When Sherlock returns, not much has changed. The flat’s the same – well, a bit tidier – and London continues to be full of criminals, some more intelligent than others. Except the faces around him are more haggard, and when he kisses John, there’s still a brief hesitation before John kisses him back.
And then there’s the cat.
He almost steps in the beast’s food bowl, his mind assuming that since the flat appears unchanged, it must be so. Stupid.
John is busy wrestling with a soup tin across the kitchen and doesn’t bother turning around.
“Yes, Sherlock, what is it? Have I stored yet another piece of equipment incorrectly? I don’t see what was so wrong about where I put those test tubes, they were perfectly fine.”
“A cat, John? Would have thought you more of the dog type.”
The tin clatters on the countertop. When he turns to Sherlock, John looks a bit embarrassed.
“Oh, er, I forgot to tell you, didn’t I?”
Sherlock just watches him.
“I’ll go and get him, then. He’s upstairs in my old room, seems to like it. Don’t think he’s come down since you got back which is probably why I forgot…”
John sidles out of the kitchen like a schoolboy caught doing something naughty and heads upstairs. Sherlock waits in the living room and prays John put the litter upstairs as well while he listens to John say something in that obnoxious tone reserved for animals and children.
John returns with a cat cradled in his arms. It’s a massive, striped monster with a squashy face, half an ear missing, and a crooked back leg that hangs over John’s arm. As soon as it spots Sherlock, a low growl rumbles through its chest.
“John, when you said you’d acquired a cat, I was not expecting a Scottish wildcat that had at some point collided with a moving vehicle.”
The thing’s beady eyes are glaring at him now. Cats perceive staring as a challenge, he recalls, but Sherlock is not about to let the thing out of his sight. He was being factious about the cat’s breed, but it still looks ready to claw his face apart.
“Molly has a friend who works at a shelter. I’d been to Molly’s for dinner while…while you were gone, and Toby’s always seemed to like me, so…”
John glances at Sherlock, perched in his armchair, and sits on the couch instead of his own armchair. The cat crawls out of his arms to stretch indolently before nudging at John’s elbow with its head. John scratches behind its ears, looking down at the cat with a small smile.
When he sees Sherlock’s wary look, he scooches over and pats the spot on the couch next to him, opposite the cat.
“C’mon, you should meet him properly. So far he hasn’t really warmed up to anyone but me and Mrs. Hudson. He bit Mycroft and tried to bite Greg, and Molly left crying when he chased her to the toilet and wouldn’t let her out.”
“It bit Mycroft?”
Sherlock’s mouth twitches in a slight grin that falters when John holds his hand out.
Sherlock manages to wedge himself as close to John but as far away from the cat as possible. The look of disdain on its face is probably how he himself looks at most people. Interesting. Maybe he will be able at least to avoid an attack, if not get along with the thing.
John takes Sherlock’s hand and smiles. “Hold your hand out slowly.”
Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective and bane of criminals throughout London, tries to convince himself that his heart is not racing in something like terror as he reaches his hand, palm up, towards the cat.
Three minutes later, the cat is hiding under the couch while John disinfects the scratches on Sherlock’s fingers.
“At least he didn’t bite you.”
The stare Sherlock levels at John could curdle milk.
“Explain to me, John, how I’m going to be able to continue inhabiting this flat while that creature stalks around.”
John starts to reply, but Sherlock interrupts.
“Wait, John, what did you name it?”
“I, er, haven’t given him one yet. Haven’t found one that fits.”
“Good, you can take him back then, since you’re clearly only shallowly attached. We can—”
“Sherlock. I’m not giving him back.”
Two minutes later, Sherlock has shut himself, pouting, into their bedroom. The couch had been his first choice for a sulk, but as he had returned from the kitchen, two sets of sharp claws had darted out from underneath the couch to bat at his ankles.
The three of them settle into an uneasy routine. The cat refuses to enter the bedroom but spends more time in the rest of the flat. It still disappears upstairs at night once John has gone to bed.
If John had been asked, he would have said Sherlock was jealous. When they sit working together on the couch, Sherlock’s legs sprawled over John’s lap, the cat sits watching them from the floor. When John sits in his armchair, the cat curls up on his lap, purring. Sherlock has already learned not to attempt to kiss John in these cases, lest he face the cat’s wrath for getting too close. Once, when he stays up to work on a case while John sleeps, he sees the cat watching him play the violin, perched on the stairs to John’s room, beady eyes shining.
While they eat breakfast one morning – or, more accurately, while John eats jam toast and runny eggs and Sherlock steals bites from John’s plate and drank tea – Sherlock proposes a name for the cat. John is not amused.
“Sherlock, we are not naming the cat Satan.”
“It’s perfectly fitting.”
“No, you gorgeous, crazy man.” As he gets up to put his dishes in the sink, he presses a kiss to Sherlock’s jaw. “I’ll see you after work. No experiments on the cat while I’m gone.”
Sherlock lets out a sigh that clearly indicates what his plans for the day had been.
Two weeks later, they collapse, exhausted and dishevelled, into bed. The living room is in a bit of a shambles, and most of their clothing is still strewn on the floor, although John’s pants have gone missing. Sherlock has almost drifted to sleep, John’s head pillowed on his chest, when the door slowly creaks open.
“John, your cat has finally come to kill me.”
John stirs against him. “ ‘S fine, Sherlock. I’ll protect you.”
When the cat leaps onto the bed and nestles at the back of John’s legs, purring like an outboard motor, Sherlock slowly drags his own away, his eyes never straying from his potential attacker.
“Sh’rlock, if you move under the blankets like that, he’ll defin’ly attack you.”
It takes Sherlock exactly thirty-two minutes and twelve seconds to fall asleep after that.
A few weeks later, Sherlock is playing his violin for John while a fire crackles in the hearth and the street lamps flicker outside in the dark. John sits on the floor by the fire, back resting against his armchair as he watches Sherlock and sips at a tumbler of a whiskey Mycroft had given them ages ago.
As Sherlock finishes playing the piece, John smiles with contentment, drowsy from the fire and the alcohol.
“I think I’ve come up with a name.”
“Since he likes your playing, I was thinking Nero would be fitting.” His eyes sparkle as he points to the cat. It’s sitting outside the door to the flat, front paws curled under its chest as it watches Sherlock and the violin.
“I’ve seen him do it before, not just tonight. What do you think?”
“John, that story about Nero and the violin is an urban legend, he wasn’t even in Rome during the fire.”
“Sherlock. It’s a name for a cat.”
Sherlock studies the cat for another moment.
“Nero does seem fitting.”
“Cheers to Nero, then.” John raises his glass in a toast and takes a deep swig of whiskey.
Sherlock continues to complain about Nero. Once, John comes home to see the cat cornered by Sherlock, holding something that looked suspiciously like a severed thumb in its mouth while Sherlock shouts threats and waves his hands in an attempt to scare the cat into dropping the digit.
Another time, John sees what looked like claw marks across the back of Sherlock’s forearm. Sherlock shrugs off his questions and mutters something about a hairball in his slipper.
But then, one rainy afternoon, Mycroft stops by for a visit. John is in the kitchen preparing tea when he tries to approach Sherlock. Nero suddenly appears from one of his hiding spots, puffy and spitting. He growls at Mycroft until the man retreats to the couch, holding his rolled umbrella in front of him as a barrier to the angry animal.
When John comes in from the kitchen, Sherlock is wearing a small, smug smile, and Nero is stretched prone in front of the fire as if he’d lost the will to move any further.
John steps out to get the shopping one Saturday and arrives at Tesco just as his phone buzzes.
John help. I’m trapped. – SH
He had left Sherlock dozing on the couch. A particularly exhausting case involving a charred corpse and, of course, much running, had finally forced the man to rest.
Is it life or death? We really need milk – JW
No. Get some of those biscuits too. – SH
He rolls his eyes and grabs a cart. Their cupboards had been especially bare of late, and the trip takes longer than usual. Forty minutes later, his cab pulls up to 221.
What he sees when he reaches the flat makes him gape and quickly set down the bags so he can go back to the living room, milk and butter forgotten.
Sherlock is sleeping, stretched out on his back with an arm thrown up over the couch arm and one foot resting on the floor. On his torso rests Nero, curled up and dozing with an occasional twitch of his tail. John can hear the cat’s thunderous purr from across the room.
Sherlock stirs and sees the cat still perched on his chest. He glances at John, then at Nero, as the cat yawns and opens his eyes to stare at Sherlock.
Then the cat rubs his head on Sherlock’s t-shirt and goes back to sleep. Sherlock yawns in turn and closes his eyes. John steps with quiet footfalls to the couch to kiss Sherlock gently before returning to the kitchen, humming.