Everybody has a box in their head, a little thing all full of dust. If you close your eyes, you can almost see it. Almost. But it presses up against the boundaries of your skull – presses, presses – and then it shrinks down to a sliver of a sliver, too small to capture with the eyes. It's round and square and black and white and it is always, always, always there. And that's where all the Bad Things go.
Take a deep breath.
With your fingers, reach back into the recesses and corners of your memory, into the thick swirling fog that your nightmares inhabit, prowling like shadowy beasts beneath your bed. The box is there. You can feel its edges (cold, sharp, metallic, hard), taste its coppery sting with your tongue. But you don't lift the lid, that heavy lid. When that box opens, it's only because something goes inside. You never open it just to take a look. And when you think about its contents, it's a memory of a memory, a dream of a dream, nothing else, never more.
You and me and everyone in the world, we've all got this box, even if we don't acknowledge it, and it serves the same purpose for us all. It's a scale, a weighing place, a measurement of life.
This is how it works:
When something hurts, it goes inside the box, fills up a little corner in its hungry belly. As the days and months and years go on, the box gets fuller and fuller. The little barbs that nick our skin gather and build up, into mountains of thorns that stretch down, down, down into the dark. And this box, like all boxes, real or imagined, has a limit to its size, a limit to the things it can consume. What do you think happens when that threshold is passed? What do you think people do when the pressure blows and the lid goes flying off?
It's not too hard to guess.
Well everybody has a box and John Watson is part of everybody. Maybe Sherlock isn't (he's so often the exception) but John Watson is and he has one just the same. The only difference between us and John, though, is that his box exists in real life.
It's a shoebox and it sits in the drawer of his nightstand, right next to his gun. These are the only two things he has left of Afghanistan, the box and the gun, and he seldom thinks of one without the other. They are forever tied, forever partners in crime, each the inverse of the other – Afghanistan was full of guns and the box is full of Afghanistan just to start.
It used to be the container for the things he got from home, the letters and pictures and newspaper clippings. Then Harry wrote that she and Clara were getting a divorce and he had tossed everything out in a fit of anger. That was the real start of things. That was when the box's meaning changed. But it wasn't until he got home that he started collecting.
His reasoning was logical. When he treated a patient, the amount of supplies he had to use was an indicator of the likelihood of their survival. If he used up a certain amount of gauze, a certain number of drugs and syringe needles, the cause was lost, the patient was basically dead. That amount of supplies just about filled a shoebox, the shoebox he brought back with him when it was finally time to go. When he was diagnosed with PTSD, he merely applied that logic to himself – with every empty pill bottle, every razor he dulled cutting his arms and thighs, every roll of gauze he used patching himself up, he filled the box. If it ever filled up all the way, then that was it. John would give up.
The reasoning was logical, the reason, not so much. It was a feeling that had burrowed itself deeply inside of his chest some time ago, back before things had gotten so mixed up. It was a hopelessness, a desperation, a gnawing at the heart that begged and pleaded for relief. This feeling was a special condition that had bloomed the first time he saw CPR fail to save a life.
The doctor had been young, desperate, screaming and crying and pumping his hands into the dying man's chest, even as the ribs snapped and the skin began to chill. John had to tear him away, had to hold him back as the nurses called the time of death and closed those glassy eyes.
"He's not dead!" the doctor had yelled as he thrashed in John's arms. "I can save him! He's not dead!"
Not like that, John told himself as he filled his little box for the first time. I won't go out like that, clinging to what's already lost. I will go with dignity and strength. I will go on my own terms.
So he gathers and gathers and gathers in that box by his gun in the drawer by his bed and if it ever gets too full to close, he promises himself, he will take his gun and fire one last shot.
Then, one day, it does.
It's been a month since the business with Moriarty at the pool. Things had been better before that. Not good, but better. The nightmares had become less frequent, the sudden panic attacks in the supermarket less violent and pronounced. Sometimes he went full days without wishing he was dead.
This was likely due to Sherlock's influence. He kept John's mind off the box and all that it entailed, kept it directed at problems and people and Sherlock himself. His limp was gone, he smiled more often, he felt an easiness in his chest that reminded him of home.
And yet. And yet.
Moriarty was the trigger. It wasn't being kidnapped or strapped to a bomb or nearly blown to pieces, no. John had proven time and time again that stress wasn't the thing that made him crack. What started everything again was Moriarty, the way he so easily and flawlessly reached out to snap Sherlock in two, to put such an un-Sherlock-like expression on his face.
Sherlock the genius, Sherlock the invincible, Sherlock who needed nothing and nobody in his life.
Sherlock who had panicked when John was in trouble. Sherlock who had cared.
John sits on the bed and watches his left hand trembling as he remembers. Moriarty's voice floods over him, gleeful and cruel, whispering in his ear exactly what words to say. Beneath that is Sherlock, laying in the hospital bed, eyes finally flickering and squinting against the light.
"John," was the first thing he had rasped. "Is John all right?"
"I'm here," John had said. "I'm fine."
And then Sherlock had smiled.
John stands up and walks into the bathroom. He turns on the light, shuts the door, and pulls the razor out of the cabinet behind the mirror.
It hurts the same as always, in a way that's just sharp enough to mask the duller, deeper pain. The blood wells up and sits for a moment before it begins its sluggish crawl, down, down his pale skin to drip into the sink. For a while, he stands and watches as it bleeds, watches the red sticking to the porcelain and gathering in the drain. There is something transfixing and enchanting about watching yourself die.
Then John turns on the faucet and washes the blood away, gets out the first aid kit and dabs disinfectant on the wound. He wraps a bandage round his wrist and covers it with his jumper's sleeve. He gathers up the trash – the cotton balls he used, the bandage wrappings – and takes them back into his room. He opens up the box and puts them inside. He closes the lid and –
John freezes. Again, he tries to force it closed, to shut the things inside away. But he can't. It's time. The box is full; the lid won't shut.
"Oh," he thinks. "Oh."
And then for a minute he can think of absolutely nothing at all.
"Is it full, then?"
John jerks his head up to find Sherlock standing in the doorway. The sight of him alone is foreign – he almost never comes upstairs – but there he is at exactly the wrong time.
"What?" John asks, at last registering Sherlock's words.
"That box of yours," Sherlock says with a gesture to the thing in John's lap. "It's been getting full."
At first John is furious with Sherlock for knowing, but then he turns his anger on himself, for believing he could hide something from Sherlock who delights in learning the secrets people want him to know the least.
"Yes," he says at last. "It's full."
"I suppose you'll need a new one, then."
"No. Can't replace this one. It doesn't work like that."
In two long strides, Sherlock crosses the room and takes the box from John's hands. Before he can make any protest other than a choked cry, Sherlock has opened it up and dumped its contents in the wastebasket by the door.
"There," Sherlock says. "Problem solved." He tosses the box back to a stony-faced John. "Now come downstairs and help me move the furniture. I need the floor space for an experiment."
He turns and leaves and John stares numbly down at the box in his hands, unsure of what the feeling growing in his stomach is. It stings and it throbs and it boils in ways he has never felt. But what can he do? Slowly, he stands. He puts the box back in the drawer by his gun and goes downstairs to help Sherlock do something dangerous and inadvisable.
"Do you know what was in that box?" he asks as Sherlock draws in chalk on the hardwood floor.
"Trophies," Sherlock says. "Or something like it, anyway. I suspect it's what you keep as continual proof that you're alive. Am I right?"
"Yes," John says.
Later, when he takes the bandage off and puts it in the now empty box, the strange and painful feeling returns. He stares down at the fabric stained brown with his blood and is struck by the sudden realization of what it is.
It's happiness. Happiness and relief.
"Leave it to Sherlock," he thinks, "to be so right, and still so very wrong."
Because the box isn't proof that you're alive. It's proof that you will someday die. When you empty the box, when you let go of all the little barbs and bits of crumbled dreams, when you open up your mouth and sigh away the dusty dark, that's the proof that you're not dead. That's the proof that you're still living.
And that's what the box is really for.
A/N: Wrote this for a prompt on the lj meme a while ago. A year maybe? Idk, it was before series two had been released (hence the discrepancies about what happened at the pool). I'm not a huge fan of it, but I really like the ending so I thought I'd put it up here anyway. Sherlock's such an easy fandom to write angst for. I feel a bit melodramatic, though. Sorry.
Please review and let me know what you think.