Fic: John Watson Does Not See Ghosts, Sherlock/John
Pairing: Sherlock/John (Sherlock + John?)
Word Count: ~4,400
Summary: It’s been six months since he’s had to wash blood off of himself in this shower, since he’s had to wring blood out of clothes in this sink, the sort of things a normal person would never miss.
Or: Nine times John sees Sherlock after the fall.
Notes: So probably everyone in the fandom is tired of post-Reichenbach stories in which John is sad. But...I needed to write this anyway. For myself. Because of all of the feeeeelings. It took a while to get it how I wanted it.
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters and I am making no money from this work.
John Watson wakes up at 5:55 in the morning, a sudden and bright waking as if to an alarm. It is Saturday. He stares at the fluorescent green numbers on his clock and the way that they seem to jump and shake, the fizzy edges of their brightness, and it isn’t until 5:57 that he realizes he does not have to be awake; he has nowhere to go; the alarm will not start buzzing in three minutes. He gets up anyway.
He takes a shower, and he uses two persons’ worth of hot water, and then he sits on the tile floor until the steam has evaporated and his skin has all but dried. It’s been six months since he’s had to wash blood off of himself in this shower, since he’s had to wring blood out of clothes in this sink, the sort of things a normal person would never miss. He stares at the way the paint in the corner is peeling.
He doesn’t bother getting dressed, just puts on the bottoms of his pyjamas and an old t-shirt and his dressing gown, and then wanders back down the stairs with his wet hair standing up in unruly spikes and his left ear still water clogged and his brain still fuzzy. He’s looking down at his feet, and so he hears the voice before he sees the body.
“You should stop using all of the hot water, John,” Sherlock is saying. He’s leaning back against the kitchen counter, stirring sugar into his coffee. “I hate cold showers.”
“And I hate decomposing feet in my refrigerator,” John answers. The words come easily to him, but they sound off, like lines too often rehearsed. He’s standing just inside the kitchen doorway, his body held awkward and stiff; he can’t move. He feels like a posed statue of a person, some gross blocky marble thing. “But I’ve learned to live with it.”
Sherlock doesn’t seem to have heard him. He lifts his eyes from his coffee only to tilt his face up to the ceiling, his gaze wandering. His nose wrinkles. “I smell like the grave,” he says.
John’s heart drops into his stomach. He pictures a red, bloody organ drowning in bile. He whispers, “You—you don’t,” but Sherlock isn’t listening.
“Hmm,” Sherlock says, and turns briefly to drop his spoon into the sink. It clatters but the sound is dull. He reaches up with his free hand to brush a bit of dirt off of the shoulder of his jacket, and then he walks out of the room without another word.
The Tube is almost empty today, enough room to sit and no one squeezing up close against him and breathing his air. He drops down onto the bench. His leg aches like it hasn’t in months, and he rubs tiny circles into the knee without thinking. He notices today, in a way he does not usually notice, the minute rocking motion of the train beneath him, around him, and it almost makes him sick, makes him wish it was swaying back and forth with the heaviness of ocean waves, picking him up and dropping him down without mercy.
At the first stop, not his, a teenager with purple hair steps on, and behind her a man in a leather jacket. At the second stop, not his, he watches a woman in a red dress leave, and a family of four settle in the seats across from him. At the third stop, not his, the doors stay open and open and no one gets on, and just before they close, Sherlock jumps in. There are still empty seats, but he squeezes in next to John. He doesn’t look at him, though. John stares at his profile, the curls of his unruly hair, the collar of his coat, his sharp, high cheekbones; John remembers it all. He hasn’t changed at all.
There are things that John could say, of course, words that are always on his mind. Where are you going? is one that echoes. But Sherlock’s silence gags him. It takes him several long moments to notice that Sherlock’s hand is on his knee. His fingers rub small circles, his rhythm just a beat behind John’s, an unlikely faltering.
John skips his stop. He rides to the end of the line, waiting for Sherlock to move. They get up together with the last of the stragglers, but in the hurry of busy people on the platform, John loses sight of him quickly.
The man ahead of in the queue: John cannot see his face. He’s wearing a long black coat that falls down past his knees, and his dark hair curls down in waves past his collar. When he shifts to hold his hands behind his back, John sees that he is wearing black leather gloves.
John listens as he orders just exactly what John was going to order. ‘The usual,’ John used to call it—I’m getting takeaway, are you okay with the usual?—except that today he’s only ordering enough for one.
“Took you long enough,” Sherlock says, later, when John finally limps up the last step and closes the door to 221B behind him. He’s sitting in his old chair, eating shrimp with chopsticks.
“Takes a bit more effort to get around nowadays,” John answers. He is, maybe, a little bitter. Sherlock doesn’t seem to notice, and isn’t it quite like him, to pretend that he doesn’t. John falls without grace onto the sofa, leans his cane against the arm, and starts unpacking cartons. Sherlock watches him.
“Why do you still use that stupid thing?” he asks. He’s pointing at the cane with his chopsticks
“It’s not stupid,” John answers. “I need it to walk.”
“No you don’t.”
“How would you know?”
Somehow, he’s come to a place where he’s staring Sherlock down. He already knows there’s no way he can win. Even when Sherlock breaks, blinks, turns away, John still hasn’t won.
Sherlock starts to say, “You should—” but John cuts him off.
Through an act of will, every second hard and bitter, he eats the rest of his meal without giving Sherlock another glance. He can hear him eating, can hear him, every now and then, sighing lightly. As if he wanted to get John’s attention. Later he hears footsteps walking toward the kitchen. When he gets up, too, to throw away his trash and put the leftovers in the refrigerator, there’s no one there.
No one tells him there’s a patient waiting in exam room three, but when he passes by on the way to the office where they store him, he sees. The man is sitting on the table, looking awkward and uncomfortable, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his ankles crossed and swaying. Johns pauses outside the door. Then he doubles back and steps in. He closes the door behind him.
“I’ve had a headache for six months,” the man tells him, before John can ask him what the trouble is. Neither of them introduces himself.
John asks him to describe the pain. He says it feels like he banged his head against something hard, a sort of permanent dizziness, a redness in his vision. John looks at the man’s eyes, shines a light into them and counts the tiny brown lines of his iris; he takes his pulse, but all he can hear is his own heart beating, all he can sense is the flow of blood in his own veins. With most patients, he never has to remind himself to keep his touch professional. Today, his hands are all but shaking. He is touching the man’s neck, feeling the glands at his throat, and before he can stop himself he’s slid one hand to the back of his neck and he’s holding him there, tense and still, his fingers gripping painfully into the curls of the man’s hair.
“You’re hurting me,” Sherlock whispers.
“I’m sorry,” John answers. He doesn’t mean it. His other hand is on Sherlock’s knee.
“Don’t let go,” Sherlock says.
John just shakes his head. Never, never, how could he, he wouldn’t even know how.
“Have you determined,” Sherlock asks, “the problem, Dr Watson?”
“Well, I’d say it’s pretty obvious,” he answers, voice louder now but still throaty and low, too rough, and he lets his hand fall to Sherlock’s shoulder. “Isn’t it?” With his right, the hand that was on Sherlock’s knee, he gently touches the side of his head, just above his ear. His hand comes away marked with blood. It’s thick and dark and ugly, and it smells like rust and sickness, and even though he’s never been bothered by blood, seen enough in his time, barely notices it anymore, still suddenly this stain across his hand makes him want to vomit. He strides over to the sink to wash it away. Sherlock slips out while his back is turned.
“You look terrible,” Harry tells him, and puts a paper cup of coffee into his hands.
“Thanks.” He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t look at her either. He couldn’t sleep last night and now the world seems blurred around the edges. A constant glass barrier separates him from all of the soft-faced people in the café, the soft bodied people on the street.
He hears her trying to laugh as she says, “I’m sure I’ve looked worse, though.”
“How’s Clara?” he asks abruptly, just to change the topic. He jerks his head up on the first word and forces a wan smile. Harry has grown her hair out for the first time in four years and dyed it red, a colour almost shocking, and the way it frames her face makes her look like a different person. The question seems to have embarrassed her.
“She’s fine,” she says.
At the table behind her, Sherlock is watching them. He isn’t even trying to pretend that he isn’t. He has no shame.
John wants to ask his sister about Clara, really ask her, honestly ask her, about why Clara took her back, about how she could. How did she find it in herself, to forgive and forget everything?
“I wouldn’t ask you to forget, John,” Sherlock says quietly, and John bites back the urge to tell him to shut up.
“Are you getting remarried?” John asks. He’s twisting the cup around slowly on the table, touching it gingerly just above the protective brown cardboard ring.
“Well, it’s a bit too early to say, isn’t it?” Harry answers. She shrugs her shoulders up near her ears; it’s an old protective gesture but it makes her look cold. She’s embarrassed, John thinks, by her happiness, embarrassed because she has been thinking about marriage, again, even though she knows she shouldn’t. She hasn’t actually proposed yet. She’s not sure Clara will say yes, this time. But Harry’s always been impulsive; she’s always jumping in head first, always falling hard and fast, always desperate in her feelings. When it doesn’t work out she pretends she never took it seriously at all. “I don’t want to talk about her,” she says now. She’s looking out the window, not at John, and he’s staring beyond her shoulder, pretending he isn’t.
“We’re certainly not going to talk about me,” he says.
She sighs, and taps her fingers against the table. The sound irritates him. Sherlock is still watching him, his expression unreadable.
“It will get easier,” Harry tries, “you know.”
Her voice does nothing but disgust him and he scoffs, to tell her what he thinks of her advice, her platitudes, her script. “Don’t even try that with me, Harry—”
“Have you thought about dating again?”
“Have you thought about minding your own business?”
He doesn’t even bother to say we weren’t, because the words are too heavy, too sticky; they would leave a bad taste and he knows that, there’s no point, no point at all in them. Sherlock is leaning forward in his chair now, fingers steepled and held just barely touching his lips.
His sister is trying to reach for his hand. She’s saying his name with a disgusting pity in her voice. “I know that you’re only trying to hurt me,” she says, “because you’re hurt.”
“Is that you or your therapist talking? I have one, too. I know the lines.”
“And you didn’t believe it after Afghanistan and you don’t believe it now,” she finishes for him, dragging out the words like one drags her feet, and all but rolling her eyes at him. “John,” she insists, and gets up in his face now, so he’d have to crane his neck to see Sherlock behind her, “you can’t cut yourself off from people. I know it’s your instinct—”
It’s never been hers. Harry’s coping mechanisms usually include alcohol, but she takes her drink with a side of people, parties and gatherings and girlfriends who came and went, and Clara, later, faithful Clara, patient Clara, who turned a blind eye to everything. He closes his eyes. His hands are fists.
“—but you just can’t,” she says. “It’s no way to live,” she says. Then she goes on to say more, other things he doesn’t listen to, because he just can’t, and he’s too aware of Sherlock, still sitting there just behind her. Finally he cuts her off, babbling, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Harry. I have to go. I just can’t look at him anymore.”
And then he’s out the door so fast that Harry doesn’t even have the chance to question him, and he’s thinking how terribly impossible it is, how Sherlock can stare so long without blinking.
He put Sherlock’s violin away months ago, along with everything else he couldn’t stand to look at, couldn’t stand the temptation to touch, but sometimes, Sherlock plays it anyway. He was always better at hiding things than John, better at finding them too.
“In the back of the wardrobe,” he says, now. “Behind the extra blankets. Simple.”
He slides the bow across the strings, just once. The sound is slightly off, or at least it is to John’s ear. It is not quite melodic, though far from jarring.
“Still,” Sherlock continues. “I do appreciate it.”
John flips a page in the medical journal he’s reading. He does not really understand any of the words on the page. Strange patterns seem to form out of the spaces between them.
“How you never put it anywhere it could be damaged.”
The low, familiar tone of his voice, how carefully he speaks, how he never, ever, betrays anything, even when he betrays everything, how he is guarded, and John knows what guarded sounds like, because no one guards his heart with more care than he—he pictures his own intestines knotting, and focuses on this image, instead of on Sherlock’s voice. It sounds just as it always did.
“Is this how you felt,” Sherlock asks, “when I would stop speaking?”
John doesn’t answer.
He sighs, then, and plays a series of sharp, caustic notes, high and screeching. John grips the pages of his journal tightly. His knuckles hurt; his leg hurts. Still he listens, listens as Sherlock plays those bright, fast notes, listens and imagines and almost seems to see the way his fingers skip over the strings. The notes stop abruptly, just as John knew they would.
Sherlock starts pacing. He’s over by the window, John can picture him just perfectly, the backdrop of Baker Street hinted behind him, his eyes open but unseeing, his head tilted downward and his back straight. He starts to play again. John recognizes the tune right away; it’s slow and sad and makes him think of the desert, and the way the sky looks at night, and the way the road looks at night, curving in front of him, and the way peace feels when it’s false, and, in its later movements, the way rest feels when it’s hard won. John doesn’t know what the song is called but he knows all of the notes, because it’s his favourite, and Sherlock used to play it for him often.
He sets the unread journal down next to him on the couch and leans back, closes his eyes. He follows each of the notes as they slide one into the next. He surrenders to them. He lets them carry him away, just exactly as he remembers them, beautiful and clear.
“Did you write this, Sherlock?” he asks, finally, whispering without meaning to.
“You’re speaking to me again?”
He opens his eyes and sees that Sherlock is watching him, not quite smiling, not quite raising his eyebrows in a dare.
“Just sleep, John,” he says, and John knows he should argue, knows he should press the point, but all he does is close his eyes again. And slowly, sleep comes to him.
Mrs Hudson sets out sugar even though neither of them ever takes any in their tea. John looks at the small white sugar bowl, patterned over with tiny pink flowers, and sips his tea even though it is scalding.
“Perhaps it would be better if you found someone else to share the rooms,” Mrs Hudson suggests gently, and pats his wrist lightly with the very tips of her fingers. John presses his own fingertips into the side of the teacup, daring himself not to pull them away, skirting on the edge of a sharp and localized and utterly distracting pain.
“I can afford the rent,” he answers. This isn’t the truth, but the rent does get paid, which is what he actually means.
“That isn’t what I meant, dear,” Mrs Hudson corrects, in that gentle and motherly tone that does not remind him of his own mother, although he often wishes it did. Her hand is still on his wrist, no longer moving. “I just thought you might like the company. It would be good for you.”
“I don’t need company,” he says to his tea. He narrows his eyes, then, and cocks his head slightly to the side. He slides his gaze toward the doorway. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what, love?”
“The noise—that…noise, there. Footsteps.”
The look Mrs Hudson gives him is so gentle, and so sorry, that it makes him want to scream that he’s not mad, he isn’t, and it’s disconcerting how often he feels the need to make this declaration to the world. It’s the pathetic frustration of a toddler he feels, amplified grotesquely by the count of his years, closer to forty now than thirty.
“I’m afraid I don’t hear anything, John,” she tells him.
Insistence is just on the tip of his tongue, but he bites through it. He can’t do this. He can’t play the sick man’s part for her, he can’t do it anymore. He forces his lips into a smile instead. “Must be nothing then,” he says. “Must just be hearing things.” He makes an exaggerated, comic face at the tea cup. “Should I be suspicious, Mrs Hudson? Is there something in this tea you don’t want me to know about?”
She smiles at him softly and plays along. He tunes her voice out and listens, instead, to those footsteps he can still make out. They’re creeping slowly up the stairs to his flat. He recognizes the cadence of them. He can’t name the difference between the way a lawyer and a shopkeeper walk, any more than he can tell an airline pilot from his thumb, but this man’s steps he knows, and he pictures him as he listens, his expensive shoes, his long coat. He’s coming home. It’s hard to concentrate on Mrs Hudson, or the tea. His whole body is so tense he imagines she can see it, can see the hard knots of his muscles through his skin.
He listens and listens but he doesn’t hear any footsteps coming down. Still, when he returns to his rooms he sees no one, no one asleep on the sofa, no one at the kitchen table, no signs of disturbance, no open windows. He isn’t surprised, it isn’t that, but there’s a certain ache in his chest all the same.
He doesn’t read the gravestones as he passes. He doesn’t look at the names or the dates. He just keeps walking, follows the path, feels the sharpest of the stones through the soles of his shoes. The grass is frosted over and crackles under his weight when he steps on it. He thinks about his grandmother, the first person he knew to die, her funeral the first one he went to, how he was only eight then and upset to see his mother cry. But that was all. He understood no further than that. He thinks about his parents, it’s been so long since he’s been to their graves—Harry was the one to call him about the accident, already tipsy, and he spent the whole night with her, rubbing her back, listening to her sob because he couldn’t. Strange to think it’s been over ten years. That’s what he thinks. He doesn’t think about anything else.
Sherlock is leaning against, almost sitting on, one of the gravestones, as if he didn’t care that there was a person buried underneath it. Or what used to be a person. John starts when he sees him. He clears his throat. “So you followed me, then?” he asks, and steps up short.
“I believe it’s the other way around,” Sherlock says, and then, abruptly, he stands, and falls right into step by John’s side.
“I have a question for you,” he says.
John doesn’t read the headstones. He looks at Sherlock’s coat sleeve. “Go ahead,” he says, thinking, as he does, that Sherlock should really wash his coat, scrub out those gross encrusted stains. He’d do it for him, even, if he asked.
“Why did you come back to our flat?”
It’s so unlike Sherlock, John thinks, to ask stupid questions. He doesn’t say it, though. He just shrugs. He’s gotten to the last headstone, now, but he doesn’t read this one either, doesn’t look at it too closely. His hands are in his pockets and he’s toeing at the white-tipped grass. “Because it’s our flat,” he says. “Obviously.”
He keeps Sherlock’s bedroom locked, mostly, but some nights, and only at night, after the sun has set and he feels that loneliness again, creeping into him like a disease of the bone (or of the heart), he sneaks in. He keeps the bed made, pillows arranged neatly, blankets and sheets tucked in at the corners. Everything’s been washed. Nothing smells like him anymore. Still, John lies down, buries his nose in the pillows.
The first time Sherlock caught him, he was embarrassed. He didn’t know quite what to say. He’d been hugging Sherlock’s pillow to his chest, his eyes open but unseeing, fixed on a blank point on the wall. The sound of the door opening startled him, and he jumped, leaning up on one elbow. He wasn’t sure he should apologize, wasn’t sure how to read the expression on Sherlock’s face.
Sherlock barely reacted, as if it were all normal, all fine. It’s all fine. John in his bed with red-rimmed eyes.
Sherlock doesn’t always come, only when he’s in one of his moods. John always hated those moods. He never knew what to say or what to do, even though Sherlock told him more than once about them, how to read him when he fell into those black ice days, silent and brooding and still for hours on end and when he did move only sliding by on disquieting ghost feet, pretending he was invisible. It was John who felt invisible. He started to doubt his own existence, started to feel like a man who was never told of his own demise, a spirit wandering past people who used to love him.
But that was a long time ago, or feels it. Now when Sherlock steals in, John is not startled, never surprised. Sherlock is in his dressing gown and pyjamas, his feet bare, his hair mussed. He climbs in next to John, and as he does, John slides over from the centre to make room. Sherlock’s right arm snakes around him. John burrows back into the touch. He covers Sherlock’s hand with his hand and rubs gently at the knuckles, the cold, cold skin, the joints and tendons and bones. His breath stutters when he feels Sherlock’s nose rubbing affectionately into his hair, and then, oh, the slightest press of lips against the back of his neck. The touch is frigid, but he’s trying, John knows. They are both trying. John touches his bare feet to Sherlock’s bare feet.
He can hear Sherlock taking deep breaths, can feel him taking those breaths, his chest expanding and pressing against John’s back, and he grabs Sherlock’s hand in a tighter grip. He brings it up to his lips for a kiss. Don’t be like this, he keeps thinking, don’t be like this, don’t, and as he thinks the words Sherlock grows warmer. John kisses Sherlock’s hand again. Sherlock is kissing his neck. He doesn’t know what sort of kisses these are, but he doesn’t question them, because he needs them, he needs to sink into them, needs to feel them burn through him. Sherlock’s hand falls back down to John’s waist, then slips under his shirt where it has ridden up and starts to trace patterns on the skin of John’s stomach, and yes he would like to read messages there, messages or promises or even lies. If only he could.
He is boneless, wrung out and empty; he can’t name what he’s waiting for, but he must be waiting for something, or why can’t he move? Strange, how loss has never felt like this before. It feels like someone has played a trick on him, like he is being fooled.
Sherlock’s hand finds his again. He’s squeezing tight against John’s knuckles again. He’s pressing his body close, he’s tangling their legs, and there is not an inch of him of which John is not painfully and completely aware. He draws in a deep breath and it stutters out as he releases it, as if there were something trapped there inside him, interrupting the smooth movement of his lungs. He wants to turn around. He wants to look Sherlock in the face, but he’s afraid what he’ll find if he moves. So he stays still. He plays dead. He feels Sherlock’s steady breathing and his steady heartbeat. He inhales the familiar scent of him. It is almost unbelievable, how real he feels. As if he weren’t gone at all.