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[personal profile] empyrean

this fic gave me hell, seriously. i didn't even get anyone together! madness.
 
Sherlock and John aren't the first Holmes and Watson to inhabit 221b. Two men in the late 19th century would've gone down in history as the greatest crime-solving duo to walk the face of the Earth. Instead, all traces of them have been obliterated. Something, somewhere, went horribly wrong.

It's up to Sherlock and John to figure it out before it happens again and the clock is ticking.

ETA: Now edited, thanks to

[personal profile] lelek  over at LJ!

 

 

London smelled of damp leaves.

 It was Autumn, which meant that the household re-entered the pattern that had played out every year since Watson arrived in the city over a decade ago. The heavy, cloying wet soaking through whatever cover he had and making his leg throb with a muted but persistent bone-deep ache that years and miles had done nothing to

For the first couple of weeks, their cases inexplicably slow, meaning the house is full of a damaged veteran and a detective without a case and therefore on substances that tread the very fine line between “frowned upon” and “illegal.”

 He tried to spend as little time as possible at Baker Street, those early days of September. But sometimes he had no choice but to stay in the house and watch with growing concern the depths Holmes' boredom made him stoop to.

There was a heavily butchered version of god-knows-what being scraped out on the violin, despite the fact that he knew that the detective could play like a saint, and Watson wasn't ignorant of the fact that, since he let slip he had a particular fondness for Mendelssohn, he had occasionally heard snatches of his Lieder floating through the house at all hours. But the man would insist on playing badly at some interminable hour, wouldn't he?

There was a lull suddenly – Holmes possibly caught by some conundrum his own mind had thrown at him – and Watson heard it.

Whispering.

It was very quiet – too quiet to be coming off the street, and over Holmes' scratching it had been inaudible – but now Watson heard the low, strangely unnerving murmurs as if they were coming from the next room.

Mrs. Hudson had already despaired for them and left the house for the afternoon, and the chance of anybody entering the house without Holmes noticing – no matter what his state – was impossible. So what could it possibly be? A loose pipe? A gramophone left on?

'Holmes. Holmes, do you hear that?'

If the addled look he was given was any indication, no. Watson sighed to himself, feeling his weariness gust down to his toes as he hauled himself to his feet. He tested his leg, his fingers flexing in the worn material of his chair before he dared to let go to follow the sound. Sighing again – he really needed to stop – he paced across the floor to the door, the boards creaking and Holmes twitching a little at the noise but otherwise not stirring from his sprawl on the floor, violin still tucked under his chin.

The whispering didn't get louder as he walked, but it didn't get any quieter. How it managed to be audible over the hum of people and traffic outside he has no idea, but there it is, a quiet droning like a kettle whistling in another room. It seemed to become louder on the stairs – but he couldn't tell whether that was actually increasing volume or just in his own mind. The detective did have a better sense of hearing than he did.

'Holmes.'

There was a sullen silence from the living room. Any other period of the year, he might have called again, tried to inject a level of worry into his voice that would catch Holmes' attention. At the moment he was probably best left alone in the company of his violin and seven percent solution.

He stood on the landing and listened, trying to narrow down the sound that seemed to be coming from all directions. He grumbled a little – apparently he was going to have to resign himself to hearing the noise at all times, until he could coax Holmes into searching for it himself.

He turned to go back upstairs, for the comfort of his chair and the newspaper, but as his cane scraped over the ground the whispering grew.

It was coming from downstairs.

The door slammed behind him.

'Doctor Watson?'

He sighed in relief – why was he trembling? - and smiled at their landlady. 'Mrs. Hudson. Pleasant walk?'

'Pleasant enough away from him.' Her eyes cast upwards and the feeling of put-upon companionship descended over them. 'Was there something your were looking for, Doctor?'

'I thought I heard something downstairs.' The whispering had vanished, letting the sounds of an abused violin float through the house.

'Downstairs? Oh dear, you don't think there are rats, do you? I do pride myself on a clean household, no matter how he-' there was no question who the 'he' was '-tries to make it otherwise.'

'I doubt it was that, Mrs. Hudson. I could check, if you'd like?'

He made his way down the flight of stairs to the sound of his landlady's twittering about what a consummate gentleman he was, unlike some people she could mention. 221C had always, as far as Watson could remember, been empty, possibly because no one was quite as willing to put up with Holmes' more erratic behaviour as he was. But really, it was far enough below their residence that, by all means, it should have been occupied, but there it was – damp, dusty and possibly rat-infested. Never mind that what he had heard was definitely not rodent in nature.

He rested his cane against the peeling wall, the floorboards creaking under his feet. Mrs. Hudson really had let this part of the house go to waste ‒ though considering her time was spent repairing the damage Holmes inflicted on their residence, that was hardly surprising

The room was utterly silent, dust motes floating in a shaft of sunlight that was managing to shine through a dirty window. Serene and abandoned. Unnervingly so, considering the chaos that usually reigned above.

There was, however, a deep crack running the length of the wall – jagged but perfectly formed, no splintering, just a long line from top to bottom. This was a semi-detatched building, so perhaps there was some structural damage? The whispering could just be from 223.

'Mrs. Hudson!' No answer. 'Mrs. Hudson!' Odd. The walls were not that thick.

There – the whispering. Coming from the split in the wall.

'Mrs. Hudson! I require a test subject. Mrs. Hudson!'

How interesting. At the foot at the stairs sat an ostensibly abandoned cane – African snakewood, in regular use by its owner, of the type given to veterans of the Second Anglo-Afghan war.

'Mrs. Hudson, I have had no visitors this afternoon, have I?'

A redundant question – if he had, he would see evidence in the hallway, the stairs, the carpet – but secondary confirmation never harmed a deduction.

Giving the cane another curious look, Sherlock Holmes swept out of the house.

-

'Sherlock! You bloody – Sherlock!'

 There was a jar of eyeballs on the table. There was a something in an ice box on the stool. And whatever was in the black rubbish bag made a worrying squelching noise when he dropped it on the floor. All in all, there are more body parts in his home than in the morgue he spent part of his medical training in.

And really, John has seen enough limbs separated from their owners to last him a lifetime.

So when he found a head in the fridge – with a note in London Met headed paper, so Sherlock had obviously spent the last few hours harassing Lestrade – his patience, never a robust thing in the first place, snapped.

'Sherlock!'

The head continued to stare at him – Christ, Sherlock, couldn't you have wrapped it in cling film at least? ‒ and the whole fridge shuddered as he slammed the door shut.

'Do be gentle with Andrew, John. I need him to replace Yorick.'

Where was...Ah. Laid flat on the floor, surrounded by paper and tapping away at his mobile, was the illustrious Sherlock Holmes.

'Andrew.'

'Yes, Andrew, the head. I need to first find something to conserve the bone before I remove the skin.'

'Andrew.'

'Entirely legal I assure you, John.'

Breathe deeply, John. Losing your temper only works when the other person cares. Be grateful you have the beginnings of a cold and can't smell anything. 'I'm going out.'

'What for, we actually have food in the house. And the weather is making your shoulder hurt, so try not to strain it. I may need you later.'

'How did...no, never mind,' he quickly corrected when Sherlock sent him an odd smile and opened to mouth, likely to tell him the multitude of reasons he had to notice that John's shoulder was aching.

He tried to keep as quiet as possible on the stairs, his own way to apologise for the trouble they frequently inflicted on their landlady. Wait, we?

And there was that bloody noise again. A kind of low-level humming, like a faulty electronic device. Or static on an old television. John continues towards the door, then paused, turned to look down at the dank corridor that led to 221c. After that incident of the house almost blowing up, perhaps it was best that someone wasn't going to wipe the building out from under them.

Bloody Sherlock and his bloody arch-enemies.

It wasn't that the 221c was particularly bad. Really, anything was better than the dingy little room he'd been given by the army upon his discharge. He'd been introduced to it in the middle of Moriarty's little “game,” and ever since then he had avoided the eerily empty space, not really because of the memory. Nobody had seen Moriarty since the explosion and he really didn't want to walk into the room to find another pair of shoes carefully settled in the middle like an abstract piece that belonged in the Tate.

And he swore he heard things from there. Except it usually happened when Sherlock was on a five patch problem and not really in the mood for poking around downstairs. It was amazing, nature. It had apparently seen fit to pair a brilliant mind with an extremely lazy body.

All right, he'd admit it – the place was creepy.

The static increased as he walked, buzzing in his ears like an angry wasp. His shook his head a little to clear the noise as it slowly rose in pitch and started...talking?

This should probably have been the point at which he turned around and went back out the door. Or at least sent Sherlock to investigate the talking wall. But John Watson had spent years training at Barts in order to go into the army and face sand, RPGs and getting shot protecting his patients. “Sensible,” while a state of being he had always aspired to, had never really been the order of the day.

He walked in.

-

Sherlock Holmes was in a quandary. Mrs. Hudson had been making noises about trying to find a suitable gentleman to take the spare room and could he please try to be...well, could he not be at home when someone came around?

Really, it was a miracle in and of itself that the room had remained empty so long. His line of work, public service though it was, was hardly the most rewarding in monetary terms. He tapped the tobacco out of his pipe, the movement slowing as he turned his mind to the mystery now presented to him. Mycroft, perhaps?

No, his brother had always made it perfectly clear that if he insisted on living at Baker Street he would not do anything to interfere for once, but he would lend no assistance either.

Intriguing.

'Mrs. Hudson, the rent-'

His landlady turned a little from her dusting – endless dusting, did she think he needed mothering? - and gave him a weary, affectionate glance that proved that, yes, she did indeed think he needed taking care of.

'Pay it when you will, Mr. Holmes. You always do nothing less.' She waved the duster at him sternly before carrying on her regular cleaning route along the wall.

It was odd, it was as if he had forgotten that the room stood empty, as it had for the last decade. As if something had belonged there.

Curiouser and curiouser.

-

A crack. That was it.

Good to know that the sleepless nights he'd been given were just because of some bad plastering. Better than finding a crack team of ninja down here plotting revenge from the Blind Banker case.

Still that noise, though. Probably a draft. There was something odd about it, though. Like one of those visual trick paintings that looked normal despite your mind saying that something was off about the whole thing.

He leant closer, trailing a hand along it, flicking bits of old paint off his nails as it crumbled under his fingers.

'It runs deep, but where's the draft coming from?'

And the voices, for that matter. If he pressed closer, he could almost hear-

'John!'

He straightened up so fast he swore he heard several vertebrae realign. Wincing, cursing himself, the building and its apparently soundproof walls, he turned.

'Sherlock, don't do that.'

'Do what?'

'Sneak up on me. Announce yourself, cough, something. Anything.'

'Rather redundant, don't you think? Your hearing is usually acute enough to hear people approach.' Sherlock paced the room lazily, eyes darting around the room with a speed that belied his easy gait. The crack was like a force at John's back, just begging for him to turn around and look.

He suddenly didn't want to.

'I was concentrating.' His heartbeat was picking up, slowly. Why was he so afraid? Like someone was standing behind him.

Like a dark street. The one you started on and only discovered halfway down how murky it was, the hesitation of whether to turn back or carry on down this narrow road with no light and no one to hear you scream. You turned paranoid. A leaf trailing over the floor was another person’s footstep, a branch cracking in the wind was them getting ready to stab you or drag you off into the bushes. Eventually you'd break into an almost run, nothing to be scared of but fear driving you out onto a populated street like the hounds of hell were after you. But, just for a moment, you were certain someone was behind you. You'd shiver, chancing a look back into the gloom, and spend the rest of the journey trying to shake off the edge of remembered terror.

Sherlock touched the chipping paint, and John's had twitched with the urge to snatch Sherlock's away from the wall and bundle both of them out of there. His voice came out sharp, 'Well, what do you want?' Too sharp.

The gaze snapped back to him, a frown at his tone dawning into the beginnings of a disarming smile on the pale face. He was not sure what it was about being creepy that was so easy. It was a hidden art, but one so easily mastered. The way to do it wasn't to frown or leer. It was to smile so often everyone else felt there was a party inside your head and no one else was invited.

'No, Sherlock. If you want a guinea pig, go elsewhere. Not after last time.'

'Oh tush, I've already made sure that will never happen again. Green wasn't your colour, John. Now, come along, a man's life hangs in the balance.'

John trailed his hand across the crack and stamped down the odd feeling of loss as he followed Sherlock across the creaking, groaning floor. Between muttering about blatant lies, and these are what proper labs are for and people get paid to do this kind of thing, John thought to ask.

'What did you see, in that room? Could you tell anything about it?'

Sherlock blinked at him, slowly. Once. Twice. 'No.'

-

John licked his finger, peeled back the page, turned it and smoothed it down, all without looking away from the bundle of nervous energy currently pounding at his laptop as if it had done something to offend him.

It probably had. He was never letting Sherlock get into an internet chatroom again.

The pages of the book fluttered as a cold breeze rustled the curtains. It was too cold to have the windows open, but the house still had a lingering smell of the mustard gas Sherlock had “discovered” earlier.

The furious tapping continued.

'Sherlock, it isn't some kind of personal insult. The house isn't trying to spite you by hiding evidence.'

'That room has been entirely cleared of anything. Skilfully, and with experience of what I take note of. I want to know who did it.'

'Maybe Moriarty was considering going into a cleaning business.'

'Don't be trite, John.'

'Mrs. Hudson said she couldn't get anyone interested in it. Don't blame them, there's something weird about it.'

'”Weird.” You are the soul of scientific thought, John.'

'I mean it. Maybe Moriarty did it because he knew it would annoy you. Explains the creepy factor.'

His shoulder twinged suddenly, an answering pain rippling back up from his leg. Some evidence was more easily wiped away than others. He forced himself to look back at the books – one of Sherlock's, Henry Head's notes on nerves. He'd let the detective believe he was reading for the studies, rather than his appreciation of Head's easy language – rather than let his mind drift to the supply of painkillers kept ready in his room.

I started to reflect on how closely our physical and psychological lives are intertwined. How mental pain affects us physically, no matter how hard we fight to stifle it.

The pain in his leg suddenly felt like hypocrisy. He shut the book with a sigh, Sherlock not even twitching at the sound. 'Well? Find anything?'

'Nothing that isn't obvious. Built in 1815, occupied constantly since. Except here.' He pointed, the display warping under his nail where it was pressed to the screen. 'There's a gap, between 1881 and around 1900.'

'So?'

The usual pained keep up with me, mortal expression passed over Sherlock's face. 'So, around the fin de siècle this would have been a high-class area. The probability of this house remaining empty for over twenty years is minuscule.'

'Well, it's weird enough that the room is empty now.'

Sherlock scanned the documents – procured from the local authority with some persuasion and quite a bit of hacking. 'How do you mean?'

'Well this is still central London, and 221c isn't that bad. Shouldn't it have been occupied by now?'

-

Holmes rolled his shoulders and sighed as he wound his way back to Baker Street through the long rain-soaked roads of London. The storm had been light, but long, enough for his heavy coat to become even heavier and the smell of wool apparent.

The walk was silent – too late for the men rolling home from the pubs, too early for the first stirrings of industry. He preferred his own company over all others – people could be so tiresome – but he really should have brought W...

Brought who?

But as soon as it had appeared the name had escaped, scuttling off into some unreachable corner of his mind. Holmes pondered it for a moment more – he had no close associates, why would he consider bringing the anyone with him? Eventually he was forced to dismiss it after several attempts to retrace his thread of thought. It would return later, as all idle thoughts did.

-

John considered the mobiles. Sherlock would kill him. It was probably an abuse of power. It wasn't really that important.

Sherlock would kill him.

That was what clinched it.

He picked up his phone and scrolled through it, searching for the name. He went through twice,  baffled that the address book turned up nothing until he found the label from the last time Sherlock saw fit to steal his phone: “Him.”

Question, any idea who was living in 221b circa 1900? Records wiped blank. JW

Case? MH

Something like that. I think SH needs something to do. JW

Mycroft worked at the same inhuman speed as his brother. Property papers up to 1881, start again at 1914. Nothing in between. Sorry to be of so little help. Tell SH to stop ignoring his calls or I will tell Mummy. MH

John had long since decided that if Sherlock couldn't see it and Mycroft couldn't find it, it probably didn't exist.

A door clicked shut downstairs.

'Mrs. Hudson!'

'Yes, dear?' She entered, wiping her hands on a teatowel that she promptly dropped over the whatever it was that Sherlock had been experimenting on earlier. All without blinking. Sherlock was a bad influence. 'Try not to shout, the sound carries terribly with these thin walls. I keep on to the council about noise pollution but do they listen? And-'

'Mrs. Hudson, when you inherited the house, was there anything left in here from about 1900? Like from the tenants?'

'I don't think so, doctor. My grandmother left the building to me, but it was in such a state, cobwebs and dry rot and this terrible smell.'

Mrs. Hudson was that aunt. The one who could go on. And on. And on. And never tell you anything. 'Nothing, then?'

'No. Apart from...' She hurried out of the room, then returned holding a cane, 'This was left in the house. In 221c, odd isn't it?'

She left him twirling the cane. It was beautiful – a heavy dark wood, with carvings at the top. And a sword inside it. John didn't even want to contemplate the level of paranoia that had created it. Maybe the owner was a relative of Sherlock's.

Well, that solved the adventure of the empty house – he was going insane. Well, madness loved company.

Because suddenly he could hear talking coming from downstairs. Still gripping the sword-cane, he hauled himself to his feet. Honestly, if Lestrade wanted to be let in couldn't he just knock?

-

Holmes had just shut the front door behind him when he heard the voices. The Inspector no doubt looking to recruit him again for another mind-numbingly easy investigation.

Except it was not Lestrade's voice. Little similarity in pitch, tone and intonation. The muted quality indicated that the speaker was in the abandoned basement of the building. He had ceased to use it as storage space after any items placed in it disappeared. And, much to his chagrin, he had never been able to identify the thief.

Mrs. Hudson must have let a client in. Or W-

That word again.

He would have to look through his texts on human thought processes in order to find some way to summon the name that kept slipping through his fingers.

He walked down the corridor, leaving the warmth of early afternoon behind.

-

The criminal class of London did not pause for anything, as Sherlock had discovered. Much to his satisfaction, since the flat remained persistently empty and he was now receiving texts from Mycroft about “work” and “responsibility” and “not foisting things on our housemates.”

He'd told John not to encourage him.

Sherlock paused on the ninth step. A gap in history, two decades entirely wiped clean from the building. And a flat that remained, despite all reasonable logic, empty.

'Mrs. Hudson said she couldn't get anyone interested in the flat.'

That subtle, malevolent aura around it. Like you wanted to look away from it but couldn't. Because god knew what would happen the second you turned your back.

He cleared the next few steps with a bound, key scrabbling in the lock as a completely illogical sense of panic started to well in his stomach.

'John?'

The house echoed around him like a cave. 'John!'

-

Sherlock Holmes watched the gap open with a scientific mind and a steady gaze.

'Oh, Watson.'

-

Sherlock grabbed Watson and unceremoniously hauled him down the hallway, ignoring the biting taste of nerves in favour of taking in the outside data John's arm doesn't relax when his wrist is grabbed. How fascinating. Will have to ask how he overcame it he is presented.

'Sherlock. What are you doing.' No questioning inflection. John was approximately a minute away from losing his temper. Or a minute past and into his 'never mind I've decided I don't care' stage.

'The missing twenty years.' John frowned, and blinked, very slowly. He really did need the most basic concepts to be explained to him. 'It's responsible, somehow, for the missing tenants, the empty room, everything.'

IQ was no indication of mental speed. The serene, undisturbed pool of John's mind remained quiet even as the rest of him conference called over how to react. Still waters did run deep, but often not as deep as believed to.

'What.'

'I'm not sure how. But so far it is the most likely explanation.' Sherlock's eyes lit up. 'Perhaps an experiment involving-'

'Sherlock, if the room is... eating things, then is it really a good idea to start tampering with it?'

'I'm sure if-'

'No, Sherlock.' He dug a thumb into his temple – he could feel a nerve throbbing there with the promise of imminent insanity. 'So what do we do?'

'Avoid it, I suppose. It left everything outside 221c untouched. We research, plan and calculate our next move.'

'Unnatural for you.' That earned nothing more than a derisive snort. 'I wonder what made them go downstairs.'

'Hmm?'

'The Victorians who were here. What made them go into the basement?'

Sherlock shrugged, and offered, 'Curiosity?'

John thought about the jokes he could have made about cats and fatality and decided that it was probably in poor taste. A room that ate people's existence. Only Sherlock.

The cane stayed were John dropped it, propped against the wall, incidentally exactly like its owner had put it, a hundred years ago.

In the night, there was a noise like a man sighing. The next day, the crack was gone. The cane also.

 

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