Margaret Holmes looked up from the dishes she was washing at the sound of car-tires on gravel. A blue Audi pulled around the corner of her house, a woman in a well-tailored black suit sitting behind the wheel. Quickly wiping the last plate clean and setting it in the rack to dry, she wiped her hands on the towel and went outside to meet her unexpected visitor.
The woman stepped out of the car, gift bag in hand, and smiled at her. At this distance Margaret thought she recognized her, though she wasn't sure. Was she the pretty young thing standing beside Mycroft after Sherlock's funeral, the one Roger had assumed was Mycroft's girlfriend? Margaret hadn't been convinced – that woman had stood just a little too formally, a half-step away from Mycroft, and while they leaned their heads together as they talked, Margaret had never seen them so much as touch hands. An easy enough hypothesis to confirm.
"Altheia?" she called out as she walked over. The woman paused a moment, apparently considering her answer, before nodding. "How are you, Mrs. Holmes?" Definitely not his girlfriend, then. She'd met an Anthea, she was sure of it, and only a woman who wore so many names she couldn't quite keep track of them all wouldn't dare to correct her.
"Oh, well as I can be, I suppose," she answered. "I don't care for this cold, but that can hardly be helped. Though I will say, I'm surprised to find you out in Limpsfield."
"Didn't Mr. Holmes call?" She frowned. "That's not like him. He wouldn't want me to have wasted a journey and find you out, or burst in on you unannounced."
So she had come to see them. Interesting. "Roger's been on the phone with an old friend in Coventry most of the morning," Margaret said. "Mikey might not have been able to get through." Anthea inclined her head almost imperceptibly – almost – and Margaret guessed she was hiding a smile. She nodded over to the kitchen door. "I was just about to sit down for a cup of tea. Won't you join me?"
Once inside, Margaret guided her to a chair and set an extra teacup out. "Now, Altheia, what brings you out to Limpsfield?"
"Day off," Anthea answered. "I have an aunt in Westerham and I wanted to visit her. Get out of the city for a few hours. Mr. Holmes asked me to bring this to you as I was passing." She pursed her lips, as if a question was occurring to her for the first time. "Though why he didn't use the normal courier service, I'm not sure."
It was a good lie so far as those things went. Westerhan was near enough to make dropping by plausible, and the small moment of doubt lent authenticity, but Margaret didn't miss the way her fingers thrummed against her tie under the table. It was a giveaway – perhaps affected, but certainly a sign that this was more than just a casual visit.
"How is Mikey, anyway?" Margaret poured tea into both of their cups and sat down across from Anthea. "The last I'd heard he'd given up red meat."
"It was that or pastry after his last medical," Anthea said, " and – well, you know your own son. But I'm surprised you'd call him that. In front of his subordinates, no less. I can't imagine he likes it."
"The joys of motherhood, and of advanced age." Margaret's eyes twinkled. "He hates it, of course, but there's little enough he can do to stop me. Now, tell me why you've come. You may have an aunt in Westerham, but sure as daylight you wouldn't have come this way if Mycroft hadn't sent you; otherwise, why worry about a wasted journey? And Mycroft would never send his personal assistant all the way out here unless the business required it. Just what has he got himself into?"
Anthea raised her teacup to her lips and took a sip, Margaret guessed to hide the smile reflected in her eyes. "Sometimes I forget the Holmes brothers didn't spring fully-formed from the foam of the Thames, like the gods they believe themselves to be; meaning no offense, of course." Margaret nodded her head graciously. "That they must have sharpened their wits somewhere," she continued, "and that you and not your husband is the one with SIS clearance."
"Quite so," Margaret said. "All of which means, quite aside from the futility of obfuscation, I know how to keep a secret. Perhaps you should speak plainly?"
Anthea set down her cup and looked across the table at her host. They were playing at honesty now; good. "To be clear," Anthea said, "I do have an aunt in Westerham who I'm quite close to and who I promised I'd go and see one of these days, since I was… abroad, over the holidays. But I wouldn't have had the time today if your son hadn't asked me to come." She lifted her gift-bag off the floor and set it on the table between them. "I'm not quite sure why I am here, honestly. Your son wanted this brought out here today, but you're right, there are others he relies on less thoroughly than me he could have sent. And he's had the gift ready for a week now; he could have even sent it by post. But ours is not to question why."
Margaret looked at the handle, tied shut with ribbons but not sellotaped. The ribbons could have easily been opened and retied. "And you didn't look?"
"Most certainly not!" Anthea huffed in what Margaret could only describe as a well-practiced impersonation of genuine outrage. "Apart from what you don't yet know about me; do you really believe your son would employ someone who'd betray his confidences like that?"
Margaret took a chocolate digestive from the plate between them and dipped it in her tea before taking a bite. "Well played, Altheia," she said, glad to see Anthea's look of outrage fade from her face, "but you misread me. If Mycroft trusted you with such a poorly-secured package, he expected you to open it. At least he would not be overly bothered by that possibility. That means I can open it without waiting for you to leave. I must admit I'm curious; aren't you?"
Without further preamble, Margaret cut open the ribbon and opened the bag. She pulled out a canning jar of honey with a yellow pipe-cleaner folded into a rough approximation of a bumblebee glued to the lid. A single white chrysanthemum was tucked into the ribbon wrapped around the jar. She twisted the bee off and ran her finger over the felt, playing out its implications in her mind.
Years ago, when Sherlock had been perhaps six, Roger had been kept on business in London over the Valentine's weekend and they'd agreed to skip the occasion that year. Sherlock had worked it out somehow (no babysitter, lack of plans mentioned over dinner – even at that age he'd been clever), and so he'd guessed his mother wouldn't receive any gifts. That injustice, apparently, could not stand. He'd taken a canning jar from the top shelf of her cupboard, charmed the bees in the meadow to give up their honey, and proudly presented her with his gift over breakfast on Valentine's Day: a small jar covered with smudged fingerprints, full of bark fragments, drowned insects, and some quantity of honey. She'd loved it.
It became a family tradition, one of her favorites. Even when he'd gone off to school, Sherlock had always sent some small gift home to mark the day, usually accompanied by some little bit he'd wrangled out of Mycroft. She smiled at the thought of those brotherly negotiations; her older son had never been one for public displays of sentiment. Mycroft's contributions had ended once he and Sherlock were no longer at school together, but Sherlock kept up the practice without fail. Even at the height of his addiction he always sent some small memento: a news-clipping of a story he thought she'd find particularly interesting, a note from a friend that he was three days sober, something. She wasn't such a fool to expect such a gift this year, in the wake of St. Bart's, but she'd been dreading the reality. Now, though…
Margaret rose from the table and walked over to the corkboard beside the fridge. Pinned the bee into the corner so no part of it was covered by photos and notes from friends and recipes that covered most of the board. She wiped her sleeve across her eyes against the tears she felt forming at the sight of it and steadied her breathing. "Tell me, Altheia," she said at last. "How is my son?"
Margaret heard Anthea's cup rattle a little as she set it awkwardly on its saucer. She returned to her seat at the table.
"Mycroft?" Anthea said. "As I said earlier – "
"No. My younger son." The flower was Mycroft's contribution, and he was not so given to sentiment that he'd continue Sherlock's part unprompted. Anthea took a HobNob from the plate (Margaret guessed to give her something to do with her hands) and balanced it against her fingers without eating it. "Mrs. Holmes – "
"How is my son?" Margaret repeated. "You can be sure Mycroft meant you to tell me at least the bare details: that he is alive, for one, and that he has a reasonable chance of remaining so."
Anthea set the biscuit down on her saucer. "You understand security clearances have their limits and expiration dates. There are some things that I quite literally cannot tell you."
"Then let me tell you what I know," Margaret said as calmly as she could manage. "Sherlock always gave me a special gift like this on Valentine's Day. Mycroft is not given to displays of affection, certainly not ones that inconvenience him as much as your trip out here did. No, this is a message, and one important enough that he would go to this amount of trouble over it. So let us consider the clues. First, the flower. The chrysanthemum is November's flower, when he fell. White represents grief in Japan, but in Europe it typically stands for honesty. Now, for the honey. That was Sherlock's gift to me as a young child, long before there was any sign of grief in his life. Mycroft is giving me the choice between my grief and the truth, and the honey points to the latter."
Anthea took a small sip of her tea and set her cup down, more evenly this time. Her face was impassive. "That seems more driven by wishful thinking than the clear thought I've come to expect from you."
Very well; the final proof. She turned the jar on its side so Anthea could see the lid. "Now, the honey. Even at the funeral, I had my doubts that the body we were burying was truly Sherlock's. The arms had track marks, recent ones, and I was certain Sherlock hadn't used drugs in years. That flat mate, his friend, would have seen it. So I asked Mycroft to show me the medical reports." She tapped the honey-jar's lid. "Sherlock had a rather… unique tattoo on his thigh, the Pashto word for bumblebee. Roger was with the military, you know, and he'd learned some Pashto after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Sherlock was quite taken with the language. But there was no tattoo, no scar in the autopsy photos. So I asked Mycroft two weeks ago whether he'd ever considered learning Pashto, hoping he'd see the hint and confirm my suspicions one way or the other. I suppose this is him doing that."
"Well, then." She closed her eyes for a moment, laughing silently to herself before focusing again on the task at hand. "That damned tattoo. We debated it for days, you know. Sherlock assured us that the pathologist, Dr. Hooper, was loyal to a fault, but Mycroft was less certain. We could have tattooed the doppelganger, but any half-decent pathologist could tell the difference between work done post mortem and work done on living flesh." She frowned. "It wasn't in his medical files. Mycroft didn't know about it until their plans were well in motion. I don't even think John Watson did. How did you?"
Margaret smiled at the memory. "Sherlock texted his father a photo of it. I'm sure he got the tattoo just to irritate Roger."
"And the phone company?"
"Virgin Mobile on our end. I'm not sure about Sherlock. This would have been maybe five years ago."
Anthea pulled out her mobile phone, typed a few words into the screen, and set it down again. "Your deductions really are quite impressive, Mrs. Holmes. I told your son we should brief you before we began, but there wasn't time. He was…" She paused to choose her word carefully. "… unconvinced of the wisdom of bringing you in at all. There were lives at stake, and while he knew he could trust you, he wasn't wholly certain he could predict your reactions if you knew the truth." Anthea pursed her lips, as if this had never sat well with her. "It was cruel, perhaps."
Margaret shook her head at that suggestion. "But necessary."
"True," Anthea said. She swallowed the rest of her tea and walked over to the sink, setting it in the sudsy water. On her return she stopped by Margaret and leaned close to her ear. "There are few safe places for your sons these days," she said in a near-whisper. "But they are alive and well-guarded, and as safe as we can make them. Safer every day." Taking her seat again, she continued in a louder voice, "At the risk of changing the subject entirely, a problem has arisen with your husband's pension. Mr. Holmes – meaning Mycroft – has arranged for an SPVA agent to work with him to resolve any difficulties. At which time, incidentally, your son has a rather open schedule, and he would be happy to keep you company while your husband sees to that, if you like."
"Well, if it can't be helped," Margaret said ruefully. "You may tell Mikey to clear his evening as well. There's a revival of Fiddler on the Roof that's supposed to be quite good. He can think of it as penance or filial duty, as he prefers." She saw Anthea's eyes flash mischievously at that and guessed heads of states would not presume to command such control over Mycroft Holmes's schedule.
That was as it should be, though. They were not his mother. "And if my son isn't home by Christmas, it will be The Nutcracker as well."
At that Anthea reached out for another HobNob, wrapped it in a napkin, and tucked it in her trouser pocket as she stood. "I'll do what I can, Mrs. Holmes, though I doubt I'll dare use that particular name. A mother's prerogative, as it were." She glanced at the door leading to the rest of the house, listened for a moment to the man's voice just audible through the door, and her face grew serious once more. "You can't tell him. Any of it."
"I wouldn't dare," Margaret said. "I wouldn't burden him with this truth, and – well. He never was a good liar. There are lives at stake, as you said."
"Well, then," Anthea said. "My aunt will be waiting for me. Family duties, you know. We'll be seeing you."
Margaret walked her to the door and stood on the doorstep, watching the woman drive off, before coming back inside and sinking into her chair. She'd kept up a strong face while Anthea was there, driven to show she could manage this, that she was strong enough to be trusted, but her head still swam with everything she'd learned that afternoon. Doubting had been hard enough and waiting would be more painful still, but she had always preferred to know. She ran her finger over the honey-jar, over the Pashto carved into its lid, and smiled to herself.
Her boys, both her boys, were alive. They were well and they would be safe. For the moment, that would have to be enough.