John is sixteen years old when his Mum tells him that he’s a god.
“A god of what?” John asks.
“A god of strays and lost causes,” his Mum replies. She pushes a tray of biscuits towards him across the kitchen table.
John snorts. It’s true that he’s been bringing an awful lot of scruffy cats and injured birds home since he’s decided that he wants to become a doctor – in other words, most of his life.
“Really,” he says, automatically snatching a biscuit. (If he gets fat, it will be entirely his Mum’s fault. He doesn’t even like biscuits; he just can’t not eat them when they’re shoved under his nose.)
“No,” she says. “This is the real world, love. Not a Greek myth. You’ll have to figure out what kind of god you want to be yourself.”
John chews. Swallows. Frowns at her. “Wait. You’re not joking, are you.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Does it sound like I’m joking?”
Well, John doesn’t say.
“It’s a family thing,” she goes on. “Your sister is one too, and so am I.”
“Oh, don’t worry.” She ruffles his hair. “You don’t have to actually do anything, as a god. You balance the universe merely by existing. Some of us never even find out!”
“Right.” John nods. “Okay. That’s good, then. Balance it against what?”
“Against itself, of course. It’s mostly just a very big, very complex clockwork machine, you know, made from unbreakable rules and predetermined causalities and a dash of chance. But where there is intelligent life, there is also free will, and free will goes against predetermination, which means it goes against the foundation of the universe. The universe wasn’t made to support free will, so we were added later on as a… patch, of sorts. We keep the effects of free will contained within the bounds of quantum probability.”
She looks at him expectantly.
“Right,” John says again. “So the important part is, I don’t have to actually do anything.”
John discovers that ‘god’ is more than just a pointless label a couple of months later.
Another injured bird brought home, and he can tell that this one won’t make it. (He’s starting to suspect that his impressively accurate hunches are not just dumb luck.) For the first time since he can remember, he feels angry about it.
What’s the point of being a god if he can’t even save a single life?
The moment that thought finishes crossing his mind, his soul – a white, shimmering mass of smoky tendrils – falls out of his chest and onto the floor. And then proceeds to ooze lazily towards the dying robin.
Panicking, John makes a grab for it, but it passes right through his fingers and disappears into the bird’s small body.
He spends an hour pleading with it to come back out. Then the bird, which appeared to have fallen asleep not long after John’s soul had climbed into it, hops up and flies out of his cupped hands. John shouts in terror and spends another half of an hour chasing it around the house.
Eventually, John gives up on getting his soul back by talking at it and tries to will it out.
“Huh,” John’s Mum says when he shares the story later that evening.
“Is that a good ‘huh’ or a bad ‘huh’?”
“Neither, really. Strange gifts are a fairly common side effect of being what we are, but they’re kind of like snowflakes. No two are alike. Me, I can find anything I lose as long as I’ve touched it before.”
Her expression falls. “Harriet doesn’t have one. Or if she does, she hasn’t found it yet.”
“But she might.”
John's Mum shakes her head slowly. “Maybe, but I’ve never heard of anyone discovering their gift after they’ve turned twenty-two.”
So that’s why she’d been so moody that month, John thinks. Brash, opinionated Harry, who would rather stand out in the worst way possible than be like everyone else – of course the lost opportunity would drive her mad.
“Then how can you be sure that she is a god?” he asks.
His Mum smiles in wistful memory. “Your Grandfather’s gift was knowing the truth. About the universe, and about our place in it. He’s the one who explained it to me. Our nature is always passed on to our children, and in time we all learn to recognize each other, even if not all of us know what that means.”
After the bird fiasco, John decides to be a little more careful. He really doesn’t want to accidentally lose his soul only to later discover that he can’t live without it. So he experiments, and he comes to the following conclusions:
- If he takes his soul out without intending to put it anywhere in particular, it just drifts about aimlessly,
- If he does place it somewhere deliberately, it stays,
- If he keeps it outside his body for more than one day without touching it, he starts feeling ill and weak and the soul starts growing dimmer (probably would die without it, then),
- He can keep it outside his body as long as he likes if he spends at least five minutes per day in contact with the container he is storing it in (he isn’t sure why he would want to do this, but knowledge is knowledge), and
- He can only get it back from wherever he’s placed it if he is touching either the container or the soul itself.
John vows to never place his soul inside a wild animal ever again. At least not without some extremely thorough precautions.
John is taking a walk – because he can’t sleep, because he is decidedly sick of his gloomy little bedsit, and because alcohol is the opposite of a good idea right now – when he sees a man staggering out the doors of the Roland-Kerr Further Education College. John breaks into a jog. Even at this distance, he can tell by the man’s waxy paleness and lack of coordination that there is something seriously wrong with him.
John reaches the building just as the man drops the phone he’d been holding to his ear.
“Emergency services?” John demands, helping him sit back against the wall.
“Yes,” the man rasps.
“Do you know what’s wrong with you?”
The man’s eyes run over John’s body, and his lips quirk up into an amused grin. It doesn’t make him look any less ill. “Yes, doctor. Poison. The latest… string of suicides.”
Ah. John remembers reading about those in yesterday’s paper. And he hears the sarcastic italics loud and clear.
“Not really suicides, then,” he says, pressing a palm against the man’s neck. He can already hear the sirens in the distance. He also already knows that the man will die before he reaches the hospital.
Unless John does something about it himself, that is.
Sighing, he touches two fingers to his chest (the physical connection is not technically necessary, but he likes the extra bit of control it provides) and pulls. Normal people aren’t supposed to know about his kind. Even ignoring the likelihood of being locked up in some lab, it apparently goes against the universal balance and significantly increases the chances of universal collapse.
John doesn’t want the universe to collapse.
However, he also has no intention of walking away, and between doing this now and letting the man see versus waiting for the man to pass out and letting the paramedics see, John thinks the former is by far the smarter option. (He will have reason to rethink the soundness of this choice many times in the future.)
The man squints down at John’s hand. “I’m hallucinating,” he says.
“You are,” John agrees.
“No, I’m not,” the man says, watching as John’s soul disappears into his own chest. His breath hitches at the strange sensation. “Your conduct… says doctor. The way you hold yourself and your tan… say military, and recently returned from abroad. So… Army doctor. But what else?”
How in the world…? John wants to but does not ask. No time.
“Nothing else,” he says instead. “Hallucinating, remember?”
“No… I’m not,” the man repeats. “But I am… looking… for a flatmate. As… are you.”
His speech is getting slower, more slurred, but John doesn’t doubt that his soul is doing its job. The man will be fine, now.
“The name… is Sherlock… Holmes,” is the last thing the man says before he passes out.
John only notices that his cane is gone – dropped like so much ballast when he ran to Sherlock’s side – the morning after.
John opens his laptop and googles Sherlock’s name.
“Do you have any abilities other than healing?” Sherlock asks. He is lounging on the sofa and idly inspecting the smooth, unblemished skin of his left arm.
Yesterday, the only thing connecting said arm to the rest of him had been a thin strip of muscle fibres.
Predictably (and what does that say about either of them), before he’d passed out from blood loss Sherlock had looked not horrified, not even worried, but positively giddy with fascination.
“What in the world are you talking about, Sherlock?” John asks. He puts on what undoubtedly is a very fake looking frown (it’s not his fault he wasn’t born with Sherlock’s acting abilities). “Are you on drugs? I thought you told Lestrade you were clean.”
“Not just healing, then,” Sherlock says as he watches John push his soul into their stalled rental car in the middle of nowhere, Arizona. He isn’t sweating as much as he had been five minutes ago, and his face is becoming alarmingly red. John is starting to worry. “A perpetual motion motor? Can it fix anything you place it in?”
“Hallucinations are a sign of heat stroke,” John says.
“What is it, anyway?” Sherlock asks, ignoring him. “It looks like a soul, but much as it pains me to admit it, I’m hardly an expert on the subject. Do souls usually have healing properties?”
The engine roars to life, and they’re hit with a blast of cold air from the now working air conditioner. “Jesus,” John sighs. “Your guardian angel must be a real overachiever.” He hadn’t been sure this would work. Had never even thought about trying it before.
“No,” Sherlock replies thoughtfully. “I don’t think that’s it.”
“John!” Sherlock drops to his knees in from of him. “John, what are you waiting for? Do you really think this is a good time to play dumb? I know you can heal yourself!” His hands flit all over John’s upper body, moving from face to neck to chest to hair to face without settling anywhere for more than two seconds at a time – all agitated, fearful motion – even as John presses his own palms to his side and feels warm blood flowing out and out and out.
“Wrong,” John murmurs. “Can’t. Only works… on other people.”
“What?” Sherlock’s hands still, then he is swearing and pulling out his phone and dialling with one hand while helping John press down on the gaping hole in his stomach with the other.
The thief turned attempted murderer is long gone by the time Lestrade catches up to them. Three days later, he is found dead in his motel room, bled dry from a slash in his side that’s an almost picture-perfect match for John’s.
Lestrade and his team are still eyeing Sherlock with wary distrust six months on.
The killer is never found.
In retrospect, John realises that he can only blame himself for what happens next, but what else was he supposed to have done? Let Sherlock die? Ignored his invitation to share a flat?
John opens his eyes to find Sherlock straddling his hips and holding a strange gauntlet over his chest. (Not wearing. It’s way too small for Sherlock’s large hands.)
John’s soul is sticking more than halfway out of his body.
“Sherlock,” John says slowly.
Sherlock jerks, apparently so absorbed in his task that he hadn’t noticed John waking up.
“John,” he replies. A glance at the alarm clock on John’s bedside table. 4:12 AM. “Good morning.”
Strange morning, John thinks. Inexplicable morning. Things like this don’t happen to other people morning.
John isn’t sure he would call it a good morning.
Still, you live with Sherlock Holmes, you get used to the strange and inexplicable, so…
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” John asks patiently. Instead of, say, having a panic attack or screaming bloody murder, as he is sure anyone else would have done in his position.
“You didn’t drink the tea I made for you,” Sherlock says.
“Only about half of it. It tasted strange. What does that have to-” John’s eyes grow wide. He pushes himself up, shoving Sherlock off his lap. The gauntlet follows Sherlock, and John’s soul slides back into his body. John pats at his chest, then glares at the… the… the alien sitting in front of him. (John is well aware of the irony, but dear God. Compared to Sherlock, John is positively ordinary.) “You drugged me. Again.”
Sherlock stares at John’s chest unhappily. “I don’t see what you are getting so upset over. This time I even knew what I was using. No harm would have come to you.” He meets John’s eyes with a glare of his own. “That’s three hours of work down the drain, John. I was almost done.”
“Yes, almost done stealing my soul! You’d better have a good explanation for this.”
Sherlock’s annoyance is replaced with sheepish defensiveness. He says nothing.
“My laptop power cord has suffered an unfortunate accident.”
John stares. “Please tell me you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.”
“It’s the middle of the night. I couldn’t buy a new cord now if I wanted to. This is important, John. Do you really want an innocent young woman to die because I could not turn my computer on?”
“It’s the middle of the night now. It wasn’t the middle of the night when you drugged me.”
“I didn’t feel like going out.”
“Oh, well in that case.”
“Are we really going to argue about this? I can’t exactly turn back time.”
“Use my laptop, then.”
Sherlock looks away.
“Your cord may have suffered the same accident.”
John groans and falls back on the bed, rubbing his face with both hands. “You did this on purpose. I know you did.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“If I did do it on purpose, which I didn’t, do you really think I would be stupid enough to leave any evidence?”
“I don’t need evidence to know you! Just as I don’t need evidence to know you let that psychopath hack your arm off on purpose!” John raises his head to peer at Sherlock suspiciously. “Did you sabotage the engine of the rental car in Arizona, too?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I had no reason to think you could do anything but heal at that point, did I?”
John drops his head back on the pillow. “I wouldn’t presume to know what goes on inside that stupid head of yours.”
“Stupid!” Sherlock sputters.
“Stupid. Insane. Impossible.”
“Obviously not impossible.”
John digs his heel into Sherlock’s thigh. “Shut up, Sherlock.”
Sherlock does, for once.
John stares at the ceiling.
“Can you really not wait until the shops open?” John asks.
“I’ve waited too long already,” Sherlock admits, and John can tell that this time he’s telling the truth.
John scowls and digs his heel in harder.
Sherlock pats at his bare ankle.
“Where’d you get that gauntlet, anyway?” John asks a little later.
“Hmm? Oh. Molly,” Sherlock replies without looking up from his typing.
John blinks. “Why does Molly have something that can steal souls?”
The typing stops. “Can’t you supernatural sorts recognize each other?”
“I can recognize my sort,” John says. “I don’t know what Molly is.”
“Something like a grim reaper, I believe.”
“How exactly does that come up in conversation?”
“Obviously she didn’t tell me. I dropped by after hours once,” broke in, he means, “and I saw her using it on the corpses. Naturally I stuck around long enough to see where she keeps it. Though I have to say, it’s a lot more difficult to use than I expected.”
“Naturally,” John mutters. “She didn’t let you borrow it, did she.”
Sherlock gives him a look.
Later yet, Sherlock buys them two new power cords and reluctantly offers to return John’s soul.
John looks at Sherlock’s laptop. Then he looks at Sherlock. Then he looks up at the ceiling and groans softly.
He takes his soul out of the laptop and pushes it into Sherlock’s chest.
“I don’t remember the last time I used it for anyone else, anyway,” John grumbles.
A slow, genuine smile splits Sherlock’s face, and he pulls John in for an unexpected hug. “Does this mean that you’re my heart and soul, now?” he enquires.
“I can take it back any time I like, you know,” John says into his shoulder.