Greg felt--not cheerful, exactly, it wasn’t easy to be cheerful less than a month after the suicide of a friend, and whatever Sherlock thought of Greg, Greg thought of him as a friend. A strange one, an irritating one, a damn well aggravating one at times, but a friend.
Still, as he tossed his coat onto a chair and headed for the fridge in his tiny flat, he felt all right. Lighter than he’d felt in weeks. He’d closed a case, spoken to John, heard rumours from numerous sources that while those higher up had closed the investigation into Sherlock Holmes’ suicide, the general feeling of the Yard was that he had been innocent of all suspicion, and more than that, he’d been set up. And whatever games Mycroft Holmes was playing in stopping the investigation, Greg didn’t care. That was politics, or worse, and Greg was well out of it.
He grabbed a beer and turned around, saw the kid from the corner of his eye and didn’t register him until he’d pulled open the drawer to rummage for the bottle opener. Then he stood absolutely still for a second, and put the bottle down on the counter. Stepping back so that he could see into the sitting room, Greg looked again.
There was no one.
“Okay,” he said slowly, putting his hand over his chest. His heart was beating so hard that he felt dizzy, and his skin was crawling so much it itched all over.
The flat was silent, and Greg stood listening for a long moment, before he finally went into the sitting room and started turning on lamps. He also checked behind the sofa, feeling like an idiot, but if there was no one there, then there was no one to see. And if there was a kid hiding in there somewhere, well, then Greg wasn’t an idiot.
No one. No one at all. Greg stood up tall with a sigh, stretching his back, and caught sight of the kid staring from inside the bedroom.
“Oi!” Greg shouted, and just like that, he was gone again. Like fucking blinking an eye. Greg stormed into the room and stood with his hands on his hips, irritated as hell but trying not to show it. “Kid, get out here, will you?”
There was a long moment, and Greg sighed and scrubbed at his hair. “I don’t want to yell at you; I just want to figure out what you’re doing here and--and help you, with whatever you need.” His softened considerably. “All right?”
It was another long moment before the kid--skinny little thing, pale as death, probably three stone at most--climbed out from under the bed, and something in Greg rebelled hard at the sight, even as he was reaching out to help the kid stand up. Wild black hair, huge blue eyes--but pale, shiny, like glass. The crawling feeling was back even before the kid took his hand, and Greg almost cried out again at the icy feeling of it.
It was Sherlock Holmes.
Before Greg could even choose the more likely realisation, the kid was gone again, completely gone but for the painful chill in Greg’s hand and the terror winding around his spine, making him choke. It had been, it had absolutely been Sherlock, at seven years old or younger.
Right. He was fucking hallucinating.
Greg stood and cried out again, in pain this time, as he tried to flex his right hand and the skin on his palm cracked. Blood oozed sluggishly from the line in the middle of his palm, running from below his index finger and across. Swearing, he curled his hand and hugged it to his chest, light flashing in his peripheral vision as he staggered back to the kitchen.
He ran the cold tap, but yelled again, frenzied and high pitched, at the stabbing feeling in the tips of his fingers. Fuck, fuck; it was too fucking cold, and he shook his hand, trying to rub at his fingers without pulling at the wound. It didn’t work, and crying now, unable to help it, he went for the cabinet and pulled out some gauze, trying to bandage his hand and then, oh, maybe he’d stick it in the oven for a bit.
He fumbled the cap off a bottle of paracetamol and swallowed two pills dry, tucking his injured hand under his arm. He was still experiencing waves of agony, receding and swelling, making him want to throw up the pills that were sticking in his throat. He left the beer and grabbed a bottle of orange juice, spilling it down his chin as he chugged.
Not quite the thing. Greg put it down, leaving the bottle open on the counter, and got a shot glass and the vodka out. He poured himself a measure and slammed it, considering trying whisky instead. In the end, he stayed with the vodka, slamming two more glasses before he was able to let himself even think about what had just happened.
And that was where his brain stuttered and stopped, because what the hell, what the bloody fucking hell, had just happened?
The bleeding didn’t stop. Two hours later, Greg had gone through two changes of gauze, and had tried to warm his hand up in a variety of ways: heating pad, hot water bottle, and holding it over a hot burner. The only thing heat seemed to do was make the blood flow faster.
“Right,” he whispered, and twisted the knob on the stove to off. Turning, he thought he saw something--he wasn’t sure what, he wasn’t thinking what, wasn’t giving it any attention at all--from the corner of his eye. Fuck, he was going mad, wasn’t he? All of a sudden.
He grabbed his phone and thumbed through his contacts, looking for John’s number. He’d had a bit more alcohol, too, and wasn’t thinking or focusing very well; somehow he ended up calling a number that he only had in there for emergencies. It was picked up after one ring.
“Hello,” Mycroft said, with the slightest curl of a question.
Well, fuck. “I didn’t want you,” Greg said, staring down at his palm. Bleeding through again. Christ.
There was a pause before Mycroft asked, “Then why did you call me?”
“Oh, a drunk dial, is it?”
Greg took a deep breath and tried to marshall his thoughts into some sort of working order. “I think I just saw your brother’s ghost.”
There was another moment of silence, and then Mycroft asked, “Where, exactly?”
“In my flat.”
“What a strange location for my brother to haunt.”
“Piss off,” Greg said, and was too annoyed to enjoy Mycroft’s bark of laughter. “It wasn’t really your brother; it was your brother as a child. Skinny little thing. And now my hand’s all torn up.”
The silence now was longer than a simple pause, and deeper; Greg realised with an odd clarity that it was because Mycroft wasn’t breathing. “You all right?” Greg asked, concern winding its way through the haze.
“Describe it to me,” Mycroft demanded, and Greg found himself sobering despite the dent he’d made in the liquor cabinet. It was the chill in Mycroft’s voice; it was the chill he’d felt earlier. Real, honest fear.
“What are you doing?” Greg asked, and saw it again--not the kid, but what he’d seen earlier: the doorway to the loo was leading somewhere else, was opened to a room he didn’t recognise. “Fucking hell, I’m losing my mind.”
“What are you seeing?” Mycroft said something else, but it was muffled; he was speaking to someone else. “Greg. What’s happening?”
It was gone again, but the creeping, itching feeling was back in his skin, and the blood was flowing more freely from his hand. Greg shifted the phone to his shoulder, holding it awkwardly, and made for the sink and the last bit of gauze he had. “Oh, just a new room where the loo should be, and my hand--”
“Stay out of any rooms that have been compromised,” Mycroft ordered. “What room are you in now?”
“What do you mean, compromised?” Greg demanded. “Fuck!” The last was a hiss as he pulled the gauze free and his vision swam. He was going to throw up, on the phone with Mycroft Holmes. What had he done to deserve this?
“What room are you in?” And, muffled, “Thank you, I’ll drive myself. That won’t be necessary.”
“Are you coming here?” Greg asked, distracted momentarily from his hand. A fresh wave of bright-white agony brought him back to it, though. “Bloody buggering Christ, this is ridiculous--”
“Tap,” Mycroft identified correctly, sounding distant, as Greg ran it again. “Kitchen, then. In which room did you see my brother’s ghost?”
“It was a kid,” Greg said, uncomfortable again. It had been a hallucination, hadn’t it? What was he doing, talking to Mycroft about it? He moved his hand under the water and cried out, dropping the phone into the sink. “Fucking hell!”
His knees buckled and he half-collapsed on the floor, clutching at the edge of the sink with his left hand. His right he curled up again, holding close to his chest, gasping through tears, his ears buzzing.
After a small lifetime he made it to his feet again, and saw that his phone was half-submerged in water. He turned the tap off and stared at it, before getting to work drying his hand and wrapping it again--a process that involved a lot more pain and swearing, and the vomiting session he’d thought he’d avoided. The phone was well and truly fucked, now.
He sank back onto the floor at last, hand wrapped loosely and poorly, and leaned his head back against the cabinet, both hands resting palm up on the floor. Something flickered in his vision again, but by now he was too fucking exhausted to care.
His eyes were closed when someone tucked his coat over him, and he opened them to see the kid staring at him again. “I didn’t fucking deserve this,” he told the kid, his voice rough and scratchy.
“I remembered that you’d help me,” the kid said, and it was Sherlock’s voice, younger, of course, and scared--and that made Greg try to sit up, but the kid put his hand on Greg’s shoulder, keeping him still. “Wait. He has to help you, first.”
“Fuck, Sherlock, can you just tell me...?” Greg trailed off, because the kid was gone. He shut his eyes again, but clutched at the coat with his left hand, to make sure it was real, and really there. It wasn’t until the door slammed open that he realised he’d fallen asleep, or passed out, and there was no time to think about that: Mycroft had arrived.
Greg was dragged to his feet before he could stand on his own, and propped against the counter. “Morning,” he croaked as Mycroft examined his hand, not trying to uncurl it, thank Christ, but studying it as best he could through the bloodied gauze.
“Afternoon,” Mycroft replied absently, and looked over his shoulder quickly, then frowned and turned back to Greg. “Come on, let’s get this cleaned up.”
He pulled Greg over to the small table and sat him down, then went to the sink and turned off the tap. “Soaking your phone?”
“I dropped it,” Greg snapped at him, staring at his hand. Some of the blood on the gauze had dried, so it was probably bleeding only a little now. Still, he didn’t relish changing the bandage again.
“Indeed.” Mycroft brought a dishcloth over to the table and laid it out, carefully bringing Greg’s hand to rest on it, palm-up.
“Don’t,” Greg said, but subsided at Mycroft’s solemn look. Mycroft unwrapped the gauze carefully but quickly, so that Greg could do little more than wince before the deep gash in his palm was revealed. The lips of the wound were pale, and the still-oozing blood was dark, almost purple-ish.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Mycroft said at last.
“So why are you here?” Greg asked, wavering between annoyance and fear. Something moved in his peripheral vision, and he and Mycroft both snapped their heads up and around, staring out at the sitting room in shared panic. “Fucking Christ, what is going on?”
“I can’t--” Mycroft sucked in a breath and held it for a moment before continuing. “I don’t remember. Exactly. But I think--”
“Remember what?” Greg was going to kill him. This was his fault, or Sherlock’s, somehow. This whole goddamn episode.
Mycroft’s face was pale, and still, but his eyes were flickering rapidly, and he checked over his shoulder twice more before answering. “You said you’d help him. Didn’t you?”
Greg’s mouth hung open. From the sink, there was a sudden spattering of water being forced from the old tap, and they both jumped.
“Yeah,” he said at last, and went to work on wrapping his hand again. Mycroft leaned forward to help him, ignoring him when he tried to shoo him off. “I said I’d help--the kid. Whoever he was.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Mycroft asked, not looking up. He was wrapping the gauze firmly, with more pressure than Greg liked, but he’d made Greg curl his hand more before doing so, in effect binding his hand rather than the gash. Keeping it pressed against itself. He looked up at Greg through his eyelashes. “You said it was Sherlock’s ghost.”
“Well, Sherlock’s dead, isn’t he?” Greg swallowed hard and drew his hand away; Mycroft had fixed the gauze with a small metal catch and it gleamed brightly under the weak electric light. “It was him. But a kid.”
“And not a ghost,” Mycroft murmured. Greg looked up to see him thinking again, eyes distant and dark. “But you believe they’re possible, perhaps? How about haunted houses?”
“Are you on drugs?” Greg asked, and winced at the very hard glare he received for that question. “Fine. No. I don’t believe in haunted houses.”
“Would you like to visit one?” Mycroft asked, and smiled mirthlessly at Greg. “Before yours becomes one, I mean. You already have a ghost running about, and a corridor in the loo.”
“What?” Greg looked up and saw it, saw it clearly, in the frozen micro-second before it was his loo again. A long, dark, carpeted corridor with wood paneled walls and a small table between two doors. He saw it. He could have walked through it.
Good God, he could walk through it, the next time he tried to walk into his loo.
“I don’t mean to sound like a horror film, but you’ll go there one way or the other,” Mycroft said, standing up. “Might as well be on your own terms.”
“You know that house,” Greg said. It was flat, a declaration rather than a question, because Mycroft sure as hell knew what house that was.
“It’s our home,” Mycroft said, and shrugged. “Well. In a sense. It might be better to go through the front door, don’t you think?”
“I’m not going there.” Greg was shaking his head before he even realised it, slowly but with the definite promise of hysteria. “I’m not. I--”
“Allow me to help you to a hotel, then?” Mycroft asked, almost kindly.
Greg looked up at him, ready to argue, to ask what the hell he meant, saying he would go there one way or the other, and saw it clearly in Mycroft’s expression. He would go there. Or it would come to him.
“It’ll be at the hotel, too,” he said. It was almost a question. A bitter taste was creeping up from his throat, over the back of his tongue. They looked sideways, together, at the open, leering door.
Greg had expected something a little more sinister than the the cheery, red brick home just outside Oxford, situated in a garden that framed it rather charmingly. There was an appalling lack of skeletal trees hiding shuttered, shrouded windows, and even the ivy seemed healthy and decorative rather than strangling.
“This is a haunted house,” he said, disbelief almost dislodging his larynx.
“Not usually,” Mycroft said, pulling the car into the drive. He turned it off and sat there, staring at the white-framed windows, tapping on the steering wheel. It was a nervous gesture, the like of which Greg had never seen in him before, and he had grabbed at Mycroft’s hand before he could think.
Mycroft looked at him quickly, and then at his hand, clutching Mycroft’s own. “Greg.”
“I can handle the mysterious act, but I won’t stand for fidgeting,” Greg said, and squeezed his hand warningly before letting go. Mycroft was smiling, just a bit, and folded his hands on his lap before looking up at the house again.
“It’s not an act,” he said finally, laughing a little. He looked back at Greg with the same faint smile. “I didn’t--I didn’t remember about it, until you said he’d been a child. And I saw him, clearly, in my mind’s eye. And I remembered.”
His voice had trailed off as he spoke, and Greg restrained himself from physically shaking the man. “What did you remember?” he asked, as gently as he was able.
Mycroft blinked twice, seeming to focus again on Greg. “I remember when our house was haunted.”
This was going absolutely nowhere. “How was it haunted?” Greg persisted, and then some twitch or change of light revealed it: the faint trembling of the lips, the too-wide eyes; Mycroft Holmes was fucking terrified.
“There were rooms, there were hallways that weren’t,” Mycroft’s voice caught and he swallowed hard, Adam’s apple jumping, before he could continue. “They weren’t right. They weren’t supposed to be there. They went to--to places that weren’t--”
He was blinking rapidly now, gesturing with a force that was on its way to becoming violent, and Greg caught his right hand, flinching at how cold it felt. Not unnaturally so, but his right hand throbbed again, as if in sympathy.
“I was fourteen,” Mycroft finished dully, slumping just a bit. His gaze fell to the shift. “Sherlock was seven. I don’t remember everything.”
“You’re okay,” Greg said, trying to keep it from becoming a question. He remembered the corridor in the loo again and quelled a shudder; imagine being fourteen when something like that happened, fuck. Imagine being seven.
“I didn’t remember,” Mycroft whispered, and shook his head. “How could I forget?”
“Some people repress trauma,” Greg said cautiously, watching the play of muscles in Mycroft’s jaw.
“Even that comes out,” Mycroft snapped, and wiped at his face with his free hand. Greg’s throbbed again and he tried to hide a wince. “It would have come out in screening. I would have become aware of it, at least.”
“Screening?” Greg repeated, and got a sharp glare in return. And then he slammed back against the car door, staring over Mycroft’s shoulder at an empty window, which hadn’t been empty a second ago.
Mycroft hadn’t moved; he stared at Greg, white-faced, absolutely still. His lips barely moved as he asked, “What did you see?”
“Sherlock, I think,” Greg said, and abruptly curled up, over his hand, pain spiking up his arm like hammer strikes, unaware of the short, breathy shriek that escaped his lungs. Light flashed behind his eyelids and he dry-heaved, gagging and retching helplessly, bringing nothing up.
He was aware of someone behind him, pulling him out of the car, making him stand up, though he leaned against the side of the car, still gasping piteously. Then he was being hauled along, and the bright jangle of keys made it through the thunderous rush of blood in his ears, and the light dimmed--the pain dimmed, shallowing, receding down his arm and centering in his palm, in the gash in the middle of it. He blinked, clearing bright, scattered tears from his eyes, and saw the hardwood flooring, the stairs that led up to the first storey.
Mycroft’s arms were around him, holding him up, but when Greg looked at him, he was staring down the hall, face pale and taut, all of his attention on the house around them.
“Sherlock?” he said, and Greg was certain he was calling out to his brother, until Mycroft’s arms tightened around him. “You said it was Sherlock?”
“It looked like him,” Greg said, that ugly flavour creeping back up from his throat.
“Not like the child you saw, though,” Mycroft whispered, as the house seemed to grow darker around them, as if a cloud were drifting in front of the sun. “You knew that was Sherlock. But this one...”
“Right,” Greg said, standing up and shrugging away from Mycroft’s hold. They remained standing close together, though, their arms touching. Uneasiness added to the roiling of Greg’s stomach; Mycroft had understood exactly what he had meant. The kid had been Sherlock, absolutely. The thing at the window--
He looked sharply to his left, to the open door leading to a library, which had the window through which he’d seen what had looked like Sherlock. An adult Sherlock, even. Black coat and tall collar. But it hadn’t been Sherlock. Something had been off; something had been wrong.
“Your hand,” Mycroft said, his cold fingers brushing along the back of it, over the gauze. He looked down, saw that the blood had soaked through, and felt it run down his fingers before dripping to the floor.
Greg stared out the window the back garden as Mycroft looked over his hand, rinsing it in the kitchen sink and busying himself with bandages pilfered from somewhere. There were flowers, white and yellow, bowing gracefully to the breeze in the last bit of evening’s light.
“You’re not even flinching,” Mycroft noted, patting his hand dry with a few serviettes.
“It doesn’t hurt as much now,” Greg said, looking down at it. The gash was still there, but it seemed shallower, and the blood more red. It wasn’t oozing any longer, though it ran over the side of his palm in a bright streak that Mycroft caught with dampened serviette. Greg held still as Mycroft wound gauze and then medical tape around his hand, securing it carefully. The pain had lessened considerably, to the point where he could almost ignore it if he didn’t flex the hand, but there was still a deep chill running along the wound.
“So this is your haunted house,” Greg muttered, jerking his chin at the window, to point out the flowers. Mycroft’s eyelids flickered, as if he were restraining himself from rolling his eyes.
“I believe you were the one to see something in the window,” he said dryly, and there was a creak in the hall.
A completely normal sort of settling sound, and here they were, staring at each other with eyes big as saucers. Greg blinked first, curling his bandaged hand into a weak fist, testing his wound. Mycroft relaxed a moment later, following his lead, and took a deep breath, moving maybe half a step back--just enough that they weren’t touching anymore.
“It was just that summer, except--” Mycroft shook his head, face twisted in irritation. “I can’t remember it. Not correctly. It was cold.”
“Cold?” Greg repeated.
Mycroft stared at him. “Pardon?”
“You just said it was cold,” Greg said, and winced at a pull in the gash along his palm. The sun had set properly, it seemed, and he rubbed absently at his wrist, below the bandage.
That ugly, crawling feeling was back, itching between his shoulder blades, as Mycroft turned to stare out the window, confusion drawing tight little lines around his eyes. “I did, didn’t I? Why would I say that?”
His voice softened, becoming almost dreamy, and Greg couldn’t move, even as the crawling itch spread to every last inch of his skin, in a slow, inexorable stretch. His mouth was so dry it hurt and he thought his lips might crack to pieces if he tried to part them.
“It was cold, in places. That was... the farther I went, the colder it was. I couldn’t make it very far...”
The countertop was changing, in a slow, dreamy sweep, a wave of dark wood overtaking the quartz, rolling like a wave from the end nearer the door to where they were standing. As it caught Greg’s attention, other bits began changing, the refrigerator sweeping over in white, the edge of a rug appearing like reality was being washed away.
“I was looking for Sherlock,” Mycroft said, the words distant and unreal. Greg couldn’t turn, couldn’t take his eyes from the encroachment of whatever this was, this reality that was becoming firmer, asserting itself more strongly with each pained, terrified heartbeat. “He’d gone deeper than I--he was being chased. Was he? I can’t--”
Silence swallowed his voice as the sunlight faded, and Greg knew he was gone, that he was standing alone in the dark kitchen, older and old-fashioned, but not unpleasant. Not terrifying. Except that it was completely terrifying and spots were appearing in his vision, bright and dark and flashing.
Breathe, he thought, and it was the only word to break through the shrieking cacophony of panic. He sucked in a breath, feeling cold air, icy as fucking winter, sear into his lungs, and his vision cleared even as his ears popped and his heart tried to claw its way up his throat.
“Christ,” he whispered, and wiped at his eyes, which had teared up involuntarily. He could see his breath faintly, a wispy suggestion of vapour.
A glance out the window revealed rain, mostly, although if he leaned over the sink and squinted, he could make out flowers, drooping together under the torrent. He shivered and rubbed his hands together briskly, and started at feeling the bandage. The gash didn’t hurt at all.
It was the same kitchen. He walked into the corridor leading out to the front hall, and that was the same, too. Darker, maybe, with the doors shut. The furnishings were different, and as he turned to take stock of them, he noticed the table, situated between two closed doors.
Recognition hit so hard he staggered, putting a hand to the wall and feeling like his heart might shatter his ribs. It was the corridor he’d seen earlier, connecting to the loo. Fuck, but it shouldn’t surprise him; he knew he was coming here, one way or the other, as Mycroft had said. And yet he couldn’t help but swear, a faint smattering of curses, breathless and short, as he reached out to the touch the table, ascertain its reality.
There was a notebook lying underneath it.
As he knelt to pick it up, he heard the doorknob on his right click, looked up to see it turn. His hand ached sharply and the feeling came to him, suddenly and overwhelming, that he didn’t want to see what came out from behind that door.
He scooped up the notebook and turned, meaning to run back to the kitchen, and slammed into someone, knocking them both to the floor.
They fell, but they didn’t land on the same floor they’d been falling toward; when they landed, it was extremely fucking cold and Greg’s eyelashes were freezing together. The inside of his nose felt raw, and he started coughing, the air too dry to breathe.
He was pushed over, dumped onto his side, and the notebook was ripped from his hand. He barely noticed; he was shivering so hard his teeth were clicking together, and his body was wracked with pain--all but his cut hand, which felt warm, almost normal.
Thank Christ there was a carpet, or his skin would have stuck to the floor, he was sure. He managed to bring his coughing to a halt, holding a hand over his mouth and nose and trying to keep moisture in, and got up to his knees.
Four feet away, similarly kneeling, was Mycroft Holmes.
“I was fourteen,” Greg remembered him saying, and he was, tall and thin and dark-ginger hair tumbling into his eyes, fringe completely out of control. Hadn’t grown into his ears or his hands, and probably not his feet, though Greg couldn’t see those. But what sort of fourteen year old wore tweed trousers, and a bloody waistcoat even in the summer?
“Detective,” Mycroft said politely, but with an edge of fear and anger that would never be revealed as an adult.
“So Sherlock really did learn it all from you,” Greg rasped, and coughed again. It felt like he ought to be coughing up blood, fucking hell, it hurt.
He felt something happen, a strange sort of sliding, like cobwebs brushing past his brain, and it was warmer--enough that he didn’t hurt quite so badly. As if to make up for it, his hand started to throb again.
“How does a detective know my brother?” Mycroft asked, and Greg looked up to see him standing, notebook clutched in one hand, the other resting on his hip. He was trying to look down at Greg without bending his neck, and while forty-something Mycroft Holmes had perfected the move, fourteen year old Mycroft seemed to be staring at his own nose.
“Detective Inspector,” Greg corrected, and stood up as well. Mycroft backed up another step, chin going even higher. And now his breath was showing, though Greg’s wasn’t. “Fucking hell, now you’re freezing, aren’t you?”
“We’re yellow, so yes,” Mycroft said, prim and cool. He was shivering, though, and his eyes were watering. Greg swallowed hard and ignored another sharp, stabbing pain in his hand.
“I’m not going to pretend I understood that,” he said wearily, and was aware of the same cobwebby feeling in his head--it got darker, and colder, if he turned his attention that way, and he thought suddenly that it must be opposite for Mycroft, and could they maybe reach a middle, a layer they could both be reasonably comfortable in, and try to figure out just what the hell was happening?
“You have the loudest face,” Mycroft said, tilting his head and staring at him. “Are--are you real?”
There was a sudden softness, a pleading tone to his voice, that had Greg’s heart aching worse than his hand. It was that particular tone, that voice, used by too many people who wanted so much to trust, but had every reason in the world not to. It was a voice police officers knew too well.
“I remembered you’d help me,” Sherlock had said.
“I’m real,” Greg said, even though he wasn’t quite sure of that any longer. But his promise was real. “I’m here to help you find your brother.”
Mycroft led the way down the dark corridor, in a layer he called “jonquil.” It was fairly cold for both of them; Greg was rubbing his arms and Mycroft was resolutely not shivering whenever he thought Greg was looking.
Years and years, yet, before he would be the very personification of control, Greg thought, mind blanking at what it would take to fill in those years. What kind of experiences, what kind of training had Mycroft--would Mycroft go through?
He supposed living in a house that was layered through time and haunted by some sort of monster must be part of it.
“So what was that, exactly?” he tried, as Mycroft peered through a door--to the library, he’d said. He seemed satisfied and gestured for Greg to following him, darting into the room with all the lightness and grace that Sherlock had in his most manic moments.
Greg edged in, closing the door behind him as softly as he was able. It wasn’t that large a room, and would have seemed claustrophobic with its walls lined by tall, heavy bookshelves if it weren’t for the far wall, which was all window. Rain slid down the panes, making the garden beyond it hazy and fantastic, a melting watercolour in varying shades of grey and green.
“Who are you?” Mycroft asked, sliding around a tall armchair to stare at Greg over its back, resting his arms along the top and his chin on top of them. He was tired, Greg realised suddenly: there were dark circles around his eyes and fine veins showing in them. The battered notebook was dangling from one thin hand, and Greg couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been exploring these layers, as he’d called them, and how long Sherlock had been lost.
“I’m Greg Lestrade, a DI with New Scotland Yard,” he said at last. Mycroft didn’t so much as twitch, and Greg sighed, rubbing at his hair. “This is going to sound, well, a bit crazy, but...”
“We’re wandering around several interconnected ghost-versions of my house,” Mycroft said in the pause. “Do you really believe I have trouble believing in crazy right now?”
“Right, well.” Greg paused again, and finally spit out. “I know you, and your brother, as adults. And your brother asked me to help him--well, he was a kid when he asked, he’d come through that hallway out there into my flat, and then you, adult you, you brought me here. To this house, I mean. And then I was here.”
For a long, considering moment, Mycroft stared at him. He’d be able to mask the racing of his thoughts later, Greg thought; right now they were revealed in the slight changes of expression, of focus and unfocus, although a person who didn’t know just how brilliant this young man would be might dismiss the signs. Not Greg, and that was caught by Mycroft’s careful eye, and factored into the equation.
“So, time travel,” Mycroft said at last, and walked around to sit in one of three blue overstuffed chairs.
Oh dear Christ. Greg sat down too, although with a bit more abruptness. Sherlock as a kid, Mycroft as a teen; time travel. If this was real, as the dull but deep throbbing in his palm suggested.
“Are you all right?” Mycroft asked, almost gently, and Greg shook himself from his shock.
“Just. Realising,” he said, and gave a short laugh, running his uninjured hand through his hair. He remembered, suddenly, the figure at the window. “Christ, there’s something in here with us, isn’t there?”
“You don’t know?” Mycroft was still clutching his notebook, running one hand carefully over its cover. “How did you get in here?”
“You brought me here,” Greg snapped back, and then tried again to marshal his thoughts. “Sherlock was in my flat, all right? In London. Skinny little kid, looks like he spent most of his life underground?”
“He’s been stuck in here for ages!” Mycroft flared, nails scratching along the notebook’s cover.
“How long, exactly?”
That stopped him. Mycroft held his gaze, but his eyes were glassy--no, watery, Greg saw, and felt his heart twist painfully. There they were, lines of fear and frustration, and cracked lips from dehydration, hair limp from physical exhaustion. “I don’t know,” Mycroft whispered finally, painfully, and looked down at his hands.
“I can’t,” Mycroft told him, his voice cracking. “I try to eat something and I can’t--I can’t even swallow. I choke.”
Greg was pacing now, and fiddling with a pen he’d picked up from a small writing desk in the corner, near the windowed wall. He tapped it against his lips as he stared out at the rain, feeling just the first, scratchy beginnings of thirst. “Can you manage if you go back?”
“And leave Sherlock here, somewhere, with that thing hunting him?” Mycroft demanded.
Greg turned. “What is it? The thing?”
“I suppose my calling it a ‘thing’ made it seem like I knew what it was,” Mycroft said. He was sitting very straight, still holding onto his notebook, tension radiating from his spine out to every limb. “It’s nothing I know or understand. It--it isn’t always there, but sometimes it is, and it looks like Sherlock, sometimes. Or like what Sherlock might look like, maybe, if he were older...” His voice trailed off, and he looked up at Greg. “What he’d look like when you know him, maybe.”
“Let’s get back to the fact that you don’t know how long it’s been since you last ate or drank anything,” Greg said, and pulled the pen out of his mouth. He hadn’t realised he’d started chewing on it.
“I told you, I can’t leave him here--”
“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” Greg interrupted fiercely. “And who’s to say that you can’t hop out and in again? Your house has been having wrong rooms, wrong corridors for how long now?”
“Who told you that?” Mycroft stood up, clutching the notebook to his chest.
“You did!” Greg half-yelled, and then the doorknob started to turn.
It was fast, and quiet, and shouldn’t have been noticeable by either of them, but in their hyperaware state both Greg and Mycroft shut up immediately, ice flowing up Greg’s spine and holding him in place. It wasn’t the same for Mycroft; he darted across the floor and had Greg’s wrist in his grip, yanking him from his spot and trying to pull him--
The cobwebs felt like bars, then like razors, tearing viciously across the tissues of his brain and Greg resisted just long enough to see the door start to open. He could feel it, as soon as the door opened: the terror, a focused wrongness, of the entire world made aware and searching and closing in on him. And then he wanted to run, and felt himself sliding easily through the layers, growing colder, the pain he’d felt just moments ago in his head hazy and unreal.
“Right,” Greg said when they’d stopped sliding through layers, and only a dull headache and the aching cold were real. His teeth were already starting to chatter. “Wh-what was that?”
“That’s the hunter,” Mycroft muttered, and pulled him along. They were in the library, still, but it was different: the plants weren’t quite so tall out the window, and there were low couches rather than chairs. Mycroft opened the door to the corridor and peered out, checking both directions before pulling Greg along. “It’ll kill either of us, I’m sure, but it’s looking for Sherlock.”
“How do you know?” Greg managed to gasp out, shivering so hard that it hurt.
“The kitchen doesn’t connect here,” Mycroft told him, his voice oddly distant. “More accurately, this layer fractures around here--”
A moment of complete disconnect.
He was blind; he saw nothing but light. He couldn’t hear anything but he was sure he was screaming, his body was on fire and his lungs were squeezed, compressed, filled with water and convulsing--
“So this is wrong,” Mycroft told him, and they were standing in the middle of a wide, but shallow room, the ceiling arched and shadowed, the walls white and sculpted into half-pillars, strange circular indents and curves. Greg turned around, the cold biting into his marrow once again, and saw that there was a wide set of double doors behind them that led, confusing, to a garden.
Mycroft’s voice echoed in the vast, marbled room when he spoke again. “Sherlock’s been here three times, and only once did he enter the way we did.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Greg croaked, and then cupped his hand over his mouth, feeling his throat rebel at the extreme cold and try to force it out. Each cough seemed to tear itself out of him, taking precious heat with it.
Mycroft’s hand slipped between his and his mouth, and the warmth, the startling, welcome warmth of it, had Greg pulling it close, breathing hard against his palm, before he quite knew what had happened.
“We’re in amber,” Mycroft told him, his voice soft and a bit choked. “I haven’t tried moving in here; I don’t know which of the other layers it exists in.”
The cobwebby feeling came back as Greg was unable to get enough air or heat, and it felt wispier, it felt weaker, but he pushed and seemed to leap, stumbling as he left Mycroft behind, opening his eyes to the same walls, but...
Crumbling. Ivy was growing over them, and he could hear, echoing in the vast room, water plunking into a pool. The windows were cracked and completely missing in places, and the rain was dripping in. His hand was throbbing steadily, though not quite as sharp or insistent as when he’d been in the kitchen, but more so than in what Mycroft had termed “yellow.”
So higher than that, yet, though probably not by much. The floor had been cracked, upheaved in places, the marble slats shattered and stabbing up into the air. They were stained, too, the odd reddish brown of rust in a porcelain sink.
“This is wrong,” Greg said to the chill air, and winced at the sudden, sharp pain in his hand. Right, not where or when he wanted to be, especially with no knowledge of how to get out of this place, and he’d left his guide... somewhere.
With a breath, sucked in and held, he searched the cobwebby layers in his mind, looking for the next nearest, in case he found himself deeper than he meant, deep enough that his skin might crack in the chill--
“Inspector,” Mycroft gasped out, grabbing his arm. The thought that had made Greg lose his breath was lost, because he’d slipped through too easily, and they were--
A crash of thunder had him jumping, and nearly knocking himself and Mycroft over. They were in the marble room, somewhere slightly colder, and Mycroft was shivering harder than jonquil.
“Maize,” Mycroft choked out, and started coughing. Greg pulled him into a tight hug as the water began to leak out of the ceiling, running down in the walls in dirty streams.
“Can you breathe?” Greg demanded, and when Mycroft couldn’t answer, swore and tried to find another layer. But there none, just the one that had been too cold for him, and he seemed to be able to sense one colder even than that.
Well, he was the adult, here. Greg held onto Mycroft and pulled him, feeling like he was trying to shift solid granite, when they almost fell again back into the deeper layer. Mycroft was gasping, great big heaving breaths, and Greg had his hand up in front of his mouth, trying to keep heat and moisture in.
“I’m sorry,” Mycroft finally managed, and that was it, that was the limit, because that was just something Mycroft did not say. Greg started to tell him so and started coughing--not choking, not yet, but that couldn’t be far behind. He ripped at the the top button of his shirt and managed, despite wincing in cold and holding in harder, more wracking coughs, to pull his undershirt up and over his nose and mouth. It helped a bit.
Mycroft was watching him with big, worried eyes. “It should be gone by now; I don’t think it waits,” he said, and took hold of Greg’s wrist again, above the injured palm. “We’ll go back and lighter.”
Please, Greg thought, but didn’t say. He closed his eyes, horrified by how cold they felt to his eyelids, and followed Mycroft to the far end of the room, where that horrible disconnect happened again: the light, the fire under his skin, the feeling of drowning at great depths--
“And up,” Mycroft said, his voice barely audible beyond the ringing in Greg’s ears, and they were up, to the chill hallway, and Mycroft was pulling him up the stairs now. Greg pulled his shirt from his face and tried not trip, wincing at the glimpse of himself he caught in a mirror on the landing halfway up the stairs: pale, strained, and lips near cracked from chapping.
Mycroft led to him to a small room with little more than a bed and a dresser, and a writing desk. “Guest room,” Mycroft explained tersely, under his breath, and shut the door again quietly behind them. “Ensuite.”
“Why--” Greg cut himself off, feeling the peculiar itch in his hand, and saw that he was about to leak blood over the dove grey carpeting. “Ah.”
“After you,” Mycroft said politely, holding the door open.
Mycroft carefully unwound the bandage from Greg’s hand, a sort of queasy look coming over his face, but he seemed determined to carry on. Greg tried not to wince at all, to make it easier for him.
“Your head line,” Mycroft observed, his voice almost entirely calm. Honestly, Greg thought again, if someone hadn’t known the older Mycroft, they would have been taken in completely by this kid.
“What’s that mean?” he asked, managing to sound only tired, rather than in more pain than he was ready to admit to himself.
“Palmistry. Fortune-telling,” Mycroft said, with a ghost of a grin. His eyes were still focused on Greg’s palm, so Greg could stare at him to his liking. He was trying to see where the lines would form, where his face would thin out and show weathering. “Ridiculous, of course, but Sherlock wanted me to explain it. He saw it on some programme, I assume.”
“So you told him about cold-reading?” Greg asked, and was awarded with a quick brightening of the grin, a flash of life in those tired eyes.
“Yes, and read his fortune six different ways.” Mycroft shrugged, turning on the faucet to rinse Greg’s palm gently. Greg managed not to hiss, by holding his breath in tight. “He enjoyed it, I think. The cold-reading more than the palm-reading, but it’s all one and the same, really.”
“Right,” Greg breathed, and watched with a dazed feeling--not quite deja vu--as Mycroft urged his palm to curl over again, holding the edges of the wound together, before he searched the cabinet for gauze. “I should dry it off, before you go wrapping it.”
Mycroft handed him the hand towel wordlessly, and watched him a moment before resuming his search. They worked in companionable silence, until Mycroft had the gauze and Greg had dried his hand as well as he was able, without uncurling.
“So what’s a head line?” Greg asked, while Mycroft started to wrap him back up.
“Just shows how you approach life, your personality,” Mycroft said, and smiled. It was thin and mirthless. “At least it’s not your heart or life at stake, hm?”
Mycroft finished wrapping Greg’s hand, tying the gauze off with a tight, tiny knot. Greg wondered idly at having first aid supplies in the guest room, and then felt that sudden, sharp sense of wrong that hits when something that is expected is missing. “Where’s your notebook?”
“I left it in the marble room,” Mycroft answered readily, looking through the cabinet and gathering up a few more supplies. “We’re making a sort of map.”
With a sigh, Mycroft leaned on the sink. “Notes, as to which rooms connect to somewhere else, which layers have different corridors or disconnects.” His voice trailed off, and his eyes were distant for a moment before focusing on the present. “Sherlock’s left notes on nine layers, so far. He’s trying to come back to the deeper ones, where I can reach him, but he hasn’t been able to yet.” Softer, and with a fear that spoke more of despair than anything else. Greg would have resisted the urge to clasp his shoulder if he were an adult, but at fourteen, Mycroft would just have to bear his sympathy.
“So you leave the notebook with your own notes, up in the highest layer you can reach,” Greg said, trying to remember what Mycroft had called it. “Maize?”
Mycroft flushed. “Yellow, usually. I can’t--it’s so cold.”
His misery was briefly revealed in the way his voice cracked. Greg had to clasp his shoulder again, and then put his arm around Mycroft, who stared resolutely at the floor and almost managed to muffle the sound of his sniff.
“You’re nearly perfect on the first three layers or so, aren’t you?” he asked, and looked up at the ceiling to allow Mycroft what privacy he could grant. “More than that, you have theories on what this hunter is, and you’d suspected time travel was involved before I showed up. Come on, then, genius; give up the goods.”
Mycroft snorted, but his shoulders relaxed the tiniest amount. “Time travel was easy; the furniture changes as you go lighter in ways that reflect an evolution of style. There’s some technology that I suppose might be in development in the present day, but it seems, well, futuristic. But I’d wondered... I mean, it might have been part of the trap.”
“The trap?” Greg repeated, and shifted so that Mycroft could rest against him more comfortably. He’d started to lean, unconsciously allowing Greg to support his weight.
“I don’t think it’s separate,” Mycroft said, very nearly in a whisper. “The layers, and the hunter. I think they’re just different parts of the same thing.” He was staring intensely at the far wall, not blinking, almost lost in the rapid flight of his thoughts, Greg saw. “I thought it was like a spider and its web, at first. But it got slower, it got more confused, when Sherlock ran farther. Pushing it further. From one to two to nine, to where you were. Are.” He smiled, but it was short and mirthless, more of a twitch. “It closed up tight when Sherlock finally fell in, but I was able to get in later. I suppose Sherlock had already exhausted its defenses at that point.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Greg said carefully. That sort of admission usually through Sherlock into a tantrum; Mycroft took it more in stride, as if he was more aware and forgiving of other people’s limitations.
“You felt it,” he said, just a hint of impatience colouring his tone. He looked at Greg, cheeks still flushed and eyes brighter, more alive. “Like the whole world is staring at you, realising that you’re there, and it tries to close in--that’s the hunter. The monster. And then you run, and it’s forced to spread its attention out again, because you’re forcing it back into sustaining its layers. There’s no reason it should create so many, unless it was forced into it. Why are some of the room completely wrong, places that none of us know? Because they were places it’s used before, catching some other victim, and they still exist in its, in its mind, in the space it’s creating between reality--”
Mycroft sucked in a deep, sharp breath, cutting himself off, and brought his hands up into a prayer position, touching the tips of his index fingers to his lips. He was thinking deep now, and Greg was suddenly and uneasily aware of a prickling of the skin, the ugly taste in the back of his throat, signs of the hunter’s attention coming to rest on them.
“We’re going to have to move,” Greg said, shaking Mycroft a little. He didn’t react, and Greg was reminded forcefully of Sherlock, who had spent three silent, motionless hours in his flat once, staring at the wall, before rushing off to a solve a case. He hadn’t known Mycroft fell into thinking comas, too. “Mycroft? Wake up, all right?”
Another brief shake did nothing, and there were footsteps in the room outside the ensuite. A spike of agony shot up his arm from his palm; Greg’s lungs froze in his chest, and his vision went white for one brief, impossibly horrifying moment. The doorknob rattled and his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth, but in the same moment adrenalin hit his system like a bolt of lightning.
He picked Mycroft up, slinging him over his shoulder with yet no reaction, his heart beating fit to burst his eardrums. He slid a layer deeper, hauling Mycroft’s dead weight, and felt with a bright, searing terror that it was following, it was still focused on them and following--
Deeper yet, so deep that it cut to the bone, and he turned the knob with his bandaged hand, catching himself mid-fall and lurching around the four poster bed, out into the hall, and he was going up, up again, his arms aching and his mind rebelling at the granite heaviness of Mycroft’s body, which resisted each and every move, from running to sliding through time.
Down the stairs, slipping and nearly cracking Mycroft’s skull on the floor, Greg dragged them up to yellow and down again to jonquil, collapsing into the kitchen with just enough energy left to lay Mycroft down on the cold floor, which was when he saw that Mycroft was not thinking, but actually out, unconscious, blood trickling from his nose.
“Christ,” he whispered, pulling up Mycroft’s eyelid; he must have knocked his head on a jamb or a wall. For one dizzying second he wondered if he’d killed him, if he’d gone back in time and killed Mycroft Holmes in a haunted house, and hysterical laughter welled up in his throat.
But Mycroft coughed suddenly, his body convulsing, and rolled over on his side, half-retching, and Greg breathed out, panic easing, as he rubbed Mycroft’s back.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Mycroft choked out, and the laughter broke free, harsh and terrible, leaving him weaker but saner, as the blank terror slowly receded from his brain.
Mycroft led them to the dining room in the layer just below jonquil, which he called gold. Greg had refused to go lighter, wanting to be sure that Mycroft was all right--despite protests about his hand, which had bled through the gauze again.
“It’s done that three times now,” he said tightly, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. “You went catatonic and I might have banged your head on a wall.”
“With my traumatic brain injury and your rapid blood loss, we’re the perfect heroes to rescue Sherlock,” Mycroft retorted, holding a tissue to his nose, which likewise hadn’t stopped bleeding. “And I didn’t go catatonic; I was thinking.”
Greg stared at Mycroft. “You didn’t notice that thing coming for us. What if I hadn’t been there?”
“Of course I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t been there to watch out for me!” Mycroft flared, and the silence between them lasted a considerable amount of time, highlighted by the frantic beat of rain battering at the tall windows. Greg swallowed hard and looked down at his hand, tried to work the knot loose with the other.
“Oh, give it here,” Mycroft snapped, but his grip was gentle. “I haven’t had a chance to just think since Sherlock first disappeared and came back.”
“He came back?” Greg said, rather witlessly.
“The first time.” Mycroft pulled the gauze he’d grabbed from the ensuite out of his trouser pocket, then went back to the knot. His nails, dirty and ragged, caught on it despite his best attempts. “He was gone for an afternoon, and that just doesn’t happen when I’m home from school. He’s always underfoot. I looked for him, and he crawled out--he crawled--”
Greg said quietly, “Mycroft.”
Mycroft looked up, tears making pale tracks down his smudged cheeks. “He crawled out from the wall,” he said harshly, and sniffed. The sound was loud, jarringly inelegant. “I couldn’t not believe him, and then he wouldn’t be alone, so he slept in my room, in my bed, and it--the hunter, it was outside the door. All night.”
His voice had risen in volume, become somewhat hysterical by the end of it, and Greg drew his hand away and pulled the kid close, because he was a kid, just a kid. Mycroft made an odd sound, half a sob, and stubbornly did not cry with his face pressed to Greg’s chest, his arms wrapping tight around Greg’s waist. He was almost too tall to manage it comfortably, but he did.
“It’s going to be all right,” Greg said, his voice raspy in the chill air. Mycroft drew in a shuddering breath and started to back away, but when Greg held him tighter, sagged back against his body. “It’s all right to be scared; I’m fucking terrified.”
“Language,” Mycroft muttered into his chest.
Greg held his bloodied hand out, past Mycroft’s shoulder, though he continued to hug him tight with both arms. “The hunter stole Sherlock, well, enticed him, I’m sure, with a false room or corridor. And Sherlock made his way back out, so the hunter came back looking for him. Correct?”
Mycroft nodded, face rubbing against him. “I tried to go into rooms with him, to keep him from falling back in, but he was caught anyway. Whole rooms, the hallways, everything. They switched out, led to something false. When Sherlock disappeared again, I found one that was still open--the one in the hall. I went after him.”
“You were very brave,” Greg said quietly.
This time, Mycroft did push away, face twisted with bitter scorn. “What does it matter if I was brave? He’s my brother, I can’t find him, and he’s going to die! Because I can’t find him and I can’t protect him!”
“No,” Greg said, reaching out again, only to have his hand knocked away.
“Yes!” Mycroft spat. His eyes were bright with anger and tears. “He went to you, didn’t he? He didn’t trust me to help him! He went looking for you, and dragged you into this! He opened a doorway decades into the future for you!”
For a long moment, Greg could only stare. Nearly thirty years in the future, it would be the same, exactly the same: Mycroft chasing after his brother, who went to someones else for help.
“You didn’t fail,” he tried, and Mycroft’s scoff looked pained and painful. “Mycroft. I’m sorry to say this, but you are a child. You’re fourteen. You can’t think you can fight monsters and win just because Sherlock needs you to--”
“Then what good am I?” Mycroft half-shouted, his hands curling into fists. It wasn’t a rhetorical question; Greg could read that clearly in his panicked, imploring eyes.
“Someday,” Greg said quietly, with as much conviction as he could muster, “you’re going to make the world a better place, a safer place, for a lot of people’s brothers, and sisters, too.”
“What about my brother?” Mycroft asked, the full laser brightness of his intellect, of his deductive skill, focused on Greg, who lied like it was his life at stake--like it was Mycroft’s life at stake.
“Him especially,” he said, holding that gaze without faltering.
It was Mycroft who looked away, breathing hard, wiping at his face. “I know it doesn’t matter,” he said, his voice thick. “As long as we can find him. It doesn’t matter who--who saves him.”
“I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t helped me,” Greg said. He held out his hands, palms up, one clean and bare, the other bloodied and bandaged. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything if you weren’t here. I’d’ve been caught ages ago. Mycroft. You’ve saved me. If I’m meant to save Sherlock, then it’s only been possible because you’re here to save me.”
That seemed to get through. Mycroft was nodding, and wiping more severely at his face, but with irritation rather than despairing rage. “It doesn’t matter,” he said again, and Greg grabbed his shoulders before he could react.
“It does matter,” he said, and shook Mycroft when he tried to protest. “I want to survive this. I want Sherlock to survive this, and I want you to survive this. And we will,” he added, inspiration flashing bright, like lightning. “We have to, if I’m to even be here, right? Time travel. I can’t know Sherlock if he dies, right?”
“I suppose,” Mycroft said, and cleared his throat. “If you don’t figure in parallel universes, perhaps.”
“I don’t,” Greg said curtly. “What’s happened stays happened. This isn’t Doctor Who.”
“No TARDIS,” Mycroft agreed, and Greg goggled. “What?”
“You watch Doctor Who?” It was so surprising that Greg found himself grinning, unable to help it.
Mycroft lifted his chin, a challenge gleaming in his eyes. “Of course I do. Everyone does. As do you, by your own reference.”
“I’m going to ask you about this in the future,” Greg warned, shaking his head and smiling fondly. “Never figured you for the type to watch telly.”
“Intimidating and boring when I grow up, then?” Mycroft sighed and wiped at his face one last time. “Wonderful.”
“Not boring,” Greg promised. “Just... very busy.”
Mycroft didn’t look much comforted.
The air constricted again; colours grew brighter and darker, and awareness saturated the atmosphere. Mycroft’s eyes went wide and he bared his teeth at the ceiling. “It’s too fast!” he said, and grabbed for Greg’s wrist.
The surreal terror of it, jagged and sharp, should have dulled, Greg thought, following Mycroft’s lead and sliding down one level, and then up two. But the sense of being watched, no, of being found, of something terrible and inhuman alighting upon them only grew, Greg’s skin itching fit to crawl from his bones. He yanked at Mycroft’s hand and pulled him, stumbling, into a mad dash for the kitchen.
“It’s too fast!” Mycroft gasped again, and starting coughing, retching horribly, as Greg nearly slammed into the refrigerator, tripping and landing on his knee. Pain, white-hot but familiar in its heat, shot up his body and sliced neatly through the panicked fog that was directing his retreat.
It was easier to just grab and shoulder Mycroft again, lurching around into the breakfast nook and around to the front hall, sliding down another two layers, and then one more, wanting to scream from the pain in every exposed freezing inch of his skin. It was there.
Greg stopped, so abruptly that Mycroft overbalanced and crashed to the floor in a heap in front of him, but neither Greg nor the thing wearing Sherlock’s body were aware of him. Greg’s blood seemed to freeze in his veins, his heart struggling so hard to pump that he could nothing but the rushing of its labour in his ears.
Sherlock, in his black coat and high collar. Not Sherlock.
There was no one thing of it he could call wrong; the details were correct, but for the perfect inhumanness of its human-seeming eyes. For a dizzying moment, as it held him spellbound in perfectly helpless terror, Greg could only think that if it had opened its mouth, revealed vampire teeth or some inky void, he would be relieved. Just some evidence beyond the bone-rattling knowledge that it was wrong, wrong and terrible--
He was dimly aware of Mycroft screaming at him as it stepped closer, reaching for him, colour starting to leach out of his vision as it tunneled to that hand, only that hand. He wasn’t breathing. Something warm was leaking from his own hand, setting the nerves in his fingertips afire, and at his recognition of this Greg was aware of his hand, his arm, his body again, alive and desperately wanting to remain that way. He stepped back, trying to blink sight back into his eyes, and swung his bleeding hand out to knock the thing away.
The scream, when it happened, originated from his own throat and from everything around him at once.
There was nothing in his universe but pain, enveloping all his senses, overwriting his existence and closing his mind to anything but itself. Pain in waves, in a thundering cacophony, shattering the universe.
Receding after an unknowable time, slowly, agonisingly slowly, reluctantly remembering shape and form, until he had a body again: a body that shook in reaction as much as it did in the still generously stabbing ache. He could breathe again, and tasted air that was stale, and cold, but warmer than it had any right to be--
“Where?” he coughed out, sitting up even though his whole body screamed at the sudden movement. Mycroft, kneeling next to him with his hand over his mouth, with eyes wide and wild with fear, couldn’t answer. Too cold for him, and Greg grabbed his wrist, feeling too late that he was using the hand with the slashed palm. Blood soaked into Mycroft’s cuff as Greg pulled them down, two levels, settling into what he now recognised as jonquil.
His hand didn’t hurt.
He looked down at it, even as Mycroft took in grateful lungfuls of air, bent so far forward that his forehead was almost touching the hardwood floor of the hall. It was quiet, so much that Greg could hear, above Mycroft’s gasping breaths, the rain still pattering on the windows.
The gauze had unwound itself, and as he pulled his hand from Mycroft’s wrist it stuck there, falling away from his hand entirely. He opened it and felt a dull pang as the skin stretched, but only when he had opened it nearly fully.
The gash was half-healed, and only in the very center did any cold feeling remain.
“What happened?” he said blankly.
“I would love to know,” Mycroft snapped, and then curled in on himself, shaking with sudden, wrenching sobs. His arm, the one stained with Greg’s blood, slid forward and his hand balled into a fist, pressed flat against the wooden floor.
“Mycroft,” Greg said helplessly, and tried to pull him up. He was heavy, though, as a tall fourteen year old kid ought to be, and a panicky, angry strength kept him curled up despite Greg’s best attempts. “Mycroft, come here, please. Please.”
“What--” Mycroft coughed, choking on a sob. “What did you do?”
Greg shook his head helplessly, rubbing at the poor kid’s heaving shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Please come up here.”
At last, hiccoughing and sniffing, Mycroft uncurled and allowed himself to be pulled into Greg’s arm, burying his face with a sigh against Greg’s neck. Greg rubbed up and down his back with his good hand, focusing on keeping his breathing even so that Mycroft’s might follow suit.
“We’re alive,” he said, and laughed shakily, staring around at the shadowed hall and its high windows near the door, spattered with raindrops and allowing the dim, natural light through.
“Barely,” Mycroft choked out, and sniffed hard again. He tried to pull back--probably to wipe at his nose, Greg realised, even as he resisted the move, holding Mycroft closer. Christ, he’d almost gotten the kid killed, dumped him at a monster’s feet.
Mycroft squirmed around anyway, getting his unbloodied arm up to wipe his nose on his sleeve rather than on Greg. A bit of pink still smeared his sleeve, but his nosebleed seemed to have stopped. “What did you do?” he asked again, settling back into Greg’s embrace.
“I don’t know,” Greg repeated, and laughed again. Mycroft made some sort of noise at that. “But look at my hand, here,” he added, and released Mycroft enough that he could sit up and take a look.
Mycroft’s eyes were wide and intent, and he trailed one finger over the wound, making Greg shiver at the tickling sensation. “This is the hand you hit it with,” he whispered, and looked up into Greg’s eyes. “Do you remember? It reached for you and you hit it.”
He said the last like it was an impossible feat, and Greg wondered if it had been impossible. If he shouldn’t be dead, right now, saved somehow through the branding he’d taken when Sherlock, the real Sherlock, touched him.
But Mycroft’s eyes were alight now, brilliant and flashing as his mind worked through some calculation that Greg couldn’t begin to guess at. “I needed this,” he said, tapping at the bottom of Greg’s palm. “This was one of the pieces--this makes sense. I think.”
“I’m glad something does,” Greg said.
“Shut up,” Mycroft said crisply, and pulled away to jump to his feet. He straightened his shirt and looked down at Greg expectantly. “Well? Are you coming?”
“You’re very chipper, all of a sudden,” Greg muttered, standing up and wincing at the ache in his knee.
“I have it now,” Mycroft said, and smiled. It was the thin, confident one he’d wear as an adult, and Greg stared, caught in that helpless awe Mycroft Holmes tended to inspire.
Mycroft led the way back to the kitchen, the two of them carefully sliding back down into amber--Greg shivering harder than before, though he ought to be desensitised at this point, he thought with irritation. He watched Mycroft step through the doorway and followed, bracing against the disconnection, but it didn’t happen.
“What?” he said blankly to Mycroft’s rigid back, and then started to cough.
“It’s constricting,” Mycroft said, and his voice was quivering with rage. He turned around and grabbed Greg’s wrist, yanking them up to jonquil with an insouciant ease. Lighter, where Greg could get his coughing under control. “It’s trying to take control of our chronological perceptions.”
Mycroft glared haughtily at him. “I was wrong when I said it was hunting Sherlock and not us. It’s hunting you, too. And of course it is; why else would there be an open door to your flat? Sherlock can’t create one. Only it can.”
“That also explains why it’s sometimes an adult Sherlock?” Greg guessed, suppressing a shudder at the thought of it hunting him as well. “Because that would have to be bait for me.”
“But how did Sherlock get out of that door and find you?” Mycroft continued, tugging on Greg’s wrist. His other hand was narrating his speech, flying about enthusiastically. “Greg, it’s not--it’s not time travel. We’re not time traveling. Do you see? It’s not in time; it’s not of time! It’s outside of it!”
Greg stared down into Mycroft’s wide-eyed, bright face, and knew his incomprehension had been noted without him having to admit he didn’t know what the hell Mycroft was talking about.
“All right,” Mycroft said, and let go of him. He backed up to the counter, leaning against it and holding up his hands as if he were directing an orchestra. “It’s a creature, let’s say, that’s from outside the universe. So it tunnels in, creating doors for its prey to wander out. But there’s nothing outside, is there? Just it! So they walk into it. And it wears them out, it devours them, if they can’t escape back out of it. But!” He directed a hard stare at Greg. “Because it’s outside of time, we’re all inside of it at the same time. Yes? It’s time. You and Sherlock are prey, at the same time, inside. But at different times outside.”
“I think I should just nod,” Greg said.
Mycroft waved his hands impatiently. “Shut up. Sherlock found you, because outside of time, in here, he remembered that he found you. So he goes to find you and he makes it true, because he remembered it being true. Because the time here, it isn’t the same as time as we know it.” His hopeful face fell again at Greg’s expression. “Greg, please try.”
“Believe me, I am,” Greg said, crossing his arms. “But it isn’t--surely Sherlock and I aren’t its only victims? Because that marble room, that’s not any place I recognise, and--”
“Yes!” Mycroft exploded, and actually clapped his hands together in one sharp movement. “Its other victims created their own spaces in it, too! And they’re connecting, because even though it’s digesting us all at one time, it’s hunting you all at one time, splitting its consciousness and getting confused as we refuse to keep our chronologies separate! Sherlock went after you, and now the three of us exist in one timeline that can’t possibly exist!”
“But if there are other rooms,” Greg said, bringing it back to a point he understood, “then there are other victims. Why can’t we see them?”
“Because they haven’t done what Sherlock’s done,” Mycroft said, sobering. “They haven’t been able to break out of their perception of time. They’re stuck--” He held out his hand, like he was touching a wall-- “Somewhere. Just outside of our perception, where we can’t reach them.”
“But you said we’re all here at the same time,” Greg said.
“No. Well, yes. But more outside of it,” Mycroft said, and gestured to their surroundings, to the cabinets and window. “This isn’t real; we brought this here. We brought it with us.”
“But I’ve only seen your house in one year, and you can’t have seen all of this,” Greg argued, pointing at the refrigerator. “Some of this isn’t in your time, but it isn’t in the time I’ve seen.”
“Of course it’s in times I’ve seen,” Mycroft scoffed. “I’m not getting rid of this house. It’s going to stay in the family.” He looked perturbed at the thought of it not.
“But you haven’t seen it before now,” Greg said, and Mycroft waved sharply again.
“Outside of time! Sherlock remembered you, and he went forward three decades. Of course it will reflect that.” Mycroft looked smug, and Greg shook his head. “I’m sure I’m right. I’m sure it fits.”
“What’s this, then?” Greg asked, and held up his slashed palm.
“That,” Mycroft said, “is the price you pay for allowing yourself to be dragged into someone else’s timeline.” He paused, and then shrugged. “Possibly. I’m not entirely sure.”
“I thought you said this was one of your pieces!”
Mycroft rolled his eyes. “I’m a fourteen year old caught in the belly of an extradimensional monster. I’m doing the best I can, Inspector.”
Greg shook his head, but couldn’t help smiling. He didn’t want to help it, either. “What about your notebook?” he asked, and watched Mycroft’s expression go stern once again. Christ, it was like watching him grow up in seconds.
“I wanted to give Sherlock some notice of what I’ve discovered, but--” he paused, and tapped his fingertips together. “Better to just go on with it, I think. If it’s focusing on separating the timelines.”
“So you have a plan?” Greg pressed, and realised that of course he had a plan. What else could have driven the change from stressed and sobbing to confident and daring?
But Mycroft was nodding, his fingers still steepled. “Almost. Maybe.” His eyes narrowed, focusing on Greg’s hand. “You hurt it. And now it’s trying to separate the timelines.”
“If it has multiple timelines running already, what does it matter if they collide?” Greg demanded, stretching his palm open and feeling the bite of cold deep in the wound.
“I don’t know, but it seems to,” Mycroft said flatly. “It ran away. It reached for you, you hit it, and the whole world screamed. Everything went strange. So now we have to take advantage of that, and plan accordingly.”
“Well, that’s the Mycroft I know,” Greg said with a grin, feeling ridiculously proud of the kid. Ridiculous, because Mycroft wasn’t someone he should be proud of or for; they didn’t have that kind of connection, he thought with sudden unease.
“And love?” Mycroft quipped, but there was a hint of red to his cheeks, and Greg realised with a deepening of his unease that it wasn’t entirely a joke.
“We’ll stretch it,” Mycroft said, leading the way to the dining room. “You’ll go lighter, I’ll stay darker, and when you find Sherlock, you’ll send him running back down to amber, to the library. I’ll be waiting for him there.”
“And then?” Greg asked, rubbing at his hand. The absence of pain was odd to him now.
“We’ll all three try to get out.” Mycroft nodded to himself. “It will follow you, because it’s hunting you and Sherlock. If the two of you are together, it will definitely go where--when you are. And then you can hit it again, force it to take on the paradox, and send Sherlock to jump out his end while you jump out yours.”
Greg looked down at the wound. “Is that was this is?”
“It’s as good a guess as any,” Mycroft said, tapping his fingers on the long table. The light from the windows, crazed by the rain, washed over him, creating little shadows that mimicked the lines that would appear on his face, years and years from now. He smiled suddenly. “I’m trying to remember what happens, but it’s more difficult than I... than I expected. The house is easy, but outside it. Not so much.”
“You didn’t remember this, not for thirty years,” Greg reminded him, watching that play of light and shadow on his too young features.
“Well, no. I was back in time then; how would I remember what hadn’t happened?” Mycroft said it so factually, and Greg had no idea what he was talking about. “But what has happened, what will happen.” His eyes were dark, focused on memories he wouldn’t make for years yet. “We’ll be friends, won’t we?”
That was spoken in a voice befitting a fourteen year old, and Greg gave into the impulse to hug him, Mycroft’s arms sliding easily around his waist. “Of course we’ll be friends. We have the same goal, right? Protect Sherlock.”
“More than that, though, right?” Mycroft asked insistently, his face pressed to Greg’s shoulder. “We’ll be friends for our sakes, not just his?”
Greg squeezed his body tightly for one quick moment. “Yeah, of course.”
Mycroft laughed. “Are you lying?”
“Can’t you tell?” Greg stepped back to look Mycroft in the eye, and felt dizzy, momentarily, encountering the fiercest stare, the most intense scrutiny he would ever be subjected to in his life. Then Mycroft darted forward, light on his feet, and brushed one gentle, chapped kiss to his lips before Greg could get his mental balance.
“Goodbye, Greg,” he said, his voice almost completely calm, almost hiding the desperate mixture of hope and sorrow that lay beneath the composed surface. He slid out of sight; down to amber. To the library, Greg remembered, trying to hold a picture of the kid in his mind’s eye. For courage.
Up, and up again, sliding with ease, but the world became more and more aware of him the further he went. Greg stopped in before the highest layer, very nearly warm for the first time in--
He had no idea how long he’d been in there.
He stopped, putting a hand out to the wall to steady himself there in the dining room, and felt as if the world flinched from him. Too aware. Greg drew his hand back, cursing to himself. He could feel the hunter watching him.
The world felt very thin, like he could step out of it, accidentally, and Greg realised with a crawling sense of unease that it wanted him gone. Just as Mycroft had said.
“Sherlock?” he called out, his voice trembling.
There was no answer; not that he’d really expected one. He didn’t know if Sherlock was even in this layer. Holding out his hand like a weapon, with his palm open, Greg began to search, clearing rooms like he’d done fifteen years ago as a Constable securing a scene.
“It’s a good thing you have such a small, sensible house,” he muttered, leaning back to check under a desk. He could feel the prickly awareness of the hunter all around him, observing his minutest moment. Something dark flashed by in his peripheral vision and he turned, even as his mind screamed at the wrongness--
“Not Sherlock,” Greg gasped to himself, his heart pounding. Just the hunter, trying to knock him off balance, trying to make him run and not pay attention to where he was going, what trap he was falling into.
A few more careful steps down the hall, always with his hand out and at ready, straining every nerve to sense past the horrible, itchy feeling of being watched. Greg opened a closet, even though he was sure Sherlock wouldn’t be in there--no room to run--and gave it a quick check before stepping back to let it fall shut.
The thud of the door was terribly loud, and he heard someone catch their breath.
“Sherlock?” he called again, and from the kitchen, a scrape of shoe. A step.
“Greg?” Mycroft called out weakly, disbelief choking his voice. The older Mycroft, who he’d left behind ages ago in the kitchen. Greg darted to the kitchen and felt the full force of his original horror, the horror at seeing the hunter as Sherlock, slam into him again, knocking his breath away, as the hunter as Mycroft stared at him from near the sink, inhumanity peering out of a human face.
Greg’s foot, in air, came down to the floor, his balance too forward to prevent it. The world seemed to flash around him and then Mycroft’s hands were on his arms, holding him, and Greg shrieked, hitting out desperately with his wounded hand.
He connected rather solidly with Mycroft’s throat--the real Mycroft, the human being, who was standing in his home in Greg’s own time. Not his time, though, now; regular time. The time that belonged to the world.
It was no longer a haunted house, and there were no layers to access in his mind.
Mycroft rubbed at his throat while Greg whirled around, trying to get a sense of something, anything, that would let him back in. “It’s gone!” he said again, and slammed his fist into a cabinet.
“Stop breaking my things,” Mycroft rasped, grabbing his hand. Greg swallowed and ducked his head, both of them looking at his scratched, reddening knuckles. After clearing his throat and wincing, which made Greg wince in sympathy, Mycroft asked, “What’s gone?”
“I can’t get back in,” Greg explained, and was surprised to hear his voice crack.
“It’s all right,” Mycroft said, and grabbed Greg’s wrist hard when Greg started to protest. “Greg, for the love of God, shut up.”
“You really like telling me to do that,” Greg accused.
“Because you like to wave your arms about and make a scene when you should be thinking,” Mycroft said severely, but his grip loosened after one gentle squeeze. “It’s separating the timelines, remember?”
Greg’s eyes were huge. “Do you remember everything now?”
“It’s separating the timelines,” Mycroft repeated, frowning and squeezing Greg’s wrist again. “Sherlock’s door is here, but yours is in your flat. Yes?”
“Right,” Greg said, and then thought about it. “Right!”
“To the car?” Mycroft suggested, with just a hint of a smile.
Greg was back in the car before Mycroft had even made it out the door, and he sat bouncing in his seat until Mycroft appeared, locking the door behind him. He leaned across the seat and opened the driver’s side door, shouting, “Take your time, Holmes!”
“The last thing we need is an accident,” Mycroft said severely, slipping into the car and handing Greg a tall glass of water and some fruit: two bananas and an apple. As Greg stared blankly, he added, “I apologise. It was all I could grab in a hurry.”
“No, I--” Greg looked up at him, a smile quirking up the corner of his mouth. It pulled on his lip, which he hadn’t realised was chapped, though he did now. “Thank you.”
“It should keep you busy for an hour,” Mycroft said, starting the car.
“Oh, Christ,” Greg moaned. “What time is it?”
“Just after eight,” Mycroft said with mock cheerfulness. “If we’re lucky we might be able to save a few minutes here or there.”
“Here is more likely than there,” Greg muttered, and split water all over his lap when Mycroft backed the car down the driveway at breakneck speed. “Watch it!”
“Stop talking and drink,” Mycroft ordered, and tore down the street, driving like the house were on fire. Greg did as he said, discovering at the first touch of water to his lips just how thirsty he was. One glass was hardly enough.
A harrowing turn had him wincing as he tried to unpeel a banana. “Who taught you how to drive?” he groused, and then ate the banana in two bites; he was hungrier than he could have imagined, too.
“My father,” Mycroft replied, smiling a slanting sort of smile. “Though I took a course much later with the FBI.” He took another terrifying turn and Greg shut his eyes.
“Why the FBI?” he managed.
“It was part of a partnership effort.” Mycroft made an oddly elegant shrug. “The driving course was an extra, and the most enjoyable bit.”
Greg nodded and ate the second banana, and then the apple. He was still both hungry and thirsty, but he could wait. And Mycroft was being uncharacteristically open, so he might as well take advantage. “Why did you kiss me back there?”
Not exactly what he’d meant to ask, and he had to school himself against a wince.
“I’ve fancied you for years,” Mycroft said mildly, smoothly passing a slower vehicle.
“Yeah, right,” Greg muttered, turning to stare out the window, wrapping the apple core in a banana peel.
“Ever since I was fourteen,” Mycroft added.
“Oh come off it!” Greg burst out, turning bodily to stare at him.
Mycroft was smiling faintly. “You made an impression. I didn’t remember you, of course, but you managed to set my fondness for a pair of dark eyes and thick crop of silvered hair rather deep.” He paused. “I married Paul because he reminded me of you--well, the subconscious dream memory of you. But for all he resembled you, his temperament was more than a bit different.” He shrugged again and said lightly, “Hence the divorce.”
“I--I’m sorry?” Greg said, and looked down at his hands, resting in his lap, one still clutching the remains of his fruit.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mycroft snapped, and then softened. “If it makes you feel any less culpable, I’ve spent the past five years cherishing an attraction to you and that without the benefit of memory or weakness to unknown preferences.”
Greg stared out the window, his skin prickling in a different way than it had in the house. He licked his lips and stole a glance at Mycroft that was not returned. Mycroft kept his gaze on traffic, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear shift, long fingers still in the faint light from passing cars. After a moment, Greg shifted the fruit to his left hand and put his right on top of Mycroft’s, resting it there, and looked out the window again.
Mycroft’s thumb stroked over his fingers, and Greg smiled.
Just outside the door to his flat, the lock already undone, Greg stopped. “Do you remember if this all works out well?” he asked, turning to Mycroft.
Mycroft’s lips were tight. “Sherlock and I meet in the library. We leave, and it never--it doesn’t come back.”
“But you don’t know anything about this end,” Greg said. When Mycroft started to answer, Greg shook his head and held up his hand. “You should probably go.”
For a moment, Mycroft was motionless, frozen, and then he smiled, even gave a quiet ghost of a laugh. “You know I won’t.”
The door knob, in Greg’s grip, felt icy. “Do I get another kiss for luck?” he asked, because why the hell not? He was off to slay a monster. Kissing Mycroft Holmes seemed only fairly dangerous by comparison.
The kiss was warm, and soft, and kind to his chapped and hurting lips, and had it been any other time Greg would have answered the unspoken invitation to deepen it. Instead, he drew back and offered a tiny smile before opening the door.
Stepping through, he could feel them--the layers, opening and feathering in his mind. Greg let out a loud sigh of relief, running his hand through his hair, and grinned at Mycroft, who stepped in behind him and closed the door.
“Sherlock?” Mycroft called, clutching hard at the handle of his umbrella.
“Sherlock, if you’re here--” Greg cut himself off, because there he was: the skinny, pale, tiny little kid of seven, climbing out from behind a chair, and of course he was still hiding out here, that’s where he’d gone to be safe, wasn’t it? Greg ran to meet him, barely noticing the slide into the topmost layer, picking Sherlock up without pain and hugging him close to his chest.
Then Sherlock’s fingers dug into Greg’s shoulders, pinching hard, and Greg turned around, shifting Sherlock to his hip. The hunter stood there, in the doorway to the loo, which led again to the hallway of Sherlock’s house. It wore Greg’s face.
“Bastard,” Greg hissed at it, and carefully lowered Sherlock to the ground. He knelt, hand free and at ready, staring into his own eyes that were not his own, not at all. “Sherlock. Do you remember where to go?”
“Yes,” Sherlock whispered, his cold hand on Greg’s shoulder.
“Then when I drop you, run,” Greg said, and hoisted him up with one arm before charging the hunter in the doorway. It side-stepped him and Greg threw Sherlock through the door, turning to block the hunter from following. He felt it start to slide deeper and followed, as it had once followed him, running to it at the same time and hoping that he’d have time to go back up and out after he caught the damned thing--
Caught it by the arm, and felt again the shrieking in his every nerve, white-hot fire slicing through his brain. The world around him shook, his skin seemed to flake back from the wound as the cold burned out of him, into his screaming doppelganger.
His mind tried to flinch from it, but Greg refused to let himself be consumed by it this time: his eyes felt like they were boiling in his head, but he watched, watched the creature wearing his face scream, listening with ringing ears to its agony, until he couldn’t feel any coldness in his hand anymore.
And with shaking bones, muscles twanging in panic and pain, he let go and forced himself up, through three layers, feeling like he was swimming up out of the ocean depths and he had only moments before his oxygen would run out and all strength would fail him.
Greg started violently as someone grabbed his arms, hauling him to his feet. “Oi!”
“Oi yourself,” Mycroft said tartly, spinning Greg around to glare at him. “Just how drunk are you?”
“Drunk?” Greg demanded, and then saw past him: the open bottle of vodka, the shot glass on its side, resting together on the kitchen counter. A sketchy memory of pain, of doubling over in agony, surfaced uneasily in his mind before being lost. He might’ve had a drink, but he certainly wasn’t drunk.
Mycroft seemed to have reached the same conclusion, as he stepped back, the annoyance in his expression easing slightly. But there was the barest shadow of confusion, and a good deal of wariness there yet. “You were drunk when you called me. You said you meant to call John.”
Greg blinked at him. “I did?”
“Greg,” Mycroft sighed, and closed his eyes briefly. “I’m here because you called me. You had something to tell me.”
“I did tell you!” Greg said, remembering suddenly, a bright flash of memory. “I saw Sherlock!”
Mycroft Holmes was, for the most part, an impossible man to read. His expressions were projections onto a mask that hadn’t shifted in years, Greg would have bet. He would have lost, he knew now, watching shock ripple through those eyes.
“Greg,” Mycroft said unsteadily, “Sherlock is dead.”
“I saw him,” Greg said again, searching desperately through the scattered memories of the afternoon. He had seen Sherlock, he knew that in his very bones. But where?
“Where?” Mycroft asked, and through false layers of grief and derision Greg heard his anxiety. Not over Greg’s mental state, not over his own--had Mycroft always been this easy to read? Because what Greg saw with absolute clarity was Mycroft Holmes sweating over a sighting of his brother, who was supposed to be dead.
“You utter bastards,” Greg breathed, and something bright, something effervescent and warm, filled his chest.
“That’s hardly appropriate,” Mycroft said, but he looked away. He looked away!
“You fuckers!” Greg corrected himself, grinning so hard it split his lip--Christ, but he must have let them get chapped. Probably why he hadn’t had that vodka. “You absolute fucking arseholes!”
Mycroft worked his jaw, still staring at the floor. “I think I should go.”
“I think you should tell me why the fuck Sherlock is playing dead--don’t look at me like that, I can see it plain in your face,” Greg said, grabbing Mycroft’s shoulder. “Mycroft Holmes. Look at me when I speak to you.”
The glare he received was pure ice, but Greg was too overjoyed to care. He started laughing, and stepped forward with an ease he didn’t know he could have around Mycroft and pulled him into a hug. Mycroft stood ramrod stiff for a moment, but relaxed into it slowly, by degrees, as Greg refused to let go.
“Where did you see him?” Mycroft asked again, sounding annoyed. Greg pulled back to catch a glimpse of his grimace, feeling a thrill when Mycroft moved to keep him from ending the embrace.
Where had Greg seen him? His memory of it was hazy. “Your house. Out in Oxford.”
Mycroft shut his eyes, face pained. “I should have made him leave the country immediately. Idiot.” Then he glared at Greg. “What were you doing at my house?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Greg said cheerfully, and carefully disentangled himself. Mycroft let him go this time, but there was something in the way his jaw moved that let Greg know Mycroft would rather he’d stayed. His face was like a hidden picture or a 3D illusion, Greg decided: now that Greg had deciphered it, he’d never be fooled by it again.
Not that he knew why it was suddenly so clear to him, but he also didn’t care.
“More of Sherlock’s doing, I’m sure,” Mycroft muttered, and looked around suddenly, eyes alighting on his umbrella, on the floor near the sofa. Greg caught it up and presented it to him. Mycroft took the handle and Greg grabbed its other end, pulling Mycroft closer.
“Well?” he said, grinning brightly at Mycroft’s affronted stare. “Why is Sherlock playing dead? Why--” His voice faltered for a moment. “Why did we attend his funeral? That was a hell of a prank to play on any of us, let alone John.”
Mycroft closed his eyes briefly. “I suppose if I explain it, I can get you to promise not to tell him.”
Greg tilted his head to the side. “That’s very ambitious.”
“I am nothing if not ambitious,” Mycroft said, and yanked his umbrella from Greg’s grip.
“Then let’s have a drink and a talk,” Greg said, and took a few steps back into the kitchen, smiling again.
“It’s late,” Mycroft protested, but he was tempted, Greg could see that plainly. And Greg had a very strong feeling that he didn’t want Mycroft to go, not just yet.
“Yeah, you should have explained it weeks ago.” Greg jerked his head towards the table. “Sit down, Mr. Holmes, and tell me a story.”
“After which you’ll toddle off to bed like a good little Detective Inspector?” Mycroft quipped, but there was no nastiness in it. There was a questioning quality that Greg responded to before realising it, his pulse quickening and his blood rising.
“If you’re unlucky,” he said, and watched a delicate blush colour Mycroft’s face.
“Rather forward,” he muttered, taking a seat with his customary grace.
Greg put the vodka away, grabbing a Pinot instead. “Better than backward.” He grinned at Mycroft’s irritated sigh, knowing it to be fonder than it sounded.
“It’s a long story,” Mycroft warned, watching Greg get out the wine glasses.
“Let’s stay home sick tomorrow,” Greg said, and was disappointed not to earn another blush, but what the hell. He had all night.