"What happened to my brother, Doctor Watson?", Mycroft asked again, when the first question had failed to elicit any response from the man in front of him.
John kept looking at his feet. Forcing himself to find interesting the colour and shape of his shoes, the creases in their leather, their laces. It helped him to focus on something else, helped him in his effort to stay schooled in calmness. Because he knew what the straightforward answer to Mycroft's question would be. It was only three words, after all. He knew the medical answer too. Hated every word of it, because he had given it too many times already: during the ambulance call, to the paramedics’ team, to the surgeons, the nurse, a doctor. Each time, each explanation, only made what the words truly meant more real. Until it was tangible, a stone in his stomach, a fist around his own heart.
Because he knew the other answer too. The one that was not straightforward. The one that was eating him up alive, the one blazing in Mycroft's otherwise icy eyes: 'Where were you?'
"I can't-" John wanted to believe he was not faint-hearted. After all, he had seen men being maimed, slaughtered, fallen men begging for his help with bulging eyes, amidst gunfire. And he had clenched his jaw and balled his fists and faced it. But he cowered now, in the face of this single truth. His inadequacy.
I left him alone. I left him.
Mycroft tensed: John could see it in the way he planted his feet squarely on the white-tiled floor, and yet was restless on them. "I will not ask again". The straining patience of his tone was in itself a threat.
John felt angry with him then. Angry that he was right, and that he was entitled to be, that he was entitled to his fear, and his frustration, and his anger, where John was not.
John himself had lost that right, that entitlement: to worry, to fear, to be angry, and to feel he had someone to share these feelings in way of the solemn, silent support of people with a struggling loved one in the ICU uniting them. Mycroft now, and later Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, even Molly: they would all be a unit, a front, against him. Against the man who bore the blame. Who had made the wrong choice.
I left him.
And yet his face twisted into a nasty grimace, pulling the edges of his lips low.
He could feel the gaze of the older Holmes on him. So like that of his brother, and yet so much more unwavering, calculating, in a different way. Sherlock Holmes read all about you. Mycroft Holmes read all about you, while never hiding that he would use it as best suited him, and just how little that would bother him. Sherlock finding strengths, truths, lies, weaknesses could never completely lose the pompous flair and childish twinkle of a game. But Mycroft doing the same... John's neck crawled with the feeling that if skinning him alive would give him the answers he sought, Mycroft would have already had it done. So when he sighed a restrained, long, slow breath, John braced. Maybe some part of him wanted the scornful words that were about to be aimed at him, in fact. Deserved them.
"Very well. In that case-"
But then there were footsteps in the corridor: the heavy, syncopated footfalls of someone trying, and failing, to hold back from running. Mycroft straightened his back. John sniffed softly, pursed his lips, looked away. Neither man turned to the new arrival, not even as the Detective Inspector walked through the door.
There was a pause: all three of them locked in place, silent. Mycroft's face had gone gaunt, his lips pressed to a tight line, like a scar.
It was Lestrade that spoke first, a note of apology in his voice. "I came as quickly as I could"
John watched as Mycroft exhaled slowly, and then, as if it cost him to do so, nodded in acknowledgement.
"I have news", Lestrade began, but was cut off by another nod, curter and more forced than the one before it. "How is he?", he tried instead. John could not miss how he softened the words, as if to soften the inevitable blow of what they implied: the situation they were in. The thick, robotic hiss of the oxygen mask, the stitches down a struggling, emaciated chest, the countless tubes attached to the pale body, like the strings of a puppet. He pressed his eyes shut.
"I have not been able to talk with his surgeons yet", Mycroft clipped.
"Oh. I thought-"
"You thought wrong, Detective Inspector", he said, defensively, and cast a cold look at John, who felt sweat prickle at the back of his neck, as if he were a cornered, wild thing. "I just arrived"
John clamped his mouth shut. There was a feeling of his senses failing him, of too much white crowding his vision, and the need to bare his teeth in a snarl began to boil in his chest like panic.
"Well", Lestrade said hurriedly, "there's some nurses downstairs we could ask". It was conciliatory, appeasing. And just when John thought it would not work, not on Mycroft, the older Holmes' shoulders sagged, and he mouthed a faint 'alright'.
"John, you were with him, weren't you?" But he was not allowed enough time to reply, before Lestrade added "I will need a statement from you later, okay?"
Yes. He nodded. Okay. Okay. Later. But he? Him? Sherlock, he wanted to shout. His name is Sherlock! But as the two men left without him, Mycroft's back losing its rigidity the more Lestrade's remained straight as they walked down the quiet corridor, even this mutinous anger felt pointless and pretentious.
John tried to breathe. It was not over, but at least it was over for now, facing Sherlock's brother and Lestrade at least, for the first time in this new reality. And he had failed to admit the truth, to give an explanation, to be of any use at all. He had stood there like a coward, acted as if he was the stranger to Sherlock that he felt he had become. And as much as he despised himself for this, he could not help but feel that he deserved it: to be treated and seen as if that was who he was.
I left him.
He dragged his steps to one of the folded plastic seats, as if sludging though quicksand, and let his body slump there, like an amorphous mass, a useless weight. He had expected that, either he was aloof and practical or vibrating with nerves, he would somehow know what to do. But now, as he took in his austere surroundings -the blue horizontal stripe painted in the middle of the wall, the white linoleum tiles, the red no-smoking sign, the yellow door with the clear plastic panel that led to the ICU corridor- he had never felt more at a loss. When he looked at his hands, the left was shaking. Still raw. Still red.
Time stretched and stretched, thin and sterile. As it used to do when he had lost him. When he had heard the crack of his skull against the pavement, seen the grey eyes like broken glass, like broken skies, blood flowing through the cracks.
Something else had cracked that day too. Something he could not quite place. But since it had, no matter if they were together in the same room, they were not really there: Sherlock was not quite Sherlock, and he was not quite the same either. They were rusty, too slow or too quick. Or a little too torn and battered at the edges. At least, that is what he thought. That he could not clearly see him, or them, or himself, as if looking for it all at the bottom of a murky pond. How funny then that now that they were here, when it was not a game anymore, he felt that if he but tried, he could see them just fine. It was a kind of desperate, bittersweet clarity, revealing first the simplest of truths: their game always took two.
John stood. With the exhausted dedication of the last soldier left on duty, left to patrol and guard. Knowing it was futile. He stood. Walked through that yellow door. Like a thief. Like a ghost. Found a mask, a cap, a basin and disinfectant to wash his hands. Found the room, and stepped inside, a shadow in the semi-darkness. He was greeted by the lonely beep of the heart monitor. It made him feel like he was drowning, like he wanted to be sick. There was a chair. He pulled it closer to the bed. He sat.