"the pain of war cannot exceed
the woe of aftermath"
Soldiers can never wash the blood off their hands, and John knows this, so he has stopped trying. He stopped a long time ago, when his best friend threw himself off a roof and John knew with absolute certainty, knew as he gripped at Sherlock's sleeve, that he would never get this blood off.
He sat in the shower that night, fully clothed, trembling under scalding water. It still felt cold and he still shook, no matter how high he turned the faucet or how much steam billowed around him. He kept hearing the crunch of bones that he knew he didn't see, kept seeing those bright blue eyes staring into a sky painted the same colour, unmoving, unfeeling. Just…staring.
If someone were to ask John what he did the month or so after the incident (he refuses to name it), he wouldn't be able to answer because he doesn't remember. He remembers waking and bathing and eating and working, but nothing else. His memories of then are static, white noise. He was on the wrong frequency and everyone else was on the right one, ignorant of his desperate, inaccurate lunges to claw his way back in. Everything he tried was wrong, everything he said was wrong, everything he did was wrong, so eventually he stopped. He stopped trying and accepted his fate. What else could he do?
Harry stopped calling first. Then Lestrade. Then Molly. Lovely Molly. So kind and nice, so undeserving of his cold brush-offs, of his half-hearted apologies. He knew Lestrade meant well, knew that Lestrade was just as confused and stunned by Sherlock's death as he was. But Lestrade had not cared for Sherlock like John did. Sherlock had been a commodity to him, just an asset really, not that vital factor that sent John's very blood rushing through his veins. Not the breath in his lungs. Not the pounding of his heart. Sherlock had only ever been that to John.
His blood had turned stagnant, like standing water, coagulating into a thick gruel in his arms, lungs, chest, heart, head, brain, fucking everywhere, anywhere it could get, ceasing to move the moment Sherlock plummeted off that rooftop.
He felt like he was about to get sick at any moment, like someone had punched him in the stomach, like some unknown force had shoved its hand down his throat and it was choking him with darkness, with an inky heaviness, and he was dry heaving shadows.
He woke up most nights, screaming, sweating, crying. Usually some combination. Sometimes all.
That first week afterwards he would stumble out of bed and vomit into the sink. The first few days afterwards he hadn't made it to the sink.
A month in, he had nearly been hit by a car as he crossed the street before it swerved and avoided him. He found himself wishing that it hadn't.
Five months in and he very nearly had developed a drinking problem. It had started with one finger of whiskey, just to help him sleep. As the weeks passed, one finger had turned into three, then four, and finally, once he had drunkenly stumbled into Sherlock's untouched room on mistake, thinking it to be his own, did he collapse into angry tears, toss the bottle away, and promptly fall asleep in the doorway to his dead flatmate's room, tear tracks staining his face.
A year in, he had taken one too many sleeping pills and awoken to a punch in the face from a frantic Lestrade and a sobbing Mrs. Hudson. He hadn't understood their grief. He was John. Just John. Not Sherlock. He didn't deserve their worry or their pity. Why did they care for him, when he wasn't Sherlock? When Sherlock wasn't there to validate his usefulness?
Lestrade still stopped by sometimes. That always puzzled John, since Sherlock wasn't there to answer his questions. He even asked John to come to a few crime scenes, but the lack of a swirling black coat barking orders and insults had made John kneel over and vomit, which Lestrade had kindly attributed to the gory body before him although they both knew otherwise.
And so John Watson turned away from the world.
Sherlock Holmes had not been the only one to die that day. Even though he hadn't meant to, even though it was the last thing he wanted, he had managed to take John with him.
Donovan had been right.
Sherlock Holmes finally had a body count.
The first time it happened, it was an accident. Or John told himself that it was an accident, but some deeper, unacknowledged voice in him quietly whispered at night that it might have been on purpose.
It was on Christmas Eve, and, since John had no one to celebrate it with, he had found himself working the night shift at the medical centre. Mrs. Hudson had offered a cracker and eggnog, but he had politely refused her, just as he had refused Lestrade's invitation of dinner at the detective inspector's home. They were good people, good friends, but John didn't need any of that right now. He didn't need to be reminded of just how acutely alone he was.
He always found it odd that people thought nothing bad ever happened on Christmas. He found it odd that they thought that muggers and thieves and murders would look at their calendars and say 'Oh, well it's Christmas Eve, never mind, I'll just kill you tomorrow'. Of course there was still violence and abuse and blood spilt on Christmas, just as there was every other day. John might even wager that there were more incident reports on Christmas than any other day.
So it didn't surprise him when the local hospitals called after being swarmed with E.R. patients and asked him if the clinic was willing to work as a temporary base. And it was no surprise when John, one of the few trauma doctors around, was assigned to handle the severe cases. He was the best equipped after all.
This man that was bleeding out before him was no different. It was a mugging gone bad scenario, except it was the mugger that lay before him, violently bleeding from a curving cut to his leg, right to the femoral artery, probably even nicking the profunda. People lost their morality when it was fight or die. When backed into a corner, humans were just as capable of desperate wildness as any other animal. But this cut, this slice across the mugger's leg, it was too calculated. The person who did it was either involved in medicine or had some semblance of trauma experience to know that they had one shot to get away, and that this wound was their best shot, even if it was often fatal. The cut seemed to be almost ten minutes old, so this man was half-dead by the time he was wheeled in. There wasn't much time.
John peeled off the already soaked through bandages and reapplied new ones as he propped the man's leg up. He toyed with the idea of a tourniquet for a brief moment, yet the risk of necrotic tissue outweighed the situation. He finally settled on a hemostatic agent when the man began to talk.
"I knew this would kill me."
"You're going into shock." John said calmly. Seeing the blood bloom underneath crisp white bandages seemed to soothe him. "You might want to save your energy."
"I killed a kid once." The man admitted through clenched teeth. His whole body had broken into a cold sweat as he shook.
"I'm not a priest; telling me that isn't going to do you any good, at least in this life."
"He was eleven. I used to knock his mum around, and he tried to stop me. So I went into his room one night and I smothered him with his pillow."
John stopped, about to uncap the agent, about to apply it to a mugger-murderer trauma victim and save his life.
"You don't want to save someone like me." The man said, the tremors racking his body. "I'm not going to stop. I know I'm not. Don't save me. I'm not worth it."
He died with that condemnation on his tongue, he died with John standing there dumbly, clutching that uncapped, unused hemostatic agent.
John put the cap back on. Called the morgue to send someone up and get the body. Called a cleaning crew to mop up the blood. Washed his hands. Watched the blood sluice off his palms and dye the water a pale red before disappearing down the drain.
It was an accident, John would tell himself later. Just an accident.
The second time, it wasn't an accident. There was no way John could fool himself into thinking it was.
He thought he was a better man than bribes, he really did. But after that first month, after that period of observed grief, Mrs Hudson had come to him and quietly, carefully asked when he was going to pay the rent. She had said there was no rush, no rush at all, that she'd understand if he was a little late, but after a month he knew she couldn't wait forever. Paying for a flat was easier with two people than with one, and now there was just one. Only one. How appropriate was it, that the cost of rent was how he and Sherlock met, and that was how he would try and forget him. But he didn't want to. He didn't want someone else in Sherlock's room, he didn't want another Sherlock because of the simple fact that there would never be another Sherlock.
But he was in no position to ensure that forever. So he made sure he could for the time being.
He was no Kevorkian, but he knew a terminal case when he saw it, and the family that sat on that plain sofa in front of him would have to pay, would have to deal with years of repaying their bills and debts to prolong something he could end for them now.
So he did. He didn't tell them, but he did, going into the room quietly at two in the morning for a routine check-up and coming out of the room at two-thirty with the news. He had expected grief or tears or even suspicion, but all he saw was relief. They both, he and this family, wanted the same thing, and now they had it.
Later, the son took him aside and asked him about it, and John didn't lie. He wasn't the lying type, not when he was outside Sherlock's sphere of influence. And that sphere was shrinking every day. The son appreciated the truth, so John told him, and he was rewarded. That surprised him, because he hadn't wanted a reward, he hadn't done it expecting payment. He did it to offer that family solace and comfort in something that was slowly killing them. He was ripping the bandage off so the wound could breathe and not lie in its dormant, saturated, wrinkled state.
He didn't have any options, and so he took the one that he was offered.
The third time, he even may have enjoyed it. It was the same feeling as putting your bare feet on the cold floor, but now he has slippers on. When the thought first came to him, John thought it was stupid, but now he feels that it was appropriate in the simplest terms. He doesn't feel shocked by it anymore. He doesn't feel anything about it anymore.
John was a soldier first and a human next, to put it bluntly. Death was not a foreign idea to him that he pondered at night. Death was his enemy, his friend, his companion, his constant reminder. He had seen it as instantly as men catching bullets in the neck, he had seen it as prolonged as cancer, he had seen slow, bloody deaths and he had seen quick, clean ones. Death was beautiful in its fury, in its unceasing ability to bring the strongest to their knees and the weakest to their feet. Nothing about it was new to him. Nothing about it shocked him anymore. Everyone died, everyone, even people that believe they are infallible.
John had learned his lesson.
No one was immortal, and no one could escape Death. Even Sherlock Holmes.
The third time, he didn't like to think back on it. It was as if he were trying to remember what it was like to be a newborn peering into his mother eyes. Everything about it was dark and bloody and viciously bright and beautiful.
The third time, it had been an accident and on purpose and enjoyable, all at once. He never told anyone, he wouldn't ever tell anyone what had truly happened. All they needed to know was that there was a body and John Watson had put it there.
He remembered his phone ringing and he had scrambled a bloodied hand into his pocket to answer the unknown number.
After that blood and darkness, John stepped into the light.
The third time, John was reborn.
And so John Watson returned to the world.
He knew better than to talk in the Diogenes Club. He learned his lesson on his first visit.
This time, he had come to Mycroft. He had not been taken or 'kidnapped' or talked into walking into that waiting black car. He had come, of his own free will, to see the remaining Holmes brother.
Mycroft was, unsurprisingly, expecting him.
He looked up as John came in, eyes sweeping over him and collecting whatever data that was useful to him, knowing John's circumstances, his motives for coming, and his future the moment he sat down.
"Did you come here expecting my protection?" Mycroft asked, his tone slightly irritated as always, as if John had interrupted him while he was busy with something far more important.
"No," John answered curtly, "I came here to warn you."
John could now count himself among the ranks of the rare few people on the earth who could say they had seen Mycroft Holmes surprised. Yet Mycroft did not prod further. He was curious.
"I know that you know what's happened to me. I know that you know that I'm going to agree to their terms." John continued lowly. "You can protect me like Sherlock would want, or you can try to stop me like Sherlock might want, but don't get in my way."
"If you're going rogue, you know the rules already, I'm sure. No collateral damage or I get involved. No non-combatants or I get involved. I don't know how much liberty you were given in Afghanistan, and I don't know how much you used it if you were, but you cannot breach civilian lines."
"I know. I don't plan to. I'm meant to follow orders, Mycroft. I'm sure you realised that."
"I'll be watching you, John."
Mycroft eyed his phone, weighing the benefits of calling his dearly departed brother to inform him, before deciding that, as Sherlock had cut himself out of John's life, he had no claims on the need to know what John was planning to do now that he was gone.
John Watson was now, finally and terribly, of great interest to Mycroft Holmes.