The first time it happened was in basic training. It was easy, then, to put it down to a little too much stress. His body had been worked far harder than he ever thought possible, not enough sleep, barely enough food, so should he be surprised that the cold, heavy, battered Browning seemed to murmur, "Fresh meat," as he touched it?
And he was, really. Smaller than many of the newly-minted officers, lower class than them, caught up in the fervor of Queen and Country, ready to be shipped off to parts of the world he simply hadn’t evolved to handle - what was he thinking?
It hardly mattered. He changed how he spoke, leaving most of his Estuary behind. What little he still had became less important as he demonstrated to his compatriots that height and background were hardly hindrances to soldiery. Only the gun continued to mock him, muttering in Scouse about the many hands it had been through, and how many of them must be dead by now, and how John would join them some time soon, he was such a massive bell-end.
The only way to shut the thing up was with accuracy, and that was some substantial motivation to improve his shooting skills. When John hit the center of the target, unerringly, from greater and greater distances, the sullen Browning would mutter, "All right, then," and give John a bit of peace.
Until it came time to clean it, when it would make all kinds of obscene noises.
"Advanced officer training, eh?" it said, derisively, when John packed his few things. "Wait 'til you meet me mates. You'll wish I was the worst you come across."
Its 'mates' were the array of weapons that officers needed at least passing familiarity with. The grunting, antisocial IFV tank. The garrulous GMG, spitting out racist slurs as rapidly as grenades.
The worst, though, was the mortar. "Hello, sailor," she murmured in an utterly inappropriate American accent, the first time he touched her.
"I'm not a sailor," John replied.
"Mmmm, that's all right, you have nice hands. I love a good pair of hands. I bet you can land me where you want, baby. Touch my shells. Oh, yes, like that. Do you know how many men I've killed? And not quickly - I shred them. I love to hear them scream. Oh, please tell me you're taking me over there..."
It was enough to fragment the strongest man's resolve.
Yet it was all worth it, somehow, when he was issued his armor and pistol for deployment. He put his hand on the new Browning, and her voice was smooth, deep - and curious. "Where are we going? I'm new here..."
"Afghanistan," he told her.
That was an excellent question, and he spent some time telling her. About terrorism, and fundamentalism, and abuse of women, and destruction of ancient art. Of love of homeland and the desire to serve.
"You seem like a good man," she told him, after some consideration.
She was certainly the most excellent companion he could hope for. Yes, he had his mates, but how could they be there for him the way she was? And she had excellent advice when he practiced. He was quite a good shot by now, but with her, he was inerrant. She was aggressive and focused when he needed to use her - for ambushes, for sorties, for backup.
The day their transport hit an IED, and after tending to Frank (legs crushed) and Tim (arm half-cut-off by the wrecked door), leaving the other two (dead, massive trauma, at least it had been quick), he found himself in the field hospital later, the gash from shrapnel (two inches to the left, and his carotid would have been neatly severed) being stitched up. He felt impossibly far from home, far from the ideals that had brought him there in the first place. She talked to him, all day and late into night on his cot, about what she remembered of her early life in Belgium, of how lucky she had been to find him.
"We're good together, aren't we?"
Yes, he agreed. Yes, they were.
Just not good enough to avoid the ambush.
She called to him, now and then, through the wood of his desk drawer. He ignored her. What use was she, now that he was home? Now that home was a dingy, ill-lit room, cold and wet with a London winter? What could her well-stocked magazine do against nightmares?
He let her sleep. And cry out to him, sometimes, but he had nothing for her.
"I like him," she said.
"You barely know him. He's a strange fellow."
"Well, I like him."
John had to smile as he slipped her into his coat, slinging a satchel with the last of his belongings over his shoulder. "And you're a fine judge of people, are you?"
"I found you, didn't I?" she asked, mischievously.
"I would love to say it was due to your impeccable taste, but you didn't have much choice in the matter."
"Just keep telling yourself that," she replied, darkly, then perked up as they left the army housing. "And I'm telling you, he may be odd, but I like him."
"I'll be sure to let him know." John should keep that in the back of his mind, if it ever came to an out-odd-ing contest between the two of them. Sherlock might talk to a skull, but John talked to his sidearm.
"You haven't lost your touch."
John looked back over his shoulder at the riot of police behind him, at the building that housed the dead cabbie. "We haven't lost it, you mean." That had been a rather desperate shot - such distance, such poor lighting, panes of glazing between. And with Sherlock's life at stake. He was glad he still had her, that it had been them, not him and some random pistol.
"Well, that's done," Sherlock said, from beside him. "Who were you talking to?"
John shook himself out of it, removing his hand from her. "Myself."
"Why do that when you could talk to me? On the other hand, don't, you'll just annoy me. Do you annoy yourself when you talk to yourself? Most people must, really. Keep walking - if they see us slow down, Lestrade will think of something to ask, and then there will be no end to the questions."
"No 'thanks' for saving your life?" John called out, trotting to keep up as Sherlock lengthened his stride.
"Of course not," she said from his coat, in concert with Sherlock.
It was just the right day for this sort of thing, as if nature had conspired to provide the proper backdrop. A grey day, the clouds hanging heavy and leaden overhead, the cold rain streaming down relentlessly.
It streamed down John's face, plastering his hair to his head. It was difficult enough to walk with the cane that he had needed more and more as the weeks went by, dragging ponderous months on their heels. He didn't need to juggle an umbrella as well, and he hardly needed to show up looking presentable anywhere any time soon.
Oh, what was the use in sugar-coating it; he didn't need to show up anywhere in any condition. His routine was set. Once a day, a mid-day meal at the cafe around the corner. Once a week, a visit to this black headstone. Nobody else came. John brought flowers; Sherlock could not sneer at sentimentality anymore, so John could freely indulge in it.
He sat down with a heavy sigh, his aching leg grateful for the rest. The headstone was cold against his back, but the wet grass was decently soft, and could not make his trousers any more soaked than they were already.
Rest. It was a lovely thought. He could use a bit of it, here with Sherlock. And the thought came back, again, as it had for weeks now. He could rest longer. Much longer. His only real friend was here, buried, and would stay here; they could stay here, together. There was a substantial appeal to that thought. Just let it all go.
He pulled her out. He had maintained her faithfully; she was clean, well-oiled, as perfect as she had been the day he first held her.
"It's been a while," she said, cautiously.
"Yes," he told her, turning her in his hands, absently. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," she said, quickly. "It's just good to be with you again."
"I need your help," he told her.
"No." Her denial was quick and firm. "I'm not going to help you with this."
"Well." John licked his lips. "It's not your decision, is it?"
"Please," she told him, and her voice was a bit unsteady. "Please don't."
"Why not? It's what you're made for. Killing. It's what you do."
"It's not what I do," she retorted, vehemently. "I'm here to protect you."
She couldn't protect him, though. Sherlock was gone. There was nothing she could do about that. "You'll find someone else."
"Someone else? You'll just toss me out into the world? Who do you think might have their hands on me next? Some criminal? Or someone brutal, using me to harass and intimidate? The next Moriarty? Good men are rare, John, and I don't want to lose you."
John licked his lips, staring off into the distance. He still had ties, didn't he. The weight of responsibility sat heavily and awkwardly on him.
"Please just... think about it. One more day."
"Fine." John put his head back against the headstone, closing his eyes, feeling the dirty rain stream down his face. "One more day."