He used to be a charming man.
John remembered it, distantly, as if looking at someone else's life through a smoky glass. Being friendly had been easy. Polite had been his default setting. Turning on the charm hadn't required thought.
He felt like an actor who'd forgotten how to play a familiar role. Every move he made felt awkward and stiff. When he attempted a friendly gesture, it played out stilted. His words had become hollow, strangled to death by the void of emotion behind them.
He'd strangled a man to death, once.
He thought of it sometimes, at night, when he couldn't sleep. The way he'd wrapped his hands around the man's throat, slipping with sweat and blood, dust stinging in his eyes. He knew the man had struggled, his bloodied nails matching the bleeding scratches on John's hands, after. He didn't remember feeling any pain, or having to strain to keep his hold.
He didn't remember the man's face.
He did remember the way he'd felt, high on adrenalin; feral, invincible. He remembered the way the man's throat had felt underneath his hands, tendons moving, pulse fluttering, muscles straining. He thought it might be similar to holding a beating heart in his hand, slowly squeezing until its panicked attempts to keep going ceased, until it became nothing more than a lump of flesh, no different than the plastic-wrapped meat in supermarkets.
He remembered the way he'd kept his hold, calm and steady, until the man's body had given up on its struggle to breathe, and the throat John was gripping had become unmoving, unresponsive. He hadn't cared so much for that part.
He'd still held on, like he'd forgotten how to let go, until a fellow soldier had gripped his shoulder, forced him to snap out of it. He'd gotten up, picked up his weapon from where it had landed, acting on automatic. His mind had been a blank, his body thrumming. He'd been hard. From adrenalin, maybe. Power. He didn't like to dwell on it.
He'd tried to file it away, forget about it, but it felt like something had been permanently damaged inside him. Like he'd gotten his wires crossed, and couldn't get them uncrossed anymore. Wouldn't have known where to start.
So he tried to ignore it, tried to stop thinking about it. That flutter of life underneath his hands, dying out. But sometimes, at night, he couldn't help it. Just sometimes, when he couldn't sleep.
He could rarely sleep.
He thought of it often.
He'd brought something back with him from the war, or perhaps he'd left something behind. He'd become twisted somehow, out there in the desert; he wondered how life went on, day after day, without anyone noticing. Without anyone staring at him, taking a step back.
Wondered, at times, if Sherlock could see it in him, the damage. If he understood what he saw.
John had always thought that Sherlock was... exceptional. He still did. Sherlock was a genius, a truly amazing show of genetics. But he was also a sociopath.
He dealt with facts; he valued data. People, not so much.
It wasn't that Sherlock was heartless. He was, however, fundamentally disconnected from the general human experience, unable to see himself reflected in others. He could put on a veneer of charm when it suited his purposes, understood, on some basic level, how humans operated, but could not quite connect with it; didn't care to.
An average person, faced with a crime, might ask themselves, why? To Sherlock, the why was the least interesting part of the puzzle. He could tell you who, could tell you how. He could usually tell you why, but rarely bothered; the real game was in the who, the how.
He detested open and shut cases, domestic violence, crimes of passion. When the why was easy, there was no game to be had. When the game was good, the why was irrelevant. Only the method mattered.
If he had figured John out, it was possible that he'd simply dismissed his findings. Sherlock wasn't uncaring, exactly, but he wasn't invested in the well being of others, and John wasn't an exception. The effects of war on John were of little relevance thus far. John hadn't killed anyone, yet. At least, not in a way that would brand him a murderer instead of a war hero, and Sherlock only cared about the former. It was almost incentive enough to give into that itch, to feel that calm certainty again, that rush. Maybe then Sherlock would look at him, and really see him.
In any case, John thought that if Sherlock had seen the discord in him, he would've also recognized that there was little he could do to help. In such matters, Sherlock was nothing if not practical.
John wondered, during those long nights, if with time he might be able to become such a fundamental part of Sherlock's life that even if he did become a murderer, Sherlock would simply... what, he asked himself. Let him go?
Like he had, during that first case together. Knowing John had been the shooter, but keeping it to himself.
John rarely thought about it, the kill. There'd been nothing interesting about it -- just point and shoot, impersonal. It hadn't done anything for him. Instead, he thought about the way he'd felt, standing on the wrong side of the glass, the wrong side of the building, thinking that Sherlock might die.
Couldn't have that. Even then, barely knowing anything at all about him, that much had been clear.
John didn't know what the gentler, more benign him might have thought of Sherlock, or wanted from him, but the man he was today, that man needed him. Needed the danger and exasperation and excitement. Needed to be part of a world where his leg didn't bother him, where his hands didn't shake.
The idea of Sherlock as an accessory to murder was folly, but John supposed it might be plausible, in theory, if he succeeded in challenging Sherlock's intelligence. If before that, he'd found a way to get close to Sherlock, to give him something no one else could.
But there were a lot of ifs, many maybes. He wasn't Sherlock Holmes; he lived with him. If he committed murder, Sherlock would take one look at him and know. No matter how careful John would be, there would always be something; a scuff mark on his shoe, a misplaced fibre on his shirt, the way he held his hands. Sherlock would put the clues together, and that would be that.
John could not lose Sherlock over this. Would not let the man he'd become take away the only thing of worth he'd found in this wretched half-life his existence had turned into.
So John held himself in check, tried to drown the itch underneath his skin by tagging along with Sherlock on the cases, writing his blog, reading. Grocery shopping. Inane things to keep himself busy. In the beginning, in his effort to rediscover the man he'd lost, or at the very least keep up appearances, he'd tried dating -- women, because that's what was expected of him. He'd given up on it a while back. He didn't trust himself with living, breathing human beings anymore.
He barely trusted himself with Sherlock.
Sally Donovan thought Sherlock would one day cross the line, had warned John that he should bail before he became a murder victim. John thought she had it rather backwards.
Sometimes, at night, John stared at the ceiling without really seeing it, thinking of that day in Afghanistan. He couldn't see the man's face, didn't think of the dust stinging in his eyes or the sounds of gunfire, shouting. He thought only of the way the man's throat had felt underneath his hands, struggling to breathe, swallow, live.
He revisited that feeling again, and again, helpless against the twisted need choking his insides. Getting hard despite the sickening self-hate filling up his lungs. He was rough when he jerked himself off, punishing, trying not to think, trying not to see.
He wasn't in Afghanistan, he was home. He wasn't fighting for his life, he was alone, in his room. He wasn't strangling a stranger to death. He wasn't strangling anyone. He tried to keep his mind blank, to not think about it, but there was that feeling, that itch again, the memory of it, of a man's throat in his hands, and there was no sand, no fighting, just him, this flat, him and --
When John came, he thought of Sherlock. Of the way he moved when he was in the middle of a case, unstoppable. His manic energy, his inappropriate excitement, his focus. The way he went mad with boredom when there was nothing to challenge him, petulant and impossible.
Thought of what he might look like, stretched out on John's bed.
He thought of the way Sherlock's hair curled, and of his narrow body, his slender, capable hands. He thought of the shape and colour of Sherlock's eyes, the way they lit up when presented with a challenge.
He thought of being the sole focus of those eyes, of having all of Sherlock to himself.
He thought of his hands on Sherlock's throat.