The best part about being a ghost was that he could now examine whatever he wanted as closely as he wished. No one ever saw him and shouted, Oi! Sherlock! You cannot just stick your nose in that woman’s ear! Sherlock never thought he’d live to see the day when he’d miss that. But then, he supposed he hadn’t.
The worst part about being a ghost was that he couldn’t tell anyone about the things he found out. And it was funny that that was what bothered him most, because for the longest time he had refused to tell people the things he knew, out of spite. If people, he thought, were going to treat him this way, then they didn’t deserve his insights, they didn’t deserve to know the things he knew. And then John had come along and Sherlock had discovered the delight of sharing the things that he knew. Sherlock would never have predicted that what he would miss most as a ghost would be his ability to talk.
Actually, strictly speaking, what he missed was his ability to talk to John. He still spoke to Lestrade when he followed him to crime scenes, still delivered his scathing assessments of the Met’s shortcomings, and the fact that Lestrade didn’t respond didn’t bother him, didn’t alter the pleasure he got out of his observations. And he still spoke to Molly, when he hovered around her autopsies. And yes, it was annoying that she didn’t do exactly as he told her to, but then again she never really had, even when she had been trying to, so things weren’t very different there. It was John that hurt the most, and the fact that he could still hurt as a ghost was, frankly, unacceptable to him. Ghosts should be well beyond such things as emotions. He had always assumed that once he died he would be freed of all these troublesome, body-oriented things, and instead he found himself sad more often than not.
In the beginning he haunted John the most because he couldn’t resist, he missed him too much not to. He followed him everywhere. They didn’t make John identify the body, leaving that task to Mycroft, so Sherlock stuck by John in the hallway and watched him do the deep-breathing exercises he’d learned in order to deal with post-traumatic stress from a very different war. He stayed with John on Mrs. Hudson’s sofa because John couldn’t bear to go up to the flat. He sat next to John at his own funeral and made biting remarks about everyone who had shown up. Mrs. Hudson sat on John’s left, and Sherlock sat on John’s right. No one tried to occupy the space. Sherlock learned later that many people avoided him instinctively, unable to see him but able to sense him in some prehistoric part of their brains that understood ghost in a way the civilized human no longer did.
Eventually, though, Sherlock grew unable to bear John. He talked and talked and talked to him, but John never heard, never gave any impression of hearing or sensing Sherlock at all. Sherlock tried to shake him, but his hands went right through him. Sherlock tried to kiss him, but his lips tumbled through John, through the sofa, through the floor below, until he landed in Mrs. Hudson’s lounge, winded even though he no longer needed to breathe. Mrs. Hudson looked up, head cocked, as if she’d heard a noise, and then dismissed it as Sherlock straightened his coat around him and went back upstairs.
John spent less and less time at 221B. He kept the flat, but he took to sleeping at the surgery, when he slept at all, and to being out at almost all times, either with friends at a pub in enforced socializing or walking around London. For a little while, Sherlock followed him on these excursions because they had always enjoyed London together, but still John never even glanced sideways, and it was so frustrating. Of all people, John should know he was still there, stuck and bored. At least the invisibility meant he could study John’s face to the extent he’d always wanted to, mentally cataloguing with even more detail every expression he made, but the expressions these days were never anything other than variations on the theme of sad. Sherlock wanted to tell him he knew how he felt. In fact, he did tell him, but John couldn’t hear him.
So eventually Sherlock started branching out in an effort to stop feeling sad all the time. And maybe if he left John behind, John would be able to move on; maybe he was holding John back. Which was when he started trailing after Lestrade and Molly, solving their mysteries for them and then waiting impatiently for them to catch up to him (they almost never did). When a crime was over, he would find John. He was always able to find John, though he didn’t know why. Other people he had to guess at, had to stake out Lestrade’s office or Molly’s morgue until they happened by. But John he could close his eyes and think of and open his eyes and be next to. It was convenient and inconvenient all at the same time. And, after a particularly gruesome murder that he’d figured out in ten minutes and Lestrade had figured out in ten days, Sherlock closed his eyes and thought of John and opened his eyes on 221B, on John standing in the middle of the lounge and saying, “Oh, God, I don’t know, get rid of all of it, I suppose.”
Mrs. Hudson was with him, and she gave him a worried look. “Do you mean it?”
John gave a harsh little laugh without humor. Sherlock had not seen John laugh or smile since his death. “I can’t clean it out, can I? I can’t possibly… Just get rid of all of it.”
And then John turned and walked out of the room, as if that was that, and Mrs. Hudson followed him, and Sherlock stood—or floated or whatever it was incorporeal beings did—in the middle of his lounge, surrounded by his belongings, which John had just consigned to the rubbish bin, and the fury that swirled through him was so raw and pure and perfect that he stamped his foot and felt it, heard Mrs. Hudson’s chandelier on the ceiling below jangle in reaction. Sherlock, startled, tried again, and then engaged in a very satisfactory stomp all around the room. He had not realized how much he had missed stomping.
Mrs. Hudson came back up, turning the light on and looking straight at him, fearfully. Sherlock felt like he was glowing with triumph. He tried to walk over to Mrs. Hudson and sweep her up in an affectionate hug. But Mrs. Hudson glanced all around the room and turned the light off again, edging her way back down the stairs, looking back every once in a while.
A couple moved in. They were dreadful people, and Sherlock hated them. He found that he hated them so much that he could do things like move the food around in their cupboards and turn the water on and off at inopportune times. Eventually they got fed up enough that they left, and Sherlock was pleased.
A pair of female roommates moved in next. Sherlock hated them even more. He found that he hated them so much that he could do things like spill sugar all over the floor for them to clean up and shatter their cutlery. Eventually they got fed up enough that they left, and Sherlock was pleased.
A single man moved in next. Sherlock hated him the most, in all his solitariness. He found that he hated him enough that he could do things like shove his furniture all around and, eventually, he surprised himself, enough to be able to write in the steam on the bathroom mirror “PLS JUST GO.” He regarded his handiwork with delight, and the single man took the hint and moved out.
“That place is haunted,” he told Mrs. Hudson on his way out the door.
“Yes,” Sherlock called after him, the most pleased he’d ever been as a ghost.
That was when John came back. The lounge now only looked like their lounge in the most superficial of ways, and Sherlock hated it there. He tried to concentrate on his hate instead of the fact that John was there and Sherlock felt like rejoicing, John back where he was supposed to be. John stood in the middle of the lounge and narrowed his eyes and did a full turn. Then he said, to himself, “Well. This is ridiculous.”
Sherlock was standing right in front of him, stooped down a bit so that they were nose-to-nose, detailing in his head the differences in John since the last time he’d seen him. His eyes were still heavy and sad, but he at least looked like he’d gained some weight back.
“They tell me this place is haunted,” John said, raising his voice, and, because Sherlock had been standing much closer to him than a non-ghost would ever have stood, he took a step back in alarm at the sudden strident tone. “I told them that I don’t believe in ghosts, but what Mycroft said was that I did always believe in you, and I said that I guess it’s true that if anyone was going to figure out how to be a ghost just to be a pain in everybody’s arse, it would be you.”
Sherlock gaped at him and realized he should have expected this, should have predicted this. Rumors that the flat was haunted, and they would assume it was him, of course, and they would send John.
“Couldn’t you be a useful ghost?” John asked, patiently. “Couldn’t you, I don’t know, help solve some crimes or something? The last bloke here said you used to move his furniture around. You never even moved our furniture around, not even when I specifically asked you to because you’d spilled some kind of toxic chemical and I needed to get behind the sofa to clean it.”
“You overreacted about that,” Sherlock told him. “It wasn’t toxic; we would have been fine. Maybe a bit…hairier.”
But John couldn’t hear him, so John was still talking. “Also, I have to say, I’m a little offended, because I lived here for so long after you died, so long, and you never once—” John suddenly cut himself off, and Sherlock realized in alarm that he was about to start crying, was very close to it, had tears trembling in his eyes and in his voice. He seemed to rein them in, clearing his throat and rubbing them out of his eyes and sniffling once hard. “That is so like you,” he sighed, tiredly, into the hand that was pinching at the bridge of his nose. “I stayed here so long because I saw you everywhere here. I wanted so badly for it to be haunted. I wanted to believe in ghosts, I really did. So like you to wait until after I leave to throw a strop.”
“Oh, make the obvious connection,” Sherlock begged him. “For once. You left, and I threw a strop. Don’t you see?”
“You couldn’t have, I don’t know, given me a sign before that? Written me little notes on my laptop or something? Oh my God, I have lost my bloody mind,” John said. “I want a ghost to leave me a note. Send me a text. I love you. –SH. Is this place still bugged? Mycroft, do you still have bugs set up in here? None of that is to be repeated, do you hear me? Oh, he’s going to have me institutionalized. I mean, I know it was his idea, but I don’t think he actually meant it seriously, I think he said it to me thinking I might be able to take this as a joke or something, and this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
“And you invaded Afghanistan,” said Sherlock, sadly.
“And I invaded Afghanistan,” said John, sadly, and tipped his head back against the wall behind him and breathed.
“Stay,” said Sherlock. “Please stay.” He looked around himself in frustration. Why, he thought, why was it hate that made him able to do things, why couldn’t it be love? “Stay, stay, stay!” he shouted at John, directly in his ear, and John never moved, never flinched, and Sherlock, in a burst of raw, pure, perfect fury, picked up a stupid knick-knack that the female flatmates had left behind and flung it hard at the window.
It flew through it, shattering it into countless fragments of glass, and John lifted his head from the wall and stared at the broken pane, at the London sky outside. Sherlock stood next to John, staring at it in just as open-mouthed wonder.
“Oh, it isn’t hate,” said Sherlock. “It’s anger.”
Mrs. Hudson hurried in, looking at the broken window and at the astonished John.
“Oh, dear,” she tsked at him in sympathy. “Come downstairs, love, I’ll make you a cup of tea—”
“I didn’t do that,” John said.
“John, it’s all right, really—”
“No, Mrs. Hudson, I didn’t do that. They’re right. The flat is haunted. Sherlock.” John had moved into the center of the room, was spinning around it, looking everywhere, as if he was suddenly going to be able to see him.
“I’m right here,” said Sherlock, exhausted. “I’m literally standing right in front of you.”
“John,” said Mrs. Hudson, “I know what they said, and I know what Mycroft said to you, but it isn’t like—”
“It is like,” John insisted. “Sherlock. Do it again. Whatever you just did, however you did it, do it again.”
Sherlock stepped forward and tenderly brushed a hand through John’s fringe. John didn’t react. Nothing. Which made Sherlock so incredibly furious that he swiped at him, slicing his hand through the air and just wanting to—
Smash into him, making contact hard enough to bruise, and John staggered backward, hand rubbing at his shoulder. “Ow,” he said. “Seriously? On the bullet wound? Really?”
Sherlock stared, blinking. “I didn’t know I could do that.”
“Mrs. Hudson,” said John, still looking wildly around the room, his eyes sliding over Sherlock unseeingly, “you are going to have no trouble at all renting this flat.”
“Oh? Do you think you can convince him to leave?”
“No. I’m moving back in,” said John.
In the beginning, John spoke to him regularly without any response from Sherlock needed. He was able to predict Sherlock’s responses to anything he might say, and he seemed to take it for granted that Sherlock was there, that he hadn’t left. Maybe he really could sense him now that he’d been forced to acknowledge him, thought Sherlock.
Except that then there came a day when John had been chopping vegetables for some dinner he was making himself and telling Sherlock about the curious symptoms of a patient of his, and he stopped and said, hesitantly, “You’re still here, right?”
Sherlock had been sitting-slash-floating on the counter right next to John, so close his leg would have been brushing John’s torso had Sherlock been corporeal, and he said, “Yes. Yes, I’m right here. I’m right next to you,” and nudged his shoe against the side of John’s belly, just under his ribcage.
John didn’t react to that. John said, with a sigh, “I guess I have to just trust that you’re still here and I’m not a lunatic. But can’t you do something? Something like you did before?”
Sherlock was frustrated. It had all been so easy when he’d been alive. So easy to live with John and ignore him, to have that precious luxury, to talk to him only when he felt like it and not constantly, and he had taken it for granted, felt immortal, in spite of the death that so constantly surrounded him, and he had been so idiotic. All that raw, pure, perfect fury coalesced into Sherlock grabbing a handful of carrots and flinging it hard against the wall.
John watched them ricochet off the wall to the floor. “Next time could you demonstrate your presence in some way that doesn’t make a mess?” He walked over to them, stooping to pick them up and toss them in the rubbish bin.
“If I didn’t make a mess, would I be me?” asked Sherlock.
“Then again, I suppose you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t make a mess,” said John, and then resumed his story about his patient.
After that, Sherlock tried to summon anger every once in a while, deliberately, in order to do something that would assure John of his continued haunting of the flat. It actually grew easier and easier to summon this anger, because he was happy John was there but he was more and more furious that he really wasn’t there. But if John knew how unsettled the ghost sharing his space was, he gave no indication. He went on having one-sided conversations and complaining good-naturedly about how neat everything was in the flat, and when he did Sherlock would make a point to kick up a mess in John’s absence, and John would say, amused, upon returning home from work, “Look at that, just like old times, thank you.”
John watched terrible telly. Some things never changed. And Sherlock, working himself into a fury over the idiocy of what John was watching, ghost-stalked over to the light switch and gave it a try, flipping it on and off in a rage. John, after a startled moment, immediately said, “Oh. Morse code. Sherlock, that’s brilliant, why didn’t you think of that earlier?”
And Sherlock really didn’t know why he hadn’t.
But, once it was discovered, they used the light switch method of communicating much more frequently. It required concentration over a prolonged period of time on Sherlock’s part, focusing on the frustration of being dead and having to resort to this in the first place, but they could have decent conversations, especially if John asked yes or no questions. Do I sometimes walk through you? Lights flickering yes. Do you mind it? Concentrating on the long Morse code response of Absolutely not. Because a simple “no” would not have sufficed.
Mrs. Hudson seemed to accept all of this. Sherlock had done enough in her presence to convince her that he was there and it was really him, so she settled into life the way it had been when both inhabitants of 221B had been alive. Sherlock was incredibly touched at the fact that, when she brought John tea, she always brought John two cups, and they left one by Sherlock’s chair. Sherlock couldn’t actually drink it, of course, but he appreciated the thought a great deal and told her so in Morse code lights, translated by John. Sherlock also said out loud, “Thank you.” He knew Mrs. Hudson couldn’t hear it, but he also thought she deserved a genuine Sherlock Holmes expression of gratitude.
Mycroft accepted it less. He stopped by and said things to John about the foolishness of the entire operation, things that keyed Sherlock into such fury that he went around the room randomly swiping at things until Mycroft had to admit that there was something…unusual…about the flat. Sherlock found that, once he’d admitted it, he came by frequently. The visits drove Sherlock mad, and he communicated that to John, through furious Morse code lights, once Mycroft had left one day (Sherlock refused to communicate in Morse code in front of Mycroft. He didn’t want Mycroft to think they might be able to have a conversation; being able to avoid Mycroft was one of the best parts of being dead). John had chuckled and said, “He comes by because you’re here and it’s the only place now where he can even feel partly close to you.” And Sherlock, muttering invectives to himself, had flipped the lights in denial of that so vociferously that John had said, “That isn’t even anything at all, that’s just gibberish. Anyway, I like it when he comes by. He riles you up and you get more communicative than you ever are.”
Sherlock had never really explained to John that he needed to be furious to make himself present enough to affect the real world around him. He thought that, if John knew, he would encourage less communication, preferring to keep Sherlock happy and content rather than furious and there for him. That was just how John was.
Sometimes Sherlock floated in the bathroom when John showered. Not like that. He would steadily ignore the nakedness of John taking a shower and sometimes singing in a dreadful off-key voice and regard the steam building on the mirror and know that he could write in it, that he had done it before, that he could leave John an actual message. But he thought of the message John had said he wanted (I love you. –SH) and froze with panic. Even as a ghost, the idea of that was too much. He had found death less terrifying than the prospect of telling John that he loved him. Such a thing, he thought, was unnecessary anyway. He was dead. What was the point of it?
So, for a long time, Sherlock left the bathroom before John was done with his shower, without leaving any message on the mirror. Until, eventually, on a day when John had laid out just a button-down shirt, Sherlock bit the bullet and, drawing on a roiling self-disgust for the fact that it had taken him so long to reveal this to John, reached out, concentrating—fury fury fury so bloody. Stupid. That he was dead—and wrote, “Wear jumper – cold out. –SH” It was not at all the sort of message he would ever have written whilst alive—John had always paid attention to the mundane weather details—but Sherlock had spent the dawn hours watching people shiver down the street, and he didn’t wish for John to catch cold, and there, it was something to put on the mirror to break through that barrier.
Then he had to wait for John to finish showering, carefully making sure to get himself angry enough to be able to refresh the letters when they faded away. Eventually, John turned the shower off, and Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut and fled from the bathroom to protect John’s modesty (Sherlock wondered sometimes if John thought he followed him everywhere; John had never asked, but Sherlock decidedly did not). John pulled the door open with comical swiftness, a towel draped around his waist, and called, “Sherlock? Where are you?”
Sherlock concentrated and tried to flip the light switch in the lounge for him. It didn’t work. Not angry enough. Look, thought Sherlock, there’s John, basically naked, and you can’t even go over there and take that towel off of him because you are dead. Ah, there, excellent.
John walked into the lounge. “How did you do that? Wait, never mind, I guess that’s a silly question to ask a ghost. I guess I should say, You can do that?”
Sherlock concentrated, concentrated, concentrated—dead, dead, DEAD—and Morse-coded yes at John.
“Okay,” said John, and paused, as if absorbing that, then walked upstairs to his bedroom (he had never taken over Sherlock’s bedroom) to change for the day.
When he came back from work, he turned the shower on in the bathroom immediately and sat on the toilet as steam built up around him and condensed on the mirror.
“Okay,” said John. “Do it again. Write something else.”
Sherlock thought this was adorable, which meant he couldn’t write anything. “It doesn’t have to be a mirror, you know,” he told John. “There’s nothing special about the mirror.”
John couldn’t hear him. John just said, “Are you going to refuse now out of stubbornness or something?”
Sherlock floated through the bathroom door and into the lounge and looked out the window. Cab driver cutting someone off. Idiot. Look at all these idiots and you can’t say anything to them because you’re DEAD, he told himself, and then, furious about that, he floated back into the bathroom, where John was in the middle of talking to him, and wrote on the mirror, I can use pen & paper. –SH
Because it wasn’t like John could feel him, Sherlock frequently sprawled with his head on John’s lap. The first time he’d done this, he’d done it gingerly, thinking that John might be able to sense him, might shudder, but John never seemed to instinctively sense him the way other people might. It was normally a source of disappointment to him, but when John didn’t even flinch at Sherlock settling his head into permanent float around John’s lap Sherlock decided he was grateful for it. So he took to doing it most of the time when John was just watching telly and not necessarily requiring any sort of response from him. It was safe to do this now, thought Sherlock. John would never know, would never be able to guess, what Sherlock felt. Sherlock even made a point to keep the pen and paper on the desk, far away from John’s perch on the sofa, to give the impression that he wasn’t sitting right on top of John.
That night Sherlock was settled on the sofa with his head on John’s lap regarding the article John had laid out on the floor for him. John copied articles from pathology journals that he thought might interest Sherlock and spread them out on the carpet so that Sherlock would have something to do whilst John was away all day, on those days when the criminal masses were being dull (John had never told Lestrade about Sherlock’s ghost—Sherlock wasn’t entirely sure why but he also didn’t care enough to ask, since John was the only person he was truly concerned with—so Sherlock continued to float around crime scenes without acknowledgment). On the sofa as he was, Sherlock was too far away to read the article John had just spread out, and far too happy with his current position to think of getting up, but he was contemplating the next day, when he could sit in the sunlight and read to his heart’s content and then get himself worked up enough to write notes to John about it. If only he could get himself able to talk. But no matter how much he spoke to John, even when he shouted at him in the middle of a perfect fury, John could never hear him.
The door to the street opened. Sherlock heard it and sat up, surprised, because it was late for Mycroft to call, and John never got any other visitors. Had Mrs. Hudson taken up with someone again?
Mrs. Hudson’s door opened, and Sherlock said absently to John, “Turn down that terrible program, I’m trying to hear,” only of course John didn’t hear him.
There was something wrong, thought Sherlock. Something off about this. There was nothing but silence from downstairs. And that was what was wrong. Silence. Mrs. Hudson would have greeted whoever had come in. Even if she’d greeted him with a kiss, there would have been movement, noise, something. The silence was unnatural, forced.
A step on the stairs. Sherlock flew across the room, scrambling for the pen and paper, couldn’t pick the pen up in his haste, because he wasn’t furious, he was terrified, he was—
Behind him, John had finally registered that someone was there. “Hello?” he called out.
“Oh my God, shut up,” Sherlock muttered at him, and concentrated on being furious with himself for botching the first grab of the pen, and he got the pen in his hand, and then the door flew open, kicked in unceremoniously.
Sherlock wheeled. John had not been caught completely off-guard, had in fact lifted the fireplace poker and swung it now at whoever tried to enter, a solid thwack that resulted in a gunshot toward the ceiling, plaster showering down. The first intruder fell and John swung for the next one, but he couldn’t get the right angle because the first intruder was all tangled up in John’s legs, and anyway it didn’t matter because the next one had a gun, too, and Sherlock flew across the room and collided hard with the intruder. “Oomph,” he said, as Sherlock forced him backward, and the gun went off, as did another one, from the third intruder, behind this one, the bullet flying directly through Sherlock, which affected him not at all.
“What the hell?” said the third intruder, as the second tumbled entirely to the ground and Sherlock planted a swift kick to his head, satisfied when it snapped back with a crunch of bone.
The third intruder’s eyes were wide with astonishment at seeing his cohort’s neck apparently spontaneously break. The gun was dangling from his limp hand, and Sherlock grabbed it and turned it on him. His eyes widened even more at the sight of his gun floating in mid-air and pointing itself directly at his face, and Sherlock squeezed the trigger.
Then he turned back to John—who was lying on the carpet of the lounge, bleeding. Panic pressed into Sherlock’s throat. If he still breathed, he would be hyperventilating, he thought. He flew to John’s side. Bullet in his chest. In his chest. Where lodged his precious heart and all its arteries, all the lifeblood of John’s body, all of it spilling out of him, around and through Sherlock.
For a moment, Sherlock stared down at him and had the most terrible, hideous thought he’d ever had. If John dies, he could be with you, you wouldn’t be alone anymore, you could have him. He thought that, looking down at John’s white face and the blood pouring out of his chest, and then he thought of the world without John Watson alive in it and couldn’t bear it. He had died for John; he couldn’t just let John die now, no matter how much he wanted him. John had to live—John had to keep living—for how could the world keep turning if John were dead?
“You are not allowed to die, John,” Sherlock said, sternly, and fled his side to grab the blanket over the back of the sofa.
“Sherlock,” John croaked out.
“I’m coming,” said Sherlock, hurrying back to him, pressing the blanket onto his chest and leaning. There were sirens coming. Someone, one of the neighbors, must have heard the shots and called 999.
“No, I can hear you. Can I hear you? Are you talking to me?”
Sherlock stared down at him, pressing harder. “No,” he said, desperately. “You’re hallucinating.”
John shook his head in weak denial. “Not hallucinating.”
“The quick brown fox jumped over the—”
“The quick brown fox,” slurred out John.
“Oh, God,” said Sherlock, and pressed harder, harder, please stop bleeding.
“That’s probably not a good sign, is it?”
“Can you feel what I’m doing? John, listen to me, you have to fight here. You have to—”
“Talk to me,” said John, sleepily. “Keep talking to me.”
“John Watson.” Sherlock leaned down and shouted directly in his face. “Do not go to sleep!”
John’s eyes flew open. “But—”
“No. You do not have a choice. You are going to live. I just killed two men for you; it would be terrible manners of you to make that worthless.”
John’s eyes were closing again. “Do you know how much I’ve missed you?”
“I’ve been right here,” said Sherlock, helplessly. “I’ve been here all along.”
The door downstairs flew open. Sherlock leaned away from John, watching as the emergency services came storming in, taking in the whole tableau. Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock realized, was slumped in the foyer, but she was breathing, and the emergency services only left one man with her, the rest of them continuing up the stairs, so Sherlock thought she was just unconscious and not badly hurt.
“Sherlock.” John’s voice was a cracked and urgent whisper. He managed to lift one hand a tiny amount, swiping through the air Sherlock was occupying, as if to grab hold of the lapel of his coat. “Stay with me. I don’t want to be alone. Don’t leave me.”
Sherlock leaned down and whispered in his ear and hoped John could still hear him. “Never.”