This is not the story: in London, there is a man, and a loop of plastic, and words hissing from lips that sound not at all like a prayer.
This is still not the story: the man wakes up, and he isn’t dead. This wasn’t the plan, and it still isn’t the story.
This might be the story: the man wakes up a second time, and it is not in London. He’s in cotton pyjamas and he has a wristband of clear plastic - hello, memories - digging into his pisiform bone. His hair is shorter than he remembers, (although that doesn’t mean very much), and his nails are clean.
He’s in New York. This might not be the story, but it’s a good start, all the same.
He gets a tattoo in Camden, and then another in Whitechapel. It’s not quite a rebellion, but it is something like it. They belie the accent that spills from his lips, a mouth full of marbles, something he loves only because it’s useful, and it isn’t useful all the time. He likes the shock factor he knows they’ll provide, when he strips off a thousand-pound overcoat and his skin is peppered with ink beside the constant, eternal bruises. (The tracks.) He fades out from the pain with the ease of long practice; he is no stranger to the bite of a needle. No, wait. The pain fades into him, each pinprick an echo, a footstep, marking patterns over his skin that he can still see when he closes his eyes, pounding the beat over his arteries, over his veins, over old scars that only he can find in the dark.
He gets the half-sleeve at midnight, coming down off the binge that he’d suspected would be his last. (Sometimes, he loves being wrong.) He picked it as randomly as a man like him can ever pick anything. The times before, he revelled in the pain, but this time he doesn’t even feel it. There’s the sound of the needle buzzing, and a slippery heat on his skin that he knows is his insides becoming his outsides, but he doesn’t even care enough to look. When he comes to, hours later, locked in his bathroom with blood on the floor, he still doesn’t care, but looks in the mirror, anyway, and finds he’s inked a wing into his shoulder.
There would be a joke in that, if he’d ever tried to find it.
He can meet your eyes, if he has to. He’s learnt to, except the verb ‘to learn’ suggests a passivity that was entirely absent. He taught himself, because who else was there? (Bloody Mycroft. There are some things he’s never quite managed to grasp.) He’s good at pretending, except for when he’s not, and he’s good at meeting your eyes, except for when he’s not. That word crops up rather a lot, ‘except.’
He can meet your eyes. He can stare you down. But he still won’t want to, not even a little. This is still not the story, but it’s getting close.
He likes the subway because it’s the easiest place to pretend. He misses London the way he’d miss his heart if it was ripped from his chest, cold and wet and something he’d always thought was all his. He knows exactly how crazy it is to be jealous of seven million people, grumbling on the morning commute, because he’s long had a very precise grip on ‘crazy.’ He wants. He wants every second of every day.
Modernist cities. All hail Walter Benjamin. Mycroft did it on purpose, that bastard. You can’t always get what you want. Quite. But you can have something close enough that it hurts even more than not having it all the time. Well. Life.
He tattooed a wing on his shoulder, and six months later he’d tried to die.
If he’s honest, he’d been trying to die for a very long time. He’d been trying to die in his room at Balliol, and in father’s house every vac, stolen valium in his mouth and whisky as a chaser. (Valium. What had he been thinking.) He’d been trying to die every time he stopped taking his lithium, and every time he stepped in front of buses without looking. Every time he’d walked through Brixton at two in the morning, every time he’d broken into a house because there was a murderer inside, and if sometimes he hates being right he hates finding a body that could have still been a person even more. He’s spent his entire adult life trying to die. It’s consumed him, years slipping through his fingers like sand. He’s always succeeded at everything he’s tried, but in this he’s failed.
He’s so tired of trying to die. He doesn’t know how to do anything else. This might just be the story, if he tries his very hardest.
New York isn’t London. That’s the point.
He couldn’t tell you when he first started to see them, which might be the most telling thing of all. Maybe it was in an empty country house at three, at boarding school at six, at a different boarding school at fifteen, on the front quad at nineteen. Perhaps he’s always seen them. Perhaps it wasn’t any of those times. To him, it doesn’t make any difference. They’re there, and that’s the end of it. He’s never told anyone but Mycroft. (Mycroft, like all big brothers, has secrets of his own to keep.)
Twenty, and he’s narrowing his eyes at Mycroft over dinner, Mycroft holding the cutlery embellished with a crest of a college not his own with precise, superior hands. Twenty-one, and he’s calling Mycroft at one in the morning, whispers in his six-hundred-year-old walls, blood under his fingernails. Twenty-two, and he’s back in London, and he still sees them. The place is not the key, he thinks. It never was. Sometimes curses come with you. Sometimes you are the curse.
He’s in an almost empty flat in Brooklyn, (apartment, isn’t that what he must call it now?), and it is the least silent place he has ever closed his eyes, but entirely by design. He leaves the televisions running at all hours, tapes plastic to the walls and tries to insulate as best he can. He shoves newspaper under doors, wears nothing but boxers for days. He wants to hear nothing but newsreels and the sound of his own breathing. He wants to see nothing but death tolls and Republican speeches and the flash of a tattoo in a mirror. (Mirrors, like needles, are a danger all their own.) He could lie to himself, and tell himself that it’s only the whispers he’s running from, but it’s not. He’s not. There’s the cocaine, and the heroin, and, oh, does he hear voices, but it’s got nothing to do with the mania that itches under his skin. He’s bipolar, he’s an addict, he sees ghosts. One of these is not like the others. One of these can be rooted out, if he tries. One of the three will kill him yet. It’s just a matter of time.
“That’s cheating,” says Mycroft, sixteen and full of himself already, and his brother, nine and almost as arrogant as Mycroft, smiles, says, “You read my mind.”
“Quite,” says Mycroft, with a dismissiveness which says that should have been obvious, “but if one of your ‘friends’ sets fire to the carpet again, it won’t be me Daddy’ll throw the book at.”
His brother smiles; he’s betting on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s always been the best at leaving bruises. There are footsteps smouldering into the carpet, and Mycroft’s head is cocked, the sign that Daddy is within a mile radius or less. This is, of course, not at all a normal childhood. But then, what did you expect?
He has a room full of mirrors. He has broken more than he can count, but he doesn’t think it matters. He’s got enough bad luck for ten of him, and it just keeps coming. They’re the best way to drag it out of himself, the mirrors, and the best way to shove it back in. Their surfaces are smeared with grease from his fingertips, with blood from his arms, from where he has pressed his mouth, his tongue, against them a thousand times. The barrier between worlds is very weak, and he, being what he is, does not see it at all. He is no fool; he knows it is there. He slashes at his wrists with glass from another, very different mirror, and hisses words no living man knows. He’s always heard ghosts, always seen them, too. But to command them is deeper, and darker, and different, and something no normal medium can manage. He is Sherlock Holmes. He is not a normal medium. He is not a normal anything.
She smells of death. It peels off her in waves, thick and green and clawed. She stuns him like a blow to the chest, and he does not hear her words, does not even try and listen. She smells like death, torn scraps of the ether cling to her, invisible, the grey space that he knows so well, where death is not-quite-life, pouring off her like smoke.
She reeks of arterial blood, and formaldehyde, and vengeance. She smells of death. She smells like home.
He shouldn’t be surprised, but still manages to be: she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen in his life.
“My name is Joan Watson,” say lips that have pronounced the time of death two dozen times, and his heart skips a beat. (Oh, he has one. Don’t believe the hype.)
He’s an addict. He’s always been an addict, and it would be futile to pretend otherwise. (Which doesn’t mean he’s never tried.) He’s been an addict since a girl in petticoats played catch with him at six, since a visit to a dying uncle on the Yorkshire Moors. (“A fire,” his aunt says, “in 1876. A tragedy, really.”) His brother cocks his head - always such a giveaway - and smiles. He feels the rasp of Mycroft behind his eyes, knows that Mycroft is seeing what he sees. He watches as that smile fades away, and something sparks in his chest as a hand with blue fingertips picks up a ball that isn’t there and throws it through a seventy-year-old glass window.
“How did you do that?” hisses Mycroft, and he doesn’t get an answer.
He’s always been an addict. There’s more in heaven and earth than drugs, Horatio.
He wakes up in New York, and he still hears whispers. If you asked him, he couldn’t tell you which he’d been trying to silence: the itch beneath his skin, or the cold breath on his ears. He’d closed his eyes in shadow, except he’s never known darkness. There is no such thing as night when all your streets shine with gas lamps; there is no such thing as day when everywhere you look is caught in charcoal freeze-frame, like a photograph that’s been developed wrong. He opens his eyes in New York to an orderly’s confused face, to padded leather cuffs around his wrists, and the patient who’d died a week earlier complaining about his pills, brimstone hot against his neck. He wakes up screaming, and he doesn’t stop until a needle in his arm, opening old bruises that he still doesn’t quite believe he’s left behind.
This is not the story, but he thinks it is. It’s been the story for a long, long time.
Seventeen, alone in his single room at boarding school, (he’s never had a single before, although years later he’ll learn what autistic spectrum really means, knows he should have had one all along), and the walls begin to melt. The patterns in the curtains bend and twist, coil like snakes, noise not-at-all like a snake jarring from their mouths. The floorboards shake, and electricity pours from the sockets like water. He knows the word, has never seen one. Poltergeist. He feels it crawl inside his nose, his ears, his mouth. He feels it grip a hand that is no hand around his heart. He feels it climb inside his mind and stop, and realises: it does not know my gears, it cannot drive me. He reaches down into the deep, red recesses of himself, where his blood pumps hot, and spits it back up out his mouth. (It burns his lips as it goes, and this is when he also first realises that pain is something he relishes like diamonds.)
“Mine,” he says, in a voice that is more than human, but a thousand times more damned. He clicks his fingers, and every clock in Harrow stops. This is when he learns. They will always want to climb inside, and pull apart his gears. He can click his fingers, and rend them like smoke.
He breathes in something like smoke only in name, and sees white. This is not the story, but power, and power is not the story, but it is something like it, all the same.
Mycroft comes to him five times in New York. The first time, he doesn’t remember anything, eyes fixed behind his brother, where a Gambino foot soldier tips his trilby like a dare, taps cigar ash on Mycroft’s shoulder, cracks jokes. Mycroft rolls his eyes and then closes them, knows that his brother is on the other side of a veil that he usually has a tenuous grasp on at best, leaves. Times two through four, Mycroft reads to him from Swallows and Amazons, a book neither of them enjoy but both know off by heart, anyway.
The fifth time is different.
“You are staying here,” says Mycroft, and does not twist his mouth when his brother glances over from a conversation with a dead man, says, “In the lunatic asylum? It’s entertaining, I’ll give you that.”
“You are in rehab, Lucky,” says Mycroft, (a corruption of Sherlock, to Lock, to Lucky, as families do, as irritating older brothers do), “you are hardly in bedlam. No. New York.”
“And what if I say no?”
There’s that smile, unfurling across Mycroft’s face like the wing on his brother’s shoulder.
“You can say no. But you will still be staying.”
He doesn’t need Mycroft’s gift to know his brother isn’t lying. New York, New York. How it does not make him glad. How it does not make his soul sing. He pulls a face, and is met once more with that serpent smile. Mycroft closes his eyes, and opens them again, a sliver of black around the edge of his irises. He gives Johnny Two-Thumbs a lazy salute as he goes, leaves his Gieves & Hawkes scarf behind on purpose, as meddling older brothers do. (New York in January is so cold, you see.) It goes in the washing machine before the week is out, and comes out shrunken and sad and tattered. (There is metaphor there. Do not look for it.)
When he is twenty four, his mother dies. It would be a relief, but for all the ways it isn’t. He moved back into their town house in Belgravia, visited Mummy with bruises on his collarbone. Daddy didn’t take the news of cancer well. Mycroft can see through you, but he can’t make you do things. (Can’t make you stop.)
He holds her hand as she dies, small and sore and distant in a private hospital room that Daddy’s great great great grandfather paid for, in money that’s probably got more than a little blood on it already, if the truth be told. She comes through the veil pale and beautiful, and crying with happiness. She walks away from him with a smile on her face, and does not look back. He hates her, and then he hates himself, knowing that there are things he should not dare to begrudge her. But he dares, and he hates. He’s always wanted to die, and he’s never been afraid. You can’t always get what you want, but Mycroft has, in his way. Daddy is a swirling vortex of want and need and demands that always leave scars. Mummy’s got what she wants, the only thing he’s ever wanted.
He’s not afraid of death. He’s very afraid of life. We can’t always get what we want. Doesn’t he know it.
“I’m starting to see how that’s sort of a thing with you,” says Watson, through jail bars in Brooklyn, and he smiles because he wants this woman to look at him and only him more than he has ever wanted anything, but oh, if only she knew the thing that is with him, if only.
Perhaps it isn’t true to say that he misses London. He supposes cities look different without the candles in the windows and the mud on the roads and the button-up-boots over jagged paving. He supposes that if walls do not whisper and your vision does not flicker as you round every corner, that if you haven’t watched the imprint of the same murder a hundred times from your apartment window, if you haven’t heard that soprano sing a thousand times on the subway, then maybe New York is a little different. He’ll admit that much, even if that isn’t much at all.
He can imagine New York without death curling around its edges. He cannot say the same about Joan Watson.
He would tell you that he’s been in love, if it was the truth. (Well, no. He wouldn’t, that’s his way, but he might, on a rainy Tuesday when the moon is full, if he was in the mood, and those moods of his, they’re changeable as the weather. But that, you already knew.) He probably loved the blue-fingered girl in petticoats, and the boy in a scholar’s gown in his first year room, with rope-bruises around a neck tender as a peach, who sang the Lacrimosa and had eyes in which hellfire flickered. He fucked Victor Trevor, Latin scrawled on the back of his eyelids, the bells of Magdalen ringing in the distance, but he doesn’t think he loved him. He’s not even sure if he liked him, knows only that he made his stomach twist, and his stomach had never twisted before. He does not love the Woman, because she’d never permit such a thing. If he’s honest, he’s never loved anyone, but for Mycroft and his companions who were not there. If he’s honest, all of his friends are ghosts.
He still thinks Joan Watson is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. But the most beautiful thing Sherlock Holmes has ever seen will never want Sherlock Holmes, of this truth he is certain. It does not matter that she does not know about the ghosts. It does not matter that she does not know about the time he tried to drown himself in his grandfather’s lake, or the time with the razor in third year. (Although she might know about that one, the scars aren’t exactly subtle.) It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t know about the medal, or the trust fund, or that his brother is the British government. She knows about the drugs, and the mania, and how he screams in the night. That’s enough, isn’t it? That’s enough?
Mycroft sees his tattoo and laughs.
“Are we getting ideas above our station, Lucky?” he says, fingers hovering over bandages that are still bloody. “I do not think Heaven would take you even if you ask. No, let me amend that: even if I ask.”
“I am not a one for asking,” is all the answer he gets. Mycroft can read his mind all he likes. Just because he knows does not mean he understands.
Here is a list of things that nobody ever talks about: how hard it is to walk down a street in New York where nobody has never died. (London was much the same, so at least he’s had practice.) How it’s so much worse, being wrong, when you have to watch the murder victim’s ghost beg not to cross over, have to give them that little push, anyway. How you smell blood like a vampire, how you see smoke and know a fire cannot be far behind. How much funerals hurt. How the stench of death thickens on Joan Watson, and you only want her more. Well. He.
He marks each attempt he makes on his arm like the devil’s cross stitch. When he wakes up in New York, there’s seventeen. To most people, that number would be devastatingly high, but he’s talked to a great deal many ghosts, and so it seems about right. (Mycroft always shakes his head at this, as he is wont to do.) The lines litter his arm like scratches that are never going to heal, and after the first day with Watson, he always wears long sleeves. There are many things he is not supposed to be, in fact, so many things that a list would take him years. But above all those things, he knows he is not supposed to keep trophies of the times he tried to die. (“No, Lucky, wrong again, not above all,” is all Mycroft ever says to that.) He can’t be proud of them any more. What if he’d succeeded? What if he’d never met Watson at all? (Dead doesn’t count. She wouldn’t see him. He’s already done his experiments with that.)
“What did you do with that ridiculous t-shirt?” she says, as if, although she doesn’t know it, he enjoys the name Mycroft’s always called him from across continents with, like a dog, splayed across his chest in lurid technicolour. (His brother does think he is so very droll.)
“It’s cold in New York,” he says, even though it is June and he’s been sweating all day.
She raises an unimpressed and entirely unconvinced eyebrow, and he sighs.
“Unfortunate mastubatory accident,” he says, and laughs when she is neither perturbed nor fooled.
“I’ll swear on a Bible, if you’ve got one,” he says, with fake earnestness, and she drops it. He thinks of train tracks and battle scars, of surgeon’s hands and a little boy whose only friends were ghosts, and says nothing, does not roll up his sleeves.
Do not get it wrong, he truly is ill. His throat has choked down lithium for as long as he can remember, and he still has days that feel like flying, and nights that feel like-- well, that word Mycroft has ordered him to stop attempting to be. The drugs were the answer, until they weren’t, and false bravado has been his mask of his choice for a long, long time. In New York it’s easier, in its way, there’s more sunlight, at least some of the time, which makes his moods improve, and his accent can charm and frighten and command all at once. Sometimes he still sits on his fire escape and dreams of flying that is not flying. Sometimes he takes his razor out there, and cleans it meticulously afterwards. (His brother did not tell the rehab staff about the cutting. Probably because sometimes it’s the only way to make a ghost pass over. Ever the pragmatist, his brother.) Joan was only told to check for drugs paraphernalia; another thing she can never know. (There is a list. He’s getting there.) The cutting feels like flying, like falling, like nothing, depending on the day. Most things depend on the day. He is always ill. It’s strange, but he’s never sorry. He is what he is.
That’s the key. That’s always the key. This might be the story. He is what he is.
“What are you doing here?” says Watson, on a night in July so hot that he’s given in, taken off his shirt. She’s not looking at anything but the tattoos, stark against skin that’s even paler than when he got out of rehab, after months of never seeing the sun. He keeps his arms turned in, and hopes.
“Making popcorn?” he says, waving a pan around, with a slightly uneven grin, “Or whatever your lot call this. Death in a pan, more like, Yanks don’t seem to appreciate anything that can’t kill you soon as look at you.”
“I meant in New York,” says Watson, because of course she did. She’s not stupid, quite the opposite, in fact, and he knew without having anything like his brother’s gift that she’s wanted to ask him that for months.
“Oh, you know,” he says, as flecks of boiling butter hit bare skin that burns in a way he should not at all enjoy, does, “now is a time for ghosts.”
“Fine, don’t tell me,” she says, and he looks down at skin that’s singed and red, feels the truth still heavy on his tongue, and smiles, small, and to himself, and with absolutely no joy whatsoever.
Here is the list of things Watson can never be allowed to know: first and foremost, that he still likes pain. Well, like might be too weak a word. Sometimes it pulls him down, pulls him under, and sometimes pulls him up, out of locked-on obsession, out of hypomania, out of a seance that no one knows he is conducting. (Least of all Watson.) He’d like pain in bed, if he ever fucked anyone. He’d like it from her, because that’s the thing: he’s only ever done it himself, never trusted anyone else enough to do it for him. But he trusts her. He trusts her far more than he’s ever trusted himself.
The rest of the list is worse. He’s got drugs hidden somewhere she’ll never find them, in a dosage so high he’d be dead in ten minutes or less. He hasn’t kept them for pleasure, or even addiction, but for the least torturous death he could guarantee himself, if he must. He knows that her patient died because her patient told him so. (Never. Never.) The deductions are easy, and rarely involve his other gift, as it turns out that ghosts experience trauma, even if brain chemistry is something they do not possess. A ghost in shock is as unhelpful as a human in shock, and he is not meant to ask them how, or what, or why. He is merely there to get them where they are meant to go. There are rules even he is not supposed to break. (But he’s him, so he does, from time to time.) Mycroft would kill her, if she knew and he thought for a second that she would tell. He would do it himself, too, because his smile is genial but those gloves are leather. He still makes scars. He still makes scars, and it gets him off. He still makes scars, and it gets him off, and he’s thinking of her. He loves her. He loves her. He loves her.
The deepest, darkest of them all: Irene Adler is the Woman. She is simply Her.
When Sherlock Holmes is twelve years old, he sees something, and it is not a ghost.
It sings with seven mouths, and it has a wingspan the length of the horizon. It speaks to him in tongues no mortal tongue can mouth, and when it touches him, letters burn behind his eyelids in a blue the like of which he has never seen before, and will never see after.
Here is the real secret, here is the truth that Sherlock Holmes will never tell: in earlier times, no one would have called Sherlock Holmes a medium. There is a word for Sherlock Holmes, and it’s a word he has never spoken. It’s a word he never will.
After all, aren’t they always mad?
He closes his eyes, and he’s in London. He closes his eyes, and he’s in an Oxford bed with Milton scrawled on the walls and Hebrew on his arms, to match. New York curls in his chest like a secret, and if there’s a story to be found here, he’s not the one writing it. Once, he thought it was Watson, and before that, he thought it was Mycroft. He’s never thought it was Daddy, and, funnily enough, he’s never thought it was himself. Another man might have, who didn’t see the world breaking down into building blocks, who hadn’t seen murder victims littering his city like sand on a beach. (It doesn’t matter which city. They’re all his, one way or another.) He closes his eyes, and he smells her hair. She is not his. He can never tell her. Even if her eyes say different, because he is too old for wishful thinking, he is too old to fool himself into thinking something he knows he does not know. She’s his first friend with blood in her veins, and it’s too much to risk. He’s not worth it. He’s not worth it. You can’t always get what you want. Time to be honest with himself. Time to grow up. Having Joan Watson love Sherlock Holmes is not the story.
“Aren’t you going to tell me, yet?” she says. It’s been three years. He wants her so much it makes his skin ache, and the words behind his eyelids are shining with an intensity he’s never seen before. He’s not afraid, exactly, but he’s not not afraid, if he’s honest with himself. (And he has to be, so he is.)
Which one? he thinks, and tries not to be bitter. We can’t all be detectives. We can’t all see ghosts.
Here is the greatest secret of them all. Here is the story.
We can’t all be them, either.