The Box is not that large, really. It is small enough to fit easily in the bottom of his wardrobe, next to the uncomfortable pair of formal shoes he rarely has occasion to wear. It scares John, sometimes, just how fast it is filling up. Empty bottles of ineffective sleeping pills mingle with the gel pads used to cushion the blisters that had formed on his palm, back when the cane was still new. Appointment slips printed with the logo of his therapist’s practice are tucked next to the carefully wrapped broken glass which had slipped out of his shaking hand.
A flimsy lock secures the lid, but John assumes that Sherlock has snooped inside nonetheless. This doesn’t bother him a great deal, because The Box hasn’t been needed as often, since they met. After the cane had been retired, John had at first leaned it up in the wardrobe behind The Box, as it was too big to fit inside. That had felt like cheating, though, and after a few days he had worked off the cane’s rubber foot, and added that to the collection instead.
Safely secured in the lining of The Box is a single round of ammunition for John’s gun. He doesn’t want to be without, when the time comes. If the time comes.
When, if, The Box is filled, John will know that it’s pointless. The Box contains physical proof of every failure, of everything about John that is broken. Should the day come when there is no more room in The Box for the latest reminder, well, then John will know that he will never be fixed. And John refuses to be broken forever.
The Box is his deadline for recovery. And if he reaches it, and hasn’t recovered, then he will go with his Plan B. That’s why he’s keeping the bullet.
John checks, now, to make sure that it is still in its hiding place. He takes it out and holds it in his hand for a moment, thinking. The 9mm round sits easily on his palm as he goes over, once again, where and how he will shoot himself.
John tucks the bullet away. It won’t be today. The Box is still only three-quarters full.
On Thursday John accidentally smashes his hand into the wall during a screaming nightmare. The makeshift cold compress that he holds to his knuckles is added to The Box.
The Monday after that, there is a corpse at Sherlock’s newest crime scene who looks eerily like Peter Davies, a sergeant that John had failed to save in Afghanistan. John’s leg nearly gives out on him at the sight, and he has to clutch at Sherlock’s sleeve to keep from falling. He tries not to notice the looks he gets from Lestrade and Anderson, or the pointed ones he gets from Sherlock as he limps for the rest of the day.
John finds a strip of cloth the same length and colour as the arm of Sherlock’s coat, and places it in The Box. He checks the bullet again. One more incident, he thinks, and The Box will probably be filled.
There isn’t another incident for nearly seven weeks. Somehow, that almost makes it worse – John had started to feel that maybe this was it; maybe he was better, after all.
Today, though, nothing seems better. Today John is having a no good, spectacularly bad day. The morning report on BBC News is full of explosions: roadside bombs, car bombs, and IEDs. The anchors talk grimly of soldiers dying, of civilians dying, of funds and equipment and loss. John turns off the TV and sets off for work. If he can’t help the soldiers, he can at least still help someone.
Or so he thinks. It turns out there is a bomb threat at Baker Street station, which has managed to close all five of the Underground lines which run through it. The buses then instantly become a nightmare. John gets to work late.
His first patient of the day, when he does arrive, is a hypochondriac who comes in at least twice a month. She always becomes stubborn and defensive when John tries to explain that there is nothing wrong with her legs, or her lungs, or her liver.
The next is a man whose blood work results have come in. He is HIV positive. When John tells him the bad news, he cries, and asks over and over again what he will tell his three children. The youngest is only four.
And so it continues through the day. By 5pm, John’s hand is trembling so severely that he can no longer hold a pen steadily enough to write. He drops his Oyster card trying to get through the barriers onto the now reopened Tube, and can hear grumbling from the throngs of people backing up behind him. The whole way home, the clattering of the old train sounds like failure, failure, failure.
Back at Baker Street, he can see Sherlock through the open door to the flat, sprawled on the sofa in his dressing gown. John doesn’t even go in, just continues up the stairs to his room. He retrieves The Box from the wardrobe, and sets down its newest additions. The first are the two ruined prescription slips that he had carefully had to re-do for his last patient of the day, after his writing had degenerated into a jittering, illegible mess. Folding them and sliding the paper down along the side of The Box, he picks up his Oyster card. Placing it on top of the accumulated items, John realises that there is no room for anything else.
He’s met his deadline, and he’s failed. He is not really surprised; somewhere in the back of his mind he had expected this. All that The Box had been, really, was a way of postponing the inevitable.
With a hand that is suddenly as steady as a rock, John takes out the single bullet from The Box’s lid, before closing and locking it. He places the little key on top of the lid. Retrieving his gun from its drawer, John carefully loads the 9mm round, checking to make sure that nothing will jam when he fires.
John sets The Box next to him on the bed. He doesn’t bother writing a note, as he’s sure that Sherlock will see The Box and its contents, and know precisely what they mean. Sherlock doesn’t need notes.
He sits, back ramrod straight, on his bed, and holds the gun to his temple. John closes his eyes as he clicks the safety off.
John takes a deep breath and holds it as he counts to ten. Then he lets it out, and counts backwards.
He wasn’t expecting this to be so hard.
One last breath, he tells himself, and then no more procrastinating.
His last breath, though, is matched by a sudden, short gasp from the doorway. John startles, and the gun jerks slightly against the side of his head.
Opening his eyes, he sees Sherlock, one hand hovering in front of him. John doesn’t recognise the expression on his face.
As Sherlock starts to take a step into the room, John says, “Go away, Sherlock.” He doesn’t think he can do this with someone watching. Sherlock stops moving but stays in the door, still holding out his right hand.
“John,” Sherlock says, carefully, “What are you doing?”
John closes his eyes again. “This is Plan B, Sherlock. Please, go away.” He keeps the gun pressed to his head.
Sherlock doesn’t listen – of course not, when does he ever – and John can hear him take one slow step forward into his room. He speaks slowly and quietly, as though John is a wild animal he is trying to coax.
“Please put the gun down, John. Put it down, and tell me about plan B. What was plan A?” He is still moving towards John, who keeps his eyes firmly shut. He doesn’t want to watch Sherlock figuring him out, not now.
Sherlock is standing in front of him now, John can feel it. His right arm, the one holding the gun, starts to feel tired, and John clenches his teeth. Why couldn’t he have done it a few seconds sooner, or Sherlock been a few seconds later? Although he supposes it’s fitting, that he should fail at this, just like he’s failed to get better.
Sherlock speaks again, still in that same tone. It kind of makes John want to scream at him, to tell him to talk normally. “I’m going to reach out and put my hand on your wrist, John, okay? We can lower the gun together.”
John doesn’t say anything, but tenses all over. Sherlock must be moving slowly, because it seems to take minutes before he feels Sherlock’s long fingers wrap gently around his right wrist. His whole arm is trembling now, and at the touch John lets out the breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.
“Good, John, good,” Sherlock says, “Now, let’s move the gun away from your head, John. Let’s put it down.”
As Sherlock starts to move John’s hand away from his temple, John knows that Plan B is not going to happen. He feels himself go limp, and when his arm hits the bed and the gun is taken away, John hunches forward and lets himself start to cry.
Through his mostly silent sobs, he can hear Sherlock emptying the gun and placing it on the other side of the room. Then he returns to hover in front of John, before awkwardly patting him on the shoulder.
John finally opens his eyes to look at Sherlock, who is crouched in front of his knees. He draws in another shuddery breath and tries to speak, but it just comes out as a croak. John clears his throat and starts again.
“I’m sorry. I – ” John doesn’t really know what to say. He isn’t sure if he wants to say thank you, or if he still wishes that Sherlock hadn’t come upstairs. Instead, he puts his hands in his lap and stares at them, leaving the sentence unfinished.
“John,” Sherlock says, sounding more like himself, now. Actually, he sounds like he had at the pool, in that brief moment before Moriarty had come back. “John, this box. I think, I think I may have misunderstood. I thought – will you tell me about it?”
He had gone snooping, then. John looks at The Box, still sitting beside him. He pushes it away, sliding it bumpily across the duvet. He keeps hold of the key, though, turning it over and over in his hands as he talks.
“The Box, it’s – ” John stumbles over his words at first, but then once he gets started they come easier. “It’s triage, Sherlock. It’s the limit I gave myself, the amount of resources I had to recover. There’s only so much time you can allocate to trying to save someone before you have to accept that it’s a lost cause.
“I filled The Box today, Sherlock. I’m a lost cause.” John keeps staring at the little key, until Sherlock plucks it from his fingers. John looks up at him, and sees that he’s still in an uncomfortable-looking crouch.
“Get up, Sherlock. That can’t be good for your knees,” he says, and Sherlock’s mouth quirks into one of his little half smiles.
Sherlock sits on the bed next to John, in between him and The Box. “You aren’t a lost cause, John,” he says, “Do you know what I thought this box contained?”
John just shakes his head.
“I thought you were keeping everything you’d survived, John. Every time you got through another nightmare, or bad day.”
Oh. John hadn’t ever thought of it that way. He thinks about all the items in The Box, tries to see them in this new light. It’s hard.
Sherlock shifts on the bed, so that he’s facing John. “I thought the bullet was a symbol of the one you’d survived in Afghanistan. If I hadn’t come upstairs – ” He trails off, before standing abruptly. The sudden movement startles John slightly, and he jerks his head back to look up at Sherlock, towering over him.
“Tea,” Sherlock declares.
John opens his mouth to ask what he’s talking about, but Sherlock continues. “I think you need – I was going to make a cup of tea. For you.” He looks uncertain again, and John almost wants to smile. “Would you come downstairs with me John? For tea?”
Sherlock holds out a hand, and John hesitates for a moment before grabbing it and allowing Sherlock to help him up.
Tea doesn’t fix everything. But it’s a start.