John knows he is a survivor. Some days, it’s all he knows.
After Sherlock's death, John is labeled a stupid fool, a gullible dupe, even a suicidal widow by sensationalist media. He asserts, with bedrock certainty, that he is, and was, none of these. He will never doubt the veracity of Sherlock's genius nor will he ever dishonor his best friend’s already-tarnished legacy with more senseless tragedy.
John is, however, in peril -- a soldier without a battlefield, a doctor without a patient, an exiled adventurer drifting at sea with no North Star to guide his way.
His friends and acquaintances all ask “How are you?” with varying tones of concern. “Surviving,” he replies, never faulting anyone for posing the wrong question.
“Who are you?” is the right one, but John doesn’t know the answer.
He only knows who he used to be.
Children have a predilection for constructing forts from bed sheets, waging battles from behind swing sets and firing plastic pistols filled with make-believe ammunition.
John's childhood introduction to violence is not imaginary.
He remembers every detail: the shattering sound of his father's fist connecting with his mother; the number of steps leading to his parents’ bedroom; the heft and weight of the metal vase John carries with him. He can chart a map of the resultant ruby swirls dripping from his father’s bloodied temple, and he can taste the copper bitterness filling his own mouth after kissing his mother's wounds.
Most importantly, John recalls with perfect clarity the weight of the mantle of responsibility falling over his shoulders as he promises “Never again.”
When John is in his last month of medical school, his sister overdoses on alcohol and painkillers. Not Harry’s first dangerous indulgence, but certainly her closest call to date. John follows hospital protocol and remains outside the treatment room, watching as harried personnel work to save his sister from herself.
Once Harry is stabilized, he enters her hospital room to read her chart and check her treatment protocols. Standing at the foot of her bed, he spends a minute counting each of his sister’s abrasive, challenged breaths.
He then contacts a rehab center to arrange psychological care and inpatient status and begins the requisite paperwork to have his sister involuntarily sanctioned.
Harry may never forgive him, but she will live to hate him. John may not be the perfect brother, but he is a very good doctor.
John’s service in Afghanistan is simultaneously heaven and hell. Both soldiering and doctoring skills are fundamentally necessary given the very nature of the conflict. He shields comrades from physical harm and saves injured men from certain death.
Then he and his unit are captured.
For 11 days he is surrounded by gut-wrenching howls of pain erupting from men he is sworn to protect. For 11 days John drowns in a cacophony of human suffering with no recourse for action.
Six of the 13 captured soldiers are rescued; seven are buried.
The bullet wedged in his own shoulder is meaningless compared to the futility and self-recrimination raging through John's soul. A virulent infection spreads like wildfire throughout his body, and John is discharged from Camp Bastion to return to London.
He never knew Limbo was so centrally located.
John is delivered from stasis into the hands of the world’s most unlikely angel --Sherlock Holmes, whose razor-honed cheekbones house an equally sharp tongue, and whose lightning-quick intellect strikes begrudging admiration in some, but more frequently extreme dislike and rampant doubt in others.
Within 24 hours John is reborn. The doctor examines and diagnoses something outside his own damaged psyche. The solider fires a flawless sniper shot in his new comrade’s defense, instead of turning the same deadly weapon on himself.
“With Sherlock Holmes you see the battlefield,” Mycroft tells him at their first meeting.
He allies himself with Sherlock irrevocably.
During the Baskerville case, Sherlock calls him “a conductor of light.” The analogy is apt for their maturing partnership. The detective’s incandescent genius can be blinding, luminous to the point of near decimation. Accordingly John serves as a focusing lens and a filter, both directing his friend’s kaleidoscopic brilliance and tempering his abrasive personality.
But in his own opinion, John stands as Sherlock’s front line of defense.
As a solider, he positions himself an immovable front between his best friend and the cruelty of humanity, shielding the detective from incoming harm. John the doctor serves as Sherlock's resident medic, treating physical wounds certainly, but also dispensing unconditional acceptance and moral guidance to a madman deficient in both.
Two sides of the same coin, working in perfect symbiosis.
A dangerous jump from a fire escape (“John, is there ever a safe one?”) finds the doctor kneeling before Sherlock repairing a raw, jagged wound on the seated detective’s thigh. He carefully weaves his surgical needle through opposing edges of skin, while Sherlock explains his deductive process in the case.
“I’ll kill anyone who tries to hurt you,” John realizes, the thought scrolling ticker-tape fast across his mind’s eye, “even at the cost of my own life.”
When Sherlock’s monologue abruptly ends, John glances up to find a piercing, assessing stare aimed his way. He wonders, not for the first time, if his friend is telepathic.
From the moment of Moriarty’s first reappearance, John is filled with a sense of inevitability. He knows he misses much of the data Sherlock’s sees, but John is well trained in analyzing threats and following attack plans. He reluctantly recognizes no threat is more damning than the one the detective is facing.
He notices the considering looks Sherlock throws his way as the two men dress for the consulting criminal’s trial. John is fully aware of the many dangers surrounding their home, even before Mycroft tells him. He glimpses what can only be called regret on Sherlock’s face in the lab. He identifies the complete lack of predictability inherent within Moriarty’s insanity and understands the life and death choices challenging his best friend.
What John doesn’t know is how to change the course that lies before them.
So he remains consistent -- he stands as protector, defending Sherlock to the best of his ability; he serves as caretaker, pledging his absolute trust and faith in the genius; and then, at the journey’s tragic end, he pleads as a companion, seeking one more miracle from the best man, the most-human-human-being, he has ever known.
As a soldier, John has spent hours, even days, waiting for action in a combat zone. As a doctor, he has witnessed impossible improvement in seriously ill patients, has seen the terminally ill defeat the demands of death. Above all, John is a warrior, and he knows when to forfeit the battle, recognizes when to accept defeat.
Now is not that time.
He will never doubt Sherlock's veracity or the bottomless depths of his genius. He will never dishonor his best friend’s memory by abandoning his post or relinquishing his faith. Very simply, he believes.
Yes, John grieves. But he also believes.
So he waits.
John knows he is a survivor. Some days, it’s all he knows.