"I'm taking Toby for a walk. Do you want to come?" John expected the reply he received.
"It's a lovely afternoon. It might stop you being so bored."
Sherlock's cool gaze answered that well enough without words.
"Right. I'll be back well before the party starts, so you have that to look forward to, anyway."
"I am not looking forward to Mummy's garden party. I wouldn't even be here if Mycroft hadn't shirked his responsibilities and hared off to Pyongyang. The coward."
John didn't see how a diplomatic mission to North Korea was more cowardly or less of a responsibility than a garden party with one's mum, but then he was not a Holmes.
"I meant that you'd at least have my company for the party. So you don't have to go it alone." Receiving no further response from his sulking partner, he called Toby to him, clipped on the dog's lead, and headed out the French doors.
The staff were in get-it-done mode, he noted as he passed alongside their staging grounds. Tents were up on the wide lawn. Chairs and tables were set out. Banquet tables already held chafing dishes awaiting the evening's selection of hot amuse-bouches. Wet bars stood at opposite ends of the lawn and bartenders were currently setting up an array of liquors, wines, and beers.
John gave the last an amused look. Were upper-class garden parties usually that alcoholic? He had no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the fundraising that was associated with this particular event.
"This is my least favourite of Mummy's parties," said a young voice from beside him. Toby tugged at the lead and John let it out a bit so the dog could properly greet the ghost. Sherrinford knelt down and rubbed the dog's ears briefly before rising again.
"I think Sherlock would agree," John replied.
"Oh ugh! You mean we have something in common? I might have to rethink this."
John laughed. The trio continued their stroll past the rushing house staff, caterers, and florists. "Why don't you like this party?"
"No kids at this one. Halloween's the best for that. And parts of Christmas are good, too. But this is a fancy, grown-ups-only party, and where's the fun in that?"
"Grown-ups have a different measure of fun."
"I know." Ford kicked at the grass, which took no notice of his ghostly foot.
They neared the wooded area adjacent to the Holmes estate. Toby barked and John let him direct their path into the trees. He and Ford stopped while the hound sniffed about in the underbrush, checking messages and leaving replies.
"I like these woods," said Ford.
"I do, too. I took Toby out this way last night. Not very far, though. It was getting dark by the time we went out."
"Mummy kept you talking in the small drawing room and you're too polite leave a conversation with your hostess."
"I don't like to be rude."
"Toby wanted out. If you couldn't take him, you should have asked one of the staff to do it."
"That never occurred to me." He wasn't used to having staff to do things for him. At least, not outside of work. In that case there were plenty of support people to help out. But outside of clinic or hospital, the idea was completely foreign. "Besides, I like walking Toby. Especially around here. It's not quite so nice in London."
"No. I suppose it wouldn't be."
They were now deeper into the little woods than John had gone last night. He glanced around them, making sure he could find his way back to the house when the time came.
"Come to the pond," said Ford suddenly.
"Weavers Pond. It's this way." He pointed off to their left. "There used to be a path. It's overgrown now, but I remember the way. Come on." He started off at a quick pace, unhampered as he was with having to fight through the brush.
"You heard him, Toby. Come on," John whistled the dog in, shortening up the lead until they could get through the weeds and shrubs with minimal entanglements. "Wait up!" he called ahead. He could barely make out the ghost in the dappled light and shadows.
"Slow pokes!" Laughter wafted back through the trees. John and Toby fought through the foliage, taunted all the way by Ford's teasing laughter and playful insults.
Finally, they emerged into a clearing. John stopped quickly so as not to tumble forward. The ground sloped quickly down to rather more a small lake than a pond. "Whoa!"
"Careful," said Ford, beside him once more. "Can Toby come off his lead?"
"As long as you and he both promise not to go too far. I really do need to get back before the party starts."
"We promise. Don't we, Toby?"
Toby barked enthusiastically and wagged his tail.
John unclipped the lead and stuffed it into the pocket of his lightweight jacket. Immediately, Ford sat down, and he and the dog began to wrestle in the grass. The ground was damp even up here, and grew muddy as it descended to the water's edge. The earth looked like it was heavy with clay, as well. John had to stop himself cautioning the boy not to get too dirty. As if dirt would stick to a ghost. The dog, on the other hand...
"Try to keep Toby out of the mud, please. I don't want to have to give him a bath when we get back to the house."
Ford looked up at him with deeply false sincerity in his pale eyes. "I'll try."
"No, you won't."
"No. I won't." He grinned and went back to wrestling the dog.
It was a gorgeous afternoon and the sun coming into the clearing made the little lake sparkle. "I'm going to walk around the pond. You coming?"
"Okay." John began a leisurely anti-clockwise stroll around the raised bank of the pond. "Does anyone ever come here?" he called back as he went along.
"Not for years. We used to come bathing in the summer and ice skating in the winter, though."
"Did it freeze often?"
"Four or five times that I remember. Mycroft didn't like skating much, but I did. I had my own pair of skates and everything. I got them for my birthday."
There was a splash and John looked up to see Toby swimming through the water towards him. He groaned. "Toby!"
"What?" asked Ford, once again right beside John. He envied the ghost's ability to disappear from one place and immediately reappear elsewhere. Although he didn't suppose the trade-off was worth it. "You didn't want to have to bathe him, so he's bathing himself."
John only sighed and shook his head. Toby reached them and bounded up out of the lake, stopping at John's feet to shake himself free of water. "Thank you," said John wryly. The dog only wagged his wet tale, his paws sinking slightly in the muddy clay.
John continued to stroll around the lake to the far side. The bank was higher and steeper there than where they'd first entered the clearing. "Why does no one come here anymore? Even if it hasn't frozen in thirty years, people must still like to swim here." Although he could see no signs of it. He could see no signs that anything but the local wildlife visited the pond.
"No." The little ghost was unusually sombre.
John turned to look at him, a question poised on his lips, but he never got the chance to ask it. His left foot hit a small rock and his ankle rolled painfully under him. Arms flailing wildly, he tried to keep his balance, and failed. He twisted and fell. His head hit the ground hard and his bad shoulder struck a rock as he slid awkwardly down the slope.
The shock of cold as he hit the pond made him gasp. He inhaled water and choked. He rolled to sitting by pure survival instinct, and promptly went into a spasm of wracking coughs that sent more pain shooting through his torso and shoulder.
"John? John!" Ford shouted, and Toby barked at them both. "John!" The boy's face was right above John's. He looked terrified.
John finally found breath to answer. "I'm okay." He was soaked to the bone, muddied and scraped up, and his whole upper body hurt like hell. His head pounded and his ears rang. But he'd survive.
Why was the boy so scared? "Yeah. Just give me a minute." John couldn't get any wetter, so he sat there catching his breath and waiting for the pain to recede. When he at last felt capable of movement, he put one hand against the silty lake bed--he dared not use both, the way his shoulder felt--and pushed himself up. He only made it part way before he sat down heavily. He gasped as his shoulder and ankle jarred again. "Okay. Not so much."
"What's wrong?" demanded Ford urgently.
"My shoulder's banged up, and my ankle's badly twisted." He reached a hand into the water to feel at it. "Not broken though. That's good. Still, I'm not going anywhere under my own power at the moment."
John reached into his coat and pulled out his drowned mobile. "Not on, I'm afraid. Literally."
"You must get up! Get out of the pond, at least! Please!" He looked near tears. "Please, please get out of the water. I shouldn't ought to have brought you here."
"Ford, it's okay. I'll be okay."
"All right. All right. Calm down." It would take a Herculean effort, he expected, to haul himself out with only one arm and one leg for purchase. "I'll try, but I need you to calm down."
Ford hauled in huge lungfuls of air--or would have, had he been living--and nodded.
John agonisingly rolled over onto his side and began the task of extricating himself from the pond. Toby rushed down and tugged at his coat, trying to help.
John paused as the obvious struck him. "Toby! Good dog, but I've got a better idea." He turned his head against the muddy ground and looked at Ford. "Can you get Toby back to the house?" The dog could scent his way easily, but it would be better for John if Ford went with him. An audience was not going to get him out of the pond any faster.
"Good. I can't phone anyone, so you need to get Sherlock for me. Okay?"
"But he can't see me!" wailed the ghost, near to bursting into tears.
"He doesn't have to. You get Toby to him, and he'll know something's wrong. Sherlock's a bit naff, but he's smart enough to follow Toby back out here. Right?"
Ford sniffled again and nodded. "I suppose."
"Good lad. Off you go, then."
"Of you go," repeated John. "I promise I'll be out of the water before you can get back."
"I promise. Now go."
Ford didn't look convinced, but he called Toby to heel and the pair dashed off back towards the house.
John allowed himself to simply lie there for a minute. It wasn't pleasant, all wet and muck-covered and aching. Memories of his army training days flooded his mind and he shook with them, his heart racing in his chest. He'd told Ford to calm down. Now he told himself the same.
Several deep breaths of fresh, grass- and mud-scented air later, he felt better. He gathered his energy and once again began the arduous climb from the pond. Not since Afghanistan had so few feet seemed like so many miles.