a/n: Another story, another fandom. Let's see if I can get back in the swing of things, eh?

disclaimer: Sherlock is not mine. Wish it was.


"People think they know you. They think they know how you're handling a situation. But the truth is no one knows. No one knows what happens after you leave them, when you're lying in bed or sitting over your breakfast alone and all you want to do is cry or scream. They don't know what's going on inside your head-the mind-numbing cocktail of anger and sadness and guilt. This isn't their fault. They just don't know. And so they pretend and they say you're doing great when you're really not. And this makes everyone feel better. Everybody but you."
― William H. Woodward, Jr.


Of Islands and Men

Chapter One


There was a surreality to losing someone - a sort of detached and muddled feeling that banded around his chest and squeezed. It wasn't as if he hadn't been touched by death before. He'd been to war. There had been more than one fallen comrade to pray over. He had no parents to speak of; dead for years now. Grandparents, a cousin, his good friend from primary school dying in his teens - he was no stranger to grief or the stages of grieving.

But none of it prepared him.

Not the pain of seeing his mother, still and waxy looking in an ornate box. Not the horror of holding a friend, hands slippery with his blood, as the soldier begged God and John to save his life. Not even his bloody dog Rupert getting hit by a car in front of him when he was twelve could give him an edge over this.

Nothing experienced could help harden him against the foreign, monstrous grief that gnaws on his heart like a retched beast. Nothing could even begin to scratch the surface of the aching emptiness he now felt lodged beneath his ribs.

As for those who would support him in his grief - well, there really weren't a whole lot of people he could count on. The only family he could claim was an alcoholic sister who was too wrapped up with her own demons to pay his any mind, and when she did call him, it was merely to nag. He had casual friendships, but none of any real count. And when it came down to it, he'd only ever experienced one life-defining relationship, and the end of that particular association was one he feared he'd never recover.

So for the time being, he managed on his own. Except for every Tuesday. Then he'd pay his therapist a fat hourly rate to manage for him. And when he wasn't seeing his therapist, well, she'd prescribed a few at-home attendants.

Currently, he had taken so many Xanax that he had bypassed 'calm' and ended up at 'narcotic nods.' He blinked his eyes rapidly as he caught his head again. Consciousness came in spurts, then slowly bled away with the bizarre half asleep occurrences that were normal for the highly medicated (slowed heart beat, disorientation, slight nausea, painfully lucid dreams of - ), only for him to jerk his head from it's slow descent and start the cycle over.

His mobile rang, and John Watson snapped his eyes open. He fumbled for the device, his movements sluggish despite the sting of urgency he felt. His heart held itself still in anticipation, like it was wont to do every time his phone made so much as a tentative beep, and when his eyes alit on the number that called, his heart stumbled back on track, as if it had never missed a beat, every pulse sending pain, pain, pain.

Stupid. He was so stupid to even think for one second – Fuck. He had to get it together. He glared at the name on his screen, his eyes going wobbly. It would be worse if he ignored it. She hadn't called him in weeks.

"Hel-lo?" greeted John, voice breaking mid-word. He cleared his throat, almost embarrassed, but mostly indigent at the scratchiness of his voice. He hadn't spoken much in the past few days. Didn't mean his voice had to fail him like that though.

"John?"

Utter shit. She sounded sober.

"Heyyy, Harry. It's been awhile. How are you?" He tried to sound normal, cheerful even, like she had just caught him in the middle of watching the news or in the process of making tea, and felt somewhat confident that he'd pulled it off. Either that or it was the Xanax convincing him.

Chances she'd suspect him to have been sitting on the floor staring at the wall for close to forty five minutes?

Thankfully slim (how could she possibly even begin to guess? Only someone like – ), but he still felt strangely exposed. Perhaps it was because he'd gone for so long without talking to her. Nevertheless, there were still behavioral conventions he'd adhere to when it came to dealing with his sister – words that would comfort her, keep her off his back, make her (God forbid) not drop by the flat and "check up" on him, as she had been in the habit of doing so at odd times for weeks during her last stint into sobriety. So he made sure he sounded okay, normal, like he was coping just as well as –

"…That didn't sound forced at all," she scoffed.

And sometimes Harry called when she was sober.

"It wasn't. I'm actually glad to hear from you," he said, as sincere as he could manage while not rolling his eyes. It was a childish impulse.

"Yeah right. You should know better than to think I buy that for a – "

"Harry, I'm fine," he said, talking over her words. "Did you really call to berate me? I haven't heard from you in a month and this is how you start it off?" he asked, voice firmer, losing some of the false cheer now that he realized it really was going to be one of those calls.

"Well, I had some things to take care of, but I'm here now, and that's what matters. I can tell you're not doing any better. You don't have to pretend John, and frankly I'm tired of it. I'm your sister, for God sakes, and if there was anyone for you to come to for help, it should be me."

At this point in the conversation, John does roll his eyes. What was this? A bloody intervention? Too little too late.

"Harry, it's coming up on a year. Don't you think it's a bit late to be throwing out those sodding words? Why not after I lost my job even? Why now?"

She hesitated. John realized then that it must have been the influence of all those twelve-step meetings she'd had to have gone to over the past month to be making this much effort straight out of the blue.

"Because I'm worried about you, John. Yes, it's almost been a year, but you aren't moving on. Not at all. It's like you've just stopped. And that's not my brother. I want to help you. Please let me help you. Come stay with me for a little bit. I'll help you find another job. I'll – "

He cut her off, his fingers twitching in agitation against the rough grain of the hardwood.

"Where's this coming from all of the sudden, eh? It's Sunday. Day of rest and all that rot? So give it a rest, Harry. Didn't we decide to leave the whole thing alone last time you started in on me about all this? I'm okay. The grieving process is different for everyone, and it's not abnormal for it to last well over a year. Bloody Queen Victoria was in mourning for the rest of her life. I'm fine. I'm looking for a job. So stop worrying so much and drop it," he cut in, suspecting everything he had just said would be treated more as an uninteresting side comment and less like the honest to God plea it was for her to leave him be.

"But that's just it, John. You're not okay, and it's like you don't even realize how far away from 'okay' you are. It's just – you don't know how scared I get sometimes. I just know that one day I'm going to call and you –"

Her words tripped over one another in her rush to get them out, but she hesitated then. They both knew what she was on about. Even if both never spoke it aloud. Even if she hadn't alluded to it since he lost his job (not on purpose as she had accused him. The practice found out he was that John Watson and wasn't keen to keep a madman's 'accomplise' around the patients. He couldn't be pissed to try to find another one as long as he still had money to pay the rent).

"I'm afraid you won't answer," she plucked up, words tapering off with all the quiet aplomb of a man about to be hanged. Sod his bloody sister.

He didn't acknowledge her fear, taking a small moment for himself to relish the prophetic irony of his silence, perhaps unfairly so. Still, despite his penchant for twisting theses conversations with his own morbid sense of cynical symbolism, he really had no answer to give her, and even if he did, part of him felt like he wouldn't. Pointless. Pointless and redundant. Most everything was these days. And these round-about rows with his sister were just so –

Boring.

John winced. Every now and then, words and phrases and bloody answers to questions he'd barely begun to ask himself would just pop into his head, all said in his voice. There was nothing for it. He'd tried to make it stop. The words still came. So he accepted it, and thanked his ghosts, before shoving them firmly to the depths of his mind yet again.

Harry sighed, and it sounded sad. Disappointed in him sad. Like he was being deliberately obtuse (he was) or like a mother would sigh at a naughty child. It grated.

"John . . ."

"Harry, I'm fine." He repeated the statement, voice softer, eyebrows scrunching against her tone, yet remaining resolute. He never liked that tone. It reminded him too much of childhood.

"Stop lying, John. If not to me, then at least stop lying to yourself."

I stopped lying to myself a long time ago, Harry. You, on the other hand...

"Hmm," he made the noise in the spirit of tepid disagreement and wished for the conversation to be over.

The sound of his sister's sigh stretched across the line, and the silence that followed was probably more uncomfortable for her than it was for him. She was the one to break it.

"I'll drop it for now. But – no, okay, I'll drop it. It's – It's fine. All fine. I just worry about you sometimes, and I know I've been out of touch for a few weeks, well, I was just worried, and I was probably just a bit – ah, rough about it. I just want you to be better," said Harry.

"I want to be better, Harry. But these things take time. I'm not great, but I'm better than I was almost a year ago. Don't worry so much. It just takes time. A few more months and I'll be better than I am now. Gainfully employed even," promised John, the lie falling from his lips like cake crumbs and just as uncomfortable to lay in.

It was for her own good. It made her feel better. He didn't want to hear it – the reasons varied. There was nothing wrong with keeping his sister away from this though. If nothing else he owed her that. She was the only one besides Mrs. Hudson that even bothered with him anymore on anything that resembled a consistent basis.

Harry laughed, then teased, "You can't fool a Watson, Watson. You're enjoying the extended holiday. Slug."

John indulged her with a chuckle. He ignored the sharp twist in his chest.

"You still going to your appointments?" asked Harry, hitching the intonation of her question in a way that made John wonder if she'd stubbed her toe or something but kept talking through it.

"Sure. Got to get out of the flat sometimes," said John in easy agreement.

"How did it go this week?"

John grimaced and lifted himself from the floor where he had been sitting and contemplating the brand new bullet hole in the wall during most of the conversation. Thank God Mrs. Hudson was out for the weekend. He shook his bad leg, trying to regain the feeling from where it had gone numb.

"Prescribed me another pill," he murmured, giving his leg one final shake before testing his weight. As expected, a little stiff from being in one position too long, but it didn't seize up on him and cause him to fall. It was an improvement over yesterday then.

"Not again. What did the bloody twit give you this time?"

"Xanax," said John. He pushed the bathroom door open.

"Xanax? What – . . . anxiety?"

"Something like that."

"... not panic attacks?"

John smirked at his reflection in the medicine cabinet. "Could be."

"Oh, Christ, it is then."

"Only minor," he conceded (lied), opening the cabinet. He didn't really have panic attacks, nor did he have anxiety that went above the norm. He just liked the pills and had a script happy therapist. But what his sister didn't know... "It's a recent addition to the cast of ailments I've been collecting."

He frowned, noticing for the first time the band-aid stuck to the back of the cabinet door. He hadn't put it there. It was discolored, like it had been there for ages. Funny. He'd never really noticed. Wonder who – John stopped the inner inquiry in its tracks. He didn't need to know.

"I'm not surprised. With your PTSD and – well, you know, all that's happened over the past year, that sort of stuff can pop up. Just don't drink on those pills, okay? It'll make you sick." warned Harry.

John snorted, his eyes roving over different sized pill bottles on the first and middle shelves, distracted, mind not entirely on the conversation, and therefore, not on his answer. "I'm sure you'd know."

Silence. Awkward, stretching like a line of chewed gum, silence.

Jesus now he'd gone and hurt her feelings. He rubbed his face with one hand, the other holding the phone away from his mouth, groaning as soft as he could while still managing a satisfyingly aggravated wail, if only for the base sort of pleasure found in the act. He brought the phone back to his ear.

"...Harry, I'm sorry, you know I didn't - "

"Yeah, yeah, you great tosser. I know you didn't. It's fine, really. I don't care. It's not like I haven't been on the receiving end of your snark before. Just watch out with all those pills, okay? How many does she have you -"

"This is just the fourth one," interrupted John, relieved to have scraped by with that one, yet understanding enough of his sister to know that she was upset. It wasn't in his nature to be so caustic to Harry, and even if it wasn't wholly appreciated, she was simply trying to help. It was merely good form to not throw her past mistakes in her face when she riled him up, even absentmindedly, and that was something he needed to remind himself. Before he answered the phone.

"Fourth? Damn, John. You never used to be on anything."

"Yeah, well, things change, don't they?" he said, tone a little harsh. She ignored it.

"Fuck all if that isn't the truth. One's a sleeping pill, right?"

He looked at the neat row of unopened and identical pill bottles on the very top shelf and felt the slight pinch of anger drain upon the sight. There were six of them altogether.

"Riight," he drawled.

"So you're still having trouble sleeping then. You've been on them for months now. Of all the pills you could nix out of your daily regiment -"

"Bit hard to sleep without them," he grumbled, considering the top shelf of the medicine cabinet like Mrs. Hudson might one of her gossip rags, eyes fervent. Really, it would be harder to sleep if they weren't there. He wasn't lying.

"And you need them every night?" Harry prodded, skeptical.

"Yeah," said John. A simple acknowledgment – not what she would be fishing for. He heard her pause, and figured she would say something other than what she initially wanted.

"Just be careful with them, okay?"

He shut the medicine cabinet, once again eye to eye with himself. Careful. She wanted him to be careful. He didn't look too careful right now – not with the way his mouth was set. He looked angry, even if he wasn't. And he looked . . . haggard. The bruises under his eyes reminded him of when he was a resident - went 57 hours without sleep once, and he sort of looked like this at the end of it. Hair unkempt, along with his dress – frumpy, too big, wrinkled. He'd lost a stone or more. This was not the face of a careful man.

"John?"

His eyes narrowed themselves at his reflection.

"You know, Harry, there's a reason no one ever addresses me as 'Mr.' Watson. I'm pretty sure I've got this handled."

He flicked the light switch off to the bathroom and turned back to the living room.

"Whatever, you cheeky prat. Just keep in touch with me, okay? I hate always being the one to call and never being the one called."

"Funny, I could say the opposite."

"Oh, I've noticed. Hard not too," she laughed.

"Hm." His attention was diverted – eyes lingering, considering, on the new bullet hole in the wall – the only one he'd ever put in poor Mrs. Hudson's nouveau-Gothic wallpaper himself. His attention drifted with alarming frequency these days. Sometimes he'd notice, sometimes not.

Another sigh, this one loud and jarring in a way that made him blink. She did that a lot over the phone.

"I can tell I'm not going to get anywhere else with you. I'll let you off here. Just promise me you'll at least eat dinner tonight. A healthy one. Nothing too greasy or artery clogging."

"I promise you I'll eat dinner tonight," John parroted back. His eyes darted to the Browning on the table by their own accord.

Definitely wouldn't clog any arteries. Not sure how healthy it would be.

His black humor provided the mental image, and he couldn't help but chuckle.

"Somehow I don't believe you," commented Harry before she wheedled the usual assurances out of him and left him to his peace.

Well. He wasn't going to be doing anything tonight. Not after that phone call. Great timing, his sister.

Since there was nothing for it, John settled himself onto the couch, easily locating the remote between the arm and a cushion. His plan was to spend the rest of the evening flipping through crap telly before succumbing to the narcotic nods that would surely reappear upon his inactivity. Not how he originally thought the night would go, but if Harry was sober again...

When he remembered that Mrs. Hudson wasn't due for another weekend away anytime soon, he let his head fall back hard against the sofa, a great big whoosh of disappointment and frustration fluttering past his lips. It never was the right sodding time. He picked it up and dropped his head back down again for good measure.

He wasn't entirely sure of the name of the movie he found after a good ten minutes of mindless channel surfing, but against the odds (because, odds were, everything on the telly was crap), it managed to intrigue him.

It was about a dying man, and because this man knew for certain that his time was short, he spent the rest of the remaining months of his life crossing out bullet points on a list of things he'd always wanted to do before he died, which he had composed upon learning of his impending death. It was an American movie – the actors were familiar, and all in all it kept John interested, right up until the man's death.

"A list," John murmured.

He settled himself back into the couch from where he'd been crouched on the edge, his attention dissipating with the credits, and his mind a contemplative whirl.

Silly idea had merit.

His eyes drifted back to the gun on the side table, out for anyone to see. Of course, only Mrs. Hudson would set foot in the flat these days, and even that was infrequent. People mostly let him keep to himself, and barring that one visit from Mycroft (He came for tea and offered him a job as a physician on his staff about six or seven weeks ago. He'd declined), he hadn't seen anyone he really knew besides Harry in months. Nevertheless, John would rather be by himself and felt he had enough meddlers in his life without inviting any more.

Despite himself, John found a notebook easily enough in the bookcase. He ignored any writings (this wasn't his notebook) and flipped to the very back, tearing out a fresh page, and then putting the notebook back where he found it, wedged between a hefty book and what looked like a jar of dried mill worms that had been on the bookcase as long as John had been there.

He sat at the kitchen table, part of him regarding the acid mark etched into the wood with a pang of bittersweet nostalgia (he could recall with burning clarity the morning it happened), and picked up a pen (they were always where he left them now).

1.

He stared at the number he had written – blank.

"This'll be an easy one to finish," he said aloud to himself, letting the words echo in the flat. No one commented. Not even in his head.

Crushing. John felt the silence as he would a physical thing, and it was crushing him as if Sisyphus had dropped his boulder from the heavens right onto John's head. He couldn't breath, and he hated himself. He hated himself for almost expecting someone to say something back.

John set the pen and paper aside, leaving it and the scarred table. Maybe if he slept on it, he could think of something, but right now he felt too wrung out to do much more than fall into his bed and pray he didn't dream.

He climbed the stairs (he hadn't expected to tonight), heart roiling as if it itself was full of acid, burning patterns and leaving scars on his insides that no one could see, but he could feel.