There was an accident. He remembers that. An accident, in which something precious was broken, and its loss made the world unbearable. Then there were bright lights, and worried voices, and injections, and a long strange hazy patch of time.
Some time later a doctor—he must have been a doctor—asks him questions, questions with no point. The doctor’s face goes from concerned to shocked and angry, and then to sorrowful. He puts a hand on John’s shoulder, briefly, hesitantly. ”Perhaps it’s for the best,” he murmurs, almost to himself. ”Perhaps…perhaps I envy you.”
He remembers the doctor’s first name—an odd name like Mycroft, who could forget that? But he can’t seem to remember the last name.
It’s nothing important, so he doesn’t waste time worrying about it.
And finally John Watson is certified sane, and normal, and all right once more, and he goes back out into the wide empty world.
He has his pension, and a small flat. He searches for work sometimes, but he tends to forget appointments and nothing materializes. He watches television. He posts pictures of food to Twitter. He has no more nightmares. Accidents happen, and normal, sane people deal with them and move on. And he is moving on, until the day a he notices a strange man watching him as he walks home from getting groceries.
John sees him out of the corner of his eye first—a tall, pale man in a black overcoat on the other side of the street, who meets his eyes for an instant and then melts back into the crowd. John hardly notices him, just another of London’s teeming throng.
But then he sees the same stranger standing on another corner, looking directly at him. There is a faint look of puzzlement on his face Frowning, John ignores his regard, hoping he will take the hint and go away. He walks on, heading home through the crowd.
And then the stranger is in front of him, looking right at him, and they both try to dodge each other and choose the same direction. The stranger bangs into him and he staggers.
“Are you all right?” The man’s voice is distantly concerned, but his gaze is narrow and focused as a laser. His hands are on John’s shoulders.
“What?” John shrugs slightly, but the hands don’t budge.
“That’s what one is supposed to say when they run into someone, isn’t it?” The man seems somewhat unsure of this.
“I’m fine. I’m perfectly all right,” John says.
“No you’re not.”
John narrows his eyes. ”Do I know you?”
The man leans forward. ”Yes, that’s it, that’s the question exactly. Do you know me?”
“Why should I?”
A tilt of eyebrows, a flicker of some emotion that’s gone too fast to read. ”That’s…another good question.”
John’s discomfort is becoming too much to bear. ”Look, I said I was all right, so—”
“—You are not all right.” There’s a light in the pale eyes before him that seems close to anger. His voice is sharp, crisp, clinical as a scalpel. ”It’s obvious. Look.” He gestures at the bag John dangling from John’s hand, the scrap of paper he holds. ”You’re carrying a long grocery list, but a small bag. All the items are crossed off except milk. You forgot the milk and had to go back—forgetful? Not John Watson.”
Startled, John starts to say something, but the man talks right over him as if he doesn’t hear him. ”And from the weight and shape of the bag, you didn’t get milk, you picked up beer instead, an impulse buy. Not a good sign.” His eyes flick here and there, dissecting, analyzing. ”You have a slight limp. You shouldn’t.”
“There was an accident,” John says, a sense of unreality creeping over him at arguing with a mad stranger on a street corner. ”I got hit by a bicycle.”
“Psychosomatic.” A dismissive handwave. ”You’re wearing a dress shirt and pressed trousers. Who wears a dress shirt to go shopping at ten in the morning? People on their way home from work? But you’re not on your way home from work, those aren’t dress shoes.” He points down at John’s feet, then his eyes snap back up. ”Your clothes are creased, and there’s a stain from a ready-made cottage pie on the front. The obvious conclusion is you had a job interview yesterday and you never changed your clothes.” He reaches out and touches the collar. ”Traces of what appears to be saliva on the collar. From that and the unkempt state of your hair, I’d say you fell asleep watching television, fully dressed.” His gaze is on John’s face now, forcing eye contact, and John looks away, his heart pounding with annoyance. ”And anyone with eyes could see you haven’t been sleeping well.”
This goads John, who has been quite proud of his nightmare-free progress. ”I’m sleeping just fine.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the man barks. ”Do you never even look at yourself? It’s all right there, plain as day!” He reaches out and grabs John’s hands in his, raising them. ”You’ve been biting your nails.” Bending down, he puts his face close to John’s hands and inhales deeply. ”No soap. You haven’t washed today. And your fingers are trembling.” He looks at John and there is a strange fierce triumph in his eyes. ”Am I wrong?” he demands.
“Am I wrong?” He is waiting for John’s reaction.
And John Watson reacts the way any normal, sane person would to being accosted by a total stranger on the street: he yanks his hands away and snaps,“Piss off.”
The man recoils as though John has slapped him. His pale face goes bone-white and bloodless, eyes fixed and staring (John’s mind flinches, shudders away from the image: no).
Recovering himself, John takes that moment of inexplicable shock to push past his assailant.
“No,” says the man’s voice from behind him, clear and concise as breaking glass. ”This is not acceptable.” John starts to walk away, and the man’s voice comes again behind him: “I do not accept this.”
John hears anger in his words, and under the anger, fear.
He picks up his pace, trying to get away, but eventually, tugged by some strange compulsion, he turns around to look behind him.
The man is gone. The crowd surges around John Watson, standing alone on the pavement.
: : :
That night, the long-banished nightmare comes to him again. In it, he holds something of infinite value in his hands, something that illuminates the entire world. And it slips and falls, and shatters—
He wakes up soaked in icy sweat, hot tears streaking his face. He wakes up with his heart racing and his pulse pounding, exalted with an agony of adrenaline (and his hands, he notes distantly, are perfectly steady). He wakes up furious and terrified, with a shout locked in his throat struggling to be heard.
For the first time he can remember, John Watson wakes up alive.