Fandom: Sherlock (BBC)
Characters: Joanna (John) Watson, Sherlock Holmes, Harriet Watson, Mycroft Holmes, Anthea, Mrs. Hudson, James Moriarty, Original Characters
Dedication: This fic wouldn't exist at all without the unfailing encouragement, knowledge, and creative inspiration of tricksterquinn, who a lifetime ago asked me to write her a "Story with a capital S." If it even comes close to satisfying that request it's because of awesome beta readers like lalaithlockhart, pendrecarc, earlgreytea68, and eponymous_rose.
Summary: Sometimes, her grandmother has said, in the simplest, strongest of magics that’s all that’s required – a sacrifice and an intent. Her blood, and his words: I want to forget.
In which Joanna Watson is a witch, Sherlock Holmes is himself, and every spell has its price.
Notes: I've been writing this fic for more than three years, and while the larger story arc is not and may never be complete, I thought the AUness of it all may still be worth sharing. Thus warned, read on at your WIP peril. :)
The end is where we start from.
There is a boy in the mirror in her grandmother’s attic.
Joanna first sees him on a Tuesday, just after she arrives home from school. The house is empty, hollowed out by the silence; her sister is at a friend’s, her gran out doing the shopping. The afternoon rain is loud against the windows and roof.
Her grandmother’s house is tall and narrow and warped in odd places, twisted by age and long years of ill use. Joanna flicks on each lamp as she wanders from room to room, exploring the forgotten, dust-choked spaces behind curtains and inside wardrobes. She finds four pennies, a thimble-sized brass bell, and the half-crushed skeleton of a mouse. The pennies and the mouse’s skull she wraps in a page of yellowed newspaper and slips into her pocket – the pennies will go in her tin money bank, and her grandmother might find use for the skull. She leaves the bell behind, on the dark wood windowsill where she found it.
On the third floor, she finds the door to the attic.
The stairs are tight, the ceiling low – twelve years old and not yet five feet tall and still she feels the breathless press of walls and wood and the dark. When she comes to the top, she reaches up and tugs the waxy length of string hanging over her head. A light bulb fizzes and pops, and when her eyes have adjusted she sees the mirror.
There is her reflection, of course – the swinging plait of her sand-coloured hair and the untidy stiffness of her new school uniform. The scuffs on her sister’s old shoes. The mirror is tall, full-length and angled slightly towards the floor; the frame simple, oval, wood. The glass seems darker than it should be – older than it looks, she thinks, and turns to the boxes of family photo albums stacked against the wall.
As she looks away, the reflection changes – a heartbeat-brief glance from over her shoulder and she sees another room inside the mirror, a bed buried under books and sheaves of paper. An impossible room and an impossible bed, and sprawled on top of the impossible mess is a boy with a pale face and dark, curling hair, watching her out of the corner of his eye.
But when she turns back she sees only her reflection, standing in the attic alone.
After school the next day she climbs right up to the attic, sits down in front of the mirror and waits.
“I’ve brought snacks,” she tells the mirror. “You should take this as a sign of my determination.” She pulls the bag of crisps from her coat pocket, and as she lifts her head she sees him.
The angle is odd, different from the day before – he’s above her somehow, kneeling, and beyond the dark halo of his hair she sees the ceiling of his room, the foot of the bed. His face is close, but his eerie, colourless gaze is fixed on something just out of sight. He sees her, but only from the corner of his eye.
She looks directly at him, and he disappears.
“Oh,” she breathes, and glances down at the crisps again, her too-long fringe falling into her eyes. At the edge of her vision she sees the boy’s face, and the impatient twitch of his eyebrows. He says something, his mouth forming a quick, soundless series of words – a question, she thinks, but she can’t be sure. She taps her ear once and makes a slashing movement with her hand: I can’t hear you.
“I don’t suppose you can hear me, either,” she says, and the boy taps his ear in response. Then he reaches for something out of sight, keeping his gaze carefully fixed just to her left. A moment later, he holds up a notepad with the words How are you doing this? written on it in a sharp black-inked scrawl.
“Magic, probably,” she says. “Though you don’t seem like the type to accept that as an explanation.”
The boy taps his ear again, irritated, and she shrugs.
He scribbles on the notepad and holds it up. What have you done to my mirror?
“What have you done to mine?” she asks, and startles when heavy footsteps pound up the attic stairs a moment later. She stands, turning her back to the mirror and stuffing the crisps into her pocket.
“Gran told me you’d be hiding up here,” Harry says, her shoulders hunched low as she steps up into the room. Her nose wrinkles delicately. “Jesus. This place smells like a corpse.”
“It’s wood rot, I think,” Joanna says. She sniffs. “Maybe mould?”
Harry swipes a finger along the edge of a nearby box and cringes at the dust. “What are you doing up here, Jo? It’s revolting.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when Joanna told her sister everything. Now she looks at her feet and says, “Thought I might go through the old family albums. Find some photos of Mum.”
Harry’s face goes still and quiet and shuttered, and Joanna hates herself for it, a little. “Yeah,” Harry says, looking away. “Of course. Good idea.” She hesitates, then takes a step into the room. “You want some company?”
“No,” Joanna says, too quickly. “Let’s go downstairs.” She forces a cough. “Smell’s getting to me, I think.”
“It’s probably a mummy or shrunken head or something else dead and cursed and morbid. I bet Gran doesn’t even remember she left it up here.” Harry turns back to the stairs, but she stops just before she reaches the first step. She looks back over her shoulder, frowning. “That mirror—”
Joanna’s breath catches in her throat. “What about it?”
“It’s the only thing in the room without twenty years worth of dust on it.” She walks over, the floorboards creaking under her boots, and touches the glass with one finger. It comes away clean. “No one’s been up here for ages. Did you wash it?”
“No,” Joanna says with perfect honesty. “I haven’t touched it.”
Harry rolls her eyes. “Cursed corpses and magic mirrors. I hate this bloody house.” She disappears down the staircase, boots thumping against each step.
After a moment’s glance at her reflection in the mirror, Joanna follows.
That night Joanna lies awake until just after moonrise.
Harry snores softly from the other side of the room, coiled in blankets and sleeping like the dead. Joanna creeps past, down the staircase to the front hall and the lamp-lit kitchen. She drags a chair from the table to the cluttered shelves above the oven, wincing at the scrape of wooden legs over tile, and when she stands on the edge she’s just tall enough to reach the top shelf.
Gran’s recipe book is heavier than it looks, and it lets loose a low sigh of dust when Joanna drops it onto the kitchen table. The picture on the cheap cardboard cover is stained and worn, but she can still make out the shape of a tall, robed woman and the harvest cornucopia she carries in crook of one arm. The scythe she raises with the other. Joanna turns to the first page and breathes in the bitter smell of old herbs and older paper.
The first few pages are recipes for breads and puddings and stews, some handwritten in a spiked, old-fashioned script and others clipped from the pages of time-yellowed newspapers and magazines. She turns each brittle page carefully, with the tips of her fingers.
Soon she comes to other recipes. Cure fore the Blight of Baldness, says one entry, just above a list of ingredients that includes three hairs from the head of a newborne child and a paste of burdock, old rain, and crushed eggshells. According to a note at the bottom of the page, the results are variable, but only rarely damaging.
Words for the Summoning of Toads comes along rather further in, as does the slightly less optimistic Words for the Possible Banishing of Toads, which includes a helpful list of concoctions that require toad’s eyes, toad’s bones, or toad’s heart should that recipe prove less effective than the first.
Joanna has seen these pages before, has carried home pocketfuls of crow’s feathers and watched closely as her grandmother prepared decoctions of valerian root for sleeplessness and willow bark for pain. Gran prefers small problems with smaller solutions, but at the back of her stiff-paged book there are recipes for more. Recipes Joanna isn’t meant to read.
For the Forcible Return of a Wandering Heart, reads the first that requires fresh-spilled human blood. Others ask for locks of hair, for grave soil, for flesh willing or unwillingly given. For the cuttings of fingernails and the bottled breath of sleep. To Kindle Passion, she reads. To Discover Secrets. To Find What Is Lost.
For Forgetting, says one page. For the Forgotten, says the next.
There are mentions of rare objects (poisoned cups, enchanted rings, shells that grant any wish whispered inside) and a few of mirrors, but none that describe the mirror in the attic. There are mirrors that show the truth, and others that only show lies. There was once a mirror that showed you your heart’s greatest desire, but it was lost years ago and Joanna knows what she would see in it, if she could.
She slips the recipe book back onto its shelf and returns to bed.
The next time Joanna sees the boy in the mirror he isn’t in his bedroom, and he isn’t alone.
He stands in front of a wide desk in a private study, the walls behind him lined by bookshelves and dark wood. His arms are at his sides, his back held stiff and straight, and Joanna realises for the first time that he’s at least a year younger than she is, if not more. His face and thin-fingered hands are too long for his body, and standing alone with his chin held defiantly high he looks a bit ridiculous, like a puppy who’s yet to grow into his paws. It should be endearing, but it hurts her, somehow, to see him made small.
She cannot see the face of the tall man sitting behind the desk, but she sees the way his hands move as he speaks. His long, expressive fingers, and the dark halo of his hair.
The boy watches her from the corner of his eye, his mouth gone slightly slack with surprise. She’d waited until Harry had fallen asleep to sneak up to the attic, and she’s in her nightdress, her dressing gown tied tight around her waist; she must look like a ghost in yellow-chequered cotton. She gives him an absurd little wave, and for a moment he almost smiles.
Then his father makes a sharp gesture – punctuation for sharp words she cannot hear –and the boy flinches.
He looks away, and the image fades.
After that, they fall into habits.
Joanna spends each afternoon in the attic, drifting through her schoolwork and eating crisps. She unrolls a moth-eaten sleeping bag over the cold attic floorboards and nicks a few ratty pillows from the old sofa in the second floor sitting room; the boy moves his mirror to the edge of his desk, clearing away books and papers so they can see each other as they work. He never seems to do much regular schoolwork – the books he reads have long, embossed titles in French or German, or are science texts so advanced they may as well be in another language, for all she understands of them. Joanna quite likes science – it’s one of her best subjects – but she’s only just learning about gas giants and the different types of stars; it’ll be a few years yet before she’s ready for Alkaloids and Molecular Methods of Plant Analysis, 2nd Edition.
She doesn’t always see him in his room. Sometimes if she goes to the attic too early on a Sunday morning she’ll see him staring bleary-eyed into his bathroom mirror, half-dressed and skinny and brushing his teeth; once or twice she catches a glimpse of him in the backseat of an expensive car, or walking along a busy street. He takes to carrying a compact mirror in his pocket, and with it he shows her snapshots – the delicate clockwork of a gutted pocket watch, an ill-tended garden, a perfect footprint preserved in dried mud. The solemn, high-ceilinged halls of his school, and the rusted labyrinth of pipes in its cellar.
Once he shows her his mother’s silhouette as she passes in the corridor, a slim, elegant shape that shifts seamlessly from one shadow to the next. Most days his house seems as empty as hers.
One afternoon she writes, If you give me your name and address, I’ll post you a letter, on a blank page at the back of her maths workbook. She waits until he meets her gaze in the mirror, and then holds it up for him to see.
A brief, unreadable expression passes over his too-long face. He reaches for a notepad. Best not, he writes. I’m much too old to receive letters from imaginary people.
Git, she writes back, and sticks out her tongue.
She doesn’t mention it again.
One morning Harry finds her asleep on the attic floor, curled inside the sleeping bag and shuddering with cold.
“This is insane,” Harry hisses, wrenching Joanna to her feet by one arm. “This is absolute bloody madness, Jo, and you know it.”
Joanna stumbles, her legs still heavy with sleep. Her mouth tastes dry, like chalk. “Sorry,” she murmurs. “Didn’t mean to stay all night – we lost track of time.”
Harry drops her arm. “We?”
Caught, Joanna smiles through her panic. “Yeah,” she says. “Me and Gran’s cursed mummy.” She leans forward a little, mockingly, like she’s sharing a confidence. “He doesn’t need much sleep, you see. Being dead and all.”
There’s a flash of hurt in Harry’s eyes before the anger sets in, hard and certain and unforgiving. “Fine,” she says. “Freeze to death. Die of mould poisoning. Stay up here and rot, you selfish little freak.”
The attic door slams shut behind her.
“Four months ago my parents died in a traffic accident,” Joanna tells the boy in the mirror. “No one will say it, but they think it was my dad’s fault.” She takes a shallow, unsteady breath. “I think they’re probably right.”
The boy sets down his pencil. Touches his ear once, with one finger.
“I know,” she says. “I’m only telling you because you can’t hear me.”
He nods. Then, after a brief pause, he says something in return. She doesn’t need to hear the words to know it’s something secret. Something he would never say to anyone else.
They sit in silence for the rest of the afternoon, and neither of them looks away.
The next day the door to the attic is locked.
Joanna drops her schoolbag to the floor and rattles the doorknob with both hands, twisting it hard to the right and to the left, hoping to shake something loose. She’s about to slam her shoulder against the frame when her gran emerges from a room down the corridor, her eyebrows raised high. “Problem?”
“Harry’s locked it,” Joanna says, a little breathless. “Gran, can I have the key? I left a book up there, and I need it for school.”
Gran smiles, shaking her head. “Such a better liar than your poor sister. I’m so proud.” She walks closer, the polished tip of her cane clicking against the floorboards. “Harry didn’t lock the door, my dear – I did. Which means you’ll need more than a key to open it again.”
Joanna’s grip tightens on the doorknob. “Gran, I—”
“No,” Gran says, her face set like weathered stone. “I’ve given you time enough, Joanna. We’ve much to do, and we are none of us getting any younger.” She points her cane to the staircase. “Kitchen. Now.”
Three long flights of stairs later Joanna sits at the kitchen table, her hands folded on the worn wood. She stares straight ahead, refusing to meet Gran’s eyes. “Why did you lock the door?”
“Because it was the easiest way to keep you out,” Gran says.
“You know why. Don’t ask foolish questions.” Gran takes the recipe book from the shelf above the oven and sets it on the table in front of her. “You read my book without my permission.”
Joanna swallows. She knows Gran is only guessing; she could lie, if she wanted. “Yes,” she says. “I wanted to know about the mirror.”
Gran sits in the chair beside hers, sighing as she eases the weight off her bad leg. She leans forward, drawing the handle of her cane along the table’s edge. “You could’ve asked me, you know. It is my mirror; I know it better than most.”
Joanna looks down at her hands. “I was afraid you’d tell me not to use it.”
“That would have been the sensible response, yes.” She rubs idly at the stiffness in her knee. For a long moment she doesn’t say anything at all. “Whatever you saw in the mirror, it must be important to you.”
“It is,” Joanna says around the cold lump at the back of her throat. “Very important.” She looks up and meets her grandmother’s steady blue gaze. “Will you unlock the door?”
“I won’t,” Gran says. “But you will, when you’re ready.” She pushes the recipe book into Joanna’s hands. “Open it.”
The first page is a recipe for a simple dark wheat bread. Gran taps it with one thin finger, and Joanna frowns. “Bread?”
“That’s lesson one.”
Joanna can’t help it; her heart starts to beat a little faster. “What’s lesson two?”
“Good bread,” Gran says, and points her towards the flour.
Some days Joanna thinks the only reason Gran is teaching her anything at all is so she’ll have someone to weed the garden.
“Oh, stop whinging,” Gran says, and takes another sip of her tomato juice. She watches Joanna work from her lawn chair at the edge of the herb garden, sheltered by the shade of the stunted hawthorn tree. “These are the basics, girl. You can’t learn to use them until you know how to grow them.”
The sun is warm overhead, and sweat trickles down Joanna’s neck, past her collar. “I’ve never raised a chicken, but I still know how to fry an egg.”
“Don’t give me ideas,” Gran says sternly, but Joanna can see she’s hiding a smile.
It’s the first true day of spring, and as she works Joanna feels something thaw inside her, a knot slowly loosening. She likes the way the soil crumbles under her fingers, dark and warm and maybe a little familiar, in an unfamiliar sort of way. She likes the heat of the sun on her back and the ground beneath her knees.
She doesn’t much like the weeds, but that only adds to her sense of satisfaction when she pulls each one up by the roots.
In a week or so the plot will be ready and the weather warm enough, and they’ll sow the first seeds of the year’s garden. Joanna’s never had a garden before, never wanted so much as a potted plant, but now she feels a solid sort of contentment at the thought of a summer spent outside, tending to growing things.
Gran taps her shoulder lightly with the end of her cane. “Meadowsweet.”
“Filipendula ulmaria,” Joanna says, sure of her answer but stumbling a little over the pronunciation. “Queen of the Meadow, or Bridewort. Used to treat stomachaches, diarrhoea, and the pains of first love’s heartbreak.”
“Good,” Gran says. “Yarrow.”
“Achillea millefolium. Used to treat pain, inflammation, and bleeding wounds. Not as good as borage for courage, but better than mugwort for protection of a home.” She looks up, her fingers still buried in the soil. “Rosemary for memory, comfrey for knitting bone, cinquefoil for strength, asphodel for the dead. I know these, Gran. You don’t have to keep testing me.”
Gran clicks her tongue disapprovingly. “You’ve memorised them – that’s hardly the same as knowing them.”
Joanna rips a weed free with rather more than the necessary amount of violence and tosses it into the growing pile. “Why aren’t you teaching Harry? She’s older.”
“She is. Probably cleverer too, in her way.” Gran tips back her head, looking up into the blue depth of the sky. “But it would be a wasted effort. Your sister, Joanna, lives in the world as it is.”
Joanna sits back on her heels, frowning. “So do I.”
Gran smiles her most annoyingly cryptic smile. “No, my dear. Not quite.”
Joanna can’t decide whether she should be offended or pleased; she settles for tearing another fistful of spiny-leafed weeds from their grip in the dirt.
The house towers above them, dust-filmed windows glinting in the sunlight. It had frightened Joanna, when she was small – the size and the silence of it. The way it made her father frown and her mother’s eyes go distant and sad. Before the accident her visits to the house had been rare, and brief.
Just below the highest eave of the house is a small window, round and fixed with red and yellow-stained glass. It’s blacked out on the other side, she knows, keeping the room cool and dark, but even so she finds she can almost picture the colour and shape of the sunlight as it streams across the attic floor. As it catches the silvered glass of the mirror.
Sometimes she wonders how long he’ll wait before he stops looking for her in his reflection, just out of the corner of his eye.
She tugs free the last weed in the plot and lifts it in the air. Its fine roots tickle her wrist. “It is done, milady. I’ve slain the weed-beast.”
Gran pushes herself out of her chair, leaning heavily on her cane. “I suppose you want a reward of some kind, then.”
“Suppose I do.”
Gran smiles. “How do you feel about sandwiches?”
Joanna stands, brushing the dark soil from her trousers. There’s dirt embedded deep in the places over her knees, but she doesn’t find that she particularly minds. “I’m always in favour of sandwiches,” she says, and turns to go into the house.
“Hold on, my dear,” Gran says. “You’ve forgot a step.”
When she turns back, her grandmother is taking her worn leather sewing kit from her cardigan pocket. She opens it and holds up a long silver sewing needle, pinched between her thumb and forefinger. “Best do it now,” she says. “Give things time to settle before we plant.”
Joanna takes an unconscious step toward her, her fingers twitching. “Can I?”
Gran doesn’t frown, but a new line furrows between her eyebrows. “You’re too young. Next year, maybe.”
Joanna licks her lips, trying not to look as desperate as she suddenly feels. “It’s my garden, isn’t it? And you said nothing that grows will work properly for me unless I do it all myself.” She holds out her hand. “Please, Gran?”
“I despise rational arguments,” Gran says. “They make it perfectly impossible to reach any sort of sensible decision.” She drops the silver needle into Joanna’s open palm. “Don’t get ambitious. I’m not carrying you into the house if you swoon.”
Joanna has never swooned in her life, not even when she was nine and broke her arm falling off a climbing frame; she doesn’t intend to start now. She steps into the centre of the herb plot, remembering to stand with her feet a steady shoulder-width apart. She looks down at her trainers. “Should I be barefoot?”
“Doesn’t make much difference, I’ve found.” She thumps her cane once against the ground. “Get on with it, girl. The sun’s in my eyes, and I want a cup of tea.”
“Right,” Joanna says, under her breath. She takes the silver needle in her right hand, pinched between her thumb and forefinger, and holds her left out over the ground. Then she takes a deep, sun-warmed breath and stabs the needle into the centre of her palm.
Blood wells red and stinging beneath the needle’s point, and as she pulls it free she turns her wrist and lets the first drops of her blood fall to the waiting earth.
She’s never felt anything like it. She thinks of the moment just before she’d fallen from that climbing frame, when she’d climbed higher than she ever had before and the rush of it had taken her like a fever, a blissful, visceral vertigo. She’d felt as if she’d left her body behind on the ground and become something entirely new – something boundless and untouchable and breathlessly alive.
The memory of that moment is nothing compared to this.
When Joanna comes to, she’s lying flat on her back in the middle of the plot, giggling. Gran stands over her. “Idiot child,” she says. “You were meant to prick your thumb.”
Joanna beams up at her. “But I need my thumb, Gran. I use it for thumb-things.” To illustrate she wiggles the digit in question, ignoring the sting of pain in her palm. “See? Thumb-tastic.”
Gran rolls her eyes toward the sky, as if asking it for patience or mercy or a conveniently timed lightning bolt. Joanna starts to giggle again; her grandmother is hilarious. “I most certainly am not,” Gran says, peevish. “And be careful of the thyme as you get up – your little stunt woke some of the perennials.”
Sure enough, as she pushes herself unsteadily to her feet she sees a few seedlings of thyme and what might be yarrow sprouting up from the dark soil. They’re delicate and green and perfect – the first things she’s ever grown.
She grins stupidly at them. “If I gave them my blood every day, we’d have a full-grown garden within a week.”
“And a lovely little corpse to use for fertiliser,” Gran says. She seizes Joanna’s wrist in strong, bone-thin fingers and turns her hand over, showing her the still bleeding wound in her palm. “This sort of power does not come cheaply, Joanna. It is not a toy, and it is not a game. You will use it wisely or not at all. Do you understand?”
Joanna nods, her euphoria gone. “Yes, Gran. I understand.”
“Good.” She gives Joanna’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Let’s get you a plaster for that hand, shall we?”
“And sandwiches,” Joanna says. “With crisps, if we have them. All of a sudden I’m starving.”
“Oh, to be young again,” Gran says, her voice full of false sweetness. “You might be stupid, but at least you’re resilient.” She claps Joanna on the back. “Go inside and wash that hand. I’ll catch you up.”
Joanna clambers up the stone steps to the house, but she pauses just before she goes inside. She turns back to meet her grandmother’s sun-narrowed eyes. “Gran, do you think it’ll be a long time before I learn how to unlock the attic door?”
Gran’s face goes a little blank – shuttered, like Harry’s. Sad, like her mother’s before she died. “No, my dear,” she says. “I don’t think it will be very long at all.”
Joanna goes inside and cleans the blood and dirt from her hands, wishing she hadn’t asked.
The night after they sow the first seeds in her grandmother’s garden, the dreams start.
They continue through the summer, lush and green and quiet in a way her dreams have never been before. When she sleeps she finds herself in forests, in rain-soaked jungles, in an ill-tended garden on the grounds of a dark-windowed manor. She knows she’s searching for something; she doesn’t know what.
“You’re wasting your time,” says the boy in a high, posh voice she’s never heard. The manor garden has twisted, grown a labyrinth’s walls and a labyrinth’s silence. It towers high above them. The boy folds his arms across his narrow chest. “Only children look for things that aren’t really there.”
“You look for me,” Joanna says. “You must, or I’d never see you at all.”
The boy’s jaw tenses, his face a careful blank. “I was a child then,” he says. “I’m not anymore.” He turns and disappears into the maze.
In some dreams she tries to follow him. In others she looks only for an exit, an escape from the narrow garden paths and the flat, summer-blue sky overhead. She grows used to wandering alone, in sunlight and in the shade. She never finds what she’s looking for.
In June Harry moves her things to the slightly shabbier bedroom across the hall. Joanna talks in her sleep, she says, and it keeps her awake at night.
When Joanna asks what she talks about, Harry pretends not to hear the question.
The night before the first autumn frost, she dreams of the boy sitting at the desk in his bedroom, bent over a book.
She’s never seen the room all at once before; she’d only ever caught bits and pieces, glimpses given by the shifting angles of the mirror. It’s larger than she thought, and messier. The light of his desk lamp warms the long lines of his face, casting his shadow on the wall beyond.
A broken mirror lies on the floor at his feet, its frame surrounded by a circle of shattered glass. Joanna stands behind him, her hands tucked in the pockets of her dressing gown.
“That’s seven years bad luck,” she says. “Fourteen if you did it on purpose.”
He stills, a subtle tension in his back and shoulders that disappears a moment later. “Of course I did it on purpose,” he says. “I used a hammer.” He turns in his chair and fixes her with cool, unreadable eyes. “I don’t want you here. Not while I’m awake, and not while I’m dreaming. I don’t know how to make that any clearer.”
Joanna bends down and picks up a broken shard of glass. Holds it to the light. “You think I went away because of the secret you told me.” She turns the glass until she can see his reflection in it. “Which is silly, because you also think you’ve made me up in your head.”
He plucks the glass from her fingers. “I am not silly.”
“You are,” she says. “A bit.” She sits on the edge of his bed, pulling her legs up and hugging them to her chest. “I didn’t mean to go away, you know. I didn’t have a choice.”
He scowls. “I really don’t care.”
“And I really don’t believe you,” she says, hurt making the words sound sharper than she means them. “I’ve seen how lonely you are.”
The boy stands, unfurling gracefully from his chair. He’s taller than she is now; if she were standing, she’d only come up to his chin. He walks to the bed and leans over her, his face just above her own. “I’m afraid you haven’t been paying attention,” he says, his voice smooth and touched by the cold certainty in his smile. “I only ever tolerated your presence for the sake of the puzzle you presented. Now that I’m certain you aren’t real, these little visits have become nothing more than an egregious waste of my time.”
Joanna meets the emptiness in his eyes without flinching. “You don’t mean that.”
“I do.” He presses the shard of mirror into the palm of her hand, closing her fingers around it. It bites into her skin, drawing blood, and power rises bitter at the back of her throat. “I never want to see you again,” he says. “I want to forget I ever saw you at all.”
Sometimes, her grandmother has said, in the simplest, strongest of magics that’s all that’s required – a sacrifice and an intent. Her blood, and his words. I want to forget.
Joanna wakes alone in her bedroom, cradling her bleeding hand to her chest.
She doesn’t dream about the boy again.
Even in summer, the sky over her grandmother’s house is rarely clear enough to see the stars.
“Light pollution,” Gran calls from the kitchen, raising her voice so Joanna can hear her outside on the garden steps. “You’re wasting your time.”
Joanna squints at one of the crumpled corners of her star chart, trying to decide if a glyph is meant to be Jupiter’s thunderbolt or Ceres’ scythe. Or an inkblot. She looks up at the sky again. “I’d see more if you put out the kitchen light.”
“You wouldn’t,” Gran says, but the light blinks out a moment later. Joanna switches on her pocket torch and listens to her grandmother’s footsteps behind her. The soft click of her cane on stone steps. “Astrology is rubbish.”
Joanna smiles. “You say the same thing about antibiotics.”
“Yes,” Gran says, “and I’m right about that, too.”
Joanna circles the glyph with her pencil. Definitely Ceres – the hooky bit on the top is all wrong for Jupiter. “People have looked to the stars for guidance throughout human history, Gran. I’m just trying to follow in their footsteps.”
“You’re trying to get out of doing the washing up.”
Joanna tips her head back, far enough that she can see the fuzzy grey expanse of Gran’s cardigan and the displeased set of her chin. “Gran, I know you don’t approve of divination—”
“I’m not stopping you, am I? Just giving my opinion.” She nudges the base of Joanna’s spine with her cane. “Though I suppose you’re too ‘mature’ now to need an old woman’s advice.”
Joanna looks down at her chart, her shoulders slightly hunched. “You know Harry didn’t mean it like that.”
“She most certainly did.” Gran shifts to the side and walks past her, limping down the garden steps. She inhales, breathing in the fading warmth of the night air and the bittersweet smell of growing herbs. The shadow of the hawthorn tree sways behind her in the dark. “Guidance throughout human history, was it?”
“Yes,” Joanna says, tapping the end of her pencil against a squiggly blur that might be Scorpio. “I read it in one of your books.”
“I got rid of all that nonsense years ago.”
“No, you just hid it. Not very well, either.” She frowns at the slow roll of clouds on the horizon. “Maybe I should switch to reading palms. Or tea leaves. Something less dependent on the weather.”
“Joanna,” Gran says, sounding tired, “what is it, exactly, that you’re looking for?”
Joanna tucks the pencil behind her ear and closes the star chart, folding it into neat squares. “I just think it would be useful, knowing the future. Is that so odd?”
Gran looks up then, a quick, unconscious glance at the dark shape of the house above, the gable of the attic sharp against the sky. “No,” she says. “It isn’t odd at all.” She holds out her hand for the chart. Joanna gives it to her. “There will be many things I choose not to teach you. Once you leave this house you can read all the tea leaves in China if you like, but until then—”
Joanna stands. “Yes, Gran. I understand.” She turns stiffly to go back into the kitchen, but Gran stops her with a gentle hand on her arm.
“The future will take care of itself, my dear. It always does.”
“Yes, Gran,” Joanna says again, and leaves her grandmother standing alone beneath the city-lit sky.
Joanna’s fourth herb garden sleeps under frost when her grandmother sits her down at the kitchen table and says, “Lesson number fifty-seven: Nothing can bring back the dead.”
Joanna rests her chin on her hand and nods. “Except for CPR,” she says. “And sometimes defibrillators.”
“Smart arse.” Gran reaches into her grocery sack and takes out a cardboard shoebox. She sets it on the table between them. “Open it.”
Joanna lifts the lid and sees a dead starling lying on the bottom of the box, its delicate feet curled and stiff. “Gran, you—”
“I found it in the wood. I want you to bring it back.”
Joanna looks up from the box and meets her grandmother’s eyes. “You’ve just told me that’s impossible.”
“I know,” she says. “Try anyway.”
The recipe book isn’t much help. At its back there are pages headed with the somewhat promising To Forestall Death; the list of ingredients has been scratched out and revised many times, and the paper is mottled dark by stains. The final note at the bottom of the last page reads, Thus far, results undesirable.
“It’s a place to start, anyway,” Joanna says to the empty kitchen. The dead starling stares up at her with eyes as bright as glass.
On the first day, Joanna takes a piece of white chalk and writes sigils in the four corners of the kitchen table, drawing each line carefully over the pitted surface of the wood. The first charm she builds is simple – yarrow for the blood, peppermint for invigoration of the tissues. Crushed eggshell for rebirth. She grinds them to dust with her grandmother’s pestle and sews the powder into a delicate, thin-woven bag. She feeds the bag gently down the bird’s throat, pushing it forward with a long silver needle.
It doesn’t work, but she didn’t expect it to. She wipes the sigils clean and starts again.
On the second day, she walks home from the butcher’s with a paper sack of bones and a jar of blood. She splits the bones open for their marrow and soaks long strips of linen in blood. She makes poultices and tinctures and salves, peels lines of bark from living trees and burns fires of hawthorn and asphodel. She sits awake until dawn, surrounded by research, filling pages with notes in her cramped, neat writing.
The starling lies dead in its box, tucked away in the fridge between the eggs and the milk. The sickly sweet smell of its decay follows her from room to room, clinging to her hair and hands.
On the third day, she catches a mouse in one of the live traps on the third floor. She carries it downstairs and stands in the open door to the garden, watching the frozen clouds of her breath. The rise of the moon over the houses and the evening sky.
“You understand, then,” Gran says from the hall behind her. “How it can be done.”
Joanna gently tips the mouse into her hand. It’s stunned – too frightened to bite, or even to wriggle free from her careful grip. She feels the delicate, electric hum of its living body, its heartbeat pulsing against the palm of her hand. There is potential in its weight, and the slightest of possibilities – one heartbeat in exchange for another. A death for a life.
“Yes,” Joanna says. “I understand.” She crouches down and sets the mouse on the stone steps. It sniffs the air, its small nose quivering, and then disappears into the winter-brown garden. She stands again, slipping her hands into her pockets. “Was that my lesson? That every spell has its price?”
“Perhaps,” Gran says.
Joanna is silent for a long moment. “Would it have worked?”
“Can’t say. I’ve never tried.” She turns away, her cane clicking against the floor as she walks. “Come along, then. A little bird told me there’s a rotting corpse in the refrigerator with your name on it.”
Joanna buries the starling in the garden, beneath the hawthorn tree.
She keeps her notes.
Joanna’s revising for her A-levels when Gran decides she’s ready to die.
She tells them over dinner. Harry comes up from her flat in Westminster, steps through the front door in a cloud of cigarette smoke and subtle perfume and gives her sister a false, jarring smile. “Hello, darling,” she says, because she calls everyone darling now, for no reason at all. It makes Joanna want to tread on her toes. “I had the most horrendous drive here. I forgot what a maze these streets can be.” She drops her coat into Joanna’s arms. “So what does the old bag want now?”
Dinner that night is quiet, the conversation stilted. Harry eats most of the asparagus, though she knows it’s Joanna’s favourite, and their grandmother hardly touches her food.
“Is something wrong with the roast, Gran?” Joanna asks. “Did I use too much dill?”
“No, my dear, it’s lovely,” Gran says, patting her hand. “I just don’t have much of an appetite tonight – it’s the cancer, I expect. Inconvenient timing, but the roast will keep.”
Joanna stares at her. Harry stops mid-chew. “Gran,” Harry says, sounding properly herself for the first time in years, “was that meant to be some sort of joke?”
“Not really,” Gran says. She tips her head to one side. “Why? Was it funny?”
The fight lasts for hours. Yes, Gran has seen doctors; no, she isn’t interested in treatment. Yes, the disease is terminal; yes, it will be soon. Harry watches the battle from the sidelines, curled at the kitchen table with her head in her hands. Joanna shakes with rage, her fists clenched as she paces the tile.
“And what about pain management?” she asks. “If you won’t stay in hospital and you won’t let me hire a nurse, what am I meant to do when it gets bad, Gran? Draw up another decoction of willow bark and put a fucking knife under the bed to cut the pain?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Gran says. “That only works during childbirth.”
“I,” Joanna says through her teeth, “am not the one being absurd.”
“What if it were one of us, Gran?” Harry says, in what Joanna privately refers to as her very-reasonable-barrister voice. “What if Joanna or I were ill, and we refused to do what the doctors told us? You would drag us to hospital by our hair.”
Gran slaps her cane hard against the leg of the table, and Harry jumps. “I am not ill, child – I am dying. I am old and I am tired and I have chosen my time, and there is nothing either of you idiots can say or do that will change my mind.”
Joanna slumps to the floor, her back against the kitchen counter. Her knees hugged to her chest. “I’ll never forgive you for this,” she says, the words catching at the back of her throat. “Not ever, not even for a moment. Not for the rest of my life.”
Gran watches her carefully, blue eyes sharp. “That may be true, or it may not. Either way, it will make no particular difference to me.”
“Because you’ll be dead.”
“Yes.” She leans forward on her cane, her fingers folded around the handle. “Your parents died young, Joanna, and so you think all death is unfair. It isn’t.” The corner of her mouth twitches in something like a smile. “That, I think, is the last lesson I have to teach you.”
Joanna feels it like an ache at first, a strange pressure building behind her eyes and her teeth. It spreads along her skin, a prickling flush of adrenaline and heat and potential, and then the foundation of the house shudders beneath her. Harry screeches, grabbing hold of the table, and the tremors shake the pots from their hooks, the cups and bowls from their shelves. The lamp swings wildly from the ceiling, ceramic and glass shattering across the floor, and then Gran reaches out and pokes Joanna hard in the shoulder with the end of her cane. Everything goes still.
“That’s quite enough of that,” Gran says. “This poor house has troubles enough without you sending it into some sort of childish tantrum.” She bangs her cane against the wall. “You’ll have woken all the woodworms.”
Joanna can’t help it; she drops her head back against the kitchen counter and starts to laugh. After a moment Gran joins in, the sound low and hoarse and rare.
“Bloody hell,” Harry says to the kitchen table. “I need a drink.”
That only makes them laugh harder.
It’s half past three on a Thursday afternoon when a strange man knocks on the front door of the house.
“Don’t answer,” Gran says from her armchair. She’s sitting beside the second floor sitting room fireplace, swaddled in blankets and shivering with a marrow-deep cold Joanna cannot feel. “He’s only here to sell you some rubbish thing we don’t need.”
Joanna pushes the window drape aside and looks down at the stranger again. She can’t remember the last time anyone but the postman came to the house; there’s almost something surreal in the sight of him, just standing there. Waiting. “If he’s a salesman, he isn’t a very good one. He isn’t carrying a case.”
“I bet he has pamphlets,” Gran says. “I bet he visits all the little old ladies and tries to save their sweet little pensioner souls before they croak.”
“He’d be wasting his time with you, then,” Joanna says. “I’ll just pop down and tell him so, shall I?” She’s out of the room and down the stairs before Gran can answer. The stranger knocks again, just as she reaches the hall, and his arm is still raised when she opens the door.
The stranger is a fair, stiff-backed man in a long camelhair coat. The sky is bright behind him, a peerless autumn blue. Joanna squints into the light, but the details of his face are lost to shadow. He lowers his arm and studies her silently for a long moment.
“You’re the granddaughter,” he says. “The second one. Joanna.” His voice is low, cultured despite the gravel in it. He looks past her, at the empty darkness of the front hall. “I’ve come to speak to Helene.”
Helene is her grandmother’s name, though Joanna’s never heard anyone call her by it before. Coming from this man, Joanna isn’t sure she likes it. Her eyes are adjusting to the daylight, and she can see the grey at the stranger’s temples and the deep lines of his face, lines that speak more of pain than of age. “Gran’s meant to be resting today,” Joanna says, “but I’ll let her know you’re here.” She steps back, opening the door further. “You can wait inside, if you like.”
The stranger steps forward, then hesitates. The threshold between them is the same timeworn oak as the doorframe, but now the dark whorls of the grain are seeping together, bleeding through the wood like ink spilled across an empty page. The darkness spreads from the threshold to the front step, a living shadow painted across the stone, and as it grows it reaches for the stranger with two straining, long-fingered hands. The stranger stumbles backwards, off the step and into direct sunlight, and the darkness recedes as quickly as it had come. The threshold lies between them, once again a simple, foot worn plank of wood.
“On second thought,” Joanna says, “why don’t you wait out here?”
The stranger is breathing fast, his fists clenched at his sides. He climbs again to the front step, watching her with careful eyes. “You didn’t know that would happen.”
She shrugs. The adrenaline has made her muscles feel lovely and loose; she could stare him down all day. “The postman’s never complained about it, no.”
He frowns, and the lines around his mouth and eyes deepen. “I thought the years might have softened her. I was a fool.” He reaches into the inside breast pocket of his coat and takes out a crisp white envelope. “Give her this. I’ll wait for her reply.”
Joanna looks at the letter, then back at the stranger’s face. “She’ll want to know who it’s from.”
His jaw tenses. “Sebastian. Tell her it’s from Sebastian.”
She reaches out with a steady hand and takes the letter. “Nice to meet you, Sebastian,” she says, and closes the door behind her.
When she turns around, her grandmother is standing at the top of the narrow staircase, leaning heavily on the railing. Her face is dangerously pale. “Give that to me,” she says, her voice as sharp as Joanna’s ever heard it. “Now, girl. Give it here.”
Joanna rushes up the stairs. “Gran, you’ll overexert yourself. If you’re not careful—”
Gran snatches the letter from Joanna’s hand and fixes her with a piercing stare. “What did he say to you?”
“Gran, please—” Joanna tries to take her arm, to lead her back to the sitting room, but Gran shrugs her off.
“You were going to let him in the house. What did he tell you?”
“He didn’t tell me anything. He asked to see you, I invited him inside, and the house tried to eat him. That was the full extent of the conversation.” Joanna moves closer, covering the frail hand on the railing with her own. “Gran, what’s going on? Who is he?”
“A prodigal pain in my arse,” Gran says, and lets go of the railing just long enough to rip open the envelope. The letter is a single, sharply folded piece of white paper, and though Gran holds the page so Joanna can’t see it, there are places where the words bleed through – places where the stranger leant hard on the pen as he wrote.
Joanna can catch only random phrases, reading backwards and through the paper. After your death, the bloodline, and potential wasted. A short smudge of ink and the name James, just after the word life.
“I suppose he’s waiting for a reply,” Gran says, her eyes still on the letter, her voice horribly calm. She crumples the paper in her fist and holds it out over the railing, cupped in the palm of her hand. “This will have to do.”
Fire swallows her grandmother’s arm from elbow to fingertips, a pale, unnatural flame that spirals high in the air over her open hand and turns the letter to ash within seconds. Then the ashes themselves burn away, and the fire is gone. Gran’s arm falls to her side, and Joanna barely manages to catch her before she slumps to the floor, exhausted.
“That’s it,” Joanna groans, pulling her upright. “You never get to call me an idiot again. Not after a stunt like that.” She helps her grandmother through the sitting room door and onto the nearest sofa. “You couldn’t just rip it to pieces or throw in it the fireplace like a normal person, could you? You had to be dramatic.”
Gran lies back on the sofa and draws a hand over her closed eyes. She’s still shaking. “I was sending a message. I wanted—” Joanna holds a cup of lukewarm tea to her lips, and she takes a reluctant sip. “I wanted to make myself clear.”
Joanna sets the cup down on the table and sits back on her heels. “You’re not going to tell me who he is, are you?”
Gran smiles, a thin press of lips that hides none of her pain. “Such a clever girl.” She pauses, then adds: “In your own way.”
“Stop it,” Joanna says. “I’m blushing.” Her grandmother’s blankets lie discarded on the floor. Joanna gathers them up and covers her again, tucking the edges in close around her. Gran lies still, unresisting, and Joanna can’t quite stop herself from finding the pulse at her wrist, or watching the shallow rise of each breath as she sleeps.
A memory rises, unbidden, of the dead starling and its terrible stillness. A memory of the mouse quivering in the palm of her hand, its heartbeat and breath. Every spell has its price, she’d said, and her grandmother hadn’t disagreed.
The starling’s bones are still buried in the garden, beneath the hawthorn tree.
Joanna rises and goes to the window, pushing the drape aside. Outside she sees a peerless blue sky and the empty front step. The stranger is gone.
She wishes she’d thought to ask his name.
Gran dies three months later.
Joanna’s fingers are stained with oils and salves, with willow and blackseed and betony. She sits by her grandmother’s bed, the recipe book open in her lap.
She turns the page. “Have you ever actually tried to cure someone of baldness?”
“Nothing wrong,” Gran says, “with a bald man. Always found it attractive, myself. A little extra shine.” Her voice is faint, but steady. The elixir has eased the worst of the pain. It never lasts for long. “The stories I could tell you, child. How your ears would burn.”
“Oh god,” Joanna says. “Can we skip this stretch of memory lane, please? I still haven’t recovered from Harry’s birds and the bees speech; I don’t know if my sex drive can withstand further trauma.”
“I am not.” She holds the glass as Gran takes a sip of water. “Just because I’m not an exhibitionist lesbian or a sex-crazed octogenarian with a baldness fetish—”
“I left the house to your sister.”
Joanna sets the glass back on the nightstand. “I know,” she says.
“It’s always meant to go to the eldest, but that isn’t the only reason.” Gran looks up at the ceiling. At the cracked lines of the plaster. “Your mother hated this house. She married your father to escape it. But you – if I give it to you, you’ll stay.” She stops, hard-won breath hissing through her teeth. “I don’t want to trap you here. Not any more than I already have.”
Joanna takes her hand. “You haven’t trapped me, Gran.”
Gran laughs, low and pained. “Foolish girl. Of course I have.” She squeezes Joanna’s hand. “The book is yours. The mirror too, if you want it.”
“The mirror?” Joanna asks, frowning. There’s a cracked antique mirror over her grandmother’s armoire that might be worth something if the glass were replaced; still, she can’t imagine why she’d— “Oh,” she says. Gran’s hand slips from her suddenly loose fingers. “The mirror in the attic.”
“No, I just—” She closes her eyes and sees the boy’s face. “I never learnt how to unlock the door.”
Gran snorts. “Ridiculous. There isn’t a door in this house,” she says, “that wouldn’t open for you the moment you asked.”
Her eyes open. “But—”
“Go try it if you don’t believe me.” Gran settles back against the pillows, her hands folded over her stomach. “I’ll wait.”
“I’m not dying tonight, child; I’m in far too sour a mood. Death himself would hesitate to cross me while I’m in a mood like this.”
Joanna takes her hand again. “Maybe,” she says. “But I like you best when you’re at your sourest.”
“Grump.” The recipe book lies open on her lap, open to its last pages. To Restore the Dead, it says, notes written in her own neat hand. She closes the book and drops it to the floor. It makes a soft sound as it lands. “I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind. The mirror can wait.”
“Not forever,” Gran says, but she doesn’t mention it again.
She falls asleep a few hours later. By morning, she’s gone.
Joanna lives alone in the house until she begins her first term at Barts.
Harry phones exactly once every two days to check in. Their conversations are short and cover little more than the weather and injustices perpetrated by Harry’s rather close-minded neighbours. Joanna’s always relieved when the time comes to say their goodbyes.
She spends her days in silence, cleaning. She starts in the cellar and works her way up room by room, sorting and scrubbing and clearing away decades worth of cobwebs and dust. She boxes away books and photos and endless stacks of well-worn records, finds a locked steamer trunk full of neatly folded men’s suits and seven warp-weighted looms crowded in a third floor bedroom, hidden beneath sheets.
She cleans every window in every room and oils the hinges of every door. The house grows unfamiliar under her hands, a stranger in the sunlight. She comes to miss the taste of dust.
At the end, only the attic is left.
Late afternoon sun streams into the corridor, painting the floorboards. Joanna stands in front of the attic door and, for the first time in years, tries the knob. It’s locked.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” she says to no one, her voice cracking a little with disuse. “I’m not a child anymore either.”
The door eases open under her hand.
The attic is just as she’d left it years before – her sleeping bag lying rumpled and unfurled, the space around littered with shabby sofa pillows and the stubs of broken pencils. The blacked out window and the silvered glass of the mirror, unmarred by dust or time. She sits on the floor, legs folded neatly beneath her, and watches her reflection from the corner of her eye.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” she says some hours later, after the heat of the afternoon has faded from the attic air. She smiles, feeling a little foolish, and shakes her head. “I’m not sure why I thought this would work. It’s stupid, but I thought – maybe you still looked sometimes, even if you couldn’t remember why. But you live in the world as it is, and I—” She stops. Looks down at her hands and traces the small scars that line her open palm. “I think it’s time that I live there, too.”
She sleeps in the attic that night, curled inside the too-small sleeping bag. She wakes once in the early hours of the morning, half-asleep and breathing warm into the cold; as she rolls onto her side she sees a man’s face in the mirror, his lips slightly parted as he watches her with wide, opiate-dark eyes.
When she looks again, he’s gone. Only a dream, she thinks, and by morning it’s forgotten.
Harry’s car idles on the street outside, and Joanna winces when her sister leans on the horn.
“I’m coming!” Joanna shouts, pounding down the stairs after her final check on each dark lamp and locked window. She looks into the kitchen – windows shut, oven off, refrigerator emptied – and then flicks off the light. Her suitcase is by the door; she carries it in her right hand, and locks the door to her grandmother’s house behind her with her left.
“Fuck,” Harry says – a typical sort of greeting, these days. She’s leaning back against the driver’s side door, her eyes on Joanna’s suitcase. “Is that really all you’re keeping?” Harry’s dressed for summer, in a loose blouse and a soft, knee-length skirt – Joanna feels dull and stiff by comparison. Then a sharp gust of wind rattles through the trees, and Harry leaps back into the car, shivering. Joanna lifts her suitcase into the boot and tries not to smirk.
“I have what I need,” she says, and drops down into the passenger seat. She buckles her safety belt and looks at her sister, at her slim face and wild hair framed by the rising dark of the house. “You don’t miss it here at all, do you?”
Harry grins. “I don’t,” she says. “And you won’t either.” She slams the gearshift into drive, and Joanna turns to watch as the house fades from sight.
She leaves the mirror and her grandmother’s book behind.