London is colder this time of year.
Sherlock Holmes doesn't feel it like he used to, when it gnawed at his bones and drove him inside to warmer places. Not much feels warm anymore.
Mrs Hudson slaps him when she opens the door. He deserves that. He deserves many things.
She asks where John is.
He swallows the urge to collapse like a body without a skeleton.
He tells her he doesn't know.
"Oh, that's alright." She coos, patting his hair like he's the son she never had. "He does this a lot. Disappear for days, weeks even, and then come back like nothing happened. But he pays the rent, so it's not my lot to ask too many prying questions. I know how you both prize your privacy. Oh, he'll be so happy to see you Sherlock, he's not been himself without you. I can tell he misses you—"
She ushered him inside like he hadn't just risen from the dead after nearly four years and sat him down on her sofa while she made them some tea. But he was gone when she returned with the tray.
The door to 221B had been left open.
Sherlock stood in the middle of the sitting room.
He is home.
The flat is almost as he left it.
A newer model television that he can tell John rarely watched sits in the place of their old one. The kitchen table is a little cleaner—no, it's new too?—no, it's just bare. He stares at it in fascination. That's what it looked like underneath all his experiments? If he had known that, he'd have gotten a newer one on the spot. Burn marks pocket it like scars, stains and acid spills and god knows what lining its surface.
"I had all your equipment boxed up for you, dear." Mrs Hudson says from behind him. "They're in your room if you want to get them out. I'm sure John won't mind. They've been waiting for you, after all."
She bustles around the room for a moment before disappearing back downstairs, saying her offer of tea still stands and to get it before its cold. At the bottom of the stairs she yells up something about being careful when going into John's room, but he doesn't hear her.
The skull stares at him from the mantle.
John—or presumably Mrs Hudson—had cleaned away all of his things, yet the skull had stayed. Why?
To remind him of what he'd lost? A memento mori? A souvenir?
He'd never know. John wasn't around to ask.
Is that what John's looks like now? What do burned skeletons even look like, for that matter? The skull is made of calcium, yes, but does it burn away?
He closed his eyes.
The clinical portion of his mind, however encompassing it was, chose to announce itself at the worst possible times.
He sits in John's chair. It still smells of him. It makes something in his stomach hurt. It sends tendrils of something like pain curling through him.
There are a pile of books beside him. To think that he once thought that they were tedious things. John had touched them once. They were invaluable now. War novels, medical dictionary—
Too good to be true.
A journal. John's journal. A piece of him, something that Sherlock could hold to, something that means that he had existed when all others forgot him.
He opens it to the front page.
CAP. JOHN H. WATSON
FIFTH NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS
A war journal, then.
Some deity had smiled upon him today, someone had known that Sherlock ached over never being able to ask John so many things—who did you kill, how, what was the army like, did you kill anyone there, does it make it easier, how do you properly iron a shirt, why did you leave the skull out, what do I do if I want to bury you but there's no body (I'd want to talk to you), why did you leave when you said you wouldn't—and now, here in his hands, is John's record of his time in the army.
It starts right after his deployment, after he'd invaded.
John's writing begins in his careful lettering, all uppercase. All letters of equal importance.
It's boring at first, and Sherlock feels that he can admit that to himself. Medical supply records, grid maps of the territory, lists lists lists of what he ate, who he doctored, what supplies he'd need to order in…John's story wasn't his story at all, it was coldly clinical, like he was an observer at a crime scene, noting everything but seeing nothing. Had he always been a soldier stuck in a hospital or was it a doctor stuck on a battlefield? Sherlock couldn't tell, and so the enigma of John Watson escaped him once more.
John was working at a field hospital, that much was clear. But he hadn't seen much action. He had been—what was the term—benched? Deemed unfit, not ready for the real game?
And then it began. Sometime in March, near the end of his second tour, his story started. On his last mundane entry, he talked of needing more swabs and antiseptic and then mentioned that he would see action soon since the numbers were running a little low due to those leaving at the end of their tour.
His first day was filled with sand and heat and uneventful routine.
His second day was much more interesting.
A lot of people don't remember their first words. But I do.
His Arabic was written beautifully, such a dark calligraphy. The writing lilted off. John had left to do something else. It returned:
He had found a dictionary.
My first words. Or my first Pashto words, rather. Basic training taught me some standards of course, the universal words that hardly help at all when you're being shot at or you're tying someone back together like a ragdoll that you've torn apart. They don't help when you have a child cradled in your arms then laid under your hands and they're open beneath you like someone's twisted joke of reminding you of that frog you dissected in fifth form biology. They don't help when that child dies muttering words you don't know because all you learned where the words that didn't matter.
John's writing became harder. He had born down his pen in impotent anger.
They don't help when the child's mother runs past you and collapses at her son's side and screams 'ya bachei, ya bachei' over and over again. كرار كرار خبرې كوه , that's not going to help me; "please talk slower, I can't understand the words that you're screaming as you try to cradle your son without getting wrist deep in his intestinal tract".
These words, they don't help at all.
John. John, what did you see? What happened? A child was blown apart, his mother grieved for him, but there was something else, you saw something, something that made you forget about lists for once, something you couldn't internalise…
Sherlock continues reading.
What do you do when you have nothing to bury? The mother had another child, a girl from the looks of it, although you can't be sure when she was splattered across the walls. So now there is a mother with two children dead, and only one that she can put in the ground and another she has to clean off the walls.
Oh. It's the beginning of disillusionment, born out of boring menial tasks and flourishing in war.
Naturally John, as compassionate as he was, would feel for this woman. Naturally, he would start to wonder if it was all really worth it. If her sacrifice made truly him feel safer. His frustration at being left out initially was further aggravated by pointless bloodshed.
John liked to tell stories. That much was clear from his blog.
He talks about the Pech River, something he mentioned to Sherlock once. He talks about stitching people back together and taking them apart and closing their eyes and raising the sheet. He talks about playing in an Asadabad market with a child whose life he'd saved. He talks about the sounds the Afghani women make when they laugh and when they cry, about the snowy white mountains in the distance and the dark valleys that smell of death and old congealing blood.
This is the man that Sherlock had wanted to see, what he'd only gotten glimpses of in Bruges and Prague and Sarajevo.
John, the soldier laid bare, awed by an exotic setting and terrified by its brutality.
When he looks back up, the sun is setting.
He is hungry.
Hungry for food in the general sense, but that's not anything new. No, he's hungry for more. He wants to know more of John, he wants there to be more and there is some left, but it's not going to last long. Not at the rate he's consuming it. He feels like he did when he was staring into that box Mary gave him, when he wanted there to be more gifts from John and yet there was nothing else.
There is a noise from upstairs, a scrape of something on the wood floors. Not something falling, something—
He jumps to his feet.
John, John, I knew it, I knew you were alive, I knew you were smarter than that, you great idiot—
He bounds up the stairs. John's last note to him flutters against his chest.
PS – Forgive me for the state of 221B, and whatever surprises you may find. People do strange things when they're lonely and in love.
He flings the door open and it bangs against the wall.
"John?" A smile comes to his face. "John, I—"
The room is empty. Dust is starting to gather on the furniture.
A great black tervuren sits in front of him, looking more like a wolf than a dog. It wags its tail, tongue lolling happily at the prospect of a new friend.
Sherlock collapses against the door.
John is not here.
The dog licks at his hand.
John is not here.
The dog lays beside him, head in his lap.
John is not here.
Sherlock buries his head in his hands.
Surrounded by all of John Watson's belongings, of all the things that were once his and never will be again, Sherlock takes in a deep shaking breath.
Sherlock Holmes begins to cry.