The taut strings bit into Sherlock’s fingertips, softened and clumsy after practically three years without practice, but the bow flew across the violin effortlessly, powered by the flesh memory still embedded after all these years. He had first learned this piece as a young boy, just before he and the school orchestra decided by mutual agreement that he was not First Violin material after all. He didn’t ask himself why it was this piece that came to his fingers first; Danse Macabre, the dance of the dead, appropriate for a man who had been dead for three years and was now on the cusp of coming back to life.
A piano broke into his solitary tune, providing an unexpectedly accurate counter melody, and Sherlock’s eyes flew open. Greg was looking up at him from behind the piano, the stern portrait of one of Dominika’s countrywomen glaring over his shoulder; Greg, who went to childish lengths to pretend he didn’t care and yet had bought Sherlock an expensive violin. The other members of Sherlock’s family had enjoyed music but none had shared his instinctive understanding of it. Sherlock couldn’t remember if he had thanked Greg for the gift; he couldn’t do it now, so he smiled instead.
That had been quite a night. It was the night Irene walked back into Sherlock’s life and a glance at her expanded waistline – almost half an inch – and full breasts told him that she had not only borne but was still breastfeeding a child. His child. And of course, more importantly, it was the night John first kissed him.
But in that moment, when Saint-Saëns’s music flowed so effortlessly between them, it was also the first time he had felt like Gregory House’s son.
And now, only a few weeks later, Sherlock was sitting at House’s funeral, listening to a succession of people telling lies about the great person his father had allegedly been.
“Rubbish,” muttered Sherlock in indignation. He rubbed his knee, feeling the smooth texture of the expensive material beneath his fingertips. Spencer Hart, Savile Row. He hated taking Mycroft’s money again but it was so nice to afford new tailor-made suits. “She’s lying. He was a terrible son. He didn’t even tell her I exist.”
“Sherlock, shush!” hissed John, who was staring straight ahead, feigning rapt attention. Why did people do that? What was the point; did anyone here seriously care that John Watson, a man most of them didn’t even know, was paying attention? And given that they most probably didn’t care, why did John need to put on this charade?
“John,” started Sherlock, intending to ask the man himself since he was sitting right there and currently engaging in the behaviour Sherlock found so intriguing.
“Shh!” went John, still not looking at him, as if lack of eye contact might keep him quiet.
They were sitting right at the back; despite Sherlock’s best efforts, they had arrived late rather than not at all. John’s determination to drag Sherlock to this pointless exercise in group conscience-salving was quite remarkable, if utterly irritating. Still, at least he hadn’t actually forced Sherlock to deliver a eulogy; every now and then, someone on the seats in front of them would spot them and try to make eye contact, and that was quite enough attention.
Jessica Adams turned around and gave him a little wave from one of the front seats. He remembered her climbing onto his lap and practically assaulting him in her eagerness to kiss him during their “date”. He turned to John, intending to point her out to him, but John’s expression was still forbidding.
Sherlock let his eyes linger on John a moment longer, lost in his beauty; short greying hair; paedomorphic features; prominent nose; skin pitted like orange peel but as soft as velvet. The light from the factory-manufactured printed glass behind John was shining through the eyelashes on his right eye, creating the illusion of a little halo. Sherlock longed to stroke John’s face; smell his scent; taste the soft, creased skin under his dark blue eyes; Sherlock was allowed to do all that now that they were together. He wondered what John’s eyelashes would feel like on his skin. Butterfly kisses, Cook had called them, holding him to her, her face against his cheek, her short eyelashes tickling his skin.
But Sherlock wasn’t a little boy anymore; he was a father, a lover, the employer of a man who needed money to support his unfaithful wife. And now he was an orphan, sitting at his last remaining parent’s funeral like a real grown-up.
Sherlock sighed with boredom.
“I could have stayed in England, you know,” he said. “It isn’t as if House will know I’m here.”
John gave him a dirty look, his small mouth set in a thin line of disapproval, before returning his attention to the latest mourner delivering a hackneyed eulogy.
Sherlock pulled out his phone and swiped in a quick text.
Can I kiss you?
John shot him a look of irritation when his phone vibrated. The stern expression on his lined face softened when he read the text, though, and he gave Sherlock that crooked smile of disbelief mixed with admiration that had captivated Sherlock the first time they met. Victor, Lestrade, Stamford; other men had been impressed by Sherlock’s deductions, but none of them had ever looked at him like John.
“No!” mouthed John, though he was laughing silently.
Sherlock felt a dry, warm sensation on his hand and looked down to find that John’s fingers were entwined with his. It made him feel … happy. John looked tired, not jetlagged yet, just tired because his arm was still in a cast and he had to walk with a stick again while his leg finished healing. And because they’d stayed up way too late watching something ridiculous on the iPad, embracing each other on the double bed in their hotel room. Sherlock leaned over and kissed John’s cheek anyway.
John gave him a pleased smile and then appeared to instantly forget his own not talking rule when someone new walked up to the front of the room to talk.
“Who is that?” he whispered. “She looks familiar.”
Sherlock tore his eyes away from John and turned his attention to the woman at the front of the room. Dark hair, dyed; mid-fifties; high, rounded cheekbones; small brown eyes. Married to a man who hadn’t come to the funeral. Stacy, the woman who had lived with House for years until the infarction that crippled his leg made him drive her away.
“He was a trying boyfriend,” she said in the middle of her speech, “but I never stopped loving him.”
“Evidently not,” commented Sherlock, analysing the juxtaposition of her words and body language. “She cheated on her husband with House years after they broke up.”
John looked annoyed but his face lit up as he remembered how he knew Stacy. “Oh, wait, she was on that picture House had,” he whispered. “She’s the one who cut your hair, right?”
Sherlock accidentally caught Stacy’s eye as she continued her eulogy, and she smiled when she recognised him. He hastily lowered his head, feeling like an awkward adolescent again.
“I don’t remember,” he said.
“Hey, hold still,” she said softly, her fingers brushing his scalp as she carefully clipped his hair. Dark clumps were falling past his eyes and creating an irregular pattern on the tiled bathroom floor. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. I used to cut my little brother’s hair when we were younger.”
“Your little brother may not have had high standards of personal grooming,” grumbled Sherlock, though to be fair, he had agreed to this.
Stacy laughed softly. He liked her. She was intelligent and strong and exactly the kind of woman his mother had been. He felt awkward and inadequate when House was around, but Stacy was kind and he liked watching her. He didn’t even argue when she offered to cut his hair.
Her chest was close to his face; if he just tilted his head forward a bit, his cheek would touch the white cotton of her pristine work blouse. He could smell her skin; perfumes and liquid paraffin and the unfamiliar scent of a grown woman, confusing and overloading his sensitive olfactory receptors.
She leaned across him to pick up a comb and he gave in to the impulse to lean forward, letting his head rest on her chest, just enough pressure to feel her warmth through the cloth. The comforting feeling affected him in a strange way, moisture rising to make his eyes prick.
“Oh, you poor kid,” she murmured, pulling him to her bosom and stroking his shorn head. He wrapped his arms around her and drowned in the sensations. “You must really miss your mom.”
Sherlock thought he should keep John away from Stacy if he could. Somehow, the revelation that he had once, however fleetingly, had something of a schoolboy crush on his would-be stepmother in a classically Oedipal manner didn’t strike Sherlock as something that would maintain the awe with which John appeared to regard him. Besides, John would probably think it was hilarious and tease him mercilessly.
“He was my husband for real,” said Dominika, up next, severe in her black jacket. “I could not help but love him.”
“Well, until she discovered he was keeping her with him under false pretences,” said Sherlock sotto voce.
John turned and gave him a long-suffering look. “Am I going to have to take you outside?”
Sherlock sulked and didn’t listen to the rest of what Dominika said, or indeed Foreman who came after her. They were followed by a tall young woman; late twenties; bleached blond hair; former underling for House; jabbering on about what a great boss he was; used to go out with Foreman of all people. Boring.
“He was willing to kill me,” she said. “And I’ll always be grateful.”
On the other hand ... Sherlock squinted at her. Dying of a terminal disease; bisexual too. Less boring. House propositioned her before she got the blonde hair, probably angling for a threesome with one of her female partners – Sherlock could think of nothing less appealing – and then offered to kill her if the disease got too much. Less boring, but still irrelevant.
Despite being the one person who had worked for House for the better part of a decade – and who had inherited House’s position as PPTH’s Head of Diagnostics – Chase didn’t have much to say beyond the usual platitudes about House being his mentor. Maybe he had heard that if you had nothing nice to say, you should say nothing at all.
He was followed immediately by a blonde woman with a small mouth; Sherlock could tell from the way they looked at each other that this was Chase’s ex-wife. This one actually used to be in love with House; probably even went out with him, presumably back in the days when she had dark hair since her hair was also obviously dyed. She was crying, and John squeezed Sherlock’s hand.
Sherlock knew he was supposed to be sad; that was the point of this gathering; collective grieving was as old as laying petals and offerings of food on the curled up body of a loved one buried in a prehistoric cave. He looked at the large photograph of House by the little black urn and he felt that sinking sensation in his chest again, the one he’d had when he first heard the news back in England, as if his internal organs were rearranging themselves every time he thought of his father.
But this was stupid; Sherlock had barely known him. Why did it matter that what was left of Greg House was stored in that little urn on the table? Everybody died; it was the epitome of the human condition.
Sherlock peered at the dead body, cataloguing all the details of the corpse: the lank grey hair, the myriad broken little veins under the lined skin on the cheeks, some longer facial hair where the hormones disrupted by the menopause had made whiskers grow. He extended one finger and touched the forehead, noting how dry and cold it felt, quite unlike living tissue.
“Sherlock, do you have to poke Mummy?” asked Mycroft in a bored voice. “She’s definitely dead.”
“Charlie,” corrected Sherlock, straightening up and brushing his long hair out of his eyes. He was still in his school uniform, the three-piece suit incongruous in the cold fluorescent light of the hospital mortuary. “It’s Charlie now.”
“No, it isn’t,” retorted Mycroft, his fat jowls quivering with indignation. “Mummy let you get away with that nonsense, but she named you Sherlock and you should be proud of it.”
“Why? I didn’t choose it. Charlie is a nice normal name.”
“Oh, and are you a nice, normal boy?” sneered Mycroft.
“You should get a haircut, young man.”
The two young men turned to look at Mr Holmes senior, sitting on the only available chair and leaning heavily on his wooden cane. He was looking up at Sherlock from under his wiry white eyebrows as if he couldn’t quite place him.
“You’re not my father, you can’t tell me what to do,” grumbled Sherlock without conviction.
“Perhaps we can leave the soap opera dialogue for another time,” suggested Mycroft. “Now, we are all going to leave and let the mortuary staff do their job.” He helped Mr Holmes to his feet. The old man looked momentarily bewildered and spluttered a protest. “We’re in the mortuary, Father, and we have to go home now. Say goodbye to Margaret.”
“Goodbye, Margaret,” said their father vaguely. “Funny. My wife is called Margaret. Beautiful woman.” He blinked and appeared to notice Mycroft for the first time. “Ah, Mycroft, my good boy. Where’s the clever one?”
“I’m here, Father,” said Sherlock, giving Mycroft a superior smirk.
“Dear me, that uniform is still as ridiculous as it was when I wore it,” said the old man. “Still, humiliating the upper classes is what made Britain great.”
Mycroft just rolled his eyes and ushered his father out of the room. Sherlock followed, hands in his pockets and scowling with irritation because he hadn’t had time to examine the body as he wanted to. He looked over his shoulder at the corpse lying on the table and wondered where his mother had gone. There was a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Right, listen, you two,” said Mycroft decisively once they were in the corridor. “We will go to Mummy’s funeral on Thursday where we will all behave like civilised people. You will sit quietly through the cremation, and you will look sombre, avoid histrionics and speak to no one. I will try my best to keep people away from the pair of you, but if you do end up talking to anyone, I am counting on you not to embarrass yourselves, our family or the person unfortunate enough to offer you their condolences by belittling them or sharing inappropriate anecdotes about Mummy’s life.”
“Don’t worry. Never talk to people at parties,” said Sherrinford Holmes haughtily, as his nurse came over at a signal from Mycroft. “Margaret is the expert mingler. Where is Margaret anyway?”
“She died of cancer, Father,” said Mycroft patiently as the nurse led their father away. He sounded tired and even Sherlock could tell he looked older than his twenty-three years of age. “She died a horrid lingering death and left me with the pair of you to look after. I must have been a serial killer in a past life to deserve this much hassle.”
Sherlock observed him through narrowed eyes. “You’ve put on a lot of weight, Mycroft. You’ve been comfort eating. You really should take care of yourself.”
Sherlock closed his eyes. The sinking sensation remained as Sherlock thought about House, dead and cremated in the little urn. Yes, he was sad. Normal. His father was dead, or so he was told, though this time, there was no corpse to poke. Just a burnt body identified by dental records. If this had been one of Sherlock’s cases...
He was distracted by a woman slipping in to sit on a chair to his right. Her large eyes were filled with tears, her thin face a mask of grief framed by long dark hair. Early forties; Middle Eastern origin, probably Jewish; another former lover, of course, easy to spot yet another dark-haired replica of Ms Margaret Sherlock-Jones. Given her late arrival – spent most of the day debating whether to come or not – probably the one whose living-room House had demolished.
Sherlock looked at the photograph of House smiling benignly by the urn and frowned. Now he thought about it, he was sure he had noticed something on his way in. He focussed on a spot in mid-air and concentrated, struggling to keep his hands still – John was bound to interrupt him if he waved his arms – and he worked his way through the confusing jumble of data in his mind. Something to do with one of the guests? Maybe ... No, one of the cars, nobody getting out; someone observing the crowd...
He was yanked out of his mind palace when John squeezed his hand.
“You okay?” he mouthed, his warm fingers stroking gently, his palm heavy on the back of Sherlock’s hand.
“Of course I am,” said Sherlock with irritation. “I didn’t know him that well.”
“He’s a doctor.” He could feel his mother’s small blue eyes on him. The globe spun around its metal core, brightly coloured countries filing past his gaze. “His name is Gregory House and he lives in the United States.”
The colours on the globe merged together, creating a soothing, hypnotic vista which occupied his entire field of vision and allowed him to focus on the thoughts in his mind. He hummed quietly as his imagination took hold. He was a racing driver, screeching around the track at Silverstone, his German nemesis in hot pursuit. Off the track, they would fight crime together like Batman and Robin, only without the silly suits. Yes, that was better than just racing cars. And way more interesting than the boring old pirates he’d been into last year. He had more mature interests now he was nearly ten.
The globe slowly came to a stop before him and he was distracted by the names of the cities in the large blob of red that spread from Eastern Europe to the Pacific. He gave the globe another push and felt a stimulating thrill as it revolved again, a shudder of delight running through him at the thought of returning to his imaginary crime fighting.
“Sherlock, darling,” said his mother gently, a note of reproach in her voice.
“Yes, Mummy,” he responded, reluctant to devote mental power to talking to her when his mind was at rest, mesmerised by the spinning globe, and able to concentrate on his internal game. “I was listening, you know. My biological father is a doctor called Gregory House who lives in Michigan.”
“I didn’t tell you he lived in Michigan,” she said, amusement in her voice.
“Cook took an airmail letter to the Post Office while I was at school the other day. I didn’t see the recipient but I saw the postcode as she put it in her bag. Americans call them ZIP codes; I read it in a book in the library. MI means Michigan. I know you write to other people in the United States, but you wouldn’t be raising the issue with me now if he wasn’t on your mind, so it was a reasonable guess that he’s the one you wrote to.” He gave the slowing globe another prod. “Now, if you don’t mind. I need to spin the globe.”
Mummy sighed. “Oh, darling, what are we going to do with you?”
“Nothing,” he said with irritation. “You don’t need to do anything with me. I can take care of myself.”
“God, I hope so or poor Mycroft is going to have a hard time when we’re gone.” She gave him a kiss. “You can ask me about your real father any time you like.”
“Yes, Mummy, I will.”
He never did, though, and then it was too late.
“It doesn’t make sense, though,” said Sherlock in a low voice as Wilson took his turn at the front of the room. The woman beside them frowned at him but he ignored her. “What was he doing in that abandoned warehouse anyway? The damage to the MRI machine was no worse than any of the other thousands of pranks House played on people in the past and Wilson is the one who is dying of cancer – I deduced that much during our last week in hospital – so House had no reason to commit suicide. Even taking into account cowardice in the face of Wilson’s illness, and assuming he was high, since the the body they found was riddled with heroine, House wasn’t the kind of person who would just give up. He’s like me. What did you say about me that time? He would outlive God just to have the last word. He’s not the kind of person to just die in a random accident.”
“Sherlock, please don’t do this to yourself. These things happen. Even to people like House,” whispered John gently. “You know I talked to Wilson just after it happened. He saw House in the building and then he saw the building blow up. That’s pretty definite.”
Sherlock watched Wilson thoughtfully as his father’s best friend spewed the usual well-meaning nonsense.
“He was my friend. The thing you have to remember … the thing you can’t forget is that Gregory House saved lives,” Wilson was saying. Sherlock rolled his eyes and groaned. “He was a healer. And in the end …” Wilson paused, apparently struggling to keep his train of thought. “House was an ass.”
Pleasantly surprised, Sherlock turned and smirked at John, who shook his head. “Yeah, that’s what I should have said at your funeral,” muttered John.
“…The truth is, he was a bitter jerk who liked making people miserable,” continued Wilson. “And he proved that by dying selfishly, numbed by narcotics, without a thought of anyone. A betrayal of everyone who cared about him.”
Wilson was interrupted by a phone call, and actually paused his speech to berate the audience, even though the ringing was obviously coming from his own pocket. Sherlock couldn’t believe how stupid ordinary people were. Wilson worked it out after far too long and looked at the phone; his expression changed. The room erupted into a murmur of consternation and Sherlock smiled.
Before John could stop him, he stood up.
“The thing about a good man is that he can only lie if he doesn’t know the truth,” he said quietly. “Blood on the pavement was pretty definite.”
Sherlock ran out of the building and looked around. The car he had noticed earlier was gone and there was no one in sight, but there were several outhouses and sheds around the crematorium where anyone could hide. There were also any number of buildings within visual range of the chapel, and a simple eavesdropping device would be sufficient to monitor the funeral and interrupt Wilson while he was talking. Even so, the presence of the phone in Wilson’s pocket indicated that it had been planted earlier in the day, possibly just before the start of the ceremony.
Sherlock focussed on the flowerbeds lining the chapel. The earth was dry and mostly undisturbed, but when he kneeled down, he realised some of the bushes were bent, the marks in the soil beneath them rather like...
“Sherlock, do you have to do this now?” asked John in that long suffering tone that meant he thought Sherlock should stop doing whatever he was doing and do something boring instead. “This is your father’s funeral, Sherlock!”
“No, it isn’t.”
Sherlock waved John’s large feet out of the way – couldn’t the man tell he was standing on a vital clue? He would have said more – not that there was much point sharing his thinking until he was certain he was right – but when he turned the other way, he found himself facing a pair of low heeled red pumps.
“You remind me so much of your grandfather,” said a soft American voice.
“Oh, did he crawl around the bushes at funerals too?” huffed John irritably.
Sherlock stood up without bothering to brush off his trousers and observed the woman with curiosity. Mid-seventies; 1.65 meters tall; handsome face; hair dyed a neutral blonde but which had probably been dark in her youth. The well maintained facial skin of the stay-at-home wife of a well-off man. Wedding ring. Remarried. Remarried to the Scotsman who wasn’t House’s father. Sherlock tilted his head and met the woman’s gaze with curiosity.
“You have his cheekbones,” she continued, looking up at Sherlock with a tender smile. “God, I thought he was handsome in his RAF uniform. How could a plain little American housewife resist?”
“A British pilot, eh?” said John with a grin. “Okay, Sherlock, that does make you a little less American. And maybe you’ll be a bit nicer to that unfortunate pair from that cheap charter firm Mycroft employs to fly us around. You know the captain reminds me–”
“This is John,” interrupted Sherlock, suddenly remembering that others were incapable of learning anything about people they hadn’t met before by simply observing then. “Dr John Watson. John, this is House’s mother.”
“Blythe Bell,” she said, extending her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Watson.”
“Likewise. You gave a very moving speech,” said John, shaking hands with her. He shot Sherlock an irritated look. “Sorry we got here so late.”
Sherlock realised he should probably provide more information for his grandmother. “He’s my boyfriend.”
“I think we’re done with the introductions, Sherlock. Besides, I thought we’d agreed on ‘partner’,” grumbled John.
“If you want everyone to think we’re lawyers. We live together and we have sex,” added Sherlock for Mrs Bell’s benefit, uncertain what else to say to her. John groaned and looked embarrassed. Oh right, not supposed to mention sex. He should say something vague instead. “I love him and he makes me very happy.”
He glanced at John, who gave him a grudgingly pleased smile.
“I visited you once when you were a boy,” said Mrs Bell, who apparently also agreed that the time for introductions was over. “Your mother wrote my son when you were five. She didn’t know his address so she sent the letter to ours. I don’t think Greg ever noticed I’d steamed it open. The next time my husband John had to go to Germany, I took the Sealink to England and sought you out. You were in the park with your stepfather. I didn’t talk to either of you; I just sat on a bench and watched. All the other kids were killing aliens or holding tea parties, but you were on your own in a corner, staring up at the sky, lost in your own world. Just like your dad at that age; always daydreaming. It used to drive John crazy. He’d get so mad at Greg ... But your stepfather asked you what you were doing and seemed fascinated by what was going on in your world.” She smiled sadly. “I’d meant to talk to your mom, maybe arrange for you to come over. But I guess I realized you already had all the family you needed. Or maybe I just chickened out.”
“Yes,” said Sherlock distractedly. His eyes were following Wilson, now hurrying to his car with a furtive look on his face. Anyone with half a brain would realise just by looking at him that he was up to something.
“Well, I’d better go,” said Mrs Bell with a sigh. “It was nice meeting you, Sherlock. You must come visit some time. Or maybe I could come to London.” She smiled. “I’d love to meet your little girl. I loved Greg and I was very grateful to have him, but I always thought it might have been nice to have a daughter too.”
“Yes. Mine is very clever,” said Sherlock, because his daughter was exceptionally gifted for a toddler and he wanted everyone to know that. “John can show you pictures. He carries them around with him.”
“So do you,” said John with amusement, pulling out his phone. He smiled at Mrs Bell. “He pretends to be all cool about it, but he dotes on her.”
Sherlock was still observing Wilson and barely heard what Mrs Bell said next; something about contact details or email addresses. John was dealing with it anyway. When Sherlock looked in her direction again a few minutes later, Mrs Bell was leaving, heading back towards a group of mourners which included her current husband – far too short to be House’s father, was House really that stupid? – and several of the people Sherlock had met last time he was in the United States.
“Your son isn’t dead,” he called out after Mrs Bell.
She turned to look at him with a smile. “I know. I noticed the cane prints in the flowerbeds too.”
Sherlock grinned as Mrs Bell turned her back on him and rejoined the group. A glance at John revealed a familiar bewildered look on the doctor’s careworn features. Sherlock leaned down to kiss him lightly on the lips.
“Who said fathers never learned anything from their sons? We should go home, John,” he said, seizing the man’s hand. Wilson’s car was driving off into the distance. “I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Gregory House.”