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Ghost We Knew

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Halloween. He’d been home a couple of months, now. John had stopped having flashbacks, and mostly ceased crying soundlessly into the dishwater. Sherlock wished he could say the same for himself. Any kindness he had ever offered his soldier-flatmate was being amply repaid (“Kindness is exactly what doesn’t call for repayment,” John had told him) by John’s unfussy understanding.

“You’re a mess,” John had told him a couple of days earlier. “But you’re a hell of a lot more stable than you were at the end of September, and by Christmas you won’t recognise yourself, the way you are now.”

“I don’t recognise myself now,” Sherlock had whined, knowing he was whining; but sometimes it had to come out.

“Yeah. We’re going to France next week, by the way, barring murders. You can laugh at my accent, and make unkind remarks if anyone else does.”

“Not Paris.” He had loved Paris, before. Not as much as London, but—only now, there were bloodstains. He would face them when shadows stopped moving so intently. Perhaps in the spring.

“Bayeux.”

“Christ, John, just shoot me. Normandy in November. You couldn’t have made it the Côte d’Azur?”

“I don’t think either of us needs to be here for the fireworks, that’s all, and the travel agents had it on special.”

Given that he still checked for a clear exit from any room he was in and noted places to take cover when he was outside, Sherlock supposed missing Guy Fawkes was an idea. What constituted the line between ‘hypervigilance’ and normal caution, anyway?

 

They were leaving Sunday; it was Thursday afternoon. The weather was doubtful. John was going out and Sherlock was metaphorically itchy. For the first month home he had felt that way almost all the time; now, most days, it was better. The worse days he barely moved off the couch, and he and John watched any mindless drivel they could find that involved neither spies nor explosives (well, except for MythBusters). Today both of them were successfully enacting normal. A case would have made it easier, but crime had its own timetable and had never paid attention to Sherlock’s. Or to John’s, Sherlock thought happily; bursts of texted profanity complaining of the interruptions, but John always came to join him.

John’s phone rang. It was Polly. Sherlock could extrapolate her side of the conversation: the virtual altar, the online ofrenda, la Sitio Web de los Muertos.

“Yeah,” John was saying. “Better than last year. Adele Yvette Cashman, detective constable, and PC Andrew Duncan. I checked with Lestrade. … It’s your table, of course; if Mrs. Hudson can have Noel Harrison I don’t see any reason you should be embarrassed about having Cory Monteith.”

“Lou Reed,” Sherlock said. John raised his eyebrows.

“Not just for ‘Heroin’,” Sherlock said.

“If you say so.”

Sherlock sketched a gesture. “And Mike Morwood, if we’re doing this.”

John began to frame a question but Sherlock interrupted.

“Anthropologist who discovered Homo florensis. I’d have thought _you_ would have known.”

John returned the gesture to Sherlock and his attention to Polly. “Mike Morwood who discovered Flores Man. And Mick Aston, come to that. But can we not load it with celebrities? Oh? Good then. Only tell your mum I’m sorry about her brother.” Inconsequentialities. John rang off.

“Peculiar custom,” Sherlock said. “Not sure I like to see foreign influences on your blog.”

“Piss off. Normal custom, only the Mexicans do it with more food. Halloween ought to be Bonfire Night, instead of five days later.”

“Creeping Popery.”

“Creeping paganism is more like.”

“A distinction without a difference.”

John refused the bait. “You’re not really even trying, are you? It made me feel better last year; it means something to Polly and apparently Greg and Colin. And loads of other people.”

Sherlock shrugged. “It gave me a distinctly odd feeling last year. I was becoming accustomed to being dead, but being an invited ghost was something new.”

“Are you sure you won’t come to Ingrid’s party? It’s not fancy-dress or anything, and you’d find her lot, well… less boring than most.”

Sherlock shook his head. “Thank you,” he said. He had learned to make—no, to bother to make—more social noises while he was away passing for normal, when he’d had to, and he tried to remember to use them sometimes for John. And John knew it and liked it, because he smiled faintly.

“I’ll be back by ten; text if you want.”

“You, too.”

“Try not to do anything dangerous,” John said, perfectly seriously.

“You, either.” He could feel John’s indecision and growled softly, went and hugged him. This was something he’d learned to initiate since his return, since his step out of international territory into the arms of the people he’d died for (hadn’t died for). John hugged back fiercely. They rested for a moment together, John’s head against his shoulder. Outside Sherlock’s arms he never seemed that small.

“Okay, yes. See you in a bit.”

“Good. Yes, I’ll try to remember to eat.” He listened to John’s footsteps down the seventeen stairs, noted the time, noted that John was anticipating rain, wanted tea, cast himself on the couch, heard a removal van (who moved house on a Thursday?—oh, end of month), pondered texting Lestrade, decided on a walk in the doubtful weather and the (newly, very) early twilight, and put on warmer socks.

He paused on the threshold of 221A to stick his head into Mrs. Hudson’s kitchen. The smell was good. “Fresh yeast, cinnamon, cardamom, chocolate, chili…?”

“I tried out some of the recipes on John’s blog,” Mrs. Hudson told him. “It’s for my book club, I hope they won’t be too put off. I mean, that usually means ‘poisonous’, doesn’t it?” Two round loaves were rising on the counter, each adorned with a doughy skull-and-cross-bones. Rather a loose interpretation of humeri, but it was a challenging medium.

“You could icing-pipe some flowers on them.”

“Like those sugar skulls?…I don’t think that’s traditional for the breads,” Mrs. Hudson worried.

“If you were concerned about tradition I think half-burned oatcake would be preferable. It’s your kitchen, enculturate it as you wish.” It would hardly be the first time for a British cook, Sherlock thought; the atrocities committed in the name of ‘spaghetti bolognese.’ ‘Curry’, in fact—

Mrs. Hudson, all floury, made an affectionate gesture in his direction, and they parted.

 

He made his way down to Oxford Street, maintaining a ‘don’t look here’ mindset for no particular reason. Not a matter of life and death. When a pair of teens caught his eye and grinned at him, he could respond to their recognition with a flick of his eyebrows. John’s fans. They were, John assured him, a good lot. Left un-pursued by these two, Sherlock was inclined to agree.

It was a lively time to haunt the streets. Office workers heading home; a few children in chaperoned herds and bright colours; not enough crowding for pickpockets, relatively early for inebriation. Sherlock swept among them, enjoying the warmth of his coat and the dance away from collisions, along the pavement of the main roads, into alleys and byways (Soho was wonderful for byways). His city. His mindless masses, his City men and fashionistas, scholars and beggars and prostitutes, coppers and diplomats and tourists and cashiers and secretaries.

For the moment, he was fairly sure, no assassins. Not aimed at him, at least. Might have been good if there were any to look for on behalf of someone else.
People assured him regularly that it was more than a bit morally dubious to yearn for conspiracies and complex crimes; one reason upright citizens like John ended up in the army. Or even in Mycroft’s world, where plots were made in the shadowy corners of information, observation was remote, and alliances were whispered and betrayed. Crime was more personal than espionage or war: more individual, more idiosyncratic. More interesting. The proper study of mankind is man, and Sherlock preferred fieldwork to data-crunching in a windowless room. No one more surprised than he that he’d survived as well as he had in Mycroft’s territory, how well he could play Mycroft’s games: well enough to satisfy them both and serve the needs of the moment. And to reaffirm his resolve never to end up in Mycroft’s territory again. It might be a greater game, but it wasn’t his. London was worthy of anyone’s attention, provided enough—almost enough—quarry fit to Sherlock’s niche.

From the far end of an alley, he watched a man watching a couple: tipsy, laughing, rich, careless. Saw the watcher’s shoulders tense, resolve begin to move him forward—“I wouldn’t,” Sherlock said, suddenly next to him. “Not as easy pickings as they look.”

The would-be mugger startled and choked back a cry. “Who—how—shit, you’re dead!”

“Not for the last two months, you haven’t been paying attention. Go back to the gambling con, it’s better sport and less dangerous. For everyone.” He removed the knife from the man’s nerveless hands. “Any more like that?”

“Fuck,” said the petty criminal. The tipsy couple walked on obliviously. The man just stood there, gaping at him. Mild case of shock if his colour was anything to go by, infinitesimal shaking.

“Boo,” said Sherlock, making a token flourish with the knife. The man whirled, catching himself when he tripped; staggering, running away.

He waited, making sure the man wasn’t about to double back on him. A moment later his mobile convulsed, silently, in his pocket. Text from John: You? JW

Fine. Skulking on Oxford Street. You? SH

There are guitars. You’d hate it. Later. JW

It was odd to be so strongly affected by a text. Fourteen months of constant, gnawing worry, and a prohibition against exactly this sort of meaningless signal; now it was permitted. The absence of the knot in his stomach was still, at times, a surprise.

He redistributed a bit of wealth among some of the homeless network, noted the demise of a couple of frozen-yogurt shops, sent John a picture of a felafel roll he was then morally obliged to consume. John replied with a picture of a small, dense-looking chocolate cake, losing the ‘wholesome food’ game for once.

The crowds thinned the farther east he walked, leaving him among a very light scatter of people as he neared St. Bart’s. John’s bedroom wall held (even now) a picture someone else had taken of the facade lit at twilight by the bank of candles. A play of shadows from another century: those strange days when it was a place of pilgrimage. Neither of them, the dead man nor the grieving survivor, had expected that kind of response. Dealing with John, and somewhat (much less) with Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade (and the others whose emotions he had found he actually cared about, speaking of impositions and horrifying revelations) was one thing, but the affection of crowds was more than Sherlock would tolerate.

“You could be more accepting,” John had suggested one day, watching Sherlock eel away from a series of unexpected embraces.

“They apparently liked me well enough when I was, in your words, ‘a complete dick all the time’. Death hasn’t changed me that much.”

“No hugging in the CIA?”

“Best thing about it.”

 

There were no candles tonight, not so much as a jack-o-lantern in the gatehouse. The security and custodial staff regarded him as one of their own, nodded him through. Farther in, where entrance demanded a card or a key, he had what he needed, mostly with permission. “You aren’t meant to be in there,” Molly told him as he came into her morgue through the disused area. “Returning to the scene of the crime?”

“I never knew those tunnels were there until you showed me. Only yourself to blame.”

“I was a good girl before I met you.”

“And you still are,” Sherlock assured her, not meaning it as a compliment. “Although given your dress I’m not sure that’s what you intend. Not your usual working outfit.”

Molly would never change; she cast a mortified look down her own front. “It’s not cut that low—“

“No, of course it isn’t. Your modesty is safe.” He dragged the correct phrase out of his lexicon. “You look very nice.”

The cant of her eyebrows suggested she knew what that was worth, from him. “You’re getting out of here before I meet my date.”

“I certainly hope so. Nothing interesting?”

“Not what you’d call interesting, and anyway, we’ve packed up for the night. Perlmutter is on call.”

“We’ll hope the unnoticed dead remain that way until your shift.”

“So he can have the night off?”

“So someone competent will deal with them.” Rather than endure her slow acceptance of his praise he went around, back to the stairways and convoluted passages behind the public places, and found himself with one hand on the door to the roof.

 

He hadn’t set foot here since that day in June, a year and more ago, a different lifetime. It had been one of his favourite places to sneak a cigarette; he was well-patched tonight, a maintenance-level dose, so no real excuse. He pushed through the door anyway. The air was just damp enough to haze the lights of the city. Not the church-like quiet of the street below, but still distant from the horns and engines. Blue lights started up to the northeast, reflecting off the buildings. The siren reached him a second later, drawn-out and thin. Just the one; no wide alert.

The view at night was lovely, and he did not think there were any ghosts. Though--

 

“You’re insane.”

“You’re just getting that now?”

 

Moriarty had fallen right there. In daylight. The memory was not so compelling as some of them could be, not bursting full-colour upon his mind’s eye. But Sherlock’s hand recalled the clasp, felt it tighten as Moriarty’s other hand drew out and pointed in and pulled and…

Deep breath. Deep breath; slow in; hold; slow out. Not fight-or-flight (or fall, or fail). Only a memory. Likely not even molecules in situ after Mycroft’s clean-up. Only an audio recording remained, and Sherlock’s official statement locked up in some database and file cabinet.

It really was a pity the bullet had ruined Moriarty’s brain so completely; some detectable organic dysfunction would have been satisfying (comforting). Molly had searched what remained quite diligently, kept the scans for him. It wasn’t likely that even a better-preserved brain would have shown —

Sherlock pulled his mind off the clean highway of neuroscience, steered it reluctantly back into the gutters and alleys of sentiment. The Soho of his mind, byways just as dangerous, shadows and ghosts one could not ignore even with the best of drugs.

Stupid, really; Moriarty didn’t haunt him.

Just sometimes… Early on (say until the resolution of the Connie Prince pip), Sherlock had wanted to know more about the man who played such dizzying intricate games, flights of talents and skills. A consulting criminal. Someone as far outside the range of ordinary as Sherlock was himself, but devoid of morals as Donovan’s worst imagining. Someone waiting, expecting, anticipating that Sherlock would toss back, disarmed, whatever ticking puzzle he might devise. A compliment to the part of Sherlock least understood and most despised by the well-behaved people around him, not trusted even by his own brother.

And a deep and frightening yearning Sherlock found responding within himself, to have someone who could cope with anything Sherlock might throw at him.

He had known—he ought to have known—he’d almost known—that he had that person already. Not looking anything like the way Sherlock could have expected; not stylish and showy and out-there like Moriarty.

Then. The explosion in Glasgow: excessive and meaningless—he’d wasted weeks, after, trying to understand why that woman, why that block of flats. Those people hadn’t been chess pieces, they’d been bowling pins, nothing at all. Despite a lingering, unwanted admiration, Sherlock found the game had become too bitter for his taste.

The last pip, the night at the pool. Not abstract persons in danger, not faceless people on a phone. Not a shuttlecock or a chess piece, but a person. John might care in abstract (how could do that? How could he act in a quagmire of sentiment, how was triage even possible?), but even Sherlock cared in particular.

Torn from Moriarty’s fixation on him alone, Sherlock’s focus was forced from narrow to wide, wide; a kaleidoscope, still shaken and unsettled when Irene Adler had come through invoking Moriarty’s name.

Only John had any idea how much space Moriarty had been allocated in Sherlock’s memory palace, and he didn’t know why; didn’t know that for once Sherlock and his brother were chasing the same game. John seemed to think Moriarty was as seductive and unwholesome a subject as cocaine. That hadn’t been even partly true since the pool, but Sherlock still needed to study him as closely as if Moriarty had been a good high. A topic he wished later he had not so successfully avoided.

Mycroft was concerned about security, did not want Sherlock involved in Moriarty’s interrogation. Did not want him to discuss any of it with anyone. Moriarty was released in the hope he’d lead the hunt back to his organisation. Instead he’d turned on the hunters.

Anything Sherlock might have explained to John was overwhelmed by the realisation that Moriarty must not outplay him, and that it could well happen. It was Moriarty to whom Sherlock needed to respond with all he had. No time for examining the truisms lived by his (much more sociopathic) brother, much less for explanations to anyone else. Anything Sherlock might have wished to say never had the time to settle into words, as Moriarty drove him inevitably into the stickiest of webs.

That last day he’d worked on John’s fears (who would know them better?) and driven him away, so Sherlock could meet a mastermind alone; only to find he was contending with a creature of despair who couldn’t be bothered to watch his game play out. It hadn’t been even a game with orderly moves.

For all they’d barely met in person, or even in text, over the years Moriarty had been actively part of Sherlock’s life, they had had a special something. Moriarty’s video-tour of 221B was the least of the evidence of Moriarty’s obsession, of his attack on Sherlock’s reputation. On Sherlock’s persona. On making Sherlock seem more like Moriarty. No wonder Moriarty had been so disappointed when they’d met at the end.

Moriarty wasn’t Sherlock’s mirror-twin, as they had both seemed to hope. Not the same men with opposite goals; not opposite archetypes either (Sherlock would never be Father Christmas). Moriarty was the anti-Sherlock, cleverness in pursuit of no order at all. He fancied disorder for its own sake, caring enough in his plots to calculate the anguish and enrich the quotient of despair. In the end Moriarty had just wanted to break whatever would leave the most glittering shards, and chosen Sherlock. He had nothing against John, or Lestrade, or Mrs. Hudson; just saw their value as gaming tokens, leverage on Sherlock.

Not knowing any better way, Sherlock had taken the fall Moriarty planned, but as Sherlock had planned it: not even a metaphorical ‘leap in the dark’. He was the weighted dice. With no Moriarty remaining to push back, Sherlock could win, as he had been aware every night of his journey. Far less luck than skill; less of skill than dogged persistence.

Moriarty’s network had not really been well enough organised to outlive its founder. Not harmless by any means: Mycroft and Lestrade and countless others had assured him it had been well-worth the time, the effort, the bruises and exhaustion and trauma to eradicate. John, after one long unusual stream of bitterness and invective, had cursed once more and agreed that Sherlock’s hunting was well worth all it had cost.

 

It had been so dull.

 

Drug lords and slavers and arms-dealers were just as impersonal in their evil as Moriarty had been, and far less imaginative. It had been months (on the run) before Sherlock realised (had time to notice) the regret he’d felt for his most deadly, most disappointing enemy. For the creativity he no longer encountered, the random nature of the malice he did. He could hear what John would say about that, Sherlock thought; in fact he had heard what John had said about that, before the fall, whenever John had caught him wondering what Moriarty would do next.

A fragment of old memory flashed, and Sherlock teased it out. There had been a battered paperback in some office in rehab: I Love the Person You Were Meant to Be. He’d scanned the bookshelves looking for anything to interest him and the title had stuck him as the stupidest (well, one among many) thing he’d ever encountered. The sentiment, the unrealism, the idiocy of positing a character without any certitude among the infinite possibilities—Sherlock shuddered.

The ‘ghost’ of Moriarty that haunted him had never lived, any more than the image of Sherlock Moriarty had tried to engage. Sherlock had never returned childhood taunts with poison (in his teens before he even thought of it, really). For some reason he cared abstractly for justice (thank you, Mycroft, for the steady childhood diet of literary heroes). And however pedestrian the average good person (or even however bad the average pedestrian person) seemed to be, that was no reason to attack first, let alone randomly. Most of them could be relied upon to find enough rope to hang themselves. Sherlock would never have ended up designing chaos; his own insensibility and death had seemed much more inviting. There was no way to know what had moved Moriarty in the direction he had taken, taken so early as to kill Carl Powers. No way to know what would have left him or brought him to the side of the angels. And love was not the right word, not at all.

 

Sherlock inhaled the night air. It was dark, and he was alone, and thankful of it. The man who had wanted him ruined was dead, less present here than Sherlock at the black marble marking his tomb. He didn’t believe in hell, unless it was a place you carried inside yourself; surely death with your brains spread on a rooftop was the end of it. Praying for a dead enemy made even less sense than it might for a live one. Moriarty had drunk his tea while he was alive and there was no table to put another cup on where he could drink it. He was not a candidate for Polly’s ofrenda.

A text. Your okay?? Where. JQW

At St. Bart’s, lovely here. You’re drunk. SH

Stoned I think. Please get off roof no, stay ON, go down stair. JW

Sherlock backed into the doorway, one foot on the next step down, as he tapped in the call.

“You prefer to text,” John said reproachfully. The background was a moderate hubbub (acoustic guitars, laughter).

“Promise me you’ll take a cab home, not the Tube.”

“Olympia is driving me, she promised.”

“Is ‘Olympia’ impaired?”

“She’s agreed to stay sober,” John said, offended. “Are you on the roof?”

“Certainly not. What do you mean, ‘stoned you think’?”

“I think they forgot to warm me about the brownies. WAR-NE. Warn, me. I’m under no obligation, though. I was careful about THAT.”

“I am glad to hear it, whatever you mean. May I speak to… Olympia?”

“I really doubt that’s a good idea, Sherlock. Oh. Well, if you want,” John said to someone at his end. “Just remember she’s a goddess, all right?”

“You think they all are,” Sherlock said.

“Hallo, Consulting, this is Olympia,” said a warm dark girlish voice. West African family, London-born, playing at lower-class.

“Will you drive my flatmate home without danger to life or limb or violation of the Misuse of Drugs Act, or shall I come get him in a cab?”

“I’ve had my licence for three months, you think I would risk it this soon?”

“Not all of John’s friends are intelligent.”

“THANK YOU,” said John from the background. Olympia laughed, a deep rich gurgle. “I will bring him back to you safely, Mr. Holmes. I’ve driven him before.”

“And it’ll be much less frightening without your older sister helping you,” John agreed, retaking his phone. “Don’t worry, Sherlock, I’ll come home in a bit. Why are you at St. Bart’s, anyway?”

Sherlock found himself without a simple answer. Any answer. “Looking for a man who was never here.”

“I’m sure you’ll catch up with him eventually.”

I really hope not.

 

He stopped at the morgue again, just on the chance, and Molly was still there. “My date just called,” she told Sherlock before he could say anything. “There’s a delay on the Central Line and he—“

“I wasn’t going to.”

Molly looked at him doubtfully, took in the mist on his hair. “Tell me you were’t on the roof.”

“If I was, it doesn’t mean I’m making a habit of leaping off, you know. Do you ever think of Jim from IT?”

She was used to abrupt changes of topic from him. “I used to,” she said. “Quite a lot, just after I did his autopsy. Not usually someone I’ve, you know. Known."

“Not Moriarty; Jim from IT, the person you dated.”

She nodded. It was the kind of distinction she would have made. “I only knew ‘Moriarty’ from what I heard, from you and John, mostly. And the. His. The physical evidence. But that wasn’t him either. It was hard to line up that, the, um, criminal? with the man I knew. But you said I wasn’t the only one, so I haven’t been. Bothered. Well. Not very.”

“He was almost exactly my age. People thought we might be…similar.”

“No,” said Molly. She nearly laughed. “You couldn’t be more different. Are you really worried about that?”

“I think I might have been, once.”

She looked at him seriously. “If there was ever a chance of you turning out like him—either the ‘Jim’ I knew or the Moriarty you knew—I think it’s long passed.”

“Why didn’t he turn out like me?”

Molly did laugh then. “No one could ever. Not even your brother. No one. Jim wasn’t nearly clever enough, I can tell you that just from the three dates. Is that any better?

“I’m not sure what I was asking for, but your reassurance is appreciated.”

She sized him up for a moment, and gave him a one-armed sort of hug. She’d earned the right. “Good. Now please, I know it’s the only place you’ve been dead, but get out of my morgue. Go haunt Baker Street.”

Molly accompanied him to the entrance and forbade his staying to check out her date. Which did make him curious, but there would be other opportunities if it went well. Sherlock stopped to look at the fresh graffiti on the phone box. People were still proclaiming their belief in Sherlock Holmes, which seemed unnecessary; he was a proven fact. Then he caught a bus most of the way eastward, and made his way toward home. Near the little shop, he paused to text John.

Do you have the munchies? SH

Sod off. Please buy milk though. JW

He bought milk and, on general principles, a fresh package of biscuits. 221 Baker Street was half-dark; Mrs. Hudson had left a light on in the entryway, and the spices still hung in the air. More than that; she had left two pieces of pan de los muertos on a plate in the kitchen, and two mugs filled with drinking chocolate.

But then there was another key in the lock downstairs, and he heard John call out a goodnight. Olympia and someone else called back and they peeled out, laughing, before he closed the door.
Sherlock put the chocolate into the microwave (free of body parts: boring but expeditious), and waited for John to come upstairs and re-embody him.