John felt a wash of relief. Not that he'd been expecting the palatial dimensions of Hatfield House or the ornate architecture of Castle Howard or anything, but he was pleased to see that the Holmes family estate, while undeniably large and impressive, lacked the overwhelming sort of grandness he'd secretly feared.
The driver who'd collected them at the train station pulled up before the house and man in a dark, well-tailored suit promptly jogged down the front steps, which were incongruously lined on both sides with carved pumpkins, and opened the car door for Sherlock. Chilly October wind tore the heat from the car's interior and John shivered as he climbed out behind his friend, glad of his deliciously warm leather jacket that kept out the worst of the autumn chill.
"Welcome home, sir," the footman or butler or whatever he was said.
"Thank you, Sneller. Is Mummy in?"
"She's in the small drawing room, sir."
"She's been amusing the local school children again I see." Sherlock spared half a nod for the pumpkins.
"Perhaps vice versa, sir."
"Hm." He didn't glance back to see if John was following as he bounded up the steps. "Come on, John. Mummy will want to meet you straight away."
John jogged after Sherlock's swift stride. He was used to hurrying to catch up with the taller man and reached him just before the heavy oak front doors. "I'm looking forward to it." In fact, he'd been curious ever since Mycroft's mention of Holmes' family holidays, and that had been quite some time ago. He still couldn't imagine what they were like.
"I am, too." Sherlock didn't elaborate and John didn't press him. The fact was he barely heard what Sherlock said as the moment he passed the threshold it was as if he'd been surrounded by… God knew what. If a blanket could scrutinise, he'd say that was what it felt like. As though someone had dropped a blanket on him, but the blanket had eyes and ears.
As quickly as the feeling came, it vanished. He took a breath, glad it had gone. Only… It hadn't. Not entirely. Instead, that smothering scrutiny had simply backed off, regarding him now from the walls, adorned with portraits, and the ceiling, hung with a crystal chandelier.
The last time he'd felt anything remotely like it was in Edinburgh. Specifically, underground Edinburgh. Those surroundings had been cold, dark, and downright spooky. This place was everything other was not, yet the ghostly feeling was inescapably similar. He absently rubbed a hand against his chest where he'd been struck on that previous occasion.
"John?" Sherlock stood in an archway to John's left, an impatient and puzzled expression on his lean face.
"Yes. Sorry." Had Sherlock noticed it, too? Or was he so accustomed to it that he ignored it, like the ticking of a familiar clock that one only hears when it's pointed out? He caught up again and followed Sherlock along a wide hallway to an open door. "You could have warned me."
There was no time for answers, though, as they stepped into what must be the small drawing room.
If this was "small" how big must the "big" drawing room be, John wondered. And yet, despite its dimensions, the room was warm and almost cosy with the fire crackling away behind the grate and the tea service being placed at that moment on the low table by a woman in a neat black dress and white apron.
A tall, slim woman with the hair the colour and sheen of pewter looked perfectly in place in the room, standing as she was a step from the fireplace. She was neatly and fashionably dressed for a late-afternoon meeting, and wore a necklace of silver and garnet like shimmering drops of blood at her pale throat. She smiled. "Sherlock!" He crossed the room to her and she embraced him and kissed his cheek. "I'm so pleased you're here." Despite the warmth of her tone, there was underlying it a definite hint of motherly admonition. It had been too long for her liking since her son's last visit.
"It's good to see you, Mummy."
She turned her smile on John and he couldn't help but stand up straighter even though he'd not been slouching in the first place. "You must be Doctor Watson." They shook hands and John was struck by the cool touch of her skin and the strength of her grip.
"John, please. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Holmes."
"Please do call me Celeste."
It didn't take Sherlock's swift and horrified look to convince John that would never happen.
Sherlock doffed his enormous coat and tossed it over the back of the settee. It seemed far too casual an act for the setting, but what did John know about it, really? He was thoroughly out of his element. He removed his own coat and looked for somewhere more decorous to deposit it.
"Your manners exceed my son's, I see," Mrs. Holmes said with a spark of mischief in her pale eyes--precisely the same shade as Sherlock's, noted John. She summoned the maid with a look. "Coats, Merryweather."
"Yes, ma'am." The girl took them both and swiftly fled. John didn't know whether her absence made him more uncomfortable or less.
"Tea?" Mrs. Holmes gestured and the three of them sat, John taking a spot on the settee with Sherlock. He tried to act as though he didn't feel wildly out of place in such rich surroundings.
"Thank you," he said.
She poured three delicate cups full and Sherlock promptly loaded his up with enough sugar to make John's teeth ache. Her next statement filled John with dread like those words never had before.
"I've heard a good deal about you, John."
He kept a calm face, but could see Sherlock in his peripheral vision, smirking. "Oh?"
"My boys can be very thorough in their own ways."
"Oh. Right." He let the subject drop and hoped she would do the same. He didn't want to know. Really. At least, not right now. Later, when he and Sherlock were alone, he'd press the matter. Oh, yes. He would press it firmly.
"I understand you served in Afghanistan."
The conversation started there and wound its way through recent cases and on to goings-on around the estate and in the nearby town. "You'll have to make a trip into the village whilst you're here," Mrs. Holmes said. Her keen eyes narrowed as she eyed her son. "Sherlock's bored with the idea already, but the place is picturesque enough and perhaps you'll be lucky and discover a mysterious dead body or a ghostly visitor in the old church while you're there."
Sherlock's expression remained bland. "That's hardly likely."
"You never know. It is October. A time for spectral goings on." Mother and son shared an ironic smile, obviously amused by such superstitious silliness.
John didn't care to discuss spooks and spirits and tried to change the subject. "I, uh, understand you've had some of the local children over? The pumpkins outside, I mean." As he spoke, a movement by the French doors caught his eye. A small tow-headed boy peered at him, regarding him with an intensity John had only ever seen on one other face. The boy looked about seven or eight years old and was oddly dressed, as if he'd stepped out of a Harrods catalogue round about 1973.
"Oh yes! We had such fun, too," Mrs. Holmes replied. "Do you like children, John?"
"I don't have much opinion on them, really." John glanced at her as he answered, but his eyes flitted back to the windows. The boy was gone. He tore his gaze away and met Mrs. Holmes' inquisitive smile in order to answer her properly. "I haven't much experience with them."
"I adore them. I do. They're so simple and open to new things. So inquisitive about everything, without being coldly analytical as my boys were and remain."
John glanced uncomfortably at Sherlock, but his friend seemed unperturbed by her description. Fair enough, he supposed, since it was accurate. "Um… Right."
"I like to have the village children over for seasonal festivities. I've been doing it for years. It's a tradition by now. People expect it." She said it in that way of the entitled gentry, but without the tone of disdain that might have come from someone less genuine. "Have you ever carved a pumpkin, John?"
"Mummy, he doesn't care about pumpkin carving," Sherlock interrupted.
There was the disdain John had been missing. He didn't care for it. He ignored his friend and turned to Mrs. Holmes. "Only once. It didn't go well."
"Oh dear. Have you no artistic talent at all, then?" she asked.
Sherlock laughed and John squirmed. He didn't think her words were meant to insult, but they had managed to sting. "No, it's that… It turns out I'm allergic to raw pumpkin. I came out in hives--" No need to elaborate, his brain told him. "It was unpleasant," he concluded. He heard a giggle and glanced towards it. There, again, was the little boy standing by the doors, grinning madly. Outside, he saw that the wind had picked up. Leaves blew wildly in the fading afternoon light. "Who is--?" Before he could complete his question, the boy was gone. John could swear he'd done no more than blink, but there was no sign of the child anywhere and no where he could have hidden so fast.
"John?" Sherlock called him from his tiny reverie. Amazing how his name said by that voice could so completely draw his focus.
"Sorry. I thought I saw someone."
"It was probably just Wynne-Jones out in the garden," said Mrs. Holmes. "He's been frantic to get everything secured for winter, but the weather's been so uncooperative." She glanced over her shoulder to the doors. "It's gotten rather blustery out. I quite expect to see Pooh Bear fly past dangling from an umbrella." She laughed lightly and turned back to the men.
John knew it wasn't a gardener he'd seen, in the house or out of it. "Have all the children gone home?"
"Of course. They were here yesterday. I knew Sherlock wouldn't want them here when he arrived. That's why I didn't invite you down until today."
"Oh." That made sense, but it didn't explain the boy. He must be the son of one of the household staff. Although that didn't explain his out-dated clothing. Perhaps they were well cared for hand-me-downs. John gave it no further thought.
John woke and for a split-second hadn't the foggiest notion where he was. Then it came back to him through the soft mattress, enveloping comforter, and aroma of citrus and clove furniture polish: the Oak Bedroom.
He wondered what had woken him. He peered about, but saw nothing beyond darkness dotted by the even darker shapes of the room's furniture. He strained his ears, but heard nothing beyond the wind gusting outside the curtained windows.
He drew in a deep breath that turned into a yawn and let himself sink deeper under the warm, down-filled duvet. That was when he felt it. A weight at the corner of the bed, pinning down the covers near its foot. Had Mrs. Holmes a cat or dog? He didn't think so. Even if she did, he was certain he'd closed the door before turning in.
It might be Sherlock, he thought. It wouldn't be the first time his friend had woken him in the middle of the night for one reason or another. But the continued silence argued against such logic.
"Hello?" he said softly. He felt half a fool when no answer came. He snorted a soft, deprecating laugh. "Imagining things," he muttered. "Talking to the air. What would Sherlock say?"
"Something rude, I reckon."
John understood in that instant the phrase "He nearly jumped out of his skin". The voice had been small but clear, and it startled a solid year off his life. His heart raced and he sat up straight. "Who's there?"
More silence met his query. Several moments ticked past and he dared to slide a foot back down under the covers, looking for the weight that had pressed them down moments ago.
Giving it up as imagination, John settled in again to sleep. He was just dozing off when a scraping noise jerked him awake. "Sherlock, if you think this is funny I can assure you it's not," he snapped, more annoyed than frightened.
Giggling reached his ears and he knew his visitor was not his flatmate but someone considerably younger. The boy. "All right. I know who you are now."
"No, you don't."
"You're the boy from the drawing room this morning."
The child gave an annoyed little harrumph that reminded John inexplicably of Mycroft. The idea of Mycroft as a child was enough make John's brain shudder. "I'm turning on a light."
"You shouldn't be in here, and certainly not in the dark with a strange man you don't know."
"You're not that strange--except that you like Sherlock."
John let the insult slide. It wasn't like he hadn't heard similar from Sally Donovan, and in much coarser and more scathing language. He sat up and plumped up his pillows. Clearly the child wasn't going away of his own accord, and what was the harm, really, in a bit of a chat? Clearly the kid was lonely if he was seeking out sleeping visitors to talk to.
"What's your name?" asked John.
"Seriously? Like Ford Prefect?" That seemed unlikely, unless the boy's parents were just that fond of Douglas Adams. At least they hadn't called the poor kid Zaphod.
"I dunno. Who's that?"
"Never mind. I'm John." It was weird talking to a person he couldn't see and John's eyes scanned the darkness for a boy-sized shape amongst the shadows.
"I know. I heard you talking earlier."
"In the small drawing room, you mean."
"You know it's impolite to eavesdrop." Silence met his mild reprimand. "I'm not angry."
"Good. I like you."
The boy's declaration was almost as bizarre as this whole situation. "Thanks? I like you, too." Not that he knew this strangely bold yet shy child well enough to have any genuine feelings one way or the other. But he didn't dislike him, so again, what was the harm?
"You talk to me," Ford announced.
"Well, yes." That seemed fairly obvious.
"You can see me."
"Not at the moment," John pointed out.
That made Ford laugh, and there was something infectious in the sound. John found himself chuckling, too. This mirth was all well and good, but common sense asserted itself. "It's late. I'm sure it's well past your bedtime. I know it's past mine."
"Grown-ups don't have bedtimes."
"Sure we do. We just make them ourselves."
Ford seemed to consider this; the silence felt thoughtful. "Huh. I hadn't thought of that."
"You get off to bed now, all right?"
"Can I see you tomorrow?"
"Yeah." He nodded for no sensible reason. If he couldn't see the kid, chances were the kid couldn't see him. He made himself stop. "I'll be around. All weekend. Sherlock and I aren't leaving until Monday."
"Sherlock." Disdain. Disdain that resonated in John's sleepy mind although he couldn't quite pinpoint it. "He's so naff."
"That's not very nice. He's my friend, you know. If he weren't, I wouldn't be here. Then who would you be up at all hours talking to?"
"Hm. S'pose so."
"Good night, Ford."
John waited, expecting to hear light footsteps or the door opening and closing. A minute passed in deep silence. "Ford?" He waited. "Ford, you need to go to bed. Ford?" Feeling more than a little ridiculous, he finally reached out and turned on the bedside lamp. He blinked in the yellow-white light and looked around.
No one. No sign that anyone had been there at all. The chair at the small writing desk was pushed in. No indentation pressed the cushion of the wing-back chair in the far corner. No crease marred the corner of the duvet at the foot of the bed.
The feeling of being watched that he'd felt earlier that day returned in force and he whipped his head around, seeking its source. He took a steadying breath and said as firmly as he could manage, "I've had enough of this. I'm going to sleep now and I would appreciate being left in peace for the rest of the night." Sherlock would undoubtedly find his behaviour ridiculous, but Sherlock wasn't here. Someone else was. Someone John couldn't see, but whose presence was palpable in the chilly air of the old bedroom.
To his satisfaction, the presence backed off. "Thank you. Good night." He shut off the light and burrowed back into the warmth of the duvet.
Breakfast the next morning in the dining room was a feast of the sort John could get used to--assuming he could then spend the rest of the day doing calisthenics and other assorted unpleasantness to work off the outrageous caloric intake. How Sherlock could simply pick at it as he did confounded him. He was well aware of his friend's disinterest in food as anything more than necessary fuel; it was the how of it that boggled John's mind, what with the incredible spread of eggs, bacon, toast, marmalade and jam, scones and clotted cream, tea, coffee, juice, fresh fruit, and hot cereal available to them.
They'd been served at dinner last night and he found this set-up much more comfortable. "It's like the kitchen's feeding an army," said John, "only with much better food."
"Yes. Clearly, Cook thought Mycroft was coming."
"There's more than enough for one more person."
Sherlock looked at him from across the table and his own solitary mug of tea and slice of toast with jam--or was it jam with a bit of toast? "That's not what I meant."
"Is your mother joining us this morning?" John loaded his plate with as much as he dared from the buffet on the sideboard.
"Mummy is an early riser."
"Ah." John set his plate on the table and went back to pour himself a cup of tea. It was then that he spotted the photograph. It was an ordinary looking snapshot. A five-by-seven framed in simple, dark wood. The image was grainy and the colours were distinctly vintage '70s. It looked like a spontaneous family portrait taken at a picnic or other summer-time outing--quite unlike the formally posed affairs he'd seen about the house yesterday. In it were a tall, thin couple with three children. The woman wore a pleated skirt and yellow blouse, and she had dark brown hair. The man's thinning curls were jet black and he was dressed in linen slacks and a blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He wore classic black-rimmed glasses and had a stern expression on his narrow face. The youngest child was an infant held in the woman's arms, the next was a fair-haired, chubby toddler in shorts and a sailor top, and the third was a familiar tow-headed boy in dark denims and a rusty-orange polo shirt. John leaned in for a closer look. That was definitely the boy he'd seen yesterday and who'd paid a late-night visit to John's room.
He knew immediately who the adults must be, and by relation the children. But it didn't add up.
"Who's, uh… Who's this?" he asked, tipping his head to the photograph and trying to sound casually inquisitive.
"Hm?" Sherlock looked up again, this time from his phone where he was no doubt desperately trolling news sites for something that would require their immediate return to London and excitement.
"This photograph. Who's in it?"
"The family, of course." Sherlock returned his attention to his mobile.
"Which family?" John persisted, his eyes drawn to the picture. How could it be so old and yet the child in it was definitely the boy, Ford, and he looked no more than a year or so younger than he had yesterday?
Sherlock gave him what John had come to think of as his god-you're-an-idiot look. "This family. My family. You are slow this morning. Have your tea."
"But the boy in it--"
"There are three boys in the photo, if you bother to look. Myself, whom I admit you might not recognize as I was rather smaller then."
"So, the one in the sailor suit. Is that Mycroft, then?"
"Yes." How he put so much boredom into a single syllable was remarkable. And irritating.
"But he's so blond."
"Holmes family trait. We all started out that way."
John looked at Sherlock, trying to picture him fair-haired. It hurt his brain, so he stopped. "So, the other boy? Is he a cousin or something?" That didn't add up either, but he was beginning to suspect the truth might well turn out to be that two plus two equalled the square root of negative one, and he really didn't want that to be the case. Really, really didn't.
"That's our elder brother. He died later that year."
Yeah. John was pretty sure he could build a TARDIS based on that answer. A movement by the window drew his eye. There, as he'd suspected and feared, was Ford, and this time, standing as he was in the October morning sunlight, he was quite, quite transparent. And he was smirking a familiar Holmesian smirk. John didn't look away as he asked one last question.
"Your eldest brother. What was his name?"
"Sherrinford, if you must know. I can't imagine what Mummy was thinking with a name like that."
Because Mycroft and Sherlock are so much more sensible, thought John but kept his mouth shut. "Right. So you've never really met him or seen him except in photos."
He could feel Sherlock's eyes on him, examining him as if he were truly the village idiot. Or perhaps it was with concern that John was unwell. That was a less insulting idea. John's eyes on Ford didn't waver and neither did the boy's sardonic smile.
"Of course not. What are you staring at? Honestly, John, have some tea. You're clearly not awake yet."
Ford shook his head and rolled pale eyes. "Told you," the ghost said. "He's naff."
John nodded and gave a low chuckle. He mouthed the words so Ford could see but Sherlock couldn't hear: "Totally naff."
Ford laughed and John couldn't help but giggle a bit, too.
Sherlock only looked perplexed. "Are you all right?"
Finally, John turned back to his friend and met his gaze squarely. Still chuckling, he said, "Yeah. Oddly enough, I'm great. And I'm starved." He sat and promptly tucked into breakfast.
Childish giggles trailed off beyond hearing. John smiled over his first sip of tea. He doubted it would be the last he saw of the ghostly boy. He was in for an interesting weekend.