Warnings: Eventual Sherlock/John.
At the time John thought it was simply one of those standard slips left by delivering companies. A black and white, flimsy piece of paper with the printed words 'Sorry you were out when your parcel arrived. We've left it' followed by a row of dots, on which was scrawled a messy 'side alcove'. He was rifling through his post when he found it, and it brought a frown to his face; he hadn't ordered anything lately. It must belong to the lady in the apartment opposite him; their post was always getting mixed up. If it carried on he was considering writing to the postal services and telling them to get their act together.
He was too busy rolling his eyes and retrieving his cane from where he'd left it leaning against the wall to notice how strange it was that there was no company logo on the note.
The sound of rain hitting the windows started up as he limped across the hall to knock on Diane's door, and he bit his lip – whatever her package was, it was going to get very soggy if she didn't open up. He waited for two minutes and then knocked again, three sharp raps, but got no answer; she must be out. Great. He could hardly leave it out there to get wet when he'd known about it all along.
He sighed and limped outside, fuming – Sherlock would have laughed at him and called him soft-hearted, getting soaked because he couldn't bring himself to be rude.
A small smile crossed his lips as he opened the door, despite the rain, which threw itself at him in a way he could have been described as gleeful, soaking as much of him as possible and blowing into his face. Thinking of Sherlock hurt, but it was also…nice. To know that the man had existed at one point; had been in his life.
How long had it been now? Three years? Thereabouts. It felt like longer; his new flat had become almost like home. Not quite the same, but he'd grown accustomed to the fact things wouldn't go back to the way before what he referred to in his head simply as 'It'. Those times were gone. He accepted it, even if he didn't like it as much as he might pretend when people asked him how he was doing.
The alcove around the side of the building was a small indentation in the wall that would have been used to put the family bins if the large house hadn't been turned into apartments. As it was they had far too many bins to fit, what with two people living on each floor, and so the rubbish went out front and the alcove remained empty. Unless delivery men spotted it and thought it'd be a good place to put parcels so they didn't have to come back later.
The box came into view as he stumped around the corner of the house, thrusting the note quickly into his pocket. The rain lashed against his jacket and made the bottoms of his too-long trousers sodden. Damn rain. Damn package. Damn the fact he had no-one to help him carry it in.
He blinked water out of his eyes as he tucked his stick under his arm and knelt to examine the box. It was large, about two metres across and a metre tall, big enough to protrude from the overhang of the alcove; dark rain was already beginning to spread along the exposed corners. The whole thing was wrapped around tightly with parcel tape, so he couldn't tell if there was a name on it, but he decided to bring it in anyway – that was what he'd set out to do, and he wasn't going to let a bit of rain stop him.
It was heavier than most packages – John wondered if Diane was buying new furniture – and it was too big and awkward for him to lift, but he found he could push it along the wet ground with his good foot fairly easily until he reached the entrance to the flats. The doorstep was trickier, but after a fair amount of huffing and swearing he levered it over the steps with his cane and slammed the door shut behind him. The sound of the rain faded.
He left a trail of water on the carpet in the hall, but no-one was around to see it so he didn't bother going to clean it up. He'd already brought the box in; that was enough goodwill for one day. In the end he shoved it into the corner of his flat next to the door and went to put the kettle on, humming to the soft murmur of the radio, which he had on almost all the time nowadays despite the fact he didn't listen to a word. He was just used to the sound of someone else talking, and somehow three years hadn't knocked the habit out of him.
Some of the tea slopped out of the mug and made his hand sting as he flopped down too heavily on the sofa, dropping his cane and closing his eyes, breathing deeply. Things weren't as bad as they had been, he reminded himself, taking in the smell of the apartment. Tea, aftershave and washing up liquid; the smell of a normal flat, lacking that hint of sulphur or rotting experiments 221b had seemed to have engrained in the walls. It was only after he'd left it John had realised the scent had been there all along – unpleasant, but not so bad once you got used to it.
He chuckled, took a sip of tea and reached for the stack of paperwork he'd left on the coffee table last night and managed to forget about. Sarah had been good enough to let him come back to work part-time a few weeks ago, and he didn't want to make a bad impression by not getting things done so early in the game. Besides, he needed the money. This flat was further out of the city, cheaper, but the fact he couldn't stand the thought of getting another flatmate wasn't helping his financial situation. He wasn't struggling, per-se, but he could do with the extra cash, not to mention the distraction.
The pen didn't work, so he heaved himself to his feet and limped to the pot by the telephone to get another. He was halfway there when he heard it – a shuffling noise, like an animal scuttling around. He stopped, tightening his grip on his cane, listening carefully, but the sound had vanished as quickly as it had started; he heard nothing but the whispering of the radio.
That was what it must have been then; perhaps some static coming over the programme. He found a pen and settled down to his work, keeping focused on it, losing himself in the steady boredom, write and sign, write and sign. Forty-five minutes passed by smoothly, and the dregs of tea went cold in the bottom of the mug. The clock ticked, the radio wittered quietly to itself, and John concentrated.
And then he heard it again; the scuffling, scuttling sound. He turned his head towards it, and his eyes fell on the box by the door. Mice? But it had sounded too heavy for that, too solid to be the pitter-patter of such tiny paws.
He sighed, threw down his pen, and got to his feet. The box was beginning to dry, curling up around the edges, although it remained strong. There were no obvious holes in it, apart from four in the corner, and those looked too small and precise to be made by hungry rodents. In fact, they looked a little like…
John frowned. The thought passed through his head that Diane was trying to smuggle cats into the building, which was strictly animal free. But no, there would be an explanation. Perhaps the parcel was for neither of them, but for the next house along, or even somewhere miles away. That was probably it.
Even so, it wasn't right to open someone else's package…was it? John bit his lip and stared at the box. What if there was an animal in there? Diane might not be back for hours, and he wouldn't want anything horrible to happen to it whilst he was waiting. If she asked why he'd opened it he could just say that he'd thought it was for him, make up a story about ordering something of his own. A big coincidence.
It was the third scrabbling sound that convinced him, and he went quickly to the kitchen for scissors, then crouched over the box and began to cut the tape. There were layers and layers of the stuff, sticky and almost impossible to slice; the blades kept sliding off. He cursed, went to find a knife instead, even though he knew that using a knife on packaging was never a good idea – as a doctor he'd sewed up a hell of a lot of fingers belonging to people who'd tried it – but he was impatient and frustrated, and his leg was beginning to hurt from the cramped positions he was forcing it into.
The knife slipped a couple of times, but he managed to get his fingers out of the way before it cut them, and finally the tape was cut through. He ripped the last of it away, stood up and put his hand over the lid of the box, ready to lift.
Should he? There was another shuffling sound, a body of some kind scraping over the gritty cardboard. What if there was an animal in there and it was vicious, or panicked, and leapt out and attacked him?
Oh for god's sake, he was a soldier. He'd done far more dangerous things than just open a box.
He pushed his fingers under the lid and lifted.
Thanks for reading. Reviews welcome!
To be continued.