John sat at the side table, a half-drunk cup of marjoram tea at his elbow. The tea was a gift from Mrs. Hudson, to help alleviate the headaches. It tasted cloyingly sweet.

The dingy flat spoke volumes about the broken man. The silver cane against the corner had returned, seemingly permanently. The limp had resurfaced a mere four days after Sherlock's death, and had taken its place in John's habits once again. After all, he no longer needed to run alongside the only consulting detective in the world.

Boxes were stacked three and four high, remnants of a move that deprived John of the most precious links to him. Inside the boxes were things that would probably never be dealt with. A hat, a scarf, a skull.

The laptop was covered with a thin layer of dust, the blog long neglected. He had no intention of committing more words to that part of his life, because that part of his life was then, and this is now, and try as he will, there is no way to linger in between.

The 'now' version of himself is quite different from the man he was a year ago. John keeps a scrap of newspaper nailed to the exact centre of the wall, and like a desperate child, he looks at it often, over and over, as if it's a tether to something just out of reach. He doesn't go out much, having no reason to: locum work shifts, the occasional trip to the store. At first it was odd, not seeing "bleach" and "peroxide" and "milk" scrawled on the list with a laboratory crayon. Then it became the new ordinary. It's also odd, not ordering takeaway all the time. For the first few months, Sarah and Molly and Mrs. Hudson and even Lestrade's wife brought food - enough to eat; enough to freeze for another time. It was a while before John wanted to eat again, but time and again he reminded himself that he was a soldier, and grief should not affect him this way.

But how many soldiers had had their life saved by someone even braver than themselves, and then been forced to watch helplessly as that man was brought down? Brought down literally, onto pavement, into death. Captain John Watson, ex-army doctor from the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, would not be broken, but he knew he came so bloody close.

He scanned the paper with a lack of purpose. The headlines were commonplace. The second page was political drivel. Football results in another section. Something about Manchester. He skipped to the police reports, his mind automatically reverting to "finding nothing less than an eight." Well, most were threes and fours at best, though there was one that might merit a nine. Morbid business. He turned a few pages and found the personals. Advertisements, notices, letters. Pieces of humanity were collected here. A heated letter to a wronged lover. A grieved notice about a missing child. A stolen ring of sentimental value, someone wants someone else to pay him back, someone wants someone else to meet him at...

The breath he sucks in is sharp. He blinks, sure it's a mistake.

It's not a mistake, even when it's been read twice and held against the light:

You asked for one more thing.

1800

SH

No one else would've understood it. No one else would know. Hell, no one else John knew even read the personals, but he read them out of force of habit, and right now he doesn't know what's wrong. Because there is something seriously fucked up about that message and he doesn't even want to think about.

He's not going to go, of course.

But he has to, and he is, because the question of 'what if' is something he's not prepared to deal with.

So at ten to six he's got his cane and he's in the cab. His hands are shaking. He doesn't notice. He gives the address and looks out the window the whole way there, keeping his mind profoundly empty.

Once he's let off, he tells the cab to wait. Then he adds that if he's longer than fifteen minutes, don't bother. He doesn't know why he says this. What does he expect to find here?

There is a path, wet with afternoon showers, that John takes to the north side of the cemetery. There are a million thoughts clamoring for his attention but he obliges none of them at all.

The gate squeaks; the cypress smell of thunderstorm. And then he sees it. A black smudge against the green. Flat on the grass. Unmoving. On the grave.

Damn his leg. It aches and throbs by degrees, but he runs.

The picture is a canvas of horror. It looks the same. He looks the same. Tousled black curls. Albaster skin. A bloodstained Coat. But where the face should be, there is raw flesh, peeled to reveal muscle and tendons and bone. Shining droplets of blood fleck everything in a spray of elegant red. A tag flutters on the sleeve of the Coat.

With love,

JM x

John turns, oxygen squeezing from his lungs, tears burning the image into his eyes and obscuring what lies before him. It doesn't matter; it's there, and the copper smell of blood is in his nostrils. He retches, stomach contracting around nothing as he stares into the haze of grass. Everything he sees is tinged with black.

John Watson has seen war, but this is hell.

He doesn't remember getting back to the cab, but he does, his eyes wide with shock. His pupils are pinpricks in a sea of blue. His stomach is going to betray him again, but he thinks to hold himself together for just a few more minutes. As he shuts the cab door, he looks back, and the smudge of black is gone.

His breathing quickens and he forces himself to take longer breaths. The cabbie asks him something. John shakes his head slowly.

Back at the flat, he stumbles in, numb. It looks the same. Has he been gone at all? Yes, the numbers on the digital clock have shifted. It's nearly seven. His stomach clenches around nothing. Not knowing what else to do, he curls his body on the bed, head pressed between his knees. Breathing.

It is hours before he moves. He gets an apple out of the fridge and sets it on the desk, makes a cup of tea he will never drink, and stares at the scrap of paper on the wall.

I believe in Sherlock Holmes.

They say the human mind releases chemicals that, over time, will dull the senses of pain and shock induced by a traumatic experience. Because of this, the memory is never as bad as the original experience. John knows this; he's seen men spilled onto the desert sand and sewn together with his own hands. He's seen his best friend's skull cracked and bleeding into the pavement. So he knows that he intense pain he feels for those memories now must be comparably better than what he felt then.

It doesn't really matter at this moment in time. He shoves the mug away and ignores the part of him that shakes all over without his permission. He continued to move then. He will continue to move now. He gets up for a glass of water and stares at the paper in the exact centre of the wall with an unreadable look in his eyes.

And John Watson, he fights his war.