arms. There was no need to search them for semtex- nearly naked and so thin there almost wasn't more to them than bones and skin, they couldn't hide anything larger than a single bullet if their lives depended on it.
"It's alright, let them pass!" he ordered, ignoring the guards standing to attention at his words. Murray scooped up the second girl and, followed by the teenager, they hurried to the surgery.
On their way in, the team and Mary approached them as John tried to organise his thoughts back to business.
"Remmy, get Colonel Rutherford out to us."
"Yes, Sir," the Lance Corporal turned and skidded away to the lead commander's barrack.
"We might need a dragoman. Try to get a connection to the boy while we have a look at the children's wounds. Russ, get your team to the weapons, I think we're heading out."
"Sir." There was the prompt response of the young woman before she and the rest of the men hurried to their equipment. Hadan meanwhile fell back to jog next to the Syrian boy instead.
Once a local rebel himself, Lieutenant Amin Hadan was able to speak fluent Syriac, the language of the Arabian Christians, and Arabic, the national language. He also had the impressive ability to analyse his cultural surroundings in such detail he was able to act according to that culture, and therefore draw no attention to himself. He was like a chameleon. Naturally, this still made him some kind of outsider, standing back, his dark eyes observing. But John had liked him since early on his tour.
Not having the amazing talent of learning dozens of different languages in only a few nights as Sherlock had possessed (who Hadan tended to call "Nabil", the unrivalled intelligence), John relied on the young local to communicate with the Syrians during their patrols through Taldou and the nearby villages on a regular basis.
"Ask him about their age and if there are any illnesses running in the family, past and present!" John ordered now.
"John, she's still breathing?" Mary jogged next to him, concern for the little unconscious girl in his arms radiating from her short form.
"Barely. We need oxy masks as soon as we're in." John had no idea how long the children had been running through the steppe in the midday sun, or what had happened to them in the first place. He just hoped they would be able to stabilise them fast enough, before their weakened bodies would inevitably give up the struggle.