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hours before midnight

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John never goes to the morgue. He goes back to 221B and takes a long shower. When he brushes his teeth, he looks at the strands of black hair on the bathroom counter.

He sends a text to Sherlock before he goes to sleep: How did you do it?

In the morning, John opens his eyes and checks his phone for a reply. There is none.

_____

Sherlock’s funeral is on a Monday.

John stands with his hands behind his back and looks straight ahead.

When he delivers the eulogy, he talks about how Sherlock was a great man. He talks about how Sherlock was a genius who could deduce entire worlds from just a moment’s glance.

There are reporters at the cemetery gate. A photographer’s flash from a distance.

John carries on until his voice gives out. Then he steps away from the podium, his back straight.

_____

John doesn’t touch any of the messes that Sherlock’s left behind. He doesn’t straighten the piles of papers on the desk, the violin across the open box on the armchair. He eats one meal a day, picks up general Tso’s or tandoori masala on the way home from the hospital because there’s no room for frozen vegetables next to the slices of brain.

Every day he opens the door and expects Sherlock to be sitting in the armchair, ready to impress John with how he faked his own death. John will be so relieved that he won’t be able to feel angry. He wants to tell Sherlock this, to come home and everything will be forgiven, but there’s no way to reach him.

Every day he stands at the bottom of the stairs, he looks up. If he closes his eyes and listens hard, he can trick himself into thinking he hears violin strings, a tragedy composed in silence.

_____

He asks for more hours at St. Bartholomew's. Sarah tilts her head at him and says, “Maybe you should take some time off. Get out of London for a bit?”

“I have nowhere to go,” John says.

“Are you sure that being here is really what you want right now?”

“I know you have a shortage in the A&E,” John replies, “I can pick up on the late shift.”

“John.”

“Did Julian want the late shifts? I heard him last week talking about adding to his schedule. I can be on call on the weekends too—“

“John,” Sarah says and she looks at him. She sounds like pity and John wants none of it. “I’m giving you a week’s off.”

_____

This is the truth: Harry wants him to come home for a bit. She sends him texts about how she’s discovered a new brand of biscuits that are absolutely divine and how she’s been trying a new courgette recipe which she thinks is revolutionary. She leaves voicemails about how she bought his favorite television shows and how the library around the corner from her flat is having a sale on used books.

This is the truth: John spends the first day of his vacation sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of Darjeeling. There are unwashed forks in the sink and it smells like banana peels in the kitchen. Some fruit flies have settled on the petri dish covers. The substance in the dish has long evaporated, leaving behind a dry cracked brown.

When Mrs. Hudson comes up the stairs she says, “Still here today? Did you take some time off? I’m glad John, it’ll be good for you.”

John holds the cup of tea in his lap and stares at the mess of unfinished experiment on the kitchen table.

Mrs. Hudson washes the forks. She takes out the rubbish. When she opens the fridge, the stench of decomposed flesh rolls out.

“Dear, did you forget these were here?” she asks.

She finds a large bag and clears out the vegetable bin. John has half a mind to protest, to tell her that Sherlock will be angry that he’s going to have to restock.

It isn’t until Mrs. Hudson starts to sort through the papers on the living room desk that he speaks, “Don’t.”

“Isn’t it about time we cleaned this place up a little?”

“Don’t,” John insists, setting the tea on the kitchen table and standing up. He realizes that he’s only wearing a bathrobe, but steps towards her anyway, “Don’t. He’ll know if his things have been touched.”

Mrs. Hudson looks at him for a long moment. And then she says, “John.”

This is the truth: John cannot leave London because the best part of his day is standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up and deluding himself for a moment.

_____

He has a new route to and from work, one that entirely avoids the corner where Sherlock jumped. It takes him an extra four minutes to exit from the south entrance because he works in the north wing.

On the second day of his vacation, John sits in the cafeteria of St. Bart’s. Sarah notices him as she picks up her lunch and sits across from him.

“I gave you time off,” she says by way of greeting. John has been tapping at his salad with his fork for the last half hour.

She sighs, “Shall I put you on the schedule this week?”

_____

Lestrade phones him two weeks later.

John shows up at Scotland Yard. He doesn’t look at Donovan when she signs him in and doesn’t respond when she says, “Look John, I’m really sorry, I had no idea.”

He walks with his back straight, eyes fixed forward. Lestrade stands when he enters and holds out a plastic bag.

“His mobile,” Lestrade says, “His wallet.”

John takes it. His voice is a monotone. “Did you find anything incriminating?”

Lestrade says, “No,” and then, “I’m so sorry John.”

_____

The screen of the phone is cracked but it’s fully charged when John turns it on.

How did you do it? John reads. And then—

If you’re going to be on the run, it’d be better to have someone to watch your back.

Where are you?

I could help you.

Sherlock, this isn’t funny.

I’m not cleaning up the mess in the kitchen.

Come back, I promise I won’t be angry.

At least let me know you’re still alive.

Sherlock, please.

I love you.

Come back. For me.

_____

The bed no longer smells like Sherlock.

Mrs. Hudson throws away the petri dishes and microscope slides when John is away at work.

Mycroft finds time in his schedule to sort out Sherlock’s affairs. John refuses to look at him the entire time he’s there.

Lestrade tries to clear Sherlock’s name. The newspapers find a martyr in Sherlock. John skims through one article and gives up on newspapers altogether.

In the end, Sherlock’s violin is put back in its case and returned to the Holmes estate. The papers are thrown away and the desk cleared. Only his clothes remain. On particularly bad days, John crawls into the closet and sits against the wall. On most days, John smiles at his patients. Sometimes he walks with a limp.

_____

He used to dream of the Afghani sun. He used to dream of shrapnel and blood. Mortar shells detonating too close, ringing in his ears—intestines falling out from under his fingers and not enough bandages, never enough bandages.

He used to dream of heat and sand, the stink of crusted sweat, skin that came off the soles of his feet in strips when he took his boots off after weeks of fighting. He used to dream of airstrikes that came too close, the burn of infrared tracer on his bare skin.

Now he dreams of—
—the sound of Sherlock’s voice: tell everyone
—arms stretched out, beautiful martyr come to die
—swandive.

_____

It has been three months.

John must pick:
Sherlock is faking his death but he had always secretly resented the crippled army doctor for holding him back from his full potential. Sherlock is alive but he wants nothing to do with John.
Or
Sherlock is dead.

On the night that John decides, everything is already gone except for the books, the furniture, and the plates that were already in the cupboards before John arrived.

In the morning, John sweeps broken ceramic into the trash and replaces the torn books on the shelves. He has the decency to feel ashamed.

_____

On a clear day in December, a woman wearing a tattered jacket approaches him on his way home from work.

“Got change for some coffee?” she asks. A grin reveals a missing tooth.

It’s almost Christmas so John digs into his pockets for his wallet. The woman takes the note and John nods at her, moving to walk past when she says, “He’ll be in touch soon.”

John turns. “Who?”

“Thank you sir,” she says, waving the money, and she walks away.

John hurries after her, “Who says that?”

She smiles and turns the corner. When John catches up, she’s already gone.

_____

In January, John stands at the bottom of the stairs.

There is a light underneath the door at the top.