John makes enquiries and instead finds the answers to some other questions.
It occurs to John around the third time that Sherlock’s called in to consult on a military case. The first time could easily have been a fluke: an opportunity created by Mycroft. The second time could, so John tells himself he believes, have easily been a coincidence. The third on the other hand looks distinctly like a deliberate choice.
“What’s your clearance level?” He asks it casually, one afternoon, in the middle of making coffee.
“You know, your clearance level.”
If he wasn’t focused so utterly on his suspicions, John might even be amused at the uncomprehending look on Sherlock’s face.
“Oh, come on. I’m not that oblivious.”
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“That dumb bimbo act doesn’t suit you.” John mutters under his breath as Sherlock exits the room.
Over the next week John decides that a new method of attack will probably serve his purpose better. Sherlock obviously won’t confess anything openly, and perhaps may not be authorised to in the first place, so John will continue asking, this time indirectly. That way Sherlock will be able to confirm John’s suspicions without breaching any clauses in anything that he’s already signed.
They’re sitting opposite each other at Angelo’s when John attempts to broach the topic again.
“So... what was your mother like? Mycroft seems to mention her a lot. I guess he was the favourite?” John laughs as he says it, shrugging slightly, deliberately making a show of it being a joke.
“Yes, he was- is.”
“Oh. Sherlock, I-“
“Why are you asking me about this?”
“I just- I was just curious.” John’s starting to wonder if he’s put his foot in it on a massive scale.
Sherlock’s eyes narrow.
They eat in silence for the next few minutes.
“Of course I inherited her looks.”
“Mycroft got everything else.”
John doesn’t know what to make of that but he finds himself inspecting Sherlock’s features a little more closely.
Sherlock laughs easily at John’s scrutiny. “Mycroft looks like daddy, if daddy was at least four stone overweight.”
That catches John’s attention. Neither Sherlock nor Mycroft have mentioned their father before, not that Sherlock mentions family much anyway.
“Besides, daddy always prefers Italian tailoring. Wouldn’t be seen dead on Savile Row: Mycroft doesn’t seem to realise that you can go shopping anywhere else.”
“And... what does your father do for a living?” John asks the question simply because he’s suddenly unsure of what else he’s meant to say to Sherlock’s pronouncement.
“That, I’m afraid, is above your clearance level, Major.” Sherlock winks cheekily.
John laughs, and the conversation easily turns to other topics.
It’s only in bed that night that John realises that Sherlock hasn’t actually given away much by way of detail. In fact, the scant information that Sherlock has shared only makes John more curious. If only there was someone else, someone at least reasonably informed, someone more amiably disposed, that John could question.
It occurs to John that Lestrade has known Sherlock for longer than most, and that theirs seems to have been a reasonably steady acquaintance. Of course Lestrade might not know anything but at the current juncture it seems worth a try.
“Does he ever mention his family?” John begins, leaning against Lestrade’s desk at the end of a long case, while Leastrade packs up for the day.
Lestrade glances at the calendar on the wall. “Christ, it’s only February: are we booking for the summer party already?”
“Penthesilea’s summer party. Height of the season and all that.”
“Penthesilea. You know, Mrs Holmes? Sherlock’s mother?” Lestrade says it carefully as if John is being incredibly simple.
“Oh. Ah... no, I mean- I don’t know.” John looks helplessly at Lestrade.
“So, no invitations yet. Good. I’ve got too much on at the moment.” Lestrade pats a sheaf of paper together and puts it in his in tray. “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”
John refrains from mentioning that he hasn’t even been invited yet.
“Just remember that you’re networking and don’t drink too much of the punch.”
The conversation leaves John more confused than ever. So far he’s confirmed that both Sherlock’s parents are still alive, they host a summer party to which Lestrade is regularly invited, Mrs Holmes’ name is ‘Penthesilea’ and that while Sherlock looks like his mother, Mycroft has inherited everything else, whatever everything else is. John is still puzzling over how little he really knows as he exits the building, and as a result he’s a second too late to try to stop Sherlock vanishing into the nearest cab, seemingly in response to a text. Out of a lack of urgency, since Sherlock will text him if necessary, John decides to take the tube back home. A short stroll to St James’ Park, a change at Westminster and he’s sat comfortably on the Jubilee Line all the way up to Baker Street. Of course Baker Street tube station is busy when he arrives but then it always is and, being in no hurry, he takes his time to navigate the crowds. It’s taken him a half hour or so to cross the city which is par for the course, so it’s possible that Sherlock may have returned home before him. A surmise that’s borne out by the black car parked, inconveniently, illegally on double yellow lines, at the curb when he arrives.
John spies Sherlock standing with another man on the pavement. The man is as tall as Sherlock, and though he wears a civilian suit, the way that he holds himself suggests to John that he’s military, though John begins to question that as he gets closer. There’s something a little too casual in closer inspection of that stance. Then John’s eyes fall on the cane that the man leans on, though what surprises him most is that Sherlock seems quite solicitous of the older man’s physical disability. John watches as the driver holds the door open and the tall man eases himself into the car. Once the door’s closed, Sherlock bends down by the open window and appears to exchange some words before his visitor departs.
“New case?” John enquires as he reaches Sherlock.
Sherlock’s eyes narrow, then he grabs John by the wrist and pulls him inside.
Once the main door shuts, John pulls himself free. “What-“
“Not having that conversation in the street.” With that Sherlock bounds up the stairs, leaving John to follow at a slower pace.
John reaches the top of the stairs and deliberately takes a moment before stepping into the livingroom. “So, new case?”
“Not exactly.” Sherlock is bustling around the kitchen, much to John’s surprise. “Where’s the tea?”
“Bottom shelf on the left.”
“Good. I need to think.”
“I find tea’s good for that.” John opinions as he hangs up his jacket.
One cup of tea and, for John, some biscuits later, Sherlock uncoils from his position on the couch and starts pacing.
“So...” John begins.
Sherlock stops pacing and honest to goodness grins. It’s possibly the creepiest expression John’s ever seen.
John coughs and quickly looks away.
“After all, Mycroft is family.” A fact which, for a change, Sherlock sounds far too pleased about.
Meddling in the affairs of government doesn't quite result in the outcome Sherlock expected.
“I don't care about the Official Secrets Act! Get me the-”
Sherlock's yelling comes to an abrupt stop as he notices John in the doorway. He even, comically, attempts to put a hand over the mouthpiece of his phone, which, being a Blackberry, isn't quite placed for particularly convenient coverage.
John inclines his head, indicating that he can make a quick exit.
Sherlock shakes his head quickly in response, and then goes back to yelling into his phone again.
“Just get me the data! Or your little sister's criminal indiscretions are going to be all over Smith Square by nightfall.”
There's not much John can say to that so it strikes him as best to say nothing. Unfortunately, Sherlock takes that as implied criticism.
“What? My methods may be cruder than my brother's but they get the job done.”
“Right. What... are you trying to do exactly now?”
Sherlock gives John a dour look.
“Is your memory really that- Surveillance, John! My brother's... virtue depends on it!”
“So you're threatening to slander someone if-”
“It's not slander if it's true. Anyway, I'll ring the Whips Office first. They're usually faster about this sort of thing.”
John opens his mouth to comment but there really, truly, isn't anything even remotely sensible that he can think of. Instead, he heads into the kitchen to make a start on the first cup of tea for the day.
“Good call. I've found that tea aids my thinking.”
John grins. “Can't imagine how you got that idea.”
“Well, plotting at least.”
“You can call it blackmail if you want.” Sherlock shrugs.
“Right. Will you be wanting the Yorkshire Gold for that or will PG Tips do?”
It's probably best not to think about Sherlock making threatening phonecalls after all. It does strike John as a peculiar role reversal for the brothers, since it appears to be the case that Mycroft's usually the one threatening bodily harm on people instead. Of course, now John thinks about it, he's not entirely sure that Sherlock's hands are quite so clean either. After all, it takes a certain type of personality to torture a dying man for information.
“It's not torture unless it involves scalpels.” Sherlock calls over from the couch. “Darjeeling, if we've got any left.”
“Mycroft always drinks Lapsang Souchong when he's plotting, but I don't think I'm feeling quite that evil.” Sherlock adds, conversationally.
“How does- Isn't your brother always plotting?”
“Not always. Sometimes, he waits instead.”
The next day transpires similarly. John's returning from shopping this time and enters the living room to the sound of Sherlock breathlessly delivering a highly overblown stream of endearments to whoever is on the other end of the line. He graces John with a broad smile as he hangs up.
“How goes the blackmailing?”
John proceeds to unpack the groceries, as if there's nothing amiss about his flatmate staging a grand conspiracy in their living room. He's about to ask Sherlock what he wants for dinner when Sherlock's phone rings, and John is treated to a series of brief affirmative noises from Sherlock, followed by a low pitched growl, that can only be described as lethal.
Sherlock hangs up with a flourish.
“You know, I haven't had a decent curry in ages. How about that?”
Sherlock eyes John suspiciously.
“My treat.” John adds with a perfectly innocent smile.
“You're not... well, this-”
“None of my business, is it? Why should it bother me if my flatmate is busily corrupting the free world?”
“It's for a good cause.” Comes the grumpy reply.
“Course it is. Never said it wasn't. Now, about that curry...”
The next day is surprisingly uneventful, by way of suspicious conversations, quite possibly because of their conversation last night. John isn't thinking about whatever it is that Sherlock's up to anyway, or at least so he tells himself. He doesn't want to know what Sherlock's doing because that way nobody can force him to tell. That's the most altruistic reason he can think of. Less charitably, he also doesn't want to linger too much over the thought of Mycroft's virtue being particularly threatened, especially when such an old-fashioned euphemism really leaves no room for misinterpretation. Not that he minds contemplating that piece of information in the most literal sense. The idea of Mycroft Holmes, éminence grise, Albion's perfidy personified, to her enemies at any rate, being in any way innocent, is curiously intriguing. In fact, when John's entirely honest about it, he's already far too invested in the idea than is probably healthy.
The thought is still on his mind, and he's actively trying to block out any exercises in mental visualisation that feature the hair on Mycroft's legs, when he returns home. This time Sherlock is doing nothing more sinister than lying on the couch eating chocolate when he enters the room.
“Lestrade dropped in. You just missed him. And stop thinking about my brother's legs.”
“He bought you chocolates? What- How?”
“I like Thornton’s Continental selection, and you don't want me to answer that.”
Sherlock gives John a level stare that has John instinctively holding the paper in front of his crotch, just in case.
The next day, Sherlock vanishes from the flat entirely, though he leaves his mobile, conspicuously, on the coffee table. It rings several times while he's out. John ignores it until Lestrade's number flashes up on the screen, and it seems the polite thing to do to tell him that Sherlock's left his phone behind.
John doesn't even get in a 'hello' before Lestrade launches into a rapid and hushed monologue.
“He's trying to trace it back through the publicity office. It's not working but it'll get obvious if you start knocking off backbenchers.”
The better part of John's nature suggests that he ought to let Lestrade know that he isn't talking to Sherlock at all, but the curious part, the part that still does, and probably always will, find Sherlock an intriguing puzzle wins out, and he just makes a non-committal noise instead.
“Odd thing though. Mycroft hasn't lifted a finger.”
John exhales loudly enough to sound marginally bored already. It's the sort of thing Sherlock might well do when confronted with the obvious.
“Alright, alright. Just... be careful. I think you're being played.”
Lestrade hangs up, leaving John staring at the phone in his hand, wondering what on earth he's just heard. So far, so obvious, Sherlock is evidently attempting to warn off his brother's would-be suitor but that doesn't explain why Mycroft himself is doing nothing about it. The suitor, as far as John can surmise, is someone involved with the government, who has access to the same sort of resources that Sherlock is using against him. Already that confuses John a little, because the nature of Mycroft's position has always seemed to be less than public and, in fact, entirely divorced from front line politics. Sherlock on the other hand appears to have gone on the attack via central government, with an ease that suggests that his interests lie firmly in that arena.
Of course, Sherlock chooses that exact moment to return and his gaze fixes immediately on his phone, still held in John's hand.
“Did Lestrade call?”
“Uh, yeah. Just now.”
“And?” Sherlock busies himself with tugging of gloves and scarf.
In the warmer weather there's been little need for Sherlock to wear his heavy winter coat, though occasionally a scarf is still warranted. That doesn't surprise John particularly, but what catches his eye are the gloves, driving gloves, not at all designed for warmth, but rather useful when it comes to hiding fingerprints.
“Whips Office. Visiting.”
“You don't just 'visit' somewhere like that.”
“One of my uncles. He's on this silly diet where he only eats sushi for lunch. I took him a bagel instead.”
John doesn't know what to say to that.
“And, because I'm such a wonderful, helpful nephew, I organised some of his old folders for him.” The sinister expression that accompanies that statement sends shivers down John's spine. “Now, what did Lestrade have to say for himself?”
“Oh, uh, he said that-”
“Warnings about the publicity office, I suppose.”
“No need to worry about that. My uncle's boyfriend, well, he's retired now but-” Sherlock waves a hand dismissively. “What else?”
“Mycroft isn't interfering?” John can't help phrase it as a question, since Sherlock seems to know all the details already.
Sherlock frowns, folding his arms across his chest and staring down at them. “That's the difficult part. Why isn't he doing anything? He should at least be paying attention by now. I've not been that discreet.”
“Lestrade thinks you're being set up.”
Sherlock bites his lip for a moment, before seemingly making a decision. “Go put on a suit.”
John turns to head upstairs before thinking to ask: “Where are we going?”
“I thought digestion slowed you down?”
“It does, but that's not relevant anymore.”
It's only once they've arrived that it occurs to John that a place like Simpson's-in-the-Strand is likely to be terribly busy in the evenings, and that they might get turned away if they don't actually have a reservation. Sherlock doesn't seem bothered by the idea, and appears ready to attempt to talk their way in, when it turns out that they do have a reservation after all, and that they're only ten minutes late.
“You didn't make that reservation.” John states, after they've been seated.
Sherlock doesn't lift his gaze from the wine list. “I have been known, on occasion, to be wrong.”
“You?” John laughs. “Since when do you ever admit to it?”
Sherlock smiles, a little sheepishly. “Mycroft isn't the only person who despises leg-work.”
“Mummy has a peculiar aversion to it as well.
“Wait, you mean that... What do you mean?”
“This.” Sherlock gestures to the restaurant around them. “Is her treat. For gathering the data she wanted.”
“She likes to measure reactions. The content of character, if you will. It's very Trustee Model of course, very eighteenth century, but that's mummy for you. I've just, inadvertently I might add, been doing the leg-work for her.”
“So... all this talk of Mycroft's...” John blushes. He's hardly going to say the phrase out loud.
Sherlock smirks. “My brother's virtue is still intact, no doubt. This latest chap obviously didn't pass muster- Oh.”
“My bloody parents. If it's not one, it's the other.”
Before John can question further, they're treated to a moment of enforced calm by way of ordering drinks. Sherlock orders the wine, by specifying peevishly that he wants the most expensive thing on the list, because his parents can foot the bill.
“So, your parents?” John prompts.
“My parents are utterly infuriating.”
“Must be where you got it from.”
Sherlock tries unsuccessfully not to smile. “They're going to want to meet you, of course.”
“Because I'm your flatmate?” John asks, a little thrown by the complete non sequitur.
“Because.” Sherlock pauses for effect. “You've just made it onto the list of potential husbands for my brother.”
Sherlock explains by analogy, John infers by context and of course Mycroft knew all along.
John can hardly say that he's surprised by the setting. The house in the country, the long gravel drive, the gates, even the sleek black car that picks them up from Baker Street. It's not unexpected in the slightest. This is how the Holmes family do business after all. Even the long drive to Surrey isn't hugely unpredictable in its content. He's packed well enough for this 'minor function' as Sherlock terms it. He has a suit in his bag, a dress uniform, some smart trousers that go with reasonably smart shirts. He's even packed a tie, just in case. Sherlock has of course made noises about uniforms and shoe polishing, and as far as John can tell that's about all the helpful advice that he's going to get. Wear a dress uniform, stand up straight, be polite. That is the sum total of Sherlock's advice and mostly it sounds like Sherlock is simply talking to himself more than anything else.
“If you want to impress my father you ought to-”
“Who says I want to impress your father now?”
“Of course you want to impress my father. You want to marry Mycroft, you're going to have to.”
“I'm going to have to marry Mycroft or impress your father?”
“Stop being so contrary! You have to impress my father so that you impress my mother by association and she permits your marriage to my brother.”
“Damn it, stop being so blasted peculiar about it all!”
Sherlock has reached for the little drinks cabinet at that point, pouring himself a rather generous scotch, which he tops up with amaretto.
“You're being contrary. Now I know how Mycroft feels.”
“You're being silly. How do you even know that I want to marry Mycroft? And why don't I get a drink?”
“Of course you want to marry him! Anyone who's anyone wants to marry him. And you don't get a drink because I didn't know you wanted one. You have a choice of scotch, amaretto or soda.”
The rest of the journey continues in a similar vein. Sherlock continues to remind John that he supposedly wants to marry Mycroft and John sips his scotch and soda rather too quickly, in an attempt to hide his amusement. Of course, they're both quite drunk by the time they actually arrive at the family home in Surrey, something that John's sure will destroy any chance he has with Mycroft entirely. It's difficult to say what he feels when it comes to the entire topic, but something deep down, some younger brother instinct to be contrary, surges to the surface every time Sherlock brings it up again. Being told that he must do something, with such strident appeals to accompany it, simply makes John laugh rather than consider the matter seriously.
“What’s your usual drink of choice?” Sherlock asks, apropos of nothing as the car rolls to a stop.
“What? You can’t deduce it?” John’s very close to giggling at this point, and isn’t at all sure that he won’t just fall out of the car in a few seconds, when it comes to get out.
“Details.” Sherlock responds, abruptly.
John blinks blearily at Sherlock because he can’t think of a better response.
“Tell them that you drink gin, straight up, and if you’re offered Pimm’s take it.”
There isn’t time for anything else as the door is opened for them by the driver and Sherlock is unceremoniously pushing John out. John teeters precariously but Sherlock’s grip on his elbow is firm. Which is just as well because the older man John recalls, from that hurried conversation, outside their flat, is making his way steadily towards them. Perhaps it’s because John is drunk but the gravel seems to crunch under feet and cane much too loudly as the man approaches. He has a minute to consider that, before Sherlock’s grip tightens painfully enough that John jerks himself upright, a little straighter, ready to make some indignant complaint, which Sherlock will ignore.
“Daddy!” Sherlock’s voice is loud and unexpectedly joyous, as he embraces the other man, kissing his father on the cheek before he draws back, with a bright and genuine smile.
If John has to pinpoint a moment when it all started to go downhill, he supposes that his introduction to Sherlock’s father might well be it. It’s not that he fails to make a good impression but rather that he makes too much of one. In retrospect he supposes that it might be due to the topic of the conversation, or the fact that his training means that he automatically treats a higher ranked officer with respect, or, perhaps it’s the way that he defends Mycroft from Sherlock’s little jibes. In all honesty he can admit that it’s probably the last part: Sherlock playing the role of the bratty younger brother to perfection, meaning that John has to be the sensible one and defend the honour of the man being besmirched in his absence. It really could only have gone downhill from there after all.
“Daddy thinks you’re a wonderful choice.” Sherlock crows the minute they’re left to unpack.
“I was just- you- Sherlock!”
“Oh, come on. You did splendidly. Now you just need to impress mummy and-“
The gunshot outside startles them both.
“What the hell-“ John automatically reaches for the gun he isn’t carrying.
“That’ll be mummy.”
“I imagine it’ll be pheasant this evening. Little buggers are always running across our lawn.”
“They’re always jogging past the train just before Ely too for some reason.”
“Just north of Cambridge or if you come at Cambridge from the north at any rate.”
It’s all too much and John finds himself sitting on the bed laughing in spite of himself.
“They did, little bastards. They’d jog right past while I was stuck there. It was awful. I’d have to ring Victor and tell him that those little bastards were definitely going to get there before me and that he’d better be waiting for me at the station.”
“I thought you didn’t do boyfriends?”
“Not literally, no. But he wasn’t interested in... well, that sort of pedestrian rubbish. We used to hold hands on the banks of the Cam and talk about Aristotle.” Sherlock asserts, loftily.
“You had a boyfriend at Cambridge.” John says it aloud to qualify the matter.
“That’s what I just said.”
“That’s really very... sweet.”
“Good Lord, you really are suitable for my brother.”
“Mycroft has a tendency towards sappiness too. It’s most annoying.”
Sherlock leaves John to his unpacking and vanishes off to his own room across the hallway. It’s hard to tell what John makes of things just yet, he decides. It’s news that Sherlock doesn’t object to holding hands, but objects to everything else, but them somehow it’s not entirely surprising. In fact, John can easily picture Sherlock in the sort of intense relationship that tends to go about as far as hand-holding, without needing anything else. For him it just seems to fit, and yet here he is in a world where almost everything is dominated by the idea of sex, for its own sake, for the sake of love or for the sake of commerce. If Sherlock has no interest in the act itself then it’s no wonder that he views the rest of society as absolutely ludicrous.
“It’s like living in a world where everybody is obsessed with cheese. They talk about it, write songs about it, fight wars over it, and you’re lactose intolerant and quite content that way.”
John turns to find Sherlock leaning against the doorframe, watching him idly.
“And everybody says ‘How can you live without cheese? Everybody likes it’?”
“Do you- I mean, would you mind if I...”
“You can have as much camembert with my brother as you like. I hear there are plenty of ways to enjoy it.” Sherlock winks.
John laughs. “That’s such a terrible comparison.”
“You’d best get use to it. Mycroft and Gregory tend to compare the types of cheeses they’ve had.”
“But they’ve not... well...?”
“Enjoyed a little fondue together?” Sherlock is clearly enjoying himself with the analogy. “Goodness, no. Gregory prefers... Stilton.”
“You know, I’m not even going to ask what you mean by that. Wait- is cheese gay sex or sex in general now?”
“I’m not entirely sure anymore. If it’s the former, then I’m probably going to have to note that my parents prefer hummus, and really, one never likes to think about one’s parents and their hummus if one can help it.”
“Don’t tell me he’s coming up with ludicrous analogies for asexuality again.” Mycroft tone is entirely amused and he leans up against the other side of the doorframe, regarding his brother fondly.
“It’s a perfectly good comparison. Anyway, that chap, what was he after?”
“Not my cheese tray at any rate.”
“Of course. I had quite an amusing time of it coming up with intel that’s lifted almost broadcloth from a handful of seventies spy novels.”
“Oh, you didn’t.”
“I most certainly did and it’s not my fault if he believed it. After all, mummy would have been... back then, so it’s not inconceivable.”
What Mrs Holmes must have been back in the seventies is something John supposes he could almost take an educated guess at. It would make sense after all. It would make a whole lot of things fall into place: Mycroft’s aspirations, Sherlock’s attitude. Everything would be inferred but, more importantly, it does at least give John some context. He now has a framework with which to navigate the path ahead, and, of course, thoughts like that might well explain why Sherlock thinks John a good match for his brother.
“Anyway.” Sherlock announces abruptly. “I’m going downstairs, the piano needs airing.”
“You’re going to practice? What is the world coming to?”
Sherlock snorts. “Everybody’s second study is the piano.”
“It wasn’t mine.”
“Never let this man play the Toccata section of the D minor for you on the piano. He’ll play it double-time and cross-hands just because he can.” With that Sherlock leans over, kisses his brother on the cheek and vanishes down the hallway.
It’s a staged exit if ever there was one but, for once, John finds that he can’t complain. Instead, he smiles and pats the bed beside him:
“So... why don’t you come over here and tell me all about this minor function?”