It took John less than a day to orchestrate an opportunity.
A cheap DVD, a pop down to Mrs Hudson’s with Rosie already asleep in his arms, a confident grin with a bit of swagger as he sat in what he knew was still his chair and needled: “C’mon. It’s been ages since we watched a film together.”
Never let it be said that John Watson couldn’t be as clever as Sherlock Holmes—or as manipulative.
When, on screen, Jack Nicholson walked into a ballroom filled with ghosts, John cocked his head towards Sherlock, sitting next to him on the sofa, and said, “Did you ever believe in ghosts?”
Sherlock didn’t hesitate, nor did he take his eyes from the telly. Enamoured, despite the sneer he’d no doubt give the plot later. “No.”
“What, not even as a kid?”
Sherlock did hesitate this time, which was as good as a neon sign above his head screaming LIAR. “No.”
John kept his “Hmm” noncommittal and then—this was the important part—didn’t look at him, even as he could see from his peripheral vision that Sherlock was peering at him, curious. Knowing that John was avoiding his gaze, wondering why.
John’s lip twitched. Despite the situation, the reason, it felt damn good to be able to predict Sherlock so well. No wonder Sherlock was such an arrogant bastard, if this was the sort of rush he got daily when he made his correct deductions.
“Sure,” he said, forced casual. “I mean, we don’t really know everything that’s out there, do we? The things that are beyond our understanding, that science doesn’t have an explanation for. Cold spots and all that.”
Then he shut up, returned his attention to the movie. Sherlock seemed to do the same, but John knew better. He knew Sherlock, knew how his brain worked almost as well as his own. It was only fitting, given how much time John had devoted to figuring him out.
The seed was planted. It would grow.
He couldn’t say when it first started.
After Mary died, he was…not well. He saw her, spoke to her, and although she’d never seemed real, exactly, she hadn’t seemed not real either. Somewhere between reality and fantasy, which had struck him as fitting since Mary had been between so many abstractions when she’d been alive.
The hallucinations had been a testament to the power of the human brain, John supposed, and the strength of his own grief and remorse.
So when he’d started…feeling her, hearing her again, with that same real-but-not quality, he’d thought he was relapsing. He’d talked to his new therapist about it, and about the guilt he’d been feeling over wanting to sell the house and move back to Baker Street. The source of his relapse, posited his therapist, and John had agreed.
Then the creaking floorboards during the night began. The misplaced objects, the cold spots. The scent of Claire de la Lune stalking him through the house.
One night he lay in bed, on his stomach with his head turned to the side. Thinking about Harry, who was sober and dating again; who finally apologised for not showing up to his wedding; who said, “When are you going back to Sherlock?”
Then: the sensation of frigid fingernails scraping down his spine, a sudden gust of Claire de la Lune, Mary’s voice singing breathily into his ear, “Do—not—forget—me—”
He clambered upright, heart thrashing against his sternum, but he was alone.
His hallucination had never touched him before.
Only the reminder that he would never, ever be believed kept John from going to Sherlock that night.
He was, coincidentally or by design—always hard to tell, even though Sherlock always claimed it was the latter—on his lunch break when the flurry of texts started arriving.
You never used to. SH
When did it start? SH
Believing in ‘ghosts’, that is. SH
I’d have known. SH
Why aren’t you responding? SH
John brushed the sandwich crumbs from his trousers and licked the mustard smear from his thumb before picking up his phone.
How would you have known? Not exactly likely to come up in everyday conversation is it?
Because I know you. SH
Believing in ghosts requires belief in the afterlife. SH
You’re practically an atheist. You don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. SH
John paused, still finding and sweeping stray crumbs away. Apparently he hadn’t managed to figure out the whole of Sherlock’s brain after all. He never expected him to bring up theology—a line of thought John had been avoiding entirely since Mary’s death.
You realise I christened my daughter? You were there.
Out of a sense of tradition and obligation, not any religious significance. SH
The same could be said of a lot of Christians, John suspected. Maybe even members of other religions.
Besides, he…did some version of prayer, occasionally. Didn’t he?
I don’t NOT believe in a god.
I did say ‘practically’. SH
He was still pondering that, his dead wife—would she have been forgiven, or condemned to suffer for her sins?—when Sherlock apparently grew tired of waiting.
Anyway, it only matters in the sense that, as I said, the existence of ghosts implies the existence of an afterlife. SH
Unfinished business, inability to ‘move on’, etc. SH
You can’t possibly believe in that sort of thing. SH
John wished he didn’t. God—someone—help him, he wished he didn’t. But if he closed his eyes, he could still feel the cold creeping down his back, the rush of air against his ear as though someone were actually breathing into it.
He shivered at the memory, fought down a rising wave of frustration at his own helplessness, and opened his eyes again. His phone had just lit up with a new text from Sherlock.
What happened? SH
It wasn’t quite the question he’d been waiting for, but it was good enough.
Back to work, sorry.
Not true, of course. He still had ten more minutes. But the unanswered question would grate on Sherlock, make his massive genius brain start firing on all cylinders.
If John confessed everything, admitted to all the thoughts and suspicions going through his own tiny not-so-genius brain, Sherlock would dismiss him entirely. Maybe even mock him just to be a dick.
But if John gave him a mystery, he would sit up and take notice. He would listen. It was the best plan John had.
Not as clever as you thought, are you? John told himself, sighing and burying his head in his hands.
The house had never been exactly welcoming. Although, if he was honest, nothing could have been. He’d still missed Baker Street too much and had been too furious with himself for continuing to hold on to a memory that only made him miserable.
But now it was more than unwelcoming; it felt hostile. A giant mouth, lying in wait as he padded across its tongue and tiptoed over its teeth, biding its time until it crushed him in its jaws and swallowed him deep.
Nights were the worst. No matter how many lights he flipped on, there were still shadows in every room, still an energy in the air that reminded him of Afghanistan. The sensation that he was standing at the edge of his life, overlooking the valley of death, but he just couldn’t see it yet.
He felt eyes on him, everywhere. The telly was unbearable; all distractions were unbearable. He needed to hear the footsteps in the kitchen, the bedroom door as it groaned open, the near-silent squeak of the tap being set to drip.
After putting Rosie to bed every night, he shut himself in the bedroom although he was wide awake, jittery. He lay on top of the duvet with the baby monitor and his phone. Googling paranormal phenomena. Rereading old blog entries. Talking himself out of texting Sherlock and confessing it all.
For more than four hours, the monitor was silent, and then suddenly Rosie was cooing to herself and making rustling noises. Rolling over, maybe even trying to pull herself to standing using the rails of her cot. Her motor skills weren’t especially advanced or graceful yet, but she was keen.
John checked the time. Not quite one in the morning. He was meant to be letting her put herself back to sleep. He’d discussed this with her doctor: his instinct to fetch her immediately, to let her know she wasn’t alone. But she wasn’t like John, didn’t share his particular brand of fears—hopefully she never would.
She babbled softly, a rolling “da-da-da” that made John smile. I hear you, he thought. Stubborn girl.
The monitor hissed and crackled. John tipped his head up, unnerved although he couldn’t say why. When Rosie went silent, he threw himself off the bed, barrelled through the door and towards Rosie’s room.
She was sitting up in her cot, staring off to the left with her eyes and mouth wide in something like awe. Then she turned to John, who was panting and dread-frozen with his hand still on the doorknob. She smiled. Sunny, oblivious. Vulnerable.
She reached and John went. Her body felt tiny between his hands, even more so when he lifted and she cuddled close and gurgled happily into his shoulder.
“Muh,” she said. “Muh-muh-muh.”
She wouldn’t hurt Rosie, John thought. She’d never.
He clutched Rosie closer, ignoring the adrenaline urging him into action.
Something gripped his nape. Icy, but sharp enough to burn, like he was being clawed. He hissed and ducked, curling himself around Rosie’s small frame, thinking fiercely, She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t.
A cold puff against his ear, a whisper in Mary’s voice: “Scared, Dr Watson?”
He ran, still clinging to Rosie who giggled like this was a thrilling game. Claire de la Lune clogged his throat. The back of his neck stung and throbbed. Sherlock’s name sounded in his head like a church bell.
Sherlock answered the door.
It wasn’t totally unprecedented—depending on his general mood and need for a case, he could occasionally be bothered to reach the door before Mrs Hudson—but it was near enough that for a moment John could only stare.
Rosie squealed and lunged, saying “Ksh, ksh, ksh” as Sherlock caught and took her from John.
“Sherlock,” Sherlock told her, patient but warm. “The ‘sh’ comes before the ‘k.’ But don’t worry, you’ll get it.”
He ushered John in while Rosie shook her fists and babbled more, a long string of consonant-plus-vowels as though she was showing off her speech development, which was progressing better than her motor skills.
John felt eerily calm as he closed the door behind himself. Blank, almost. He hadn’t slept. As Rosie had snored beside him, he had lain awake and listened to the familiar feminine humming over the monitor. He hadn’t been able to convince himself to turn it off. He didn’t know why.
He didn’t think he looked too worse for wear today, but Sherlock could probably see it. Read it in the wrinkles in his trousers or something.
Upstairs, Sherlock set Rosie on the floor, where she lurched for the assortment of toys he’d no doubt scattered about as soon as John had texted Can we pop by tonight? just after his shift. Then he turned, cast a scrutinising eye over John, and said, “What happened?”
John shrugged. Sherlock wouldn’t believe him. No amount of planting seeds or weaving mysteries would change that, would it?
“Bit of a shit day, to be honest, but beyond that—”
Sherlock made a disgusted sound. “Week-long insomnia is more than ‘a shit day,’ but that’s not what I meant anyway. You never answered my question when we were texting. What happened?”
John swallowed. That conversation seemed ages ago now, although it had only been days. “Why do you think something happened?”
Another sound, even more disgusted. “Because you wanted me to ask! It couldn’t have been more obvious. And about ghosts of all things, John. Why on earth would you want to talk about that? Because something happened, of course, and you want to talk about it even though you won’t talk!”
“Da,” said Rosie. A plush rattle-y bunny poised halfway to her mouth, she was staring warily at Sherlock, whose voice had gradually risen to a near shout.
John knelt beside her. “It’s all right, sweetheart. You’re safe. Just Daddy and Sherlock having a little…erm, chat.”
Sherlock knelt too, except instead of helping to soothe Rosie, he was peering at John. Then he leaned closer and rested his hand on John’s upper arm. John still wore his coat from the trip over, and had two more layers under it besides, but he swore he could feel the warmth of Sherlock’s touch through it all.
Sherlock’s voice was beautifully, devastatingly soft when he said, “You think you’re being haunted.”
John flinched. He’d been avoiding thinking of it like that. It sounded…preposterous. Mad. Utterly humiliating.
Sherlock curled his fingers, gripping John’s arm rather than simply resting on it. “By…Mary?”
The worst of it was that Sherlock didn’t deserve any of this. John had burdened him with his anger, his violent and misplaced guilt, his mediocre attempts at cleverness, his badly handled jealousy, and all the rest of it for years. Even now, John was only here because…well, there was nowhere else he wanted to be. No one else’s help he wanted.
To think he’d ever thought that Sherlock was the selfish one.
“It’s all right,” Sherlock said, his voice still so, so soft. Softer than John had ever heard. Soothing him just like John had soothed Rosie.
He thinks you’re completely off your nut. And maybe you are. Maybe you’re so far gone you don’t even realise you’ve lost the plot.
“Da,” Rosie said. She rattled the bunny plush at him, frowning, but seemed pleased when he took it and even more so when Sherlock took it from him.
“Apologies, Rosie,” Sherlock said, standing up with the toy still in hand, “but I think that your daddy might appreciate some tea.”
While the tea steeped, John peeled off his coat and tucked down the collar of his shirt so that Sherlock could see his nape and the four clear scratches there. Still red and puffy. Two of them were beginning to scab, having bled the previous night.
Sherlock examined them like they were the most interesting pieces of evidence he’d ever encountered. Poking at them, squinting at them through his magnifying glass, even sniffing at them.
“These should be bandaged,” he muttered. “You’re a doctor. I’d expect better of you.”
John sighed, tilting his head forward and to the side when Sherlock directed him to. “They were. I took it off before I came here.”
Sherlock picked up John’s left hand next and lifted it towards the kitchen light, squinting at the nails. His touch was gentle, his thumb rubbing circles on John’s palm. The motion was oddly intimate, unnerving, but not enough to distract John from what he was doing.
“You think I scratched myself? And then, what, forgot about it?”
“Hm.” He laid John’s hand back on the table and did the same to his right one. “Angle isn’t quite right, I admit, but…”
John yanked away, scowling. “I’m not making this up!”
Sherlock blinked owlishly, looking startled. “I didn’t think you were.”
“No, you just thought I’d lost my mind.”
If anything, Sherlock seemed even more alarmed. “Of course not. John, what you’ve endured in the last year alone, not to mention—”
“Don’t start with that,” John snarled. That was even worse. Better if Sherlock had laughed outright and thrown him out on his arse. “This is why I didn’t want to talk to begin with. You don’t understand.”
“Then tell me.”
Sherlock sat, just dropped into the nearest chair so gracelessly that it clattered as though it was about to tip over. Rosie wasn’t paying any attention to them, fortunately. Sherlock had given her a stack of old newspapers, which she was cheerfully ripping to scraps whilst praising herself on her excellent success.
“You were seeing her before,” Sherlock said. “Talking to her. But this is different. How?”
Right. John had never said a word, but of course Sherlock had fucking known. Really, how couldn’t he, when John had spoken to a hallucination in front of him? He was struck with such a rush of helpless frustration—at himself, his own failures—that for a moment all he could do was close his eyes and wait for it to recede.
Sherlock’s hand on his arm again, lower this time, nearer to the elbow. Without his coat, John could feel the warmth even more vividly. It rattled him. Scattered his already muddled thoughts.
Christ, what if he hugs me again?
He breathed and tried to centre himself. Remembered the humming, the whisper, the sting and the cold. He opened his eyes and looked into Sherlock’s.
“It’s different because I don’t see her. Or talk to her, for that matter. I just… Lamps will be on when I get home, when I know they were off when I left. There are footsteps. Doors open and close when there’s no wind to cause it. The remote keeps moving when I haven’t touched it in weeks. Rosie stares at things that aren’t there. There’s someone’s humming coming from her monitor at night.”
Sherlock’s hand squeezed. John knew why—the note of fear in his tone. Mary wouldn’t have hurt Rosie, would never have laid a hand on her in anything but love, but that had been then. That had been her. Maybe this thing would.
“Why?” Sherlock said, that softness to his voice again. “Why would Mary be haunting you?”
John didn’t even have to think about it. “Because she’s angry.”
“She’s not.” The earnestness, the compassion in Sherlock’s gaze stung worse than the icy claws as they’d dug into John’s nape. “You… Because you weren’t the man she thought you were? Because you texted another woman? John, she…she loved you. She would have understood.”
John laughed. It wasn’t a happy sound. “Of course she understood. She understood everything. She—”
Knew exactly how I felt. That she was the only thing keeping me from you, that she could never even hope to compete with you, that she and every other woman I’ve ever fucking met would always fall short.
Mary may not have been angry when she’d been alive. But how could she not be furious now that she was dead?
John came back to himself at the scrape of a chair against the lino, and then Sherlock was folding him into something not unlike a hug. It was looser, and they were both seated so it was a tiny bit awkward. But Sherlock’s arms still rested on John’s shoulders, one hand cupping the back of his head just above the scratches.
In a way, it was mortifying. That Sherlock thought he needed this level of comfort, the same as when he’d been sobbing and hovering on the cusp of a breakdown. But it was also…lovely. Sherlock’s scent, his heat. His breath as he exhaled into John’s hair. John couldn’t help but lean into him, close his eyes, drift for a moment in a world of nothing but Sherlock.
“Do you want to stay here for a bit?” Sherlock murmured. “The travel cot is still upstairs. The bed too, of course. You’re always welcome, John. Whenever you need.”
Did he? God, yes. It’s all he wanted, really. But…
He’d already put enough of his own weight on Sherlock’s shoulders. He wouldn’t let Sherlock carry this as well.
He’d done too much, already, by coming here.
John drew back, his face already turned away. He wouldn’t look at Sherlock. God knew what Sherlock would see if he did.
“No, I’m…fine. You’re right. I’m being ridiculous. I should talk to my therapist.”
Rosie had tired of the newspapers at some point and was now lying down amidst the wreckage, asleep.
“We should go,” John said. Then, because he didn’t know what else to say: “Sorry.”
You didn’t drink your tea. SH
John stared, rubbing his jaw as he considered the text. Technically, the tea hadn’t ever finished steeping. By the time John left, it had probably been bitter as hell, completely undrinkable.
He didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t. He plugged in his phone to charge and cast his gaze around the bedroom. He’d rolled Rosie’s cot in here earlier, positioning it in the corner—he’d talked about removing the wheels after they’d bought the thing, certain they were some sort of safety hazard, but he was glad he’d never got around to it—and she was asleep in it, her little eyelids twitching in REM.
The house was silent and had been since he’d got back from Baker Street. For several minutes, he listened to the quiet, watching Rosie, counting his own breaths to avoid thinking too hard about…anything, really.
He probably needed a shower. Could definitely use the loo and clean his teeth. So he turned on the baby monitor balanced on the wall of Rosie’s cot, grabbed the parent unit off the bedside table, and carried it into the ensuite.
He kept the door open even as he pissed, just in case, and then turned the volume on the monitor until he could hear the buzzing, static-y noise over the shower.
He tried to be quick about it. A swift scrub with his shampoo, a cursory wash with his bar of soap. He refused to let his mind wander, although it wanted to. It strayed to Baker Street, Sherlock’s hand, Sherlock’s pity, before he managed to corral it back.
Eyes closed, he ducked his head under the spray just as the door groaned, long and soft, before it shut with a loud, almost pointed click. John jolted backwards, snapping his eyes open although the trickling water burned, and yanked the shower curtain aside.
The room was steamy but empty. He fumbled with the taps, cutting the water, but aside from the residual dripping and his own pulse hammering in his ears, the only sound was the monitor’s usual static drone.
Did it shut itself inside, he wondered, or outside?
Reaching for a towel, he climbed out. Water rained down from his body, leaving puddles on the lino as he walked to the door, cracked it open, and peeked out.
The bedroom was almost, but not quite, as he’d left it. Dark aside from the single lamp he’d left lit, empty aside from Rosie who hadn’t moved in her cot. The door was wide open, though, and the air was cold and smelt faintly but distinctly of Claire de la Lune. John breathed it in and stared at Rosie’s tiny, sleeping body as he steeled himself, lifting his chin.
“Can I help you with something?” he said, keeping his voice low.
He paused, but there was nothing. Even Rosie didn’t so much as stir. He tried again.
“This is a bit unusual for you, isn’t it? You’ve never been shy about saying what you want. But here you are, being shy.”
He peered towards the doorway and the corridor beyond. He didn’t know what he expected. Shadows? Movement? Mary’s bloody corpse to rise from the dark like some sort of horror film?
If Sherlock could see you now…
“No?” John said. “Nothing to say?”
He waited a moment longer, for good measure, before he gave up and drew back into the ensuite, tucking the towel more tightly around his waist.
Behind him, the baby monitor crackled, and from the corner of his eye, he saw something shift in the mirror’s fogged-up reflection. It was the only warning he got before a strong, glacial grip seized the back of his neck, twisted his head towards the sink, and slammed his face into the mirror.
That the glass didn’t shatter or even crack was a miracle, especially as he struggled and was promptly slammed a second time. His forehead took the brunt of it, throbbing as his vision spun and swam.
He tried to raise his arms, to fight back, but his wrists were pinned behind him. He couldn’t even recall when or how that had happened. He wrenched and heaved, kicking backwards, and was rewarded with a laugh.
A breathy, recognizable laugh that sent shivers skittering through him. He went limp, panting.
“Don’t push me, John,” it said. “You won’t like it if you do.”
It felt like Mary, in that moment. Her height, her presence. Although she’d never held him like that. Had never had the sort of physical strength to keep him there for long.
“What do you want?” John said, snarling at the mirror.
There were blotches in the condensation now, from his forehead, his struggling. He thought he could see white, blonde, a patch of red through the haze, but the image flickered when he blinked.
“Move her back to her own room, John.” The voice came closer now, hissing in his ear. “This is between us.”
Then the grip was gone and he could move. He spun around, nearly slipping in the puddles he’d made. His towel had fallen. He was shaking.
He was alone.
In the morning his wrists were sore and there was a knot of pain on his forehead, but he couldn’t see any bruises or marks. Aside from the scratches on his nape, of course, but even those were beginning to heal. They were only pink now, no longer swollen.
After calling in sick to the surgery and cancelling Rosie’s minder, he strapped Rosie in to her high chair and mixed her up a bit of cereal. She was cheerful and lively, chatting up a storm as John moved around the kitchen and then scooted his chair closer.
She opened readily for the first bite and tried to snatch the spoon from him. Any other day it might’ve made him laugh, but he could only manage a tight smile.
“In a bit. Let’s make sure we get some food actually in your mouth before you have a go, hm?”
After he’d dressed last night and lay in bed, his hair still sopping wet and leaving a wet spot on the pillow, he’d spent hours on his phone, making a list of every paranormal investigator, medium, and church with a potential exorcist in the London area.
He’d start with the first name on the list after Rosie was finished.
“Yow-bow-ow-ba-bow,” Rosie said.
“I know,” John told her, as though she had any idea what he was thinking. He scooped up another spoonful. “I should’ve called for help ages ago. But I’m just as stubborn as you are.”
The doorbell buzzed, making them both start. Rosie recovered first, banging her tray and grabbing again for the spoon, which John set in the cereal bowl on the table well out of her reach.
“Be back,” he said, standing.
Whoever he thought he’d find on his doorstep—neighbour, probably, or maybe a salesman—it certainly wasn’t Sherlock gazing about like he’d never seen the place before, a duffle slung over one shoulder.
He looked panicked for a moment, staring at John with wide eyes like he wasn’t expecting John to be home. And maybe he wasn’t. After all, ordinarily, John would be preparing to leave by now. But then Sherlock’s face lit up with an almost-manic grin.
“Morning! Hope you don’t mind. May I?”
He shoved his way inside without waiting for a response. He dropped his duffle by the sofa and began to unwind his scarf.
“Sherlock.” John shut the door. He’d already an inkling of what Sherlock was doing, and he wasn’t exactly pleased about it. “Why are you here?”
“Seemed a good time for a visit.”
“I have work.”
“You did.” Scarf draped over the sofa arm, Sherlock started to unbutton his coat. “But when I rang the surgery to tell them you wouldn’t be in, they said you’d already called in sick.”
“You were ahead of me for once! You should be pleased with yourself, John. You know it doesn’t happen often.”
Once his coat was open, he tossed that over the sofa as well. He was dressed impeccably, of course. A red button-up dress shirt and fitted dark-grey trousers—a far cry from John’s wrinkled pyjama bottoms and ratty T-shirt.
“For someone who doesn’t like to repeat himself,” John said, “you sure make other people do it a lot. Why are you here?”
“Well, I decided that if you couldn’t stay with me for a bit, then perhaps I could stay with you. For a bit.”
Fucking hell. It was exactly what John had thought. He shook his head.
“Is that Rosie?”
Sherlock spun on his heels and headed for the kitchen, where from the sound of it Rosie was indeed kicking up a fuss about her breakfast being interrupted. John followed and got to see the exact moment Rosie realised it was Sherlock, not John, who had just thrown himself in the chair next to her. Her gleeful squeal, her open-mouthed smile as she waved her spoon at him.
It was almost absurd, how tight John’s chest became at the sight.
“Ugh. John, this looks revolting. Shouldn’t she be eating real food by now?”
John shook himself from his thoughts and frowned. “Sorry, are you telling me how to raise my daughter?”
The whole of the scene came into focus then. The beard of cereal Rosie hadn’t been sporting when John had left to get the door, the spoon that Rosie was jamming back into her mouth. She shouldn’t have been able to reach it.
Suddenly John was speaking before he’d realised he was about to. “Sherlock, you can’t be here. You…”
Nothing had ever happened during the day. In the evening, sure, and at night, of course, but not like this. First thing in the morning, the sun gleaming brightly through in the window.
‘This is between us.’
Sherlock didn’t seem remotely fazed. He’d grabbed a napkin and was cleaning Rosie’s chin gently, to her giggling delight. “Why? Because of Mary? She might be angry at you, but she’s no reason to be angry at me.”
“Don’t patronise me,” John snapped.
Sherlock crumpled the napkin and set it aside, then tilted his head to study John. His gaze flitted from one area of John’s face to another, ending somewhere above John’s eyebrows, where it seemed to be trying to bore its way past the skin and skull and all the way into John brain.
He stood, rested his middle and forefinger on the still-tender area on John’s forehead, and pushed until it smarted. John hissed and leaned away until Sherlock dropped his hand.
“You hit your head,” Sherlock said. “How?”
“Long story,” John muttered. “But, look, you really can’t stay here.”
Sherlock plopped back into the chair, wrestled the spoon from Rosie’s grasp, and picked up the bowl of cereal.
“Of course I can.”
Of course he could. And he did. Putting his feet on the furniture, taking over everything from changing Rosie’s nappies to feeding her, even washing and folding some of Rosie’s clothes.
He was carrying the laundry basket one-handed through the living room, towards Rosie’s bedroom, when he paused near the telly. “Is this the remote?”
On the sofa, John looked up from his phone and his continued search on paranormal activity. Do you see another one? he almost said when he realised what Sherlock was referring to. The remote that moved.
“Yeah,” he said simply.
“Hmm.” Sherlock lifted it, twisting it one way and then the other, squinting.
It reminded John of Sherlock examining his fingernails, which made him think of Sherlock’s warm hand on his arm, Sherlock wrapping himself loosely around John like a self-appointed protector.
“Gonna dust it for prints?”
“Didn’t think to bring my kit with me. Stupidly.” Sherlock flipped it over and poked at the battery compartment, then set it back down.
It might’ve been a sham for John’s benefit, but even the illusion of Sherlock taking John seriously was… It was good.
You’re a marvel, John thought. An absolute treasure. Do you know that?
After adjusting his grip on the laundry basket, Sherlock kept walking. He made it two steps before freezing. His shoulders tensed; his eyes narrowed.
“What?” John said, but even before he’d finished the word, he felt it.
A prickle of awareness, a tremor down his spine. A chill swept over his skin. He breathed deep and smelt it.
“Is that…Claire de la Lune?” Sherlock asked.
John’s exhale was shaky, and he hated himself for it. His forehead ached faintly like a reminder, a warning. “Yeah, that… That happens sometimes.”
Sherlock wrinkled his nose and walked off, disappearing towards the bedrooms. John was tempted to follow, although he didn’t know what if anything that would accomplish. Aside from possibly waking up Rosie, who was napping in John’s bedroom—and if Sherlock had noticed that her cot had moved, which he must’ve done, then he hadn’t decided it was worth commenting on.
When he returned several minutes later, he froze in precisely the same spot and sniffed.
“Yeah,” John sighed, “it’s gone. That happens too.”
Sherlock’s expression might’ve been frightening if John didn’t know him. His scowl looked baleful, scathing, a bit like he was trying to will something to burst into flames with the sheer power of his massive brain—which meant he was concentrating very, very hard on something.
Sherlock spent the rest of the afternoon scouring the house, examining everything from the carpet to the ceiling. He fished his magnifier from his coat pocket and crawled about the floor, inspecting scuff marks and bits of dust.
Rosie, now up from her nap, thought this was brilliant and trailed him faithfully, adding her own running commentary.
“What are you looking for?” John asked.
Sherlock was stretched out on his belly in the living room, poking at where the wall met the floor.
“Data,” he said simply, at the same moment that Rosie tried to climb onto the back of his thigh.
“She’s fine. Leave her be,” Sherlock said, but John had already scooped her up and was holding her despite her furious grunting and kicking. Sherlock twisted slightly, turning his attention to an electrical outlet.
“Certain types of electromagnetic fields have been known to induce paranoia,” he murmured. Probably talking more to himself than John, but still John listened intently. “I’ve nothing to test it with, of course, but…”
It was a comforting thought, that by slithering around on John’s floor Sherlock might figure it out. Solve and fix John’s dilemma as though it were any other case. Afterwards, they could get chips and laugh about it. John could broach the subject of moving back to Baker Street without fearing he would bring anything unnatural with him.
Sherlock clambered suddenly to his feet. When Rosie lunged towards him, still fussing over being interrupted, he accepted her without hesitation.
“Where did this happen?” He gestured towards John’s forehead, although thankfully didn’t touch it.
“The, erm. The bathroom.” John recalled the feeling of being pinned, defenceless. More than just ‘paranoia,’ that.
If Sherlock made him explain in detail what had happened, John wasn’t certain he’d be able to answer truthfully.
Sherlock had already scoured the ensuite earlier as part of his full-house investigation. Still, John led him to it again and waved vaguely towards the mirror, but Sherlock didn’t ask for specifics. He set Rosie on the floor, stepped onto the closed toilet lid, which creaked under his weight, and reached until he could prod at the ceiling.
Apparently bored that Sherlock was no longer on her level, Rosie rolled and scooted her way into the bedroom and crawled to her playmat. John looked back to Sherlock, who jumped off the toilet and poked his head into the shower.
His hair and clothes were mussed from all his mucking about on the floor, but his expression was sombre, almost stony. He was taking this truly, deadly seriously—everything John could have asked for.
John licked his lips. “Do you, erm—”
Finally, Sherlock investigated the sink and the mirror. But when he’d finished, John could tell by the set of his shoulders—not slumped, exactly, but something close to it—that he hadn’t found anything useful.
“What about these?”
This time Sherlock didn’t avoid touching him, and in fact laid the full length of his hand across the back of John’s neck, covering not only the scratches but unmarked skin and hair besides. John never really forgot how large Sherlock’s hands were, how long his fingers, but rarely had he been confronted with the knowledge quite like this.
It was hard to breathe for a moment. Despite the grim situation and Sherlock’s question.
“Um.” He swallowed, uncomfortably aware that Sherlock followed the movement with his eyes. “Rosie’s room.”
Sherlock let go but allowed his fingertips to trail along the side of John’s throat as he pulled away. “Is that why you moved her cot?”
At the reminder, John turned to her. She had found one of her board books and was trying clumsily to open it to the first page. After a moment of consideration, he went to her and picked her up, ignoring her squawk of displeasure, and took her with him when he followed Sherlock to Rosie’s bedroom.
It was twilight, and the light filtering through Rosie’s window from the setting sun seemed eerie rather than lovely, as it might have done in any other situation.
Like the ensuite, Sherlock had already examined this bedroom from top to bottom. But unlike the ensuite, he evidently didn’t feel it necessary to do it again. He stood in the centre of the room and turned in a slow circle, glaring at every corner, while John shifted Rosie from one arm to the other and opened her book for her.
“Where were you?”
John positioned himself in the best approximation as he could remember, refusing to take his eyes from Rosie as she patted a bit of fake fur meant to represent a puppy.
“Yeah. I was… I heard something over Rosie’s monitor and came to check.”
“You were fully awake?”
John nearly snapped, Of course I bloody was, but stopped himself. “I thought I was.”
After a brief deliberation, he decided to just be out with it. Wasn’t he always frustrated with clients who tried to keep things from Sherlock?
“Then there was… I dunno, cold and…I could smell her perfume. I was holding Rosie, kind of like this, and I… I didn’t want to let her go, you know? So I stood there, and—”
Then Sherlock was right in front of him, slamming his hand over John’s mouth, scaring the shit out of John. Rosie too, apparently, since she jerked in John’s arms and dropped her book on the floor. John didn’t fight him, though, too alarmed by how narrow Sherlock’s eyes were and how rigid his spine. He simply shut up, stood still, and listened.
And heard it. Tatap-tatap, tatap-tatap. Like something small and light drumming against the wall in the corridor. It sounded again, closer this time.
John was torn between needing to protect Sherlock and needing to get Rosie as far away from the threat as possible. He was saved the decision by Sherlock grabbing John’s shoulder and shoving him behind him, away from the door, shielding them both with his body.
Rosie squirmed, letting out a wail, but John hardly heard as he cradled her close, trying to peek around Sherlock even as Sherlock raised his arms to keep him back.
The next tatap-tatap ended with a long, loud screech. Fingernails, wall, said some part of John’s brain. It sounded like it was right outside Rosie’s wide-open door.
It wants you, John thought. Not Rosie, not Sherlock. If he could pass Rosie to Sherlock, get the two of them out of here—
Footsteps. Slow, deliberate. Like a heel dragging purposely against the carpet with each one. Making itself known.
John breathed in deeply—Claire de la Lune engulfed his senses—and then out. He could see his exhale, a white cloud that hovered in the air before dissipating like smoke. It was freezing.
He stumbled back, clutching Rosie who was writhing and crying. He could see around Sherlock then, but there was nothing. Not even a shadow or a blur, even as the footsteps continued, the scuffling sounding so close that John’s skin crawled.
Sherlock had seemed frozen, and then suddenly he wasn’t. He lurched backwards into John, utterly graceless. Panicked, John realised. Rosie, jostled by the collision, threw her head back and howled.
John might’ve thought he’d imagined it if he hadn’t been looking at Sherlock. Watching the profile of his face twist in horror as a dark curl framing his temple fluttered as though in a faint breeze.
He’d only barely begun to process the sight when Sherlock whirled and reached for him, seized John to his side with Rosie red-faced and squalling between them.
They sprinted through ice to reach the doorway, John fisting his hand in Sherlock’s shirt as Sherlock did the same to him.
There was a bark of laughter behind them, but Sherlock was chanting “Go, go, go” as though it was the only word he knew. So John didn’t try to look back.
At first Sherlock tried to steer them towards a restaurant, insisting “We need to eat,” words that John was fairly certain he’d never uttered before in his life.
“Rosie needs formula,” John reminded him. “That’s still a lot of what she eats.”
So they went to Baker Street, which had been stocked with baby formula months ago. Rosie was mostly asleep by the time they arrived, having cried herself to exhaustion during the trip, but she perked up when she realised where they were.
Their coats, gathered from the house in a rush—John’s doing, mostly, motivated by some instinctual urge to keep both his daughter and his best friend warm in the cold weather—were piled haphazardly on the sofa in the living room. Neither John nor Sherlock could be bothered to hang them properly.
John couldn’t stop shaking. He suspected that Sherlock couldn’t either; it was like Baskerville, with an extra layer of mania. While John fed Rosie, Sherlock paced around the kitchen, pulling his own hair and making noises of frustration.
“The current theory is that so-called ‘ghosts,’” Sherlock rattled, “are simply energy that, according to the basic laws of physics, could not be destroyed after death. Which is preposterous, of course, as any energy in the human body is released after death in the form of heat or transferred—what?”
The last word snapped presumably because John was staring at him, shocked. “You… How on earth do you know the current theory on ghosts?”
“As the matter of fact, I once solved the case of a woman who believed—” Sherlock paused, screwing up his face like he was disgusted. He sighed heavily. “No. No, I… I looked it up. Last night.”
John couldn’t even fathom what to say to that, aside from to parrot idiotically, “Last night?”
“I needed data.” Sherlock stalked to the living room, dug through the pile of coats, and fished his phone from the pocket of his own. “As useless as it was. What you’ve described aren’t the features of either a residual or an intelligent haunting—”
“With my luck, it’s probably a bloody poltergeist,” John muttered darkly.
Sherlock’s head snapped up. “A…poltergeist?”
Then he was bowing over his phone, typing rapidly. John peeked down at Rosie, who was back to falling asleep in his lap, her head nestled in the crook of his arm.
“So you believe me, then?”
Sherlock shook his head once, sharply, not looking up. Whether it was his response to John’s question or a request for him to shut up, John wasn’t entirely sure.
“Do you want me to order food?” he asked. “For us, now that this one’s taken care of.”
Another sharp shake of Sherlock’s head, but this time he followed it up with “If you like. Doesn’t matter. We’re going back, you realise.”
John blinked, confused. “We…what?”
“You and I, that is. Rosie will stay with Mrs Hudson, of course.”
“Course,” John echoed, and then he understood. “Wait, what? Tonight? Why?”
Sherlock glanced up finally. There was a glint in his eyes. The devious, planning sort. The sort that made John want to say ‘No’ even as his brain shouted Yes!
“Because,” Sherlock said, “I’m going to make it angry.”
The house was dark, even though John was sure they’d left lights on earlier in their rush to leave.
“This is a bad idea,” John said as Sherlock reached for the doorknob. “Absolutely horrible. How are you going to make it angry?”
“I’m going to improvise.” Sherlock shot him a grin that was far too sunny to be real, and held the door for John.
Inside it was as quiet as it was dark, although John could feel that he was being watched. That squirmy, shivery sensation along his back, the familiar urge to stand tall and reach for his gun.
Which wasn’t anywhere within easy reach, now that Rosie was crawling and would soon be walking. Nor would it do any good against…whatever it was.
Sherlock shut the front door behind them and strode past John into the living room, flipping on the light and then looking about. Nothing had moved since they’d left, as far as John could see. Even Sherlock’s duffle was still where it had been, on the floor beside the sofa.
“Mary, Mary,” said Sherlock. “Quite…contrary, isn’t that how it goes?”
John stared at him. “Taunting it with nursery rhymes. That’s your plan?”
Sherlock ignored him, sauntering into the kitchen. His hands were in his coat pockets, calm as you please. John felt like he was about to vibrate out of his skin just watching him.
“At least,” Sherlock said, coming to stand beside Rosie’s high chair, “we’re assuming it’s you, Mary. But perhaps it isn’t. Surely any number of things could smell like your perfume and injure your husband.”
They waited, but there was nothing. It was worse, somehow, than if there’d been a response from a disembodied voice. John found himself swaying closer to Sherlock, wanting to reach out and grasp him like he’d done earlier, when they’d fled.
“Hmm.” Hands still in his pockets, Sherlock turned and padded casually out. “John thinks you’re angry at him. Is that true? Because I don’t think it is. I think it’s more complicated.”
They were heading towards the bedrooms now, Sherlock leading and John trailing behind. He thought Sherlock would direct them into Rosie’s room first, but he seemed to change his mind at the last second and stepped into the master bedroom instead. John’s room. Mary’s room. Their room.
“You want to keep him, don’t you, Mary?” said Sherlock. “You want to keep them both.”
The words were shocking enough that John stopped, just outside the open door to the ensuite. After a moment, Sherlock seemed to realise John wasn’t following any longer and turned to him, smiling. It was a fond smile, a reassuring smile. It should’ve calmed John, but somehow it only put him more on edge.
He could feel it. A sliver of a chill in the air.
“Sherlock,” John said.
“I can understand that,” Sherlock said loudly, coming closer. “Really, you could say that I’m…intimately acquainted with the feeling.”
He cupped either side of John’s jaw in his large, warm hands. John swallowed, suddenly terrified, and Sherlock followed the motion of his throat with both thumbs. There was a roaring in John’s ears. He couldn’t make himself move if he wanted.
“But—” Sherlock licked his lips, bending until his fringe tickled John’s. “—you always knew that, didn’t you, Mary?”
Then Sherlock kissed him, and all John could feel was how warm he was, how soft and gentle his mouth. Hesitant, despite his sham of infinite confidence. So John grabbed him by the coat collar and pulled him closer.
The door slammed, the sound jerking them apart. Beyond it, something in the corridor crashed. John’s skin prickled, gooseflesh forming even under all his layers of clothing. His breath, along with Sherlock’s, fogged between them.
“He was mine before he was ever yours,” Sherlock said. He was still staring down at John, his lips, his own hands against John’s neck. “And you had him long enough. Time to let him go where he belongs.”
The last syllable had barely left Sherlock’s mouth before a sensation like a fist, cold and brutal, slammed into John’s diaphragm. He went down, coughing and gasping, clawing at the floor to lift himself up again.
He caught a shadow from the corner of his eye, a movement, and then a lamp was lifted from the bedside table and swung towards Sherlock. It struck him in the temple, knocking him into the wall, where he stumbled but didn’t fall.
John tried to haul himself to standing, but his legs were shaky, his lungs still struggling to pull in air. So when the lamp cord coiled itself around Sherlock’s neck, he was too late. He lunged, but the cord had already tightened and lifted—high, taller than Mary had been even in her tallest heels.
Sherlock hung, suspended in the air, kicking wildly and scrambling at his neck as his face grew red. His eyes fixed on John’s, wide with fear.
John sidestepped, dashed towards Rosie’s cot, and grabbed it. The wood creaked and groaned in his grip as he wheeled it into position and then drove it as hard as he could towards the empty space below where Sherlock was struggling.
It flew forwards and sailed right below Sherlock’s kicking feet. It struck the wall behind him, ricocheted, and was still.
Nothing. There was nothing there. Because it was floating or noncorporeal or—
It didn’t matter. John thought fast, channelled Sherlock. Infinite confidence, infinite dickishness, infinite ability to talk.
“He was right, you know.” John’s voice trembled. He had to cough some more, but he refused to allow it. He didn’t have the time. “I was always his.”
Sherlock plunged several inches nearer to the floor. John took that as a good sign and let the words spill.
“God knows I tried not to be. I tried to love you. I did love you, but never as much as I loved him. Even when you died and I was angry, guilty, heartbroken, there—”
Another wobble in John’s voice, more severe this time. Because here it was. The deepest, ugliest truth he knew.
“There was part of me that was just glad it wasn’t him. Because if I’d had to watch him die again, it would’ve fucking killed me.”
Sherlock fell, just crumpled to the floor, lamp and all. He was panting, yanking the cord loose. John started to stumble towards him, but the cot shot across the room again. It collided with John, knocking him backwards. He shoved it away, but it shoved right back, forcing him to take a step back, then another, until he was pinned against the wall.
Still, it shoved again, thrusting against his chest. The wood ground against his sternum, his ribs. He imagined his entire chest cavity crushed, pounded into nothing by a piece of sodding baby furniture.
He cast his gaze across the length of the cot, a plea catching in his throat. If it was still Mary, any part of her, it would listen to him.
And then he saw it. A flicker, gone as soon as he’d tried to blink it into focus, but it was enough. It had Mary’s shape, Mary’s hair, but its skin was grey, partially rotted; blood dribbled from its torn mouth.
No. It really isn’t Mary, is it?
Or if it was, it isn’t anymore.
John breathed, gathering his strength in his arms for one last fight, and therefore smelled the smoke before he saw the fire. Flames leapt up from the bed, small but growing. Sherlock stood beside it, lighting a match and then dropping it to the floor.
“I think,” he said, gasping heavily but still understandable, “that’s enough of that. Don’t you?”
He struck another match, tossed it to the floor as well, and dashed towards John. John expected more, another lamp or Sherlock to get thrown through the air, but Sherlock clasped the other end of the cot and wrenched it away from John without difficulty.
John sagged against the wall. Sherlock caught him before he could slump completely and steered him into the corridor, then to the front door. They paused once in the living room, where Sherlock left another lit match burning on the sofa, and then they were outside, clinging to each other and shaking.
“With any luck, it’ll burn,” said Sherlock. “If not—”
“My house?” John tried to extricate himself from Sherlock’s hold, but Sherlock only tightened it. “You’re burning my home down? It’s… There are neighbours, Sherlock.”
“Then we’ll tell them to leave. It’s the only way, John. I thought it might not be, but… If there’s a—a poltergeist haunting the place, it has to be destroyed.”
“Poltergeists are supposed to haunt people, not—” The words left him as he glanced toward the house. The fire had caught. He could see the flames in the living room through the window.
“Well, whatever it was, it never followed you out of the house, did it? So I think we can safely say it’s the house it was attached to, not you or Rosie.”
“But the…” He couldn’t stop staring. The flickering orange and yellow, the reddish glow. What would Mary, the real Mary, think if she could see this? Their home, her dream, being destroyed. “My things are still in there. Rosie’s. Everything we have is—”
“Oh.” Sherlock’s jaw dropped, his lips making a near-perfect O. He hadn’t thought of that; of course he hadn’t. “There—there might be time, still.” Then Sherlock was taking his hand away, straightening his coat, preparing himself for battle. “To grab a few things. Something you need, that…that can’t be replaced.”
John mentally scanned through his belongings. Rosie’s clothes, toys, food; his laptop; their furniture; his gun. Replaceable, all of it. Their photos, of Mary, of all of them, together as a family for the brief time that they had been—which Sherlock had copies of, actually. Hell, Mycroft probably had copies.
“No,” he decided. “No. Let it…” He inhaled deeply and smelt the smoke in the air. The end of it all. “Let it burn. I’ll get the neighbours.”
By the time they got back to Baker Street, John was very nearly asleep on his feet. He might as well have been, for that matter, as nothing seemed real. The cab ride, waiting on the pavement while Sherlock unlocked the door, even walking up the stairs all had a murky, dreamlike quality.
John shuffled through the threshold of 221B and fairly flung himself onto the sofa. His coat was still on, as were his shoes. He smelled like smoke and sweat and fear. Still, he could’ve slept there easily, just like that.
His home had been haunted. Now it was gone.
But it was never home, was it? That was the whole point.
“You should sleep,” Sherlock said. He was hovering in front of John, close enough that if John straightened a leg he could slot a knee between both of Sherlock’s. He looked as exhausted as John felt.
John had to ask: “Where?”
Sherlock shrugged, looking away as he began to unbutton his coat. “Upstairs or down, there on the sofa if you want. It doesn’t matter. It’s just as much your flat as it is mine. For as long as you want it.”
John might’ve been imagining the hint of uncertainty in Sherlock’s tone, projecting his own perhaps, but he didn’t think so.
He sat up straight so he could slip off his own coat as Sherlock did his. “Well, before I decide… Did you mean it? What you said back there.”
Sherlock bit his lip and turned his face down, glancing up at John through his lashes as he seemed to think about his response.
No, John hadn’t been imagining the uncertainty. And the hesitation—the hesitation was all the answer he needed.
With a nod, he stood. “Right. In that case, I’m sleeping in your bed. With you.”
Sherlock scarcely seemed to breathe, going as still as a statue. John was too tired to be pleased with himself for shocking him.
“So…I’ll take the bathroom first, shall I?”
John waited for him. Tried to, at least, although he found himself dozing a bit, listening to Sherlock pop in the shower for a bit, brush his teeth, rummage around in the cupboard.
He surfaced when Sherlock got into bed, sliding beneath the bedsheets and huddling onto his side like he was trying to make himself as small as possible, as far away from John as he could.
John promptly scooted closer and curled his arm around Sherlock’s waist. He was wearing a T-shirt and flannel pyjama bottoms. John could feel his hip bone, the muscles of his stomach as they tensed at the touch.
After a long moment, long enough that John nearly dozed again, Sherlock lifted John’s arm so that he could flip onto his other side, facing John. In the light from the window, the sun so close to peeking over the horizon outside, John watched him. His eyes were bright, his lips wet.
He cupped John’s jaw with one hand, not unlike what he’d done earlier just before he’d kissed him.
“Did you?” Sherlock said, his voice barely even a whisper.
John understood immediately. “Every fucking word of it.”
He heard the shudder in Sherlock’s breath, and then Sherlock bowed his head, kissed the bridge of John’s nose, then his cheekbone, then his lips. Gently. A simple brush of his warm, soft lips against John’s skin before he drew back.
“We’ll talk later?” he asked.
John smiled. “You bet your arse we will.”
When he woke, the sun was on its way down, although it took him a moment to realise it. Lying on his side, staring at the wall, trying to sort through his sluggish thoughts.
Nice job, Watson. It’ll take you weeks to fix your sleep schedule after this.
He rolled to his back, searching for Sherlock. They’d separated during the night—or, well, day—but Sherlock was still within reach. Less than a foot between them, close enough that John could have ruffled Sherlock’s hair or bopped his nose if he’d wanted.
He didn’t. Sherlock was bundled under the duvet, drooling on his pillow. The loveliest thing John had seen in…ever, probably.
Mrs Hudson had had enough of Rosie now, he suspected. She’d need a reprieve. And besides, he needed to see his daughter, assure her that he hadn’t abandoned her last night.
Mm. Maybe just a few more minutes, he thought. Maybe Sherlock would wake up with him. Kiss his shoulder, nuzzle his hair.
John turned onto his belly with a blissful sigh. Things would get better now. They had to, after all this.
He wrapped the duvet more tightly around himself, sinking lower until only his head and neck poked out. It was cold. He hoped the heating hadn’t gone out.
Then came an icy touch to his nape, trailing slowly over the healing scratches and up to his hair. His scalp prickled. His body twitched violently as cool air blew over his left ear.
“John, John, John. What are we going to do with you?”