Thursday, 8 November 1956
Reginald stared down at the hole dug deep into the cold, wet earth. The dark mahogany coffin had been lowered into place ten minutes before. It was already filthy, and he had the mad urge to jump down and clean it off.
Ellie curled her fingers around his hand, squeezing briefly. "Reggie, love," she said quietly. "Come inside."
The breath he pulled into his lungs tasted like ice and mud and loneliness. He let go of her hand to put his arm around her shoulders and hold her close, but the hole inside him was still there. Memories of laughter and sullen complaints and steadfast loyalty were no comfort at all.
"I thought he'd always be here with me," Reginald said softly. His words were choked, his throat hot and painfully tight. The gentle drizzle soaking his hair hid his tears from everyone but himself.
Ellie quieted, leaning close, the brim of her sombre black hat pressing into Reginald's olive green overcoat. It still fit, as did the uniform beneath, an almost perfect match for the uniform in which Harold had been buried. Major Stewart and Captain Latham, survivors together.
"Reggie," Ellie finally said as she started to shiver in the cold. He looked down at the curve of her hat that obscured her face. "People have been... talking. They say it was suicide, not an accident."
Anger spiked through him, stiffening his spine and lending strength to his voice. "Absolutely not," he lied. "He was cleaning his gun, and it went off. No one suicides by a gunshot to the neck, Eleanor."
She nodded, caving before his unhesitating defence of his best friend. "Of course, love. I'll just... see to the guests. Please, come inside soon?"
Reginald nodded, closing his eyes. "Just a few more minutes."
Quietly, she stepped away, pressing her hand to his sleeve before she turned. He heard her footsteps on the flagstones they'd laid from the tiny cemetery gate to Harold's grave.
"Would you fetch the brandy from the trophy room? It was —" His breath hitched as he thought of the nightly ritual he and Harold shared, those few private moments after the day's chaos had ended, when Reginald could set aside his life as husband and father and businessman and simply be himself: Harold's best friend. "It was our favourite," he whispered, looking down at the coffin.
"Of course, love," Ellie said softly.
At the gentle tone of her voice, he turned and watched her walk up the path, still shapely and beautiful after ten years and two children, and he smiled wistfully. He had to look forward, not back — to mourn and then put his grief aside. He had a loving family and dear friends.
Sadly, he looked back down at the coffin. Poor Harold, who had died alone, never knowing what it was like to be in love.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
"I'm fine, Sherlock," John said hoarsely as he clenched his left fist, the motion strong and smooth. "I swear."
In response, Sherlock gave John a sullen, flat glare that anyone else would interpret as anger. Secretly, John felt privileged to know the truth — that Sherlock's brusque demeanour hid a surprising depth of caring, even if that side was primarily reserved solely for John. The show of irritation was a habit, Sherlock's way of hiding his heart from the world.
"It's too soon for you to be back to work," Sherlock finally said as the taxi slowed, turning up the drive to Latham Hall.
"I'm not spending one more minute watching you stomp through the flat because this case is unfinished," John said bluntly. Honestly, he had no idea what was going to happen with this case, because no force on earth would compel him to tell Sherlock he'd solved it, and oh by the way, the murderer was already dead. But Sherlock was clever — he'd come up with something, John would blog about it, and they could both put this behind them.
Until then, Sherlock was proving his usual impossible self, only this time, he had the added pressure of wanting to play his new overprotective, smothering boyfriend role to the hilt. Honestly, as nice as it was to have Sherlock actually being considerate for a change, offering soup and blankets and endless cups of tea, John was going to shoot the man himself if things didn't get back to normal.
"You should have stayed in London."
"You're repeating yourself. Boring," John mocked affectionately, reaching across the seat to take Sherlock's hand.
Sherlock huffed and glanced at John, eyes flicking down to the week-old wounds on his neck. "The Stewarts said they'd already moved out," he said quietly. "We'll have to get tea when we're back in town."
A small car was parked outside the front doors to the Hall. Ethan Stewart was trying to fit a cardboard box into the already-packed boot. He looked up and waved to them as the taxi stopped, his body language screaming his apprehension. Doubtless after all the incidents at the Hall, he was paranoid of lawsuits.
John got out, leaving Sherlock to pay the fare, and went right to Ethan. "Afternoon," he said with a reassuring smile.
"Doctor." Ethan dropped the box and stuck out his hand, offering a weak, anxious handshake. "How are you — How are you feeling?" he asked, checking John's neck before looking him over for other signs of injury in a visual search pattern that had become all too familiar.
"I'm fine. Full recovery. It's nothing more than a sore throat now," John promised, trying to speak in a normal tone of voice. Then, because Ethan was still tense, he added, "Really. I never was much of a singer, I promise."
"You're a terrible singer," Sherlock agreed, long strides taking him right to John's side. He claimed John's hand in an unconscious, possessive manner that had become his new habit. It was warmly affectionate, occasionally inconvenient, and had almost entirely replaced nicotine patches, so John wasn't about to argue. "After that one Christmas, you swore —"
"Yes, thank you, Sherlock," John interrupted.
"Well. Um," Ethan said, trying too hard not to look down at their joined hands. "If you want to go look around, it's —"
"We'll do that," Sherlock interrupted with a quick nod before he started right for the house, without letting go of John.
"Thanks," John told Ethan, reflexively polite, and followed Sherlock inside.
Once in the foyer, Sherlock stopped and looked up, his eyes going to the hole in the high ceiling. It still hadn't been repaired, and the sight of it made John's stomach flip. Then Sherlock lowered his head a bit and said, "The shooting has to be an anomaly."
In a way, John knew that was true. Harold had never intended for him to be the victim, but it wasn't as if he could say that. So he took refuge in stupidity and asked, "Oh?"
"Obviously." Sherlock turned and pulled John towards the stairs, glancing up at the portrait that still hung there. "Two elaborate deaths here, followed by a shooting in the back garden? It could even be entirely unrelated."
"It's not as if we haven't had shooters after us before," John said agreeably as they turned at the landing, heading up the right staircase towards the trophy room. He braced for crawling, shivering apprehension that didn't come, even when Sherlock stopped outside the trophy room door.
He let go of John's hand, turned the doorknob, and pushed the door open into darkness. Cool, dusty air stirred as Sherlock crossed the threshold, reaching into his coat for his torch.
"Look for anything —" Sherlock stopped in his tracks, reaching protectively for John.
In the middle of the room, a shimmer of light appeared, surreal green and all too familiar. John pushed Sherlock aside and put himself between Sherlock and the ghost of Harold Latham. "Don't," John warned a bit madly, the instinct to protect Sherlock overruling even the rational thought that he was addressing a ghost — threatening a ghost, in fact.
The ghost coalesced, sharpening into the clearly defined form of the man in the portrait on the staircase, right down to the medals on his dress uniform. He looked soberly at John before lifting his chin to regard Sherlock.
"John," Sherlock whispered. His hand slipped over John's right shoulder, squeezing tightly.
"That's..." John began, before his voice faltered. Panic twisted through him as he realised that there was no way to stop this. Two worlds crossed paths — two impossible, incompatible worlds — and he had no idea how to help Sherlock rationalise the presence of a ghost.
"Captain Harold Latham," Sherlock finished.
Harold took a step forward. John's left hand twitched instinctively towards the gun holstered at the small of his back, which Sherlock had insisted he carry. Sherlock stepped back, trying to pull John with him.
Immediately, Harold stilled, looking back at John. His shadowed expression held a deep sense of sadness that John could understand all too well. Heartbroken, John lowered his hand, realising Harold presented no threat.
"I'm sorry," John said quietly.
Harold's head dipped in acknowledgement. Instead of advancing, he stepped to his left, reaching for the antique sideboard. Always curious, Sherlock moved closer without letting go of John, watching intently as Harold turned back to face them.
The ghost straightened, drawing his shoulders back, and a sad, faint smile crossed his face. And then he was simply gone, leaving John and Sherlock in darkness.
Sherlock let out a harsh breath. He let go of John, fumbling in the darkness with a familiar rustle of thick wool. A moment later, the blacklight torch snapped on, blue-white light searing through the darkness. John blinked, trying to adjust to the sudden glare.
He opened his stinging eyes and blinked, disoriented by the glare. "What —" he began, before he caught sight of nacreous green spots on the dusty carpet.
The light danced as Sherlock's hand shook. "That's — You saw —"
Worried, John turned to face Sherlock. "I know this all seems a bit much," he said, though he faltered. He had no idea how to help Sherlock's logical, scientific mind come to grips with this.
Sherlock's face was unusually pale in the blue-white light of his torch. He was breathing rapidly, pupils dilated, eyes darting around as he searched the room. Then his jaw set and he nodded once, silently.
John followed Sherlock's gaze to the sideboard, where an all-too-familiar gun rested, impossibly clean and gleaming with oil beneath the green light of Harold's ghostly fingerprints. All around it, the sideboard was thick with the dust of decades.
"Webley mark six revolver," Sherlock said, his voice devoid of emotion. "Thirty-eight calibre." He twisted to look at John and lifted his free hand to touch the stitches at the front of his throat. "It —"
John nodded, swallowing against the fear that this could all prove too much for Sherlock to handle. "Harold Latham was the shooter," he said quietly. "He was aiming for the orderly who was taking Reginald away from Latham Hall. Away from him."
Sherlock took a deep breath and looked back at the gun. "The footprints," he said in that same chillingly distant voice.
"Sherlock..." John carefully moved between Sherlock and the gun, flinching when the blacklight almost blinded him again. He pushed the torch down, and then reached up to cup Sherlock's face gently between his hands. "I know how this seems, but you need —"
Sherlock frowned as though offended. "It fits," he said accusingly, sharp anger suddenly colouring his voice. "The estate agents — the orderly. That was the missing piece. Who else would have motive?"
Suddenly Sherlock was gone, pacing away, sending torchlight sweeping wildly across the ceiling as he shoved both hands into his hair. "I should have seen it!"
"You should have — Sherlock!" John protested, baffled. Was this a breakdown or a breakthrough? "How the hell could you be expected to identify a ghost as the killer?"
"It fits," Sherlock repeated furiously. "What else could it have been? An opportunistic serial killer targeting estate agents?"
"But — Then — Have you ever... Have you ever even seen a ghost before?"
"Of course not." Sherlock shook his head, turning back to face John. "You were never a target."
"No. It was an accident."
Sherlock took a deep breath. "The orderly. He was... he was taking Reginald away from Harold."
John couldn't hide his flinch of sympathy for poor Harold. "Yes."
For some reason, Sherlock's next nod was easier, less tense. "I want to see the library again."
"Give me the torch."
Surprised, Sherlock looked back. After a moment's hesitation, he said, "Don't be long."
"I won't," John promised, catching the torch when Sherlock threw it to him.
As Sherlock left, John let out a shaky breath and leaned against the sideboard. The solidly-built antique held his weight without protest.
He had no idea if Harold's surprise appearance was a good thing or bad. Sherlock seemed to have accepted it — after all, the ghost was the murderer, and Sherlock put his cases before everything else. Perhaps he could accept this bizarre circumstance as truth. He was brilliant, a genius far beyond anything John could possibly understand. If the facts fit... well, maybe that was all the proof that Sherlock needed.
With his left hand, John picked up the Webley. The ghostly-green traces were already fading. The revolver felt strange in his hand, too top-heavy to be comfortable. He wouldn't carry it, but he would take it. He had the sense that Harold wanted him to have it, either as a peace offering or simply so that someone would remember him — the man who had died because of loneliness and unrequited love.
The man who was the only reason John had a chance at true happiness.
John tucked the revolver into his pocket and looked around at the dark, lonely trophy room. "Thank you," he said softly, wondering if the ghost of Harold Latham could hear him.
"It's lovely, actually. If you came to Sussex to see it, you'd immediately realise its potential," Sherlock said, his baritone steady, calm, and strong. John let out a relieved sigh, recognising this as Sherlock's on-the-phone voice, not his ranting-to-himself voice.
"No, before Christmas," Sherlock continued after a moment. "It must be soon. They need to sell... Isn't Mr. Scott an estate agent? Excellent. Bring him, then. He can expedite the paperwork."
Curious, John frowned, wondering what Sherlock was talking about.
Sherlock's sigh was audible but without the usual edge of impatience and scorn it would carry. "Please," he said with quiet sincerity. "It'll be ten years just to make it properly habitable, and John and I can't keep... Oh! You could meet him. I want you to meet him. Yes, he's here now, out in the hallway."
John rolled his eyes and stepped into the doorway, looking across the library to where Sherlock stood in front of the windows, mobile pressed to his ear. Sherlock grinned at him, eyes bright, features composed, seemingly entirely sane — for him, at least.
"Please, Mother," Sherlock said.
Sherlock's smile softened. "Thank you. Let me know when your train arrives," he said before he pocketed his mobile.
"What... That was your mother," John said stupidly. He couldn't remember Sherlock ever phoning his mother, though he had occasionally disappeared for two days to visit her.
Sherlock crossed the room and gently slipped his fingers under John's face, tipping it up for a kiss. "She's coming here. I want her to see the house."
"The house — Latham Hall," John said, feeling two steps behind Sherlock as he so often did.
"Of course! Those idiot Stewarts are going to sell it for scrap, and then let some corporation tear it down to put up some cheap planned housing development," Sherlock said in disgust. "Look at it, John. Really look."
"It's... It's nice, but what exactly does this have to do with your mother?"
"I can't afford it on my own, and you certainly don't have enough saved up. But between Mother —"
"Latham Hall, obviously. It needs to be restored, not demolished!"
John looked around, wondering if Sherlock had gone mad or caught hold of an idea that was truly brilliant — or both. "You want to move here. You want to leave London."
"Who says we'd have to leave London?" Sherlock challenged. "We'll work as long as we can, John. Neither of us could give it up. But between cases, we could come here." His voice dropped, becoming smoothly persuasive as his hands slipped back to comb through John's hair. "It's... important. If not for this case, I might never have said..."
Picturing Sherlock anywhere but London was almost impossible. And the thought of a sentimental Sherlock wanting to spend an unthinkable amount of money to buy an old country estate — a haunted old country estate — was absolutely mad.
"Anything," John promised with a little laugh. "Whatever you want, Sherlock."
Sherlock ducked down to kiss John, fiercely possessive. "I'll tell Ethan Stewart that he's selling to us. You choose where you want your study. You will keep blogging, won't you?"
"I... I was thinking of writing, actually," John admitted in a daze. "Those letters that Harold Latham never sent..."
"Perfect. I already know where I want the hives."
John blinked up at Sherlock. "Hives?"
"Bees, John. The backyard is perfect for keeping bees."
Thursday, 31 October, 2013
"You're never using my laptop again," John said as he leaned back into the creaky folding chair. He threw a glare into the kitchen for good measure, but Sherlock never looked up from his microscope.
"If mine hadn't been broken —"
"You mean shot," John interrupted, glancing at the progress bar. Yesterday had been the easy part: taking hundreds of photographs of architectural details at Latham Hall. Now, he had to sort out the best pictures and then start soliciting bids from contractors approved by the National Trust as restoration specialists.
"If you hadn't moved my laptop, it wouldn't have been shot."
"And if you hadn't decided to test a crossbow-and-tripwire trap in our living room, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all."
Sherlock's huff was his only answer.
John smirked and checked the file transfer. When it finished, he began sorting distractedly through the photographs, listening to the sounds of London outside the window and Sherlock rattling around in the kitchen. Around the thirtieth photograph, Sherlock's mobile rang. John looked up and rubbed his eyes, feeling the strain in a way that uncomfortably reminded him he wasn't getting any younger.
"Case?" he asked softly.
Sherlock frowned and shook his head, listening to the caller.
John turned his attention back to the screen. If he'd known what a pain in the arse it would be to take on a restoration project like this, he might've just saved time by buying a tent and a beehive and setting up camp at Sherlock's family estate.
He was a mediocre photographer at best, which meant most of the photographs were slightly blurry or poorly lit. Christ, he hoped he didn't have to go back to redo all the work. It wasn't that he didn't love Latham Hall; he did. He just didn't like the strain of crouching and climbing ladders to take pictures of wainscotting and moulding and the like.
In the eleven months since he and Sherlock had begun the process to take ownership of Latham Hall, they'd returned there two or three times a month. Most often, their visits had been business — meetings with architects, contractors, and so on — but a few times, they'd managed to sneak away for a quiet weekend, and had spent one blissful week there this past summer, sleeping on a lilo (all the furniture was in the hands of a restoration company specialising in antiques) and arguing fondly over just how many bees were reasonable for one man to keep as pets.
The oppressive chill of Latham Hall was gone, replaced by a warm, inviting feeling. Slowly, the estate was taking its place in John's heart right beside 221B Baker Street.
"What?" Sherlock asked sharply.
John looked up, but Sherlock's back was turned. He wasn't looking John's way, though, so John turned his attention back to the photographs.
Then he leaned forward, a chill passing through him as he spotted what looked at first to be another poor lighting decision on his part. Only instead of a lens flare or the glare of sunlight on glass, this light was tinged green.
"Shit," he whispered, tapping the screen to zoom in.
The shot was an overall view of the trophy room at Latham Hall, now empty of furniture and trophies, most of which had been donated to a local museum, though Sherlock had insisted upon keeping the more gruesome ones, and John had kept the tiger-skin rug.
As he zoomed in, the green light resolved into two hazy, amorphous shapes suspended in midair by the hearth, and it took a moment for John to recognise the exact placement where two antique armchairs had once sat.
He quickly switched to the next photograph as he darted a look Sherlock's way to verify that he was still speaking quietly on the phone. John sighed in relief. In almost a year, neither of them had mentioned the ghostly killer, and John privately wondered if Sherlock had somehow managed to delete the apparition from his memory.
"That was Sophie Stewart. Reginald Stewart died," Sherlock announced as he rang off and set the mobile down beside his microscope.
John shivered, thinking of the photograph. Two lights.
"When?" he asked.
"Yesterday afternoon." Sherlock rose and started towards John, who quickly glanced at the picture to verify that there was nothing odd — no ghosts. "He went into a coma on Monday. His passing was peaceful," Sherlock added.
Yesterday afternoon, John had been in the trophy room, taking photographs. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his arms as he took a deep breath.
Sherlock came up behind John's chair, pulling him into a gentle hug. He rested his chin on John's shoulder and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Do you need help sorting the photographs?"
"No. No, I've got it." He smiled a bit sadly and said, "Shame about Reginald. Maybe we can go visit his grave, next time we're down there."
"If you'd like," Sherlock promised.
John nodded, leaning back against Sherlock for a moment. "I love you, you know."
Sherlock tightened his arms and nodded, greying curls rubbing against John's cheek. "I love you, too."
"Harold? By God, it really is you!" Reggie exclaimed, a smile breaking across his face.
Laughing, Reggie caught Harold in a tight hug, thumping his back with joy. "Harold! Where have you been?"
"Waiting for you, of course."
"Waiting?" Reggie shook his head, momentarily confused. Then he grinned at Harold, taking him by the shoulders. "You look good, Harold. I've missed you."
Harold smiled, clasping his forearms. "I've missed you, too, Reggie."
"Have you seen Eleanor?"
"No. But she must be around somewhere."
"Let's go find her."
Harold smiled sadly and threw his arm around Reggie's shoulder. "If you'd like."
"I don't have to worry about you running off again, do I?"
"No, Reggie. Always at your side. I swear it."
Reggie hugged his best friend close as they started walking. "Always."