tw for this chapter: drinking while depressed
John was forty-nine years old, and he couldn’t remember a lonelier Christmas Eve. Well, he could . There were the Christmases he spent in Afghanistan, far from everyone and everything he loved. Then there were the first two Christmases after Sherlock’s fake suicide, when he felt all but abandoned by both family and friends. He spent the Christmas Eve before Sherlock shot Magnussen holed up in Baker Street with his best friend, but everything was awkward between them and he still felt alone.
This time, though, the blame for his loneliness lay squarely on his own shoulders. There were plenty of places he could go to celebrate the season. He had both friends and family who would welcome him with open arms. He always had standing invitations from a variety of people who wanted to spend the holidays with him: the Stamfords, Greg and Molly, Harry and Clara, Mrs Hudson. For the past three years, he always declined, preferring to hole up inside his home, just him and Rosie. And while she was younger, it had worked like a charm. Her childish innocence demanded little from him, and was easily entertained by the simplest things that require little effort on his part.
But she would turn ten this spring. She could sense the miasma of misery that John had let himself fall into, and wasn’t shy about voicing her displeasure. Harry and Clara had picked her up earlier that afternoon, with plans to return her on Boxing Day. They once again extended their invitation for him to join them the following day for Christmas dinner, and he once again declined. John didn’t miss the concerned look Harry threw his way as they made their way out the door.
He hadn’t planned on turning into a grumpy old man. Well, he wasn’t old quite yet. But he wasn’t getting any younger, and thinking back on his life so far, a lot of regrets were making themselves known.
He had been here before, at a crossroads. Feeling as if his life were over, only to have it turned around in the blink of an eye. Could it happen again? Or was it finally, truly, too late?
When his thoughts, like they always did, turned to the one person who would never extend an invitation, yet would welcome him with open arms, any time -- he finally gave in to his craving for a drink. He had been doing so well lately, too. Hadn’t touched a drop in nearly three years. Well. If you couldn’t drink during Christmas, then when could you? He needed Sherlock Holmes in his brain as much as he needed a bullet to it, so needs must.
John headed to the liquor cabinet and retrieved the only alcohol left in the house. He swallowed when he saw what it was. A bottle of Drambuie, procured from Scotland while on a case and given to him by Sherlock as a Christmas gift. The last Christmas that they had spent together, in fact. John closed his eyes as the memories tried to wash over him. He shook his head in denial. Not now. Not tonight.
This drink was generally too sweet for him when drunk straight, but he had nothing to mix it with. He considered just taking the entire bottle with him, but thought better of it. Sighing, he got out a tumbler and poured two-fingers worth into it. He walked into the sitting room and plopped down in his chair. All the lights were off, complete darkness held at bay by the fire blazing in the hearth. It was only seven o’clock, but it felt much later. John took careful sips of his drink as he stared into the flames, willing his mind to empty and his body to relax.
Eventually, his eyes slid shut and his head drooped forward as he fell into the land of dreams.
The sound of the old grandfather clock striking ten o'clock jerked him awake. He rubbed his eyes, blinking himself awake. Miraculously, he still held his drink in a loose grip as it sat on his armrest. The fire had died down. John shivered. Had the radiator gone off?
John launched to his feet, instinctively reaching behind his waistband for a gun that, of course, was not there. Adrenaline that he hadn’t felt in *years* coursed through his veins. Heart pumping wildly, he swiveled around, not knowing what to expect.
A shape stood next to his closed front door. It spoke again. “John.”
No. It couldn’t be. John fumbled for the switch on the lamp, flooding the area with light. The figure stood just outside of its reach, but John could make out more detail. Of course, suspecting who it was made it easier to interpret these details. Even if his brain was telling him it was impossible.
The man walked forward slowly, before stopping just within the circle of light. Unmistakable. With the beret atop his head, holding himself in a military stance, and garbed with the same uniform and medals that he had worn at John’s wedding. A sound accompanied his gait that took a few moments for John to register.
John swallowed. “James,” he whispered. “But… you’re dead.” John looked down as the faint clinking died away. His eyes widened at the sight of a chain shackling Sholto’s two legs together at the ankles. As John’s eyes traveled up the length of the major’s body, he also noticed the chains wrapped around Sholto’s wrists.
John snapped to military attention, body rigid with tension. “What’s going on?”
“At ease, John,” Sholto said, giving John a sad smile. “You need to save your energy for later.”
“Why? What’s happening later?”
“Oh, you know. The usual.” Sholto shrugged. “Adventure. A bit of excitement. A trip down memory lane. Maybe, if you’re lucky, a bit of a kick in the trousers as well.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Am I dreaming?” John looked around. “I must be dreaming. This is impossible. You died nearly five years ago.”
James nodded. “Yes. I did.” James held up his hands. “ Aren’t you wondering where these came from?”
John gave a nervous laugh. “Yeah, I’m wondering where all of this is coming from,” he said, waving a hand indicating the immediate vicinity. “Aside from my messed-up brain, that is.”
James swept a critical eye over the same area John had indicated. “They’re chains of regret , John. I’m here to make sure you don’t imprison yourself like I did.”
“Everybody has regrets. It’s part of life.”
“Of course. Everyone wonders about the path not taken. And not everything that happens is a result of our choices; some things we have no control over. Even more incentive to try and limit one’s regrets as much as possible, don’t you agree?”
John shrugged. “I suppose so. A bit late for some things, though.”
James eyes pierced him. “Is it really? For me, yes. I’m already dead. For you? It’s only too late if you continue down this path that you’re on.”
“What path would that be? And in all honesty, what regrets could you possibly have? You were a decorated officer. After your name was cleared you were regarded as a hero. Like you say, some things you couldn’t control. No reason to regret any of that.”
The major’s eyes grew sad. “Do you really not know, John?”
John’s brow furrowed, then his eyes widened. “What? No…”
James closed his eyes for a moment, as if fortifying himself. When he opened them, they were a shade of blue that John had never seen before.
“Do you know what the worst day of my life was, John? It wasn’t the day I earned these scars. No; it was the day that I attended your wedding, and watched you pledge yourself to somebody else.”
“What the hell am I supposed to say to that?”
“Not a thing,” the ghost replied. “Apologies. I got distracted from my main task. I’m here to warn you.”
John rubbed his forehead and muttered, “A little warning before that declaration would have been nice.”
James ignored him. “Beginning at the stroke of midnight, you will be visited by three spirits - “
“Seriously?? Christ, my brain couldn’t come up with anything less fantastical?”
“-- who will be your guides during your journey tonight. Do make the most of your experience, John; you most likely won’t get another chance.”
And with that, Major James Sholto faded away before John’s very eyes, leaving him with both a feeling of dread and one of heightened anticipation.