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Wanted: Empath

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It starts with a message on a bulletin board: Seeking an empath to assist with research on ghostly occurrences. Apply to 221B Baker Street.

It’s in small print on a small card, half hidden by larger, flashier flyers, but I’m drawn to it immediately. No name, date, or time are given, so I just show up. He’s a whirlwind in a flat filled to the brim with clicking machines, flashing screens, and more junk than I’ve seen since Mrs. Newsome when I was a kid.

There is something between us immediately. Not sexual or romantic per se, just … something. Also, I’m not his assistant. We partner up. I bring valuable skills and abilities to the project. He may be the famous ghost hunter—or should I say, ghost denouncer—Sherlock Homes, but I bring my own talents to the enterprise. We carefully feel each other out but soon form a well-oiled machine. There is less denouncing after I enter the picture. Not to say he was wrong in his previous pronouncements, just that he took the more dubious cases before he had an empath on hand. And on those cases where his deductions were less than accurate, it was because he was inferring without all of the facts. Facts I can bring to the table. He brings his machines, the things that whir and click and stutter out some sort of language only he can understand.

He is beautiful when he works. Flitting from machine to machine. Curls bouncing, hands flying, eyes seeing everything. I’m not too much of a ninny to say I loved him from early on. The way his mind works, the light in his eyes, that moment when everything becomes clear. He could’ve been a detective, but instead he chose to work with the dead. Or, the post dead … Hard to catalogue.

***

Months after the start, that’s when it really happens, when things change. It isn’t our usual sort of case. There is no client. Sherlock has been eying this place for months. A country mansion, empty longer than local recent memory goes. Not ownerless though. People buy, they move in, they promptly move out. Ad nauseum, going back at least two centuries, ever since the original family died out. It’s become worse the last few years. Enough to catch Sherlock’s eye and ask why. He buys it in a fit of boredom. Must be nice to have family money. Not that I can complain much. It’s kept me from needing an outside job the past few months, while I chase after Himself and the ghosts.

We’re delayed in viewing the site for three months due to an influx of cases. Summer would’ve been a nice time to go. Warm. Perhaps a bit sunny even. But instead it’s late October before we arrive. A cold and blustery autumn we’re having in London. The country isn’t quite so bad, though it’s no Spanish beach in July.

We arrive in a hire car, packed to the gills with machinery. Funny that he still uses the lot. Even though he says he trusts me, he still won’t go without his gadgets, the “data,” as he calls it. But I know he does trust me. When I get a bad feeling, we hightail it, no questions asked. And the lack of bad feeling is why we stay this time, even though the place is assuredly haunted. Haunted, but not evil. That’s the hope at least. No deaths, no possessions. Just odd feelings, cold spots, echoes of voices in the night. Nothing we can’t handle. The recent influx in sightings, though, means the specter may be getting angrier, more dangerous. We need to nip this in the bud before it escalates further.

The cold, autumn breeze whispers at my cheeks and fingers as we haul in the equipment, dead leaves rustling at our feet. Sherlock is already muttering at his precious machines when I bring in the last of it. He’s using up all of the (few) outlets for his gadgets, so we’ll be under candlepower to keep the room lit after dark. Without proper ownership, the mansion is lacking in updates. I close the windows he’s opened as the wind picks up and a light drizzle begins. He scowls but allows it. My medical degree still holds some sway, though it’s my other skills that he prefers I employ.

I’m not a born empath, though those are more common. For me, it was a near-death experience during my deployment that allowed me to become a bridge between the living and the dead. And with my surgical career shot due to my injuries, I’m forced to rely on my new abilities to get by. Thank goodness for Sherlock. My madman. My brilliant ghost hunter.

It’s dark by the time everything is up and running. The rain has gone from drizzle to torrential. Thank the stars that the fireplace works and there is chopped wood on hand. The last owner must’ve stocked up before being scared away. Lucky us.

Sherlock is murmuring over three different screens, bouncing from one to the next, pausing from time to time to check the paper readouts spitting from a fourth machine. These moments are only surpassed by him serenading me with his violin on cold, quiet evenings. That’s when he shines most. When his face evens out, his brow relaxes, and he just enjoys the music. Still, his work with his ghost-finding machines is almost like music, like a dance.

The candle and fire lights prance over his features, and watching him makes affection well up in me. His eyes, though, instead of being intent on me in return, are focused on the screen in front of him.

“John. She’s here.”

“I know.”

This is a common routine for us. I feel the presence before his sensors do, but I let him announce it first. He likes that bit. Next, he’ll tell me to get ready, battle stations. I’ll wait for the presence to reach out, and we’re off. Usually. But that’s not what happens this time. He looks to me, and I swear I see concern in the way he scrunches his eyes.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“What?”

He looks away briefly. “The last– I know it took a lot out of you. I want– Your comf– I can do it without you, if you need to sit this one out.”

“Sherlock.” I don’t understand. Is he meaning to get rid of me? To go back to relying only on his charts and screens. Or is he concerned? The last job did take a lot out of me. Poltergeists always do. “I can do this,” I argue anyway. I have to do this. I need the work as much as he does.

He gives a smirk at my vehemence, a bit of his thrill-seeking personality peeking through. “This won’t be an easy job. Might even be dangerous.” There’s a glint in his eye, the one I love, the one that says we’re onto something good.

I grin at him. “Ready when you are.”

***

The first encounter is short and easy. It disappoints me a little, him promising danger and all. Though there’s plenty of time for that. Lots of jobs have started with us sitting around with cups of tea while we waited for specters, only to end with a chase up a dark alley or down a mineshaft, us laughing after, the adrenaline strong in our veins.

The ghost arrives in the exact spot Sherlock (and I) predicted, and it disappears after only a few seconds. It’s enough for me to get a reading though. It makes me shiver. This one is lost. Lonely. Frightened. Better than the ones buried in anger and hate, the ones that pull me into their animosity and leave me feeling on edge for weeks after. But still far from my favorite.

I hate feeling alone. Even before my new … gifts, I was often alone, never the type to make friends easily. The army was better. It engendered teamwork and a feeling of belonging, but that ended the moment I was shot.

Until Sherlock. Even before we truly became friends, I felt at home with him. More like I was squabbling with a sibling than fighting an enemy. Of course, I don’t think of him as a sibling now. Not at all. Not with my dreams and bedroom fantasies. But he is still home. With him, I’m not alone. I’m a part of something. A part of his work if nothing else, but it’s more than that. We find plenty to connect us in between cases. The weekend take-aways, the late-night bad films, the giggling over Mycroft’s latest drama. I don’t care that he’ll never want more than what we have now. I just want him in my life. I want to need him. And I want him to need me in return. Neither of us alone anymore.

I let the emotions of the specter roll around in my mind, get a taste for them. I’ll be better able to home in on her the more I understand her emotions. I open my eyes and see Sherlock’s, light and clear, but with fine wrinkles around them. Concern? Still? I’m fine. The poltergeist is behind us. All that matters now is this current case.

I smile, trying to ease his worry. “Gone now, but she’ll be back.”

He nods, but the lines don’t ease. “Good. Yes. Fine. I’m going to, um, take readings around the house.” With a final glare (of concern?), he whirls away, EMF reader in hand.

I do my own inspecting while he talks to his machines. I get a read on all of the rooms, note where I feel the emotions more than others. We’re based in the front sitting room, an addition to the house that’s the center of all the feelings, but a few other rooms merit watching.

Feelings are hard. They get mixed up and confused. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which are coming from the dead and which from the living. It’s why I can’t get a read on Sherlock. I feel his frustration when he’s bored, his elation when we solve something. But his deeper emotions are a mystery to me. He hides them well, but even if he didn’t, I wouldn’t understand them. We’re too often around volatile beings who muck things up and turn me arse over teakettle.

Despite the confusion, I can taste the fear like I can taste my lunch (egg salad sandwich from Mrs. Hudson, a bad idea). I try to zero in on specifics. Why is she afraid? Why is she alone?

With nothing more coming to me, and after a long day of travel and set up, I’m tired. I track Sherlock down and tell him goodnight. He doesn’t look happy—he never is when I retire with less than twenty-four hours since my last rest—but waves me away.

***

I wake up with a start to find Sherlock sitting at the far end of the sofa I’ve kipped on.

“What is it?” I ask, rubbing my eyes before sitting up, although slouching may be more accurate. I’m groggy. It can only have been a few hours since I drifted off.

His gaze is pensive, concerned when I first look at him, but he wipes all emotion as soon as I ask the question. He clears his throat. “Nothing.”

“Then why’re you here?”

Shrug. “I’m at a dead end. Not much more I can do until the specter reappears.”

“Sherlock, I’m not luring her out just so you can get your kicks.”

His eyes narrow, and his mouth turns down. “I didn’t ask you to.”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Lack of furniture, John.” He waves a hand around the spacious area. The only pieces residing in the room are the sofa—more of a too-hard settee—a couple of tables covered in his machinery, and a chair.

“Right.” I collapse back down and cover my eyes with my arm. “Find anything after I turned in?”

“Of course, the EMF readings–”

“Small words only. If you’re going to spout your tech speak, save it. I won’t understand a word before a proper morning and two cups of coffee. Not that it will help that much,” I mumble into the crook of my elbow. I might be feeling a tiny bit annoyed at being woken up.

There’s a pressure at my ankle. I peek out to see him grasping it lightly.

“I just … Right. Of course. Go back to sleep.”

I look at him a little more closely. The feeling of loneliness is stronger, but I can’t tell if it’s coming from the ghost or from him. “Sherlock?”

He gives me a small smile. “It’s fine, John. Go to sleep.”

***

The next day is sunny but cold. The wind blows leaves back and forth across the unkempt garden. I wish we could’ve seen the area before the foliage had dropped. The colors would’ve been gorgeous.

A fire is roaring when I wake up, the kettle just clicking off as I pull on fresh clothes. Sherlock pours the water over tea leaves, and I let them brew while I look over our breakfast choices: scones and stale bread that I’m not even sure why it was packed. I choose the pastries. We do at least have jam, so I smother two scones with it before downing one along with a scalding cup of tea. I savor the second while I look over Sherlock’s notes. Nothing particularly interesting, to me at least.

We spend the day wandering from room to room, trying to find our ghost. She finally makes an appearance just as the sun sets. The feeling of loneliness is stronger than ever, but she disappears before I can go deeper, though I feel chilled enough to shiver. Sherlock searches my face, brows furrowed.

An hour later, she appears again, faint, and only I can see her this time. Sherlock’s instruments whir and beep, warning me of what I already know.

“Please … Help … Lost ….”

“Lost?” Sherlock prods me. I don’t even know I’ve spoken. And perhaps I haven’t. I might be the ghost whisperer, but Sherlock can read me easily enough.

I dive down. “Cold … Help … So alone.”

I feel the chill at my fingertips, my nose, my ears. Where is everyone? Water laps against my chest. “Heloise … where are you?”

“Heloise?”

“Please … Why did you leave me here?”

The darkness surrounds me. Grit and freezing rock against my palms. Cold water envelopes me.

“Heloise, please. I don’t want to die.”

Shivers wrack my body. I pull my jacket tighter around me. I can’t get warm.

“I’m here.”

“Heloise?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Why did you do this to me?”

“I’m … I’m sorry?” The voice is deep. Not Heloise.

I gasp and open my eyes to warmth. I’m shaking. I can’t feel my hands and feet.

“Sh-sherl-lock.”

“John! Oh God. Blanket. Where is the damn–”

Warm fuzziness lands around me, heavy and comforting. Another weight joins it. A smell. Musky and spicy. A hint of chemicals. Wool. Like home. I’m shifted to the settee, and I lie back gratefully.

“John?”

“Hmm.”

“John. Answer me.”

“T-tired.”

“No, not yet. John. Look at me.”

I struggle but manage to open my eyes. “Sh-sh’l’k.” His face seems paler than usual, his eyes wide, his lips compressed into a thin line.

He grabs my hands. “God. You’re so cold. Why didn’t you–? John. Focus on me. Just for a mo’, okay? For me? John!”

“F-for you? Anyth-th’ng.” I think I smile, but I either I don’t succeed or Sherlock is more worried than I can tell, for he only frowns. “Sh’lock?”

He’s gone in a whisper of fabric, and I don’t realize how much heat he’s been sharing until he’s gone, but he’s back again before I can mourn the loss too keenly, shoving a cup of something hot in my hands. The tea I’d placed in a thermos earlier. The heat burns against my cold hands, but I appreciate the warmth nonetheless. I drift in the comfort of Sherlock’s presence and the tea in my hands until I jolt up.

“Heloise!”

“Lie back, John.”

“No. Sh-sherlock, it was Hel–”

“I know. You said. Before.”

“B-but why? She was a ch-child. They b-both were …”

“It doesn’t matter,” he soothes, pushing me back onto worn cushions.

His hair glints copper in the firelight. I want to run my hands through it to ground myself back in the present, in him. Only the tea I’m holding stops me. I pull my head up enough to take a sip, feeling the warmth slide down my throat. It helps me focus and remember.

“There w-was a well h-here. A long t-time ago. Th-the ghost was pushed down by an-nother child, by H-heloise. It was winter. She was s-so cold. So alone. She finally became hypothermic and f-fell asleep. And … and n-never woke up. She died so scared. Alone. N-nobody came looking for her.” My voice cracks, and I take another sip.

I feel warmth on my head. Sherlock’s hand in my hair, rubbing soothingly. I lean into it and close my eyes. I could fall asleep just like this, us in this warm cocoon, peaceful, the crackling sounds of a fire nearby.

I don’t realize I’ve begun to drift off until I hear a quiet “John.” I fight my heavy lids, slowly open them again.

“Hmm?”

He looks like he’s about to speak, then stops. Shakes his head. Pauses a moment. “Sleep well.” His eyes crinkle, and he gives my head a final caress.

I smile and let my eyes close again. “Thanks.”

***

I check my watch when I wake again. Just after two in the night. I feel well rested, having fallen asleep fairly early in the evening. I look around and spot Sherlock crouched in front of the fire. Odd. I expect him to be checking his machines furiously or scribbling notes, even hours after the event. He’s always working, his massive brain never shuts down.

He turns when I sit up, nods at me.

“Hey,” I say softly.

He doesn’t reply, just looks back the flames. I get up and set the water boiling, preparing two cups for tea. While I’m searching for the sugar that somehow disappeared, he speaks.

“We leave as soon as it’s daylight.”

I abandon my hunt to look at him. He’s still facing the fireplace, mouth hard, eyes unblinking.

“What?”

“We’re going home. We shouldn’t have come. This specter. It’s … it’s too much.”

“Sherlock, no.” I walk over to him, crouching so I can look him in the eye. “This little girl needs my help. I can’t abandon her. Not when abandonment killed her.”

“She’s affecting you too much. She’s stronger than we expected.”

I lean back. “Do you not think I can do this? That I’m not good enough?”

He finally turns to look at me, eyes wide. “Of course you can do it. You’re stronger than anyone I’ve met. But … you didn’t see yourself when you came out of it last time. You looked like death itself—pale face, blue lips. You shivered for over an hour after you fell asleep. It’s not safe. Another encounter might severely harm or even kill you.”

We’ve had rougher encounters before. I’ve been affected worse. What’s different this time?

“I’ll be fine. I always am, no matter how tough the spirit. We need to help her rest. Not only for future owners, but for us. For our clients. For your fans,” I add with a smile, trying to lighten the mood. Without thinking, I put a hand to his cheek.

He doesn’t react to the joke, but he does lean into my hand and close his eyes. His voice is strained and quiet when he speaks. “You’re more important, John. The most important thing. I don’t care about the ghosts or the fame. I care about you. If something were to happen to you …” He trails off, brows furrowed.

This makes me pause. He’s always been about the facts, the Work. I thought that’s all that mattered. I played a part, sure, but only in so far as it furthered the research. And now … Now what? What does it mean, that I matter more? I suddenly have an urge to know. Not an urge. More than that, I need to know, with my whole being.

“Y– you mean …”

“I mean,” he opens his eyes, and they’re burning ice, “You’re the most important person in my life. The most important everything.”

“The way …” I stroke his cheek, “you’re the most important everything to me?”

He searches my eyes, then smiles softly, with the tiniest tremble at the end. “Yes. I think so.”

My other hand lands at the back of his neck. “Sherlock,” I breathe.

Am I moving closer, or is he?

“Yes?” His voice is low.

“Can I kiss you?”

His response is lost against my lips as he closes the distance between us. His lips are warm and firm. I can discern the last hints of his aftershave when I inhale, woodsy and comforting. I slide my nearest hand into his hair, silky now that he’s days from his last product application. He gives a little moan and pulls us closer by wrapping his arms around my back.

I shiver, and at first I think it’s in response to him, to this perfect moment, but then a whisper reaches my mind. Heloise. I freeze. The room is noticeably colder. It takes only a few seconds for Sherlock to understand what’s happening. He pulls me even closer, tucking my face into his neck.

“No,” he whispers fiercely. “Stay with me. I need you.”

“So does she,” I reply, my voice low but strong. I need to end this. I lean far enough back to see his face, worried and pale. “Just stay close.”

“Wild horses couldn’t pull me away.” His voice trembles slightly.

“Hello?” My breath shows in the air, even though the fire is right beside me. I turn and stand to face the room. Sherlock stands behind me, then adjusts his coat so he can include me in its warmth. His body heat and scent calm me.

“Can you show yourself, friend?” I ask the air. “I’m John Watson. Who are you?”

The room grows colder still, the fire dying a little.

“John Watson? Who are you?” She appears slowly. “Where is Heloise?” She’s small, with dark hair and suntanned skin. Her clothing makes her look like she walked out of the Canterbury Tales, but soaking wet, dripping ghostly droplets that disappear as soon as they hit the floor.

“I don’t know. Who is Heloise?”

She’s shivering, her arms wrapped around her for what little warmth they can provide. “My cousin. We were playing, and I fell in the well. I called for hours and hours, but she never answered.”

“You fell?”

“Yes.” Her face scrunches. “Or. No. Something hit my back. My lord father will not be pleased if I’m not found.”

“Ah,” comes Sherlock’s voice next to my ear. I shiver, and again I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to him or the cold. I burrow closer regardless.

“Killed for her p-position?” I ask him in a quiet voice.

“Likely, if she was an only child who had no close male relatives. Unlikely, but possible. Or the cousin murdered her on behalf of someone else. A brother perhaps …”

“Little g-g-girl,” I begin, raising my voice to speak with her again, though I can’t stop my teeth from chattering. My hands and feet are like blocks of ice. Sherlock wraps his arms tighter around me.

She cocks her head. “I’m called Mathilde.”

“S-sorry, Mathilde. D-do you know where y-y-you are?”

“In the well.”

“Are you s-sure?”

“Yes.” She pauses. “No. How are you in the well? And why do you not help me out?”

“Where are y-you, M-m-mathilde?”

She looks around and her eyes widen. Her dress begins to dry, her hair curls as it does the same. At first, she looks confused, but I see when reality hits her. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”

I nod reluctantly. My fingers prickle as warm blood returns to them.

“It was Heloise.” She’s solemn, but not surprised, her expression older than her physical years. “My lord father told me to be careful with Heloise and Henry, but they were my blood and my friends.” A single tear rolls down her cheek. My breath stops fogging in the air.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why? You had nothing to do with it.”

“You shouldn’t have had to go through that. Not so young. Not so alone.”

She gives me a small smile. “But I’m not alone now. You’re here.”

I try to smile in return. “I am. Do you want to rest now?”

She cocks her head again. “I think I do.”

“Okay. Do you know what to do?”

“Yes.” Her smile grows until it’s the infectious grin of a child. She’s staring in the distance at something I can’t see. “Thank you, John.”

“You’re welcome, Mathilde.”

Goodbye.

The last hint of her fades. The room is warm again. The fire crackles merrily behind us.

Sherlock sighs against my ear, then drops his forehead to my shoulder. “That went better than I expected.”

“Ye of little faith,” I reply with a smile. I get a poke in my side for my cheek. My grin widens. “As if a renowned ghost hunter would have a boyfriend who wasn’t equally as skilled,” I tease, turning to look him in his beautiful face. His eyes are wide, his mouth slightly open. I realize what I’ve just said. “That is, if you–”

“Yes, I do,” he interrupts in a rush.

I nod. “Right. Okay then.”

He leans in and kisses me. I breathe him in, settle into his warmth. Perfection.

After a time, we pull apart. Our smiles return. “So. New business cards? Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: Ghost Hunting Boyfriends.” I give him a wink.

He rolls his eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not a ghost hunter. I’m a consulting ghost detective.”

“Only one in the world.” I give him a final peck before moving to start packing up, too keyed up to sleep. And the sooner we leave, the sooner I can enjoy a hot shower and a comfortable bed. Preferably with a warm bedmate curled next to me.

“No, John.” I turn to look at him. “I’m one of two in the world.” It’s his turn to wink.

Warmth fills me, and it has nothing to do with the fire or lack of scared ghost. “Yeah. Okay.” I go back to packing, smile firmly affixed to my face.

***

“Ah. Of course.”

“Of course what?”

We’re back at Baker Street. I’m starting some tea while Sherlock catches up on the news. We’ve both had hot showers. There’s a fire going in the sitting room. It’s peaceful and quiet, a perfect ending to a physically trying case.

He turns the paper toward me, tapping the date. “Samhain.”

“Ohhh. When the borders between dead and living are the weakest.” I’d forgotten the date, having been sequestered in the country for several days.

“Not just a silly day for sweets and fancy dress,” Sherlock agrees, turning the paper back to face him to continue his perusal.

“So that’s why I was so affected physically this time?”

“To an extent. Her power had grown for several years before now, and her manner of death played a part. But yes, she wouldn’t have been able to influence your physical self so much if the borders had been stronger.”

“Poor Mathilde.” I pour the now-boiled water into two cups before sitting next to Sherlock at the table.

“She’s well now, John.”

“I know, and I’m glad, but she was in her own hell for centuries. She was a child. She didn’t deserve that.”

“All we can do is appreciate that she’s in a better place now. That we helped her.” His arm comes around my back, and he rests his forehead against my temple. I lean into him. I never expected him to be so demonstrative, but I’m not about to complain. Especially after an exhausting case.

“Thank you for being there. I don’t know that I would’ve survived without you.”

“You claimed you’d had worse before.”

I pull away gently so I can look him in the eye. “Yeah, and you were there for those too. You saved me the day we met. You gave me purpose. I would have gone mad, sitting alone in that terrible bedsit, only ghosts to talk to. If I hadn’t seen your advert that day, I don’t know where I’d be.”

“An idea not worth contemplating. What were you doing in that coffeeshop anyway?”

“I’d run into a friend; he offered to buy me a coffee.”

“Oh.” He looked a little nonplussed at the idea.

“I should ring him up. Thank him for saving me.”

Sherlock pouted. “I thought I saved you.”

I smile. “You save me every day. We can give Mike Stamford a little credit for doing it once.” I kiss him, to show where my loyalty lies.

“Fine. Just this once.” He gives me a kiss in return.