Having experienced an actual war zone, John was always loath to make the comparison, but he suspected that for the reluctant observer some things never changed; the relentless noise, the unrestrained displays of aggression, and a strong sense of the utter futility of it all. He peered cautiously over his newspaper as Mycroft’s voice cut with increasing volume through Sherlock’s protestations. It was as agitated as he’d ever seen Mycroft get about anything, but he supposed it was understandable. The issue currently at stake was more important than some foreign peace treaty or the inner workings of the European Union. It was family.
"No, you really must go this time,” Mycroft continued. He was standing over Sherlock, who was sprawled dramatically in an armchair. “It's a very special occasion for her; half the town is invited. If you don't attend, you know Mummy will..."
"Yes, yes, I know. She'll be upset. Can't you come up with anything original?" Sherlock waved a languid hand in the air.
"No, she'll be very upset.” By this time Mycroft looked as though he were this close to jabbing Sherlock with his umbrella. “And you do remember what happened last time something really upset her? I believe it was after the unfortunate incident with that idiot Chinnery and Mr Tibbles. Not only was she devastated, she was absolutely furious. Which meant that on top of organising an impromptu pet cremation, I also had to spend the better part of a day making sure the after-effects of her distress stayed out of the newspapers. I don't care to repeat the experience.”
“Those were entirely different circumstances, as I’m sure you’re well aware. You’re just exaggerating now.”
“You're coming if I have to arrange to have you forcibly relocated. You may find it less pleasant than you imagine.”
Sherlock scowled and muttered something under his breath, his previous air of assurance dissipating. It was already quite apparent to John that Mycroft really meant it this time, and it seemed Sherlock had finally reached the same conclusion. Even geniuses could be surprisingly oblivious at times.
“You’ll have to make it up to me, then.” Sherlock fixed Mycroft with a pointed glare.
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“You know what I mean. It’s the only good reason I’d have for going back.”
“We already agreed it wasn’t a good idea to...”
“No, you agreed. With yourself. I don’t believe I was even consulted in the matter.”
For a full minute Mycroft appeared to be engaged in a tremendous internal struggle, evidenced mostly by the deepening crease between his eyebrows.
“Fine,” he eventually managed, but Sherlock was never one to quit while he was ahead. He glanced around the room, and John hurriedly hid behind his paper again, but it was too late. He had already seen the beginnings of a smile as Sherlock looked back up at Mycroft.
"And I want John to come with us."
"Are you entirely sure that's wise?"
"I don't see why not. It’s about time you accepted things the way they are…or at least, the way they should be. John? You weren’t doing anything this weekend, were you?"
The peril of being an embedded observer, of course, was that sometimes one became an unwilling part of the action. John gave up on pretending to read about the hike in council rates and folded the paper away.
"Sorry, I don’t really follow. You think I should come with you ‒ with both of you ‒ to your mother's seventy-fifth birthday party?"
"I’m sure she’d love to meet you.” There was something worrying about the cheerful note in Sherlock’s voice. “Besides, I think it's time you understood certain things. About us. About our family. Don’t you think so, Mycroft?"
John couldn’t avoid seeing the grimace that crossed Mycroft’s face, almost as though he could feel another toothache coming on.
"No, it's fine, really,” John said hurriedly. “I don't need to understand anything. At all. I'll just...sit here and wait for you two to get back, shall I?"
"That would be preferable, yes.”
Mycroft gave him a grateful glance, but Sherlock was having none of it.
"I'm not going unless John comes with us. You can send your suits to bully him, if you like. Or if you’re going to be difficult about it, I might just stay here anyway. Because I’d be perfectly safe from Mummy’s hypothetical distress. I’d be out of range, for one thing."
"Out of…range?" As usual, John felt that he was missing something important.
Mycroft rubbed a hand over his face tiredly. "Fine, Sherlock. Fine. John, would you? It would mean a lot to me."
"I don't understand. Your mother's...what? Some kind of baritsu champion? Trained sniper?"
Sherlock smirked, but it was Mycroft who answered him. "She's a little eccentric. That's all. Where we come from, well...people often are. Eccentric. Quirky, one might say."
"You aren’t from around here, then? London, I mean?"
"Goodness, no. We were sent away for our education, of course, so we acquired certain refinements of speech, but our father's roots were in the North, and that's where our mother prefers to stay. It's just as well, really, for everyone."
"So you're going to tell me you're originally from Leeds or something? No, wait, you said something about a town, didn't you?"
"That's right. The nearest city is actually Carlisle, in Cumbria. It's a little place called Royston Vasey."
The journey up was hellish. As spacious and luxurious as the limousine was, spending almost six hours acting as a physical buffer between Mycroft and Sherlock was not exactly John's idea of a pleasant road trip. Given Royston Vasey's distance from, well, anywhere really, going directly by road was more efficient than trying to combine several alternative forms of transport to achieve the same end, but it was still a very long time to be trapped in a moving vehicle with Sherlock. He could imagine Mycroft hadn't undertaken it lightly.
Adding to the general unreality of the situation was the startling change in Mycroft. When John had slid into the car that morning he had blinked at the sight of Mycroft in a cornflower blue long-sleeved shirt and dark trousers, without so much as a waistcoat, a pocket square, or even a tie. His top button was actually undone. The net effect made Mycroft look considerably younger, and more like a high-level clerk than a man who ran the country on occasion. An outer garment hung from a fold-out coat hook on the seat back, but even John could see that it was of a different material from the trousers, softer, thicker. Not even a suit jacket; a blazer. It was completely disconcerting. John wasn’t sure he’d have been much more surprised if he’d found Mycroft lounging around in a bathrobe instead.
For his part, Sherlock looked much the same as always in a cream shirt under a charcoal suit, but had foregone the coat and scarf entirely. What felt like some kind of tacit dress-down agreement between the brothers was unsettling. Given the occasion, John had simply put on his best jacket over a striped shirt, and for once felt that he was doing quite well.
Mycroft had greeted him as calmly as always, but a raised eyebrow indicated to John that his initial reaction had been duly noted. More than anything else, it reminded John that today he would be entering a different kind of foreign territory.
During the actual trip Mycroft spent most of his time attached to both his laptop and mobile phone. From the sounds of it he was negotiating the finer points of some new piece of legislation ‒ John wasn't sure he should be eavesdropping, but he didn't understand most of it anyway, and knowing Mycroft, that had already been taken into consideration. To John's right, Sherlock constantly fidgeted, hummed, tapped, and was generally extremely annoying. There were sporadic bursts of activity on his phone, related to a handful of minor cases he could work easily from a distance, but in between he went straight back to more time-honoured methods of expressing his boredom. Most of it seemed directed at trying to irritate Mycroft, who steadfastly ignored him. As for John, mostly he was just there.
“So, remind me…exactly what am I doing here again?”
John wasn’t really expecting an answer; he’d already asked various permutations of the same question over the past couple of days without getting anything substantial from Sherlock. Mainly, he hoped Sherlock would be distracted enough to stop tapping his fingers on his knees for just one bloody minute.
It did work, after a fashion. Sherlock’s hands stilled, but it was Mycroft he glanced at before answering. John could almost feel the looks they were passing over his head like tangible threads, an entire conversation being held without speech. In its own way it was almost as annoying as the bickering.
“I didn’t want you to feel left out,” Sherlock said at last, looking at John in that inscrutable way of his, and went straight back to the tapping. Mycroft looked to be once more fully engrossed in the document he was reading. John gave up and went back to staring at the passing countryside, feeling none the wiser.
They stopped for a quick, awkward lunch in a pub in Manchester. Mycroft and John ate; Sherlock picked at his food until Mycroft snapped at him, whereupon he pushed it away altogether. Inevitably, the situation quickly deteriorated as Sherlock launched into a running commentary on Mycroft’s own eating habits, past and present, while Mycroft stared at his plate and chewed grimly.
John looked over to the pub counter, where Mycroft’s driver was eating her own lunch in relative peace, and rather wished that he could join her. ‘Hestia’ was a petite brunette, and even in a conservative trouser suit she was as attractive as he’d come to expect from Mycroft’s staff, but that wasn’t even relevant right now. He wouldn’t have minded if she’d been a grizzled old man of seventy. He’d settle for anyone not actively trying to give him indigestion. While he didn’t have the best relationship with his own sister, they at least tried to keep up the pretence of civility when they were together.
“So will you be having pudding, Mycroft? Maybe you should wait until tonight and have ‘afters’ instead.” Sherlock’s voice twisted briefly into an ironic northern lilt before returning to its usual tones. “Or why not both?”
“Do you go back often, then?” John ventured, desperate to distract them from each other.
“At least once or twice a year, if I can manage it,” Mycroft said. “We used to both visit every Christmas, until Sherlock…decided he no longer wished to.”
Sherlock’s face was instantly the picture of outrage. “That was you.”
“No, it wasn’t. That had nothing to do with Christmas. We could still have gone, regardless.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What would have been the point, if not for that.”
“Tradition, Sherlock. Family.”
“You’ve made it quite clear how you feel about family, Mycroft. And you’ll excuse me if I don’t find quite as much solace in mince pies and turkey as you do.”
Oh, god. John had somehow only succeeded in making it worse, which was an impressive feat considering he hadn’t the faintest idea what they were going on about. While neither of them had even raised their voices above normal conversational levels, their inflections had edges sharp enough to cut. Fortunately, he was a trained soldier, and adept in handling the most difficult of conflict situations. Immediate and decisive action was clearly required.
“Excuse me,” he said, putting down his napkin, and standing so hurriedly he almost knocked over the chair. “Long trip ahead, I think I’ll just…”
He gestured vaguely in the direction of the toilets, and fled.
After taking care of business, he ducked out into the garden and gave them a full ten minutes before returning. He guessed that by then things would either have calmed down or the police would have been called; either way was fine by him.
By the time he re-entered the pub he could tell even from a distance that the tension had eased. Mycroft had relaxed his posture slightly and was leaning forward, speaking softly to Sherlock, whose face still held a sulky expression, although no more than usual. As John got closer he saw Mycroft’s hand shift on the table, and found himself momentarily distracted. He would have sworn that Mycroft’s hand had been resting lightly on top of Sherlock’s just before he’d moved it. There was nothing much in that, at least not for normal people; he and Harry still shared hail-and-farewell hugs and the occasional kiss on the cheek. A conciliatory touch on the hand or arm should be nothing between brothers, even between friends. But from what he’d seen of Mycroft and Sherlock, the closest they ever got under ordinary circumstances was sniping at three paces. It just seemed…odd.
They rose together at his arrival. Sherlock took up his usual position beside John, while Mycroft trailed behind as they headed back out to the car. John looked from one to the other, but it seemed as though they were right back to mutual disregard, and he dismissed whatever he’d thought he’d seen. Perhaps he hadn’t seen it at all.
It was mid-afternoon by the time they arrived on the outskirts of town, having driven through enough moorland to irritate even the most devout admirer of Wuthering Heights. Mycroft finally put away his laptop as they approached the top of a rise from which they could see the entire town spread out picturesquely before them. There didn’t seem to be very much of it.
As they continued further down the road, which was at this point not really so much of a road as a muddy well-worn indentation in the grass, John finally saw an actual building. It was a rather decrepit-looking structure that loomed on the right, the highest point for miles around. Two storeys of weathered stone with a slate roof, the kind that could easily have stood there for a hundred years and might stand there for a hundred more. On the facing side was plastered on two large signboards the simple legend: LOCAL SHOP.
“Thank you Hestia, we’ll stop here,” Mycroft said via the intercom. “You may take the bags up to the house. We’ll take a taxi in later.”
It was such a relief to be out of the car that John didn’t even care why they were getting out early. He stretched broadly and admired the view while Mycroft put his blazer on and retrieved a small black backpack from the back of the car. The sight of Mycroft carrying a backpack made yet another jarring addition to the day. The weather wasn’t much to speak of; the sky was grey and cloudy, but at least the ground was dry. John glanced over at Sherlock, who was standing several feet in front of the building’s doorway, eyeing it with distaste.
“Do we have to?” Sherlock muttered, although not with any real conviction.
“You know how fond Mummy is of them,” Mycroft said patiently. “It’s expected.”
“Sorry, what are we doing here?” John’s curiosity had finally caught up with him.
“Paying our respects,” Mycroft said, and walked into the shop. A bell jangled somewhere as he entered. Due to Sherlock’s reluctance, it was John who went in next.
His first impression was of a dark, rather dingy space, filled with a profusion of random goods stocked in shelves around the walls, some of them spilling over onto the floor. A revolving stand of novelties stood in the middle, while on the side wall a small fire burned hesitantly in a grate. Directly in front of him was a wooden counter with an assortment of seemingly unrelated items collected in a glass-fronted wooden display case, and a small collection of snow globes sitting proudly on top. There was a narrow sliver of empty counter space for purchases; on the other side were sweet jars and an old-fashioned slicer. John smiled; he hadn’t seen a room so authentically quaint in years. He went up to the counter and began examining the small range of boiled sweets.
John startled, and almost dropped the jar he was holding. An elderly woman seemed to have materialised from nowhere and was now peering at him intently through thick glasses, her head tilted on one side. Grey hair was just visible from beneath a knotted brown-and-white headscarf.
"Oh!” John smiled ingratiatingly. “Sorry, you scared me a little. Hello."
"Yes?” she repeated loudly, as though he were perhaps a trifle deaf. “Can I help you at all?"
"Uh, no, it's fine, thanks,” John said. “I'm just with..."
"I haven't seen you before. Are you a local?"
"No…no I'm not, as a matter of fact. As I was saying, I'm just here with my, uh, friends..." He put the jar down hastily and indicated Mycroft and Sherlock, who were standing right behind him, but the woman's oddly unfocused gaze didn't waver for an instant. His mere presence seemed to agitate her.
"This is a local shop for local people," she informed him sternly. "There's nothing for you here."
To John’s relief, Mycroft finally stepped forward to the counter.
"He's here with us, Mrs Tattsyrup."
The sound of her name seemed to soothe her somewhat, but she still peered suspiciously up at Mycroft. "And who are you? Are you local?"
"I’m Mycroft, and this is Sherlock, remember? Mummy Holmes' boys. Sherlock? Manners."
"Hello," Sherlock mumbled.
The woman's face lit up in a glow of recognition.
"Oh, yes, yes, of course! Dear Mummy Holmes. Mi-chael. Sham-rock."
Despite his bewilderment, John couldn't quite stifle a giggle, and hurriedly turned it into a cough. Sherlock glared at him.
Mrs Tattsyrup’s face darkened. “But you went away, didn’t you? Far away. Like…like David. And I haven't seen you for...oh, such a very long time. Yes. Days and days and days and days and...”
"We've come back for Mummy's party. Tonight. You haven't forgotten, have you?"
"Par-ty? What is par-ty?"
"Not to worry,” Mycroft went on slowly and carefully, “I'm sure Mr Tattsyrup will explain it all to you later. We've brought you a lovely present."
To John’s utter astonishment, Mycroft took what appeared to be a snow globe out of his bag and offered it to her. "Please."
She accepted it and studied it reverently for a moment before squealing and clasping it to her ample bosom in delight. "A precious thing! Another precious thing! Edward! Edward! Look!"
Within seconds an elderly man, presumably Edward, emerged from the depths of the shop. He glared at them aggressively through his own thick glasses, but it was his teeth John found particularly disturbing. He knew that the art of dentistry was often minimal in rural places, but these weren’t merely badly kept. They looked almost…pointed.
"Hello, hello? What's going on?” he demanded. “What's all this shouting? We'll have no trouble here. This is a decent town and a local shop…” His gaze flicked back to Mycroft, and he suddenly trailed off. “Oh. Aren't you…?"
“Hello, Mr Tattsyrup,” Mycroft said genially. This time Sherlock followed suit without prompting. John thought it safest to stand behind them both and say nothing at all. He felt thoroughly out of his non-local depth.
"It's Mummy Holmes’ boys, Edward! They're back for par-ty. They've been living in Lon-don, you know. Like David...Like David. They brought me one of these. It has a, a, turning thing in it!"
"That's called the London Eye, Mrs Tattsyrup."
She held it up to her face and peered into it intently. "I don’t understand. How can it be an eye if it doesn’t see? But, oh, it's beautiful. I have so many precious things now, don't I Edward? One, two, three, five, oh, twelvety-seven. Many!"
"Yes, Tubbs, indeed you do," Edward said, looking at her fondly. He turned back to Mycroft and Sherlock with a sterner air. “Thank you for the gift.”
Mycroft nodded deferentially. It was bizarre to witness.
“And how is Rye?” Edward went on. “We haven’t seen much of her of late. Not after that unfortunate incident in the high street.”
“Well, these things happen, don’t they?” Mycroft said. “She’s doing very well, thank you. Looking forward to her party.”
“You know, you boys shouldn’t stay away for so long. Not healthy. I’d disown my own son if he ran away like you two. Still, for Rye's sake, I suppose...you don’t look at all right, though. Haven’t been keeping much company with each other of late, have you?”
That finally drew a remark from Sherlock. “Well, that’s hardly my fault,” he said, clearly directing the comment more towards Mycroft than the old man.
“You’re quite right, Mr Tattsyrup. But one must work.”
“Oh, that’s no excuse. Look at Tubbs and I. We work all the hours the day gives us, and spend all of them with each other.”
“Yes,” Mycroft said slowly. “You are very fortunate indeed.”
“Well, well, never mind, never mind, you’re back now.” Edward went to one of the shelves behind him, which held more sweets, and took down a jar.
“Here,” he said, holding it out to Mycroft and Sherlock in turn, who each obediently took one. “Something to think about.”
John had that dizzying rush of confusion again as he saw that they were Love Hearts, the tablet sweets with the printed messages on. He couldn’t quite see what the actual messages were, which was probably just as well. Mycroft absent-mindedly popped his in his mouth immediately, while Sherlock appeared to pocket his.
“Anyway, we shall see you at the party tonight,” Edward said graciously, putting the jar away. “But just one more thing, boys.”
He stabbed an accusatory finger at John, who clearly hadn’t managed to escape notice after all.
“Who is he?”
Sherlock opened his mouth to speak, but Edward hadn’t quite finished.
“Is he local?”
When they finally emerged, Mycroft was on his phone within seconds. John practically dragged Sherlock off to one side.
“Okay, what was that?”
“God knows I’ve met some pretty strange people trailing around with you for the past year, but they were something else. And they’re actually friends of yours?”
“Not ours. Mummy’s.”
“That’s completely beside the point. And there’s another thing. People actually call her Mummy Holmes? Really?”
“What am I supposed to say? She was very proud of us when we were growing up. Not without reason,” Sherlock said, with a trace of defensiveness.
“Well, that makes it perfectly normal, then.”
“Is something the matter, John?”
It was the genuinely puzzled look Sherlock gave him that made John pause. No, everything was the matter – couldn’t Sherlock see that? John’s mind was already spinning from a few minutes in this place, and Sherlock was acting as though it were all perfectly ordinary. Although if these were the kind of people Sherlock had grown up around, that would probably explain quite a lot. However, he’d always thought Mycroft was at least halfway towards normal. Whatever that was.
“Barbara will be here shortly,” Mycroft said, walking back to stand beside Sherlock, who nodded in acknowledgement. To John, he added, “She runs the cab company. Or to put it more accurately, the cab, singular.”
“And for that matter,” John continued, reluctant to let go of his rant too soon. “Who are you and what did you do with Mycroft? What’s with the…blazer? And the snow globe?”
It was a completely unprovoked attack, but Mycroft seemed to register no more than faint surprise.
“John? Is something the matter?”
It turned out that the only thing more annoying than getting that head-tilted-puzzled-innocent-concern routine from Sherlock was getting it in stereo. John raised both hands in surrender and walked off to collect himself. He was aware that Mycroft and Sherlock were now conferring in low voices behind his back. But if there was something or someone wrong here, it wasn’t him. He had to believe that for his own sanity.
Although when he turned around, he immediately found cause to doubt himself again. He was just in time to see Sherlock retrieve the heart sweet from his pocket – from the pastel shade of purple it could be nothing else – and press it into Mycroft’s hand. Their fingers brushed, and a look passed between them in a way that suddenly made John deeply, inexplicably uncomfortable. Mycroft put the sweet into his mouth, a little more slowly then he’d done with the first one, while Sherlock watched him with apparent fascination. John cleared his throat more loudly than necessary, and they turned towards him, the spell broken.
“Cab’s coming, I think,” he said, pointing down the hill.