It starts when he leaves Baker Street. The flat feels too haunted, too much.
He stays with Harry for all of two days before they have a row and he checks into a cheap hotel.
Three days later, he sees a cat dashing away from the nearby Chinese, shouts trailing after it. Probably tried to get into their bins. It freezes when it sees John, wary. Black fur, grey eyes, high cheekbones, too skinny.
John doesn’t have enough energy to feel pity for a mangy stray, but he tosses the last bit of his kebab onto the ground. He wasn’t hungry anyway.
The cat follows the arc of the meat with greedy eyes.
After he turns the corner he forgets it ever happened.
Lestrade calls three times.
John never answers.
A month passes before he can stand staying in 221b again. The journalists have mostly lost interest and his budget is strained between the hotel and constant takeaways.
Compared to his hotel room, his small suitcase of belongings, the flat feels so full. Crowded with ghosts.
He opens the door but doesn’t go in. Not just yet.
A cat darts under his legs and dashes up the stairs.
John spends a few moments staring in disbelief. “Bloody h—MRS HUDSON, THERE’S A STRAY CAT ABOUT!” he hollers, knowing it could be a bit before he manages to catch it. Cats are sneaky, wiggly, vicious animals.
“A what?” Mrs Hudson asks as she appears in the doorway, brows drawn together and hand pressed to her chest at John’s racket.
“A cat. Bloody thing got in when I opened the door.”
She tuts. “Poor thing. It’s been raining so much lately.”
Oh no. A sympathizer. “Best I catch it before it eats something of—“ his voice catches “Something it shouldn’t. Last thing this mess needs is a dead cat stinking up the place.”
“Right, of course. I’ll just pop on over to Mrs Turner’s. Her married ones have a cat, you know.”
John tenses. “It’s not going to be staying long.”
Mrs Hudson raises an eyebrow. “Doctor Watson, I’m no stranger to cats. You’ll be ages catching it. I won’t have it messing up my carpets. I’m fetching a box for it.”
“And a bit of kibble. For bait.”
He stomps up to the flat and turns on the light. It’s still a mess, between the haphazard piles of junk and the boxes half empty. It takes a moment or two of breathing, just breathing before he can look around.
There’s no sign of the damn thing. “Where the hell have you gone off to?” John mutters as he expands his search radius.
The door to Sh—the empty room is ajar. He’d locked it, he knows he did. His breath stutters at the sudden clench in his chest. John ignores how his hand shakes as he opens the door the rest of the way.
The cat is on the bed, a little puddle of black on white sheets. He should go in. It’s sleeping. He could probably sneak up on it, grab it by the scruff and toss it out the window. It’d land on its feet.
All he has to do is go in.
John opens a window in the living room and hopes the cat makes its way out on its own.
At least that room is clean compared to the rest of the place.
He doesn’t see the cat in the morning. (Never mind he leaves an entire room out of the search.) Closing the window with a sigh, he stares at the box of junk beside his feet. It’s mostly glassware, beakers and tubes. It’s tempting to throw them, one by one, against the wall. Seems like it’d be satisfying.
Instead he pivots, marches into the kitchen and makes a cuppa with that ridiculous flashy kettle.
The cat is still there two days later.
He doesn’t see it, only signs that it’s still around—papers are knocked off tables, the water and food Mrs Hudson left out go down, the litter box smells.
John resolves to catch it when it’s sleeping.
When he finally sees it, it’s in the empty room again.
He should close the door.
He should go in and catch it.
Mrs Hudson gives him bags of cat food and litter. “Just this once, mind. You’ll need to get it yourself next time.”
“There won’t be a next time. The cat is leaving,” John insists.
It’s a war of attrition and the cat is winning.
The cat only sleeps on the empty bed.
It lounges on the sofa, hides in places John didn’t think it could fit, and darts about underfoot like something possessed, but it’s always wary of his presence, keeping out of reach.
So much for trying to catch it sleeping.
After a week John stops leaving the window open. It isn’t working and it’s letting the rain in.
The cat sits on the sofa, cleaning itself, nonchalant as you please.
Later it twines between his legs when he’s on the stairs.
Of course it would show affection by trying to kill him.
For a few days there’s no sign of the cat. Then they find a mangled mouse in the kitchen.
“Dead things in my kitchen again.” Mrs Hudson’s eyes are wet. “It’s not the same, but—“
John puts down his cup with too much force. “I’ll clean it up.”
They have a lot of staring contests, he and the cat. John thinks about how it would be nice to finally catch the stupid bugger and dump him out of the flat. Hopefully into a large puddle. He doesn’t know what the cat thinks about it but it certainly looks murderous.
Why couldn’t he have found a nice stray dog?
The cat meows constantly. Meowing is a kind term for it—closer to yowling. Its favourite time to do this is just as John is trying to sleep. It doesn’t seem to want anything in particular. Scaring it only makes it stop for a few minutes. Spraying it with water doesn’t do a damn thing. Neither food nor bits of string seem to appease it. It just wants John to be irritable and awake.
John hates how it’s a familiar state of being. Hates how it makes the flat seem less empty.
He ignores how sometimes, the sound of the cat scratching at boxes or papers wakes him up from incipient nightmares.
Filling up the boxes and putting them into a pile gives the cat less opportunity to make noise. John pretends he can’t see the stack, doesn’t think about what it means.
There are times when the cat seems to sit in a certain spot, or turn a certain way to catch the light and look sleek and dramatic.
It’s so familiar John wants to scream.
He names the cat “Stupid.”
Well, not so much names as keeps calling until it sticks. Not that the cat responds to it any more than idiot, twit, clod, or whatever other insult John comes up with. It doesn’t respond to anything at all.
He’s briefly tempted to name it after the last insufferable, arrogant dick he lived with but—
There are enough people thinking he’s daft as it is.
John Watson is not a cat person. That doesn’t seem to matter to this particular cat.
John comes home from another futile day of job-hunting. The cat dashes around the flat, skidding on papers. “What’s with you?” John asks like he’s expecting an answer.
Mrs Hudson appears from the kitchen. “Oh, he’s a bit fidgety. Didn’t like going to the vet much. Animals never do.”
Oh Christ. “You took it to the vet?”
She nods, hands him a cup of tea. “Of course, dearie. He needed to be checked out. Had a little help from Akira, Mrs Turner’s married ones, you know. He and David are such nice young men. Let me borrow their carrier, and got him in so easily, too! I always have a terrible time of it.” She frowns at John. “You should’ve taken him in ages ago, made sure he was healthy. It’s only proper to take care of your pets. I’ll add the bill to your rent.”
John sucks in a calming breath. “It’s not my cat.”
She raises an eyebrow. “He’s been here for a month.”
John throws his hands into the air. “I don’t even like cats! And certainly not this one.” He jabs his finger in the air at the culprit. “He yowls all day, he gets fur on the sofa, he leaves dead things about, he makes messes, tries to trip me on the stairs, he stares at me like he’s going to kill me, he won’t do anything he’s told including leaving me bloody well alone!”
The cat chooses this moment to twine itself between John’s legs, purring a strange, bird-like trill. He’d take it by the scruff and chuck it out if Mrs Hudson weren’t there. He would.
She pats him on the arm. “I think he knows better than to leave you alone.”
“I’m not some kind of grieving widow who needs something to take care of.”
The cat keeps staring.
“I don’t like cats.”
The cat yawns, bumps its head against John’s leg before making its way to—to Sherlock’s room. His old room. It’s more the cat’s room, now.
Mrs Hudson decides to take a vacation to Cornwall, saying it’ll be good to get out of the flat. She still spends more time crying than packing.
“Now John,” she looks at him seriously. “When I come back I expect to find your cat in good health.”
“He’s good for you, John. You may not want to admit it, but he is. I won’t have you tossing him out on the streets while I’m gone.”
John glares at the cat where it’s rolling on the floor, attacking a piece of paper. Trying to look cute. “Yes ma’am.”
Two days later, John is walking to Baker Street when he’s nearly tripped up by a cat darting across his path and into an alleyway.
Normally he wouldn’t care, except he recognizes the cat.
“Damn it,” John yells, running like he hasn't in (don't think about it,) vaulting over a low wall like he’s after a criminal instead of an irritating feline. “Mrs Hudson will have my head if she comes back to find you gone!”
The doors were locked and the windows were shut. How the stupid thing got out, he’ll never know.
It doesn’t take long for him to lose track of it. Dark alleys, black cat, lots of rubbish lying about. But as he’s panting, hands on his knees, he finds his chest aching in a way that has nothing to do with his shortness of breath.
A minute later, as he’s making his way back to familiar streets, he gets a text.
NUMBER BLOCKED: Paparazzi waiting on your doorstep.
Must be Mycroft. Maybe even one of Sherlock’s old homeless network; he likes the idea of that better.
John has already been dragged down to New Scotland Yard once for punching this wanker from The Sun. He can’t afford another confrontation, another round of question-the-fake’s-poor-duped-sidekick.
If he hadn’t chased after the cat he would’ve been at the flat already.
Strange bit of luck, there.
When he gets back a few hours later the cat is sitting on the sofa like it hasn’t moved all day.
He did all that running around for nothing. It was a different cat.
“I hate you,” John tells the cat as he pours the food into the bowl. “You’re insufferable. There’s a lake in Regent’s park. I should put you in a sack and toss you into it. Be rid of you.”
The cat purrs as it eats. John didn’t think that was even possible.
“Wouldn’t even take me half an hour.”
The cat keeps purring.
He smashes his palm into his face. “Bloody cat.”
John stares at the litter box.
If he does it, he’s admitting it’s here to stay. Never mind that the idiot lives in his flat, eats his food, and gets fur over everything. Mrs Hudson had been taking care of all the details; he could tell himself it was her cat, not his.
It really does stink. Mrs Hudson won’t be back for a few days.
John sighs and picks up the little slotted shovel.
He brings the number up and hits send before he can over-think it.
H-hello? Says a voice he hasn’t heard since—
“Molly. Hi. It’s John. John Watson.”
There’s a long pause. What can I do for you, John?
“Look, I just remembered you saying, you—I,” God, has he forgotten how to talk to people? “I seem to have acquired a cat. I don’t know anything about taking care of them. And I know you have Toby, so I. I called.”
It sounds incredibly flimsy.
Molly, being the wonderful human being she is, doesn’t mention it.
They talk for ten minutes about food brands, the merits of clay vs natural litters, what vet she recommends. It’s more she stutters and John listens, but it’s a far sight better than most social interaction he’s been getting.
When she runs out of things to say, there’s a pause. He clears his throat, trying to dislodge all the words caught there, fill up the silence.
“Thank you, Molly.” He hangs up before she can say anything else.
He stands in the doorway to the cat’s room.
He should go in. Make sure the cat hasn’t left any surprise piles of sick.
There’s a shoelace on the ground, a couple of catnip mice Mrs Hudson bought for it. The cat’s room now, definitely.
John steps inside. There’s dust everywhere (dust, dust is eloquent.)
“I can’t even look at dust anymore, you dick,” he mutters to the empty room.
Stupid appears out of nowhere and hops onto the bed. It stares at him, tail slowly flicking side to side.
“It’s been three months,” he tells the cat, shaking his head. “Three fucking months.”
The cat yawns, tongue shockingly pink against black fur and white teeth.
“Look at me, I’m talking to a bloody cat. Next thing you know I’ll have ten more of you, named Mister Tibbles or Mungojerrie or Buttons. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than talking to a skull.”
The cat steps forward, butting its head against John’s hand. When he doesn’t respond, it brrreows and tries again.
“I still hate you, you know,” John says as he unclenches his fingers, letting the cat rub against them. The fur is soft and warm, tactile in a way John doesn’t want to admit he finds soothing.
“I’d rather have him back.” John sits down on the bed, staring at the coating of black fur. The cat steps on his thighs, bumping its head into his chest.
He doesn’t know how long he sits there, letting the cat shed all over his clothing.
“You need to move on, John.” He’s lost count of how many times Ella has told him this. It’s getting more irritating with each rendition.
“I got a cat.” He says purely for the sake of changing things up. “Well, more a cat decided to move in and Mrs Hudson was sympathetic.”
“Does having a cat help?”
“It’s a bloody cat! How could it help with—” He realizes how loud he is, and stops. “It’s just a stupid cat.”
He doesn’t know how the cat gets in and out of a locked flat, but it does. Frequently. He catches the cat coming back plenty of times—usually napping on the doorstep waiting for him—but never going out.
John doesn’t it pay it much mind until the cat vanishes for a week.
Mrs Hudson is beside herself with worry. They walk the street calling for the cat, treats in hands, to no avail.
He pours out the water, puts the food back into the bag. The windows and doors stay shut. He should be relieved. This is what he’d wanted the entire time.
So why does he keep looking for that blur in the corner, leaping onto plastic bags and chasing pens?
John falls asleep sitting in the cat’s bed.
He finally changes the sheets.
When he comes home that night to the cat, looking imperious like John was being especially slow for not already having the door open, he can’t help but laugh.
Just this once, he scoops the cat up in his arms despite its wiggling protests and carries it upstairs. Mrs Hudson spoils it rotten on leftover salmon.
The cat seems to take John’s moment of weakness as permission to demand John pet him all the time. Instead of running away the cat runs to him, meowing loudly as soon as the door opens.
It’s a bit like a dog barking when its family comes home.
Maybe that isn’t so bad.
The cat tries insisting on a share of John’s food.
“Bugger off. ‘S got too much salt for you anyway,” John grumbles as he nudges the cat aside with his elbow. “You’ve got your own food.”
Sherlock used to steal food off his plate. His eating habits were irregular at best so John never gave beyond a token protest.
He’s not hungry any more.
He puts the food away in the clean, empty refrigerator. No heads, thumbs, ears, toes, livers in sight.
“I even miss your mess. Something is wrong with me,” John tells the block of cheddar.
He closes the door and leans against it, staring at the ceiling. “I just talked to the cheese.”
There’s a photo of two boys on a beach in the cat’s room. One is overweight and awkward, obviously unhappy to be there, a tentative hand on his brother’s shoulder. The other is all knees and elbows and wild hair, holding up a handful of shells with a wide grin on his face.
John doesn’t pick it up when the cat knocks it face down onto the floor.
“Mrs Hudson, did you—” the words are thick, he can’t work his mouth around them. “Did you ever find a school interested in the science equipment?”
“Oh, I’d thought. Well, never mind that. I did, yes.” She puts a hand on the wall for a moment, like touching something solid will help her keep standing straight. “Would you like the number?”
“Yes,” John says before he can think about it. He dials the number with grim determination, speaks in abrupt bursts, puts the boxes in a cab and keeps not thinking until he’s home again.
The cat is standing in the empty space, meowing.
“They’re gone, stupid.”
John goes to bed early.
The clear space on the carpet nags at him. He did it once, he could do it again.
He takes a box into the cat’s room, throws open the walk-in wardrobe.
“What a fucking clothes horse.” He reaches out to run a hand along the fine fabric of a navy suit.
He closes his eyes for a few minutes, opens them up when he feels the cat rub against his leg.
“Yes, it’s a new place. Not for you, cat.” John nudges the cat outside with his foot. He grabs an armful of those ridiculous disguises and drops them into the box. It’s a mess, hangers bulging out the top. He doesn’t bother to fix it.
He marches down the stairs and takes it to Oxfam, back straight and eyes forward.
He lasts two more trips before he’s sitting on the floor of the closet, staring at the pile of shoes.
“I’m still angry,” he tells the cat. It feels like his bones are vibrating, like he’s going to shake apart into a disjointed pile of component parts.
The cat starts chewing on a shoelace.
Sometimes he forgets to close his door.
The cat comes in and makes a fuss of settling, paws kneading every available surface, whiskers tickling John’s skin before he inevitably decides to sleep right above John’s head like a very awkward hat.
It’s a sad state of things, that he mutters “stupid bugger” and leaves it at that.
There are moments, insane, terrible moments when it’s 4am and he can’t sleep, that he wonders if Sherlock died and is watching over him in the most irritating way possible.
Once the mess starts getting cleaned up the flat feels too empty instead of too full.
John leaves it like that: half strewn with memories, half cleared.
The cat seems to enjoy the mess, anyway.
Stupid decides that any time John is still for a few minutes he’s fair game for cuddling and insists on occupying his lap. He seems to especially like it if John is doing something else, so he can sit on it.
It’s not quite having somebody steal his laptop all the time but it’s close enough.
Too bad Stupid can’t do running commentary on crap telly.
Over a year after he moved in, the cat disappears again.
“Cat! Where are you, idiot?” John calls, rattling the treat bag as he stands outside of the cat’s room. “Mrs Hudson is going to have a right fit if you don’t show up soon.”
“Really, John? A cat?” comes a deep and achingly familiar voice.
“Jesus!” John’s leg collapses without warning, the shout torn out of his throat.
Two steps and a familiar face comes into the light of the hallway.
He can barely breathe. “Buggering fuck, if you were a cat this entire time I’ll kill you.”
Sherlock blinks at him, slowly. “Are you actually considering I’d turned into a cat?”
“Just shut up and come down here so I can punch you,” John bites out through his teeth.
“Doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“I’m going to fucking kill you,” John chokes on the words, hates the way they wobble. “It's a good thing you're alive because I'm going to wring your neck.”
Sherlock raises his eyebrow in that awful, arrogant way of his. John hates it because he missed it. Missed all of his haughty ooh-I'm-so-clever facial expressions. “Bit hard to do that from the floor.”
John manages to get enough coordination back into his legs to hook his right foot behind Sherlock's ankle and pull.
Sherlock falls, all limbs and undignified noises in an awkward pile. His movements are sluggish; there were obviously old injuries hiding under that stupid coat.
It’s incredibly gratifying.
“Satisfied?” Sherlock tries to recapture his poise but nobody looks dignified sprawled over the floor.
“Not even close,” John pants. “When the cat shows up you two can argue over who gets your bed. I’m inclined to give it to him. He didn’t spend thirteen fucking months pretending to be dead.”
He can feel his arms shaking; he clenches his hands into fists to try to make it stop.
“Shut up, Sherlock. Just fucking shut up.” John awkwardly drags himself along the floor the remaining couple of feet, bum leg trailing behind him. He reaches a hand out, momentarily afraid to touch, before grabbing two handfuls of coat and clutching Sherlock into a hug that’s sure to bruise ribs.
“You are the biggest arse I have ever known. We’re not done talking about this,” John growls. “You’re not off the hook yet.”
John can feel the curve of Sherlock’s smile on the skin of his neck, like Sherlock is convinced he’s been forgiven.
Christ, John almost has. What’s wrong with him? “I’m happy you’re back. Now help me get off the floor.”
After an awkward bit of teetering and leaning, they’re both upright. Their hands linger too long, silent reassurances of yes, still there.
Once they’re separated, John brushes himself off and locks eyes with his best friend.
God, how he’s missed the arrogant fucker.
His fist connects with Sherlock’s jaw seconds later.
“You already tripped me!” comes the high-pitched protest.
“Told you you weren’t off the hook yet. Not my fault you didn’t listen. Now deduce where my bloody cat has gone so Mrs Hudson only has one thing to cause her heart problems tonight.”