John avoided thinking about it because he couldn’t bear to acknowledge what was wrong with him. He was thirty-five years old, a soldier, a captain, and most prevalent of all, a doctor. It seemed impossible that he had allowed himself sink this low. Despite his best efforts, though, it was becoming increasingly apparent that he had a problem. Seeing Sherlock hit the ground had been like being hit by a truck. His entire world felt like it imploded around him and his heart ached like it were being denied blood. He doesn’t really remember the week or so following, just Mycroft gently ushering him home, Lestrade’s firm hand on his shoulders as they guided him into a pew, out onto the grass, down to the ground to kiss the coffin that held his best friend. He knew that he cried, but only because Mrs. Hudson appeared upstairs and clutched him to her breast, trying to quell the screaming and sobbing that he hadn’t even felt himself create.
It started then, he thinks. He missed Sherlock so much that he wanted to become him, wanted to give his life so that Sherlock might continue to exist. He began to take long walks around London, documenting the streets in his mind just as Sherlock. Sometimes he’d walk past the clinic and someone he used to know would see him, call his name, say they were so sorry and ask when he was coming back to work, tell him that he was welcome at any time, whenever he was ready. He would stare blankly at them, only vaguely aware of who they were, before walking on, doing his best to memorize every street sign and newspaper stand.
In his brief moments of lucid thought, John wondered why his debit card always seemed to have five hundred quid on it though he hadn’t put money on it for months, not since Sherlock died. He’d wonder why Mrs. Hudson never asked him for rent anymore, why his bills seemed to have stopped being delivered. He’d wonder about money for a while before going back under, mind blissfully blank of everything except for pain.
It was three months after Sherlock’s death Mycroft began visiting him. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays Mycroft would let himself into 221B and sit watching John for an hour or so. Before he left, he would deposit good tea and fresh food into the pantry and fridge, as John had finally run out of non-perishables and was living off of whatever Mrs. Hudson brought up for him. John avoided mirrors like the plague, but he knew that his eyes were nestled in thick black bruises and he looked gaunt, having lost too much weight in too little a time.
When Sherlock - before, John always had to use a chair or ask for help to reach the highest cabinets. It was always a bit of a sore point, but now he didn’t mind climbing on top of the cabinets to get things. In fact, he relished it. Standing on the countertops, he felt tall.
He began experimenting with whatever Sherlock - whatever was left. He read the meticulous notes and journals that had been written by his best friend, and he tried to understand them with the same clarity as Sherlock obviously had. He learned the periodic table, and he learned which elements reacted with others and how. He read textbooks that their original owner had memorized decades ago. He poured over them, only stopping occasionally to kip on the couch, nibble on some of Mycroft’s food, or take a brisk stroll through London in the attempt to find just one more corner or alley that he hadn’t yet catalogued.
He would also stop for Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson’s visits, but only just. He would still read as they sat with him, but he wouldn’t ignore them if they spoke to him. Mrs. Hudson would buzz around him, shoving biscuits and tea down his throat, telling him about how the papers had redacted their statements about Sherlock. She always left him with a kiss to the forehead and a tight hug. Mycroft’s visits were different. He usually just sat and stared at John, but sometimes he would usher him into the bathroom for a shower and a shave. If the food he’d planted into the kitchen wasn’t completely gone, he’d cook large amounts of light food for John before setting a plate in front of him and storing the rest with instructions of when he should eat them.
On one particularly bad day, when his chest ached bad enough to make a small part of him worry about myocardial infarction and his hands shook violently, Mycroft lifted him from his chair by the shoulders and held him firmly in his arms until the shakes melted into shudders and tears. After that day, a therapist began visiting 221B every Wednesday. If John wasn’t there for the hour-long session or left partway through, a black car would pick him up wherever he was exploring and deposit him back at the apartment. John didn’t like the therapist because she tried very hard to make him think about things that he was trying very hard to ignore.
He started eating less and running around London more.
Mycroft seemed to notice, but didn’t say anything about it. He merely began leaving more complete meals in the fridge, and curry began to be mysteriously delivered several times a week.
Five months after the fall, and John had completely mapped London and devoured all of Sherlock’s chemistry books. He moved on to the language books, supplementing his learning with Internet pronunciations. He began with French.
It was at that point that he realized that he hadn’t spoken a word since Sherlock fell. Unconcerned, he pressed on. Mycroft began speaking to him in French.
Six months after the fall, John intentionally gazed into the mirror for the first time. He started, then calmed. He was thinner than he’d been in fifteen years and he looked more tired than he could ever remember seeing himself. He didn’t look anything like Sherlock, though. He wasn’t wiry enough, wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t attractive enough. This concerned him. He wanted to be more like Sherlock. He’d never be completely like him, of course, but he could become more trim. He could continue learning more about chemistry, physics, and languages. It still hurt too bad to try to make deductions, but maybe he could work on that one day.
John tried to remember Sherlock’s sleeping and eating schedules without actually thinking about him, but it was fruitless and he ended up deciding to simply eat and sleep as little as possible. Whereas before he slept long hours each day, avoiding being awake as long as possible, now he dedicated as long as possible to reading or running around London. He began eating and sleeping only when he felt ill.
There were tendrils of awareness poking around in his mind that were fearful of his behavior. He was a doctor, a damned good one, and as survivor, a soldier. There were whispers of diagnosis at the back of his mind. Severe depression, borderline anorexia nervosa…
He ignored those thoughts studiously and only paused in his studies and explorations to stare in the mirror, imagining that with each pound he lost that he became closer to emulating Sherlock, becoming Sherlock. He imagined that his now quite impressive knowledge of chemistry, physics and French could maybe compete with what Sherlock’s had been if Sherlock happened to have had a bad flu.
His body felt weak, but his mind felt blissfully numb. London and academic pursuits were his only thoughts until his weekly visit from the therapist. He’d long since learned to tune her out, though.
Mycroft’s visits never varied, though Mrs. Hudson’s had become less frequent. Mycroft continued to speak to him in French and deliver food that was eaten increasingly less. John still never spoke and was becoming nearly skeletal in his thinness.
By the tenth month, John was no longer hopeful to see Sherlock when he looked in the mirror, and instead focused on the hatred that he felt for himself for not being able to become the man he lost.
John fell into a deep sleep on a Monday morning, having not slept since Wednesday, and woke early in the morning on Thursday, avoiding the mirror and moving to the kitchen to make tea for the first time in months. As John thought he would, Mycroft arrived rather early that morning, staring at John sitting in the kitchen, surrounded by his own experiments, before settling down in his usual spot on the couch.
John cleared his throat, and Mycroft reacted in the closest way to surprise that he was capable of expressing. “Are you feeling better this morning?” he asked, regarding John with a gentle look.
John’s voice was hoarse when he answered. He had thought of practicing his speech when he decided to do this, but had known that Mycroft would immediately see on one of his cameras that had been placed around the flat. “You’re watching me die,” he croaked.
Mycroft’s eyes narrowed for just a moment before his face cleared, and he shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “I wouldn’t let you die. My brother wouldn’t have wanted that.”
John nodded, expecting this answer. Not yet fully understanding why, he suddenly felt more human and more like himself than he had in nearly a year. Because he had been so determined to not think about Sherlock, he'd also missed the conclusions his subconscious had been quietly formulating for months. “You haven’t told him everything about my behavior, and he just keeps saying that I’ll pull through.”
Mycroft sighed. John could see the brief second that Mycroft considered lying flit across the elder Holmes’ face. “He has faith in your strength.”
John took several sips of tea before replying, his throat aching. “He knows of my efforts?”
“Not of the ones oriented towards becoming him.”
John nodded. He suddenly felt less like a shell and more like a man. For the briefest of moments, he wanted to be angry - at himself for not realizing sooner, at Mycroft for everything, at Sherlock… He couldn’t manage it, though. Stroking his mug, he realized that he could see bright green of the mug and the warm brown of the table for the first time since the fall.
“Will he be returning?” The hope that rose in his chest was terrifying.
“Today. The timing of your realization has been most fortuitous.”
John practically vibrated with happiness. His too-thin frame felt like it might collapse under the pleasure of finally being alive again.
“Do you wish him here?”
Panic rose like a wildfire in John’s chest. “Yes. Yes.”
For almost a year now, John had been repressing all thoughts of Sherlock, all of the things that could have earlier relieved him of his grief. He guessed he’d known all along. After all that time, all he did was mourn and miss Sherlock, but he never once wanted to die, never once wanted to give up on Sherlock coming home.
John was a doctor, and a soldier, but he was still a man. He was still a man who had lost his best friend, a man who had lost his tether to the world. Now, he might just get Sherlock back, and isn’t it just so lucky that he thinks he just might still be John so that they can be Sherlock and John. John has never felt so blessed to simply be himself.