The smiley face was wrong.
No, not wrong exactly, it was impossible for such a thing to be wrong but—
Perhaps different was the better word.
The smiley face was different.
It had been a good effort. An excellent effort. He'd found replacement wallpaper in the same design as the original. John had even gone out and purchased a can of Michigan hardcore propellant in the proper shade. He'd gotten the placement mostly right. Sherlock had provided the bullet holes himself.
And yet it wasn't quite the same.
The differences were subtle. The yellow paint intersected with the wallpaper pattern slightly lower than it had before (likely due to John's shorter stature.) The paint had been applied with a heavier hand, a more measured, controlled spray compared to his own broad bored sweep all those years ago.
The effect was—unsettling.
On first glance, upon entering the room, everything looked exactly the same. Oh, a few minor differences—a new coffee table (rounded edges, specifically chosen with fragile bruisable-breakable uncoordinated toddler in mind), a sturdier cabinet to gather his odds-and-ends. New odds-and-ends to replace the ones that had been lost. Surface changes, nothing more. The kind that happened in any home, over the years. The foreground shifting while the background remained static.
Perhaps others simply noticed the surface differences and looked no further, but he—
Well. His mind was unable to stop noticing. And noticing. And noticing.
The distinctive wallpaper behind the sofa. Same pattern. Same shade. Nonetheless, the colours were bolder, unaffected as they were by years of sunlight filtered through dusty windowglass. Were he to be handed a bloodstained swatch of that very paper at this very moment in time, he'd have been unable to deduce where in London it had come from.
It was all close, very close. But not quite the same. And when the flat was alive with the merry chaos that John and Rosie brought with them, when his own mind had been caught up in the rush of sorting out a client's troubles or some tangled mess that Scotland Yard couldn't seem to unravel—then—then it was all right. It was ignorable.
But when he was alone, when John had gone home, when there was nothing for him but silence, hours and hours of thick hateful silence, then—well. Then the differences leapt out at him, disorienting, disturbing.
And now—now when he shut his eyes on the sofa and opened them again in warm late afternoon sunlight, it was always to a room that was the same, but different.
The same. But different. Small shifts. Like a trick of the mind. It made him feel high, and not in the good way, not in the way he still sometimes (always) craved. In the way it had been before he'd latched onto the Culverton Smith case, where he'd been adrift, lost without John as an anchor point, helpless against the pull of his own currents. The world around him had felt overbright, warped and wrong, recognizable yet frighteningly alien.
It was difficult to orient himself, in moments like that. In moments like this.
Him, snapping awake sweat-soaked and half-panicked, his home different, not quite right. The sudden fear that it had all been a dream, that none of it was real, that the weeks and months that had passed were only in his mind, that he was still off his tits on an impressive cocktail of narcotics, that John was still slipping away from him, farther and farther away—
The coffee table, new, rounded. The smell of fresh paint and adhesive glue. The smiley face, carefully applied with John's steady hand.
Real, all of it. Real.
Still, he feared he'd made a mistake. He'd spent a good deal of time and money endeavoring to make the Baker Street flat look the same as it always had. To prove to himself that nothing had changed.
Perhaps, instead, he should have simply tried to make it feel like home.
A clink in the kitchen. Rustling, rattling. Someone in the cupboards.
Wiggins, he thought. Wiggins cooking up a fresh batch.
"Sherlock? Did I wake you up?"
Not Wiggins. Wiggins was gone. There was nothing in the kitchen but some new dishes and a microscope, liberated from Barts morgue after an exceedingly awkward conversation with Molly. Wiggins was gone, Sherlock was sober, and John was in the kitchen.
He sat up, rubbed at his eyes. The room around him swam into disorienting focus. Home.
John poked his head around the corner, looking somewhat abashed. "Sorry. I was trying to be quiet."
"I wasn't asleep," Sherlock lied. "I was thinking."
John ignored him, went back into the kitchen, back to rustling and rattling. Takeaway. Chinese from the place at the end of the street, judging by the sound of the plastic bag, which was noticeably thicker than bags provided by other establishments. And, well. The unmistakable smell in the air, which was arguably more obvious (and more enticing) than the packaging quality.
He stood up, stretched. Looked around. "Where's—"
"Mrs Hudson intercepted us at the front door," John said, coming into the room with opened cartons. Sherlock's stomach rumbled. "Insisted on taking her for half an hour."
"Don't look so disappointed, I'll go down and get her after we eat."
"Disappointed?" he scoffed, looked up at the ceiling. "This is just my face."
"Your disappointed face, yeah," John said. "Eat something."
He sat down at the table, which he had not quite gotten around to cluttering up again. Accepted the carton set in front of him.
They ate in silence, and while it wasn't quite as comfortable as the silences they'd shared years ago, back before—before everything—nor did it have the heavy awkward weight of more recent times. It was better. It was all right. It was pleasant. It was enough.
When they were done eating, John cleared the plates away, went downstairs to fetch his daughter. He came back up with a heavier step.
Sherlock smiled when he saw her. She smiled back, a gummy toothless grin, and stretched her arms out to him.
He took her, walked her around the room, their usual circuit. She led the way, pointing to whatever caught her interest. He paused to let her inspect things, to reach out with little exploring fingers. He very carefully did not linger in any one area too long, did not look too closely, did not look up at the walls.
Behind him, in the kitchen, John did the washing up. Put on the kettle.
"That's a common vampire bat," Sherlock said. Rosie looked away from the glass case, fixed wide eyes on his face instead. "Its main food source is blood."
"Ah," she said.
He made a noise of approval, moved on. He did not want to look at the bat for very long. It was very nicely displayed. It looked very similar to the old one, which had been burnt up and lost.
The explosion had been damaging but not devastating. As she had done in all of the bizarre encounters leading up to their… adventure… at Sherrinford, Eurus had pulled her punch. By all rights, the grenade should have leveled the flat.
There should have been nothing left.
He startled, turned around.
John was studying him from the doorway, frowning a little bit. He had clearly been attempting to get his attention for some time. A mug of tea steamed in his hands. He held it out, an offering.
"Lost you for a minute there," John said.
Rosie fussed in his arms, and he readjusted his grip, settling her a bit more firmly against his hip. He reached out with his other hand for the mug, took a sip.
"Right," John said. He cleared his throat, looked away. When he looked back, there was a smile on his face, all false cheer.
Sherlock hated this part.
"It's getting late," John said. "We ought to head home."
"Of course," Sherlock said.
He stood by the window and drank his tea while John bundled up Rosie for travel.
"Good night," John said, finally.
He watched them go, the pair of them, out into the night. Watched John hail a cab, carefully settle himself in with Rosie. Lifted his hand in farewell as John's gaze rose to where he stood in the window.
He scrolled through his email, checked his tweets, found nothing at all of interest. Instead of his usual restless boredom, there was only exhaustion.
He went down the hall to his bedroom. It had withstood admirably. The wooden door had been well scorched, of course, and he'd had to pay to have the burnt smell laundered out of his clothing and linens. But that was all. There'd been no lasting damage, no need to replace or repair. His pictures hadn't even fallen from the walls.
Below, he could just make out the faint sound of Mrs Hudson's television.
He went into the bathroom, brushed his teeth. Looked down at the running water, circling the drain.
When he was done, he went back into the bedroom. Listened to the traffic down on Baker Street. Shut his eyes.
He opened his eyes in Musgrave Hall, as he had every night since Sherrinford.
Back home, the long-abused bones of the house groaning all around him and the smell of wet wood and rot heavy in the air. The wind buffeting the house moaned out its own haunting sound, a haunted sound, punctuated by the gentle weeping of the manor's very own lady in white.
Eurus in his arms, shoulders shaking with her own muted, terrible grief.
He held on.
John had taught him that. That grief wasn't pretty, grief wasn't all damp eyes and stoic silences. Grief was raw, hot and painful, ugly sobs and ragged breaths. Grief wasn't something that could be cured, or fixed, never completely, but it could be shared.
He felt the moment that she sensed his rising tension. She detached herself from his embrace, stood. Looked down at him with an odd expression—devoid of any real malice. He could not quite read her. He supposed he never really could.
He wondered how often she had come here over the years, how often she'd slipped away from the prison she'd turned into a kingdom in order to roam the ruined halls of her childhood.
She held out her hand.
He took it without hesitating, let her tug him to his feet.
They went down the stairs together. He trailed his hand along damp, peeling wallpaper, tried to remember.
He knew the house. He knew its every door, knew every twist and turn and narrow hallway. He had, after all, used it as the frame of his mind palace.
He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looked at the television screen. John, center stage, terrified, limned in moonlight.
"The water," Sherlock said. He tore his gaze from the screen, looked to Eurus. "Turn off the water."
John was flailing, straining upward, his head tilted back. His nose and mouth barely broke the surface as he struggled, fingers grasping at slick rocks over his head.
"Sh—" John's voice in his ear, broken static through the earpiece. "Sher—"
"Eurus," Sherlock said. He leaned in, gave her his entire focus. She met his eyes; that familiar blue, dulled and bewildered and conflicted. "The water."
She did not move for one long, terrible moment, John still gasping in his ear. Then she squared her shoulders and walked off down the hallway, quick and silent. She went through a door on her right and he followed on her heels.
"Hold on," he murmured, quiet, so quiet, not sure if John could hear him over the roar of the water.
Eurus—or someone—had assembled something of a makeshift command center in the little room under the stairs. Monitors lined the far wall, glowing dimly, cycling through security footage of the grounds. His eyes went to another angle on the well, drawn in by the sight of John, grasping and gasping and struggling. John drowning.
She bypassed the monitors, flipped open a laptop. Typed, clicked. Her gaze intent, focused, skin tinged blue from the screen's glow.
The water cascading over John's head slowed to a trickle, stopped.
"Thank you," Sherlock said.
She did not respond.
He pressed his hand against the earpiece, strained to hear. "John?"
On the screen, John was still struggling. His fingers had found purchase on the rocks, his arms shaking with the effort of holding himself in place. His head thrown back, his face just barely breaking the surface. He was breathing in great heaving gulps, water sloshing up around him.
He'd dragged himself up against the pull of the chains, had gotten as high as he possibly could. It was very nearly not enough. And he wouldn’t be able to maintain that grip for very long.
"Where?" Sherlock asked.
She kept her gaze on the laptop, did not speak.
"Please," he said.
She turned to look at him. Blinked.
"It's all right," he said, gentling his voice. "You're all right."
"Sweetly," she said. She sounded almost wondering. "After all of this. All of it—years and years. And you still think sweetly."
"We all have our failings."
She studied him. He kept his eyes on her, did not let his gaze stray back to the monitor, where John was only just clinging on.
You, he tried to reassure her without speaking aloud. You have my complete attention.
He thought of Victor, barely even the wisp of a memory now, just a scared little boy in a dark cold place.
His own heart, flayed open and raw as he roamed and roamed, searching and begging, the fearless explorer turned pusillanimous, the inquisitive investigator failing at his first real test. The truth of him, revealed to be stupid, stupid after all, the way he'd always feared, daunted by the towering intellects that surrounded him.
If he'd only been faster. If he'd only been smarter. If only—if only—
John's fingers, shaking with cold, dug in against the rocks. John, alive and breathing but lost, lost, down in the dark with Victor's bones.
"Please," Sherlock said. "Please tell me where to find him." He stooped down to her level, kept his voice soft, his posture nonthreatening. "Help me."
She stood up, brushed past him.
He opened his eyes and was awake, the dream falling away like wisps of burnt paper.
He did not know why it followed him this way. Why it still clung to him, after days, after weeks, after months. He had lived it, he had come through it. He was fine. John was fine. Mycroft was fine. Even Eurus, in her own way, was fine.
He had followed her into the darkness. She had not betrayed his fragile trust. She had taken him to John.
And then they had gone home.
Well. John had gone home. Baker Street had been in shambles. Sherlock had been forced to spend almost an entire week at Mycroft's.
He went out into the sitting room, did not look at the walls. The room seemed normal, in the periphery.
He opened his laptop, scanned through his emails. Hesitated over one name. Shut his eyes.
An email from someone called Gloria Trevor. Subject: Victor.
He clicked out of the email program without opening it. Hesitated, then slammed his laptop shut as well. Breathed.
I told him I'd found Bluebeard's treasure, Eurus had said, barely a week ago, lifting her bow from the strings of her violin. She remained standing, holding the violin by its neck in her left hand, the bow in her right, her voice a shock after months of silence.
Sherlock's own bow had faltered, a sour note trembling in the air.
Oh? he'd asked, finally.
He so wanted to impress you, she said. She was smiling a little bit, and it wasn't a mean smile, it was a fond smile, a nostalgic smile. Her eyes had gone distant. I told him you'd be so pleased. It took us all day to walk there. I packed us snacks.
He could not quite remember specifics. He had spent years desperately overwriting and corrupting his own memories. But if he closed his eyes, if he concentrated, he could pick up a loose thread, could follow it back to a sundrenched morning where he'd discovered what it meant to feel lonely, what it meant to feel confused and helpless. What it meant to feel despair.
I didn't push him, she'd said. He climbed down all on his own. Went splashing around in the dark, looking for a treasure chest. Didn't give a single thought as to how he'd carry the thing up if he did find it.
He was six years old, Sherlock had said to her, quiet. No one plans ahead at six.
He'd lifted his own violin away from his shoulder, studied her. There was something terribly sad about her, forlorn, a specimen behind glass. A creature in a zoo. Hidden away, unfit for public consumption.
Are you angry with me?
He'd wondered how it had happened, if she'd set out with the intention of killing Victor or if she'd just wanted a bit of mischief, if the idea had occurred to her once he'd gone willingly down into the dark without a rope or a plan for extricating himself. If she'd ever felt badly about it.
I am angry, he'd said, when he felt he could speak again.
Interesting, she'd said, and picked up her violin again. She played beautifully.
Noise from downstairs, a crash and clatter against the door. Rosie's excited squeal, John's familiar tread on the stairs. Bumping along slowly, laden down with bags and baby.
"Stopped off and got you some groceries," he said, dumping the bags on the table and flexing his hand. Rosie flailed in her carrier, already reaching out for Sherlock.
Sherlock went into the kitchen, looked down at the bags. Tinned beans and soup and frozen vegetables and milk. A box of tea. Biscuits.
"There was no need—"
"Fridge looked a little bare yesterday, that's all," John said, opening the door, setting the milk on the top shelf. He frowned, looked over his shoulder. "You shouldn't take that as an encouragement to start piling up severed limbs again."
"I haven't been able to secure a suitable replacement source for body parts," Sherlock admitted. He hadn't really tried. It didn't seem right, asking Molly. Not anymore.
"Well, thank God for small favors," John said. He was in a good mood, glib, jovial. He went on putting the groceries away. Like he lived there. Like he was home.
Rosie let out a sharp, impatient squeal, flailed her arms again. Sherlock went to her, unbuckled her from her carrier, picked her up.
Circuit around the room, Rosie on his hip, pausing to let her examine each and every oddity she pointed at.
"Dermestid beetles," he said, watching her tap on the glass. "Often used in taxidermy. They've proven quite adept at cleaning skeletons, actually. They can strip flesh from—"
John made a sound from somewhere behind him.
"—Ah, in any case," he said, stepping back. "These particular beetles are quite dead. Pinned for display. No need for worry."
"And there won't be any live beetles, at any point, yeah?"
Sherlock pressed his lips together, shrugged, tried to look noncommittal. "Well. One can never say with any degree of certainty. There are species of beetle known specifically for infesting the bow hair in instrument cases, for example, but—"
"Sherlock," John was doing that thing, the thing he did where he said Sherlock's name in a very stern tone of voice but actually seemed to be laughing. He was the only person on earth who ever said Sherlock's name in that particular way.
It wrenched something in Sherlock's chest, every time.
He cleared his throat, shifted Rosie on his hip. She had discovered his hair and was determinedly tugging on it. He gently batted her hands away.
When he looked back, John was watching them, his face soft.
"No live beetles," Sherlock said.
Move back in, he didn't say.