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A Study in Strays

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“There’s another bedroom upstairs,” says the landlady, Mrs Hudson. “If you’ll be needing it.”

“Is there?” John says, thinking Two bedrooms, are you serious? “That’s… well.”

For the price advertised in the Evening Standard, John had been expecting a right dump, honestly. Something like a former meth lab or someplace with bullet holes in the walls and odd brownish stains on the carpet. Not a two-bedroom, fully furnished flat with no stains or suspicious smells to speak of.

It’s more than fully furnished, even; it’s nearly cluttered. The living room alone has two armchairs, bookshelves, a sofa, a desk, and a coffee table, as well as books in the bookshelves and all sorts of knick-knacks about the place: a chess set, an assortment of vases and glass curios, a fruit bowl, a Union Jack cushion.

In short: it’s entirely too good to be true.

“So what do you think, Dr Watson?” Mrs Hudson asks, after John’s been given the full tour.

“It’s….” He bounces words from one side of his brain to the other. The thing is, John considers himself a decent judge of character, and Mrs Hudson doesn’t seem at all the sort to lie or withhold information for personal gain. In fact, from what he’s seen so far, he quite likes her.

“It’s nice,” he admits. “But, and don’t take this the wrong way, but it is a bit cheap. More than a bit cheap, actually, it’s a lot cheap for what it is. And I think that maybe there’s something you’re not telling me.”

Mrs Hudson hesitates, tightening her lips and rubbing her neck as she thinks. Her expression is one that John’s seen before on former patients of his. The one that says, Shall I tell him, or shall I not?

Finally, she breathes in deeply and says, “I’ll warn you, dear, it’s a bit, um… unusual.”

*

It takes John one trip to move all his things from his dismal little bedsit to the new flat at 221B Baker Street, then less than an hour to unpack it all. After Mrs Hudson makes him sandwiches and a cup of tea—“Just this once,” she says. “I’m your landlady, not your housekeeper.”—John embarks on another, more thorough tour of the flat.

He starts with the downstairs bedroom. The door is closed, although he doesn’t remember it being closed when he was here before, so he opens it with a touch of trepidation, but it looks the same as it did the other day.

It’s full of clutter in the way that the living room is. There’s rows of books, along with a bust of some sort, on shelves against the wall. Beside them is a framed photograph of Mendeleev, who John only recognises because his photo is beneath a framed periodic table of elements.

The bed is neatly made and, as John discovers when he lies on it for a moment, incredibly comfortable. So much so that he considers having a lie-down, but it’s late evening now, nearly night, and the last thing he needs is to bugger up his sleep schedule even more than it already is.

So he gets up and ventures to the upstairs bedroom—very slowly, his limp making it necessary to pause on every step. This room, by comparison, is bare. There’s no clutter, not even a single picture hung on the wall, and the bed, although it too is neatly made with sheets and a duvet, seems somehow more desolate than the one downstairs.

Won’t be spending much time up here, then, he thinks, and starts back towards the stairway.

There’s a loud bang from downstairs.

John’s mind leaps immediately to gunshot! and he’s on his knees, grabbing his cane like a weapon, before he realises that can’t possibly be right. It didn’t have the same timbre as the sound of a gunshot, and anyway, he’s not in Afghanistan any longer. It’s not likely he’s being shot at in his own flat.

John rushes downstairs and does a quick scan of each room, but finds no one—although the bedroom door is shut again. Slammed closed, he supposes, which explains the bang. He approaches the door, then cracks it open, but the room is exactly as he left it. Nothing is out of place.

He stalks about, shuffles the various knick-knacks around, opens drawers, even crouches down to peek under the bed and have a closer look at the carpet, but he finds nothing.

“Right,” John says. As he stands in the centre of the room, having one final look around, he realises that he’s grinning. “If that’s how you want to play it, mate, then that’s just fine by me.”

*

John falls asleep easily that night but wakes at some point before the morning. It’s still dark outside, only a sliver of light from the streetlamps filtering in through the window.

He lies on his side for a moment, remembering where he is and why, before he’s struck by the eerie feeling he’s being watched. It’s a tingling, creepy-crawling sort of sensation on the back of his neck that makes his shoulders tense, his limbs twitch. He blinks away the last vestiges of sleep, then rolls onto his back.

There’s a pair of eyes above him. Glowing in the faint light from outside, they seem at first to simply float in the air. After John blinks, though, he finds the outline of the face they’re part of.

“So,” he says, “you’re the reason I can afford the rent here.”

To be honest, he was expecting some sort of hulking, monstrous beast, but the cat seems to be more or less of normal size. The colour of its fur is dark, although John can’t make out what shade. It’s perched gracefully on the headboard just above John’s head, leaning forwards slightly so it can peer, unblinking, into John’s face.

As John speaks, its ears go flat against its head, and it growls, low and long.

“Oh yes,” John tells it calmly, “you’re terribly frightening.”

It quiets immediately, though carries on staring.

“It is a touch unnerving, I’ll give you that,” John admits. “And if you kept it up for a few weeks, I suppose I could see how someone would get tired of it. But, sorry to say, it’s not quite enough to scare me off.”

He rolls back to his side, and the cat lets out another growl, which this time transitions into a shrill yowl. For a moment, John worries that he is in fact in physical danger—if it leaps on top of him with claws and teeth, it could do a lot of damage indeed—but the cat remains atop the headboard and, after several seconds of John staying motionless on his side, it goes quiet again.

Then there’s only silence, while John stays resolutely still, closing his eyes and keeping his breathing even. The cat is still there, still watching him; he can feel its attention like an insect just under his skin. But it lets him be.

Eventually, John begins to doze, and when he comes fully awake again, it’s morning and the cat is gone.

*

He finds shreds of his favourite jumper on the floor under the kitchen table. Then some more wedged beneath the fridge and behind the bathroom bin. There’s a scrap of what looks like the bottom hem on the stairs, and the bit with the tag on it has been partly shoved between the cushions of the sofa.

Together, the pieces of fabric wouldn’t even make up half the jumper, but he searches the flat from top to bottom and can’t find any more.

He piles the lot of it on the coffee table and then sits in an armchair, chin propped on one hand, while he thinks. He can’t fathom that one sodding cat dug his favourite jumper from the chest of drawers in the bedroom, carried it out here, tore it to pieces, and then scattered them about the flat—all in only a few hours.

Yet neither can he envision any other way it could have happened.

“You fucking bastard,” he says, and smiles into his palm.

*

John borrows a torch from Mrs Hudson and then scours every room, investigating every nook and cranny large enough for a cat to squeeze itself into.

It takes most of the day—there are a surprising number of small spaces in 221B—and by the end of it, John’s leg aches mercilessly and he hasn’t found even the slightest sign of a cat’s presence. No faint scents of cat urine or faeces, no claw marks on any of the hard surfaces, no fur stuck to the furniture or carpet fibres.

“Oh, he’s far too clever for that, dear,” says Mrs Hudson when John returns her torch. “I rang many, many people about him, you know, and no one can ever find him. The RSPCA doesn’t even believe he’s real. I’ve been forbidden from contacting them again.”

“But it has to live somewhere in the building,” John says. “Or it has to be capable of sneaking in somehow.”

“Well,” she answers with a helpless shrug, “you’re welcome to try to find it.”

John decides that he’s going to do better: he’s going to make the cat come to him.

He buys a can of tuna at the corner shop, then places a spoonful of it on a plate just beside a bowl of fresh water in the kitchen. That night, he goes to bed early, feeling fairly certain that he has just taken the first small step towards getting the animal to trust him.

In the morning, he finds both the plate and the bowl have been upended. Much of the tuna is smeared across the floor, although pieces of it float in the pool of spilled water.

“That went well,” John says, and goes to find something to clean up the mess.

*

“Are you enjoying the new flat, then?” asks Ella, John’s therapist. “You’ve seemed more cheerful since you moved in.”

Cheerful might be a stretch, but John does feel better since he’s moved, less like a fading grey shadow in a world of colour.

“It’s all right,” he says. “I seem to have gained a sort of flatmate, actually.”

Ella’s pen pauses—positive influence, she’s writing on her notepad—and she raises an eyebrow curiously.

“A cat,” John clarifies. “The landlady thinks it belonged to one of her former tenants, but now she can’t get it to leave.”

“Interesting,” says Ella, in a tone that suggests she really doesn’t think it is. “And the job search?”

Ah, yes, John recalls. He’s meant to be finding a means of supporting himself. No matter how cheap Mrs Hudson’s rent, he won’t be able to continue living in London on his pension alone for much longer.

“You haven’t started.” Ella’s pen is going again, and John looks away, drumming his fingers on the chair when he feels a tremor coming on.

“It’s been busy, with the move and getting settled. Just haven’t got round to it yet.”

Ella nods, still writing. “That’s good, actually. Don’t feel as though you should push yourself. Getting settled is a very good plan right now.” The writing stops, and she gazes at him thoughtfully. “How’s the blog going?”

*

After therapy, John goes back to the flat and finds the fridge door wide open, most of its contents scattered about the floor. The carton of eggs is broken open, the shells cracked, and the milk—bought only yesterday—has leaked everywhere, making an even larger puddle than the upended water bowl.

“Christ,” John mutters, setting down his cane and coming gingerly to his knees to have a better look at the disaster.

There’s a short, dark strand of hair floating in the milk, which he fishes out to examine. Black fur, by the looks. That there aren’t little milky pawprints leading away from the scene, giving John some hint to where the animal is now, is both impressive and disappointing.

“You are a clever one, aren’t you?” he says.

The situation is so very, very odd that he can’t hold back a smile, and by the time he’s begun to clean up the mess, he’s chuckling to himself, imagining what cat could be capable of opening a fridge on its own—and what cat would even want to.

*

After that, John can’t keep anything in the fridge for long. When he sleeps, when he leaves, it’s opened again, its contents knocked to the floor, and he either wakes up or comes back to another disaster to clean.

Finally, he empties the fridge entirely, unplugs it, and starts leaving the door open.

Then mouse corpses begin to show up around the flat. In his favourite armchair, in the toilet, in the bath, inside his shoes, nestled in a drawer between two pairs of pants, even on his pillow just beside his head, which he discovers in the middle of the night after he rolls his cheek onto it.

And the mice aren’t simply dead—they’re mutilated. Body parts are missing, or their abdomens are torn open, or they’ve been skinned and ripped to pieces.

“I think he likes you,” Mrs Hudson says one afternoon when she’s invited him for tea.

“Really?” John answers, unconvinced. “I know they say cats leave dead animals as a sign of affection, but when those animals have been completely disfigured and their entrails smeared on your underpants, that seems a touch more like hostility.”

“Oh no, not that.” She sets a plate of biscuits on the table in front of him just as the kettle begins to boil. “Do you know, the last person before you to live in 221B had to have twelve stitches on her forearm. Poor girl, she was having a lie-in and said the cat just jumped right on top of her, claws out. Awful, awful mess that was.”

John stares, feeling cold as he remembers that first night, waking to find the cat on the headboard just above him. “And it… it didn’t occur to you to warn me about things like that before I moved in?”

Mrs Hudson waves a hand dismissively. “Oh no, I had a good feeling about you, dear. From the moment I saw you. Not like the others. Especially the first one after Sherlock, I didn’t like him at all. Something about him just didn’t sit right with me, you know, I could never put my finger on it. And he got the worst of any of them. Bitten twice, he was, before—”

“Sherlock,” John echoes. “Is that…. Was that the bloke who got the cat in the first place, then?”

“He must have done. Hard to imagine, since Sherlock never seemed the sort to get on with a pet, but….” She sighs.

“What was he like?”

“Sherlock? Well, he was a detective. He helped the police sometimes, with murders mostly, but he took private cases as well. He was working one of those when he disappeared. Do you take sugar, dear?”

“No thank you,” John says, and holds his hands out for the steaming cup of tea that Mrs Hudson passes him.

“The police never found any sign of him. So very sad.”

And Mrs Hudson does look sad. She stares off in silence for several long moments, one hand covering her mouth, and John can see her taking deep breaths, reigning in her emotions. Her eyes are distinctly misty when she finally continues.

“When I went to pack up some of his things, I found the cat there. He looked awful, half-starved and like he hadn’t properly groomed himself in weeks. Not to mention what he’d done to the carpets….”

Shaking her head, Mrs Hudson sits across from John with her own cup of tea.

“The poor thing,” she says. “He must have been all alone up there the whole time.”

*

“I looked him up on the internet,” John tells Ella during their next session. “Found his website, which is still up, apparently. ‘The Science of Deduction.’ It includes an analysis of 240 different types of tobacco ash. He sounds like he was a pompous twat, to be honest. Might explain why his cat’s the way it is.”

“Maybe,” Ella says, tapping the tip of her pen against her notepad, “we could talk about you for a bit.”

Abruptly, John feels a little like a wind-up toy that’s been stopped prematurely, its motor still spinning uselessly.

“Oh,” he says. He swallows and shifts positions in his chair, accidentally knocking his knee against his cane. “Right.”

*

He leaves his therapist’s office in a foul temper, then pops by Speedy’s when he returns to Baker Street for a sandwich and some crisps before going to his flat.

His laptop, which he left that morning on the desk in the living room, is upside down on the floor.

Christ.”

After setting his lunch on the desk, John eases himself to his knees and gently turns the computer to its proper position. Something rattles inside it at the motion, which is hardly a good sign, and when he taps the power button, the screen remains black, the machine silent.

“Fuck.” He drops his head, taking a deep breath as he tries to imagine how on earth he can afford to have his computer repaired—or to buy a new one.

“Suppose this means I won’t be writing any more blogs,” he says. Although that will probably be the only bright side to the situation.

There’s the faint sound of movement behind him, and John turns to find a cat sitting regally on the kitchen table, its pea-coloured eyes fixed on him. It’s longer than John had thought, with oddly big paws, and its fur is black and sleek. It meets John’s gaze and remains entirely, perfectly still, not blinking, not even visibly breathing, which is somehow more disconcerting than if it were charging at him full force.

“So I have you to thank for this, do I?” John asks, gesturing towards the computer.

The cat’s ears go back, and it hisses. Its canines, John can’t help but notice, are long and sharp, and he recalls what Mrs Hudson said: ‘Bitten twice, he was—’ But the cat doesn’t seem keen to venture any closer, certainly not close enough to bite.

“Well, cheers for that.”

The hiss turns into a low, rolling growl as John heaves himself to his feet, gripping the edge of the desk for assistance.

“Quiet,” John tells it when he’s standing. “I’m not going near you.”

The growling quiets to a stop, although the cat’s ears stay back, its eyes narrowed and shrewd. It watches as John returns the broken computer to the desk and then takes a seat, tugging his sandwich and crisps forward.

“This is your doing as well, you know,” he finds himself telling the cat while he eats. “It’s hard to keep food in the flat when the door of the fridge won’t stay closed. You’re a bloody nuisance, you are. Though I do appreciate not being mauled, mind. Mrs Hudson told me what you did to the people who lived here before me.”

The sandwich, whilst good, makes him thirsty, but John doesn’t care to go into the kitchen for a drink. Not with the black cat still on the table, monitoring his every move, its tail flopping agitatedly on the wood. Maybe he can pop down to Mrs Hudson’s for a glass of water.

As he’s pondering it, the cat leaps to the floor and skitters to the sofa. It climbs up the side, its claws scraping the fabric, and perches on the arm, staring at John with its head cocked.

“Good timing,” John says.

He scoots the chair back quietly and stands very, very slowly so as not to startle the animal, but the cat doesn’t seem bothered. Its tail begins to flop again, although much more calmly now, a sort of wavelike up-and-down motion.

With short, deliberate movements, John gathers his rubbish and carries it to the kitchen, where he bins it. Then he takes a glass from the cupboard, fills it with cold water from the tap, and sips it as he shuffles back towards the living room.

The cat isn’t on the sofa any longer, and John’s struck by an odd rush of disappointment, which doesn’t last long. Scanning the room, he finds the cat again, this time on the floor beside the desk. Its tail is draped over John’s cane, which is lying abandoned where John set it when he crouched down to examine his computer.

The very tip of the cat’s tail taps against the cane’s handle, as though to say Forgot this, did you?

“Well,” says John. His leg doesn’t even twinge, although he’s putting weight on it, walking on it. “That’s new.”

*

The cat follows him about for the rest of the day, always keeping its distance, always watching him like he’s a supremely suspicious character that needs constant monitoring. It watches John while he tries (in vain) to fix his computer. It watches John while he makes a Pot Noodle for dinner. It watches John while he tries to teach himself to use the internet on his phone.

While John is brushing his teeth that night, the cat finally disappears. He has a quick look around just to be sure, even climbs the stairs to check the upstairs bedroom, but finds no sign of it. He goes to bed shortly afterwards, thinking that it’ll be several days at least before he sees the cat again.

In the morning, though, John blinks gradually awake and rolls over in bed to find the cat sitting on the chest of drawers, beside the unidentified bust, staring at him.

“Just so you know, I have a gun in the bedside table,” John tells it, throwing back the duvet as he sits up. “And symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. According to my therapist, anyway. So it’s probably a bad idea to startle me first thing in the morning.”

The cat’s tail swings almost whimsically as John gets up. He’s wearing nothing but pants and a thin t-shirt, and he feels oddly exposed as the cat continues to watch him with wide eyes.

“Not sure anyone’s told you before,” John says, “but you’re more than a touch creepy, mate.”

The cat bares its teeth in a short, sharp hiss, and then it jumps to the floor and darts out of the room.

*

John begins finding cat hair on his jumpers—a lot of it. Not just a smattering of individual hairs, like he finds on his trousers and coat and even—god help him—his pants, but thickish coats of it in isolated locations. It’s particularly odd given how many weeks John spent looking for cat hair around the flat only to find none.

“Are you sleeping on my jumpers?” he asks the cat one morning, after he’s opened his drawer of jumpers to find the top one—which is tan and cable-knit—practically covered in black fur.

The cat, of course, says nothing, although its ears twitch back as though it’s offended by the question. Well, John pretends it’s offended, anyway. He knows nothing about cat behaviour aside from that purring indicates contentment and hissing or growling indicates displeasure.

“So you won’t let me near you, but you’ll worm your way into my drawers to sleep on my clothes? How did you even get in here?”

It’s an odd sort of relationship they’ve formed. The cat continues to stalk John about the flat, hissing and growling if he ventures within two or three metres of it, but sometimes, if John remains still and quiet for a period of time, it lies down and lets its eyes go half-lidded. The moment John so much as scratches his nose, however, the cat is up and alert, waiting for his next move.

“I told you he likes you,” says Mrs Hudson the next time he comes round for tea.

“I’m not sure what he thinks of me,” John answers. “I’m not sure he knows what he thinks of me.”

One night, while John is in his armchair flipping idly through one of the books he found on the living room bookshelves—Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner—the cat falls asleep on the sofa. Its long body is stretched across the cushion, its little chest expanding and shrinking as it breathes.

On a whim, John lowers the book slowly, quietly, to his knee and reaches for his mobile, which is balanced on the arm of his chair. The cat’s ears twitch as John snaps a photo, but it doesn’t wake. He smiles to himself, pleased with the first picture he’s taken with this phone since Harry gave it to him months ago. He’s pleased enough that he’s struck with the sudden urge to share it.

It takes ages for him to figure out how to upload a photo from his phone to his blog, then nearly as long to add a title to his post. (He’s a painfully slow typist on a proper keyboard; on a phone screen, which is tiny in comparison to his large and clumsy fingers, he’s impossible.) When he finishes, though, he has his first blog post since his computer was broken—titled “My new flatmate” and consisting of simply “Well, sort of,” followed by the photo.

The cat sleeps until John gets up to change for bed. Then it jerks awake, looking alarmed and disoriented, before it bounds off the sofa and follows him to the bedroom.

*

John is on his way to the corner shop for beans, bread, and tea when his phone rings. It’s so very, very out of the ordinary that it takes him a moment to realise it’s his mobile phone making the cheery electronic racket in the middle of the pavement. Harry rings him sometimes, as does Ella to remind him of appointments, but otherwise his phone is silent, useful primarily for accessing the internet and checking his email and taking photographs of his sleeping sort-of flatmate.

Surprised, and a tad flustered, he unearths his phone from the pocket of his coat. Unknown number, the screen says. John is sorely tempted to ignore it—nearly does, in fact—but somehow finds himself answering it instead.

“Hello?”

An unfamiliar male voice responds. “There is a security camera on the building to your right. Do you see it?”

John stops dead on the pavement, which angers a woman behind him, who huffs in frustration before stepping around him. “Sorry,” John tells her, hurrying out of the way so he isn’t blocking anyone else. Then, to the man on the phone, he says, “Who is this? Who am I speaking to?”

“Do you see the camera, Dr Watson?”

He looks to the left and finds the CCTV camera easily. It’s high up on the wall and pointed in his direction.

“Yeah,” John says, “I see it.”

“Watch.”

Immediately, the camera swivels until it is pointed directly away from him. John feels oddly calm as he watches it, trying to formulate a response. Then the man speaks again.

“There is another camera at the top of the building to your left. Do you see it?”

John does—it too is pointed towards him—and answers, “Mmhm.”

Just like the first, the camera swivels away.

It’s underhanded. It’s the sort of subtle, manipulative tactic that makes him furious. John inhales sharply and prepares himself for the man’s next move.

“I would make some sort of threat,” the man on the phone says. “But I’m sure your situation is quite clear to you.”

A black car pulls up at the kerbside, and the driver climbs out and opens the rear door, not even looking at John as he stands waiting for John to cross the pavement and get in.

“Get into the car, Dr Watson,” says the man, and the phone goes dead.

John lowers it, considering his options. He doesn’t have many. He could go along with it, and walk into an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situation. He could refuse, and risk being hunted down and more forcibly abducted later. He could pretend to go along with it, then put up a fight, and possibly get himself injured or even killed.

So, clenching his fists and squaring his shoulders, he gets into the car.

*

He is driven to a warehouse, where an unfamiliar, smarmy-looking man in a very fine suit is waiting for him, leaning against a tall umbrella in front of a straight-backed chair, where he motions for John to sit. John remains standing, keeping his stance wide and his muscles relaxed.

He has, by now, envisioned a number of reasons behind this little abduction, each one more unlikely than the last. As a general rule, he tries to refrain from angering anyone, certainly anyone powerful and well-connected enough to be able to remotely alter the positions of CCTV cameras. His best assumption is that it has something to do with Afghanistan—which is, after all, about the only time in John’s life when he managed to do anything of importance. Nothing else even comes close.

“Have a seat, John,” the man says, pointing to the chair with the tip of his umbrella.

“I’ll stand, thanks.”

The man smiles at him. The sort of smile that isn’t really a smile, the sort of smile that always makes John just a little bit angry. “Yes, you seem to be doing well with that,” simpers the man, leaning nonchalantly on his umbrella again. “Your limp was rather pronounced not terribly long ago, and look at you now—not even carrying your cane. Quite a dramatic recovery, wouldn’t you say?”

Yes, John thinks, definitely Afghanistan. He says nothing, keeping his chin lifted and his face blank.

The man’s head cocks curiously. “You don’t seem very afraid.”

“You don’t seem very frightening.”

Which is true enough. The man is weak; John could snap a limb in a second, and then snap his neck with only a bit of a struggle. It’s the man’s connections he would have to worry about. In fact, this encounter is probably being monitored as they speak. Perhaps there are even snipers in the shadows above them, their rifles trained on John, just waiting for him to make his move.

The man chuckles. “Ah, yes, the bravery of a soldier. Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity, don’t you think?” His smile drops, and his beady-eyed stare takes John in from head to foot, picking him apart. “What is your connection to Sherlock Holmes?”

The floor seems to drop from beneath John, leaving him momentarily adrift. His thoughts scatter. Sherlock Holmes? He hasn’t thought of the former tenant of 221B in ages.

“Sorry? I don’t… I don’t have one,” he answers. Surprise makes him stupid, stuttering, and he tries to gather himself again. “He used to live in the flat I’m renting. I never knew him.”

“Mm… and the cat? You are well-acquainted with him, if I am not mistaken,” the man says, with a greasy sort of smile that says he knows very well he is not mistaken and he invites John to simply try to tell him so.

John swallows, mind racing. Why should this man know or care about a single stray cat? “Who are you?”

“An interested party.” The man shifts his weight, tightens his fingers on the handle of his umbrella. “You’ll find that a rather… generous amount of money has been deposited to your bank account. I would be willing to make further such contributions to ease your way in exchange for… access to the cat.”

That’s more than slightly alarming. John’s head fills with all sorts of disturbing thoughts.

“Not for any of the reasons you are currently imagining, I assure you,” the man continues, frowning now, staring as though John is something smeared on his handkerchief. “Nothing objectionable. Nothing you’d feel… uncomfortable with.”

“No,” John says—firmly. This man will not come anywhere near the cat, as far as John is concerned. He’ll personally see to it.

“But I haven’t mentioned a figure.”

“Don’t bother. I’m not interested.” John steps back, towards where the car is still idling. He keeps his eyes on the man, his ears perked for any sound of the cavalry arriving, but there’s nothing. The man stays utterly still, watching him, and the warehouse remains silent aside from the sound of John’s own footsteps. “Are we done?”

The man raises his head, so he is almost looking down his nose at John. “You tell me.”

They’re done, then. John turns and begins to walk away. He expects to be apprehended or called back, but the man does nothing, simply allowing John to leave.

*

When John returns to 221B Baker Street, the cat is nowhere to be found. John tears through every room, looking under furniture and inside drawers and cupboards, fairly destroying the flat in his search.

He’s panicked; there’s no other word for it. His pulse throbs in his ears, and he has an awful empty feeling in his gut. Which is ridiculous—the cat is far from constant, is often not where John expects it to be—and yet that knowledge doesn’t help.

That Sherlock Holmes bloke was a private detective, Mrs Hudson said. A private detective who was working a case when he disappeared. And now a posh-looking man with an apparently generous sum of money, an ability to manipulate CCTV cameras, and access to an empty warehouse has taken an interest in Holmes’s cat.

Whatever case he was working, John thinks, Holmes found something, perhaps even got his hands on something that put him in danger.

Something could be hidden in a pet collar, although the cat doesn’t have one that John has seen. Perhaps a microchip implanted in the back of its neck. Or something else, something larger, that’s presently stored wherever it is that the cat spends its time when it isn’t following John round the flat or falling asleep on the sofa.

John has never seen it eat or excrete, yet it always seems fine, healthy. Somewhere it is being fed; somewhere it is having a piss and a shit. Why has it never occurred to John to wonder where that is before now?

“Cat!” he calls, standing in the centre of the kitchen when his search has failed. Does the cat have a name, something that would make it come when called? If it does, only Holmes knew it. “Kitty!” he tries, making his voice as inviting as possible. He moves towards the staircase and calls up it, “Here, kitty, kitty!”

He feels absurd. It’s a wonder Mrs Hudson hasn’t come up to ask him what on earth he’s doing.

There’s a sound behind him, and when John turns, there is the cat by the front door. Its tail twitching, it stares up at John as though saying, Yes, what? What could you possibly want now?

John feels even more absurd. What does he want? It isn’t as though he expected the man from the warehouse to have captured and vivisected the poor animal in the time it took John to return.

“Er, hello,” he says, coming closer. “Do you mind if I just…?” He extends one hand, thinking maybe if he can pet the cat, then he can feel for a microchip or anything else out of the ordinary.

With a loud hiss, the cat springs away and leaps atop the back of the sofa, then scampers to the far end, where it stops and spins to look at him. It growls, its ears going flat, until John concedes, “All right, all right,” putting his hands up and backing away again.

“Sorry,” he tells it. “Should’ve known better, I suppose. Only I was just kidnapped by some sort of twat in a suit who was really, really interested in you, and I got a bit… yeah. You can come down now.”

The cat stays where it is, unsurprisingly. Its eyes are almost comically wide, which John probably deserves, coming at it like that after months of keeping his distance.

“Though I do think,” he admits after a brief silence, “that maybe there should be some changes around here.”

*

The amount of money deposited in John’s account is more than what he would consider merely “generous.” Rather, it’s absolutely ludicrous. He feels faint when he sees the sum and has to sit down a moment.

Frankly, he wants rid of it. He’ll donate it, he thinks, divide it out amongst several worthy charities. But first, he decides, he’ll visit a few shops.

John has never owned a cat before. Nor any pet, for that matter, but he knows even less about cats than he does certain other animals, like dogs or rats. He knows a proper indoor cat needs a litter tray, of course, and food and water, and also possibly something for entertainment.

Luckily, when it becomes clear that John is both clueless and unconcerned about price, shopkeeps are utterly thrilled to assist him.

He returns to 221B with a veritable feline treasure trove: a litter tray, a water fountain, several brands of cat food, a bed, all manner of different toys, and even a sodding three-storey scratching post/activity centre.

None of which the cat seems to give a toss about.

He shows some interest in the food when John puts a bowl of it in front of him, trotting over and lowering his head to sniff at it.

“It’d be nice,” John tells him, “if you could stay in here for a bit. Where I can keep a closer eye on you. I don’t know what the arsehole had in mind for you, and I’d really prefer not to find out, to be honest.”

The cat sits just in front of the food dish, and stares curiously up at John.

“I’ve become… a bit attached to you, I think,” John admits.

Without looking away from John, the cat lifts his paw to the edge of the food bowl and tips it over, surprisingly forcefully. The kibble scatters, nearly covering the whole of the kitchen floor.

“Although god knows why,” John adds with a sigh.

*

Over the next several days, the litter in the tray remains untouched, as does the bed, and every brand of food that John fills the food dish with is promptly spilled all over the floor. The activity centre lasts less than a day before it’s knocked over, which creates such a commotion that Mrs Hudson rushes up to investigate.

“I wouldn’t worry over it,” Mrs Hudson says, watching John try (and fail) to engage the cat’s interest with a toy comprised of an assortment of feathers on a string. “Some cats just can’t be bothered with things like that, you know.”

That’s putting it lightly. The whole time, the cat watches John rather than the feather toy, his eyes narrowed like John is behaving as an idiot and should be deeply embarrassed. So John switches out the toy for a jingling ball that he rolls across the floor just in front of where the cat is lounging on his side. Again the cat stares only at John, something like disgust written all over his little triangular face.

John gives up, leaning back against the sofa with his legs stretched out on the carpet.

“The case that Holmes was working before he disappeared,” he says. “Do you know anything about it?”

“Oh, I never wanted to know about Sherlock’s cases,” Mrs Hudson answers with a shudder. “It wasn’t decent, the way he carried on like it was Christmas every time some poor soul got themselves murdered.”

“He only worked murder cases, then?”

“Oh no. He worked cases he thought were interesting. Oftentimes that meant murder, but not always. Like all those suicides. Do you remember?”

John does. It was all over the news a few months ago; even now, when there hasn’t been another suicide since the sixth and last, John still sees articles speculating about it in the papers occasionally. He nods.

“Sherlock would have loved that,” Mrs Hudson sighs. “It would have been right up his street.”

She sweeps her hands over her skirt, smoothing away the wrinkles, and they watch the cat for a time, who lays his head on his paws and watches back.

“A bit like that cat,” Mrs Hudson eventually continues, “Sherlock was. He never cared for the normal. Things that everyone else enjoyed, he thought were boring. You’d have liked him too, I think.”

John isn’t so sure. He sounds a bit of a nutter, to be honest.

“Now you’ve more or less properly adopted him,” says Mrs Hudson, with a nod towards the cat, “aren’t you going to give him a name?”

“No,” John answers, taken aback by the suggestion. “Course not.”

The cat’s gone so long without a name that one simply doesn’t fit now, and they’ve got along just fine without one, haven’t they? He’s the cat. And that’s good enough for John.

*

Over the next week, John doesn’t hear a word from the arrogant prat from the warehouse. The bulk of his “contribution” has been donated to various disease research centres and human rights organisations, and no more has appeared in John’s bank account.

Sometimes when he leaves the flat, he thinks the CCTV cameras are tracking his movements, although that might be simple paranoia. Either way, nothing ever comes of it.

Meanwhile, John finally starts on his job search, dropping off his CV at a few of the surgeries nearby as well as the A&E. So far, he’s heard nothing.

Bill Murray, the nurse who saved his life in Afghanistan, leaves a comment on a photo of the cat (sleeping just beside his bloody expensive cat bed, the stubborn bastard) on his blog, and they meet up for a pint.

Life is, he thinks, not bad, all things considering.

He has a lie-in one morning before therapy, and comes out of a heavy doze to find the cat asleep atop the duvet only inches from him. John wouldn’t even have to reach his arm terribly far to stroke a hand along the cat’s side, where the fur looks so wispy and soft, although he doesn’t. He stays very, very still until he can’t put it off any longer; it’s either get up now or stay and miss his appointment with Ella, who would surely be very cross with him for doing so.

John drags his feet beneath the sheets, beginning to swing them over the edge of the bed, and the cat twitches awake, his ears perking up and his eyes fixing immediately on John. To John’s surprise, he doesn’t hiss or flee. He only gives John a sort of disgruntled look and flicks his tail sulkily against the duvet.

“Sorry,” John says, no louder than a whisper. “You can go back to sleep. Only I have to get up because I have therapy in, oh, thirty-two minutes now, and…well….”

John doesn’t want to leave. Not just because of the cat, but because he doesn’t fancy spending an hour discussing his thoughts and his mood and his “trust issues” and his journal, the paper one he’s meant to be writing in now he can’t type up long posts on his blog, which he’s written precisely three sentences in since he bought it three weeks ago.

The cat blinks and lifts his head. Cancel it, John imagines he’s thinking. Despite her considerable expertise and well-meaning intentions, she’s done nothing for you, and in fact, you feel worse upon leaving her office than you do in the worst moments of your day-to-day life. So just cancel and be done with it.

“Right,” John decides with a nod.

After he’s phoned Ella’s office and cancelled, he lies back down on his stomach, burrowing into the pillow with a contented sigh.

Moments later, he hears the cat begin to purr.

*

The cat likes human food, it turns out. John feeds him pieces of pork, chicken, and fish, and he gobbles it all up happily. By accident—in other words, the cat leaping onto the table or worktop when John isn’t paying attention—John discovers he’ll also eat beans, boiled eggs, custard, and biscuit crumbs. And although John’s glad to see him eat, he’s fairly certain it isn’t a healthy diet for a cat.

One evening, he mixes broken-up bits of roast chicken into a dish full of proper cat food and sets it on the floor, hoping it’ll encourage the cat to eat what he’s meant to be eating. Minutes later, the dish is overturned, and the cat spends the rest of the night hissing at John every time they’re in view of each other.

“Right, yes, you’ve made your point,” John eventually tells him peevishly. “Fine. Go right ahead and give yourself a mess of nutritional deficiencies. I’m sure that’ll be nice.”

The cat hisses at him again, more loudly than before, and then flops down on his side on the sofa while John goes to have a bath.

Now they’re more comfortable with each other, the cat makes an assortment of sounds. In fact, John doesn’t realise how few sounds the cat has previously made—consisting entirely of hisses, growls, and very rare yowls—until the cat finally lets out a proper meow.

It’s a low and strangely mournful sound, more of a mrraoow. The first time John hears it, he’s sure that something is wrong. He rushes from the kitchen, where he’s been putting the shopping away, to the living room, where the cat is sprawled out in the black leather armchair, utterly unharmed. He lifts his head and blinks at John as though to say, What? Is something the matter?

After that, the cat meows all the sodding time. While John is cooking, while John is cleaning up, while John is watching telly, while they’re both sitting in their respective favourite chairs and literally nothing is happening.

Even during the night, the cat meows. John is jerked awake one night to find the cat prowling about his room making a racket, one loud, long, and sorrowful mrraoow after another.

“What,” John snaps, sitting up, “the hell is your problem?”

It’s still dark in the room, but John can see enough to watch the cat trot to the doorway, glance back, and mrraoow again.

“Piss off,” John says, falling back into the pillow. “It’s the middle of the fucking night.”

He dozes a while. Then the mattress shudders beneath him, and the next mrraoow comes from just beside him. His eyes snap open to find the cat on his haunches only inches from John’s face, eyes glowing in the moonlight peeking in from the window.

Fine. Christ.”

John shoves the bedsheets aside and manoeuvers sluggishly into a standing position. This time, when the cat darts to the door, John follows all the way to the living room, flipping on all the light switches and lamps as he goes. Once there, the cat stops and simply stares up at John, an expectant sort of look on his face.

“Are you serious?” John asks. “You just wanted me awake so I could come out here with you? It’s—” He glances at the clock. “—three in the bloody morning, you cock.”

The cat blinks and flicks his tail. Is it? he seems to be saying. Well, you’ve nothing on tomorrow, so what does it matter?

“It matters,” John scowls, “because it’s three in the bloody morning, and you apparently think the world revolves around you.”

Although, to be fair, John supposes his world does revolve around the cat. He should probably feel more pathetic about that than he does.

“All right,” he agrees, sighing. “I’ll be back in a tick.”

After fetching a pillow from the bedroom and a quilt from the cupboard, John returns to the living room and plops down in his armchair. Before he can situate the pillow or spread out the quilt, the cat hops up on the arm of the chair and steps his front paws onto John’s thighs.

John freezes, scarcely breathing, even as the cat gazes up at him, ears perked, as though to say, Well, what are you waiting for?

The cat doesn’t run from John any longer or go out of his way to avoid crossing John’s path. In fact, he’ll often sit or lie well within John’s reach. Still, John hasn’t touched him—although he wants to, sometimes, when the cat’s fur appears distractingly smooth and soft. But it’s not exactly on, is it, to respect someone’s boundaries only until they trust you enough to let their guard down?

On the other hand, a cat half-climbing into your lap does seem something of an invitation.

John reaches tentatively towards him, slowly enough that the cat could easily duck away if he wants, and when the cat stays still, John pets the top of his head, from the centre of his forehead back between his ears. Immediately, the cat’s ears relax, his eyes drift closed, and he nudges his head up into John’s questing fingers.

“I’m not sure if this is some sort of apology for waking me up or if this is just what you wanted all along,” John tells him.

The cat climbs fully onto John’s thighs, which John promptly presses tightly together so the cat has a decentish surface to lie on if he’s keen.

And he is keen, apparently. While John scratches behind his ears, the cat kneads at John’s pyjama bottoms. His paws, John realises as he watches, are in fact more than simply big as John’s thought for a while.

“You’re polydactyl,” he murmurs, still scratching. The cat has at least one extra toe on each of his front paws: a nice thumb, making his paws look like little furry mittens as he presses each one again and again into John’s legs. “Suppose that explains some things.”

Once John’s thighs have been thoroughly prepared, the cat curls into a loose ball atop them, and John strokes along his side, where the fur is indeed as soft as it looks. John feels the deep rumbling beneath the skin before he hears the cat begin to purr.

“Well,” John says, “glad one of us is happy at least.”

Which is a lie, of course: John is plenty happy. He drops his head against the back of the armchair and smiles to the ceiling as he closes his eyes.

*

The next week, John has a job interview. It’s only locum work, not the permanent position he’s been hoping for, but it’s something.

The cat lies on the bed and watches as he dresses for it, and as usual, John finds himself talking to him.

“Hopefully, a bit of cat hair won’t get me disqualified,” he says, brushing at one of his shirts to rid it of a spattering of black fur. “I’m not sure I own anything anymore you haven’t shed on.”

The cat lowers his head and stretches out his front legs as far as they’ll go, which tips him back onto his side and exposes his belly in the process. John spares a moment to lean over the bed and stroke the fur there, and the cat looks blissful.

“Maybe once I have a little more money, I can take you to the vet’s.”

After all, John thinks, the cat would almost certainly benefit from a health check and an annual vaccination. He should probably be neutered as well; after all, the world doesn’t need any more homeless cats.

The cat makes a low mrrw sound and rolls to his other side, out of John’s reach, so John goes back to getting ready.

The interview turns out to be less formal than John was expecting. His interviewer is a woman called Sarah Sawyer, who John can’t help but notice is rather pretty, especially when she smiles, which is often, even as she tells him that he’s overqualified and might find the job mundane.

“It says here you were a soldier,” she says, looking over his CV.

“And a doctor,” John answers with a smile that makes her duck her head to hide an answering smile. Oh yes, he thinks, he might fancy her just a little.

“Anything else you can do?”

Charming, John tells himself, be charming. It comes surprisingly easily, even though it’s been ages since he flirted last. “I learned the clarinet at school.”

“Oh!” She laughs, and her face lights up. “Well, I look forward to it.”

When John leaves, he has both the prospect of a future date and a future job offer, and he feels immeasurably chuffed with himself. Even more so when he pays attention to the CCTV cameras on his way back home and sees nothing particularly odd or suspicious about them; certainly none are tracking him like they seemed to before. Perhaps the umbrella-toting arsehole has buggered off. Maybe he was never actually as powerful or well-connected as John thought he was.

Either way, John returns to the flat in a pleasant mood, and spends the evening paging through Diary of Jack the Ripper—another book from the shelves—whilst the cat, purring like a motor, sleeps sprawled across his lap.

*

For their first date, John takes Sarah to the cinema—a rom com that bores him to tears, but she at least seems to enjoy it—followed by dinner at an Italian restaurant.

“You have a cat, I see,” Sarah says after the waiter has taken their menus. Seemingly apropos of nothing, but then she gestures at his shirt, and John recalls that, of course, yes, cat hair. “Interesting. I didn’t picture you as a cat person.”

John laughs lightly, plucking at the strands of black fur he can see sticking up from his chest. He spent nearly twenty minutes with a pet-hair remover earlier, and he’s still wearing the bloody stuff as an accessory. “It’s complicated, actually. He sort of came with my flat when I moved in.”

“Oh?”

She rests her chin on her palm, seeming genuinely interested, so John tells her the story. Leaving out the bits about Holmes’s disappearance and John being abducted to a warehouse for a chat with a criminal, of course—which could make the story either off-putting or even more entertaining, and John hasn’t decided yet which she’s likely to see it as—while embellishing other bits, like the cat’s destruction of the flat and how John eventually won him over.

“You sound very fond of him,” Sarah says when he’s finished, smiling.

John shrugs. “He grew on me. He’s a prat sometimes, but yeah, I suppose I love the little bastard.”

“Do you have any pictures?”

John has an entire phone full of them, in fact, which he happily digs from his coat pocket, and she scoots her chair closer so she can look over his shoulder as he swipes through them.

“We could stop by mine after,” he eventually offers. “If you want to meet him.”

It’s a flimsy excuse—and one she certainly sees through—but he also means it. The only person John’s been able to introduce the cat to is Mrs Hudson, and that doesn’t really count. It’ll be nice to show him off, John thinks. His little furry prat.

“Sure,” Sarah answers. Her cheeks go a bit pink, and when John grins at her, she lowers her head and takes a sip of water.

After dinner, they take a cab to Baker Street. As John is unlocking the door, he worries Mrs Hudson will pop out to ask how it went, but her door stays closed, her flat silent, as John leads Sarah up the stairs to 221B.

The cat is curled up in his favoured armchair. His ears are perked and his eyes are wide, alert, when John opens the door to the flat, although when Sarah follows him inside, the cat jumps into a standing position, his ears laid flat. He hisses, lips pulling back to bare the full length of his canines, and the fur on his back bristles.

“Hey,” John tells him sternly, “none of that, now,” and the cat bolts from the chair and across the living room into the kitchen.

John realises that he has, perhaps, not thought this through properly.

“Oh dear,” Sarah says around a breathy half-laugh, shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “That, um….”

“Sorry,” John rushes to say. “I should’ve expected that, honestly. He’ll warm up to you, though. How could he not?” He smiles winningly at her and is relieved when she returns the smile easily. “Can I get you a drink?”

“What do you have?”

Should’ve thought that through as well. John rather wants to bury his face in his palm. He has tea and water from the tap, neither of which are the sort of thing you want to offer a woman when she comes over to yours after dinner.

“Erm,” he says, and she trails after him as he moves towards the kitchen, turning on the light. “Well—”

He’s cut off by a low, feral-sounding mrroww. The cat is on the kitchen table, poised with his back arched as though he means to lunge at them. It’s an alarming image, even more so because John knows very well that this is his own fault and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

“Hey,” he says, keeping his tone soft and calm as he steps closer, reaching out to pet the cat soothingly. “It’s all right.”

The cat swipes at him, his claws missing John’s hand only because he manages to yank it out of reach just in time. With another dangerous mrroww, the cat skitters backwards and off the table, sprinting into the bedroom.

“Christ,” John sighs, rubbing his forehead, at the same time that Sarah says, “Actually, you know, I should probably be off.”

John spins around, surprised. “What?” They’ve not even had time for either of them to take their coats off, but she’s moving towards the door, head down as though she’s embarrassed—or possibly put off—by the whole affair. “Do you—er. I mean—”

She shakes her head. “Not because of that. I just remembered I have to be up early tomorrow, and….”

“Oh,” John says stupidly. It’s rubbish, of course, but he’s hardly going to try and convince her to stay if she’s changed her mind. “Right, of course. Here, let me walk you out.”

He walks her awkwardly back down the stairs, feeling like both the worst sort of cat owner and the worst sort of date in the world.

“I mean it,” she assures him when they reach the bottom. “I had a good time tonight. It’s just that I realised I might regret it later if… well. So if you’re all right with going a bit slower, I’d like to do something like this again soon.”

Relief washes over him. He hasn’t blown his chances. They can carry on, take things a bit more slowly, and everything will be fine. John grins. “Yeah, absolutely. Although next time maybe without the angry, hissing cat at the end.”

Sarah giggles a bit and ducks her head, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “That would be nice. Well. Good night,” she says, and leans over to press a kiss to the corner of his lips before she leaves.

John closes the door behind her, sucking in a deep breath. Again, he half-expects Mrs Hudson to peek her head out and ask him about his night and the lady who just left five minutes after arriving. But 221A stays closed and silent, so he climbs the stairs again to his own flat.

The cat is waiting for him, sitting just inside the doorway with his eyes narrowed and his tail thumping erratically against the carpet. Mrrooaw, he says.

“Hello,” John answers, finally taking off his coat and draping it over the arm of the sofa. “Finally got all that out of your system, did you?”

He bends forward to untie his shoes, slips them off, and then suddenly the cat is there, stepping on the tops of his feet and rubbing enthusiastically against his ankles and shins.

“Erm. Is this your apology?” he asks, taken aback by the outpouring of affection. “Don’t worry, it’s fine. You’re forgiven.” He bends again, this time to stroke along the cat’s spine.

But the cat reels back as though he’s been struck, stares at John with narrowed eyes, and hisses, then runs off to the kitchen.

“Right,” John says, baffled. “Apparently not out of your system, then.”

John wonders if he smells strange. He thinks that he must do, after spending several hours outside the flat with another person. Probably the cat is on edge after having a stranger in his domain, and John still smells off to him.

He’ll have a shower, he decides. Maybe then he’ll smell more familiar, and the cat will calm enough to lie with John while he reads in bed, or perhaps even consent to a cuddle.

So John does just that, showering and brushing his teeth before he grabs a book from one of the shelves in the bedroom—Not a Chimp, he reads on the cover as he climbs into bed. He sits with his back against the headboard, feet and legs beneath the sheets and the book open in his lap, and he reads.

Ten pages in, the mattress jumps beneath him, and he glances up in time to see the cat plodding strangely gracelessly over the lumps in the duvet made by John’s feet and legs. John sets the book aside, and the cat immediately takes its place in his lap, butting his head against John’s chest with a familiar mrrooaw.

“There we go,” John says softly, petting him, running his fingertips from the cat’s forehead to his tail. “Looks like that’s all sorted, then. Do I smell better now?”

The cat’s eyes close as John scratches behind his ears, and he puts his front paws on John’s sternum, standing on his hind legs so he can head-butt John’s chin, which makes John chuckle.

“You were acting like a possessive git, you know,” John says fondly, as the cat begins to knead John’s chest. “Throwing a tantrum and trying to protect your territory. But you’ve nothing to worry about. The whole flat is yours. I’m yours, for that matter. No one’s going to take any of it from you. It’s all fine.”

Eventually, the cat settles down by John’s thighs, purring softly. John takes up his book again, and reads until he’s too tired to stay awake.

*

John wakes suddenly, his whole body going tense as though he’s been wrenched awake by a nightmare, but he hasn’t had a nightmare in weeks, as far as he knows.

It’s bright outside, probably midmorning, and he’s lying on his side at the edge of the bed, sunlight streaming on his face. He’s not alone; he can feel the dip in the mattress behind him that means the cat is there, possibly asleep but most likely watching him, waiting for him to wake. John hopes he didn’t kick him in the night.

John yawns, stretching, and rolls over.

Then promptly swears, bolting upright in bed and kicking the covers away in a panic, because it isn’t the cat who is making the mattress dip.

It’s a man: pale and practically all limbs, with a headful of messy, longish dark curls. He’s wearing John’s dressing gown and watching John with an intensity that is nearly as alarming as his sudden appearance.

John dives off the bed, expecting for the man to lunge after him, but the man remains cross-legged with his back against the headboard. John wishes his gun weren’t in the bedside table on the other side of the bed, closer to the stranger than to him.

“Oh good,” says the man. His voice is low, absurdly so, and he grins madly at John. The sort of grin that would make most people take a step back; John only reminds himself to avoid sudden movements. “You’re awake. Took you long enough.”

Questions zip through John’s mind. How did you get in here? What do you want with me? What have you done to Mrs Hudson? Why the bloody hell would you break into another person’s flat while they’re asleep, dress in their clothes, and stare at them? Then, one by one, they pop and disappear like bubbles until only the most important question remains.

Keeping his eyes on the man, John clenches his fists, steeling himself for whatever will follow. “Who the hell are you?”

Chapter Text

“Who the hell are you?”

The dark-haired man’s smile loses most of its manic-ness, until it resembles more the smug smirk of an arsehole giggling at his own joke. Even so, with his hair—which is a disaster, sticking up in places and resembling the sort of haircut a child gives himself in the few seconds his mum’s out of the room—he still looks a bit like a mad scientist.

“Sherlock Holmes,” he says. “I believe you’ve heard of me.”

It’s not the last response John was expecting—but it’s very, very close. “You’re joking.” He laughs a little in disbelief. “Sherlock Holmes has been missing for a year.”

“Mm, yes.” The man—Holmes, if he’s to be believed—leans forwards, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his hands beneath his chin. “That’s the thing about missing people: they’re sometimes found.”

John’s mind spins. It would explain how the stranger got into the flat—he would still have a key, from when he lived here before. Although it wouldn’t explain why he is sitting on John’s bed, why he is wearing John’s dressing gown… or anything else about the situation, really.

“You don’t believe me,” Holmes says, the infuriating little smirk finally fading. “Understandable, I suppose, given the circumstances. Very well. MRS HUDSON!”

Holmes’s voice booms, loudly and suddenly enough that John flinches, a spark of panic shooting through him. He hasn’t quite recovered when Holmes leaps to his feet—looking a bit wobbly once he gets there, as though his legs have fallen asleep, but he recovers quickly—and strides out the open bedroom door.

John hurries after him, saying “What the hell are you doing?” through gritted teeth.

“Providing proof” is Holmes’s calm answer, as they pass from the kitchen to the living room. “Mrs Hudson can attest to my identity. MRS HUDSON!”

John can hear Mrs Hudson on the stairs now, her heavy shoes making clop-clop noises as she climbs them. “No, wait!” he says, as Holmes approaches the door to let her in. If this man is a madman or a criminal, then John doesn’t want Mrs Hudson anywhere near him. Or if he is Sherlock Holmes, then John doesn’t want Mrs Hudson to have the shock of her life, being greeted at the door by a dead man.

But John is too late. Holmes is already grasping the knob and wrenching the door open. His arm and shoulder block John’s view, but he hears Mrs Hudson give a sharp “Oh!” that is followed by a much softer “Sherlock!”

Holmes spins back to John, wearing that infuriatingly smug little smirk again. “There, see. As I said.”

“I don’t care who you are, you arsehole,” John tells him, and shoves past so he can get to Mrs Hudson, who is standing with her hand over her mouth, looking more relieved than shocked, which breaks his fucking heart.

So much so that when Holmes begins to scoff, “Oh for god’s sake,” John positively snarls, “She thought you were dead, you cock,” and puts his arms around her, hoping to shield her from a display of such heartlessness he’s honestly surprised Holmes wasn’t killed if this is the sort of person he is.

“Of course she didn’t. Mrs Hudson is cleverer than that.”

John gapes at him, then looks to Mrs Hudson, whose only response is to pat John’s arm with a deep breath as though she’s gathering her wits about her. Then she steps away.

“How about a nice cuppa?” she says.

*

John rather feels what follows is the sort of conversation he shouldn’t take part in. He doesn’t know Holmes, doesn’t particularly care about the man’s wellbeing except insofar as it pertains to Mrs Hudson’s. But when he tries to beg off, Mrs Hudson tells him in no uncertain terms that he’d best sit down at the table, so that’s precisely what he does. Mrs Hudson sits across from him, and Holmes circles them like a shark, still wearing John’s dressing gown (although no one besides John seems to notice or care) and carrying his steaming cup of tea with him.

“I admit I suspected,” Mrs Hudson says. “Sherlock’s brother dropped by personally to collect some of his things, and he was far too calm about the whole thing.”

Holmes snorts into his cup, and Mrs Hudson shoots him a scolding glance.

“It would break his heart if anything happened to you,” she says. “Although when months passed and you didn’t turn up… I did start to wonder.”

“Extenuating circumstances,” answers Holmes, not even a hint of an apology in his tone. “It was far, far longer than I’d anticipated before I was… capable of returning.”

“Hang on a minute,” John can’t help but jump in. “Your brother collected your things? Did he realise he’d left your bloody cat behind?”

Mrs Hudson’s shoulders jerk, and she quickly sets down her tea. “Oh! How could I have forgotten? Speaking of, I wonder where he’s got to.”

That’s a wonderful question, and John shakes his head to indicate he doesn’t have an answer to it. Possibly Holmes’s appearance scared the cat off during the night, and he’s disappeared to wherever he goes when he can’t be found in the flat.

“He’s fine,” Holmes says breezily. “And I have it on good authority that he was taken very good care of while I was gone.” As he’s saying the last bit, he stares right at John, as though he’s trying to communicate something or share in some inside joke.

“Well, let me remind you that pets were not included in your lease, young man,” Mrs Hudson is saying.

“Not a problem. I’ll get rid of him when I move back in.”

“Now hang on a bloody minute,” John says, outraged, at the same time that Mrs Hudson cries, “Sherlock!” sounding much the same. She says nothing else though, only frowns disapprovingly, so John carries on: “Missing or dead or whatever the hell you were—which you still haven’t explained, by the way—you were gone, Mr Holmes. This flat is mine now, so you’ll be neither moving in nor getting rid of the cat.”

“Sherlock, please,” says Holmes—or Sherlock, if he’d rather, John frankly doesn’t care which—as though that’s the most important part of what John’s said. He stops circling the table and stands just behind John’s chair so that John has to tilt his head back to keep him within sight. “Our relationship has progressed past a last-name basis, don’t you think?” He punctuates the statement with a cheeky wink that makes John feel strangely squirmy, although he resolutely ignores it.

“Has it?” he says dryly. “Because you sat on my bed and watched me sleep, you mean?”

John realises how that sounds only after it’s left his mouth. He glances at Mrs Hudson and finds her looking between him and Sherlock, doubtlessly seeing for the first time that Sherlock is wearing nothing but John’s dressing gown and that John is still in his pyjamas, and is now coming to entirely the wrong conclusion.

“Oh!” Her eyes go wide.

“No,” John tells her quickly. “That wasn’t what—”

“Oh, don’t worry, we get all sorts round here.” With a cheery smile, she pushes back from the table, stands, and carries her barely touched cup of tea to the sink. “Mrs Turner next door’s got married ones.” She whispers the last bit over her shoulder, rinsing out the cup before leaving it with the rest of the washing-up that needs to be done. “Now, I’ll let you boys get settled.”

Standing so quickly he nearly knocks his chair over, John tries to stop her. “We don’t need to ‘get settled.’ I’m not gay, and… and he still hasn’t explained what happened, you know.”

But at the same time, Sherlock is telling her, “Thank you, Mrs Hudson. Once everything’s sorted, I’ll come down for a proper chat.” With a hand her on shoulder, he ushers her towards the door, while John rubs his hands over his face and tries to understand what has happened to his life in the last hour and how he can fix it.

“So,” Sherlock says, when Mrs Hudson has been seen out, and he and John are standing awkwardly in the kitchen, the table and two rapidly cooling cups of tea between them. “You have questions.”

“Not really,” John says, which is a lie of course. He has loads of questions; he just doesn’t particularly want to ask them. He won’t be dragged into this any more than he has to be. “I’m going to have a shower, and by the time I’ve finished, I want you to be gone—in your own clothes—and my dressing gown put back where you nicked it from. Otherwise, I don’t care who you are, I’ll ring the bloody police. This is my flat now, I pay the rent, and you can sod off. Do you understand?”

Sherlock’s expression, having darkened into a deeper and deeper scowl as John spoke, suddenly brightens. “Yes, of course,” he says, in a tone like he’s just found the solution to a terribly difficult problem. “I should find Lestrade. He’ll want to know I’ve returned. No doubt he’s amassed a vast number of unsolved cases in the time—”

Mentally throwing up his hands, John turns and makes for the en suite, where he slams the door behind him. He won’t be dragged into this, he reminds himself firmly. He won’t be dragged into any of this.

He dearly hopes that Sherlock Holmes is gone by the time he is finished.

*

Sherlock Holmes is gone by the time John is finished. During a cursory search of the flat, he discovers his dressing gown folded neatly at the foot of his bed, but everything else is exactly as he left it.

Well, he thinks, good.

Now that’s sorted, he sets about finding the cat. He searches the flat again, but this time he lingers more in each room, calling “Here, kitty, kitty!” and listening for any rustling of movement or the mrraoow he’s become so fond of.

When the cat doesn’t appear, John is surprised but not terribly concerned. After all, if John is still rattled by the events of the morning, then it’s not unlikely the cat would be too. Perhaps Sherlock was a shit owner, and his sudden reappearance is not only startling but traumatic for the cat. John wouldn’t be surprised.

Well, John decides, a quiet and empty flat for the afternoon should help the poor thing calm down. So after making himself beans on toast for breakfast, he leaves for Russell Square, where he used to walk some mornings when he lived at his dismal little bedsit.

He’s not been on a proper walk since he moved to Baker Street, he realises as he starts on the path. Perhaps he’ll start again after this.

“John!” he hears someone call from behind him at one point, although he carries on, not even turning back. One of the many drawbacks of having such a common name—he hears it often, but it’s never referring to him. Then the voice calls again, “John! John Watson!” and he swings around in surprise.

There’s a man hurrying towards him with a smile. He looks vaguely familiar, but John can’t place him until he offers his hand and says, “Stamford. Mike Stamford. We were at Bart’s together.”

“Yes.” John can see it now. He’s a bit heavier round the middle than the Mike Stamford John remembers, but it is clearly him. “Sorry, yes, Mike.” He takes the proffered hand, smiling back. “Hello.”

Mike laughs, gesturing at himself. “Yeah, I know. I got fat.”

“No,” John starts to say, but, well. It’s only a statement of fact, not an insult. “You look good,” he says instead, which is true. The Mike Stamford in his memories is a bony, self-conscious man who hadn’t yet discovered his place in the world.

“You do as well,” Mike answers. “I heard you were abroad somewhere, getting shot at. What happened?”

“I got shot.”

Mike blanches, and John is immediately more glad than usual that he no longer has to carry his cane. It would make the moment even more awkward.

With a grin to show he isn’t offended, John nods to a nearby café and asks, “Want to have coffee, catch up?”

Mike does, and John surprises himself by having a good time, listening to Mike talk about teaching and his wife and showing Mike photos of the cat. By the time they exchange phone numbers and say goodbye, John has… well, not forgotten about Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock seems less important, hardly even worth thinking about at all.

*

When John gets back to the flat, he finds there are now boxes scattered around the living room and a whole lot of rubbish that wasn’t here previously, including a riding crop balanced on arm of the sofa, a black bison skull hung on the wall, a great stack of files stuffed full of papers on the floor beside the desk, and… is that a human skull on the mantel?

John is examining it, trying to determine if it’s real or just a very realistic fake, when someone clears their throat behind him. He whirls around, nearly dropping the skull in his surprise, and finds Sherlock standing there, looking much more presentable now: dressed in nice black trousers and a crisp white shirt, his hair still longish and curly but arranged much more neatly, almost artfully, atop his head.

“Good,” he says. “You’re back.”

John tries to keep his tone calm, the deadly sort of calm that tends to make people flinch back, when he says, “I told you to sod off.”

“You did.” Sherlock brushes past him, and John sees he is carrying a small stack of envelopes, which he slaps on the mantel and then stabs through the centre with a knife. “You did not, however, say not to return. Therefore, I complied perfectly with your request.”

“Order, not request. And you bloody well knew what I meant. This is my flat now.”

“Furnished with my belongings.”

That brings John up short, and he swallows uncomfortably, as he’s filled with a suspicion he knows exactly what Sherlock will say next. “What?”

Sherlock strides to the bookshelf and trails his fingers along the spines of books until he finds whatever one he’s searching for. Then he pulls it out, flips it open, and holds it out for John to see.

On the inside cover, the initials SH are scrawled in black pen. It seems an overly dramatic way of explaining himself, but the meaning is clear enough at least.

“The books are yours. And I suppose the rest of it is as well? The chairs, the coffee table, the framed pictures in the bedroom?”

“Yep.” Sherlock pops the p. “My brother collected some of my things, but the rest were left here with Mrs Hudson.”He slams the book shut, replaces it on the shelf, and throws himself into the black leather armchair that the cat so often sits in. Folding his hands in front of him, he smiles winsomely up at John. “So I think you’ll agree a flatshare is the best solution. I keep all my things, you aren’t left in a flat without as much as a chair to sit on, and Mrs Hudson doesn’t lose her tenant. Plus, we can split the rent. And as an invalided Army doctor struggling to afford to live in London, you shouldn’t need me to explain the benefits of that. Ah, that reminds me: Afghanistan or Iraq?”

John inhales sharply in surprise, and then is immediately furious at himself for giving Sherlock the satisfaction when he knows that is precisely what Sherlock was after. He’s seen Sherlock’s website, John reminds himself; he knows what Sherlock can supposedly do. Or, more likely, Sherlock had a poke around the flat earlier and managed to find out a great deal about John’s life.

“Afghanistan,” he answers simply, and then says: “I met a… something of yours, you know. He had me picked up and taken to an abandoned warehouse. He was very, very interested in the cat, and he wanted to know my connection to you.”

“Mm, yes, he’s the most dangerous man you’ve ever met,” Sherlock answers mildly, “but also not your problem right now. Nor is the cat, for that matter.”

That sounds ominous, but before John can respond, Sherlock is standing and striding to the kitchen, where John notices several boxes are on the table in the process of being unpacked. Most of it is lab equipment, by the looks, but John hardly cares about that.

“Sorry?” he says, going into the kitchen as well, positioning himself across the table from Sherlock. John clasps the back of one of the chairs with both hands, leaning forwards. “What about the cat?”

Sherlock doesn’t even glance up from where he’s digging into one of the boxes and lining up an assortment of microscope supplies on the table. “He’s not your concern any longer.”

Panic curls around John’s insides and sinks its claws in deep. “What did you do to him?” His voice is deathly quiet and even, and Sherlock finally looks up, staring at him with wide eyes.

“You think I did something to him?” He sounds incredulous, utterly uncomprehending, and John doesn’t believe it for a second.

“I haven’t seen him since you showed up, a ‘dangerous man’ is willing to pay me to have access to him, and now you’re making enigmatic comments about him. It’s not a difficult leap to make.”

John lets go of the chair and moves closer. Although Sherlock towers over him when they’re both standing, John knows very well he can be imposing even without a height advantage. And sure enough, Sherlock takes a step back, his posture becoming distinctly defensive.

“Listen to me,” John tells him, leaning close. “If you hurt him, if you so much as laid one finger on him, I will make you regret it.”

Sherlock is silent, his gaze nearly a physical sensation as it darts from one part of John’s face to the next. But then he grins, the same manic grin John woke up to that morning. “Unwavering loyalty,” he says. “Eminently resourceful. Above-average intelligence. Fiercely protective of those you deem worthy. Illegal firearm. An attraction to dangerous situations. Oh, John Watson, you’re perfect.”

For one mad moment, John thinks he’s about to be grabbed and embraced, but Sherlock thankfully does nothing.

“Threatening physical violence,” Sherlock continues gleefully, “over a cat.”

“Not a cat,” John snaps. “He’s my cat.” His voice comes out more loudly than he intends, and Sherlock blinks, the grin dropping as quickly as if it had never been there to begin with.

“Yes.” He draws out the word until it’s nearly two syllables. “If he belongs to anyone, it is certainly you.”

If that’s meant to mollify John in any way, it does a poor job. He clenches his fists and growls, “I’ll ask you once more: where is my cat?

Sherlock drops his head back with a heavy sigh, as though he’s asking some higher power why he’s been forsaken. “Fine,” he huffs. “I had hoped to put this off until a time when you would be more receptive, but if you’re going to be difficult about it.” He gestures to himself with an extravagant, head-to-toe sweep of his arm. “Here is your cat.”

John is far, far past being patient enough to play charades. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“Yes! It was perfectly clear. I—” Again, he makes a head-to-toe gesture, although this one is a jerky up-and-down motion rather than a flourish. “—am your cat.”

Sherlock drops his arm and stares at John as though he’s imparted some crucial piece of information, not spouted the most absurd thing John has ever heard.

“Right,” John says. “Amusing. The truth, now, before I lose all my patience.”

“I am being entirely truthful. In fact, if you want the whole of it: I didn’t go missing; I was cursed. I was stuck in the body of a simple housecat until you, John Watson, managed to unknowingly help restore me to my proper form. For which I am, I might add, eternally grateful, and consequently willing to overlook your many shortcomings and reward you for your assistance.”

At first, John can only stare. Either Sherlock is a very good liar, which is entirely possible, or he actually believes what he is saying, because his expression, his body language, everything about him says open and honest and genuine. Either way, he’s a fucking nutter and John wants him out of the flat immediately.

“I don’t know,” John eventually says, slowly and quietly, “if you honestly believe that or if you think I’m so stupid that I will, and I’ve reached the point that I don’t really care—”

“Oh for god’s sake!” Sherlock cuts in, with an over-the-top roll of his eyes. “Aren’t normal people supposed to believe in magic and curses? And don’t I seem familiar to you? My eyes should be the same, or you should feel the same deep connection between us, or some other sentimental tripe like that!”

“Get out,” John tells him. He’s a madman and he’s done something with John’s cat, and if they stand there any longer, John will likely do something drastic and morally dubious. “I’m calling the police, and when—”

Sherlock laughs. It’s an ugly bark of a sound that makes John’s hackles rise even more than they already are.

“Really, John? The police? I’m a consulting detective. I solve cases for the police when they’re out of their depth. They know me; they trust me. Detective Inspector Lestrade, Detective Inspector Dimmock, Detective Inspector Gregson, Detective Sergeant Donovan, Detective Chief Inspector Hopkins, Chief Superintendent Bradstreet… I have all of Scotland Yard eating out of my hand. So what do you think any of them will do if a single invalided Army doctor—with a documented history of depression and post-traumatic stress, no less—says anything against me?”

John is breathing harshly by the end of Sherlock’s little speech, his blood singing and limbs shaking with adrenaline. Watching him, Sherlock sighs, and his shoulders slump.

“I had hoped this wouldn’t be necessary,” he continues, more softly, as though he’s honestly regretful that he’s just threatened John into silence. “Although I have hope that you’ll be reasonable eventually.”

With an unsettling half-smile, Sherlock leans back—and John didn’t even realise until now that he was leaning over him—and returns to unpacking.

“I’ll take the upstairs bedroom for the time being,” he says, “so you can remain down here. How do you feel about the violin, by the way?” He glances at John, who stays resolutely silent and stony. “I play the violin when I’m thinking. And sometimes I don’t talk for days on end. Would that bother you? Flatmates should know the worst about each other.”

Sherlock grins, and though John supposes it might be meant as friendly and benign, it seems more creepy and threatening. He keeps his own expression as blank as possible and doesn’t answer.

“I know all about you already, of course. Irrational, technologically challenged, and you eat and sleep a great deal, but I already know we get on splendidly. Now, I imagine you’ll want to retreat and regroup, yes? Feel free to do that, while I finish settling in.”

John does, and then proceeds to spend the entire night shut up in his room, trying to decide what to do. He takes out his mobile phone at one point, thinking of phoning the police despite what Sherlock said, and finds he has a text from Sarah:

Had a wonderful time last night! Looking forward to doing it again xx

Last night. Was it really only last night they had their date? It seems like ages have passed since then. Feeling wretched, he shoves his phone aside.

Keeping an eye on the space below the closed bedroom door for signs of someone approaching, and listening for any movement in the silent flat, John thinks about the cat, his little face and soft belly and low meow, and misses him so much he feels physically ill with it.

He doesn’t sleep at all that night.

*

John visits New Scotland Yard the following day. He isn’t sure what he means to do, if he wants to talk to someone about Sherlock or just to verify the names Sherlock listed.

When a young woman stops him just past the front doors and asks, sounding utterly bored, “Can I help you, sir?” he says the first thing—and the first name—that pops into his head.

“Yeah, hi, I wondered if I could have a word with Detective Inspector Lestrade please.”

She barely blinks. “What for?”

You’ve come all this way, John tells himself, taking a deep breath. Don’t back down now. “I want to talk to him about Sherlock Holmes.”

He fully expects her to frown and say, Who? but instead she looks immediately more alert. “Right,” she says briskly. “In that case, you’d best go right up.”

He’s stopped multiple times on his way to Lestrade’s office, and receives more or less the same response, which he doesn’t know how to interpret. It doesn’t seem a good sign, though, that everyone at the Met seems to at least know who Sherlock is.

Detective Inspector Lestrade turns out to be a kind-looking man with greying hair, a great deal of stubble on his jaw, and a tired look that makes John suspect he works a lot of late nights.

“So,” Lestrade says, settling back in his chair with an appraising look, “you wanted a word about Sherlock Holmes?”

Suddenly, John realises how very absurd this whole idea was. He came to Scotland Yard to talk to one man Sherlock mentioned, not even necessarily to report anything, and he hopes to gain… what?

“Erm,” he answers, glancing awkwardly at his shoes. “Yeah. My name’s John Watson, and—”

Lestrade practically surges forwards in his chair, a grin spreading across his face. “John Watson? So you’re the new flatmate?”

John stares, not liking this at all, and Lestrade continues without waiting for a response.

“Excellent. I’m Greg.” He reaches across his desk to shake John’s hand. “Nice to meet you. Didn’t think it would be so soon, but, well. It’s always a surprise, isn’t it, if it’s to do with Sherlock.”

“He told you about me?” John has to ask.

“Oh yeah. Said you were ‘instrumental’ in helping him return to London.”

To say that John is shocked is to put it mildly, and it must show on his face, because Lestrade—Greg, apparently—chuckles.

“Yeah, I know. He hardly ever gives people the credit they deserve, the bastard. You must’ve made quite an impression.”

Is there a hint of innuendo there, John wonders, or is he only being sensitive after what Mrs Hudson said the previous day? He doesn’t know, and he has a feeling that if he launches into a defence of his heterosexuality it’ll amount to precisely the opposite in Greg’s mind.

“Anyway,” says Greg. “It’s great to be able to put a name to a face. So what can I do for you, John?”

Christ. John doesn’t even know. He rubs his forehead, shifts his weight on his feet.

Greg surprises him again by chuckling. “Ah, I know that look. Was it bacteria in the milk or eyeballs in the microwave?”

“Er,” John says, baffled and more than a little horrified.

“Or did he flush body parts down the loo again? You know, he left fingers in the recycling bin once. Got fined for it, if I remember right.”

Greg is smiling as he says it, clearly finding nothing unnerving at all about Sherlock’s apparent hobbies. They really are chummy with each other, John thinks. He wonders if it would faze Greg at all to hear that Sherlock might have murdered a cat.

“Anyway, the point is,” Greg carries on, “I know what he’s like. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live with him. So if it ever, you know, gets overwhelming, I’m always happy to sympathise. Can’t right now, though. Bloody paperwork seems to multiply every time I look away.”

He gestures to the assortment of papers piled on his desk, and John nods, feeling dull and wooden and wishing he hadn’t come at all.

“We could go for a pint later, though,” Greg offers, and starts rummaging through his desk drawers. “Here. I’ll give you my mobile number.”

*

When John gets back to the flat, he finds Sherlock in the leather armchair, with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. John thinks of the cat asleep in the same chair, waiting for him to come home, and then shoves the thought viciously away, horrified his mind has just made a connection between the two.

He eases the door closed silently and begins to tiptoe to the bedroom. After two steps, he’s stopped by Sherlock’s voice.

“And how is Lestrade?” His eyes remain closed, although he inhales sharply and taps the fingers of his left hand against the arm of the chair. “I assume he’s recovered. He was uncomfortably… demonstrative when we spoke yesterday.”

“You spied on me,” John says, unimpressed but somehow not terribly surprised.

Sherlock’s eyes finally open, and he sends John a look of disapproval. “I didn’t need to. Knowledge of your personal character, in addition to a few simple observations, tells me all I need to know about what you’ve been up to.”

The room’s a bit different than it was earlier, John realises now he’s stood in it a few moments. There’s a picture of a skull on the wall and some sort of taxidermy box on the mantel, and the bison skull hung above the desk now has headphones on. There is so much death in the room he feels sick just looking at it all.

“I fixed your computer,” says Sherlock. With one hand, he gestures vaguely towards the desk, atop which sits John’s laptop in… actually, not quite the same position it was earlier. “A relatively simple repair, it hardly took any time at all. I also cleaned the dust from your fan, so you’ll find it runs much more quietly now.”

“You fixed it?” John goes over to the desk to examine his computer. And sure enough, when he lifts the screen and jabs the power button, it whirs to life. “There was something rattling inside it.”

Sherlock shrugs one shoulder and rolls his head to the side, meeting John’s eyes until John becomes uncomfortable and looks hastily down at his laptop again.

“I apologise for breaking it, incidentally,” Sherlock says. “I was trying to take a rise out of you, and I had a limited number of your belongings to choose from.”

John sees red—the cat broke his computer, not Sherlock—and has to squeeze his eyes closed until it recedes. Then he slams the laptop closed, picks it up, and carries it to the bedroom.

*

John can’t sleep that night either, although because he has work the next morning he’s a little more concerned about it. When he is still awake at half three, John gets up and peeks out his bedroom door.

The flat is dark and silent, which must mean that Sherlock is asleep upstairs. John breathes a sigh of relief and ventures into the kitchen, where he makes himself a cup of chamomile and sits down at the table to drink it.

At some point during the evening, the kitchen table has been transformed into a sort of makeshift laboratory. There is a microscope, blank slides, various colours of stains, different sizes of beakers and test tubes, and even a few flasks filled with unlabelled liquids that make John very concerned indeed.

He also notices that the litter tray—never used, but still always kept in the same place just in case—is gone, as are the food dish and water fountain on the floor. Rage and sorrow tangle into a thick knot in his throat.

He tries to distract himself by examining the flasks, determining if their contents are hazardous, and eventually he finds that the chamomile has done its job quite well—his eyelids are heavy, sleep a cloud falling fast over his mind.

So John puts his empty cup in the sink and goes to bed, falling asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

*

In the morning, John wakes feeling groggy, like he has to claw himself from sleep, and his head hurts a little, as though he’s slept too long. For several long minutes, he stares muzzily at the wall, and then he becomes abruptly aware of the dip in the mattress behind him.

Odd, he thinks. Strangers intruding in his space is usually enough to wake him, no matter how deeply asleep he is.

“Piss off,” he grumbles. “I have work.”

“You did,” says Sherlock, and it takes John a second to realise why the statement bothers him.

He turns over and frowns at Sherlock, who is sitting with his back against the headboard, much like that first morning, except now he’s tapping rapidly at his mobile screen with his thumb. “Hang on. I did?” Then the amount of light in the room, far too bright for early morning, filters into John’s awareness, and he bolts upright. “What time is it?”

“Just half ten. I took the liberty of turning off your alarm and calling you in sick.”

“You—what? Why?” John glances about for his phone and sees that it’s on the bedside table, where he left it last night. He’ll have to climb over Sherlock if he wants to fetch it without walking around the bed.

Without looking up, Sherlock shrugs. “You slept poorly. Can’t have doctors diagnosing and treating patients when they’re sleep-deprived, after all. Increases the likelihood of errors.”

“How do you know how I slept? And what the hell are you doing in my room?”

“Empty cup in the sink, smelling faintly of chamomile; fresh scuff marks on the floor where you dragged the chair across it; my things have been moved on the table—not a difficult deduction to make. You made a cup of chamomile tea after you had trouble falling asleep. As for why I’m here….”

Sherlock’s thumb pauses, hovering over the phone.

“Evidently, I became accustomed to sleeping in this room.”

Christ, John thinks, frustration rising like a spike through the soft sole of a shoe.

“Right,” he says, “when you were ‘cursed.’”

Sherlock glances at him, the corner of his lip twitching in amusement. “On the contrary, I meant when I alone was the one paying the rent. But yes, it is unfortunate that I can no longer sleep on your jumpers.”

John stares back in growing horror. Lots of cats sleep on the clothes of their owners, he knows, but to know that John’s cat liked to sleep on his jumpers in particular is too great of a leap to make blindly. “How long have you been spying on me?”

Scoffing, Sherlock tosses his hands up as though he is the one who deserves to be exasperated. “As I said yesterday, I don’t need to spy on you. Everything I know about you, I learned from what I experienced personally or what I deduced from being in your company.”

“You,” John snarls back, “know bugger all about me.”

He tosses back the duvet and the sheets, intending to haul himself off the bed and throw Sherlock bodily from the room, but he’s stopped by Sherlock’s low voice.

“I know that you’re an Army doctor and you’ve been invalided home from Afghanistan after being shot in your left shoulder. You developed a limp afterwards, entirely psychosomatic, but you have since overcome it. The cane you used is still in the living room, propped against your armchair for easy access as though you expect to need it again, although you haven’t touched it in weeks.”

John stares dumbly, and Sherlock continues.

“I know you’ve got a brother who was worried about you, but you refused to go to him for help because you don’t approve of him. Possibly because he’s an alcoholic, more likely because he recently walked out on his wife—”

“How,” John starts, then stops to collect his thoughts. If Sherlock got any of his information from proper spying or a background search, then he would surely know that Harry isn’t a he. “Where did you get all that?”

Sherlock smiles. The sort of smile that says Oh, you haven’t a clue what you’re in for, do you? Then he drops his mobile phone into his lap and reaches for John’s on the bedside table.

“Your phone. It’s expensive, email-enabled, mp3 player, but not only are you living here for absurdly cheap, but I’ve seen your things—few in number and poor in quality. Even your computer is refurbished, and several years old besides. You wouldn’t waste money on a phone like this. It’s a gift, then.”

He turns the mobile over, staring down at it as he talks.

“Scratches. Not one, many over time. It’s been in the same pocket as keys and coins. The man sitting next to me wouldn’t treat his one luxury item like this, so it’s had a previous owner. The next bit’s easy; you know it already.”

“The engraving,” John answers, picturing it even before Sherlock turns the phone so he can see it.

“Harry Watson. Clearly a family member who’s given you his old phone. Not your father—this is a young man’s gadget. Could be a cousin, but you’re a war hero who struggled to find a place to live. Unlikely you’ve got an extended family, and certainly not one you’re close to. Now: Clara. Who’s Clara? Three kisses says it’s a romantic attachment—expense of the phone says wife, not girlfriend. She must have given it to him recently; this model’s only six months old. Marriage in trouble, then, if six months on he’s just given it away. If she’d left him, he would have kept it—people do, sentiment. But no, he wanted rid of it. He left her. He gave the phone to you; that says he wants you to stay in touch. You were looking for cheap accommodation, but you didn’t go to your brother for help? That says you’ve got problems with him. Maybe you liked his wife; maybe you don’t like his drinking.”

“Drinking,” John echoes, amazed. “How could you possibly know about the drinking?”

Sherlock smiles, clearly pleased with himself. “Power connection.” He angles the phone so John can see it. “Tiny scuff marks around the edge of it. Every night he goes to plug it in to charge, but his hands are shaking. You never see those marks on a sober man’s phone, never see a drunk’s without them, and you certainly aren’t a drinker. Therefore, he is. So there you go.” He tosses the phone at John, who only barely manages to catch it. “I don’t need to spy. Everything I could possibly want to know about you is already at my fingertips.”

John rolls the phone over and over in his palm, examining the engraving and the scratches and the scuff marks. No wonder Scotland Yard is loyal to this man, he thinks, if he could tell all of that from John’s bloody phone. He must be a godsend at a crime scene.

“That,” he admits eventually, “was amazing.”

“Do you think so?”

“Of course it was. It was extraordinary. It was… quite extraordinary.”

John taps a button on his phone to bring up the display: 10:37. Well past time to be getting up.

“I also know,” Sherlock says, as John stands, “that you feel inexplicably drawn to me. On a subconscious level, yes, and sufficiently buried beneath your trust issues and your absurd suspicions, but you’ve given yourself away.”

“I’ve given myself away. How?”

“By doing nothing. I moved in, and you did nothing. I threatened you, and you did nothing.”

“I went to Lestrade,” John reminds him, but Sherlock only smiles.

“And said nothing to him. Let’s be honest, John: you’ve given in. But John Watson doesn’t give in. It’s a fundamental part of your character: you will fight until your dying breath, you won’t give in until your body is cold in a casket, and yet you’ve given up trying to shoo me away. You could have sneaked up the stairs and shot me whilst I slept. You could have told Lestrade every crime you think I’ve committed and then spat in his face when he tried to have you sectioned. You could have run me from this room when you woke up and saw me sitting here beside you, but you didn’t even try. Why?”

Sherlock doesn’t bother to answer his own rhetorical question, but then, John supposes the answer is obvious enough: ‘you feel inexplicably drawn to me. Rubbish. A load of utter bollocks, and John refuses to listen to one more word.

He draws himself to his full height, stares determinedly down at Sherlock’s smug little smile, and spits, “Harry is short for Harriet.”

Sherlock says nothing as John gathers a pair of trousers and a jumper. But then as John storms into the en suite, Sherlock calls, “Incidentally, if you bring that… woman from your date into this flat again, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

John slams the door behind him.

*

John toys with the idea of coming in to work anyway, claiming a sudden recovery from whatever illness Sherlock invented, but he ultimately decides against it.

At the same time, though, he doesn’t relish the thought of hanging about the flat, and he’s keen to talk to someone who not only isn’t Sherlock Holmes but doesn’t know of him either. So he sends Mike Stamford a text and, when he ascertains that Mike has nothing on until his next class late in the afternoon, suggests they meet for lunch.

A plan he regrets very keenly when the first thing Mike asks is “So how’s the cat?” John’s dismay and devastation must show on his face, because Mike immediately looks alarmed. “Oh dear. Has something happened?”

“No,” John answers quickly, then realises how ridiculous it is to deny it. “Well, yes, but… it’s complicated.”

To tell or not to tell, he ponders, and then flashes back to Mrs Hudson that first day when she’d shown him around the flat, when she’d been no doubt wondering the same thing about whether to tell John about the cat.

“His owner came back,” John admits. “And, erm—”

“I thought he was dead.”

“So did I, to be honest. He’d been missing a year. But no, apparently he was just off doing… something.”

Speaking of, what had Sherlock been doing? In hiding, probably, but where and from what or who, John still doesn’t know.

“Anyway,” he continues, realising Mike is just watching him silently, sipping at his glass of water, “he showed up again. Sherlock, he’s called. Just appeared one morning—”

Mike’s glass hits the table with a loud thunk. “Sherlock?” he says. “Not Sherlock Holmes?”

John can feel his own eyes going wide in surprise, and the world seems to come to a halt around him. “You know him.”

With a chuckle, Mike sits back in his chair. “Christ, it’s good to know he’s alive after all. I thought he’d got himself offed by a psycho somewhere, the poor sod. He used to spend a lot of time in the labs at Bart’s, doing his experiments. Bit of a tosser at times, but I liked him all right. So you’ve got his old flat, then? Hang on, you said the cat was his? Ha! Not a chance, mate.”

The cat is the unbelievable part of the whole situation? John shakes his head slightly. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly that: he never had a cat. He didn’t even like cats. Sherlock might’ve been housing him temporarily for a case or an experiment, but as a pet? Nah, I don’t believe it for a second.”

Well, John thinks, yes, the cat almost certainly had something to do with a case. Someone abducted and tried to bribe him over the cat, after all, and John can’t imagine any reason for it except that the cat—John’s cat, with his soft belly and low meow that John will likely never hear again—played an important role in Sherlock’s case.

“Do you know anything about Sherlock’s last case?” John asks. The memory of the cat brings a protective surge and the reminder that Sherlock was at least partly correct: John Watson doesn’t give up. “The one he was working when he went missing.”

Mike’s forehead wrinkles as he frowns, shaking his head. “Afraid not. Molly might know, though. She works in the morgue at Bart’s: Molly Hooper. She fancied Sherlock like mad. Knew most everything about him and his work.”

“Huh,” John says. “Molly. So I can find her at Bart’s, then?”

*

Molly Hooper, it turns out, is a lovely if somewhat mousey girl, oddly upbeat considering she is standing just beside a freshly autopsied corpse and wearing a fluid-speckled face shield and blood-stained gloves.

“Oh, you must be Dr Watson,” she says cheerily, gingerly removing the face shield and setting it aside. “Mike Stamford phoned earlier, said you might pop by. You’re Sherlock’s new flatmate?”

“Um, sort of. Did Mike tell you that?”

Despite the not-unsubstantial number of corpses and diseased or injured human bodies he’s seen in his life, John finds it hard to take his eyes from the body on the slab, the eerie contrast between its deathly pale skin and the dark stitches across its torso.

“Oh, no, Sherlock did,” says Molly, and covers the body with a white sheet before she begins to peel the gloves from her hands. “Didn’t he tell you he came by yesterday?” As soon as the words are out of her mouth, she looks horrified. “Not that he’s keeping anything from you, of course! I’m sure he’s told you all sorts of things about me, but you should know that I’ve moved on. I’ve got a boyfriend now. He works just upstairs, which is how we met. Office romance! So, you see, I’m not—”

“He hasn’t mentioned you, actually,” John cuts in, hoping to make her feel better so she can stop what seems to be uncomfortable babbling. But Molly looks stricken, and John realises perhaps he’s just been incredibly thoughtless and unkind. “Sorry, that wasn’t—”

“Of course he hasn’t.” Molly’s voice goes thin and high, and although her smile becomes strained, it doesn’t falter for a second. “How silly of me.”

“That came out poorly,” John says, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly. “I just meant that I don’t know him very well, and you seem to have the wrong idea about me. He and I aren’t dating. Not even close. We’re barely flatmates.”

Molly only blinks at him, looking as though she can’t decide whether to believe him or not. Then her lips tighten, and she tosses her gloves in the appropriate bin. “I see. Well, what can I do for you, then, Dr Watson?”

He gets the feeling that he’s just displeased her, although he can’t imagine how. “Er. Mike said you might know something about the case Sherlock was working when he disappeared.”

Molly makes a face. Her hair, pulled into a ponytail, swings as she slowly shakes her head. “Why do you want to know? Shouldn’t you be asking him?”

“He won’t say anything,” John answers. It’s not entirely a lie, he tells himself. Sherlock did, after all, evade all of his and Mrs Hudson’s questions that first morning, and certainly hasn’t offered any details after then—nothing that didn’t involve rubbish like curses, anyway. “As for why I want to know… I’m not quite as convinced as he is that the danger is past.”

Again, it isn’t entirely a lie. Sherlock behaves as though he’s in no danger at all, but the man at the warehouse certainly seemed a significant danger.

Molly’s eyes widen, her jaw dropping and her mouth forming a perfect O. She nods and takes a shaky breath. “Right. That’s… I can’t help much, unfortunately. I was only involved in a very small part of it, and he… well, he never does like to explain himself.”

“It’s fine,” John rushes to assure her. “Any information you can give me is helpful.”

“He had a phone,” Molly says, speaking quickly. “A camera phone, and he was X-raying it. When I asked, he said it was a woman’s and she had sent the phone to his address. He said, um, that she liked to play games. It looked like it was password-protected, the phone was, and he was trying to get into it. And then, yesterday, he said… he was trying to recover incriminating evidence, to prevent some sort of scandal, and that he… upset the wrong person. And that, um… that’s all I know.”

“Do you know the woman’s name?”

“Only her first name: Irene.” Molly shakes her head sadly. “I know that’s not very helpful. Sorry.”

“Was there—” John pauses, licking his lips, trying to find the best way to word it. “Do you remember anything about a cat?”

“A cat?” She screws up her face. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“Mrs Hudson—the landlady—she found a cat shut up in the flat when she went to collect some of Sherlock’s things. But Mike says he never had a cat, and he’s been… odd… whenever I bring it up.”

“Was it a black cat?” asks Molly, cocking her head thoughtfully. “Male? Had a kind of low meow?”

Something flips in John’s chest, then climbs its way to his throat and stays there, curling into a thick and heavy lump that he struggles to swallow around. “Yes. It sounds a bit like mrraoow.”

It’s a rubbish imitation, sounds nothing like the cat, and he’s immediately mortified that he even attempted it. But Molly doesn’t seem to find it unusual. Nodding, she sidesteps John and crosses the room. John follows her to a table, on top of which sit a clipboard, notebook, pair of safety glasses, assortment of pens, and mobile phone.

She scoops up the phone. “I found a black tomcat outside my flat one night, around the time that Sherlock disappeared. Just yowling at my door. When I opened it, he ran between my legs. I couldn’t get him to leave. He wouldn’t let me near him, but he wouldn’t let me out of his sight either—just prowled around and meowed at the top of his lungs. Scared poor Toby to death. That’s my cat, Toby. Finally, I rang the RSPCA, and they sent someone over to trap him. But when I opened the door again, he just ran back outside. I never saw him again. Sorry, I have pictures of him on here somewhere, I just have to find them.”

“Oh,” John recalls, digging his own mobile phone from his coat pocket. “I have some too.”

His photos are easier to find; they are, after all, the only photos he has, and he has nearly a hundred of them. He scrolls through them, seeing the cat in the window and the cat in his lap and the cat in the leather armchair and the cat in his lap again—

John stops, then scrolls back to the one of the cat in the armchair and stares. He does look a bit like Sherlock, doesn’t he, all curled up in the chair?

Almost as soon as he’s thought it, John wonders what the hell he was thinking because now the cat in the photo looks quite clearly nothing like Sherlock. Which makes sense, he reminds himself, because the cat is a cat and Sherlock is not.

“Aha!” Molly cries, and bounces on her feet in triumph before she holds the phone so John can see the screen. “Found it. Here he is.”

It’s the cat. He’s crouched in a corner and he looks awful, his fur matted and filthy, his eyes glowing from the flash, and his fangs bared, but John would know him anywhere, in any state.

“Yeah,” John says thickly. “Yeah, that’s him.”

He hands over his own phone with his own picture on its screen, and Molly goggles, probably amazed that the same cat could be so calm, but doesn’t deny that it is clearly the same cat.

“And that’s the cat Mrs Hudson found in Sherlock’s flat?”

Nodding, John shoves his phone back in his pocket.

“That’s….” Molly wrinkles her nose. “That’s strange. You know, I thought the tomcat smelled like Sherlock. His aftershave, I mean. But I… I sort of saw Sherlock in everything back then, and….”

“Strange,” John echoes, when Molly says nothing else. “Can you send me that photo?”

*

John returns to a silent, empty flat at Baker Street, which he’s somewhat thankful for. Although he needs to speak to Sherlock, he wants time alone first.

He sits down at the desk and boots up his computer, which is indeed quieter and runs more smoothly than before Sherlock fixed it. The desktop loads in no time at all, and he opens his internet browser and types Irene London into the search bar.

When he gets nearly 40 million results, he realises how pointless it is. Searching Sherlock London months ago brought John to Sherlock’s website, but Sherlock is a far, far more unique name.

His phone chimes in the pocket of his coat—which, he realises suddenly, he hasn’t taken off yet. He does so now, draping it over the back of his chair before he pulls his phone from the pocket.

He has one new text, sent from Unknown Sender. It says only two words, followed by what John can only assume is a signature: Irene Adler. MH

John sucks in a deep breath, then sets his phone on the desk and sits back in his chair.

Alarming. More than a little alarming that someone should not only know what he is searching for right at this moment but also has the ability to provide it to him. He’s being monitored; he must be. By an MH. John knows no one with the initials MH.

Into the search bar, John types Irene Adler London, and the results are much, much more helpful.

It looks as though she had a website once, although the link is dead now, leading simply to a Page not found message. The blurb on the search page says The Woman.

Provides highly specialised occult services, it says.

Occult services. Christ. John closes his laptop screen and shoves his chair back from the desk.

A curse, Sherlock said. Turning him into a cat. Then, a very real cat that at one point at least smelled like Sherlock’s aftershave, according to Molly. Upset the wrong person, said Molly. A woman named Irene, Molly said. Irene Adler, said an unknown sodding sender. Now: bloody occult services.

John starts to wonder if he’s the one losing his fucking mind.

*

Sherlock returns well into the evening, carrying a large filing box. He looks pleased to see John waiting for him in the red armchair, and he shoots John a wide grin as he shuts the front door behind him with his foot.

“What is that?” John asks, nodding at the box.

“Lestrade’s files on the serial suicides.” Sherlock drops the box on the coffee table and begins to peel off his gloves, speaking rapidly. “You’ve probably already seen, but there’s been another one just this morning. Poison, self-administered, body found in a place the woman had no place being. Immediately obvious it was related to the others, although as usual the Met needed a little help getting there. Luckily, it took Lestrade no time at all to admit he’s well out of his depth with this one. Seven serial suicides, with an nine-month pause between the sixth and seventh. Brilliant! Oh, it’s Christmas!”

“Yes,” John says. He’s not keen to be distracted too far from his purpose. “All right. Now—”

“I would have preferred you to be present when I examined the crime scene, of course, but time was of the essence and you were out.”

John frowns, puzzled. “You wanted me there? Why?”

“Because you’re an Army doctor,” Sherlock answers with a little smile. He shrugs off his coat—which is, John notices, wool and thicker than the current weather requires and quite expensive-looking. “Seen a lot of injuries, no doubt. Violent deaths. Bit of trouble too, I bet. I thought you might want to see some more.”

I’ve seen enough for a lifetime, John thinks about saying. Far too much. But then he actually imagines himself at a crime scene, knelt beside the body and checking for cause of death, and… well.

“You said that you were cursed,” he says instead. “By who?”

A wrinkle appears between Sherlock’s eyebrows, and then it’s almost like a physical touch, his attention is, examining John from head to foot. John looks down at himself but can’t see anything worthy of such an intense visual investigation.

“You went to Bart’s,” Sherlock concludes, after no more than ten seconds. “Spoke with Molly.”

How the hell…? John thinks, but shakes the thought away. Not important right now. “She said you offended the wrong person.”

Sherlock makes a vaguely affirming noise and plops down surprisingly gracefully on the floor right where he stands. “The woman.” He tugs the filing box off the table and onto the carpet in front of him, then in a single swipe knocks it onto its side, spilling its contents. “I made the mistake of doubting her expertise and mocking her pseudo-romantic interest in me.”

John stares at the mess of files and reports and photographs being spread haphazardly across the floor. He’s reminded faintly of the cat, scattering cat food in the kitchen. “So, you… you were cursed by a woman?”

“Not a woman,” says Sherlock. “The woman.”

The Woman. It bothers John, how very neatly the pieces fit together. He’s either in the middle of a very well-organised conspiracy… or it’s not all entirely rubbish.

“So she turned you into a cat.”

“Yes. She said it would be a good fit.” Sherlock scatters the box’s contents even more widely, seemingly trying to organize them so every piece has its own space on the carpet.

“You said I helped restore you to your human form,” John says. “What does that mean?”

Sherlock rests his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands beneath his chin, and doesn’t look up from his mess. “There were conditions to the curse. You helped satisfy them, that’s all.”

He seems uninclined to continue, and although John’s curiosity is far from sated, he lets that one go. “The case you were working,” he says instead. “Molly said you were trying to recover evidence of some sort of scandal.”

“Mm, yes.” Sherlock’s eyes close. In the position he’s in, he looks as though he’s praying. “She possessed a number of photographs of a person of some importance availing themselves of her services. Could cause a bit of trouble, one of the highest in the land employing a sorceress. Of course, in the end, it all became rather more complicated than that.”

Sorceress. John grimaces. Whether or not any of it is real, he’s fairly certain that at least Sherlock thinks it is.

“So where is she now?” he asks. “The Woman.”

Sherlock jerks his head as though shooing a fly away. “Long gone by now, although my brother is still working tirelessly to track her down. But it hardly matters.” Then, in a voice like he’s only just remembered something: “She was passing information to someone. I never did find out who.”

Suddenly, Sherlock’s eyes snap open, and he fixes John with a squinty, penetrating stare. John tries not to squirm uncomfortably at the intensity of it.

“You don’t quite believe me yet, but… your disbelief is no longer as strong as it was,” Sherlock says, his voice utterly emotionless.

Is it? John sighs, dropping his head back against the chair. “Christ,” he mutters.

He doesn’t know what he believes anymore.

*

John has an afternoon shift at the surgery the following day, which feels disconcertingly like revisiting someplace from his childhood. It seems like years have passed rather than days, a sensation that only worsens when he sees Sarah’s smiling face.

“All right?” she asks. “Your flatmate said you had a touch of flu. And speaking of, since when do you have a flatmate? I thought it was only you and your cat.”

“I didn’t have a flatmate,” John answers. “It just… happened sort of suddenly, and…. Erm.”

But he doesn’t know how to explain what his last two days have been like, nor does he particularly want to.

By the end of his shift, he can’t tell if it’s more him avoiding Sarah or her avoiding him, but he suspects they’ll never have another date again.

Which reminds him of Sherlock’s comment: ‘if you bring that… woman from your date into this flat again, I won’t be responsible for my actions.’

Which reminds him of the cat hissing and growling at her, and then rubbing his scent all over John’s trousers.

I’ve lost it, he thinks. Just completely fucking lost it.

Sherlock is gone when he gets home, and the only sound in the flat is the faint echo of Mrs Hudson’s wireless. It makes him feel almost unbearably lonely.

John sits at the desk in front of his computer, thinking that perhaps he’ll work on his blog. Write up something about his new flatmate. Or something commemorating his lost one; he still has dozens of photos of the cat, after all.

The doorbell rings as he’s logging in, and he pauses, fingers hovering over the keys. For him? He doubts it. In all the time he’s been here, no one’s ever rung his doorbell. And he suspects whoever is ringing it now isn’t someone he wants to see.

The doorbell rings again, and with a sigh, he stands and makes his way to the door. Just before he reaches the knob, he hears Mrs Hudson’s wireless turn off, followed by her door opening.

Perhaps not for me, then, he thinks, and turns back to the desk.

He’s only barely reached his chair again when Mrs Hudson yells up the stairs, “John! Isn’t your doorbell working? Your taxi’s here!”

John most certainly hasn’t ordered a taxi, and takes a deep breath in anticipation of calling back to tell her just that. But then he stops, and rethinks. Taxi drivers don’t just appear at your door by accident: someone sends them.

“Thank you, Mrs Hudson!” he calls back instead. He grabs his coat and marches out the flat, down the stairs, and into the entryway, where the front door is open and there is indeed a man on the pavement outside, leaning against a taxi.

“Sorry,” he tells Mrs Hudson. “Got caught up in something. I’ll take it from here.” He kisses her cheek, which makes her smile and pat his cheek affectionately, then waits until she’s back in her flat before he turns to the cabbie.

He’s an older man and quite unassuming, really, wearing a flat cap, a pair of glasses, and a half-zipped cardigan. He smiles at John, the sort of smile that never reaches above his lips, and John straightens his spine, lifts his chin. Another abduction, another warehouse; he wonders if he’ll see the same man with the umbrella, or if it’ll be someone new this time.

He should have grabbed his gun. What the hell was he thinking, coming down here without a gun?

He was thinking that he needed to get Mrs Hudson away from the situation, he reminds himself calmly. Whatever’s happening, she doesn’t deserve to be caught up in it.

“Taxi for Dr Watson,” the cabbie says.

With a deep breath, John steps outside and closes the door behind him. “Don’t remember ordering a taxi.”

“Doesn’t mean you don’t need one.” The man pushes himself off the side of the cab, walks to the passenger door, and opens it. “Get in, Dr Watson. Let me take you for a ride.”

John glances up at the darkened window of 221B, then up and down Baker Street. Plenty of lights are still on in neighbouring buildings. He could yell, kick up a fuss, and someone would surely come to see what’s going on.

But who knows what would happen after that—if the man has a gun, and wouldn’t hesitate to fire at anyone who tries to come to John’s rescue.

John steps up to the taxi and climbs in.

*

“So where’re we going this time?” John asks, keeping his tone cheerful. He imagines it really grates when the person you’re trying to intimidate remains perfectly cheerful. “Another empty warehouse, or are we trying for something a little less cliché?”

The cabbie surveys him coolly in the rear-view mirror. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Who you are?” John asks, smiling and meeting the man’s gaze in the mirror. “Not really. I think you might actually be a real taxi driver, and—” He scans the interior of the taxi and spots a photograph of children attached to the dashboard. “—I think those are probably your kids. But aside from that, no, I don’t know anything about you. Nor your employer, for that matter. I’ve been trying to figure that out.”

The man blinks and turns back to the road. “Thought Holmes would’ve told you something. Haven’t you even read today’s papers or nothing?”

John reads the papers daily, as a matter of fact. Today, the front-page article of every newspaper in London was about the seventh death in the serial suicides, speculating about the possibility of murder. But unless the cabbie’s planning to off himself, John doesn’t know what that’s got to do with anything. “Haven’t had the time, to be honest,” he says airily.

“Huh. Yeah,” answers the cabbie, and though John can’t see the lower part of his face in the mirror, he can hear the smile in the man’s voice. “Imagine you’ve been preoccupied by your pet, haven’t you?”

John drops the blithe, cheerful sham immediately at the word choice. He stares stonily out the window, steeling himself, tracing the outline of his mobile phone in his pocket. If this escalates, he tells himself, I’ll ring the police. He can phone Lestrade directly, even. He still has the man’s mobile number, though he’s never used it.

“Don’t worry, Dr Watson,” the taxi driver says. “Nearly there.”

John stays silent for the rest of the drive, and eventually they arrive in front of two buildings, side by side and nearly identical, at least from the outside.

“Roland-Kerr Further Education College,” the cabbie says, as he opens the door to let John out.

John can’t imagine that’s a smart decision: abducting a man and then telling him where you’ve taken him. But he says nothing, climbing from the cab, staring up at the buildings for a moment, and then turning to the driver.

The driver who has a pistol out now, aimed straight at John’s chest. A fake pistol—a very, very fake pistol.

John doesn’t let on that he’s noticed, though, and lets the man think John’s been suitably cowed as he leads them into the right building, through the empty but brightly lit hallways, and into a classroom full of long wooden benches and plastic chairs.

There’s no one else there. No man with an umbrella or anyone else. John turns to the cabbie, puzzled, and the man waves him to a bench with a grim smile.

“Have a seat, Dr Watson, and we can get started.”

John sits, and the man sits across from him, still holding the fake pistol aimed at John’s chest.

“I have to say, doctor, you’ve been the calmest so far. All the others at least tried to bargain with me by now.”

“The others?” John says, utterly lost.

And then it hits him like a bolt: the mention of today’s papers and Sherlock, an abduction by an unassuming taxi driver, taking him to an open but empty building where he has no business being.

“The suicides,” he says. “You killed them.”

The cabbie shakes his head, reaching into the pocket of his cardigan with his free hand. “I didn’t kill none of them, Dr Watson. I only talked to them… and then they killed themselves. Same as you’re going to do.”

The man sets two small glass bottles on the table between them. Both of them, John sees, contain a single pill.

“Two bottles,” John surmises. “Two pills.”

“Right you are. Now, there’s a good bottle and a bad bottle. If you take the pill from the good bottle, you live. Take a pill from the bad bottle… you die. I know which is which, but you’re the one who chooses. And whichever bottle you choose, I take the pill from the other one.”

“And you expect me to believe,” John says, “everyone, seven different people in a row, just happened to choose the bad bottle? Don’t think so, mate. Chance doesn’t work like that.”

“It’s not chance. It’s a game,” the cabbie says, not quite snapping at him. “A game of chess: one move, and one survivor.”

“Sure,” John answers, very much snapping, “I’ve seen that film. I like the duel with the Spanish bloke better, to be honest. This is just shit. I’m not playing your game.”

The cabbie smiles and leans back, angling the fake pistol so it’s now pointed at John’s head. “You will, or I’ll shoot you in the head.”

“Do you think I don’t know a real gun from a fake one?”

The man squeezes the trigger, and a flame bursts from the end of the gun. It goes out again when he releases the trigger.

“None of the others did.”

“Well, none of the others were Captain John Watson, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers—three bloody years in Afghanistan, veteran of Kandahar and Helmand. So yes, I can recognise a fake gun. Now—” John slaps his palm on the table and stands, hauling himself to his full height so he’s towering over the still-sitting taxi driver. “This has been fun, but it ends here. I’m not playing your game. I’m phoning Detective Inspector Lestrade at Scotland Yard, and telling him everything you’ve just told me.”

“Not even curious,” the man says softly, “what I know about Holmes? Or why I chose youfor number eight?”

John pauses. He shouldn’t respond, he knows. You should never engage a killer who’s trying to distract you, but….

“Well,” John says slowly, “you keep bringing up Sherlock, so I think I’m right in assuming you chose me because I’m his flatmate. So: how do you know Sherlock Holmes? He wasn’t even given access to the case files until yesterday.”

The cabbie’s answering smile is his grimmest yet. “You’re not just his flatmate, Dr Watson. You’re the Beauty to his Beast, you are. And with that little trick, you managed to get the attention of my sponsor—quite a fan of Sherlock Holmes, my sponsor is.”

John frowns. “Your sponsor? Someone’s paying you to kill people? Doesn’t seem like a very good job, to be honest, mate.”

“I’m a dead man walking, Dr Watson.” The cabbie taps the side of his head. “Aneurism, right in here. Used to be, any breath could have been my last.”

“‘Used to be’?”

“Then I got a sponsor. I kill when I’m told to, my own life gets just a bit longer.”

“No.” John shakes his head, drawn back to the table despite himself. “The human body doesn’t work like that. You can’t just extend a person’s life, put a stop on an aneurism indefinitely. And anyway, what’s that got to do with Sherlock?”

You can’t,” says the cabbie. “But that doesn’t mean no one can. You think people turning into cats and back is just part of life?”

It’s like the oxygen is sucked straight from John’s lungs, and his muscles atrophy from the lack. He can only stare, wide-eyed and dumb, as the cabbie chuckles at his shock.

“There’s people out there who can do things the rest of us can’t. And as for your Holmes, well. Holmes isn’t the only one to enjoy a good murder. There’s others out there like him, except he’s just a man… and they’re so much more than that.”

Abruptly, John finds his breath, and his voice. “More than a man? Like an organisation, or… some sort of… all-powerful sorcerer?”

Some part of him flinches at saying that out loud, or fully expects to be met with ridicule, but the cabbie seems to find nothing odd about it.

“There’s a name no one says,” he answers. “And I ain’t going to say it either. Not if I want to keep living. But I’ll tell you what, Dr Watson.” He slides the bottles across the table. “Choose a bottle. If you choose the good one, I’ll tell you everything I know. Then I’ll take the other one.”

And if John chooses the bad bottle, then John will be the next body Sherlock examines.

John picks up the bottle on the right, lifts it up to the fluorescent light above them, and examines the pill: a clear capsule, full of white pellets with an occasional pink one.

He hasn’t decided if he’s going to take the pill or not when a shot rings through the room, shattering the window. The cabbie dives beneath the table. John follows the bullet’s trajectory, out the window to the building next door, where there is another shattered window and, on the other side of it, Sherlock with a gun—John’s gun, if he isn’t mistaken—staring right at John, looking terrified.

“Sh—” John starts, but is distracted by an “urgh,” a pained and desperate noise, coming from near his feet.

The doctor in John reacts immediately, and he lets the pill bottle fall to the floor, then drops to his knees and crawls around the table to the taxi driver, who is writhing and clearly struggling to breathe.

“Try to stay calm,” John tells him, running his hands over the man, trying to find the bullet wound. “Let me just see if I can—”

But there’s nothing, he realises. No blood, no wound. Instead, the man is clawing at his own throat—asphyxiating. Did he swallow one of the pills? John glances over the top of the table, but no: the second pill is still there, in its bottle.

Then, looking back down, John sees it: an indentation in the skin of the cabbie’s throat. Four circular depressions on one side of the trachea, and one on the other side. Like fingers. John lays his own hand gently across the man’s throat. The positioning is perfect: the precise places where fingertips would dig into the skin if he were being strangled.

But he isn’t. There’s nothing there. John runs his hands along the column of the man’s throat and feels nothing; he sees nothing. Yet the cabbie’s face is turning purple, and there is now the clear imprint of a hand across his throat.

“I’m sorry,” John tells him frantically, as the man’s body begins to seize. “I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t—”

“Mo—” the cabbie manages, struggling to gasp. “Moriarty.”

His legs kick once, twice, then once more feebly, before his entire body goes limp and silent.

*

The paramedics give John an orange shock blanket, and he sits on the back steps of an ambulance with it draped over his shoulders.

John doesn’t feel as though he’s in shock, although he’ll be the first to admit he bloody well should be. His entire fucking worldview has just been turned on its head, and there’s no doubt he’ll be having nightmares about this night—about being strangled by phantom hands—for weeks, if not longer.

At least he isn’t entirely alone.

“There were marks on his skin,” he whispers to Sherlock, so softly that even he can’t hear everything he’s saying, but Sherlock seems to have no trouble. “Like there were hands wrapped around his throat, Sherlock, but there was nothing there.”

By the time the police arrived, the cabbie’s neck wasn’t even pink, certainly not bruised as it should have been, as it looked like it would be. So John is perfectly aware that he sounds like he’s cracked, but Sherlock only nods solemnly and huddles closer, practically a blanket for John’s front to complement the one on his back.

Greg Lestrade approaches then, hands in the pockets of his coat.

“Don’t suppose you managed to see whoever took a shot through the window?” he asks John.

John very carefully does not glance at Sherlock as he shakes his head, trying to seem disappointed in his own failure of observation.

Greg, though, doesn’t appear too put out. “Eh. Guy like that would have had enemies, I suppose. One of them could have been following him….”

He shrugs, shuffling his feet, and looks as though he plans to say something else before Sherlock sighs, quite dramatically, “Is that all, then?”

“Is that all?” Greg repeats, clearly incredulous. “Course not. I’ve still got questions for you. Both of you.”

Sherlock looks for all the world like a child working his way to a tantrum; he might as well be stomping his foot and balling up his fists. “Oh, what now? John’s in shock, you know. Look, he’s got a blanket!”

Greg does look at John, then back at Sherlock, and whatever he sees is enough to soften his expression and cause his shoulders to slump in something like sympathy. “Okay,” he says. “We’ll bring you in tomorrow. Go take care of your—” He gestures towards John, screwing up his face in thought. John can almost see the wheel of words like flatmate, friend, boyfriend spinning around and around in his mind. “—him,” he finally decides on, then turns away.

Sherlock removes the blanket from John’s shoulders, balls it up, and tosses it back in the ambulance, then helps John to the ground. Although John doesn’t need the help, he lets himself be herded away from the crime scene, feeling a little like he’s someone of great importance and Sherlock is his handler.

When they’re a decent distance from the crowd of police officers and spectators, Sherlock stops and turns him so they’re face-to-face, Sherlock looming over John with an expectant expression. John means to say something like, What have you done with my gun? or How did you find me? or even Do you know what Moriarty means?

Somehow, what he says instead is “Who the hell taught you to shoot? That was awful.”

It seems to startle Sherlock as much as it startles John. He blinks, and then his mouth quirks into a crooked grin before he ducks his head as though John’s just paid him a compliment. “Through a window, over that distance with that kind of weapon, you wouldn’t have done any better.”

“I bloody would have!” John protests, indignant, and then they’re laughing, leaning into each other, and it’s ridiculous. John’s just been nearly killed, witnessed something that should have been impossible, and they’re giggling like children.

“So,” John says when they’ve calmed again, “you’re the cat. I mean… You’re actually my fucking cat.”

Sherlock’s response is a smile so fond that, were he a woman, John would think he means something by it.

Then he recalls what the cabbie said and wonders if Sherlock really does mean something by it.

“Yes,” Sherlock says. “I’m your cat.” The smile fades a bit, becomes just a faint curve of his lips, although it seems to light up his face all the same. “Dinner?”

John glances back to Roland-Kerr Further Education College while he considers. The crowd hasn’t yet begun to disperse, by the looks, and members of Scotland Yard are still prowling the buildings, searching for evidence. John wonders what an autopsy on the cabbie’s body will reveal. He wonders what he’ll be expected to say when he’s questioned tomorrow. He wonders when Sherlock will demand that John tell him everything that happened tonight.

But for now, he thinks, dinner sounds good.

“Starving,” John says.

Chapter Text

“I’m going to miss having a cat.”

John doesn’t mean to say it aloud. He and Sherlock have gone for Chinese at a restaurant at the end of Baker Street, where Sherlock ordered a bottle of wine with their dim sum that John’s had perhaps too much of.

And after telling Sherlock everything about what happened with the cabbie—including the bit about “Moriarty,” which Sherlock seems particularly intrigued by—John finds his tongue is loose, and the lucky cat beside the cash register reminds him of the cat.

Who John does miss. Quite badly, as it happens.

“Your cat isn’t going anywhere,” says Sherlock, tapping his finger against the rim of his own barely touched wine glass. “Or have you elected to continue the delusion that I am a cat murderer?”

“No. I believe you. But even if you were my cat, you’re not my cat now, are you?”

Sherlock gives him a sort of squinty, displeased look like he doesn’t know what John is playing at, but he doesn’t appreciate it.

“You don’t sleep on my bed,” John clarifies. “You don’t climb up in my chair for a pet and a cuddle. You don’t rub against my legs when you want some of my dinner.”

Still, Sherlock says nothing, just watches as John drains his glass of wine and then pours himself another.

“Maybe I should adopt a cat,” John muses. Although he suspects he’ll never find another one like the cat. How could he, when the cat was apparently a human all along?

Sherlock glowers at the comment, so darkly it’s as though a rain cloud has covered their entire table in its shade. “If you bring another cat into our flat, I won’t be held responsible for my actions.”

It reminds John of Sarah, what Sherlock said about her, which reminds John of what the cabbie said.

“The cabbie said I was the Beauty to your Beast, you know,” he says, and receives a blank stare in response. Then John recalls exactly what he is getting at, that Sherlock’s answer might make living together very awkward indeed, and he shakes his head hastily.

“Never mind,” he says, and takes another sip of wine.

*

John wakes the next morning with the beginnings of a pounding ache in his temples. As hangovers go, it’s not horrible—he didn’t drink that much wine, after all, certainly not enough to make him properly ill—and he suspects it’ll dissipate by the afternoon.

Still, it’s not pleasant.

Groaning, he rolls onto his side, eyes squeezed shut, and is surprised when his elbows collide with something hairy that grunts and moves away. His eyes fly open.

Sherlock is curled in foetal position atop the duvet, dressed in striped pyjama bottoms and a grey shirt. There’s not even a hint of drowsiness in his expression as he rubs the top of his head with a grimace.

“What the hell are you doing?” John says, scooting back and propping himself up on an arm. He takes a second to scan the room, reassure himself that he’s in his own bed and Sherlock is in fact invading his privacy, then carries on being affronted. “How long have you been here?”

“Approximately four hours and twelve minutes,” Sherlock answers, as though there’s nothing odd about it. “I’ve been watching you sleep.”

“You—” John sits up fully. “What for?”

“You said you were going to miss having a cat. So: this is what I did most mornings when I was a cat.”

Sherlock lets his head fall to the side, resting it against the duvet. The motion bends his neck at what should be an unnatural and uncomfortable angle, but he doesn’t seem bothered.

He continues, “Although the experience was more enjoyable as a feline, I admit. More powerful senses. I could monitor your heart and breathing rates as you moved through each stage of sleep. Your breath also smelled a great deal more interesting.”

Sherlock turns onto his back, stretching his whole body out on the bed. John marvels at how catlike the motion is, then realises how blatantly he is staring and glances away until Sherlock is settled again.

“And when I was a cat, you always spoke to me in silly voices and pet me while you came awake,” says Sherlock. Then he pauses and cocks his head curiously. “Or are you going to pet me now as well?”

“Er,” John says, feeling hopelessly awkward. “I hadn’t planned on it.”

“Hmm. Pity.” Sherlock climbs off the bed in one graceful movement and stands perfectly straight, staring down at John. John has the feeling that he’s being silently laughed at, although he isn’t quite sure why. “Well. Lestrade expects us at noon for questioning. Water and painkillers are on the table beside you. Tea would be lovely, whenever you get to it, although you’ll have to borrow milk from Mrs Hudson. I’m using ours for an experiment.”

With that, Sherlock strides from the room, leaving the door to John’s bedroom wide open behind him. John hears him drag a chair across the floor in the kitchen, followed by the clink of glass against glass.

John sighs, then reaches for the paracetamol bottle on his bedside table.

*

John showers while he waits for the pills to work, and by the time he’s finished, he feels refreshed. He towels himself dry, dresses, and goes to the kitchen.

Sherlock is in the living room, perched on the back of the leather armchair, and he watches intently, squinting as if deep in thought, as John fills the kettle with water.

“Do you want toast?” John calls.

After nearly a minute of utter silence, Sherlock answers, “No.”

John makes him a piece of toast anyway, which he leaves on the kitchen table next to a steaming cup of tea. He takes his own breakfast to the living room.

“I’m not bringing it to you,” he says, settling himself in the red armchair opposite Sherlock’s. “I made it. You can bloody well carry it over here yourself.”

Sherlock eyes him as he takes a bite of toast, spraying crumbs all down the front of his shirt. It should probably be a little unnerving, all the silent staring, but because John had months to become accustomed to it with the cat, he suspects he’s immune now.

“So,” he says after he swallows. “Magic. Curses. Sorcerers. How does all that work, exactly?”

He’s proud of how calm he is, how not hysterical he sounds when he asks, even as his mind threatens to spin madly at just the sound of the words coming from his mouth.

Sherlock grimaces and finally looks away. “Complicated. If you must know, I thought The Woman was an anomaly until last night, and I certainly hadn’t believed any of that rot about curses until I was staring down at a pair of paws instead of hands. Mycroft’s been looking into it while I’ve been… indisposed.”

“Mycroft?”

“My brother.”

“Oh,” John says. “Right.” He remembers now. “Hang on. Mycroft Holmes? Like… MH?

“Yes. You’ve met him, as I understand.”

John frowns, trying to think of when he’s met someone who bears any resemblance at all to Sherlock. “Er. He texted me once, I think, but met? No, I don’t think so.”

“He took you to a warehouse. Said something upsetting enough that it inspired you to buy every possible cat toy and cat food in all of London and try to force each one on me.”

John nearly knocks over his cup of tea. “That’s your brother?”

“Mm. Delights in intimidating people and can’t resist sticking his fat nose into everything.” Sherlock clasps his hands in front of him, looking thoughtful. “Although he was the one who informed me you’d been taken last night as well as where I could find you, so perhaps he does have his uses.”

That’s your brother?” John says again. He mentally relives the entire encounter, and… no, he decides, still doesn’t make sense. “I thought he was a… I dunno, criminal mastermind at first, then maybe some sort of sorcerer.”

In fact, just this morning, John was thinking that the bloke at the warehouse might be the same all-powerful sorcerer the cabbie mentioned. But now that he knows how wrong he was, he isn’t keen to mention it.

Sherlock snorts, bringing his clasped hands to his lips. “No. Just the British government.”

“Ah.” Well, John supposes that explains the bit with the CCTV cameras and being monitored. “Right, okay. So?”

Sherlock cocks his head. “So…?”

“So magic, curses, sorcerers? What do you know?”

Sherlock blinks, seeming taken aback. “I just told you. Weren’t you listening? The subject is entirely outside my expertise.”

“Right, yes.” John nods patiently. Maybe he isn’t being clear enough? “You didn’t believe any of it until you were transformed. But that was a year ago. Surely in that time you’ve learned something?”

At that, Sherlock’s nose wrinkles in disgust, and he stares as though John should be equally disgusted with himself. “Yes, of course. How could I have neglected to do research in feline form? I clearly should have been capable, shouldn’t I?”

You opened the fucking fridge day after day. How the hell do I know what you could and couldn’t do? John thinks, but has the presence of mind to keep that to himself. “Fair enough. Your brother was still capable, though. And you said just now he was looking into it.”

Sherlock scoffs, rolling his eyes. “The entire time I was a cat, Mycroft was determined to have me placed in a government testing facility to see if science could undo the transformation. As a result, I have spent the last year avoiding him at all costs. Hence his interest in me that alarmed you. So I’ve had little opportunity to pick his brain on the subject.”

“Oh,” John says, surprised. If it had been him, he would have… well, not just sat around an empty flat and scared away tenants, limitations of the feline form or not. “So you gave up.”

Sherlock bristles. John is reminded of the cat with his ears back and his teeth bared. “I didn’t give up. I made numerous attempts to track down information. They simply never—”

“No, it’s fine,” John says hastily. Because he supposes he can’t judge, can he, when he’s not been in the same situation. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got me now, and as you’ve said, I’ll fight until my dying breath.”

The anger falls from Sherlock’s face, replaced by surprise. “Yes,” he says slowly. “I have you.”

Sherlock surges suddenly to his feet so that he’s standing on the seat of the armchair, then hops to the floor. To finally retrieve his tea and his toast, John assumes, which reminds him that his own has been growing cold while they’ve been talking. He grasps his teacup and lifts it.

Only to set it down immediately when Sherlock doesn’t continue all the way to the kitchen, but rather stops beside John’s chair and crawls into John’s lap.

“Christ!” John says, and just barely manages to stop himself from dumping Sherlock onto the floor. “What are you… Sherlock!”

“I’m climbing in your chair for a pet and a cuddle,” says Sherlock, curling himself tightly enough that he’s actually lying on his side in John’s lap, his face buried in John’s stomach.

“Look,” John tells him, holding himself very still, “just because I said I would miss having a cat doesn’t mean—”

Sherlock cuts him off, voice muffled: “You miss having a cat. I, sometimes, miss certain parts of being a cat.” He wriggles a bit, making himself more comfortable; John’s muscles are so rigid he feels like a piece of bent plastic in danger of snapping in two. “And since you’re not adopting a cat and I’m not turning into a cat, this seemed a suitable compromise.”

“You miss being a cat?”

For the first time, John wonders about the trauma of the experience.

Because surely it was traumatic, being human one day and feline the next; understanding everything being spoken to him but unable to respond; losing the ability to perform even the most basic, everyday tasks—and to spend a year like that. No wonder he was such a foul-tempered creature when John moved in.

Tentatively, John lays one hand on the top of Sherlock’s head, brushing his knuckles along Sherlock’s hair from root to tip. Sherlock sighs happily, huddling closer.

“Of course. Better senses, as I said before. More effective natural defence mechanisms—I bit Mycroft once, you know, and his hand grew red and swollen until it resembled a lobster claw. Also, easier to sneak about and get into small places. And you would do this… thing, right here”—he gestures towards his jaw, runs his hand along the curve of it just below his ear—“a sort of scratching rub that felt like nothing I have ever encountered as a human. All my attempts to recreate the sensation since have been utter failures.”

And, well, that’s a hint if John’s ever heard one. After a moment of hesitation, he strokes Sherlock’s jaw, tries to do the scratching rub he would do for the cat, although he doesn’t know if he succeeds. It feels completely different: no fur, no rumbling purr beneath the skin.

Then Sherlock tips his head back, displaying the full column of his throat, and John swears his own heart swells with fondness and beats more strongly.

My cat, he thinks, feeling more than a little ridiculous as a thick knot forms in his throat. My fucking cat.

John wonders about the transformation. Whether it was gradual or sudden, what it felt like, whether it hurt, how disorienting it was and how long it lasted. But he supposes for Sherlock it must be a bit like when John got shot. John can tell the story, every ugly sodding detail of it, if he’s asked, but he’s glad that no one ever has. So he’ll do the same for Sherlock.

They stay there, John petting Sherlock’s hair and jaw and neck, the rest of the morning.

*

When they arrive at New Scotland Yard just after noon, Greg insists on speaking to them first before they have the official questioning. He ushers them both into his office and gestures for them to have a seat across from him.

“Thought you might want to know. The taxi driver’s name was Jeffrey Hope,” he says, sliding a blown-up photocopy of Hope’s driving licence across the desk.

Sherlock barely glances at it, but John feels obligated to pick it up. The man in the photograph is unmistakably the cabbie. He looks exactly the same as he did the previous night. John sets the copy back down as Greg continues.

“Divorced, two kids, no close ties with friends or family. According to his medical records, he was diagnosed with an aneurism about three years ago. Could be that the shock of the bullet through the window raised his blood pressure, caused it to rupture, but we’ll have to wait for the full autopsy to be sure.”

“The autopsy will confirm it,” Sherlock says. His fingers are steepled beneath his chin, and his eyes are unfocused, staring off somewhere beyond Greg’s chair. “It’s the simplest solution.”

That’s more than slightly chilling, that there is a force in the world capable of killing a man one way while leaving his body with signs of being killed another way.

“He said he had a sponsor,” John says, so he doesn’t have to dwell on that thought. “Have you found anything that might confirm that?”

“Yeah, Sherlock mentioned that when I texted earlier,” Greg says, leaning back in his chair, “but… there’s not a lot to go on. No suspicious transactions in his bank account—actually, not a lot in his bank account at all. If he was getting paid to murder, he wasn’t being paid that way.”

Of course not. He was being paid in time, not money. But John says nothing, just meets Greg’s stare and tries to look like he doesn’t know anything more than what he’s already said.

After a short silence, Greg sighs. “Don’t suppose you know why he targeted you for the eighth?”

John does, of course, to a certain extent, although he hesitates to say so. But as he’s shaking his head, Sherlock speaks up.

“He targeted John because of his relationship to me. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that I’ve become—” Sherlock’s lips tighten, and he seems to sink a bit in his chair. “—somewhat attached to him.”

John’s cheeks go warm. He knew that, of course, but for some reason, to hear it like that is different. He casts a glance at Greg, who doesn’t seem surprised at all by the pronouncement.

“As for what he wanted with me,” Sherlock continues solemnly, “I’d be interested in learning that as well.”

*

That night, John is startled awake when his attempt to gather the sheets around him encounters resistance, like something large and heavy is lying on top of them.

“You can sleep under the sheets, you know,” he says groggily.

“I am aware,” Sherlock says, and stays exactly where he is: atop both the sheets and the duvet, on his stomach with his hands pillowed beneath his cheek. His head is turned to the side, and although the room is still dark and Sherlock’s face is covered in shadow, John can sense that Sherlock is watching him.

At least his eyes don’t glow quite as alarmingly as the cat’s did.

“Do you need something?” John asks, turning onto his back. He’s becoming more and more alert as the seconds pass. At this rate, if he can manage to get back to sleep before morning, it’ll be a miracle.

A long silence is Sherlock’s response. John begins to wonder if it’s only his paranoia that insists Sherlock is awake and watching him, when a soft “No” finally comes.

“All right,” John says. “Okay.”

He considers rolling over and ignoring Sherlock’s presence, trying to fall back asleep, but then… well. He remembers earlier that day, Sherlock in his lap admitting that he misses being a cat.

So instead he says, “Come here, then.”

He expects Sherlock to simply scoot closer, maybe cuddle up to his side. Certainly not for Sherlock to heft himself up and plop down right on top of him, his head in the centre of John’s chest, which is precisely what he does.

“Oof!” he says, more from surprise than discomfort.

Although, he supposes when the shock has worn off, this was what the cat did, wasn’t it: climb up on John’s chest? It’s not that different, he tells himself. Except the cat’s a bit larger and less furry than he used to be.

He curves an arm around Sherlock’s waist to hold him in place, then runs his fingers through Sherlock’s curls. They’re soft, not the same soft the cat’s fur was—it’s an entirely different texture—but soft nonetheless. Sherlock makes a quiet humming sound and rubs his cheek against John’s shirt. His stubble scrapes audibly against the fabric.

It’s distressingly similar to a lover’s embrace. The sort of thing John might do with a girlfriend after they’ve finished fucking. It doesn’t mean anything, he thinks. Just a bit of friendly comfort. At least they have the sheets and the duvet between them.

“I looked up the Beast and Beauty reference on the internet this morning,” says Sherlock. His voice is low, a soft rumble against John’s chest.

You had to look up a popular Disney film? John thinks, but doesn’t say. “Um. Yeah?”

“Yes. Not the same as my situation, obviously, nor the conditions for my curse,” Sherlock says. Then, after a silence, he sighs. “Although… neither is it terribly different.”

John stares very intently at the ceiling. “Oh.”

“Luckily, I have a greater control over my mental faculties than most. I repressed my realisation of the… depth of my regard for you until you were asleep. I thought my transformation might be unpleasant to witness. Although, in hindsight, perhaps it would have saved us the tedium of your misunderstanding.”

‘The depth of my regard for you,’ John thinks stupidly. Well then. “Oh,” he says again.

Sherlock wriggles a bit, and John realises that he’s stopped petting, his hand just resting lightly over Sherlock’s nape. He starts up again, and Sherlock sighs contentedly, nuzzling at his breastbone.

“Yes,” Sherlock says, sounding amused. “Oh.

*

John has a shift at the surgery the next day and stops by Tesco on his way home, since it’s been ages since he did the shopping.

When he returns to Baker Street, he has to hobble up the stairs to the flat, both his hands full of grocery-laden carrier bags. Cursing as he accidentally twists the plastic round his fingers, he manages to get the door open. He finds Sherlock perched on the back of the leather armchair, staring blankly at the wall above the sofa. Like John isn’t struggling and cutting off the circulation to his fingertips just a short distance away.

“Don’t mind me,” John says through gritted teeth. “I can manage.”

Sherlock glances over, then seems to dismiss him, turning back to the wall as though that’s more important than his flatmate in pain. ‘Depth of my regard,John’s arse.

Sighing, John shuffles to the kitchen and deposits the bags on the table, nudging Sherlock’s beakers and test tubes and general mess out of the way. Once his burden’s been lifted, he flexes his fingers, which are bright red and tingling painfully, and pops his head once more into the living room.

This time, he sees that Sherlock isn’t staring at the wall, but rather a piece of paper that’s been taped to it, bearing a single handwritten word: Moriarty.

“I suppose it doesn’t mean anything to you, then?” he asks.

“No,” Sherlock answers, then says nothing else.

With a shrug, John returns to putting away the shopping.

He’s slotting a bag of pasta into the cupboard when a brush against his calf makes him jump. The bag slips from his hand and falls to the worktop as he looks down in alarm.

Sherlock is on his hands and knees on the floor, rubbing his flank against the back of John’s legs. It looks ridiculous, not at all the agile and familiar movement of a cat rubbing its scent on a human. As John watches dumbly, Sherlock plods in a little circle on the floor so he can nudge John with his other side this time. His head is down, so John can’t see his expression.

John clears his throat and turns around, stepping carefully so he doesn’t inadvertently kick him. “Er, Sherlock? Not… um.”

Settling back on his haunches, Sherlock gazes at John. He’s trying for feline, John can see that quite clearly, but this time he seems very much human. An attractive human on his knees looking up at John with wide, innocent eyes.

Christ.

“You’ll be making dinner soon,” Sherlock says, speaking slowly, like an adult to a small child. “For yourself. I’m rubbing against your legs to say I would like some.”

Then, as though to punctuate the point, he leans forward and nuzzles above John’s knee, rubbing his cheek back and forth over John’s trousers.

John retreats so quickly and forcefully into the worktop he wouldn’t be surprised if he finds bruises on his back later. The nuzzle stops, mercifully, as Sherlock simply tips his head back and blinks at him. He has to know what John is thinking, has to know the very dark and filthy place John’s mind has found itself in, but he doesn’t show it.

“Bit different than when you were a cat,” John tells him, sounding more strained than he would like.

Sherlock shrugs one shoulder, saying nothing.

He stays there on the floor, silently, tracking every movement as John finishes putting away the shopping and starts making dinner.

*

The fifth time John wakes in the middle of the night to find Sherlock in bed with him, he has to ask, “Do you even try to sleep upstairs?”

This time, Sherlock doesn’t wait for an invitation before he’s climbing on top of John and laying his head on John’s chest.

“Why bother?” says Sherlock. When John skims a hand down his spine, he arches into the touch with a rumbling noise of contentment.

John dozes like that. Still very aware of Sherlock’s weight on him, Sherlock’s hair so close to his mouth that it flutters with each of John’s breaths, Sherlock’s own breath making a warm spot in the centre of John’s shirt. But everything else is hazy, unimportant, and thoughts come and go in a slow trickle. He wonders about the time and when he has to work next and why he’s not heard from Harry in the last two weeks. He thinks about Mrs Hudson’s mincemeat pies and the dry heat of Afghanistan and updating his blog. The cat purring, the page of a book turning, shadows fluttering on the walls.

Then Sherlock shifts, one of his knees dropping between John’s thighs, and John thinks about that. About the last person he had on top of him, their skins sticky with sweat and her wetness, and how she rubbed herself off against his hip while he murmured naughty things in her ear.

He thinks about having Sherlock the same way, tracing the muscles in Sherlock’s back while Sherlock writhes on John’s prick. Sherlock moaning against John’s lips. Sherlock glassy-eyed with sex while John kisses his throat and trails his fingers down Sherlock’s spine, cervical to thoracic to lumbar and then—

“You’re aroused,” Sherlock murmurs.

John jumps to alertness. Yes, he realises, he is aroused, but he’s not erect, not yet, so how—

“Your respiration,” Sherlock says, as though he can read John’s mind, which is a frightening thought. “Your pulse.” He stretches so he can slot his head perfectly below John’s chin, nuzzling John’s throat. “It’s all right.” His lips brush the skin there, and John shivers. “I am too.”

John can feel that now. Although he’s not erect, Sherlock certainly is—and John suspects he’s going to lose the plot very quickly if this continues much further.

“Look,” he says, drawing all his self-control, “I know I’ve probably been giving very mixed signals here, but I’m not actually gay.”

Sherlock snorts, then presses a barely-there kiss just below John’s ear. John’s self-control begins to fray. “Obviously. You’re bisexual. A 1.5 on the Kinsey scale, to be precise. However, I suspect that after you saw how difficult it was for your sister to find acceptance in your family, not to mention the rest of society, you repressed your own same-sex attraction.”

Sherlock,” John says, only to sigh a second later when Sherlock kisses him again in the same sensitive spot.

“It’s fine.” To John’s surprise—and dismay, if he’s honest with himself—Sherlock climbs off, although he doesn’t move away. Rather, he peels back the covers and shimmies beneath them. “I am exceedingly capable of eviscerating anyone who says a negative word about it, and my brother is exceedingly capable of making unpleasant people disappear.”

Sherlock worms a hand under the hem of John’s shirt and lays his warm palm on John’s stomach. He bends his head to kiss John’s shoulder, then inhales deeply—smelling him, John realises. Then John recalls what Sherlock has said about the curse, about John, and he thinks if he does this, he is about to get into something very deep indeed.

“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” he says. He sounds breathless, like he doesn’t mean it at all, but Sherlock stops anyway, pulling back slightly.

“Hmm. Perhaps not.” Sherlock sounds thoughtful. “But you’ll regret it if we don’t, I think. Won’t you?”

Will he? Maybe. John regrets a lot of the times he could have had sex but didn’t, which probably says something about him and how much he thinks with his cock.

“You were my cat for months,” he says despite that. “I thought you were my cat, anyway, and I suppose you were, but not… not really. Then I thought you were a madman, and now you’re my flatmate who sort of acts like my cat. This… Christ, Sherlock, this is mad.”

He can hear the wide grin in Sherlock’s voice when he answers, “Yes. Isn’t it brilliant?”

Laughter bubbles up in John’s throat, and then they’re kissing. John’s hands in Sherlock’s hair, stroking the fringe from his forehead, and Sherlock pawing at John’s pyjama bottoms, shoving them off his hips.

Sherlock’s hand closes loosely around John’s cock, stroking him to hardness, and John breaks the kiss to drop his head back and moan.

It’s a tease, the worst fucking tease John has ever known. Sherlock’s fingers ghost up and down the length twice before stopping at the head, easing the foreskin back and then circling his thumb—slowly, lightly, barely touching at all—around the glans again and again and again.

John gasps, groans, claws at Sherlock’s shoulders, and tries to thrust into Sherlock’s hand, but Sherlock carries on as though there’s nothing torturous about what he’s doing at all.

“Are you paying attention?” he says, nosing along the side of John’s neck. “I’m showing you what I like, which should make reciprocation much, much easier for you when the time comes.”

John’s laugh is strangled. Of course this is what the madman likes. Of course it is. “You prefer a tease. Noted. But for Christ’s sake, Sherlock—”

“A tease?” Sherlock pulls back, sounding baffled, and his thumb ceases its endless circling. Frustrating at first—John’s “oh” is embarrassing, more a sob than a word—but then a relief when he realises it frees him to rut mindlessly against Sherlock’s palm. “You think this is a tease? Hm. Interesting.”

Sherlock takes his hand away, the bastard, brings it to his mouth and spits before returning it, curling his fingers around John’s prick in a grip that is far from teasing. In fact, it’s practically a death grip, and when he begins to stroke, the pace is frantic. John can’t tell an upwards stroke from a downwards stroke, and even with the saliva slicking the way, it hurts a bit.

It’s both the worst handjob he’s ever had and the best he’s ever had. He only has to lie back and take it, tugging at the sheets with one hand and Sherlock’s shirt with the other. Making the most shameful helpless wailing sounds he’s ever heard, loud enough that Mrs Hudson surely hears—maybe even half of London.

“There. Is that better?” Sherlock asks, and John can only answer, “Ah ah ah,” before he’s making a mess of them both in a truly embarrassingly short amount of time.

“Good,” Sherlock says. “That’s good.” He’s panting nearly as much as John, although he’s not shaking like John is, and probably his mind doesn’t feel nearly as scrambled and foggy as John’s. “You needed that. You haven’t masturbated at all since you’ve lived here.”

Hasn’t he? No, John supposes he hasn’t. And didn’t even realise it until now that Sherlock mentions it. He shakes his head, trying to reassemble his mind enough to ponder what that means.

Instead, he finds himself blurting, “I didn’t want you like this before. You weren’t… I didn’t feel…. That wasn’t why I was so fond of you as a cat. I—”

“Yes, thank you,” Sherlock says, so dryly he might as well be spitting sand. “I never thought you were interested in bestiality, but I suppose it’s good to know I wasn’t wrong about that.”

“Right,” John says. “Good.”

He spends the next several moments getting his breath back so he can return the favour.

*

There are voices coming from the living room the next morning when John wakes. For a minute or two, he lies silently on his back, trying to identify the speakers, but they’re too quiet. He can’t even tell how many there are.

So he gets up and shuffles to the bathroom. He has dried come on his skin and clothes, and his hand aches badly. Caused by the ages he spent tossing Sherlock off, he assumes—because Sherlock apparently does prefer to be teased into orgasm. John touched him until he was beyond words, leaking a small puddle of precome on the sheets, whimpering and whining and covering his own face with his hands as though he could hardly stand it.

John imagines that when Sherlock finally came, it was less like an orgasm and more like his body simply giving up out of self-preservation, but Sherlock seemed satisfied.

John cleans himself as best he can, although doing so leaves damp patches on his clothes, then covers himself with a dressing gown and ventures towards the living room.

“—ecall that you wanted me to stay out of it,” he hears Sherlock say. “In fact, you were very insistent about that. And now you expect me to believe—”

As soon as he catches sight of John approaching, he goes quiet. He’s sitting in his armchair, fully dressed in a suit and a dark-green shirt, with an open book in his lap. He gives John a little half-smile, which somehow warms John even more than if Sherlock had shot him a beaming, toothy grin.

The person in the armchair opposite Sherlock’s turns around.

“John,” says Sherlock. “You remember Mycroft, I assume?”

“Dr Watson.” Mycroft stands with the assistance of his umbrella and offers John his hand. “How charming to see you again.”

John pointedly ignores the proffered hand, and Mycroft’s expression sours, then grows even more and more sour as he continues to stare at John. No doubt taking in the well-shagged hair and the faint smell of sex and perhaps other signs that John isn’t aware of, assuming Mycroft’s as observant as Sherlock.

Eyes now narrowed, Mycroft casts a pointed glance over his shoulder at Sherlock—John can’t quite read the sentiment behind it, although he suspects it’s a sort of Really, Sherlock?—and Sherlock arches an eyebrow back.

“You know,” John says, “you could have just told me who you were. I mean, very intimidating and impressive and all that, but most people respond better to straightforwardness.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” answers Mycroft, with a smile so insincere John is tempted to punch it off his face.

“Oh, but he prefers intimidation,” says Sherlock. He raises the open book so that it effectively blocks his face from view. A History of Magic, the cover reads. It’s hardback and ancient-looking. In fact, John wouldn’t be surprised if it came from the set of a Harry Potter film. “It’s how he got so far, after all.”

“Oh, right,” John recalls. “In the government.”

“I only occupy a minor position,” Mycroft says, at the same time that Sherlock says, “I told you: he is the British government.”

Sherlock drops the book again and scowls at his brother. “That is, when he’s not too busy being the British Secret Service or the CIA on a freelance basis.”

Mycroft sighs, rolling his eyes dramatically, and John finally sees the resemblance between him and Sherlock. A bit, anyway.

“Putting on weight again?”

“Losing it,” Mycroft tells Sherlock tightly, “in fact.” With a stern look, he taps the tip of his umbrella on the floor, then takes several steps towards the door. “As far as what to do about Ms Adler—” he begins primly, but Sherlock cuts him off.

“Leave it. You’ve assured me she had nothing to do with the cabbie’s crimes, and I admit I’ve been feeling somewhat more… charitable towards her.” His gaze drifts John’s direction for a fraction of a second before returning to Mycroft. “In fact, I might even say I wish her well.”

Mycroft’s expression darkens with disapproval, but he heaves another sigh and seems to proverbially throw up his hands. “If you insist,” he says. “Incidentally, brother dear, you should hurry if you want to reach Kilburn before the no doubt incompetent buffoons at Scotland Yard manage to trample all the evidence.”

“Kilburn?” It’s as though a lamp flickers on somewhere in Sherlock’s skull. “What evidence? What’s in Kilburn?”

“Oh?” Mycroft’s brows rise as though he’s surprised. “The detective inspector hasn’t called on your expertise? Well, perhaps you aren’t needed after all.”

Then, with a self-satisfied smirk, Mycroft inclines his head in a farewell to them both and sees himself out.

John waits until he’s heard the downstairs door open and close before he asks, “What was that about?”

Sherlock springs from the armchair, the forgotten book falling to the floor, and rushes into the kitchen, where he snatches his mobile phone off the table. “John!” he calls. “Get dressed. We’re going to Kilburn.”

*

They wind up getting shot at, which leads to a twenty-minute chase on foot that leaves John winded and exhilarated for the first time in… well, he can’t remember how long.

It all ends with John leaning into Sherlock’s side, laughing breathlessly, Sherlock grinning down at him, and one of the police officers—Donovan, John thinks her name is—shaking her head and muttering, “Two of them now. Lovely.”

Afterwards, they get fish and chips and then go back home, trample up the stairs still giggling, and file into the flat. John is just shutting the door behind them when he hears Mrs Hudson call out, “Yoo-hoo! Boys, is that you?”

“Yes, Mrs Hudson!” John calls back, throwing the door open again as she climbs the stairs, carrying a plate of lemon tarts that look and smell delicious. “Oh. You didn’t have to—”

“Of course I didn’t, dear,” she says, bustling past John. “Only I had some trouble sleeping last night, and thought you boys might need a little something to restore your energy.”

The look she gives John leaves no question about what she heard the previous night, and John’s face becomes uncomfortably hot.

“Oh,” he says, and clears his throat. “Well. Thank you, Mrs Hudson.”

He suspects that if her hands weren’t full, she would pat his cheeks fondly. As it is, she only smiles and says, “I’ll just take these to the kitchen, shall I?”

John follows her there, where Sherlock is sat at the table, his palms pressed together beneath his chin. He answers John’s wide-eyed glance with a raised eyebrow, but says nothing.

“Would you like a drink?” John asks Mrs Hudson. “We’ve got, um….”

He opens the fridge door, then stares. On the shelf inside, in a clear plastic bag, is a bunch of what looks disturbingly like—

“Are these thumbs?” John asks, lifting the bag and peering into it.

“Yes,” Sherlock says calmly. “Problem?”

Off the top of his head, John can think of six different objections to Sherlock storing human thumbs in their fridge. But he only shakes his head and admits, “Suppose it’s better than mouse entrails in my pants.”

“Oh,” says Mrs Hudson, “that reminds me. I haven’t seen the cat at all recently. Is he all right?”

John’s mind goes blank. He should have anticipated this. He’s been mad about the cat for months, and now the cat is gone. Of course everyone he knows, and certainly his sodding landlady, is going to notice. “Erm.”

“Gave him away,” Sherlock says blithely. “Not really enough room for two grown men and a cat.”

Mrs Hudson looks stricken, and John feels awful, although he isn’t sure what could be done differently.

“Oh dear,” she says faintly, lifting a hand to her mouth. “You might have mentioned it before now. Poor thing. I really came to like him, you know.”

John shuffles his feet awkwardly. “Yeah,” he says, “so did I.”

“Well. I hope you managed to find him a good home.”

“Of course,” says Sherlock. “Probably much happier there than he ever was before. Wouldn’t you say so, John?”

He catches John’s eye and smiles. It’s a fond sort of smile, one that makes John swallow thickly around the heart suddenly lodged in his throat.

“Yeah,” John agrees softly. “Yeah, I’d say so.”