Deep in the recesses of the cluttered space under John’s bed, far from the prying eyes of nosy landladies, there is a box. It is not a particularly large box, nor at first glance is it especially remarkable. What this box contains however, is extraordinary.
The box only comes out when John has been having a particularly rough day. Whenever there’s a mysterious triple murder, or a tall man in a dark coat passes John on the street, the box makes its appearance from under the bed. On these evenings, John makes sure that the door to the flat is securely locked and that the skull with the tiny camera both he and Mycroft carefully pretend isn’t there is turned against the wall. This is a private ritual, and is for his eyes alone.
With all the appropriate precautions taken, John can finally sit in his armchair and carefully open the plain brown box. He does this slowly, as if he is attempting to delay the inevitable for even a few precious seconds. But the inevitable must always come, and soon the contents of that box are laid bare on the coffee table like a wound. John always pauses for breath here, and often buries his head in his hands to steady himself. He knows that he is only causing himself unnecessary pain by doing this, but it is a compulsion that has proven impossible to fight. And so after a few shaky breaths, John will always reach out and pick up the battered scrapbook that is all he has left of Sherlock Holmes.
The scrapbook had started out innocently enough. John was a collector by nature, and he hated throwing away items of any emotional significance. He still had his acceptance letter to medical school tucked away somewhere, and his various medals were all kept in perfect condition and displayed proudly on his dresser. The scrapbook was an extension of this, and had started out its life as a “good luck, please don’t die” gift from Harry right before he left for Afghanistan. The early pages of the book were filled with grainy Polaroids, thank you notes from patients, and even a touching letter or two from Harry before her drinking had gotten truly out of control. These pages are not what compel John to bring out the scrapbook every few weeks however.
Immediately after the last photo John took in Afghanistan (a group picture of his squad, filled with smiling faces that had no idea of the horror that would soon greet them), there is a page left purposefully blank. It is starkly out of place in a book filled to bursting with color and life, and seems to reproach the reader with its emptiness. John stops to stare at it every time he opens the book, remembering the blankness that had filled his life upon his return to London. He had tried to add to the scrapbook when he was discharged from the hospital, but had found that nothing mattered enough anymore. Nothing spoke to him, and there was nothing he wanted to preserve. What was the point of keeping mementoes of an empty life?
That had all changed when he met Sherlock.
The first day that he had moved into Baker Street, even before he had unpacked his clothing, John had dragged out the scrapbook and sat down at the kitchen table with a stack of newspapers and a pair of scissors. This had taken some careful rearranging of suspiciously colored liquids in frighteningly antique flasks, but John was determined. He was soon clipping away industriously at the newspaper and before long, he had a small pile of articles and photographs about the horrific crimes of the serial killer cabbie who had mysteriously died the night before. John smiled to himself as he read the articles, especially the one describing the kill-shot as “remarkable” and “apparently the work of a highly-trained sniper”. Sherlock wandered over as John was carefully taping the articles into the book and peered curiously over his shoulder.
“What on earth are you doing?” He sounded genuinely baffled by John’s behavior, as though John were doing some arcane ceremony or dancing naked on the coffee table.
“I’m adding to my scrapbook. Look, you’re mentioned in this one.” He held up the article for Sherlock to examine, but the detective simply waved it away with a look of disgust on his face.
“That is hardly the first newspaper article I have been in, and I certainly doubt that it will be the last.”
(Well, you were half-right. Then again how could you be expected to know that your last article would be your obituary?)
“Well, it’s my first and I’d like to make sure that I keep it.” Sherlock snorted inelegantly and turned away, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like “sentiment” as he went. But despite Sherlock’s apparent disdain for such a weak-minded show of emotionalism, John found that after particularly exciting cases, certain items would begin to appear in the flat. Sometimes they were high-quality crime scene photographs of important clues, sometimes they were little pieces of evidence that had somehow mysteriously ended up in a coat pocket, or sometimes just a scrap of paper with a hastily scrawled note on it. Soon enough, after every case John would find something that Sherlock had deemed essential for preservation sitting innocuously on the coffee table as if it had appeared there of its own free will.
In addition, Sherlock began to take an interest every time the scrapbook made an appearance. Of course he pretended to not care in the slightest, but John noticed that whenever he pulled out the book to add some notes or put in another article, Sherlock would appear as if by magic. He seemed most concerned that he was featured prominently in the book, not being satisfied to simply take up every other corner of John’s life as well. He was not happy unless he was mentioned on every page, and would drop leading hints about how he felt the contents of the book should be organized. John would simply grin and keep taping, knowing that his lack of response irritated Sherlock far more than the man would ever admit.
John’s favorite pages though are not records of their many adventures, or even the small write-up that his blog had received in the culture section of one of the city papers. In fact, his favorite page of all is one that most people would skim right over upon casual inspection of the scrapbook.
The page is left mostly blank. Unlike all the others, which have nearly every square inch taken up with clippings, photos, or notes, this page features only one photograph. It is taped carefully to the middle of the page, and seems ordinary enough at first glance. It is a simple snapshot of two men at a birthday party, with the shorter man’s arm draped cheerfully around the shoulders of the taller. John is laughing hugely at something that has just been said, and there is a wicked grin on Sherlock’s face that suggests exactly where the comment had come from. There is an easy camaraderie in the photo that speaks of deep friendship and shared memories, and the somewhat poor quality is totally overwhelmed by the sheer joy that it contains.
It is the only photograph that John has with Sherlock.
Oh sure, he has many copies of those horrible “Hat-man and Robin” photos that Sherlock had hated so much, and he smiles quietly to himself every time he remembers how Sherlock had bristled at the mention of the wretched deerstalker. But this is the only candid photo of the two of them together, the only one where they are actually happy and enjoying each other’s company. The only one with Sherlock smiling instead of glaring at the camera like it has done him a personal injury, and the only one that shows just how much the two had meant to each other.
Every time he opens the book, John spends many long minutes staring at this page. He doesn’t know why he does it – looking at this picture is nothing but a vivid reminder of what he has lost and feels a bit like having all the air slowly pushed from his lungs. But the compulsion to look at the picture is even stronger than the pain it brings, and so look he does. He looks, and he remembers the side of his friend that no one but him had ever seen. He remembers the quick-as-lightning humor that would come at the most unexpected of moments to make John double over with laughter. He remembers the quiet attention that Sherlock would pay to his well-being and the late night sonatas played to soothe his nightmares. He remembers the peace of their shared breakfasts, and the thrill of their shared chases. He remembers all this and more, and the ache in his chest grows until it threatens to overwhelm him.
Reading the scrapbook always ends the same way. After reading and re-reading every article, and spending nearly twenty minutes gazing at the photo from the party, John will finally reach the last page that has been filled. It too seems innocent enough to the untrained eye, but careful examination reveals the many smudges on the battered newspaper clipping. It is the only article written by John, and he hates it. He hates staring at this article more than he could ever say, and even though he never reads it he knows every word of Sherlock’s obituary by heart. And so he stares, and remembers, and grieves.
The rest of the pages are empty. What else could he possibly put in them? What else could possibly matter anymore? Just like the empty stretch of life between Afghanistan and Baker Street, John’s life is blank once again. He survives because he must, but there is nothing to treasure in his empty days. Everything that mattered is carefully kept in this battered old book and stored under his bed where he can pretend that it hurts him a little less.
When his choking sobs have finally stopped, John will gently close the book and place it back into its plain brown resting place. He picks up his cane from where it rests against the coffee table, and limps slowly back to the bedroom to bury the box where it can be carefully ignored for a few more weeks. The door is unlocked, the skull is turned back around, and life at 221B can resume once more. And if John spends the next few hours addressing the skull as Sherlock, well, at least there is no one there to notice.