A Study In Life
It's unexpected, really, running into Stanford. And if he's being at all honest with himself, it's also more than a little aggravating. The last thing ex-Army Doctor John Watson wants is a memory of his past reminding him of how far he's fallen, how different and sub-par his present is in comparison. But still, despite all that, he can't seem to bring himself to deny his old friend a coffee and a chat.
"You still at Bart's, then?" John asks if only to break the awkward silence that keeps lingering. Mike smiles that same sort of unwavering smile he'd had back at uni, like all the world's problems could simply roll off his shoulders, leaving him untouched. It makes John angry, and more than slightly jealous.
"Teaching now." He says. "Yeah. Bright young things like we used to be. God, I hate them." They share a laugh, genuine on Mike's end, strained on John's. Eventually Mike keeps on. "What about you? Just staying in town till you get yourself sorted?"
"Can't afford London on an Army pension," John answers without thinking, because he'd love to stay, couldn't imagine being anywhere else, but he's hardly in a position to do so, and there's no way he'd ask Harry for help, so he tightens his grip on his coffee cup to the point of denting the sides and almost misses the hum of consideration Mike offers by way of response. John glances at him. "What?"
"I might know of a place, actually." He grins. "As long as you don't mind the rumours."
The address is 221B Baker Street, an expensive looking flat in central London held by a land lady who greets him at the door with a warm smile and a hug that only makes him slightly uncomfortable. She apologizes profusely for the mess even before they've made it all the way inside, mumbling under her breath about how she can't bring herself to tidy it up (she's got a hip), and that if he needs any soothers for his leg she doesn't mind sharing.
"DAMN my leg!" He blurts out, offering a tight lipped, "Sorry," instantly afterward, settling himself down into one of the armchairs at the centre of the living room, tapping at his leg with his cane. "I am so sorry. Just sometimes this bloody thing…" he trails off, knowing it's no excuse, but luckily Mrs. Hudson just nods.
"Of course, dear. Make yourself at home." She turns to leave and adds sweetly, "I'll go make you a nice cuppa."
"A cup of tea would be lovely, thank you," John replies, grabbing an old newspaper off the floor and scanning the headlines, checking to see how long the flat has been vacant.
"Just this once, dear." Mrs. Hudson calls, already halfway out the door. "I'm not your housekeeper." John barely hears her; the date on the paper is a few years off.
"Couple of biscuits too, if you've got them." John says distractedly, Mrs. Hudson's refrained, "Not your housekeeper!" echoing up the stairs before John even realises she's left. And suddenly he's alone in his new flat. He puts the newspaper down and glances about the room.
It really is surprisingly shoddy, left in complete disarray after the last tenant had moved on, John assumes. Boxes stacked atop furniture, old books gathering dust on the shelves, a melee of scientific equipment taking up precious space in an otherwise perfectly nice kitchen. It makes him wonder just who'd lived there before him, what kind of person he or she was, what could have possibly happened to them. His brief conversation with Stanford the day before begins running circles in the back of his mind.
"Just a few bad reviews from past tenants saying they couldn't make it more than a night in the place."
"Any reason why?"
"Some say it's haunted. All I know is that it's cheap."
He'd meant to ask Mrs. Hudson about the stories, see if he could find out just what had scared the other tenants away, but John had never considered himself a suspicious man and he didn't intend to start now. Whatever it was, surely it couldn't hold a candle to-
"Afghanistan or Iraq?"
John nearly springs to his feet, newspaper falling half into his lap before collapsing in pieces onto the floor. There's a man standing at the stairs leading to the extra bedroom, all long limbs and pale skin, eyes sharp and grey, examining John underneath a wave of messy black curls.
"Excuse me?" John stammers, struggling to his feet. Mike hadn't said anything about a flat-share… "I'm sorry. Who are you?"
"It's a simple question," the man goes on as if John hasn't spoken. "Afghanistan or Iraq?"
John tightens his grip on his cane before answering, voice clipped and hesitant. "Afghanistan. How did you-?"
"I wasn't sure how you take it," Mrs. Hudson's voice rises suddenly up the stairs, John turning towards it out of reflex. In the second it takes to spin back towards the second bedroom, the man is gone, John still staring at the spot where he'd been standing when Mrs. Hudson places the tray of tea and biscuits on the coffee table. "All right, dear?"
"Yes, fine," John answers absently. "Who's the other man living here?"
John finally shifts his focus back to his land lady. "The other man, the one in the upstairs bedroom." John stops himself from asking in exasperation, 'Who is he? Why is he in my flat? How did he know about Afghanistan?' Instead, settling for a more subtle, "I didn't realise you were advertising a flat share."
"I don't understand," Mrs. Hudson frowns. "It's just you here, dear."
John blinks, eyes traveling from the stairs to Mrs. Hudson and back. "But there was…" He stops, a sort of realisation dawning, slowly but surely. Eerily. "It's just me."
"Just you," Mrs. Hudson smiles at him, and if that smile is a tad knowing, John pretends not to see it.
"Right. Yes. It's lovely, thank you." John clears his throat. "I'll move my stuff right in then."
"Oh good," Mrs. Hudson smiles more brightly, obviously glad to have another willing tenant at hand. "Take your time with the cleaning. The last man to live here long term left quite a bit behind."
Before she has a chance to head down to her own flat, John calls her back. "That man, the one who lived here before… What did he look like?"
The question throws Mrs. Hudson off guard, but she answers anyway after a moment's pause, "Tall, far too skinny, black hair that was always a right mess. Grey eyes, I think." She stops, seeming almost melancholy. "Brilliant, really. It was a shame, what happened." John can see her getting emotional, and yet he can't seem to help himself.
"What did happen?"
Mrs. Hudson gives him a look that's almost apologetic, as if she'd hoped he wouldn't ask. "He died. A few years back. An accident… Tragic, really." John nods, Mrs. Hudson seemingly taking that as her cue to leave. And then, once again, John is alone. Though not nearly as alone as he'd felt before.
John Watson had never considered himself a suspicious man. But when the rumours seemed to be true…
His second experience with his not-quite-flatemate comes that night in the form of three AM violin playing, a strange but gentle melody that drifts from the parlor and into his bedroom as if invited. John stretches below his comforter, content to listen in a groggy state of half-sleep, until he realizes who might be playing. His next reaction is a mixture of tension, apprehension, stubborn disbelief, and curiosity.
Apparently, the old, ingrained childhood fear of ghosts is a hard one to overcome, but eventually, John manages to pull himself out of bed, opening the door slowly and all but tiptoeing towards the living room as quietly as his cane will allow. Everything looks exactly as he'd left it, barely a dent made in the cleaning process aside from making the chairs and table more easily accessible. John's almost disappointed, though that underlying relief that he'd evaded the supernatural still lingers warmly in his chest. That is, until he notices the violin hovering of its own accord in front of the double windows, resting in playing position on an invisible shoulder, the bow dangling a few feet below it.
John's heart all but stops. This can't possibly be happening. He's dreaming, that's it. A new symptom of his PTSD, maybe. Anxiety from moving into a new place where a man had apparently died. It's perfectly natural. And not terrifying in the slightest.
The violin seems to shift, as if the invisible person holding it has decided to turn around, the instrument moving from its position parallel to the floor to float almost lazily over to the side table, seemingly setting itself down. The bow follows suit, John's eyes locked so intently on it that it takes him a very long and unfortunate second to realise the bow is attached to a hand. Which is attached to an arm. Which ultimately is attached to the rest of the man… ghost… John had talked to earlier.
"Okay. You have questions."
Now that's an understatement. John leans heavily on his cane, hoping for more confidence than he feels. Talking to the dead isn't exactly something they covered in basic training. "What are you doing in my flat?"
"I live here," the man says matter-of-factly. "Next."
"You don't live here anymore," John frowns. "You're dead." The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them. Aren't ghosts supposed to react badly to being told that? Don't some even still think that they're alive? What if he's just unleashed a permanent poltergeist on himself?
"No need to state the obvious." The man actually rolls his eyes, his condescending tone distracting John from any and all remaining nervousness about conversing with the recently deceased.
"All right then," John sits himself down in one of the chairs, only moderately surprised when the man follows suit, sitting in the chair opposite him. "How did you know about Afghanistan?"
At this, the man smirks, leaning back and raising clasped hands to his face, fingertips pressed lightly to his lips. His eyes never leave John's. "I didn't know. I saw. Your haircut, the way you hold yourself, says military. The state of your hands and the excessive way you wash them, not to the elbow but past the wrists, say old habit from surgeries but not ones done in hospital, skills obtained at university but performed elsewhere. So army doctor, obvious. Your face is tanned, but no tan above the wrists. You've been abroad but not sun bathing. Your limp's really bad when you walk, but you don't ask for a chair when you stand, like you've forgotten about it. So it's at least partly psychosomatic. That says the original circumstances of the injury were traumatic. Wounded in action then. Wounded in action, suntan, Afghanistan or Iraq."
John has to consciously prevent his jaw from dropping, opting instead for the words, "That… was amazing." The look on the man's face is almost confused.
"Do you think so?"
John almost laughs. "Of course it was. Extraordinary. Quite extraordinary."
"That's not what people normally say."
"What do people normally say?"
Here, the man grins, eyes practically lighting up in the darkness. "Nothing. They've usually run off screaming long before now."
John doesn't know why, but suddenly he's grinning too. Maybe he's finally snapped. "You're hardly Freddy Krueger. I think I can manage."
The man's smile shifts into something surprised, but equally genuine. Thrilled. "Sherlock Holmes."
And though John's sure the man already knows, probably read it on his suitcase or was watching when he signed the lease, he says it anyway. "John Watson."
The next few weeks are strange. More than once, John has to convince himself he's not going crazy, that the ghostly form of the late Sherlock Holmes is indeed roaming the halls of his flat. But even so, it's hard to overcome the possibility that he's just a figment of John's imagination, a hallucination the remnants of his PTSD has created to keep him company in his loneliness. Of course, as if by some sort of empathy, Sherlock always manages to show up when these thoughts get too overwhelming, distracting John with stories of the cases he'd solved when he was alive.
It seems to be the only thing that bothers Sherlock about being dead, the lack of cases for him to pick apart and figure out. Which is why, when the string of suicides winds up in the local paper, he becomes all but unbearable.
"Four serial suicides and a note, John!" he whines, stomping about the flat noiselessly. "This should be Christmas for me! But instead, I'm stuck here, forced to watch in agony while the Yard stumbles around in circles following the wrong leads!" John's mug flies across the kitchen before he can even pull it down from the cupboard, John cursing as it shatters against the wall.
"Damnit, Sherlock! If you keep going poltergeist every time a case hits the papers, I'm going to have to start drinking tea out of the cereal bowls."
"Then help me!" Sherlock groans, one second curled up on the couch in the foetal position, the next literally floating in front of John's face. That's the hardest to get used to, the floating. And occasionally being able to see straight through him.
"No," John shakes his head sternly. "We've been over this."
"But for all we know, it could be perfectly safe! Just one test, John, please?"
"For all we know, I could bloody well blow up!" John grabs his last mug from the cupboard and starts on his cup of tea.
"We'll never know until we try," Sherlock pouts, lowering himself onto the counter and crossing his arms. "Just let me, John. Please. You don't know what it's like, having a mind like mine trapped in a corporal-less state, forced to stay tethered to this spot where all puzzles have already been solved."
John rolls his eyes. "I'm not putting my own life at risk just so you can-"
Suddenly, Sherlock is standing in front of him, not floating at all, and as solid as John's ever seen him. There's a look in his eyes John can't quite read, the grey of them shimmering to an almost silver blue as Sherlock raises a hand to John's face. He doesn't touch him (not that he could even if John wanted him to… Not that he wants him to or anything…) just lets his hand linger a millimeter away from John's cheek, enough for John's mind to start playing tricks, imagining the touch, the chill, the almost electrical sensation of that hand.
"I would never do anything to endanger your life," Sherlock says finally, their faces so close, John could almost swear he feels the breath of those words. But then, all too soon, Sherlock's hand falls back to his side, the image of him fading a bit, becoming its usual not-quite-translucent as Sherlock sits himself down on the table, cross-legged. "I've worked out all the logistics. I just need to test it."
Whether it's the distraction of having been so close to being touched by Sherlock, or just the sheer amount of frustration at Sherlock's pleading, John isn't quite sure, but the words leave him before he can even process what they are.
"All right, fine. Sure. If it gets you to shut up about-" He doesn't even have time to finish the sentence before Sherlock is rushing towards him, a sensation very similar to stepping out into the cold tingling through his entire body. John doesn't move, is afraid to, even, not quite sure how to process what's happening.
Calm down, John. You're all right. Just breathe. Sherlock's voice echoes in the back of his mind, John gasping down a breath he hadn't been aware he needed. He breathes again, deep inhale, shaky exhale. Sherlock is inside his head. No, more than that. Sherlock is inside his everything, his arms, his legs, his chest, his heart. He feels Sherlock in his veins, in his nerves, in every blink of his eyes and twitch of his lips as his mouth falls slack. He takes another breath, calming himself. Well, as much as possible considering the situation. Better, Sherlock's voice rumbles, his whole body seemingly vibrating with it. He can literally feel Sherlock chuckle. Much better. See? Not so bad, is it?
"Speak for yourself." John swallows, licking his lips and feeling strangely like he's simultaneously licking Sherlock's. He forces himself not to think about that. "You've had your test. Now get out of me."
After we pay a visit to Scotland Yard.
John pales. "What?!"
That's the whole point of this, John. The irritation is practically tangible, and John has to will his eyes not to roll at Sherlock's command. I must get a look at the crime scene.
"They're not just going to let me in. I'm a civilian, Sherlock."
They will if you let me do the talking.
John already has an idea what he means, but the, "Excuse me?" that escapes him is automatic. He instantly wishes he'd held it in.
"All I have to do is speak through you, explain the situation, and they should have no problem showing me the evidence." The words slip easily past John's lips, his voice very much the same, if not a bit lower, a tad more posh, but they're not his words. They're Sherlock's. And when Sherlock chuckles at John's uneasiness, that tumbles out of John's mouth too.
"All right, enough." John shakes his head as if it might rattle Sherlock enough to quiet him down, as silly as that sounds. "We'll go to Scotland Yard, but you stay out of my mouth." The implication in those words hits him hard, a blush burning at his cheeks that he's certain Sherlock can feel. He clears his throat and tries to pretend he's not thinking about other ways Sherlock might have been able to be in his mouth in other circumstances. "I'll come up with a story, I'll let you see the evidence, and then we come straight back. Understood?"
Sherlock is quiet for a moment, which is disconcerting, but then finally, voice strangely low, he mumbles, Understood.
The visit to the Yard goes off almost without a hitch, Sherlock staying quiet as John lies his way in, claiming he's an old friend of the victim's and using his military rank and doctor's status when Lestrade all but turns him away. When they get to the body, Sherlock jumps right in, prattling off facts into John's head and analysing the name she'd scratched into the floorboards, coming to about ten possible conclusions before allowing John to stand.
It's when Lestrade asks him what he's come up with that Sherlock finally breaks free, his words pouring out of John's mouth like someone has turned on the tap. "Victim is in her late thirties. Professional person, going by her clothes and guessing something in the media going by the frankly alarming shade of pink. Travelled from Cardiff today intending to stay in London for one night. It's obvious from the size of her suitcase."
"Suitcase?" Lestrade blinks.
"Suitcase, yes. Where is it? She must have had a phone or an organizer. We need to find out who Rachel is."
"She was writing Rachel?"
"No, she was leaving an angry note in German. Of course she was writing Rachel! Question is, why did she wait until she was dying to write it?"
"How do you know she had a suitcase?" Lestrade finally asks, more than a little exasperated.
"Back of her right leg, tiny splash marks on the heel and calf, not present on the left. She was dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her with her right hand. Can't get that splash pattern any other way. Smallish case going by the spread. Case that size, woman this clothes conscious, it can only be an overnight bag, so we know she's only staying one night. Now where is it? What have you done with it?"
"There wasn't a case."
John can feel the pieces fall to place in Sherlock's brilliant mind, his legs working at Sherlock's volition and brining him almost completely out the door before Lestrade calls him back. "What did you say your name was?"
Sherlock's thankfully receded into the back of his mind to go over the evidence, giving John just enough time to reply. "John Watson."
"Right. You just…" Lestrade looks away. "You reminded me of someone just then."
John doesn't have to guess who he means. "I'll let you know if I come up with anything," he offers before letting Sherlock carry them both home.
The next few nights are almost a blur, John following Sherlock's instructions as he uses borrowed hands and eyes to pick apart the evidence, borrowed legs to run through darkened city streets, chasing after cabbies who double as serial killers. And eventually, when he realises Sherlock never had control over his legs to begin with, he starts to think he could grow addicted to this strange, supernatural life he's found at 221B. Sharing a body with Sherlock, solving crimes, stopping bad guys. In fact, he's never felt more alive, and as insane as it is, it's all thanks to his dead best friend.
It's not long after they take out the pink woman's killer that John finds himself having the first of many dreams about his not-quite-flatmate. Some are innocent, them working on a case, them having a chat in the kitchen, them sharing a meal out in the open with Sherlock very much not dead. But most are bordering on the advantageously explicit, Sherlock's mouth on his mouth, his jaw, his chest and lower, Sherlock's hands all over his body, actual touches that are warm and alive and causing all sorts of delicious heat to pool between John's legs. Each time, he wakes sticky with sweat and so hard it hurts, mind racing with thoughts of what he wants to do to the man. And what he knows he never can.
It's no surprise, really, when Sherlock brings it up… but it's still humiliating.
"How often do you dream about me, exactly?" he asks casually, but there's a huskiness to his voice, John thinks. Though he may be wishing it there.
"I don't…" John starts, face already burning, but he can see the look in Sherlock's eyes, knows there's no point in lying to the man who can read what he ordered for dinner two weeks ago by the way he put his jacket on this morning. "Pretty often, actually," John hears himself whisper instead, not able to look Sherlock in the eye.
"I see," Sherlock hums, suddenly inches away from John's face and almost eerily solid. "And what might you be dreaming about?"
Even John can tell it's a rhetorical question, not that he would have had the wherewithal to answer, Sherlock abruptly covering the distance between them, his lips pressing against John's in a way that shouldn't be possible. But it is, and it's perfect, and John's fingers are tangling in Sherlock's hair, the strands cold and too fine to be real and perfect for pulling them closer together, and Sherlock's hands are raking down John's chest, opening his shirt and trailing down sensitive skin to settle teasingly at his trousers.
"How are you doing this?" John breathes, kissing down Sherlock's jaw and marveling at how real the skin feels beneath his lips, if not a tad too soft and unreasonably chilled.
"With a mind like mine, John?" Sherlock scoffs, a cold breath tickling at John's temple. "Manifestation was hardly beyond me. It simply took a little trial and error."
"You've been practicing?" John licks his lips before running his teeth along Sherlock's neck at the pulse, wishing he could suck some colour into the pale skin. Sherlock shudders.
"It's addicting," Sherlock's voice practically rumbles. "Being inside you, seeing through your eyes, feeling through every inch of your body." Sherlock lets his hand dip past John's trousers, past the waistband of his pants, until long, cool fingers are wrapping around the already hard and aching flesh of John's cock. John hisses at the contact, gripping at the now tangible fabric of Sherlock's dressing gown, the same one he's always worn. "But I wanted to touch you myself. I needed to touch you." Sherlock strokes John in time with his words until both of them are panting, John so close he can barely think. So when Sherlock whispers his name, a deep, barely audible rumble in his ear, John can do little more than rock hard into Sherlock's hand, stars erupting behind his eyes at the intensity of his orgasm. "What I wouldn't give, John Watson," Sherlock sighs, hand still wrapped loosely around John's length, though not nearly as present, the solidness of him seeming to fade. "What I wouldn't give to be alive again."
Sherlock gets better and better at staying solid, though they never go much further than that first time. And as much as John protests, Sherlock refuses to let John reciprocate, swearing that the manifestation won't allow it, that he won't be able to hold on if John were to touch him like that. So John convinces himself that what they have is enough.
After a few more weeks, John finally persuades Sherlock to tell him how he died. An accidental poisoning during a particularly risky experiment, he explains. "It seems even my knowledge of chemicals had its limitations."
They go on like this for months, John taking up work at the surgery and occasionally allowing Sherlock to hitch a ride for any cases Lestrade seems willing to allow him an eye into. When they're alone, no cases, no surgery, just John and Sherlock, they find every possible way to make use of Sherlock's ability to manifest. And sometimes they don't, Sherlock simply sharing John's body and moving his hands, working moans between their joint set of lips and sharing each touch, each sensation, the eventual climax wracking through them both. And it's wonderful and it's perfect and as strange and fucked up as it is, John could stay like this forever.
Which is why it catches him so completely off guard when one day, out of the blue, Sherlock says, "I'm passing on, John. Today I think. It's for the best."
The cup of tea John has been making seems to break free of his hand, his last mug shattering into pieces at his feet. Neither of them seem to notice. John just stares at him from across the kitchen, can't even seem to process it. Refuses to. Surely he'd heard him wrong. Surely he… Sherlock can't possibly mean… No. It doesn't make sense. Sherlock wouldn't leave him. Not now. Not when they've just started to… John swallows thickly and whispers, "Why are you saying this?
Sherlock doesn't smile, doesn't try to comfort, just holds tight to John's stare almost brutally, eyes keeping him in place, keeping him grounded. "I'm dead, John. I don't have a life to live anymore." Here, his eyes soften, sadden. "And as long as I'm here, you won't live yours."
"Okay, shut up, Sherlock. Shut up." John steps through the broken shards of his mug like they're not even there, stopping right in front of him. "I am living my life." John almost whines, wants to stomp and pout and scream, because Sherlock doesn't understand. But it's too late. John can already see Sherlock fading, and if he fades completely, John knows he won't come back. "You are my life."
"That's the problem." Sherlock doesn't even bother to manifest when he leans in to kiss him, John's lips tingling slightly, like brushing them against an ice cube fresh from the freezer. And when he pulls away, he's almost completely see through. "You deserve more than that." John panics then, reaches out to grab fistfuls of Sherlock's gown and comes back with only air. But he keeps trying, steps in closer, as if he might be able to pull Sherlock into him forever and keep him there.
"No," John pleads, looking into Sherlock's eyes. "All right, stop it now." Don't do this. You can't. Just stay with me, please.
"Please," Sherlock smiles, but John can barely see it. "Will you do this for me?" John tries to refuse. What life does he have without Sherlock? But Sherlock just places one last, nonexistent kiss on John's forehead. "Goodbye, John."
"No. Don't." Two shaky, broken words. That's all he manages to get out.
And then Sherlock's gone, in the space of a single heartbeat, John left standing in the empty kitchen, the emptiest it's ever been, willing himself not to cry.
Eventually, John stops straining his ears against the three AM silence in the hopes that he'll hear Sherlock's violin. Eventually, he stops looking out of the corner of his eye for the painfully familiar mop of black curls that would usually be floating aimlessly at his side. Eventually, he moves out of 221B and buys a house for himself and one Mary Morstan, ultimately Mary Watson.
And eventually, John Watson lives out the rest of his life, grows old, and dies.
Which is, ironically enough, what brings him back to 221B. And more importantly, to the man playing the violin in its sitting room. No words can describe the feeling John gets, seeing Sherlock again, but the ones that are most pressing, the ones that want to burst straight from his chest are, "You waited for me."
Sherlock stops playing, lowering the violin carefully to the table before turning to face him, a smirk lining those perfectly kissable lips. "Of course." He rolls his eyes, but it's kind. Loving even. His smile even more so. "It took you long enough."