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Of Ghosts and Men

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Even before he went to war John knew no one would have called him a man who was afraid of his own shadow. Then again, it wasn’t his own shadow that used to haunt him for almost a year. Also, fear was hardly the accurate word to describe the feeling. There wasn’t one accurate word for that. Not a thousand could convey that mixture of irrational hope, strangling melancholy and skull-crushing awareness. The whole experience was just cruel—John felt that summed things up aptly.

Three months he’d been away, travelling “to get his mind off things”. (Wasn’t the way people spoke around truths just charming?) And while John had felt the change even before he took off, in the last four or five weeks of his trip there hadn’t been any external reminders. All thoughts of Sherlock had belonged to John only, no shadows to prompt them. So the last thing John expected upon his return was to be confronted by a literal one.

It was brutally evocative, as if to punish John for letting go at last. Of course context played part in it. After all, in a place like Sweden for example, there were very few matches to strike a fiery path of painful associations. Not only had Sherlock and John never been there, but it seemed like two-thirds of the country’s population consisted of blonds. On the other hand project an elongated dark shape on one of Baker Street’s walls and it acquired immense power, the kind that transformed chaos into meaning.

But it wasn’t just the surroundings or even John’s perceptions. Because yes, John was crossing Baker Street’s familiar threshold for the first time in over four months, so being a bit raw was to be expected. Yet he was prepared to bet that a tougher man would have also frozen on the spot if the first thing his eyes fell on, the very first thing he saw as soon as he opened the actual front door, was the shadow of a tall man with grown hair, the outline of his upturned collar in stark relief against the whiteness of the wall.

John didn’t have the time to even wonder how his brain had distinguished these details. It all sort of arrived together as a complete image, like one of those drawings where your eyes looked at a jumble of fragmented features, then something shifted, and suddenly an old woman’s profile flashed into cohesion. The term was gestalt, if John remembered correctly. Sherlock would have been proud of him for finding the scientific explanation of the phenomenon, but there was an even simpler one. (No, not as simple as the fact that John never stopped wanting to see Sherlock. That was the default explanation, but John employed it only when there was none other available.) Three seconds after John had faced the shadow, its owner came into view to reveal himself as being tall, having long hair and wearing a jacket with the collar up. The latter was undoubtedly to stop the strong piercing wind—the man’s face had patches in that particular shade of red that cold brought on, so he’d obviously just got in. More importantly, he didn’t look the type to go around with his collar up trying to look cool.

Or mysterious.

He was big and broad and very good-looking, in an unobtrusive but unmistakable way. John had never seen a man so out of place and considering that all sorts used to visit Sherlock, that was quite an achievement.

He shook himself mentally. All of that had arrived in his head in the space of a few seconds on a separate track. The rest of him was still trying to overcome the suffocating longing at the sight of—

“Hi,” the stranger said. John took a breath, social competence kicking in, but speech was still not an option. The man gave him a discerning once-over that somehow managed to be respectful. He hesitated, then spoke again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He sounded nothing like Sherlock, either, despite having a masculine voice. American. A low yet soft timbre, the kind that was probably good at soothing people or making them open up and share. John felt his posture straighten into a rigid frame in automatic defence. He told himself to relax. He felt dizzy. He felt thrown off. He felt like he should turn around and walk all the way back to a Scandinavian country of choice, he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t ready.

But he also felt alert. Curious, for the first time in months. He opened his mouth and shook his head at the man in a silent enquiry. The other shifted from foot to foot, suddenly giving the impression of taking up most of the hallway. His hands bunched up into fists in his jacket pockets, the gesture cautious rather than agressive. There was a wrinkly bit between his eyebrows when he said, “I’m Sam. You must be John.”

***

“So you’ve got a new tenant,” John told Mrs Hudson once they’d finished with the usual exchanges of people who hadn’t seen each other for a while. A couple of times while talking to him Mrs Hudson’s smile had stretched to her ears, her eyes going misty. John was very glad to see her, too, most of his tension draining away just listening to her chatter. They were upstairs in the flat and he was even gladder that he’d stopped feeling like running away. He hoped it wasn’t only because he was distracted by his piqued interest in the stranger who had come to town.

Earlier, downstairs, John hadn’t had a chance to do more than introduce himself back, then hear Sam say, “I moved in a month ago, in 221C. Nice to meet you,” before Mrs Hudson had showed up, greeting John with happy noises and hugging him. Sam had given the reunion scene a shy smile and murmured, “I’ll leave you to...” then disappeared quickly. In hindsight, his presence as well as his retreat had been disconcertedly subtle for someone his size.

“Yes, a very nice young man. Keeps himself to himself,” Mrs Hudson said after a short pause, fussing around with the torn wrapping paper of her gift. She’d been delighted by the gift itself—a Nordic teapot—and now headed to the kitchen carrying it pressed to her bosom. John considered following her, but decided to stay in his armchair and wait for her to come back with the tea. He didn’t have a lump in his throat just from looking at the empty chair across and that seemed like something too precious, too fragile to abandon so quickly.

He could hear the water running. “That is a lovely pot, John,” Mrs Hudson called. “Look at that porcelain!”

“I’m glad you like it,” John called back. “Anyway, I’m surprised you found anyone to move in downstairs. No offence, Mrs Hudson, but that basement flat is a dump. The bloke must be pretty desperate.”

“I know, it's just so gloomy, isn't it? And all that damp! But I couldn’t offer him Sherlock’s room, could I?” Mrs Hudson appeared at the kitchen doorway, face drawn in concern. “Not without asking you first. And I wasn’t even sure if it was right to ask, you know. You said you wanted to move back in once you came home from your trip, but I didn’t know if you’d still want to do that. But even if—I mean, I still won’t rent it out. And thank God I don’t have to—the flat rent is sorted out, you remember…”

John remembered. Mycroft insisted that it was Sherlock’s doing, that he must have made arrangements before his suicide, providing for the few people he cared about. John had been quite taken aback with Mycroft wording it like that; so much so that for a moment he’d forgotten he was suspicious Mycroft himself had something to do with it. But the bottom line was that a bank transfer to Mrs Hudson’s bank account had taken place three days after Sherlock’s death, the sum equating the amount of three years’ worth of rent for the entire flat, both Sherlock’s and John’s shares. One of the things that lent credibility to the theory that Sherlock had done it was the way the transfer appeared on Mrs Hudson’s bank statement. “Rent,” the sender had put succinctly.

Of course it would have been a child’s play for Mycroft to trace down the owner of the bank account, but he had said he’d tried and failed to do it. Then added that the mere fact of his failure served as proof that Sherlock was behind the whole thing.

John came back to reality to find that Mrs Hudson had finished talking and was looking at him with some apprehension. He smiled to reassure her.

“It’s all fine, Mrs Hudson.” He didn’t know what was fine, much less whether all of it was, but he wanted to cut down the treating him like a sick person to a minimum, for both of their sakes. “I’m glad it’s worked out and…Sam? Yeah, it’s good that you've come to an arrangement. I don’t think I’m ready for a new flatmate.” Mrs Hudson nodded, eyes practically smothering John with understanding.

He got up from his chair. “But,” he said with a small smile, “I think I will be moving back up here.”

“Really? Oh, that’s lovely to hear, John! I’ll be very glad to have you back! Now, I’ve kept this room clean, and the kitchen, your room, too.” Mrs Hudson stopped abruptly before launching into what John was sure was a detailed report on her housekeeping routines. Her hand tugged at the sleeve of her dress, touched the frill there. “Sherlock’s bedroom is—Well, you better come and see for yourself.”

John hadn’t planned on avoiding Sherlock’s bedroom, but he hadn’t exactly stopped to contemplate going into it, either. He didn’t move as Mrs Hudson turned her back and headed through the kitchen in the direction of the bedroom.

It was an opportunity. There was going to have to be a first time—John couldn’t avoid the place forever. The bathroom was right next to it, for God’s sake. John suddenly pictured himself going past that closed door day after day, never breaking its seal, until in his mind it turned into a tomb, a cold, creepy tomb that brought chills to him at night until it ran him out of the house for good. No, if he was to come back, and he bloody well was going to come back, he couldn’t avoid places or things that were connected to Sherlock.

Everything was connected to Sherlock. It used to be his home. It was their home. But John wanted to try and live in it with the memory of his friend and not with his ghost.

He followed Mrs Hudson, feeling some weight lifting in his chest at the prospect of standing at Sherlock’s bedroom door with her rather than alone.

The room was completely empty.

Mrs Hudson was looking at him in apprehension, but to John the sight brought nothing but relief. The sitting room, the kitchen, even the bathroom—their shared space he could learn to be in again. Sherlock was still not going to be there, but John was. The rest was time, hopefully. John was even planning on keeping some of Sherlock’s belongings around the house, maybe shift them a bit, but keep them.

Sherlock’s bedroom was another thing. John wasn’t a masochist.

(Mrs Hudson had cleaned properly and there was not a single item left, and the air still smelt of Sherlock, just the faintest whiff. Enough to make John ache so much that he couldn’t physically move, the ache making his muscles surrender to it, like all of John used to surrender to it those first few months.)

“…pretty much as it was.” Mrs Hudson voice floated to him. “Well, you know some of his books and the equipment went to that school, but while you were gone Mycroft emptied the bedroom. He said he’d take all of Sherlock’s things back to their family home, but he said he’d ask you to visit there, see if you’d like to keep anything?”

John just nodded. His extremities were beginning to tingle with life again. Mrs Hudson patted him on the arm. “I’ll go and make us that tea,” she said.

John took in the room’s quiet nothingness for another long moment, head void of any coherent thought. He then tried to turn both left and right at the same time, momentarily disoriented, before his legs listened to him and returned him to the kitchen.

“So,” he and Mrs Hudson started at the same time. John gestured to her. “Ladies first.”

“Oh no, no—you go,” she said. “I was only going to ask about your trip, but you’ll be telling me about it for days to come, and I hope you’ve got pictures—Oh!” She made one of her patented chirpy noises as she swivelled from her spot by the sink to look at him. “I have a new laptop! I’ve only had it for a few days, because the old one…The one from you and Sherlock from a couple of years back— it stopped working the other day, just like that, out of the blue. Sam said he could try and fix it for me, but then he said it was the actual machine, a hard-something or other. I wanted to keep it, because it was from you boys, but it turned out I had to pay over a hundred and fifty pounds to get it fixed. So we went to Currys and Sam helped me choose a new laptop. It was a good bargain—we looked up in another shop on the way back and saw the same laptop, but it was ninety pounds more! Anyway, I wasn’t sure I’d know what to do with it, but Sam set it all up for me, showed me what to do—it’s not that different from the other one, really. I asked him to get this thing for me, what was it—” Mrs Hudson abandoned her tea duties to turn around again and face John with an expression of earnest concentration.

Her face lit up. “Skype!” she exclaimed, turning back to the kitchen counter. John couldn’t help his grin. He pulled out a chair for himself.

“And who do you want to talk to on Skype, Mrs H?” he asked.

Mrs Hudson spoke over her shoulder. “Mrs Turner. She’s on her computer all the time. She’s been talking to her sister in Spain and kept telling me all about Skype—no costs, she said. Well, I never! I’m going to try and find out if I can get in touch with some friends I have in Florida, maybe I could talk to them. No biscuits,” she lamented, pouring the tea. “I thought of bringing up some, but then I heard you at the door and forgot all about it.” She added milk and sugar and stirred. John let the sounds of the familiar ritual wash over him.

“There you go.” Mrs Hudson sat down as well, putting John’s cup in front of him. His fingers wrapped around the warmth of the porcelain gladly. He smiled at his landlady in gratitude.

“It’s so complicated, just the language of it,” she went on and it took John a moment to realize she was back to talking about the laptop. “I don’t understand half of what Sam’s saying. I know how to google things. It’s so funny, isn’t it? It sounds like ‘goggle’.” Her eyes crinkled in amusement. “I was saying it like that the first couple of times when I began using a computer, so silly. I told Sam and he was trying not to laugh. He’s been ever so patient with me, showing me things until I remembered how to do them by myself. Well, I remembered at the time and then forgot the next day—my head isn’t what it used to be, not at my age.”

“Does Sam know a lot about computers?” John asked, before taking his first sip and humming, his eyes closing. He’d missed his tea.

“I think he does, but then I think you all do.”

A memory appeared, quite promptly invited. John cleared his throat before smiling. “Well, not all of us. Sherlock used to mock me that by the time I’d finished typing just the title of his latest case, he had solved the new one.”

“Oh, but he was really good with that sort of thing, wasn’t he? That head of his!” Mrs Hudson’s eyes widened for emphasis and she shook her head. John didn’t say anything, just looked at his hands still wrapped around the cup. They both remained silent for a moment. Mrs Hudson spoke first.

“Anyway, look at me chatting about, that was what I was going to say—you can show me your photos on my new laptop. It’s got such a nice screen, John, lovely colours.”

“Erm, sure—we’ll look at the pictures on your shiny new laptop. There aren’t many, though, only the ones I took with my phone, but it’s got a good camera. So,” John added quickly, seeing Mrs Hudson draw a deep breath, “do you know what Sam does for a living?”

Mrs Hudson brushed over the damp ring her cup had left on the table and got up.

“He’s a student, doing some course over here, not sure what,” she said, washing her hand. “He doesn’t have a job, but the rent is very reasonable. An old friend of mine from America sent him, so I was only too glad to take him in.” She returned to the table, avoiding John’s eyes. John gave her a quick searching look. Their eyes met, then Mrs Hudson looked at her hands again. “John…Do you think you’re really up to moving back in?”

“Mrs Hudson,” John said quietly, clasping his fingers over her bony ones for a brief moment. “Don’t worry about me. Whatever happens…The worst is over. It’s got to be, right? And I don’t want to look for another place. This is my—” John swallowed. “It’s the only place in London that I’ve ever felt home.”

Mrs Hudson chased his fingers back across the surface of the table and gave them a quick squeeze, then sniffed.

“I’ll do your shopping on Monday,” she said. “And wash some of your linen tonight, do some ironing, too. I’ve dusted in the sitting room a few days ago, but I’ll do it again later today to be ready for tomorrow…” She got up to take her half-full cup to the sink, talking more to herself than to him. “I’ll go out now and see if I could buy a new shower curtain and a matt for the bathroom floor. We’ll need to call a plumber these days; the water pressure has been atrocious, keeps changing all the time. One moment it’s scalding, the next it’s freezing…”

John took a big gulp of tea and stretched his legs under the table. “Thanks, Mrs Hudson.”

***

Sam lifted his head from the book at the sound of steps down the stairs, followed by that of the front door closing. He listened carefully, but couldn’t hear anything else. The steps hadn’t been those of Mrs Hudson—he was able to distinguish those, and anyway, he was pretty sure he’d heard her go down to her flat five minutes earlier. It looked like John Watson had left the building.

There was a knock on his door.

“Yes,” he called softly.

The door creaked open and Mrs Hudson’s head appeared in the gap. Her expression was tense and guilty. Sam knew both feelings better than most; he wondered whether his face broadcasted them so loudly. Dean used to say he could read Sam like an open book just by giving him one look, but it’d been a long while since he last said that.

What he really hoped was that Mrs Hudson was a better actress. From his very short personal acquaintance with John Watson Sam could tell the man was neither trusting nor easily fooled.

“He’s gone,” Mrs Hudson said. “He’ll be back tomorrow, he’s moving back in.”

Sam closed his book. “All right.”

“Will you spend the night there again?”

Sam hummed. Mrs Hudson opened the door fully and stood underneath its frame like a vibrating statue of nerves. “Do you think he’ll show up?”

Sam shook his head. “There really isn’t a way of telling.” They’d had this conversation a few times only in the last week, but he knew how it was for most people, so he didn’t mind. Mrs Hudson was actually taking things pretty well. Sam was impressed. He’d been impressed from the very start, back home—way more to the lady than what met the eye.

This was the most ill-at-ease he’d ever seen her, though.

“Are you okay?” He scanned her face quickly. “You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”

“No. No! I could never. It would—” She bit her lip and lifted a hand to her forehead. Sam got up. “Is there anything that’s bothering you?” he asked. “Anything you’re not telling me?”

She kept on shaking her head. “No, it’s not that. Oh, what are we going to do if John sees him, Sam? He seems better than before he left. It’s the first time in over a year that I’ve seen him almost back to his usual self. This is such a mess, such a mess; I just don’t want to think about what would happen if—”

“Mrs Hudson,” Sam interrupted her, gentle but firm. “We can’t worry about ‘what if’ now. We’ll cross any bridge when we get to it, all right? I wish we had more time. And I do understand you want to protect him, I really do, but what options do we have? We can’t tell him, you know we can’t. Can you ask him not to move back in? No.” They both said the word at the same time. “So we'll just have to figure out what’s going on as quickly as we can and just deal with it.”

Mrs Hudson nodded, then sighed. “I just wish John wasn’t involved.”

“Me too,” lied Sam, giving her his most sympathetic look.