Chapter 1: foolishly accept invitation
“Uncle Sherlock,” two shrill little voices cry out, as Sherlock and John are crossing Trafalgar Square one afternoon.
Two small bodies barrel into Sherlock’s legs as he half-turns in response, and John stumbles back in mostly genuine alarm.
“Hallo, beasts,” Sherlock beams, sweeping the skirts of his overcoat around the two children and muffling their laughter.
John, half-gaping and half-grinning, watches as the two boys – dressed in gray shorts and navy blazers – manage to extricate themselves from Sherlock’s tweedy coils. Both boys are brown haired, curls falling onto their high foreheads and clustering around their ears. The elder – about six, John guesses – has very pale hazel eyes, a rare tumble of blue-gray and greenish-gold; the younger – about four – has pale gray eyes even more devoid of blue or green tint than Sherlock’s.
“Sherlock,” a tall, well-built man with cropped brown hair and bright brown eyes says as he approaches.
“Thomas,” Sherlock says pleasantly as he offers his hand, apparently undisturbed by the two boys winding themselves into his coat skirts again.
Thomas glances towards John, whose face is settling into lines of politely smiling confusion.
“Thomas, this is my friend, John Watson,” Sherlock says, and John marshals his right hand and offers it.
"Yes, of course," Thomas says, giving John's hand a firm shake.
John glances at Sherlock, querying the existence of a very personable man who not merely accepts the possibility of Sherlock having a friend, but seems already cognizant of the fact that he does.
“John, this is my brother-in-law, Thomas Hawksby,” Sherlock says.
John’s smile slides sideways and crashes into complete incomprehension, but Sherlock is too busy untangling his coat again to look.
“And these are my abominable nephews, Siger … ”
“How do you do, sir,” Siger pipes, offering John a rather ink-stained hand to shake.
“ … and Sherrinford.”
“How do you do, sir – Papa says you were shot in the Maiwand district - is that true, sir?” Sherrinford says boldly as John bends to shake his hand.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sher,” Sherlock says fondly, baffling Sherrinford back into his coat again. “He was shot in the shoulder.”
Sherrinford shrieks with laughter, and Sherlock grins down at him with obvious pride in his own remarkable wit.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut and run,” Thomas says. “We’re going to a film in Leicester Square and we’ll miss the trailers if we don’t hurry.”
“Oh, well that would never do,” Sherlock says, turning Sherrinford out again. “The trailers are the best bits.”
“John, it was nice to meet you,” Thomas smiles. “Hopefully we’ll get to exchange a sentence or two, next time.”
“Yes, yes,” John says, smiling vigorously. “Yes, that’s – yes.”
“Get along, vermin,” Sherlock says, flapping his coat as if to drive the two little boys out.
They run off, laughing, and Thomas strides after them. John stares at the three retreating figures for several seconds.
“Your – brother-in-law,” he says carefully.
“Yes,” Sherlock says, the corners of his mouth tightening almost imperceptibly.
“You have a sister?” John says, and then instantly, “no, you don’t have a sister – Mycroft’s married - Mycroft’s married to another man - Mycroft’s married to another man and they have children together.”
“John," Sherlock says with feigned pride, "truly, there is nothing left that I can teach you about deduction.”
“I don’t have time for you just now, Mycroft,” Sherlock says as Mycroft steps into the sitting room.
“No, I can see you how very busy you are,” Mycroft says.
Sherlock is dressed in fraying pajama pants, a faded tee-shirt, and a tea-stained robe. He’s lying on the couch, one pale hand trailing limply to the floor, the other curved on his chest like a dead dove, with a dishtowel draped over his face. Mycroft brushes off the seat of John’s armchair with his hand, wipes his fingertips together with a faintly pained expression, and sits down.
“Thomas said he and the boys ran into you and John yesterday, about town,” Mycroft says.
“Are you asking me to confirm or deny?” Sherlock says from under the dishtowel.
“I’m asking you come to the house for the weekend, and to bring John with you,” Mycroft says.
Sherlock’s trailing hand swoops upwards to pluck the dishtowel from his face, revealing an expression of thunderous disbelief.
“Why on Earth would I agree to such a thing?” he rumbles.
“You haven’t spent a weekend with the boys since – oh, January wasn’t it? Not since you met John, certainly,” Mycroft says, his lips tucking themselves into an elaborately artless smile. “They miss you.”
Sherlock’s expression falls from robust annoyance to more diffuse discomfort. He tosses the dishtowel aside as he sits up abruptly.
“I’m sure they don’t,” he says.
Mycroft lets his gaze slide aimlessly over the cluttered surfaces of the sitting room.
“Siger’s discovered a method of fractionating soil samples by mixing them into a glass of water,” he says vaguely.
Sherlock’s intake of breath is a soft oh, but Mycroft doesn’t seem to notice.
“He told me about it, but I can’t say I saw the point,” Mycroft goes on.
Sherlock’s eyes go cold and hard.
“Well, you wouldn’t,” he says, his mouth twisted into an ugly curl.
“Oh, and Sherrinford rather offended Lieutenant Gilbert by pointing out quite enthusiastically that the Commandos take precedence of the Special Air Service,” Mycroft says, his attention apparently riveted by the way John’s newspaper has been left tented over his used mug and plate on his side of the desk. “He seems quite fixated on the idea that John would parade to the right of Lieutenant Gilbert … ”
Mycroft’s gaze slides back to Sherlock’s face, catching a split-second glimpse of a suppressed smile before Sherlock waves one hand and scowls.
“No, no, it’s simply impossible,” he says, shaking his head until his disordered curls are tossing about. “John and I are much too busy to - ”
“Oh, you’re probably right,” Mycroft says, tucking his chin and deepening his voice. “And best not to give John the wrong idea - ”
“What wrong idea?” Sherlock demands.
“The wrong idea that might be conveyed by bringing him home to meet the family,” Mycroft says, smiling with a lot of teeth. “I believe it’s generally considered a significant event in a - ”
“John and I aren’t - ” Sherlock begins sharply, then more flatly, “we aren’t.”
“Aren’t you?” Mycroft says mildly. “I do think you might be.”
Sherlock twitches his eyes narrow and purses his mouth, but doesn’t answer. Mycroft lifts his eyes to the ceiling.
“Of course,” he says to the dent punched by Sherlock’s unsuccessful attempt to demonstrate ejection of the cork from a bottle of champagne as a feasibly accurate weapon, “that still leaves the other wrong idea for him to get.”
Sherlock draws a fold of his robe over his pajama-clad knee and considers the way the weave of the fabric warps out of alignment as he pulls it tight.
“What other wrong idea?” he asks, his voice tectonic with reluctance.
“That you’re not as monstrous as you seem,” Mycroft says pleasantly.
Sherlock’s eyes flick upwards, but then dart down again before he meets Mycroft’s gaze.
“ … that you are not, in fact, wholly incapable of attachment to another living creature,” Mycroft goes on.
Sherlock’s finger reddens as he twists the corner of his robe around his knuckle and pulls until he hears the minute pop pop pop of threads parting.
“Well, I can’t sit about here all day,” Mycroft gusts. “The office is simply swamped at the moment. I’ll be too busy this weekend to do more than kiss the boys goodnight, and if I don’t get Southern Sudan finished today even goodnight kisses will be out of the question.”
He stands and brushes the back of his pants off carefully. Sherlock continues to strangulate his finger with his robe, even after Mycroft has gone down the stairs and shut the street door behind him.
john and i arriving riverside station 5.20 pm send car. SH
Chapter 2: arrive berkshire friday evening
Windsor and Eton Riverside railway station is a little jewel of Victorian redbrick and white stone Gothic arches, with tubs of daffodils blowing merrily in the sunshiny breeze. John looks around with undisguised pleasure as he walks out of the station with his olive canvas duffel bag on his shoulder. It’s not his service duffel but, as he explained to Sherlock, you can’t beat army-surplus for capacity at the price. His bag is only lightly filled, though; apart from a teasing should I bring an evening dress, do you think?, he accomplished his packing in under ten minutes and with no evidence of uncertainty or apprehension. Sherlock, however, rampaged through the entire flat for three solid hours stuffing two dark gray suitcases and a slouchy blue-gray leather overnight bag to bursting. The fact that he has made John responsible for shepherding the suitcases has not diminished John’s good humor, or Sherlock’s bad one.
“What do you think about a taxi, then?” John asks, dropping Sherlock’s suitcases and looking up and down the street.
“Thomas will have sent a car,” Sherlock says as he glances at his wristwatch, “but the train got in early so – oh for God’s sake.”
A dark green Range Rover with a silver registration number on a black plate glides to a stop directly in front of them. The driver’s door opens and an impressively built young man in dark camouflage combat dress and a beige beret jumps out. Sherlock glares at him, narrow-eyed.
“Mister Holmes, sir,” the young soldier says with a slight inclination of his head, and then with a tightly sprung salute, “Captain Watson, suh.”
For a split second John’s shoulders square, his chin raises, and his brows furrow together. Sherlock’s irritation fractures into intense interest in the way the fingers of John’s right hand instinctively straighten, his thumb flexes, and his arm tenses in anticipation of motion. Then – and Sherlock can identify the precise particle of time in which John remembers that the article on his head is a black knitted beanie and not a green felt beret – he relaxes into an embarrassed smile.
“I’m not – you don’t – there’s no - ” he fumbles.
“I salute the honor as much as the officer, sir. I’m Lieutenant Gilbert,” Gilbert says, offering John his hand.
“The Special Air Service picking people up from the station,” Sherlock says, as John shakes Gilbert’s hand. “Is that what passes for effective use of defense resources these days?”
“I’m on a three day leave starting an hour ago,” Gilbert says, lifting all four bags into the trunk in one go. “I thought I’d just get a glimpse of the man.”
John’s mild smile doesn’t cover the slightly wary incomprehension in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t - ”
“Young Sherrinford’s a very big fan,” Gilbert says, closing the trunk and opening the driver’s side rear door for John. “I want to be able to tell him I met you, too.”
John’s smile is more uncertainty than anything else as he climbs into the back of the car. Sherlock gets in next to him; Gilbert closes the door and jumps back into the driver’s seat. As the car pulls out John looks at Sherlock, but Sherlock drapes one gloved hand in front of his nose and mouth and fixes his gaze out the car window, as if the tree-lined street is the most fascinating scene he’s ever encountered.
They travel a pleasantly winding road through fields just turning yellow-green, under trees fresh and pale with spring growth. Sherlock remains transfixed by whatever happens to be passing outside his window, though his right foot jiggles at increasing frequency the farther they go. After twenty or so minutes, Gilbert turns the car off the public road onto a grit-surfaced side road closed off by a pair of wrought iron gates with a sentry box set discreetly in the hedgerow. The soldier in the sentry box lifts a hand in acknowledgment as the gates swing slowly apart, and the car bumps over the hump and continues up the road.
The road winds quite aggressively for another mile, overhung by trees and surrounded on both sides by open meadows, but abruptly the trees fall away on one side and the road becomes a driveway. Then the car mounts a slight rise and the house appears – a long, pale stone façade embellished by a portico with four massive columns and a flight of low steps leading down to the driveway. John makes a small nasal sound. Sherlock’s head snaps round and he stares at John with undisguised concern. John shakes his head slightly.
“It’s all right,” he says with a slight smile. “I knew it was going to be pretty bad.”
For a second Sherlock’s eyes soften but then he whips his head away again and reburies the lower half of his face in his flexed wrist. Gilbert pulls the car up at the foot of the steps, and jumps out to open the rear door. Sherlock unfolds out of the car, sweeping his gloved hands down the skirts of his coat as if he’s just climbed out of a hay wagon. John gets out after him, looking around curiously.
“Hallo,” Thomas says as he comes striding out of the front door trailed by a couple of squat cavalier spaniels. “You made it.”
In contrast to the business suit and regimental tie he wore in town, Thomas is now dressed in brown cord jeans, brown Jodhpur boots, and a cream colored sweater. Sherlock sweeps up the steps to meet him, with John following behind. Sherlock shakes hands with Thomas, his mood momentarily lightening enough to permit a slight smile, but plunging into shadow again as Thomas and John shake hands.
“John, I’m delighted you could come,” Thomas says with casual amiability.
“I’m – delighted to be here,” John says with a quirked smile.
“Gilbert, have Staunton bring the bags up, would you?” Thomas calls, and then turns to shepherd John and Sherlock inside.
The entrance hall is a sweeping half-circle, with a heavily paneled, dark wood door on each side. Directly ahead is an archway flanked by a pair of niches housing a white marble Diana on one side, and an Apollo on the other. The floor is tessellated in black and white, and the ceiling is a sky-blue dome from which is suspended an elaborate but aggressively modern construction of crystal and lights. Sherlock starts stripping off his gloves and scarf, while John swipes his beanie off his head and shoves it into his jacket pocket.
“Let me go and find my children, and ring for some tea,” Thomas says, scooping a spaniel up under each arm. “Sherlock, show yourself and John upstairs, would you?”
“Of course,” Sherlock says, eyes hooding distractedly.
Thomas walks back out of the open front door.
“Wow,” John says, craning his head back to look upwards.
Sherlock glances up, following the line of John’s gaze.
“Yes, the chandelier’s a bit of a shocker,” Sherlock says. “I think it’s Mycroft’s way of showing he’s not ashamed of being gay.”
John looks aslant at Sherlock, but Sherlock’s unbuttoning his coat and walking out through the archway at the back of the hallway, so John follows him.
“Wow,” John says again, as they start to climb one side of the gracefully curving white stone stairs.
“Seventeen-fifties,” Sherlock says, wafting one hand in a circle to describe the inner hall, “except the windows, which are eighteen nineties, obviously.”
“Yes, obviously,” John beams.
Sherlock throws him a narrow glance, his expression glacial.
At the top of the stairs the pale stone floor disappears under buff-colored carpeting, and the walls are paler parchment colored paint on plaster. There’s a console table, the gilded legs of which are ornately muscled and pawed; on the table there’s a massive urn of dull clay that John suspects is very old and incredibly valuable, and on the wall above, a fantastically tendriled and leafed candle sconce dripping with cut crystal pendants. Sherlock turns aside, leading John down a narrow hallway with a high ceiling of interlocking arches.
“This is us,” Sherlock says joylessly, opening the heavily paneled, dark wood door at the end of the hallway.
“Bloody hell,” John laughs as he crosses the threshold.
The room, large though it is, is utterly dominated by a monstrous four-poster bed with vivid red damask hangings, all swagged and fringed and confined by silk cords as thick as John’s wrists. The red damask couch at the foot of the bed is almost an afterthought, and the pale green carpet and walls and closets hardly register at all.
“I know, I can’t believe Thomas agreed to a restoration,” Sherlock says, crossing to one of the two interior doors. “You take the bedroom, and I’ll take the dressing room.”
“Oh, that’s - that doesn’t seem fair,” John says. “We can share, if you like - I mean, the size of that bed? You could be sleeping in Westminster and me in Lambeth … ”
“It’s no hardship, really,” Sherlock says dryly, opening the door on the far side of the room to reveal another room beyond.
“Oh,” John says, stepping forwards to survey the other room.
The sheer acreage is somewhat less, but there’s still ample room for the bed with its soft rose-brown hangings and the deep brown armchair and warm wood closets.
“Ah, Staunton,” Sherlock says, glancing past John.
Staunton is a medium height man with an untidy shock of slightly graying dark hair, wearing a somewhat shapeless black suit, a white shirt, and a thin black tie that looks like it was recently used to tie up a parcel. He deposits Sherlock’s suitcases and overnight bag and John’s duffel in the middle of the bedroom.
“John, this is Staunton; Staunton, this is Doctor Watson.”
“John,” John corrects firmly, extending his hand. “And you are … ?”
“Gerald,” Staunton smirks as they shake hands.
Sherlock lifts his gloves to in front of his mouth, but his smile is still obvious in the creasing corners of his eyes.
“Mister Hawksby asked me to tell you that there’ll be tea in the library when you’re ready,” Staunton says.
“We’ll be right down,” Sherlock says, his expression more or less smoothing out.
Staunton nods, throws another nod of acknowledgment to John, and leaves them.
“Tea in the library,” John snorts, walking away from Sherlock to pick up his bag and toss it on the bed.
“Are you horrified?” Sherlock asks sharply.
John turns his head to look at him.
“No, of - of course I’m not horrified,” John says.
“You can’t have expected this, though,” Sherlock persists.
“Honestly, Sherlock? I’d have been more surprised if all that - ”
John gestures vaguely up and down Sherlock, along the considerable length of line between his highly polished black shoes and his carefully tumbled brown curls,
“ - aristocratic hauteur wasn’t fueled by a certain amount of - aristocracy.”
Sherlock’s scowl softens a little. John shrugs his jacket off and drapes it on the bed next to his bag.
“Come on,” he says pleasantly. “Coat off. Let’s go and have some tea … in the library.”
“It’s not even a proper library,” Sherlock says darkly as he sweeps his coat off and pitches it at the red damask slipper chair next to the door of John’s room. “It’s just a music room.”
“Oh well, never mind,” John smirks. “You’ve overcome the disadvantages of your humble beginnings very well.”
The searing glance Sherlock throws him is enough to make John grimace in suppressed amusement.
“Tea,” he says. “Come on, tea.”