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The Best of Times

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John’s thoughtful mood was shattered into a million pieces on rounding the corner into Baker Street; the windows of 221B had been shuttered, not just with the usual wooden affairs but with purpose-built jobs that seemed to be made of galvanised steel.

“What the…?” John muttered looking up at the first floor. Swearing under his breath, he took the stairs two at a time and burst into the flat.

“Sherlock!” he shouted, “What the hell do you think you’re doing now? You know this building is Grade 2 Listed, right? You have to get permission for this sort of thing; it takes months, sometimes years. Sherlock! Are you bloody listening to me?”

Sherlock raised his head from where he was poring over what looked like a book of logarithmic tables with the aid of his pocket magnifier. “I heard every word you said, John,” he replied calmly, “and I can only assure you that the shutters are absolutely essential and I am fairly sure we will not need them for long.”

“Yes, but why do we need them in the first place?” John protested, waving his arms around, “Look, they block out the daylight – we’re going to have to use electric light 24 hours a day, it’s not healthy and it’s murder on the electricity bills.”

“It’s not forever, John,” Sherlock looked back at his book. “I fail to see why you’re getting so agitated about it.”

“Because I like a certain amount of natural light in my life!” John exploded.

“When compared with such things are sniper fire, John,” Sherlock intoned, “natural light is of secondary concern.”

John paused mid-rant. “Hang on a sec,” he said, “Sniper fire? What are you talking about?”

“I am talking about Colonel Sebastian Moran,” Sherlock replied forcefully. He unfolded himself from the kitchen chair he was straddling and bore down on John, his superior height lending him an air of menace. John swallowed but stood his ground.

“He is still at large, John,” Sherlock said, moving until he was well into John’s personal space, almost in his face, “and he is currently more interested in proving his little theory about my failure to die when I jumped from the roof of St Barts than in actually taking you out, but I still wouldn’t relax too much if I were you.”

“And this is why we’re currently living in a fallout shelter, is it?” John shot back, working himself into full-scale snit.

“No, it’s why we’re taking perfectly normal and unexceptionable measures to ensure our safety,” Sherlock replied, slinking back into his chair and picking up his magnifier. “Really, John, your short-sightedness beggars belief. If you can’t resign yourself to a little inconvenience to ensure our joint safety, not to mention that of Mrs Hudson – after all, collateral damage is always a consideration in situations of this nature…”

“Enough!” John stamped over to the table and snatched the magnifier from Sherlock’s hands. “You have no reason to assume that Moran knows the whereabouts of either of us. Why, until a couple of days ago, I was in Scotland where, incidentally, your brother Mycroft seemed to think it was safe enough to leave me more or less unsupervised the whole time!”

A wrinkle appeared between Sherlock’s eyebrows. He jerked his head round to look John directly in the face. “You have been staying at Orlington Park?” he said quietly.

“Yes,” John replied in a slightly calmer tone. “I was there for the whole three months I was away. Why?”

“I had assumed you would be staying with Harry,” Sherlock said. He looked oddly nonplussed.

“Harry?” John blinked in surprise, “God, no! My sister may be many things, but a nurse isn’t one of them.”

“But why Orlington?” Sherlock demanded, rising from his chair and starting to pace the kitchen, “What possible business could you have at the Holmes family estate, John?”

John began to see red at the edges of his vision. “What possible…?” he began, almost speechless, “What poss…? Sherlock, I was set upon, beaten and stabbed in the gut!” he shouted. “I spent a week in hospital and two more virtually housebound – I had septicaemia, for god’s sake; I nearly died! Your brother offered me his hospitality for my convalescence which, seeing as it turned out I was being used as bait in order to smoke you out, was probably the least he could do!”

“A plague on all interfering elder brothers!” Sherlock spat, turning his back on John.

Stung by Sherlock’s callousness, John rallied. “Actually,” he said in a high, false voice, “I was staying in the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage for most of the time and I had permission from Sherrinford, not Mycroft.”

There was an awful bloody silence after this chilly little speech and John carefully kept his eyes on the floor.

“What,” Sherlock said very quietly, “did you just say?”

John weakened and looked up; Sherlock was as white as a ghost. John opened his mouth but nothing came out.

“John,” Sherlock repeated in a strange, tense manner, “tell me – what did you just say?”

“I said I had permission to stay in the cottage,” John repeated in a quieter voice.

From whom?

“From… from your brother, Sherrinford,” John said reluctantly, “After all, it’s where he lives when he’s on the Estate; I figured it was only polite.”

“You met my brother,” Sherlock said slowly.

It wasn’t a question, but John still nodded. “Although, to be honest,” he demurred, “it was more like he met me; he just turned up out of the blue one day. He seemed to know quite a lot about me.”

“I daresay he did,” Sherlock replied, narrowing his eyes, “What did Sherrinford want with you, John?” His tone was casual but his face could have been carved from stone.

John tilted his head quizzically. “Want with me?” he repeated slowly, “That’s a curious choice of words, Sherlock.”

“Why did he make himself known to you, John?” Sherlock demanded, starting to pace the room, “My brother has been a recluse now for considerably more than fifteen years – I have neither seen nor spoken to him in all that time. Excluding the Estate workers, I can number the people who have chanced upon him in the past on the fingers of one hand; so why you, John?”

John spread his hands. “I’m not the person to ask,” he replied simply. “I went for a walk in the woods one afternoon, came back and found him there in front of the house. He was splitting logs with an axe; later on in the week, he came back and showed me how.” John rotated his shoulder in sense memory and gave a weak grin. “Hurt like the devil for a while, but I really believe it’s a bit looser now as a result.”

“Maybe you should take it up as a hobby,” Sherlock replied nastily, “So, did you walk with my brother, John?”

John frowned again and gave a slow nod. “Yes,” he replied carefully, “Sherrinford took me round the Estate, showed me the woodlands, the walks and the paths – you know the kind of thing.”

“What about the wildlife?” Sherlock persisted, “the nocturnal wildlife, John?”

John was becoming more and more puzzled. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he tried again. “We sat outside the cottage and drank beer, we watched bats flying in the dusk, we went out at night and watched badgers. He knew where to find a rare night-flowering orchid...”

“And you trailed after him like a lovesick girl!” Sherlock made a noise of disgust.

John felt his fists clench. “Now just a minute!” he said, his anger starting to rise again.

Sherlock laughed derisively. “I know what my brother was like at eighteen, John,” he interrupted, “and I have enough information from the Estate and the village to have a pretty good idea what and who he has been up to in the ensuing time.”

John looked up in surprise before he thought to censure his expression.

Sherlock smirked contemptuously in reply. “Oh, don’t bother deluding yourself that you were special, John,” he spat, “The tales from the village have been awfully entertaining over the years, believe me.”

John kept his face expressionless but his eyes slid away.

Sherlock turned on a too-bright grin. “So what other joys of nature did my brother introduce you to while you were visiting Orlington Park, John?” he demanded, his tone steely. “What else did you two do together?”

John was becoming angrier and angrier with Sherlock at every successive word. “I don’t like your tone,” he replied crossly, “and anyway, what makes you think you can just turn up out of the blue after the stunt you pulled, and point fingers at me? If you want to know, go and ask your brother!”

It was a low blow but Sherlock simply nodded.

“So you did sleep with him then,” he said quietly as though the matter were obvious. John opened his mouth but Sherlock raised a hand.

“Don’t bother to deny it, it’s written all over your face and you’re a very poor liar,” Sherlock said in a curiously flat tone, “Spare yourself the embarrassment and me the tedium. I’ve always known about my brother’s proclivities; when we were barely out of childhood, he was off experimenting with the locals from the village …” Sherlock’s mouth twisted in distaste.

“So more like a normal human being than yourself, you mean?” John spat back, instantly regretting the harsh words. “Sherlock…”

“Oh, don’t waste your remorse on me, John,” Sherlock interrupted. “I’ve never either pretended or wanted to be normal in my life. You, on the other hand, are the epitome of normal; ordinary, average, mediocre. Yes, it’s easy to see why Sherrinford would want you.”

John had to clear his throat several times and take a deep breath before he could force himself to speak in a level tone. By the time John regained a measure of control, Sherlock was in his face once again.

“Do you love my brother, John?” Sherlock said in a curiously flat tone.

John blinked, momentarily floored, and the air left his lungs in a sudden rush. “I…” he said, “…don’t know…”

Sherlock grabbed John’s wrist and spun him, twisting his arm between his shoulder blades and forcing his face into the door. John struggled and cursed, ruing the day he taught Sherlock that particular move.

“Interesting,” Sherlock murmured into John’s ear as he captured and held him down, “Your pulse is racing and you’re sweating. You’re also panting.”

“I’m… trying to keep breathing,” John protested, striving to wriggle some extra clearance between them.

“Is this about my dear brother, do you think?” Sherlock continued, forcing John’s arm higher, making him grunt with pain, “Or is it about me? Which way round is it, John? Do I remind you of Sherrinford – or did he remind you of me?”

John gritted his teeth and kicked out backwards, trying to connect with Sherlock’s ankle, but the other man was too quick for him. Sherlock widened his stance then swiftly brought a knee between John’s legs, lifting him off the ground and effectively pinning him to the door, powerless.

“Dear, dear, John,” Sherlock rumbled quietly against John’s jaw, “All that emotion and nowhere to put it. Take it from me, Sherrinford is like a ghost. He is a ship in the night, a succubus – or in your case I think that should probably be incubus – not to be trusted and certainly not to become involved with.”

John gritted his teeth and heaved, struggling against the restraint. Sherlock just leaned harder on him, flattening the other man against the door with his hips.

Sherlock’s breath was hot, gusting over John’s neck and into the shell of his ear. John shuddered, partly with incipient panic, partly with something else, darker and more slippery. Sherlock leaned in, just breathing over him, tendrils of warm air creeping down to where John's collar folded away from his shoulder, gusts of breath teasing through his hair, over his scalp. John closed his eyes in despair and to his horror, felt tears prickle at the backs of his eyelids.

“He was there, Sherlock!” John burst out suddenly without planning or thinking, “He was there when you weren’t! He was around when I was recovering, he helped me get my strength back, he... he held me while I cried over you. He was there.”

Sherlock froze, abruptly silent, not even breathing, then he withdrew so suddenly that John staggered and fell against the door.

Breathing heavily, John pushed himself upright and pulled down his jumper. He glared at Sherlock and his eyes were challenging. “I don’t know what the hell you think you were doing just now,” he said quietly, “but whatever it is, you’d better get it sorted pretty damn quick!”

Sherlock’s face could have been graven in marble. “I may have…" he began, but he seemed unable to get any further.

“You can’t just… just assault me like that for no reason, Sherlock!” John protested weakly, straightening his collar, “and my relationship with your brother is absolutely none of your business.” His hand, raking through his disordered hair, was shaking.

Sherlock thrust a hand into his own curls and gripped hard. “John,” he began, his mouth working, “John…”

The tableau was suddenly shattered by the sound of Sherlock’s text alert. Sherlock stared slack-jawed for a moment then grabbed for his phone like a lifeline. He scanned the content swiftly and his face broke into a grim smile. “Yes!” he punched the air in triumph. He turned to john with an almost feral grin.

“Moran,” he explained, “has been sighted at King’s Cross. That’s the terminus for travel to Orlington; he must believe you’re still there!”

John gaped for a moment then frowned, swiping a palm over his forehead. He forced himself to breathe normally. “That’s a pretty big leap to make,” he observed, his calm tone surprising even himself. “He could be going anywhere from there – Paris on the Eurostar, for example.”

“I said King’s Cross, John, not St. Pancras,” Sherlock replied, texting rapidly, “It’s the terminus for the East Coast Main Line – all the other departures are fast suburban.”

John nodded. “Granted,” he replied, “but there’s a hell of a lot of possibilities between London and the Scottish border.”

“Nevertheless,” Sherlock finished his text and pressed Send with a flourish, “I am certain that Moran is on his way to Scotland; everything points towards his believing you to be resident on the Estate. He’s going after you.”

“Or Sherrinford,” John commented wryly. Sherlock blinked interrogatively.

“Come on, Sherlock,” John protested, “Whether you like it or not, your brother has been resident at Orlington for the past month or so, his presence has been noted by people on the Estate and in the village; it was scarcely a secret. Moran has his ear to the ground all over the country. What’s to stop him making assumptions, eh?”

Sherlock snorted. “Moran is far too astute to believe in unsubstantiated rumours,” he replied.

“He has been obsessed with your being alive from the outset,” John argued. “I think he won’t be able to resist checking it out. He’s not going to let this rest, Sherlock; he clearly believes you’re responsible for Moriarty’s death, whether you killed the man or not.”

“I didn’t,” Sherlock snapped back. “Moriarty committed suicide; the prints, powder burns, angle of entry, etc. etc. all confirm it.”

John shook his head. “It makes no difference,” he replied, “Nothing does when you’re dealing with a madman; the attack on me was a case in point.”

“Yes, well,” Sherlock drew a whistling breath in through his teeth. “He would have done better to have picked on Mycroft; it still wouldn’t have worked, but it would have been more logical.”

John forced his hands to unclench as Sherlock leaped to his feet and bounded into his bedroom.

“Come on, John,” he shouted, punching at his mobile. John followed at a run to find Sherlock pitching articles of clothing from his wardrobe and chest of drawers onto the bed, throwing himself flat on the floor to haul a case from underneath.

“What…?” John began.

Sherlock frowned up at him. “Why are you in here?” he demanded, getting up to fling the suitcase onto his bed. He made shooing motions with his free hand. “Go, go, now! Go and pack – I’m booking a taxi for eight tomorrow morning.”

Sherlock turned away and started barking into his mobile.

“Booking a… what? Sherlock!” John stood in the room while Sherlock dashed around him.

“Go and pack, John!” Sherlock commanded, shoving his phone into his pocket, “We’re going hunting.”

“Hunting what?” John asked, bewildered.

Sherlock paused to bare his teeth in an unpleasant grin. “A madman,” he replied, “in Orlington Park!”

 

The train journey north was long and arduous. Sherlock texted furiously for most of the journey and surfed on his mobile internet for the rest. Apart from occasional forays to the buffet car, John sat in the corner of the carriage, kept his eyes closed and his head down.

John had slept little the night before. The scene with Sherlock in the living room had left adrenaline surging through his bloodstream for hours afterwards, and the prospect of a long journey by train had held little appeal for him at eight am the following morning. In addition, they were returning to Orlington, to Sherrinford, and John was really, really unsure how he felt about that. It was as though history was repeating itself, as though the twins were once again going head to head over an emotional problem. John hated to cast himself as the girl in this scenario, but he couldn’t fail to see the parallels with Alice Rucastle.

And if push came to shove, what would John do? Which one of the twins would he side with? He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the window; the train rattled past Carlisle through the rain.

 

The taxi dropped them in the village at Sherlock’s instruction. The driver also agreed to take their luggage to Orlington Park to await their arrival later on in the afternoon.

“Did you let them know at the Great House?” John asked as he followed Sherlock’s purposeful stride down the High Street. “I mean, that you’re back?”

“Of course, John,” Sherlock replied scornfully, “I texted Henry Jenkins to expect us this afternoon from the train.”

That wasn’t quite what I meant. John sighed and turned up his collar against the rain.

 

The Green Man was quiet, the lunchtime trade winding down as the summer season came to a close. The imperturbable Alastair was at the bar with his customary glass cloth slung over his shoulder. John nodded at him and picked up the lunch menu; he saw little point in trying to delay the inevitable.

“Master Sherrinford,” Alastair said to Sherlock; he smiled with pleasure, “It’s been many years since I’ve seen you in here, sir.”

The smile faded into a puzzled frown and the Landlord’s look turned searching. “Ah, yes,” he said quietly and nodded, “It’s not Sherrinford, is it? It’s Master Sherlock. Just goes to show you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.”

“The report of my death…” began Sherlock.

John sighed impatiently. “…was an exaggeration. Yes, we’ve all read Mark Twain, Sherlock,” John finished for him. He nodded at Alastair. “Two halves of Progress, please,” he said, reaching for his wallet, “and a couple of those sandwiches, you know the ones I mean.”

Sherlock turned and fixed John with a level stare. “I was going to say it was a deliberate deception designed to throw the ungodly off my scent,” he replied, “but exaggeration will do.”

Sherlock swung back to Alastair. “However,” he said, “Since you bring up the subject of my brother, much as it pains me to admit it, I need to contact him urgently.”

“Well, now,” Alastair replied slowly, hands mechanically polishing a glass once again, “I’d say the best place you could look for him is up at the Estate.”

“Pshaw!” Sherlock spat; John blinked interestedly, having never heard anyone vocalise that particular sound before.

“I texted Henry Jenkins at length on the way here,” Sherlock replied peevishly, “and I already established that the last sighting of Sherrinford on the Estate was more than a week ago. However, I’m certain he is around, it’s finding him that will prove the challenge.”

Sherlock turned his level stare on the landlord. “You have always been the hub of information in the village,” he said flatly.

Alastair spread his hands. “Och, I wouldna say that…” he began deprecatingly.

“Maybe not,” Sherlock interrupted, “but I would. It is vitally important that I contact my brother. My safety, the safety of Doctor Watson here and even of my brother Mycroft may depend upon information that I suspect Sherrinford will be able to give us. If you have any way of contacting him, I need to know. It is a matter of the utmost urgency.”

“I don’t know that I can give you any information as to his whereabouts,” Alastair said slowly.

Sherlock made a sound of disgust and turned away.

“But I might be able to get a message to him,” the landlord finished.

Sherlock whirled back on him. “Tell him I need to see him,” he said urgently, “Tell him I’ll accept any terms, go anywhere. It’s important.”

Alastair nodded seriously.

“I’ll do that, Master Sherlock,” he replied, hands once again moving over the glass.

 

“Why do you need to talk to your brother?” John asked as they trudged down the road after lunch. “I mean, I’ve got nothing against filial loyalty and it’s clearly not before time for you to bury the hatchet, but why now? How can he add to what we know about Moran?”

“It’s not so much his information,” Sherlock replied, “although Sherrinford always did have his ways and means of gathering data. No, it’s more the usefulness of having two of me around.”

John stopped dead in the middle of the road; a van hooted loudly and he leaped onto the kerb.

“Don't play with the traffic, John,” Sherlock said striding off, oblivious.

John swallowed a couple of times then ran to catch up. He caught Sherlock’s sleeve.

“Do you mean to tell me…” he began and had to swallow again before continuing, “Sherlock, are you seriously intending to use your brother as a decoy?”

“Not as such, no,” Sherlock replied composedly, “although now you come to mention it, that side of the situation could prove useful. No, I merely want to be able to muddy the waters.”

“Expose him to danger, you mean, as your substitute?” John was feeling the rising tide of anger once again.

Sherlock glared back. “John, if you’re going to come over squeamish,” he said, “I suggest you barricade yourself in my brother’s luxury, air-conditioned gym for the duration. How can I get it into your thick head that our lives are in danger?”

“And you think that involving an innocent party is the right – the moral – thing to do?” John yelled back. “Exposing your brother to extreme danger for the sake of a tactical advantage is a lot more than a bit not good, Sherlock!”

Sherlock made a noise of intense frustration and brought his hands violently down into empty air. “I’m trying to ensure that we don’t get killed, you and I,” he said vehemently, “and it’s the best and most logical way.”

Sherlock strode off at a speed guaranteed to leave John behind. John stared after him in exasperation.

“This isn’t over, Sherlock,” he shouted after the rapidly disappearing figure.