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The Best of Times

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“I’ll write you a script for Amoxicillin – you’re not penicillin sensitive, are you?”

John simultaneously reached for his computer keyboard and a handful of tissues, sneezing into the latter as he typed erratically on the former with one hand.

The elderly lady’s faded blue eyes twinkled at him. “Looks like you’re the one as needs the pills, if you don’t mind me sayin’, doctor,” she told him kindly.

“Yes, I think you’re right, Mrs Robson,” John allowed, sniffing slightly as he binned the soggy paper. “This has just hit me; I felt perfectly healthy when I got up this morning.” He smiled apologetically and fed a green form into the printer. He scribbled a signature, hardly able to see over a fresh wad of tissues, and held it out to his patient.

Mrs Robson rose to her feet, settling her handbag firmly over the crook of her elbow as she reached for her script. “You look after that cold, doctor,” she said firmly, “We don’t want you endin’ up in hospital like all these flu victims we’ve got this year.” She made her deliberate way out of his office.

“Thank you, I’ll try,” John replied with a smile. He sat down, ran his hands through his hair and reached for the tissue box again; it was empty. John cursed under his breath and swiped his fingers under his nose.

Almost immediately, the door opened and John sprang to attention, guiltily thrusting his hands behind his back, wondering how in the world he had accidentally managed to buzz for the next patient already.

“I’m so sorry, I was…oh, Sarah, come in!” John gestured to the chair in front of him with one hand, mopping frantically at his nose with the other.

Sarah reached into her pocket and proffered a large handkerchief. She shook her head at him as he accepted it gratefully, her face half-stern, half-fond.

“John, go home,” she said flatly, “Right this minute; your patients are complaining to the Receptionists.”

“What?” John exclaimed in horror. “Look, Sarah, I swear this only came on a couple of hours ago at the most. I’ve not sneezed over anybody and until now, I haven’t had any kind of problem at all…”

“No, no,” Sarah interrupted, laughing. “Not about your treatment, silly! They’re giving the Practice Management hell for apparently forcing you to work when you’re ill. We can’t cope with all this abuse from your fan club, John; go home and sleep it off!”

She smiled at him and opened the door.

“Oh, and make sure you do sleep it off,” she said turning back for a moment. “No chasing around London after mad private detectives tonight, okay?”

John gave a sour grimace. “No chance of that,” he said wryly. “The git’s been away for more than a fortnight – not a word.”

Sarah frowned. “A fortnight?” she echoed. “Is that usual?”

“Well,” John rubbed the back of his neck, “put it this way – it’s not un-usual. He gives me chapter and verse once he gets back, though; it’s mostly pretty entertaining.”

Sarah’s frown morphed into an amused grin; she shook her head wonderingly. “You know,” she remarked “if it were anyone other than Sherlock Holmes, I’d be suspecting some kind of clandestine affaire!” Her eyes twinkled.

John raised his eyebrows. “Sherlock?” he shook his head, “Not likely. Believe me; he’s been got at by experts. No dice at all.”

“Really?” Sarah’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline, “You must tell me about it sometime.”

John coughed lightly, wondering if he had said too much.

Sarah laughed at his discomfiture. “I can see it’ll take positively lakes of alcohol to get this one out of you,” she said smiling, “Don’t worry – I’ll wait till you’re well before I try it.”

She put her hand to the doorknob. “Go home, get into bed and stay there,” she admonished.

“Will you come and tuck me in?” He couldn’t resist it.

“You wish!”

Sarah’s response floated back from the corridor without missing a beat. John allowed himself a fleeting regret; they really were just good friends now.

 

He logged off his computer and cleared his desk. Grabbing his jacket, he switched on his phone and started to scroll through his texts and missed calls. His face broke into a grin as, right on cue, he found a text from Sherlock:

Purchase cyanide capsules and baseball bat on way home this evening. If cyanide not available, anything lethal and quick-acting from surgery dispensary will do. SH

John snorted in amusement and mopped at his nose with Sarah’s hankerchief; evidently Sherlock had hoped to sneak his way back into the Baker Street flat without alerting his brother as to his presence. A forlorn hope in John’s opinion, and Sherlock was clearly attesting to the truth of that. John checked the send time; only ten minutes or so previously, so Mycroft was probably still actually there. John elected to treat his flatmate’s text as an expression of discontent rather than as a direct order and went straight home on the tube. Even Mycroft couldn’t predict a cold; John's unexpected arrival at Baker Street would likely be in time to defuse a major family row.

 

John’s journey was rather more uncomfortable than he had anticipated. The tube was unusually crowded for the time of day and John was forced into the centre of the carriage, sandwiched between a very overweight teenager and a disapproving matron who favoured him with periodic glares every time the swaying of the carriage flung him briefly into her personal space. Hanging helplessly from a polished steel pole, leaning his aching forehead against the cool metal and feeling the sweat start to trickle down the back of his neck, John began to wonder if this was a bit more than a simple cold.

Well, thought his uncharitable, undoctorly side, at least the old bat’ll probably go down with it too.

Baker Street tube station was packed and by the time he had struggled his way to the surface, John sincerely hated every single human being in sight, in London and possibly even on the planet. He gazed out at the driving rain and abruptly all the fight went out of him; he sagged against the wall and tried to catch his breath.

“Hey!” said a sudden voice, “John Watson!”

John looked blearily around to see an arm waving out of a car window. A head followed it and cocked to one side, indicating the back seat; the door obligingly opened.

Abruptly, John’s faith in a beneficent God underwent a sudden upsurge. “Thank you, thank you!” he muttered as he turned up his collar, dashed out into the road and was quickly swallowed up into the back of Lestrade’s warm police sedan.

“Oh cheers mate!” John breathed, shaking the water droplets out of his hair.

“Hey!” protested a voice next to him.

“Sorry,” John grinned, adjusting his collar. PC Brownlee merely rolled his eyes.

“Seriously, though,” John continued, aiming his words to where Lestrade was sitting in the front passenger seat, “You’re a lifesaver – going anywhere near 221?” He coughed into his handkerchief.

“We weren’t,” said Lestrade, grinning over his shoulder, “but I suppose we can drop you. You look a bit done in, Doctor Watson.”

“You could say that,” John returned, wiping his mouth and spiriting the handkerchief away, resisting the temptation to examine its contents in company. “Sarah’s sent me home – says I’m doing more harm than good.”

“Looking at you, she’s probably right,” Lestrade agreed as his driver pulled in. “Here’s your stop. Remember me to the master now he’s got back, won’t you? He texted me earlier just to make sure I knew he was home. Oh, and tell him I’ll be on his case later tomorrow. We’ve got a dodgy one; routine post mortem turned up very iffy. Could be interesting.”

John nodded. “I’ll tell him. Cheers!” He vaulted from the back seat, slammed the door and ran for number 221 flapping an arm briefly in farewell.

As the front door closed behind him, John sagged against it, dripping copiously all over Mrs Hudson’s immaculate doormat. His energy reserves seemed to drain out of him all at once, leaving him looking wearily at a staircase that floated prettily in and out of focus.

Just a few moments. John sank down on the second stair and leaned his throbbing head against the newel post.

 

Voices; raised voices, clearly angry, coming from upstairs. Mrs Hudson must be out or she’d be in the hall by now earwigging. John listened for a moment then nodded to himself; as he had thought, Mycroft was still here.

Much later, John would remind himself that he had never intended to eavesdrop. He would tell himself that the bout of seasonal flu that flattened him over the following fortnight was answerable for his lamentable lack of common politeness in making his presence known. A simple cough would have done it and Lord knows he had been doing enough of that for most of the afternoon. Instead, he leaned against the wall and tried to breathe quietly even though discretion was clearly unnecessary; the two were arguing loudly enough to raise Cain, and they had left the living room door open to boot.

“It is no longer a sustainable situation, Sherlock; surely you can see that,” Mycroft’s smooth, oily tenor was missing its placatory edge although his tone was still deceptively reassuring. “As your brother, I have to appeal to you for your assistance and co-operation in this matter, you must see that.”

“All I can see is that your interference is, once again, totally unjustified,” Sherlock’s more rounded baritone responded in a low, rapid monotone. “As the vernacular has it – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It translates out, for your benefit, as Mind Your Own Business.”

“Something has to be done…”

“The status quo has served us all perfectly well for more than fifteen years, Mycroft,” Sherlock raised his voice to drown his brother out. “I fail to see the urgency.”

“That may be the case,” Mycroft conceded, apparently reluctantly, “but things are not as they were, as you well know. Another variable has entered the equation; an important one.”

“If you are speaking of Moriarty, allow me to reassure you,” Sherlock responded icily. “There is no possible way he could find out; I have made very sure of that.”

Mycroft’s laugh was bitter and without humour. “A fair deflection, Sherlock,” he said, his tone tight, “but not quite good enough, I’m afraid. I am your older brother by seven years, not the hired help. Kindly give my intelligence the respect it deserves. For the record, Moriarty is not the only threat to the present state of affairs.”

John saw in his mind’s eye the reluctant acknowledgement in Sherlock’s face.

“However, if I may emulate your descent into colloquialism,” Mycroft continued, “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. And it is not as though you have never in your life made an error through sheer hubris, hmm?”

John stiffened and straightened his spine in sympathy with his unseen flatmate; The Woman was still a taboo subject. He had to strain to hear Sherlock’s response.

“Pride comes before a fall, brother mine,” was the murmured response, “As to who will fall furthest - well, that remains to be seen.”

There was a creak as someone rose from the sofa and the thud of footfalls; Sherlock was pacing the rug.

“You may be confident that the Holmes family is safe,” Sherlock told his brother, “Moriarty is a danger only to me.”

“You would do well to reassess that last comment, Sherlock,” Mycroft replied; his words were clipped and carefully enunciated, “Trust me; James Moriarty is far less sane than either you or I ever imagined in our wildest dreams. I assure you that after several days spent interrogating him, there can be no further doubt as to the state of his mind; his obsession knows no bounds. Everyone and everything associated with you is in jeopardy; we cannot risk even the vaguest suggestion that the particular, shall we say, ah, vulnerability we have been discussing might exist.”

“And I tell you that nothing has changed; the situation is still tenable,” Sherlock replied; his pacing increased in speed.

“And what of the locals?” Mycroft demanded; John blinked and frowned in incomprehension.

Sherlock made a rude, derisive noise. “The locals are idiots!” he responded pithily.

“Nevertheless,” Mycroft persisted, “they know enough to be problematic. Sherlock, we have to face facts. It’s time to resolve this once and for all; you must come to terms.”

“I don’t have to listen to you,” Sherlock ground out between clenched teeth. John heard the sound of a violin bow gouging over strings in a riot of dissonance.

Despite himself, John cringed, frowned and continued to listen.

“There has to be some kind of closure on this,” Mycroft’s tone was as urgent as John had ever heard it, raising the volume to be heard over the flurry of double-stopping. “Forgiveness isn’t impossible you know, even at this late stage. You’ve always been adamant in your refusal of assistance in the past, but if we were to keep it in the family, if I were to…”

Sherlock abruptly stopped playing on a ghastly discord. “Mycroft,” The tone was strangulated; he was clearly grinding his teeth, “I seem to recall asking you to leave five, possibly even ten, minutes ago. Kindly accede to my wishes.”

“Returning to home ground could help, Sherlock,” Mycroft continued, as though his brother had not spoken, “Come down to Orlington with me at the weekend. Once you’re there, it might be possible for you to allow…”

“Mycroft!” Sherlock’s voice suddenly cut through all other sound; John held his breath.

“Leave now,” Sherlock said quietly enough, but there was no mistaking the edge. There was a short pause before a different set of footsteps tracked heavily over to the door.

John leaped to his feet, so rattled that he failed to even approximate the deception of having just that moment arrived home. His shifting eyes and awkward body language were an open book to someone of Mycroft’s skills. However, the latter’s fleeting expression of actual surprise on encountering John on the staircase ratcheted John’s vague scratch of unease into a sharp prickle of worry.

Face to face with John’s dumbfounded expression, Mycroft gave a watery smile. “Ah, Doctor Watson,” he said, a weak echo of his usual bonhomie, “How pleasant to see you! Unfortunately, I was just leaving. Another time? Tea at my club, perhaps? I’ll have my secretary call you.”

Gripping his umbrella, Mycroft manoeuvred smoothly around John and disappeared down the hallway without another word. John frowned after him then shrugged, exhaled gustily and began the long ascent to the first floor.

“Sherlock?” John coughed; he was actually wheezing. He peered into the kitchen then winced as a resounding slam shook the entire house to its foundations.

John sighed helplessly and went to close the living room door. Mrs Hudson stood on the threshold wearing her outdoor coat and rain hat, umbrella dripping over the carpet, her face set in a kind of sympathetic pout.

“Oh, what’s he getting up to now, Doctor Watson?” she grumbled in a long-suffering manner.

John scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “I’m bugg... ah, darned if I know, Mrs Hudson,” he replied, “I’ve only just got here myself.”

“And that brother of his!” Mrs Hudson continued crossly, “Nearly ran me down on my own doorstep, he did! I ask you, what is the world coming to when gentlemen of his type can't even look where they’re going? How are the rest of us supposed to cope?”

John didn’t know. In fact, the number of things that John didn’t know could fill a universe, and most of them concerned Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock’s absence this time had not been unusually long. He had left the flat at a run, hand luggage in tow, muttering vaguely about a jewellery theft in Reykjavík and telling John not to wait up. That had been two and a half weeks ago with narry an email or Skype call to touch base. None of this was a problem per se – John had grown accustomed to arranging his life around Sherlock’s presence or absence, depending on what was happening.

It really didn’t bother him, he told himself; after all, he had his own work at the surgery and in Sherlock's absence the flat was blessedly peaceful and tidy; no noise, no fuss, no sudden surprises. John could even bring his dates home without fear.

But John had missed his flatmate; he always did when Sherlock was away, if he was being honest with himself. Now Sherlock was home, John's quietly envisaged Friday evening of dinner at Angelo’s (or any one of a number of other small restaurants that had reasons, good or bad, for giving Sherlock Holmes a freebie) followed by Baker Street’s coal fire and indifferent telly in the warm had buoyed him up through his nightmare journey home. Maybe even a beer or two – Sherlock was even more amusing when alcohol had mellowed him out a bit – followed by a good night’s sleep and a Saturday lie-in for John. He sighed; fat chance of that now. Thanks, Mycroft.

For the next twenty-four hours, Sherlock remained in his bedroom, the only indication of his presence being the collection of used coffee mugs that accumulated in the kitchen overnight. Finally, to John’s everlasting relief, Lestrade texted with details about the surprising post-mortem and Sherlock emerged, fully dressed in his trademark coat, pulling on his gloves and shouting for John. As he scrambled off his sickbed to comply, John assumed that things were now back to normal.

But who knew with Sherlock Holmes?

Chapter Text

In the end, it was the infernal bloody noise that did it. Woke him, that is.

Alright, John was aware he’d been pushing it a bit lately. The sleepless nights spent pacing the rug went with the territory. The lack of appetite, constant weariness and propensity to drop things were also part of it – he was a doctor, for goodness sake, they taught you this in the first year of a medical degree. What they didn’t teach you at any stage was how to cope with it; not really.

Grief: a five-letter word that encompassed a whole world of suffering. Of course John was grieving for Sherlock; they’d been friends, flatmates – colleagues. It didn’t mean his life was about to come to an end.

He’d taken on too many hours at the surgery that was all. Add to that the shifts in A&E to make up the rent, plus the occasional request from Greg to be present at a crime scene, and John supposed the exhaustion must just have crept up without him really noticing.

He wasn’t used to the extra journey to and from work either now he was no longer living at Baker Street. The tube was always hell and the half-mile trek at the other end after a gruelling day meant he barely made it home before his leg gave out. Oh, yes, his leg; no need to go into why that little problem had raised its ugly head again.

Limping past a dingy-looking pub on Friday evening after the late shift he had thought, why not? A quiet pint in the warm, a chance to rest his leg a while, a friendly face at the bar – what harm could it do? John shook his head; he felt stupid for not recognising the signs. He’d dealt with it, of course he had, but clearly he should have reported the incident.

He really didn’t deserve this. My god, the embarrassment! And the sheer racket those coppers made kicking his door down! Good job none of the neighbours were home. He had only been taking a bath, for crying out loud. Must just have fallen asleep at some stage…

“The water was stone cold, John,” Greg said quietly over a steaming mug of tea. “You had to have been soaking for the best part of eight hours.”

The noise of a drill in the background from the emergency carpenter spiked through John’s head and set his stomach churning. He wrapped his hands around his mug and shivered. “Alright, Greg,” he sighed, “I’ll try to get a bit more sleep in future, okay?”

Lestrade shook his head slowly. He leaned forward in his chair. “John,” he said, “you need to talk to someone.”

“I’m talking to you now,” John’s tone was stubborn.

Lestrade ignored him. “I mean a professional,” he persisted. “Look, speak to Sarah; go back to your therapist, what’s her name? Ella Thompson?”

“No,” John sighed and rested his head in his hands. “I just need a bit of space, Greg, that’s all.”

Lestrade gave John a level look for several beats then he reached out a hand slowly and tilted John’s chin to one side with his index finger. He nodded expressionlessly. “That’ll be quite a shiner when the bruising comes up,” he said conversationally. “How’d you get it?”

John jerked his chin away; he felt his face heat up. “None of your business,” he muttered.

Greg nodded. “Oh, yeah,” he said thoughtfully, “and what was lying by the side of the bath – that would also be none of my business, hmm?”

John felt his facial muscles stiffen; he swallowed and reached for his tea. “What did you do with it?” he asked in a level tone.

“Poured it down the sink, what did you think I’d do with it?” Lestrade sighed. “There was precious little left, John. Was it full when you started?”

John shrugged. “’Fraid so,” he admitted. “The bloke I took it off wasn’t too worried about leaving it behind after I’d finished with him.”

Lestrade shook his head. “This isn’t like you, John,” he said quietly. “You don’t drink – at least not like this. You have good reason not to.”

John winced and not just with the pain in his head; Harry would kill him if she ever found out.

“And you don’t brawl in the street either,” Lestrade continued seriously. “The Drummond Arms is a shithole; a really nasty place. What in heaven’s name were you doing there?”

John shrugged. “Just passing the time,” he replied. “Scarcely my fault if people are too stupid to know a veteran when they see one.”

“The landlord did,” Lestrade put in. “Good job he recognised you from your blog or I might not be here now. Come on – what else did you take?”

“Eh?” John yawned and drained off his tea mug; the contents settled uneasily in his stomach.

Lestrade gave him a look. “No one falls asleep in the bath for more than eight hours without some kind of chemical assistance,” he replied.

“The booze…”

“Balls! Don’t give me that!” Lestrade was angry. He sat back in his chair and glared.

John dropped his eyes. “Alright,” he replied. “I took some dihydrocodeine…”

“What, together with that much whisky?” Lestrade exclaimed in horror. “John, what kind of a doctor are you? You could have drowned!"

“I wasn’t thinking clearly, okay?” John burst out; his head hurt. “I was already three parts gone when those idiots set about me. I took pills for the pain, patched myself up a bit and got into a tepid bath. That’s all I remember. They did quite a number on me, you know; there were two of them and they got in some damage before I could beat them off.”

“How bad?” demanded Lestrade.

John shook his head. “Wrenched knee;” he replied, “abdominal bruising – nothing serious; bruised ribs – possibly cracked, at least there’s something under there needing a dressing; possible sprained wrist – one of them stepped on it; wrenched shoulder – not dislocated, thank god – and this black eye you remarked on earlier.” He winced as he rolled a shoulder experimentally. “There might be more; I’d probably better get someone at the surgery to check me over properly.”

Lestrade narrowed his eyes. “Landlord said one of ‘em had a knife,” he said.

“Yeah,” John ran his hand through his hair; his scalp was hot and sweaty. “I took it off him – threw it into a dumpster.”

“Did he use it?”

John shook his head wearily. He swiped a hand over his forehead; it came back damp. He swallowed against a sudden upsurge of nausea and felt Lestrade lay a concerned hand on his arm.

“You alright, John?” he asked, suddenly sounding a very long way away. John tried to reply but found that his mouth wouldn’t work anymore.

That was the last thing he remembered for some time.

 

Lestrade paced the corridor restlessly, cursing himself. How had he missed it? Granted, John had quite a few bleeding abrasions, any one of which could have coloured the bathwater to that extent. Also, despite his inebriation, he had at least managed to slap a dressing of sorts on himself before getting in the bath. That would have slowed the blood loss, as would the decreasing temperature of the water throughout the night…

Still, John must have been very far gone indeed not to have noticed that he had been stabbed in the side.

Lestrade had never attended anyone in Intensive Care outside the line of duty, especially not a friend. John’s injuries, although individually not serious, added up to a vicious, deliberate assault, the brutality of which set Lestrade’s Spidey sense tingling. When it became evident that John could defend himself, one of the attackers had apparently used his knife as a last resort. John had managed to block the attack and disarm his opponent, but the resulting wound and his consequent neglect of it had achieved what the beating had not. Now all Lestrade could do was wait; wait for news from the theatre; wait for John’s sister Harry to arrive; wait for Mycroft Holmes to materialise. One of the three had to happen in the next hour or so; Lestrade took out a mental book on which one.

 

“Inspector Lestrade, I believe.”

Lestrade opened his eyes and gathered himself together, mentally awarding himself the jackpot. He scrubbed his hands over his face and looked up. “Mycroft Holmes, I presume,” he responded in conscious mimicry. He stood, wincing at the stiffness in his knees, and held out a hand to shake.

Mycroft’s grip was strong, Lestrade noticed, and his hands were smooth-skinned and well-manicured. His eyes were shadowed and his shirt slightly crumpled around the neck. Lestrade translated that out as “worried sick” in Holmesian.

“Any word as yet?” Mycroft enquired.

Lestrade shook his head morosely. “He’s out of theatre now,” he replied, “and they’ve repaired the hole in his side. That’s not the problem, apparently – the dangerous part is the septicaemia.”

Mycroft winced sympathetically, gave Lestrade a keen glance and seemed to take in his puffy eyes, creased suit and five o’clock shadow. “You’ve been here for some hours, Inspector,” he said. It wasn’t a question so Lestrade didn’t bother to treat it as one.

Lestrade fixed Mycroft with a look. “Mrs Hudson’s a lady in her seventies,” he continued. “She’s better off not seeing him like this. There really isn’t anybody else.”

“There’s me.”

A blond woman bustled in, striding hastily across the floor with a click of heels.

“My name is Harriet Watson,” she said without preamble. “I understand my brother John has been admitted for surgery following an assault yesterday evening.”

“That’s right, Miss Watson,” Lestrade replied. Before he could continue, she fixed him with a gimlet-eyed glare.

“I’m guessing you must be Detective Inspector Lestrade,” she said crisply. “John’s mentioned you and you’ve posted on his blog.”

Lestrade nodded. “That’s right,” he said again. “I’m sorry, Miss Watson, but John’s in Intensive Care. He sustained a knife wound in the attack and contracted an infection; they’re treating it with antibiotics as we speak, but we don’t know any more than that.”

As he explained, Lestrade was aware of Mycroft’s searing analysis being turned on the woman.

“Miss Watson,” Mycroft put into the silence following Lestrade’s summary. The woman turned her disconcertingly direct gaze on him.

“There’s no need to ask who you are,” she said, extending a hand. “Mr Mycroft Holmes, the British Government.”

Mycroft winced slightly as he returned her shake. “My brother’s witticisms seem to have outlived him,” he commented lightly, seemingly unaware of Lestrade’s barely suppressed flinch.

John’s sister smiled tightly. “Any idea who would do this to him?” she continued, “Or why, for that matter?”

Again, Lestrade shook the narrative. “It’s too early to tell,” he replied. “Could be random, maybe an attempted robbery turned nasty. His wallet was missing; we found it a few yards away, empty. He wasn’t wearing a watch so we assume they took that too.”

Harriet Watson pressed her lips together thoughtfully. She turned to Mycroft. “No offense,” she said straightforwardly, “but if this is a simple street crime, why are you here?”

A short silence greeted her all-too-perceptive question.

Mycroft’s smile did not reach his eyes. “Doctor Watson was my brother’s friend and colleague,” he replied, “and as a result, I worry about him; constantly.”

The tiny lift of one perfectly shaped eyebrow did not pass Mycroft by; he narrowed his eyes minutely.

An oblivious Lestrade heaved himself out of his chair with a sigh. “Anyone for coffee?” he offered, indicating the machine across the corridor.

Harriet Watson smiled. “Yes, thank you, Inspector,” she replied. “I’ve not had breakfast yet: milk and sugar please.”

Mycroft shook his head with a barely suppressed shudder and Lestrade lumbered off, jingling the change in his trouser pocket.

As soon as Lestrade had gone out of earshot, Harriet Watson fixed Mycroft with a direct glare. “I would like a sensible answer to a sensible question, if you don’t mind,” she told him composedly. “As you are no doubt aware, John and I have a somewhat stormy relationship. Nevertheless, he is still my brother and if he is in some kind of trouble – and your presence here is a clear indication that things are not all they seem – then I think I have a right to know what that trouble is.”

Mycroft’s face assumed a bland expression. “Miss Watson,” he responded politely, “I am here in a purely personal capacity, I assure you.”

“Don’t play games with me,” Harriet countered, her eyes hard. “John has been attacked and seriously injured. If this has anything – anything at all– to do with your late younger brother, my relationship to John puts me in the firing line too. I have a right to know, for my own safety as well as my brother’s.”

“My dear Miss Watson,” Mycroft replied, his tone deadpan, “If I considered you to be in any kind of danger, I would not hesitate to assign some kind of protection to you. As it is, I’m afraid you would find any interference on my part irksome in the extreme and of no practical use whatsoever. Doctor Watson is perfectly safe here. His injuries are extremely unfortunate; like so many others, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Harriet narrowed her eyes and glared furiously. Mycroft’s face remained impassive.

“Excuse me,” she said angrily and stalked off towards a door marked ‘Ladies’.

“She’s right, you know.” Lestrade approached soft-footed with two steaming plastic cups. He deposited them on the table and sat down again looking up at Mycroft placidly.

Mycroft’s jaw worked but he said nothing.

Lestrade took a careful sip of his coffee and made a face. “John is a veteran,” he said quietly. “He can take care of himself in a fight – he’s been trained to do it and I’ve seen him in action.”

Lestrade paused and stared moodily into his cup. “These two weren’t the lowlives they were pretending to be, Mr Holmes,” he continued in the same quiet tone, “This was a professional job. John’s had army training, and that’s the only reason he’s not sporting permanent injury; the septicaemia is the result of his own carelessness.”

Mycroft’s face could have been carved from stone.

Lestrade shrugged, put his coffee down on the table and stood up. “My guess is that we’ll pursue this very diligently,” he said quietly. “After all, John’s well-liked down at the Yard, so I reckon my team’ll burn the midnight oil on this one, on their own time, too. And you know what? I think we’ll turn up nothing. I think those two perps will melt away into the undergrowth and we’ll find ourselves coming up against dead end after dead end. That’s what I think.”

Lestrade rose to his feet and looked over Mycroft’s shoulder at a doctor bearing down on them with a purposeful air. Harriet Watson had also emerged from the Ladies and was making a beeline for the approaching medic.

“If you know anything about this, Mister Holmes,” Lestrade said quickly, purposely looking past the other man, “then I think you'd better ‘fess up, and ‘fess up quick, don’t you?”

Lestrade shouldered his way past Mycroft, unnecessarily jostling the other man as he went.

The news was good; John was responding well to the antibiotics and his system was starting to return to normal. He was still in critical condition, of course, but the prognosis was optimistic. Lestrade turned to let Mycroft know but the other man had disappeared as unobtrusively as he had arrived.

 

Lestrade nodded at the bowl of grapes on John’s bedside table.

“I see Harry’s been visiting,” he remarked. It was two weeks later and John’s recovery had been slow but satisfactory.

John nodded. “Flying visit,” he replied. “She’s got a conference in Paris for three days as from tomorrow. Back to the status quo, I suppose.” His expression was glum.

Lestrade shook his head. “Can’t abide grapes,” he intoned gloomily, “They remind me of when I was in here for a week after I broke my leg.”

John grinned. “Injury sustained in the line of duty?” he said snidely, “Or did you fall down a kerb on a night out getting hammered?”

“Piss off,” Lestrade replied good-naturedly, “Neither, as it happens. Did it playing footie for the squad; downright embarrassing.”

John nodded. “It would be,” he replied. He smirked up at Lestrade. “Alright,” he said and gestured with his head to the other man’s coat pocket, “Let’s have it then.”

Lestrade turned with an expression of mock innocence. “Can’t think what you mean,” he murmured withdrawing two cans of Budweiser from his capacious raincoat. John grinned.

“Spotted them as soon as you came in here,” he boasted, “and besides – I need something to celebrate. I’m being discharged tomorrow.”

Lestrade paused in the action of pulling the ring on John’s beer. “Oh, aye,” he said, frowning slightly, “Back to that flat of yours in Southwark, eh?”

“Well,” John said, scratching his head, “not precisely. I’m very much better now, you know, but the journey to the surgery from Southwark has always been a bit tiring.”

Lestrade’s face turned serious. “John, you can’t be thinking of going straight back to work, can you?” He continued before the other man could answer. “That was a pretty horrible injury, you know. You were fortunate the blade was short and didn’t do any more than glance over your major organs. You know it just missed the aorta, don’t you? Not to mention the septicaemia… It’s a miracle you’re alive.”

“Yes, I know,” John responded mildly, “Strangely, my medical training did include trauma surgery, being in a warzone and all.”

Lestrade had the grace to look a little shamefaced.

“Anyway,” John continued giving Lestrade a conciliatory look, “there are two reasons I won’t be going back to Southwark; firstly, because I’m going away for what used to be called convalescence. Well, when society accepted that you needed time to recover from a trauma, that is. And secondly,” he sighed. “I’ve decided to bite the bullet, Greg; when I come home, I’m going back to Baker Street.”

Lestrade grinned. “That’s very good news, John,” he replied, “About Baker Street, I mean. Mrs Hudson’ll be pleased; she’s been pining for you for quite a while now.”

John ducked his head to hide a smile. “Go on with you!” he said.

Lestrade grinned. “So, convalescence, eh?” He raised his eyebrows. “No prizes for guessing who’s footing that particular bill,” he said.

John made a wry face. “That obvious?” he replied. “Well, yes, Mycroft is footing the bill, at least in a way. I’m actually going to stay at his house in the country.”

“His… wait, Mycroft has a house in the country?” Lestrade’s eyebrows were nearly in his hair. “Where?”

John nodded seriously. “On the east coast of Scotland,” he replied, “A reasonably substantial house in the country, that’s how he described it. It’s big enough to have a housekeeper. I’ll be well looked after, apparently.”

John reached out to take the can of beer and winced as the motion pulled at his stitches. He raised it and looked at Lestrade over the rim.

“Cheers,” he said, “Here’s to no more drama in my life.”

“Or mine,” Lestrade responded, raising his own can in salute.

Chapter Text

John stirred, shifted and blinked sleepily, registering the full daylight outside his curtained window. He turned onto his back and stretched his arms above his head, yawning widely, and wondered what had woken him. He took a long look at his surroundings and broke into a dry chuckle.

John was ensconced (there was no other word for it) in a large four-poster bed made up with light linens that were almost translucent, more like muslin than cotton. John swung his legs back and forth under the bedclothes for the sheer sensuousness of the fabric slipping smoothly over his skin. His pillows were soft and downy, covered in the same material, and seemed to spring back into shape as soon as he moved his head. John thought, rather wryly, that his Marks and Spencer pyjamas were a bit low rent for a joint like this.

The embroidered canopy above the bed gave way to heavy brocade curtains gathered up by silk cords. The rugs each side, from the little that John could see, were of Chinese silk and the curtains at the window matched those around the bed. The contrast with his recent hospital bed could not have been more striking.

John heard a discreet knock from the corridor and raised his head, leaning it on one elbow.

“Oh, uh, come in,” he responded, wondering if this was what had woken him. The door opened to reveal a formally attired manservant bearing a tray containing a bone china cup and saucer, milk jug, sugar basin and spoon and, most importantly, a small steaming teapot. John sighed gratefully and levered himself upright with some difficulty. The man deposited the tray on the bedside table, deftly adjusted John’s pillows behind his head and then proceeded to pour. John sniffed appreciatively and reached for the proffered cup; the colour was exactly right.

“Good morning, sir,” the man murmured. “My name is Collins and I am the Earl’s valet. I have been instructed to attend to your personal needs during your stay at the Great House.”

The man crossed to the window and drew the curtains, letting in full sunshine.

“Oh, uh, right.” John blinked in the brightness and rubbed his eyes. Earl? Mycroft is an Earl? What did that make Sherlock then? Or what would that have made him…

John sat up and reached for his tea, sipping cautiously; it was excellent. As the warm liquid hit his stomach, John began to feel slightly more human. He rolled his shoulders cautiously and nodded at the other man.

“Thanks – just how I like it.” John drained his cup and replaced it in the saucer. “What does that mean, exactly?” he asked, “Personal needs?”

Collins smiled. “When the Earl is resident,” he replied, “I maintain his wardrobe, help choose and lay out his clothing for the day and assist him with his attire. Should the Earl need to bathe, I will provide a bath, towels and toiletries sufficient for his needs. I ensure that his customary equipment and products are always on hand.”

John sipped his tea and nodded seriously. “What do you do when he is in London?” he asked – which must be most of the time, his brain supplied.

Collins did not seem offended by the question. “I have other duties in the household, sir,” he replied lightly, “Would you like me to put out some clothing for you today?”

“Dress me, you mean?” John almost squeaked.

Collins shook his head gravely. “I took the liberty of hanging your clothing last night, sir,” he replied, “I would be happy to lay out suitable attire for you today if you wish.”

John stared for a moment then shook his head and waved a hand in response.

“Do – whatever it is you do for Mycroft when he’s here,” he responded with a smile. Collins bowed his head in acceptance. John glanced at his watch and widened his eyes.
“God!” he exclaimed, “It’s bloody half-past eleven!”

“Indeed, sir,” Collins replied, laying out a pair of light coloured chinos and a blue, short-sleeved shirt together with loafers, socks and underwear. “You were extremely tired when you arrived last night; I believe the journey was arduous.”

John nodded. He remembered wondering whether he had been foolhardy in agreeing to come to Orlington when he was scarcely yet fit for discharge from hospital. His stitches were sore from sitting upright for hours despite the opulent comfort of the car Mycroft had provided. The low rays of the setting sun had lulled John to sleep; he scarcely remembered arriving or being helped into the house, never mind actually getting to bed.

“That would explain how you managed to unpack for me without my knowledge,” John replied.

“Indeed, sir,” Collins said again. “I took the liberty of removing several items that had become crumpled during the journey. I will return them once they have been, ah, restored to order.”

“Thank you,” John replied.

The valet came over to the bed and stood at a respectful distance.

“The Earl explained in his email that your injuries were serious,” he began tactfully, “Under the circumstances, if you should find the exertion too great to manage alone, I would be happy to assist you with your attire, this morning or any other during your stay here. The Earl has had need of my assistance once or twice in the past; you will find me not only adept but discreet.”

John was tempted to ask for details but was one hundred per cent certain that Collins would not divulge them. Instead, he merely shook his head; Collins remained impassive.

“As you wish, sir,” he replied quietly, “Should you change your mind, however, the bell push above your bed will summon me immediately.”

John wondered fleetingly about the man’s salary; he decided that whatever Mycroft paid him, it wasn’t enough.

 

Venturing forth from his bedroom suite, still gritting his teeth from having overstretched his stitches, John stubbornly descended the first flight of stairs he encountered, ending up in an empty black and white tiled hall with several closed doors either side. He had just decided to go back upstairs and find another way down when a silent footman entered the hall, smiled and opened one of the doors, indicating that John should go through. He stepped through obediently and found himself in a light, bright room populated by a table laid for breakfast and a sideboard containing a vast hot and cold buffet.

John stood surveying the meal, taking in kedgeree, Devilled kidneys, delicately herbed omelettes, all the makings of a good English fry, plus cold meats, cheeses, breads, pastries and, of course, hot, perfectly browned toast. On the table nestled enough sauces and preserves to satisfy an army.

John served himself and attempted to justify the spread, but the pain of his injuries and his general fatigue had robbed him of any more than a cursory appetite. He was aware that his weight had dwindled – his clothes were loose and baggy – and that he had been able to do little as yet to regain the lost poundage. Still, the freshness of home cooking, the promise of good weather and ample opportunity to get outside and walk in the woodlands gave his sombre mood a boost. John was a city bloke at heart, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the exercise.

After eating his fill, John stacked his dishes tidily and ventured back into the black and white corridor. Once there, he was somewhat at a loss. Unwilling to return to his allotted bedroom, John debated with himself which door to try first when a flurry of movement behind him made him turn sharply. A business-like type in a suit bore down upon him in a determined manner, extending a hand in greeting.

“Doctor Watson,” the man said with a broad, professional smile. John shook the outstretched hand firmly.

“Glad to make your acquaintance at last,” the man continued. “My name is Henry Jenkins and I am Mr Holmes’ private secretary.”

John blinked and frowned. “I thought…” he began, “I mean… Well, surely you must work in London most of the time?”

Jenkins smiled and shook his head. “Occasionally my duties take me to Whitehall,” he replied, “but I am Mr Holmes’ personal employee, not the British Government’s, and as such my role is mainly taken up with the Orlington Estate.

“Now,” Jenkins said briskly as John was chewing that over. He gestured to one of the door leading off the corridor. “If you would like to accompany me, I will explain how the Great House operates and we will discuss what can be done here for your recovery and, of course, your entertainment.”

Amused and slightly bewildered, John followed obediently into a brightly appointed sitting room with comfortable sofas, a desk and large windows facing east.

“This is the Morning Room,” Jenkins explained. “Feel free to use it at any time of day if you wish. The desk contains computer facilities including a printer, although I understand you have brought your own laptop. The wireless signal is strong almost everywhere in Orlington. There is a selection of newspapers delivered every day, should you prefer hard copy reading. However, we subscribe to every periodical online no matter how scurrilous; Mr Holmes believes that forewarned is forearmed.”

John turned away to hide his smile; the idea of Mycroft reading The Sun or any of the tabloids was just too irresistible. Jenkins took a seat in one of the armchairs and John followed suit. The other man withdrew a small, sleek tablet from an inner pocket, slid a stylus from a slot in the side and started to make notes.

“I will show you the Library once we are through here,” Jenkins continued, “Again, with the Orlington logon, you will be able to access any available online text – I will show you the details. However, the Library boasts a wide range of physical texts, many in First Edition, which may interest you should you delight in books per se.” Jenkins’ raised his eyebrows interrogatively. “Mr Holmes says that with all the online reading he does in the pursuit of his everyday business, he likes the touch and texture of a real book, but no matter; the Library is a pleasant place to spend time under any circumstances.”

Jenkins looked up with a friendly smile. “Is there anything you would like to ask me before I continue?” he said pleasantly.

John blinked a couple of time, slightly wrong-footed. The only thing he could think of offhand was access to transport, and he said as much. Jenkins nodded as though he had expected this, made a quick note and assured John that one of the Estate cars would be made available to him for the duration of his stay.

“What about insurance?” John asked innocently, and then mentally kicked himself. Jenkins gave him an old-fashioned smile and moved on swiftly.

“Mr Holmes has informed me that part of your convalescence should involve exercise,” he intoned, making notes on his tablet, “The Estate itself boasts many interesting and beautiful routes; we can supply you with the necessary clothing to walk or run, should you wish to do either.”

Alternatively, John could use the heated swimming pool or the fully-equipped gym in the air-conditioned basement. Both were state of the art, according to Jenkins. Perhaps John would like Mycroft’s personal trainer to assist him? Or might the services of the masseuse from the exclusive health farm two miles away be of benefit?

John’s head began to spin. Jenkins was looking at him expectantly and John gathered up his scattered thoughts with an effort.

“Yes,” he began distractedly, “Oooo-kay. What about nightlife?”

It was a shot in the dark but Jenkins’ face assumed a slightly chagrined look as he shook his head.

“Unfortunately, I can offer you little in the way of evening entertainment unless you want to make the 20 mile trek inland to Craigross or a similar distance to Port Fraser on the coast,” he explained. “If this appeals, one of the Estate chauffeurs can be made available to drive you there for the evening and ensure your return whenever you wish.”

John shook his head. “That won’t be necessary,” he assured the other man hurriedly.

“Orlington village offers a local shop, a pub and a church which holds morning service every fortnight,” Jenkins continued. “There is a Cricket Club, alternatively Soccer during winter, but it is very sporadic depending on the farming season and how busy everyone is.” A thought seemed to strike him and he smiled.

“The Equestrian Centre boasts a number of young employees who are, ah, quite sociable,” Jenkins said with a twinkle in his eye. “They congregate every Friday evening in the local pub for a drink after work. If you desire companionship, I’m sure they would be delighted for you to join them; this is a quiet place, a fresh face is a novelty.”

John looked at the secretary’s smooth, unlined features and wondered if Jenkins had ever thought of himself as young. John’s ears began to burn; he cleared his throat self-consciously. Thankfully, the other man appeared to take pity on him. He scribbled a few more notes then replaced his tablet in his breast pocket and stood.

“Come, Doctor Watson,” he said, his phrasing an echo of Mycroft’s unctuous delivery, “Let me familiarise you with Orlington Park.”

 

All in all, Henry Jenkins spent most of the afternoon with John. The Estate was huge, John soon discovered, covering many hundreds of acres of arable, pasture, orchard and woodland. There was housing on the site for some of the Estate workers and they formed a thriving community, dedicated to an organic farming business of some significance.

John was interested to visit the much-vaunted Equestrian Centre, although he didn’t much care for horses himself. He was introduced to the staff, one of whom, a pretty blonde, smiled warmly and engaged him in conversation about his visit. Jenkins moved them on at a brisk pace but when John suggested casually to the girl that he might return at some stage to continue the conversation, she was all smiles.

An hour or so later, John was clearly flagging. His stitches were holding up surprisingly well, but he was suddenly so tired he could scarcely keep his eyes open. Henry Jenkins noticed, probably before John himself did, and steered them back into the Great House.

“It’s three o’clock now,” he said casually, “Mrs Webster, the Housekeeper, will serve tea at four-thirty. Dinner is usually at seven. Perhaps you would like to read the newspapers in the Morning Room, or would you prefer to retire for a short rest?”

“The Morning Room for now, I think,” John replied, almost asleep on his feet. His pride would not allow him to go back to bed after only being up for three hours or so. However, he was grateful that the Morning Room was comfortably appointed; he was asleep almost as soon as he sat down in one of the armchairs.

 

Dinner, John was relieved to note, was served in the breakfast room and, far from being fed in solitary splendour, John found himself sitting down with the Butler, the Housekeeper and the Cook, along with several other senior staff and Jenkins himself.

“This doesn’t happen every day,” Jenkins explained above the hubbub, helping himself to soup from a tureen in the middle of the table. “Mostly we eat from a buffet – many of the staff like to have dinner before they go home. Those of us who live in aren’t always available to dine together, but we try to do so at least once a week; it keeps us in touch.”

Indeed it did. John found himself listening with considerable interest as Estate business was discussed at length and in detail. He began to realise with a sense of deep respect that this was not simply a family home, a source of some kind of status or kudos for Mycroft. It was a thriving and successful business upon which hung not only the livelihoods of the Estate employees but also the prosperity of the neighbouring villages.

The potential health of this year’s harvest was debated – John was unsurprised to discover that the Estate orchards yielded sufficient fruit for a local run of jam, but he was very intrigued to hear that there was an experimental vineyard and winery also on the Estate.

“I don’t suppose you go in for distilling, do you?” he asked only half-seriously.

Jenkins smiled and shook his head. “It’s not financially viable for us here,” he replied, “not to mention the unpleasantness of the process. We prefer to stick to wine and beer.”

“Beer?” asked John, immediately interested. “I didn’t realise you grew hops.”

“We don’t,” replied Jenkins equably, “and we don’t brew here either but a neighbouring estate does and we do a bit of bartering with them.” He smiled. “I’ll make sure you receive some of the ill-gotten gains.”

John grinned over his roast beef.

 

All in all, John spent a very interesting week exploring Mycroft’s family home. He used the Morning Room regularly, visited the Library (a splendid room, all oak panels and deep pile carpet) and even tackled the gym once or twice. He took up Jenkins’ offer of the loan of an Estate car and found himself driving the twenty or so miles to Port Fraser in bright, glorious sunshine only to have it cloud over as soon as he reached the coast. He spent the afternoon walking up and down the beach in the drizzle, watching the water. He was exhausted later, but it was worth it.

A word to Jenkins produced a pair of walking boots in John’s size within the hour. John was warned to take it slowly as the boots were new and would need breaking in, but the excellent socks which accompanied them almost did away with the problem. Nevertheless, John realised his strength would only return gradually and confined his walks to well-trodden paths through the woodlands close to the Great House. The exercise was surprisingly enjoyable and John found himself increasing his distance as the days went by. He encountered no one and nothing in the way of wildlife; this did not surprise him particularly as the estate was not only very large but private and not open to the public. Also, he assumed that his lack of woodcraft and current clumsiness gave warning of his approach to wildlife many yards ahead.

There was something prickling in the back of John’s mind, though, as he walked the tidy paths and tramped through the leaf mould. Something odd, akin to the professional soldier’s sixth sense that a sniper target is being drawn on his back, or that an enemy is just around the next corner. John started to wonder if his PTSD was acting up again – he had been told to expect it. He was almost sure he had a problem when twice he spotted movement in his peripheral vision, spinning on reflex to confront it and finding nothing.
There were two options, John decided; he could take the pragmatic route and accept that his mind was playing tricks on him or refuse to be a stereotype and try to get some answers. Unwilling to do the first and not quite ready to tackle the second, John decided on a third option; to wait it out.

 

“How often does Mycroft, I mean Mr Holmes, come here?” John asked Jenkins over lunch one day.

“About six times a year,” Jenkins replied, “for varying lengths of time, mostly just overnight.”

John took a breath. “Did his younger brother – did Sherlock come here at all?” he asked.

Jenkins shook his head, chewing at a forkful of pasta. “I know very little of Mr Holmes’ family situation,” he replied, “having only been in his employ for five years.” He raised his eyebrows. “If you wish to know more, Mrs Webster, the Housekeeper, started here as a scullery maid when she was straight out of school; she knows most of the family history. Collins has only been here a matter of two or three years, of course, and Nicholls replaced McManus, the family butler, last year when he retired, but the Gamekeeper, Peter Stewartson, now he’s been on the estate all his life…”

John held up his hand. “No, no,” he interrupted. “I’m not being nosy or even inquisitive. I just…” He stopped and swallowed.

Jenkins’ expression softened. “I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything improper about your curiosity,” he replied gently. “I can assure you that we all felt it deeply when Master Sherlock – well, when it happened. Please accept my deepest condolences, Doctor Watson.”

John shook himself, physically as well as mentally. “We weren’t a couple,” he replied stiffly.

Jenkins nodded. “I know,” he replied without hesitation, “but nevertheless, your friendship was close – at least, according to Mr Holmes.”

That was interesting. So Mycroft had talked about him. John was intrigued.

“Yes,” he replied, “yes, it was.” He looked squarely at Jenkins. “I think it’s time you started calling me John, don’t you?”

The other man nodded and smiled. “Henry,” he replied. “It’s good to have you here, John.”

“It’s good to be here,” John responded automatically, and for the first time he was starting to believe that it was.

Chapter Text

John had taken to spending the period between breakfast and morning coffee reading the papers in the Morning Room. He was tut-tutting to himself over the state of the country in general and the economy in particular, when the distant roar of an engine accompanied by a distinctive fwap-fwap caught his attention.

Throwing down his newspaper, John craned his neck to look out of the window and gave a resigned smile as he realised that in his brief survey of the estate, he had somehow managed to miss the helipad in the garden. He opened the French doors and went out onto the lawn.

Mycroft Holmes was as jovial and ebullient as ever, smiling steadily in the leaden-grey morning.

“John,” he exclaimed, advancing under the slowing blades of the helicopter, holding out a hand to shake, “Good to see you! How are you keeping?”

John nodded, taking the hand in a strong grip. “Well, thank you,” he replied. He gestured around. “This is some family home, Mycroft.”

The other man shook his head, wincing at the residual noise. “Can’t hear you properly,” he said. He nodded his head towards the house. “Let’s go in for coffee, shall we? We can talk more comfortably in my office.”

Mycroft’s “office” turned out to be the whole of the West Wing; how John managed to rake up a modicum of surprise at this eventuality was quite beyond him.

Mycroft’s sitting room was light, bright, well-appointed and magically equipped with fresh, hot coffee and home-made shortbread rounds still warm from the oven. Mycroft himself treated this minor miracle as part of the daily routine, poured the coffee (cream for John, black for himself) and declined the biscuits.

“Never before lunch,” he declared, patting his flat stomach smugly.

“Best time,” John responded sweeping two into his saucer, unrepentant.

Mycroft frowned and gave John a critical once-over. “Yes,” he said consideringly, “it does seem that Mrs Webster’s good food and the country air are having a beneficial effect. I think you’ve put on a couple of pounds since you’ve been here, John.”

“At least,” John responded grinning cheerfully through the crumbs. He reached for another biscuit just to see the flicker of pain cross Mycroft’s face.

“So,” Mycroft said, stroking his chin, “how have you been occupying your time when you aren’t sleeping?”

Resisting the temptation to roll his eyes, John embarked upon a recitation of reading, surfing the net and walking, all of which was designed to bore Mycroft into submission. It had totally the opposite effect.

“So, you are enjoying the country walks?” Mycroft had at least taken in that much.

John nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, “It’s flat enough around here not to strain the stitches, but I can still get a decent round trip before I’m really feeling it.”

Mycroft nodded; he seemed pleased.

John frowned as something crossed his mind. “Mycroft,” he asked diffidently, “what kind of security surveillance goes on at Orlington?”

“Surveillance?” Mycroft’s ears visibly pricked up. “To what are you referring, John?”

John shrugged. “I dunno,” he replied awkwardly, “say I’m mad, but I’ve got that feeling of being watched; stupid, probably.”

“No, no,” Mycroft replied thoughtfully, “there are, of course, surveillance measures around the perimeter of the Great House and its gardens – I would not be able to stay here with such confidence if such were not the case – but as to anywhere else, there’s no real need for it.”

“So… the woods, for instance?”

Mycroft shook his head. “Not to my knowledge,” he replied, “Why do you ask?”

John shrugged again. “Call it military instinct, if you like,” he replied, and then smiled, “or paranoia; either would probably fit.”

Mycroft’s face went momentarily still then he smiled, reached for a pen and shot his cuff.

“If you don’t mind,” he said carefully writing on the crisp cotton, “I’ll just make a note to check that out; I’ve grown to rather respect your instincts over the years, John.” He finished the note, looked up and smiled.

He must never wear a shirt twice, John thought helplessly.

At that moment, John’s attention was diverted by a quiet knock and the entrance of none other than Mycroft’s valet.

Mycroft stood. “Ah, Collins,” he said genially, “on cue, as always.” He turned to John. “Please excuse me for a moment – I just need to change my attire to something more suitable for the country.” He swept away with Collins in tow before John could react.

John poured himself another coffee and finished the biscuits; there had to be some perks to waiting around in Mycroft’s wake.

 

“I believe it’s brightening up.”

Mycroft pointed his walking stick at a single wan gleam of sunshine between dense grey clouds. John made a sceptical face but no comment; he was amused at Mycroft’s apparent need for some other appendage in the absence of his habitual furled umbrella.

They strolled at a steady pace along a well-defined path through pasture. Mycroft seemed to be listening for something; his face broke into a smile at the distant sound of a shotgun.

“Ah!” he said, “Keeping the pests down; necessary at this time of year when there are still eggs and chicks about.”

“Sorry?” John asked but was hard put to it to keep up as Mycroft left the path and marched off over the undergrowth with a sudden burst of speed. A few hundred yards later, cresting over a gentle rise in the land, John spotted Mycroft’s quarry; a man dressed in plus-fours, Wellingtons and a padded gilet over a plaid shirt. He was carrying a shotgun, the open barrel draped over his arm, and he surveyed the sky with a serious expression. The man caught sight of Mycroft and John and gave a brief wave, turning to come to meet them.

“Ah, Peter!” Mycroft said, his face breaking into a broad smile as he strode up to the man. “Gerald told me you’d be based near the Great House today. Gerald White is the Estate Manage,” Mycroft said to John in an aside. “I don’t suppose you will have met him yet; his office is down by the holiday cottages. Peter is the gamekeeper.”

“Mr Holmes, welcome back, sir,” the man responded, actually touching his cap – touching his cap! John bit his lip and turned his face away to hide his sudden grin.

Employer and employee exchanged observations on the weather, the time of year and the potential harvest before lapsing into a companionable silence.

“Crows,” Peter said finally. Mycroft nodded.

“I gathered,” he replied. “Making a nuisance of themselves, are they?”

Peter nodded pursing his lips. “Bothering the pheasant chicks,” he replied succinctly. “I thought I’d scared them off a month or so ago when nesting started; seems I didn’t do a good enough job.”

Mycroft laughed. “Peter, you always do a good job,” he replied, “If there is a problem then it is the crows that are at fault.”

Peter gave a twisted smirk that might have been a smile.

Mycroft put a hand on John’s shoulder and eased him forward. “This is Doctor Watson, Peter,” he said easily.

Peter nodded impassively. “Young Mr Sherlock’s partner,” he stated flatly. There was a sudden silence.

Mycroft nodded slowly. “That’s right,” he replied quietly.

John felt the air leave his lungs. He took a quick breath. “We weren’t a couple,” he corrected before he had really thought it through.

Peter frowned, wrinkling his already creased forehead. He looked at Mycroft who schooled his features into something bland and reassuring.

Mycroft gestured to Peter’s shotgun. “How’s the Beretta holding up?” he said, smoothly changing the subject.

Successfully side-tracked, Peter lifted the weapon. John looked at the oiled hardwood stock and elegant engraved mechanism and smiled admiringly; he knew good craftsmanship when he saw it.

“Still as accurate as ever, Mr Holmes,” Peter replied easily, “Only errors with this one are mine.”

Mycroft deliberately turned his head to where John had moved forward slightly to get a better view.

“Doctor Watson has some experience with firearms,” he commented lightly, “Don’t you, John?”

John shrugged. “Only what the military taught me,” he replied deprecatingly.

Mycroft laughed. “Don’t let him fool you, Peter,” he said cheerfully, “Doctor Watson is a crack shot – even across a street and through a window.”

Mycroft and John locked eyes; oddly it was Mycroft who looked away first.

John smiled faintly. “I’ve had sufficient experience, yes,” he replied, “Most of the weapons I’m used to are more accurate than a shotgun, but I expect I could probably use one if I had to.”

“Which weapons in particular?” Mycroft asked, deceptively mildly, “Pistols, handguns, automatic weapons? Telescopic rifles, machine pistols?”

“All of the above,” John responded holding the other man’s eye. The stand-off went on for a beat or two, and then Mycroft’s smile widened.

“Splendid!” he exclaimed rubbing his hands together, “Peter, take Doctor Watson to the gun room. See what you can find and then take him out and show him the sights.”

John opened his mouth to demur, ask questions or simply to protest but Mycroft smoothly overrode him.

“Please accept my apologies for not joining you,” he said genially, “but much as I have enjoyed this morning’s exercise, I’m afraid I am now running three and a half minutes late; Jenkins will be looking for me. Please excuse me, John. Peter, wonderful to see you’re doing such a splendid job, as always.”

Mycroft strode off in the direction of the Great House with a wave of his hand; John was left with the Gamekeeper. The man gave him a shrewd, silent once-over before swinging round in the direction of the Great House at a rather slower but no less deliberate pace, leaving John little option but to follow.

Peter led the way to the gun room, a small cupboard of a room at the back of the house just down from the housekeeper’s office. Gun owners for whom firearms are a hobby, a pastime, an obsession, display them in glass-fronted cases, held in polished racks, all gleaming and perfect. Their gun rooms are kitted out with wooden cabinets, shelving and benches, tools for making shot and crimping cartridges on display. The gun room at Orlington was simply a small room with two large gun safes, a cupboard for housing ammunition and a bench with a few tools stowed underneath and above it; no frills, no display.

Peter pulled out a set of keys on a ring and opened a small key safe by the door, also entering a code on the keypad. He withdrew two safe keys and opened the first gun safe, pulling the doors wide to give John a good look at the contents. Peter then turned away, laid his own weapon on the bench and proceeded to unload, clean and ready it for storage.

John took his time. As expected, there was a good number of shotguns but also a few pistols; John recognised a Browning semi-automatic like his own. He frowned, puzzled.

“Why do you have these here?” John asked, nodding at the handguns. “I mean, they’re scarcely for sport.”

Peter shrugged. “They’re Mr Holmes’ personal property,” he replied, “He likes to store them safely when he’s not using them. This is a very safe place.”

“Right,” John responded thoughtfully. Gun Laws? What Gun Laws? He looked at Peter who returned an even, expressionless glance. John reached into the safe.

He picked the Remington, for no other reason than it was the make least familiar to him, noting that this one had a pump action. He broke it open; as he expected, it was unloaded. He looked down both barrels, noting that it was clean, oiled and free from obstructions, checked the sights then closed it and put the gun back in the rack.

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Not going to try it out?” he asked.

John shook his head. “Dry firing just breeds bad habits. Anyway, I’m not a fan of pump action myself,” he continued, “and that one’s an older model. It’s got some problems, I hear, mostly with the weight. It’s reliable though and pretty strong.”

Peter nodded and closed the safe. When he opened the second, larger cabinet, John’s eyes widened into saucers and he bit down hard on the automatic exclamation that jumped into his throat. He leaned forward, identifying at least half a dozen different Winchester semi-automatic rifles, three more Remingtons and even a Springfield mixed in with two state of the art telescopic rifles, one of which John could immediately identify as a L115A3, used by the British army in Afghanistan.

John straightened up and looked Peter directly in the eyes. “What are these weapons doing here in the home of a private individual?” he asked quietly, “You have two of the most accurate rifles in the world fitted with telescopic sights, along with a dozen deadly accurate semi-automatics, handguns and a pump-action shotgun…” He tailed off and straightened up.

“The Estate supports hunting,” Peter explained easily, “The more accurate weapons are used for deer stalking.”

“By whom?” John demanded. He gestured to the safe. “I’m certain you don’t send the general public out with sniper rifles. Jesus, there’s enough firepower in this room to start a small war!” John ran a hand through his hair. “Why on earth are they here?”

Peter said nothing, merely leaned into the second cabinet and gestured to the L115A3.

“Do you know what to do with this, Doctor Watson?” he asked.

Something about his tone irked John and he glared back. “Yes,” he replied, “In fact, I’m very familiar with all of these weapons, having qualified as Marksman in my Combat Infantryman’s Course. I requalified for several years after. It’s lapsed now, of course.”

Peter stepped back from the two cabinets and stood, arms folded, waiting.

John reached for the other sniper rifle. “This is German,” he said out loud, “a PSG-1.”

He checked the sights. “It’s match-grade,” he said, looking up at Peter, “This is your gun; do you compete?”

Peter shrugged. “Sometimes,” he replied enigmatically. Hmmm.

John carried on his inspection. “I guess you must make your own ammunition then,” he commented without looking up. Peter merely shrugged again.

John replaced the PSG-1 back in the rack. He turned to Peter and looked at him enquiringly. Peter raised his eyebrows and flicked his eyes to the L115A3.

John shook his head. “I know how that one works only too well,” he replied with a grimace. “All your other guns are impeccably kept; I doubt that one will be anything else.” He squared his shoulders. “Okay, what now?”

Peter opened a tall cupboard and removed a light Goretex jacket which he handed to John.

“Your boots’ll do,” he said succinctly. “Here!” He threw John a flat cap the mirror image of his own.

Peter then scooped up the PSG-1 and offered John the L115A3; John felt his fingers close expectantly around the stock.

 

It was warm out on the moorland and they were starting rather too late in the day to be seriously in pursuit of deer, but John had a hunch that hunting was a very secondary concern that afternoon. Peter had brought field glasses and paused every now and then to survey the hillsides for movement. Borrowing them for a while, John spotted a group of deer on the crest of a small hill. Excitedly, he passed the glasses to Peter who took a brief look and shook his head.

“They’re hinds,” Peter explains. “Close season. Look for a lone stag.”

The walk was pleasant. John could see the attraction in the sport, although gunning down defenceless animals was not really his cup of tea; he preferred his quarry to have the ability to fight back.

Peter stopped suddenly and pointed.

“There,” he said, “Straight ahead, eleven o’clock.”

John peered in the indicated direction, squinting against the sun, but could see nothing except a solitary rabbit in the middle of the path about 1200m ahead. John looked at his companion.

“Do you mean what I think you mean?” he asked. Peter nodded and gestured to it.

John shrugged and lifted his weapon, now convinced that this was some kind of test. He took aim, corrected the sight and fired one swift shot. Peter’s eyes hardened; he nodded.
“Marksman,” he said softly.

John shrugged and patted the stock. “With a gun like this, nothing and no one has much of a chance,” he said, “It’s not really a sporting weapon.”

The tramp back to the Great House was made in companionable silence.

 

Later, John was eating a solitary lunch of salad and fresh bread with a really excellent baked ham when Mycroft breezed into the Breakfast Room and sat down, pouring himself some coffee. John could hear the noise outside of the helicopter beginning its flight checks. He nodded to the window.

“Back to London, then?” he asked politely.

“Yes,” Mycroft drained his cup and looked intently at the slices of ham before dragging his eyes back up to John’s face.

“This was a flying visit,” he continued, “largely in order to approve the renovations to the holiday cottages. I do so hate leaving that sort of decision to anyone else.”

Control freak. John wondered, not for the first time, what Mycroft Holmes had been like as a child.

“John,” Mycroft broke into his introspection. John looked up and intercepted his host’s bland smile.

“During my stay,” Mycroft announced, “I have observed that you are slightly uncomfortable with the level of attention that accompanies residence at the Great House.”

John shook his head in puzzlement. “Sorry?” he responded.

Mycroft nodded gravely. “Yes, indeed,” he continued, “Well, not everyone is happy in a place where the staff is privy to one’s every move and all one’s needs are catered for but at a time and place of someone else’s choosing. Many people find this level of, ah, supervision somewhat suffocating.”

John was uncertain where this was going. “If you’re offering me a lift back to Baker Street,” he said slowly, “then your pilot’ll have to turn off his engine; I’ll need to pack.”

Mycroft laughed. “Good heavens, no, John!” he replied. “No, no, I’m not implying that you’ve outstayed your welcome, far from it. I simply felt that you would be happier somewhere less, ah, restrictive.”

John had a fleeting thought concerning a pretty equestrienne and put it aside for later consideration. He narrowed his eyes.

“Restrictive?” he repeated.

Mycroft nodded. “Yes, indeed,” he continued, “so I have arranged for you to stay in a cottage in the grounds – not too far from the Great House, as it happens.”

John’s spirits perked up a bit. “Sounds good to me,” he replied. “I’m sure I’ll be very comfortable in one of the holiday cottages.” Near to the Equestrian Centre as well – he must do something about that Friday night thing…

“Oh, no John,” Mycroft said, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin and rising from the table, “No, indeed. I have made arrangements for you to relocate to the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage on the other side of the Estate. It’s rather rough and ready of course, but it has all the necessary amenities – running water, fireplace, larder with a cold safe – you know the sort of thing. You’ll be very comfortable there, I’m sure.”

“Hang on, just one minute!” John protested, also standing, “A fireplace and a cold safe? Are you telling me this place doesn’t have light, heat or power? What about indoor plumbing, then? Look, Mycroft, I know I don’t need hospital treatment any more but, hey – injured man here!”

“Now, John,” Mycroft smiled benignly. “You can’t expect the staff to carry on mollycoddling you when they have summer shooting parties to look after, can you?”

John gaped at Mycroft, temporarily lost for words.

Mycroft took advantage of John’s preoccupation. “Now if you don’t mind, I really must make tracks for Westminster,” he said, rising from his chair, “There are one or two small things I would like to fit in before the end of the day if possible.”

“Like the removal of the Governor of the Bank of England and the repeal of the Corn Laws,” John exploded. “That should fit in nicely before tea, don’t you think?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, John,” Mycroft said smiling in a condescending manner, “The Governor of the Bank of England is a personal friend; he’s good for another few months at the very least.” He gave a tiny wave over his shoulder. “Toodle-oo!”

Chapter Text

The Old Beekeeper’s Cottage turned out to be nowhere near as Spartan as Mycroft’s dour description had made it out to be.

The Housekeeper, Mrs Webster, kindly took time out to help John settle in. She was a friendly sort in her early forties who had taken something of a shine to him when he first arrived.

“This place is used only very occasionally when the holiday cottages are overbooked or when the Earl has need of complete privacy,” she explained as John stood in the doorway and surveyed the premises.

A safe house? John frowned, A bit on the remote side, perhaps.

“There’s quite a lot of space,” Mrs Webster continued, throwing open doors and windows to air out the faint odour of disuse, “and it does have a bit of a garden out the back leading into the woods.”

She smiled. “There’s an apple tree out there,” she told him. “It’s a good age now and quite tall. There’s a picnic table underneath it too – it’s lovely to sit out of an evening.”

She didn’t quite meet his eyes. “My fiancé, Jack McKenzie, and I used to meet here when we were courting,” she told him. “It’s very … private.”

John frowned. “McKenzie?” he queried. “So – you didn’t marry him then?” He held his breath, aware that he was treading uncertain terrain.

Mrs Webster shook her head. “He was in the Black Watch,” she explained. “He served in Kuwait during the Gulf War.”

John nodded. “A fellow veteran,” he replied. “Oh, I was out there during the Iraq War,” he added at her questioning look. “Went on to Afghanistan and that’s where I got shot and invalided out.”

Mrs Webster nodded. “You are a brave man, Doctor Watson,” she told him, “and so was my Jack. He was killed in Kuwait; I have never married.”

“I’m so sorry,” John replied, instantly contrite. She nodded in acceptance of his condolence.

John frowned. “But,” he began awkwardly, “you’re known as Mrs, not Miss Webster?”

The Housekeeper laughed. “Didn’t you know?” she said, her eyes alight with humour. “All housekeepers have the title Mrs, whether or not they have ever been married.”

John sighed. “Just one more thing ignorant John Watson gets wrong in this place,” he replied with chagrin.

She smiled and patted his cheek. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s see what we can find in the kitchen.”

 

There was, of course, electric light, power sockets, a hot water tank with an immersion heater and a central heating system for the winter months, so Mycroft was certainly being a bastard about that quite deliberately. There were other amenities too such as bed linen, towels and certain items in the kitchen including tea cloths, small appliances, cutlery and crockery. Strangely, there was a clean mug and a plate left on the draining board.

Mrs Webster swept the offending articles away and into a cupboard while the kettle boiled for tea, complaining all the time about the carelessness of the staff assigned to the cottages.

“They aren’t employed, you know,” she assured John earnestly, “They’re from an agency. If no one checks their work, they can get away with murder. And who’s got the time? It’s because we’re so busy that we use contractors in the first place; the last thing we can be doing with is more people to run after!”

She assured him that although the cooking facilities were perfectly adequate, he would always be welcome for meals at the Great House. Also, one of the maids would restock the fridge and clean the place every couple of days.

“And there’s an internal phone which connects directly with the handset in the kitchen,” she told him. “Don’t suffer in silence – call us if there’s anything you need; anything at all.”

John just smiled.

After she had gone, John looked around the cottage and realised that Mycroft, with all his vaunted iciness, had recognised something that John had not. John was a city bloke by habit and by inclination and he could never live anywhere other than London, but the silence and the peace of this place was something else. The freedom of being master of his own destiny and not subject to someone else’s routine, the ability to live his own life, follow his own whims, stay in bed all day or drive into Craigross for the afternoon without having anyone keep tabs on him was curiously seductive. There was something about this cottage – this place – that filled him with quiet and comfort and served to remind him that the spirit needs healing just as much as the flesh.

He prowled around the cottage, familiarising himself with the layout. He took out his laptop and signed into the wireless network, surprised to find that the signal was strong. He switched on the television, noting that he had Sky although the dish had to be very well hidden. He opened the fridge and checked up on the contents, finding everything he could possibly want. The freezer yielded a number of gourmet meals including lamb shanks and salmon en croute. The double bed in the Master Bedroom boasted a deep, firm mattress and smooth, cool cotton bed linen. John sat on the edge and allowed himself to fall backwards into its deep firm embrace.

The empty grate gnawed at John. There should be a log fire in the evenings in a place like this, never mind the time of year, he reckoned. There was a good sharp axe in the shed outside and a tree stump clearly meant for splitting logs, although the woodpile in the lean-to out back was pitifully low – surely he could find some fallen branches to drag back to the cottage and use to replenish the winter store? It was the least he could do; he would look into it tomorrow.

 

John slept fitfully. The sense of being watched returned sevenfold after Mrs Webster had left and he woke several times in the night with the eerie feeling of surveillance. Eventually, he got up and went over to the window, peering out into the impenetrable blackness of the forest, wondering if the occasional movement he thought he saw was real or just optical illusion.

The following morning, John padded down to the kitchen, feet cold on stone flags, and set the kettle to boil for tea. It was still early, the mist in the trees had not yet cleared, and John left the house to stand on the terrace, looking into the woodland and drinking in the silence.

The summer had been variable this year, John decided as he dressed in jeans and a teeshirt; warm but not always sunny. However, this late period in August had been lovely with the weather slipping into an Indian summer for September, so he hoped. John laced up his boots, drained his tea mug, rinsed it and left it on the draining board, then took off into the forest, proud of his new-found energy and finally confident that his strength was really returning.

Returning later, tired, sweaty and slightly muddy, John paused right on the edge of the wood at an unfamiliar noise. Someone was using an axe; it was thudding regularly together with cracking noises as of wood splitting down the grain. John skirted the house suspiciously, rounding a corner to be faced with a tall, black-haired figure, shirtless and with his back to John, wielding an axe expertly against what looked like chunks of fallen tree.

John must have made some muffled exclamation because the man paused, lowered his arms and turned around, smiling broadly and genuinely at John.

“Hi,” he said, leaning on the haft of his axe. He swiped a hand over his forehead, “It’s hot work today. I hope the weather holds out a bit longer for the harvest; the grain’s almost dry enough to bring in the combine.”

Paralysed, John could only stare. His throat worked, he blinked several times and felt his whole world slipping away.

“Sherlock?” he managed, then there was a roaring in his ears, the earth came up to meet him and everything faded to black.

 

John came to slowly and with a distinct sense of having missed most of the last act. How could the unexplained resurrection of a major player possibly have passed him by so completely otherwise?

“Whrrrrr…” John murmured. His head hurt; he put a hand up to his eyes.

“Steady,” said a voice. “I think you’d better stay on the grass for a bit.”

John opened his eyes and squinted muzzily as the stranger pressed his fingers to John’s neck, taking his pulse.

“Mmm, still a bit slow,” he said and smiled. “Jeez, I’m relieved to see you open your eyes! I thought you were out for the count. You went down like a felled tree – do you hurt anywhere?”

John felt his heart rate abruptly kick up a gear. He struggled to sit upright, but the stranger put a restraining hand on his chest.

“Careful,” he said anxiously, “You might have injured yourself.”

John shook his head. “No,” he said quickly, “I didn’t.”

“How do you know?” the man objected, “You could be concussed.”

“Trust me,” John said, trying to scramble up quickly to minimise his embarrassment and ending up sitting on the grass, “I’m a doctor, I should know.” The world swayed and he had to concentrate on swallowing his incipient nausea. The other man smiled ironically.

“Physician, heal thyself, eh?” he remarked but withdrew his restraining hand.

John sat on the grass breathing heavily and frowning at the wood and at the man. On a closer look, the resemblance to Sherlock, although uncanny, was less shocking than at first. He had the same long, rangy body and whipcord thinness but his face was more relaxed, making it seem less angular, and there were smile lines around his eyes.

John blinked slowly. “Who are you?” he asked, “And what on earth are you doing?”

The newcomer’s mouth relaxed into a warm smile that lit up the whole of his face. “Chopping logs to build up the winter stockpile,” he replied promptly. He put down the axe and wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans before picking up a soft, cotton, striped shirt from a handy tree branch and slinging it over his shoulder.

“Next time, I’ll show you how to do it yourself,” he said grinning broadly. “I can see you used to have some serious muscle mass on that frame of yours – you should be doing something about getting it back now you’re mobile again.”

The stranger raised a hand in salute and sauntered off into the trees.

John shook his head in perplexity. “Muscle mass…?” he murmured then whipped his head round to the direction the stranger had taken, hurriedly clambering to his feet.

“Wait!” he shouted, swaying a little; he put a hand to his forehead. “Wait a minute – who are you?”

Blood thundering in his ears, John ran the few feet to the pathway the man had taken and stopped dead. The wood was deserted; only the insistent cawing of crows shattered the silence. John stared wide-eyed and confused. His strange, unexplained visitor had gone; more than that, he seemed to have vanished without trace.

At length, John went back into the cottage and set the kettle boiling for tea, but his actions were unthinking and mechanical. He wondered for a while whether he had gone mad and imagined the stranger, but his common sense told him that this was not the case. So, the next question had to be who was this odd man who appeared out of nowhere and chopped firewood for someone he had never met before?

John searched through the fridge and pulled out a box containing lamb chops with mint gravy. He foraged in the freezer for some oven chips and put on a pan to heat; there was some nice fresh purple sprouting broccoli in the vegetable drawer. Supper was an introspective, rather lonely meal and, despite the time of year and gorgeous weather during the day, John felt a chill that drilled its way down to his bones. On impulse, he lit a fire with some of the newly chopped wood, forgetting that it needed to dry out first, fell asleep on the sofa and woke to a cold grate and a miasma of smoke in the living room.

Dragging himself up to bed, he went out almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, but he dreamed of Sherlock for the first time in months; a confusing dream of blood and tangled hair, the doppelganger’s gentle smile and Moriarty’s maniacal laughter.

 

The following day, John decided to take his exercise walking to the village rather than in the woods for a change. And no, he wasn’t avoiding the man who reminded him so much of his dead friend. Well, not avoiding per se, more like giving himself time to get over the shock, and maybe, if he was honest, taking the opportunity to ask some questions.

John bought himself a newspaper in the local shop, more for something to do than for information as he had discovered his Kindle had gained several subscriptions to newspapers and periodicals in the past day or so (thank you, Mycroft). He looked around the shop in a casual fashion and added a packet of mints to his newspaper, but he scarcely needed anything that was not provided by the Great House staff.

The local pub, the Green Man, looked the real thing; simple and unassuming from the outside with mismatched furniture and an indeterminately-coloured carpet. The well-worn bar was polished with proper wax though, and the brass on the beer pumps gleamed brightly in the subdued lighting. John strolled up to the bar, aware of several pairs of curious eyes on him, and ordered a pint of something golden and creamy called Progress Gilt that he had been reliably informed (by Henry) was local in origin. It slipped down beautifully and John gave a satisfied sigh, leaning his elbows on the bar and relaxing.

The landlord polished a beaker with a clean glass cloth. He nodded at John in a friendly fashion.

“Been up here long?” he asked, his accent a good deal more recognisably Scots than most of the Estate workers.

John shrugged. “Couple of weeks,” he replied easily. “I’m staying at Orlington Park. I’m a guest of My… of the Earl.”

The landlord nodded. “Oh, aye,” he said, “We know that. You’re that wee doctor mannie – the one who worked with young Master Sherlock in London.” He shook his head gravely, “Turrible business.”

There was a respectful murmur of agreement from the assembled clientele and John cast furtive looks over his shoulder, unaware until then that their conversation was public property. He cleared his throat self-consciously.

“Would you believe,” he began casually, “that until I arrived at Orlington, I had no idea that Mycroft Holmes was an Earl?”

There was a ripple of disbelieving laughter from the locals; the landlord made a dismissive gesture to them.

“Aye, he’s a good employer and a great man,” he rumbled. John hid a smile behind another pull of his beer.

“So,” John began bravely, “so that would have made Sher… Sherlock, what? The Honourable? Or would he have been a Viscount?”

The landlord shook his head mutely and shrugged. "He wasnae interested in the title," he replied, "Never used it."

John subsided into a thoughtful pause. “What about mummy?” he asked suddenly.

The landlord looked up from where he was swiping a wet cloth unnecessarily along the back of the bar.

John felt his face heat. “I mean Lady Holmes or – whoever she was. Mycroft and Sherlock’s mother?”

There was a careful pause, and then the landlord once again picked up his glass cloth and started to polish at an ashtray.

“Lady Julia,” he began quietly, “died, oh, a little over seventeen years ago; heart attack – or broken heart, whichever you prefer. She was already a widow.”

Ouch! John winced in reluctant sympathy with the absent Mycroft; that could not have been easy. Some slightly louder conversation and shuffling of feet had John turning his head; a game of darts had begun in the corner. Tempted, John swivelled around on his stool and watched for a moment or so.

“Of course, Master Mycroft succeeded to the title many years before on the death of his father,” the landlord said.

John turned back, interested. “Go on,” he encouraged.

He was fifteen,” the man continued. “Gerald White, his first cousin on Lady Julia’s side, took over the management of the Estate. He’s still there after all this time. Does a good job, particularly now the Earl spends so much of his time in London.”

John gave the man a keen glance but he didn’t seem to be expressing any particular disapproval. The landlord nodded at John’s glass.

“Another pint?” he asked. John was about to indicate that he still had a good half pint to drink, but when he looked at his glass, he found it inexplicably empty. The other man smiled knowingly.

“’Tis good stuff,” he said, “slips down all too easily.”

“It certainly does,” John responded, accepting his second pint of the hour.

Looking back on it, John was fairly sure that without the lubrication of The Green Man's excellent beer, he would never have dared to broach the subject at all. However, once the landlord had returned his glass, brimming once again with Progress, John took a sideways glance at the absorbed darts players and leaned over the bar conspiratorially.

“I wonder,” John began, “if you could shed some kind of light on something really, well, creepy that happened to me yesterday.”

He explained, as best he could, the events of the previous afternoon.

“Aye,” the landlord replied equably, “that would be Sherrinford.” He held a clean beer glass up to the light and squinted at a small smear near the rim. He reached for a clean glass cloth and began polishing.

John stared, his eyebrows raised expectantly and the landlord narrowed his eyes. “D’you mean to say that no one told ye about him?” he said.

John gave the negative.

The landlord shook his head and sighed. “Now there’s the beginning of a long tale,” he said quietly, “and the telling of it will take us at least another pint, so I’ll let the kitchen know to make you a sandwich; it’s no good to drink and not eat.”

John never usually got through more than a single pint of anything at lunchtime and he had been intending to call it a day after his current one. However, the so-called “sandwich” turned out to be around half a pound of rare roast beef wrapped in most of a warm, crusty loaf spread with thick, yellow butter, with enough horseradish to bring tears to the eyes. It was topped with a small sprig of parsley; the kitchen at the Green Man had heard of the notion of healthy eating and was eager to do its bit. One look persuaded John that it would soak up any amount of alcohol.

The landlord, whose name was Alastair Sinclair, pulled himself a pint, quietly closed the bar and came around the side to where John was making valiant inroads on his lunch. Alastair cocked his head at the group playing darts.

“The match is on the telly in five minutes,” he said, “and they’ve all got full glasses.” He beckoned to a table in a quiet corner. Picking up his drink and his plate, John followed obediently.

Alastair sipped slowly at his beer and sat for a moment, apparently ordering his thoughts. “The man you saw was the Earl’s younger brother, Sherrinford Holmes,” he began.

John shook his head, frowning. “But that’s not possible,” he protested. “Sherlock would have told me about him. I would have known – of course I would!”

Alastair gave him narrow-eyed look. “Would you?” he asked mildly, “Would you really? No offense meant, but you canna be sure of that. After all, you didn’t even know his elder brother was an Earl.”

“But…” John began, still struggling to wrap his head around this, “Wait a minute.” John put down his glass and thrust his hands into his hair. He sighed.

“Okay,” he replied. “I must admit, crazy as the idea seems, the possibility of Sherlock having another brother is better than the alternatives.”

“Which are?” Alastair asked with interest.

John shrugged. “That yesterday I saw a ghost,” he replied sombrely, “or that I’m going mental, any or all of the above.”

Alastair gave a dry chuckle. “That fact that Master Sherrinford is real doesn’t guarantee your sanity, my friend,” he said.

John gave a wan smile. “Maybe not,” he replied, “but it makes me feel a whole lot better.” He looked up at the landlord and gestured expansively with his hands.

“Come on then – fire away,” John said, “and try not to leave anything out; when I come back here, I’d like it to be for your good beer and not for your information.”

Alastair took another pull at his pint and gave John a long look. He opened his mouth to speak but evidently changed his mind, shaking his head lightly and leaning his chin in his hands before continuing his story.

John had been fortunate in his choice of informant; it seemed that Alastair was the source of all wisdom and the fount of all knowledge for miles around. His grandfather and father before him had been publicans of the Green Man and nothing had happened in the village for three generations that could not be given chapter and verse in the lounge bar of an evening.

“Lady Julia Holmes was a wonderful lady,” Alastair began reminiscently, “Not strong physically, but she had a will of iron. The late Earl, her husband, was the scourge of the Estate girls when he was young, so the stories tell, but once he married Lady Julia, she kept him in line.”

Alastair’s eyes twinkled then his smile faded. “I suppose blood will always out,” he continued obliquely. “Master Mycroft was born a year after they married. He was a strange little boy, like a tiny adult really; favoured his mother rather than the Earl. Didn’t play much, just rode the horses and lived in the library mostly, so they tell me. It was seven years before news came that Lady Julia was expecting again.”

This time things were very different from the previous pregnancy, John learned. Lady Julia was confined to bed and struggled to sustain her pregnancy to term. When her time came, the delivery was long and agonising; later, the Earl was to conduct a vicious and long-running campaign against her doctors.

Lady Julia was carrying two babies, identical twins. They had divided late, John deduced from what Alastair told him, because startlingly, doctors, nurses and midwives had all missed the signs. Lady Julia survived the birth but never really recovered from the exertion and remained physically frail for the rest of her short life.

Not only a brother, but an identical twin! Well, that would explain my extreme reaction to this Sherrinford man.

“Those boys were absolutely inseparable,” Alastair continued with a reminiscent smile. “I felt sorry for young Master Mycroft. After the old Earl died, he had to come to terms with being the man of the house, very much on his own.”

The twins grew up tall, black-haired, pale-skinned and striking, so alike in looks that even their family could hardly tell them apart as children. On reaching their teens, it became apparent that both Sherlock and Sherrinford seemed to have inherited their father's proclivities. They cut a swathe through the village youngsters, both girls and boys alike, Alastair said, although the latter wasn’t talked about so much in those days.

“All three boys went to Eton, as you’d expect,” Alastair said, “but by the time Sherrinford and Sherlock got there, Mycroft had already gone up to Oxford.”

All had seemed as well as it could be until the summer after the twins’ last year at Eton.

“They both had places at Oxford,” Alastair said, “Different colleges and different subjects, of course. Master Sherlock favoured Classics, whilst Master Sherrinford went for science; he was absolutely smitten with the oceans and sealife.

“There was a girl involved, of course,” Alastair’s tone was resigned, “What else could have set brothers as close as they were to quarrelling?”

Alastair’s expression was disapproving. “Sherrinford started courting one of the local lasses,” he said gravely, “Flighty besom, by all accounts and not worthy of him. She was supposed to be engaged to the local butcher’s son before she took up with Sherrinford; broke poor Terry’s heart. He never really got over it.”

“Does she still live in the village?” John asked, sparing a momentary pang of pity for the youngster’s heartache.

Alastair made a rude noise. “Old habits dye hard,” he said. “She threw both of them over for a snebbit.”

John choked into his glass. “A what?” he exclaimed in disbelief, rummaging for a handkerchief.

Alastair had the grace to look a little awkward. “An outsider,” he explained, “someone who doesn’t live locally.” He shrugged. “I heard tell this one was a travelling computer salesman of some kind, but I don’t know the truth of it.”

Alastair looked as though he didn’t care either. “Anyway,” he continued, “whether she went or whether she stayed wouldn’t have made a ha’p’orth of difference; one night there was a terrible disagreement between the boys over her.” He shook his head wonderingly. “Never a cross word all their lives, and now this slip of a girl leads them both astray and sets them against each other. Shame on her!”

He gave a dry chuckle. “There was a fair amount of trouble over it, I can tell ye,” he said, “That was a rare evening in the village when the Holmes boys fell out.”

“Did they make up their quarrel?” John asked, although he reckoned he knew the answer.

Alastair’s face immediately became serious again; he shook his head. “They never spoke again,” He replied. “Rumour has it Master Sherlock left for Oxford almost immediately after; Master Sherrinford stayed home. A few weeks later, we heard he’d managed to get himself transferred to another university. Later on, he went to study in America.” Alastair’s disdainful sniff told John exactly what the landlord thought about that.

“Lady Julia took the quarrel very hard,” he continued. “Her health was brickle – fragile – by then and I think this finished her.”

Alastair finished the last of his beer. “Master Sherlock never came back to Orlington,” he intoned gravely, “and now he never will.”

John lowered his eyes, horrified to feel tears pricking at the backs of them. I’ve definitely had too much to drink – god, what’s the proof of this stuff? Must be at least 8 or 9 per cent.

Chapter Text

John had a great deal to think about that evening after he weaved his unsteady way back to the cottage. He put on the kettle for some tea as soon as he got back then completely forgot about it, falling deeply asleep on the sofa until the long shadows of evening and the pangs of hunger woke him late into the dusk.

The consequences of his lunchtime binge were restlessness, a sleepless night and a late morning the following day. John found it difficult to shake off the miasma and pottered around the cottage tidying aimlessly, surfing the net for nothing in particular, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t waiting for something or someone.

Eventually, cabin fever got to him and he threw on his jacket and walking boots, taking off into the forest, careless of the gathering dusk. A couple of energetic and mindless miles later, John paused to catch his breath, smelling water and green in the air. He listened carefully and realised he was much closer to the river than he had thought.

There was a persistent splashing coming from a quiet backwater running parallel to the main river. Curiously, his eyes now fully adjusted to the bright moonlight, John made his way carefully towards the bank and crouched, leaning against the trunk of a nearby tree.

What John saw made him stop dead, his heart in his mouth. Long-limbed and white-skinned, the young man John now knew as Sherrinford Holmes was in the water, apparently playing alongside a pair of otters, swimming and diving with them as though part of their family. John stared, holding his breath. The moonlight glanced off the water, turning the droplets into millions of tiny stars, the ripples into silver silk. It illuminated the coats of the otters, making them flash as they dived and played, it caught on the water cascading through the dark hair and over the white skin of Sherrinford’s shoulders and back, down the dip of his spine…

Pulse thundering, John rose and turned carefully, keen to leave before he revealed his presence. His eagerness betrayed his woodcraft; the tiny snap of a twig had the other man's head whipping around instantly. Sherrinford fixed unerringly on John’s position and, abandoning his aquatical friends, he struck out with a smooth front crawl to the bank where he vaulted out easily in front of John, swiping spray from his eyes. John blinked as water dropped onto his face, lodging in his eyelashes.

“Hi,” Sherrinford said simply. John watched as bright beads of water spilled down the length of the other man’s body. Sherrinford slicked his black hair back over his forehead and suddenly John's brain slid into gear. He realised, with a rush of embarrassment, that Sherrinford was stark naked and that he, John, was staring almost hypnotised.

“Pass me my jeans, would you?” Sherrinford said casually, standing up to shake the water from his arms and legs.

John stood frozen for a moment. He felt his cheeks flush and he turned quickly to look around for Sherrinford’s clothes, hoping against hope that it was dark enough to hide his confusion.

“I hoped I’d see you sometime today,” Sherrinford remarked conversationally as he eeled wet skin into dry denim. No underpants, John’s brain helpfully supplied.

“I was at home,” John stuttered then bit his tongue. Sherrinford gave him one of those blindingly warm smiles and slung his shirt around his shoulders, shoving his feet into unlaced boots.

“I didn’t know whether I would be welcome,” he replied simply. He rose to his feet.

“Come,” he said, holding out a hand. John automatically put his own in Sherrinford’s before he had even thought about it and allowed himself to be led away from the river.

They gravitated towards the path back to the cottage and walked in silence for a while.

“I’m a naturalist,” Sherrinford eventually replied to a question John hadn’t asked but was thinking very hard. He started then turned to stare at the other man.

Sherrinford shrugged. “It was written all over your face,” he protested, “and if I’d come across you swimming naked in the river at night, I would be just as curious. I work as a location scout and underwater photographer for television documentaries, films and commercial photography. It’s freelance work and I’m away a lot, but Orlington’s where my heart is.”

“Have you always lived here?” John asked with interest.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Sherrinford replied, “My first degree was in Biological Sciences at Brookes, but I went on to do my Master’s in Marine Biology in California. That’s where I learned about underwater photography and signed on to do a module as part of my course – fantastic! I loved the place, but I always planned to return to the UK. I have to admit, the water here’s pretty cold though by comparison.”

John gave him a small smirk. “I would have thought you’d be used to it by now,” he remarked.

Sherrinford gave him an appraising look. “I’m a naturalist, John, not a naturist,” he replied, “despite appearances to the contrary.”

They shared a smile, and John realised they had reached the edge of the wood.

Sherrinford pointed. “Look,” he said.

John followed his line of sight and saw several somethings flying swiftly between the trees and the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage. It was too small to identify in the growing dusk.

“Bats,” Sherrinford explained briefly, “They live in the roof of the cottage, so any noise you hear at night is likely to be them.” He grinned. “I’m telling you this so you don’t start worrying about rats; there aren’t any.”

“Thanks for the advice,” John replied, returning the smile, “Since Afghanistan, I’ve not been too fond of small rodents.”

“Understandable,” Sherrinford replied. He planted his hands on his hips. “Well, it’s almost dark and I’ve things to do before I turn in,” he said, swinging round to face the other man.

“What things?” John replied too quickly and winced at his own gaucheness.

Sherrinford gave him a long, thoughtful look with just a touch of sadness. “Things that I do regularly,” he replied quietly, “Checking out the badgers, making sure foxes don’t get the blame for any poultry raiding carried out by feral cats, moving traps and snares that are in the wrong places…”

“I bet you’re popular with the gamekeeper,” John remarked, aware that he was babbling but somehow unable to stop. He subsided, the shadows hiding his flushed face.

Sherrinford fixed him once again with one of his steady, considering stares. “Do I remind you very much of Sherlock?” he said quietly.

Oh, god. John could only nod mutely and swallow hard on a lump he hadn't known was there until now. He shuffled his feet and looked away. Sherrinford nodded as though having had confirmation of something much more significant.

“People used to remark that in photographs taken of us unawares, it was easy to confuse us,” he said quietly, “but if we were together, no one had any difficulty in telling us apart. We were identical but unalike.”

“I heard you hadn’t spoken for many years,” John blurted.

Sherrinford nodded, his expression pensive. “I’m afraid Sherlock could be rather, ah, intransigent when it came to family,” he replied. His face suddenly became shuttered.

Before John could make any response, Sherrinford reached out to take his hand, interlacing their fingers together. “Goodnight,” he said with a sudden brilliant smile and turned away, loping off into the forest.

 

The following day, John woke up to complete silence. He thought nothing of it for a moment until he realised that no sound at all meant the fridge and the freezer were both off. Flicking the light switches produced no response and John quickly discovered that the power sockets were all dead too.

He dressed hurriedly and walked up to the Great House where Mrs Webster had just finished serving breakfast to the Great House staff. She made him comfortable in the Breakfast Room with a fresh pot of tea and summoned one of the Estate handymen/electricians, instructing him to look at the circuit board. Minutes later, she brought in a large plate of bacon, eggs and toast by way of apology.

“They’re supposed to keep the system checked over so this sort of thing doesn’t happen,” she complained. “The last thing we want is to get a name for being unreliable; it’s very bad for business.”

John grinned. “Don’t worry, Mrs Webster,” he replied. “I won’t tell anyone, especially not if it gets me breakfast like this.”

Mrs Webster smiled indulgently at him and nudged a chair out from the table with her hip. She reached for the teapot and deftly refilled his cup while pouring one for herself.

“I’d best take the chance while it’s here,” she said to him conspiratorially. “It’ll soon be time to start getting ready for lunch.”

John took a breath, expelled it in a sigh then gritted his teeth and swallowed his pride.

“I met someone very, ah, unexpected the other day,” he began, not looking at her.

There was a small silence and John raised his eyes in panic. Mrs Webster’s face was solemn and assessing.

“I imagine you must be talking about Mr Mycroft’s younger brother, Sherrinford,” she said in a level tone.

John nodded. “Yes,” he replied. “He was chopping wood outside the cottage earlier this week.”

Mrs Webster nodded. “He’s back then,” she said almost to herself. She gave John a very shrewd glance.

“It’s as plain as a pikestaff what you’re thinking, young man, and it won’t do,” she said sternly. “Sherrinford and Sherlock were twins in looks certainly, and they were very alike particularly when they were children. But if you imagine that Sherrinford can take your friend’s place, you need to think again: they were always as different as chalk and cheese inside.”

“But how…? Why…?” John shook his head, perplexed

“Why didn’t you know about him?” the housekeeper smiled sadly, “Because Sherlock never came back here after, you see.”

She sighed and got up from the table. “Might as well make a fresh pot as I see there’ll be no work done today until you’ve got answers to your questions,” she told him resignedly.

Mrs Webster’s tale had little to add to Alastair’s information, at least at first.

“The gossips have always pointed fingers at the girl,” she said reluctantly, “Alice Rucastle.” John expected her to express some disapproval, but to his surprise she did not.

“There are some in the village as maintain she was fast and flighty,” Mrs Webster continued after a pause, “and I suspect that it pleases them to think that, particularly the men. Truth was, Alice was beautiful. Oh, there were a lot of pretty girls around, there always are, but Alice was more than that. She was charming and good-hearted, and Sherrinford fell in love with her.

“Well, he wasn’t the first. Terry Smithson the butcher’s boy followed her around since they were both in primary school; looked on her as his property, he did, and fought anyone who went near her,” Mrs Webster snorted, “As if she would bother with him! Anyway, Alice and Sherrinford were seen together at the cinema and walking on the village green. Her parents disapproved, after all, Sherrinford was from the Great House and Alice was a lass from the low countree, as they say, but no one was angrier about the situation than Sherlock. Sherlock was absolutely livid. He wanted her too, of course, and he was furious that she had chosen his brother over him. He saw himself as the loser on all counts.”

John was having a hard time picturing Sherlock as a teenager, never mind having a crush on a girl, but he gestured for the housekeeper to continue.

“Sherlock made a date with Alice by phone, pretending to be his brother,” the Housekeeper said sighing.

John looked up sharply. “What?” he demanded. “He tried to make a move on his brother's girl…?” He trailed off disbelievingly.

“Now he’s gone there’s no sense in worrying about telling you,” Mrs Webster continued, “or anyone else for that matter. He arranged to meet up with Alice. Lord knows what he was intending to do – put her off, get her for himself, who can tell? Anyway, Sherrinford caught on somehow and followed his brother, no doubt intending to shame him into backing off.”

She sighed. “They met on one of the woodland walks, Sherlock and Alice, and went down by the river in the moonlight,” she continued. “It’s a popular place with youngsters; I used to go there with my Jack sometimes. Sherrinford and Alice met there regularly; Mr Mycroft always turned a blind eye.”

She fixed John with a level stare. “Now, I’m only telling you what I was told myself, mind;” she said firmly. “I wasn’t there personally, you understand. Anyway, Sherlock met up with Alice and started getting friendly with her, pretending to be his brother apparently, but then Sherrinford rolled up, absolutely furious. They argued and the boys fought – fisticuffs, would you believe? Alice ran off back to the village, she didn’t dare come up to the house, poor girl; it was a shame...”

Mrs Webster looked pensive for a moment then her face crinkled in a small smile. “They ended up in the river, those boys, didn’t they?” she said, “Idiots, the both of them – served them right! Nothing like cold water to sort out hot blood, I always say.”

“The Earl did his best to play it down,” she continued, “and I never really heard the rights of it, but they say Master Sherrinford got carried off by the current and couldn’t be found. Master Sherlock managed to get out of the water, I believe, and raised the alarm, but there was a big search over the Estate that night. All the workers were out together with the polis, helicopters, lights…”

She looked at John and her expression was crafty. “Between you and me,” she said conspiratorially, “I think that Master Sherrinford deliberately stayed away to avoid his brother.”

“Sherlock?” John asked with a frown.

Mrs Webster nodded. “Well, it was all very embarrassing for the Earl,” she said with spirit, “All that fuss and bother, and him responsible – well! Master Sherrinford had a lot to answer for that night, I can tell you; worrying us all to death like that!”

Her expression was part fond, part exasperated; John recognised the expression from his own face when dealing with-with Sherlock. He shook his head to dispel the image.

“What happened in the end?” John asked.

Mrs Webster sniffed. “Well, Master Sherlock was never worried,” she said, “He packed up his things and went off to Oxford two days later.” Her disapproving expression said clearly what she felt about that. “Master Sherrinford pitched up at the local polis station after four days out in the wilds. He was filthy, freezing and totally happy, they told me, and the first thing he did when he got back to the Great House was rethink his university course.”

She smiled affectionately. “I believe that the time he had out on the Estate grounds changed his life,” she said.

“What happened to Alice?” John asked.

Mrs Webster shook her head. “She hasn’t been heard of since,” she replied regretfully, “She left the village within days and never returned, at least that’s what I heard. Rumour has it she went to London but who can say?” Mrs Webster spread her hands. “London’s a big place.”

“Didn’t Sherrinford try to get in contact with her?” John asked, “Or with Sherlock?” Mrs Webster shook her head.

“Not that I know of,” she replied regretfully, “but you’d have to ask him about that.”

 

Sherrinford grinned and nodded to the axe buried in the tree stump where he had been splitting the logs the other day. He looked at John.

“Are you up for it?” he asked and looked up at the sky. “We’ve got about half an hour before it really will be too dark.”

It was the following evening and John had been sitting outside under the apple tree, enjoying a post-prandial cup of coffee beneath the sunset, watching the bats fly between the trees and the cottage roof.

“Weather’s holding out, I’m glad to say.”

Sherrinford had materialised out of the woods, boots covered in mud and hair half-plastered to his head with water. John smiled, a little disconcerted at how quickly his mood suddenly lifted. He raised his coffee mug with a question in his eyes.

“Or would you rather have a beer?” he asked.

Sherrinford shook his head. “Neither for the moment,” he replied, “I think we should start work on building up that muscle mass of yours again, not to mention the winter fuel store.”

John started to strip off his jacket and watched as Sherrinford unselfconsciously shrugged off his wet teeshirt.

“Have you been swimming with the otters again?” John asked.

Sherrinford smiled and spread the damp cotton over a bush to dry out. “Something like that,” he replied, “I like to watch at water level when the beavers repair their dam."

“Beavers?” John was surprised. “I thought they were extinct in this country.”

Sherrinford grinned. “They are,” he replied, “but they’re slowly being reintroduced. These two are from Bavaria – Peter arranged for them to be flown over last year. Orlington is perfect for them. Well, just so long as they don’t flood the fields!”

Sherrinford rubbed his hands together. “Come on then, John,” he said briskly, “Let’s get started on these logs.” He picked up the axe and swung it carefully a couple of times. Satisfied, he chose a hunk of wood from amongst the pieces he had brought and sawn the last time, and started to split it down into manageable chunks.

John watched carefully and noted how Sherrinford put a twist into the throw, how he used the weight of the axe itself and gravity to maximum effect rather than brute force – and if he also noted the play of the muscles in Sherrinford’s back and shoulders, well, John was not advertising the fact. Not at all.

Sherrinford stood back and offered the axe to John. “Now you,” he grinned.

John’s first attempts were clumsy and jarred his shoulder painfully. Patiently, Sherrinford showed him how to hold the tool without grabbing it; his sure fingers moved over John’s hands and arms, gripping and adjusting, pushing John’s feet slightly apart with a knee between his legs.

The next few tries were more successful and John managed to split his log on the fifth strike. Sherrinford supervised John through two more logs then announced that it was getting too dark to continue. John was tempted to argue but on straightening up, he realised that not only was his back aching but that his abdomen, now healed and free of stitches (courtesy of the District Nurse), was beginning to pull painfully.

John leaned on the haft of the axe, as he had seen Sherrinford do, and nodded. "Thanks," he said, "I've always wondered how to do that."

"You're very welcome," Sherrinford returned, smiling.

John reached for his jacket. "Just wondering," he said, his tone deceptively casual, "when was the last time you saw Sherlock? Or spoke to him, for that matter?"

Sherrinford paused and frowned, his tee shirt still half over his head. "Why do you ask?" he said, a little sharply.

John shrugged. "Still grieving, I suppose," he replied, for the moment taking refuge in honesty.

Sherrinford's expression softened; he shook his head. "I told you Sherlock could be rather intransigent," he replied, "Unfortunately, we hadn't spoken since our schooldays." He sighed and reached for the hem of his shirt to pull it down. As he did so, John noticed a scar, shallow and still healing, along his side.

John gestured at it. “That looks nasty,” he remarked. Sherrinford nodded, pulling his shirt down over his abdomen.

“Occupational hazard,” he replied, picking up the axe to stow it away in the lean to.

 

John awoke the following day stiff and sore. Reluctant to move, he stayed in bed for far too long and made it all the worse when he finally did get up. He hobbled down to the kitchen and held a minor debate with himself as to whether he would swallow something cold from the fridge and go back to bed or whether he would steel himself, get dressed and walk up to the Great House to get his muscles moving, using Mrs Webster’s no doubt excellent lunch as an incentive. A vague sense of guilt made him decide on the latter option and as his sore muscles began to loosen up on the walk, he thought that probably he had made the right choice.

A wizened, elderly man was leaning on the garden gate, gazing into the distance, smoking a pipe. John nodded to him as he came within hailing distance and waited for him to move aside and allow John through.

The man squinted at John and took his pipe out of his mouth.

“I’ve got a message for you,” he said slowly.

John stared. “You know who I am, then?” he said.

“Of course I do,” the man replied. “You’re that Doctor Watson, the one who was with Master Sherlock down in London.”

John nodded. “That’s right,” he replied.

“Well,” the other man continued, “I’ve got a message for you.” His eyes twinkled. “I was at the Riding School the other day,” he said slowly, “the day you were looking round, along with Mr Jenkins, the Earl’s secretary.”

“Well, yes,” John replied, mystified as to where this was going.

“Yes,” repeated the old man. “I saw you talking to Violet. You seemed very taken with her, I thought.”

Oh, Lord! John scratched his head, unable, for the moment, to remember who Violet was.

“Anyway,” the man continued, “she gave me a message after; said to tell you to get in touch with her.”

“Right, okay,” said John, suddenly remembering the blond girl at the Equestrian Centre. He frowned; hadn’t Henry Jenkins said something about the pub on a Friday night?

“Okay,” John said again. “Will you be seeing her today?”

The old man inclined his head and took a puff of his pipe.

“Would you mind letting her know that I’ll be in The Green Man on Friday evening at around seven-thirty?” John asked. The old man rolled that idea around in his head for a moment.

“I’ll do that,” he replied, “but she’ll be late.”

“Eh?” John said.

“I said she’ll be late,” the old man repeated, “they get there around eight usually.”

Smartarse!

“Alright,” John agreed, wondering if he had strayed into a parallel universe. “Make it eight o’clock then. Thank you very much, Mister…?”

“The name’s Jock,” said the old man, “and I’m the Head Gardener. Tell Mrs Webster I’ll be in soon for my lunch.”

The Head Gardener turned away and continued his contemplation of the horizon. John shook his head and went up to the house.

Chapter Text

The grooms and clerical staff from the Equestrian Centre were already in The Green Man by the time John arrived at 8.15pm the following Friday and flatteringly, Violet had clearly been keeping an eye out for him.

The pub was noisy and humid with the overpowering smell of spirits chasing away the prevailing scents of hops and beeswax John remembered from the lunchtime session. He threaded his way towards the bar, ducking under arms and stepping over feet, apologising and excusing himself with a determinedly affable air.

“John!” He heard a high-pitched squeal that carried above the ambient noise and turned to see a sweet face framed with blond hair he vaguely remembered from his visit with Henry. She was grinning, her teeth very white and even, and waving frantically over the heads of a large group sitting in a corner by a wide window.

Smiling automatically, John waved back, ordered a pint of Progress from the sweating young barmaid and went to join the group.

The evening began very well, John had to admit. It was pleasant, very pleasant indeed to be part of a lively group once more. Violet was in her early thirties, pretty, blonde and vivacious and John found himself responding gratefully to her lively flirting. The tone quickly became more boisterous as the alcohol started to flow more and more freely; all the Centre staff lived on the Estate or locally in the village, there wasn’t even the need for a designated driver.

John started to wonder how things had managed to get so out of hand so quickly round about the time he found himself crushed into a corner with Violet perched more-or-less on his lap, suggesting at the top of her voice, over the piped music which suddenly sprang up from nowhere, that they might go back to her place at the end of the evening.

John blinked, swallowed and thought to hell with it. He pushed an arm around her shoulders and reached for his beer with his free hand.

“…will probably have a bit more time to visit later on this year, once he’s managed to put some business to bed,” Violet was saying.

John shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m finding it hard to hear over the noise,” he shouted.

Violet smiled and leaned over him so that her lips grazed his ear. “I was saying that the Earl spends less and less time on the Estate,” she said. “He used to take his holidays here; he liked to ride to hounds, you know, when we held the hunt at Orlington.”

“Mycroft rides?” John said in surprise; some amusing mental images promptly presented themselves. Violet smiled broadly.

“Of course he does!” she replied, “He has one of the best seats I’ve ever seen.”

John turned his face away to hide a smile but his expression turned thoughtful as he continued to listen, a sneaking suspicion worming its way through his mind.

“So, you’ve known Mycroft for most of your life have you, Violet?” he asked.

“Of course,” she replied. “Why, we used to play together as children. My father owned most of the land to the north. Unfortunately, he made a few bad decisions some years back and the old Earl bought him out.” She sighed. “Daddy always rather hoped I might manage to get the land back,” she paused and her eyes twinkled, “One way or another.”

She sighed and drained her glass. “No chance of that while he’s swanning off back to London every five minutes,” she complained.

John joined in her sigh; trust him to end up on a date with the one woman in the world who wanted to marry The Iceman. A sudden thought occurred to him.

“Violet,” he said, leaning towards her ear, “do you know anything about the younger brother, Sherrinford?”

Violet turned to him with wide eyes. “You mean you don’t know?” she replied. “Oooh, that was real family scandal. It was all kept very quiet, and lucky for Sherrinford that it was, quite honestly.”

“Oh?” John’s tone was interested and Violet took the opportunity to snuggle close to him on the pretext of making sure he could hear her.

“Well, you know he was dating a local girl?” she sniffed disdainfully. “Ridiculous! Alice Rucastle was her name.”

“Did you know her?” John asked.

“Oh, yes,” Violet replied carelessly, “Well, I knew her in that her mother cleaned for us and she used to bring Alice in with her sometimes during the school holidays. I was expected to play with her.” Violet’s disgusted expression told John all he needed to know about the class system in this neck of the woods. “Eventually, Daddy took Alice on as a maid,” Violet continued. “Unfortunately, that’s how Sherrinford met her. Honestly, I thought better of him than that; carrying on with the hired help!”

Violet sniffed again then turned huge blue eyes on John; he couldn’t help wondering if she had used the same expression on Daddy.

“I wouldn’t want to make you judge her too harshly,” Violet said earnestly, “but she was the type of girl who attracted a lot of attention, if you understand me correctly. She was very attractive but it was really rather more than that. She had a certain, ah, reputation amongst the local boys; they all worshipped the ground she walked on, and she loved every minute of it, even though she pretended she didn’t.” Violet tossed her head indignantly. “It made for some very complicated teen years, I can tell you.”

John detected an edge to the tone which Violet would probably have been able to smooth out if she hadn’t been three parts drunk.

“Of course, Mycroft was never interested in her,” Violet said rather over-smugly to John’s mind, “but I often wondered if Sherlock and Sherrinford took turns…” Her voice faded away and she blushed into her drink. John cleared his throat, trying to hide the widening of his eyes, and wondered what he had got himself into here.

“What happened to her?” John asked.

Violet shrugged. “She disappeared,” she replied, knocking back a fresh drink passed to her by a sturdy-looking, red-haired lad.

“What do you mean?” John frowned.

“What I said - she just disappeared!” Violet gestured avidly with her hands, almost sending John’s drink flying; John made a grab for it and narrowly prevented disaster.

“It was the same night the boys had their almighty row,” Violet continued, “You must have heard about it – Sherrinford buried himself on the Estate and didn’t surface until Sherlock had gone up to Oxford. There was a police search and everything – Mycroft was furious. Alice just simply disappeared. People said they’d seen her in the village the following day, or she’d left by train a couple of days later, but no one could really swear to it. Anyway, her parents were worried sick, particularly as she hadn’t taken any of her stuff.”

“Didn’t they report it to the police?” John asked.

“Oh, yes,” Violet replied, “but you know what they’re like – always in someone’s pocket. I expect it was all hushed up for one reason or another.”

“Hushed up?” John said, puzzled. “Violet, what do you mean, hushed up?”

Violet stared. “Don’t tell me I have to spell it out?” she said. When John simply gave her a perplexed look, she sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s what often happens when young men of consequence get involved with the hoi polloi,” she said in an overly patient tone. John still looked bewildered.

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Violet pulled John’s head down until her mouth was level with his ear. “I expect she got pregnant – hoped he’d marry her, I guess. Stupid; Lady Holmes would never have allowed that to happen. Mycroft must have paid her off; he would have known how to handle it.” Violet’s smile was fond.

John’s mind was racing; this brought an entirely different angle to the situation. If Alice had been trying to blackmail Sherrinford… He turned back to the girl.

“Violet,” he said, “do you have any real evidence for what you’ve told me?”

But Violet was having a very loud and drunken exchange with a girl sitting across the table from her about the provenance of a new colt at the centre and John failed to focus her attention again.

Half an hour later, the party was breaking up in earnest and Violet was mostly asleep on John’s shoulder. Unable to rouse her, John appealed to the redhead who had bought Violet a drink earlier. The lad rolled his eyes and made beckoning motions with his hands.

“Come on Violet, love,” he said, lifting her gently on to her feet. She murmured something incoherent and her head lolled but she managed to hold her own weight.

“Will you be alright with her?” John asked, relief making him guilty.

The redhead nodded with a grim smile. “Of course I will,” he replied resignedly, “I always am. Don’t worry; she’ll wake up tomorrow with the hangover from hell and she’ll be all apologetic. She’ll be sober for a month, then something’ll throw her and it’ll all happen again.” He smiled, “A pleasure to meet you, John. Sorry you didn’t get luckier, but you’re not the first and I’m sure you won’t be the last.”

 

John wandered back to the cottage in the dark, pondering all that Violet had said about Alice Rucastle. It was a long time ago, granted, but if Alice had disappeared as suddenly and completely as Violet seemed to think she had, then surely there would have been a police investigation of some sort.

John was so deep in thought that he didn’t notice the light burning in the kitchen until he was almost at the cottage door. He walked around into the garden and saw Sherrinford sitting at the picnic table taking the occasional swig from a can of beer.

“Good evening,” he said with a smile, raising the can in a mock toast. John sat down heavily on the bench and sighed.

“Did you enjoy your date with Miss Hunter?” Sherrinford asked.

John’s jaw dropped. “How in heaven’s name did you know about that?” he demanded.

Sherrinford’s grin broadened. “Word gets around,” he replied, “and you are, after all, a stranger in our midst. Everybody’s interested in you.”

“Including you?” It was out before John could censor it; there was something about Sherrinford Holmes that deactivated John’s inner editor.

“Of course!” Sherrinford replied without missing a beat. “I wouldn’t be trailing around after you like a teenage girl if I weren’t, now would I?”

John blinked, unable for the moment to process that devastating statement. “I think I will join you in a beer,” he said lamely, rising to go into the kitchen.

Sherrinford drained his can in one swallow. “Don’t bother,” he said, crushing the aluminium with a crackling noise and lobbing it through the kitchen door.

John experienced a momentary pang of disappointment which he immediately chased away by pointing out to his own inner teenage girl that it was nearly midnight, but Sherrinford was apparently not intending to leave just yet.

He stood and held out a hand. “Come with me,” he said to John.

John frowned. “It’s late,” he said unnecessarily.

Sherrinford nodded. “Yes,” he replied simply.

John shrugged, rose from the table. A snide little voice in his head demanded to know whether it was just the good-looking Holmes brothers who had the power to compel John to do things against his better nature, or whether John would really be prepared to walk through fire for Mycroft. John pushed the voice back into his head as far as he could manage and followed Sherrinford into the woods.

 

It was dark, but the canopy of the trees was not so dense that moonlight did not filter through and provide some kind of illumination.

“The apple tree in your garden,” Sherrinford remarked after walking in silence for a while, “it’s pretty old, you know. In fact, it’s one of the few things on the Estate that doesn’t seem to have changed much since my childhood. I’m away for quite long periods, you know, and I’m always a bit saddened when something I remember well just isn’t there anymore.”

“Do you have anything lined up for the near future?” John asked him with interest, “Or are you going to be staying in Britain for a while now?”

Sherrinford shrugged. “I have a couple of things in the pipeline,” he said, “one of which is based in Norway which, if it actually happens, will be very interesting indeed.”

“Cold though,” John commented.

Sherrinford laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re a lightweight, John,” he replied. “Anyway, that’s the only big project on the horizon, but there will be smaller jobs that crop up through the year. Some of my work can be pretty last minute.” His hand lingered, warm on John's skin through the fabric of his shirt.

“What about when you’re here?” John asked, “How do you keep occupied?”

“I work around the Estate, giving the groundsmen and gardeners a hand mostly,” Sherrinford replied, “although if there’s something interesting going on with the wildlife, I will disappear into the woods for days, sometimes weeks – ask anyone around. Mrs Webster leaves supplies for me regularly. I don’t like to be tied down and I’m not desperately keen on a roof over my head.” He nodded back along the path. “If it’s really cold in winter, I stay in the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage.”

Suddenly, a number of things fell into place for John. “So they’re your things?” he said. “It’s your place?”

Sherrinford shook his head firmly with a confident smile. “Don’t go worrying about trespassing on my property, John,” he replied, “I don’t really have anywhere permanent.”

“No home?” John protested, “Sherrinford, where do you base yourself? Where do you keep all your stuff?”

“I don’t have much, to be honest,” Sherrinford rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “What there is I keep either in store or back at the Great House; there’s still a room there that’s nominally mine. Mrs Webster makes sure it’s cleaned every now and then.”

“So what do you do for fun, then?” John asks, “When you’re not working, or exercising the horses or pulling up weeds?”

Sherrinford favoured John with one of his blinding smiles. “We’re doing it now,” he replied and placed a finger over his parted lips. John made as if to speak but Sherrinford shook his head. Slowly, he rotated and pointed towards a small tree a little further down the path.

As John raised his eyes to see what Sherrinford was pointing at, he felt his eyebrows rise towards his hairline.

“Oh!” he heard himself gasp. He followed Sherrinford the last few yards and smiled in sheer delight.

The tree was covered with tiny points of luminescence, some of them moving but most of them static. Around the tree John could hear the whirr of wings as thousands of other, unseen insects congregated around the lights.

“Lampyridae,” Sherrinford whispered, suddenly very close to John. “What the British mistakenly call glow worms. They’re actually insects not annelids. Last summer was very wet and the gardeners complained about the numbers of slugs and snails they had to dispose of. That was actually good news for the Lampyridae because it gave the larvae plenty of food. This year there are thousands of them throughout the woods and moorlands.”

“They’re beautiful,” John said, his voice hushed and reverent.

Sherrinford let him admire for a few moments longer then tugged on his sleeve.

“Come on,” he said, “we can come back this way, if you like, but I don’t want to miss the badgers.”

“Badgers?” John said as he followed Sherrinford at a fast walk.

 

Badgers it was. John found himself crouched under a bush, his legs crying out with cramp, watching a family of badgers go about their nightly business, in and out of their set, foraging for food. He smiled when the kits emerged, one playful one in particular providing much entertainment.

“I’ve christened him Mike,” Sherrinford murmured into John’s ear, “short for Mycroft.”

John managed to suppress the urge to giggle only because he wanted to avoid spooking the badgers; they were absolutely fascinating. Despite the cramp in his legs, John was sorry when Sherrinford touched his arm again and beckoned him away.

 

The next stop was further into the woods than John had ever been. He and Sherrinford walked for more than half a mile in the dark, deeper and deeper into the undergrowth over terrain that John was fairly certain had not been disturbed by anyone other than Sherrinford for a very long time. He had the strange impression that he was being allowed into a different world, somewhere precious; sacred.

The grove was a ring of tall trees surrounding a centre of soft fern undergrowth. Sherrinford led the way into this tiny sanctuary and knelt carefully in the middle, brushing aside some of the bracken. John crouched by his side and saw a small plant, magnificently, incongruously, in bloom. Each flower had three pointed, yellow petals and a number of slender, hanging stamens.

“Night-flowering orchid,” Sherrinford murmured, “incredibly rare. I’ve no idea what it’s doing here; I found it a month ago. The only other I know of is in the Netherlands.”

John was shaking his head. “Orchids don’t flower at night,” he replied.

“I know,” replied Sherrinford. He looked up at John, his face cast into sharp relief by the moonlight. The angular planes of his cheekbones, his silver-grey eyes, the cloud of black hair – all so familiar and yet so other. John felt as though a cord was being pulled tight around his chest; he suddenly had trouble breathing.

“John?” Sherrinford asked, extending a concerned hand. John shook his head, his grief welling up once again in misery and aching.

“John,” Sherrinford said again, ducking his head and putting a gentle finger under John’s chin.

“Oh, god,” John breathed as he met the other man’s eyes, “this is so not good.”

“What is?” asked Sherrinford, now so close to John that he could feel the puff of air over his lips.

“Please,” John said quietly, not really knowing what he was asking for. Unable to keep still, he leaned forward and their lips bumped gracelessly.

It wasn’t a kiss, not really, more of a collision; an accident. John‘s eyes flew open in dismay and his breath stuttered. What had he been thinking?

Sherrinford stayed very still, only his eyes moving. “John,” he said after a moment. He crawled forward on his hands and knees. “John,” he said again.

John willed himself to move, to get to his feet, to leave this sanctuary; to find the path and go back to the cottage.

He stayed where he was and watched, holding his breath, as Sherrinford moved closer.

This time their lips touched and held. Sherrinford slid gentle fingers over John’s jaw, his other hand threading through the short hair at the back of John’s neck. John made a tiny helpless sound in his throat; his eyes slid closed. Sherrinford’s mouth was warm and his lips were supple and knowing, stroking over John’s mouth with unexpected fluency. John rested his hands lightly on Sherrinford’s forearms and shuddered as the tension suddenly bled out of him all at once. He shifted his head and opened his mouth, wrapping his arms around the other man’s chest, hands skating up and under the thin tee shirt.

He could feel Sherrinford’s rib-bones plainly, John thought as his fingers stuttered over smooth skin – oh, god, so much skin! The man needed to eat more, to live under a proper roof in a proper home, not like a traveller. Sherrinford gave a sharp inhale as John touched a particularly sensitive spot and John took advantage, thrusting his tongue into the other man’s mouth, exploring, tasting. God, it was glorious, brilliant! John pushed closer, trying to climb into the other man’s skin, tearing at his clothes, swearing and cursing all the inconvenient barriers modern attire threw up when you were trying to get someone naked. He moaned his disapproval as Sherrinford grabbed and held his searching hands, moving his mouth away.

“John,” Sherrinford said, shifting to hold John gently by the shoulders, trying to still his mad rage of need. “John, listen to me; calm down!”

John was gasping, lungs desperate for air. His ears rang and bright lights sprang up in his peripheral vision. He heaved in great chestfuls of air, his fingers digging in to Sherrinford’s arms, making bruises. As his breathing slowed, John looked up.

“Okay now?” Sherrinford asked worriedly; his mouth was red and swollen.

John stared at him then looked away shaking his head. It wasn’t okay, it really wasn’t.

“Look, I don’t understand,” John said all in a rush, his embarrassment making him rude and crass. “I lived with your twin brother for two years, right? I met your elder brother, but neither of them said a word about you. I mean, what is it with you Holmeses, eh? Is secrecy some kind of default state for you, or what?”

“John,” Sherrinford began, but the other man was on a roll.

John got to his feet and started to pace. “And what are you doing with your life here?” he demanded. “You say you work with the gardeners and the gamekeeper when you’re on the Estate, but you have no regular job, no home; no possessions. I mean, what the hell, Sherrinford?”

Sherrinford was looking at the ground, shaking his head slowly.

“You’re a virtual hermit!” John was shouting now, filling the grove with his anger and bewilderment. “You appear and disappear like the mist in the morning. You live outside like a wild animal, you turn up on the doorstep, waltz into the house like I’m not there, help yourself to beer and god knows what else. And you just – keep reminding me, okay? You keep being there when he isn’t any more, don’t you see? You keep being him and I – I…”

John trailed off, feeling the blood drain from his cheeks. He buried his face in his hands and breathed out heavily.

“Oh, god, I’m sorry,” he said, the words muffled by his fingers. “I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”

John let his hands fall away to see nothing but empty woodland. He turned a complete circle – nothing.

“Sherrinford?” His voice sounded dead and groundless.

John was alone.

Chapter Text

The fine weather stretched on long enough for the combine harvesters to run their unstoppable way through the arable fields, working through the night on a shift system with huge arc lights to make the most of both the dry spell and the hire costs. Just long enough and no more; sunshine and warmth gave way to cloud and then rain. Suddenly leaves started to turn at an alarming rate; walking became less of a pleasant pastime and more of a chore. John fidgeted around, getting more and more bored.

He found himself at an emotional crossroads. Strictly speaking, it was time for him to go back to Baker Street; John knew this only too well. His strength had returned, he was eating properly and had put on some weight and a little muscle. The fact that he was no longer content to remain in the cottage spoke volumes; John was well on the road to a full recovery.

However, Sherrinford had been noticeable by his absence. A week flew by without any sign of him. John took to walking further and further over the meadows, despite the mud and the drizzle, but saw nothing of him at any time and returned to the cottage again and again, disappointed.

John had been fortunate that he had brought his mobile phone with him on that night walk; also that the battery was charged. He had no idea of direction and without his mobile GPS, a night in the woods waiting until sunrise would have been inevitable. He had a bone to pick with Sherrinford about that.

One miserable day, John’s feet took him in the opposite direction to his usual haunts and he found himself outside the farm shop. John looked at the sky, which was threatening to deluge him, and then at the rack of tempting-looking packets of biscuits and decided to do a minor grocery shop until the weather decided what it was going to do.

Once inside the premises, however, John realised with horror that he had made decidedly the wrong decision.

Since the infamous night at The Green Man, John had thankfully managed to avoid Violet Hunter entirely. However, to John’s chagrin, not only was she in the shop but she managed to get close enough to collar him before he could carry out evasive manoeuvres.

“John,” Violet began with a nervous smile, “I really must apologise for my behaviour the other Friday. It was inexcusable…”

“No, please,” John held up his hands. “You have nothing to be sorry for. We’ve all been there, done that – it’s really not the end of the world. Please, forget about it.”

“Well, that’s just it – I can’t,” Violet bit her lip. She grabbed John’s arm and started to steer him towards the Coffee Shop at the back of the store.

“Violet, really, you don’t have to…” John protested weakly.

“Don’t tell me you actually want to walk back to the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage in that?” she said, gesturing to the rain falling in stair rods outside. John looked back at the shop door and sighed inwardly. He turned back to Violet and bowed his head slightly.

“Lead on,” he told her. With a faint smile, she did.

 

John had to confess, it was warmer, cosier and a good deal more pleasant drinking tea and eating homemade shortbread with Violet than fighting his way back to the cottage through the rain. Her pained embarrassment had thawed somewhat after she had poured the tea and she was able to conduct a reasonably cheerful conversation.

“I’m sorry to railroad you, John,” Violet said finally, “but although I was very drunk and behaved abominably, I remember everything that happened – unfortunately!”

“Violet,” John brushed his fingers over her hand in an automatic gesture of sympathy, “we’ve been over this already; you have nothing to apologise for.” He remembered where he was, who he was with, and gently withdrew his hand before she could hold on to it.

However, Violet did not seem to be interested in flirtation, nor was she particularly comforted by John’s forgiveness.

“The problem is,” she said awkwardly, “well, I’m normally a very honest person. I don’t like telling anything other than the absolute literal truth, I simply get confused otherwise; I forget what I’ve said to whom, and I nearly always get it terribly wrong.

“Anyway,” Violet continued, taking a gulp of tea, “I didn’t exactly tell you the truth about Alice.”

John felt his face freeze. “What do you mean?” he asked, trying to keep his tone neutral.

Violet was twisting a ring round and round her right ring finger. “I was jealous of her, that’s the nub of it,” she said, all in a rush, “We all were, all of us, the teenage girls in Orlington. Alice was just too beautiful. Everyone wanted her, but there was no question of her playing the field. I might have implied otherwise on Friday, but I was drunk and I was lying. Alice was a good girl and when she met Sherrinford, well, that was it for her; he was the love of her life.” Violet breathed out abruptly and stared down at the table.

John stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Okay,” he said slowly, something beginning to take shape in his mind, “and how did Sherlock react to that, do you know?”

“Oh, Sherlock wasn’t pleased at all,” Violet replied, “not one bit.”

John nodded. “He wanted her for himself?” he ventured, “Thought she’d chosen the wrong brother, that kind of thing?”

Violet stared at John for a moment with wide eyes then stifled a small giggle, putting a hand over her mouth. John frowned then raised his eyebrows at her questioningly.

Violet sighed and smiled. “Do you mean to say you lived with Sherlock for two years and you didn’t know?” she replied incredulously. John shook his head, mystified.

“Sherlock wasn’t straight, John,” Violet told him gently, "He wasn't even bi - he was gay."

John shook his head. “Violet, I assure you that Sherlock wasn’t …”

“Trust me, John,” Violet laid her hand briefly over John’s on the table top, “I was there; Sherlock never looked at a woman in his young life. He dated a few boys on the quiet, but things weren’t as tolerant as they are today, particularly for someone in his position, and he had to be very discreet. However, I knew a bit more about his exploits than most, largely because one of them worked at the Centre for some years.

“No, Sherlock wasn’t jealous of Sherrinford,” Violet continued over John’s stunned silence, “He was jealous of Alice.”

John’s eyebrows practically hit his hairline; Alice shook her head frantically. “No, no,” she told him in alarm, “Nothing improper, I swear. The twins were just very, very close and while Sherrinford was growing up to be a normal human being, Sherlock seemed to be a late-developer in many ways.”

John raked a hand through his hair. “Along with a number of other things,” he muttered. He picked up his cup and drained off the now cold tea.

“Okay,” he said, steepling his fingers unconsciously, then unfolding them and settling his hands flat on the table. “Okay, so Alice and Sherrinford were love’s young dream. Alright, so where does Terry Smithson fit in?”

Violet shrugged indifferently. “Oh, he played himself up as something special in her eyes,” she replied, “but the truth was she was just too nice to tell him to get lost. He was creepy.” She shivered and reached for the teapot. “You know she disappeared that night, don’t you?” she said anxiously.

John nodded. “Yes,” he replied, “you told me that.” He held his cup out for more tea.

“Well,” Violet continued, pouring obediently, “I happen to know that it was Terry Smithson who put it about that she ran off with another man, an outsider. I’d always thought that he was trying to save face, but lately I’ve wondered whether he didn’t know a bit more than he was letting on.”

John frowned. “Like what?” he asked.

Violet shrugged. “I don’t really have anything concrete to go on,” she replied, “It’s just that – well, Terry was always a bit strange, gave me the shivers. Alice was nice to him just like she was to everyone – even Sherlock – but Terry was just, well, odd. He was always creeping around, watching people; he knew everything about everyone, all the gossip, who was interested in whom – everything. It made you wonder whether he hadn’t got some sort of… blackmail racket going or something.”

“Hmm,” John rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “Violet, this is all very interesting indeed. Now, think carefully: do you have any reason, any reason at all, to believe that Terry Smithson would have wanted to harm Alice in any way?”

“To harm her?” Violet pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, John,” she replied, “No. Really, the only person who had any possible reason to wish Alice harm was… Sherlock.”

 

John mulled over Violet’s words as he made his damp, squelchy way back to the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage. He hung his outerwear in the hall, set his muddy boots to dry in the porch and took a hot shower. Later, wearing tracksuit bottoms and an old sweatshirt, steaming mug of tea in hand, John lit a fire in the grate, this time with properly dried, seasoned wood, and sat on the sofa watching it take while he finished his tea.

Somehow, when John turned at the soft sounds behind him, he was unsurprised to find Sherrinford standing in the living room.

John raised his tea mug. “There’s some still in the pot if you want it,” he said making no move to get up.

Sherrinford shook his head and walked slowly over to John. “I’ve come to apologise,” he said quietly.

John nodded. “Yes,” he replied simply.

“I shouldn’t have left you,” Sherrinford continued, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, a gesture John was coming to recognise as Sherrinford being awkward. “I circled round and came back to make sure you’d got out of the woods okay. I wouldn’t have abandoned you, honestly.”

“No, I don’t think you would,” John said. He gestured to the sofa but Sherrinford sank to his knees on the rug in front of John.

“Why did you…” John began but found his words stolen away as without permission or preamble, Sherrinford kissed him.

John raised his arms helplessly, one hand still holding the mug of tea. God, the strangeness of it all, Sherrinford’s unmistakeable maleness (John found it astonishing that he was only just now addressing that particular question), the lack of any information or explanation. The kiss was warm, easy; John returned it as best he could, his arms still hanging in the air. He felt like a wild animal, easily startled and uncertain which way he was going to jump.

With a final caress to John’s lower lip, Sherrinford pulled away, his eyes huge and black.

“I’m sorry, John,” he said sincerely. “It’s just that I… wasn’t expecting you, this.”

John frowned, suddenly struck by a thought. “Have you never been with a man before then?” he asked. Sherrinford shook his head slowly.

John let out an explosive sigh. “And here was me thinking I was the only new kid on the block,” he said with a cracked laugh. Relief coursed through him bringing with it the sudden desire to giggle.

Sherrinford lowered his eyes, dark lashes sweeping downwards. Shaking his head, John smiled feeling the tension ooze out of his muscles. He didn’t understand his sudden light-heartedness at the notion of Sherrinford’s inexperience; he should be far more worried at the potential for disaster between two novices. He placed his mug carefully on the coffee table and held out his arms. “Come on, then,” he said, “Let’s try this thing out, see if we can get it to fly.”

“Fly?” Sherrinford sounded puzzled, but he moved into John’s embrace readily enough.

John shrugged. “Just a saying,” he replied. He smoothed Sherrinfords curls away where they tickled his nose. “You know – Wilbur and Orville Wright when they built the first successful aeroplane?”

Sherrinford still seemed mystified and just for a moment, John wondered if Sherlock’s ability to delete things he considered irrelevant was an inherited ability rather than a learned skill.

Hesitantly, John ran his lips down Sherrinford’s long neck towards his shoulder, biting gently at the tendon. Sherrinford shivered and raised his hands to John’s face, caressing his jaw with the thumbs. “Okay,” he whispered into John’s mouth.

It was amazing, John thought. A small detached part of him hovered above the two of them as they began this unfamiliar dance, uncertainly at first then with growing confidence. Amazing – and slightly scary to feel smooth, hard muscle beneath hands more accustomed to softness and curves. Sherrinford’s big, lush mouth engulfed John’s own, his lips firmer and more solid than they looked. The unfamiliar scrape of beard stubble made John wonder how he would explain away the burn the following day.

John ran his tongue carefully around the edges of Sherrinford’s lips, feeling the prickle as he traced the outlines. He skimmed his fingers lightly over Sherrinford’s torso, feeling the flat planes of his muscles over far-too prominent rib bones.

“You’re like a washboard,” John complained, tumbling the other man over on his back and pulling up the hem of his tee shirt to take a closer look. “If I had sticks, I could play the xylophone on your ribs.”

“Are you criticising my body?” Sherrinford demanded. He gave a choked-off gasp as John’s questing lips found a nipple. “If you want to get laid sometime today, John, I’m not sure that insulting me is the best way to go about it.”

John giggled then smothered the sound in Sherrinford’s stomach. Sherrinford twisted, trying to wriggle away. “Ticklish!” he gasped. John grabbed his hips to quiet him, thumbs pressing into the depressions of his pelvic bones, and held him still while he licked into his navel.

“Oh, god!” Sherrinford whispered, his voice catching, “Please, John. Oh, please!”

Reaching for the buckle of Sherrinford’s belt, John swallowed nervously. They had reached the point of no return as he saw it; after this, there really was no going back. He carefully threaded the leather through the metal clasp and reached for the fly.

Sherrinford’s jeans had no zip. John was immensely relieved; the last thing he wanted while he was this nervous was to fumble with something potentially disastrous. He fought down an insane urge to giggle again and slowly unfastened the buttons.

“Lift,” John whispered as he pulled at the waistband. No underpants again, John's brain once more supplied; I suppose Mrs Webster must look after his laundry somehow. It must be a bit of a problem though... John's train of thought abruptly derailed as without hesitation, Sherrinford raised himself sufficiently for John to pull his clothing away, follow it down Sherrinford’s long, long legs and off. Clambering back up, John stared, took a deep breath and gave a nervous cough.

Sherrinford’s eyes glittered in the firelight. “You don’t have to, John,” he whispered, “You really don’t, but if you can… if you can…”

John looked back down, his brain yammering nineteen to the dozen in protest as he methodically prepared to overturn thirty-nine years of contented heterosexuality in one breath. The voices in his head reached a crescendo then suddenly fell silent as John leaned forward and opened his mouth.

He would think about this later, John decided as he sucked curiously, learning new textures and flavours, discovering what worked by watching and listening. Sherrinford made a sudden high-pitched sound and his body twisted convulsively at the first touch of John’s lips; John shifted his bodyweight over Sherrinford’s thighs to hold him down as he thrashed about, sobbed and swore in a breathless whisper. John hung on grimly as the other man’s cries grew more anguished, intensifying his efforts until his jaw ached and his neck was seizing up.

Sherrinford struggled into a sitting position and grabbed John’s head, pulling him off before he could finish. Sherrinford gripped himself and squeezed hard, gasping with the effort. “Sorry,” he murmured, “I was quicker off the mark than I realised.”

John rocked back on his heels, panting shallowly. “What on earth did you do that for?” he demanded, “I was ready for you, I wanted to!” Absently, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

Sherrinford ran a pink tongue over his swollen bottom lip; John could see pinpricks of blood where teeth had broken the skin. Sherrinford stared at John’s mouth, his eyes so dark in the firelight John could hardly see any colour in them at all.

“You don’t know how arousing that is,” Sherrinford said slowly, “watching your mouth, knowing where it was a moment ago.” His voice was harsh with sex and his face was open and unguarded; he looked absurdly young.

Shrugging off his tee shirt, Sherrinford stood, naked as a needle, and held out a hand to John. “Can we go to your bedroom?” he asked. “I want to do this properly, on something that won’t be too uncomfortable to collapse on once we’re done.”

John looked up at him and grasped the offered hand without hesitation. “It’s your bedroom too,” he replied, perfectly truthfully.

Sherrinford smiled. “Go on up,” he said softly. “I’ll bank the fire.”

 

John woke slowly with the feeling that he was crawling sluggishly out of a deep, soft, comfortable well filled with molasses. He stretched languidly, wincing as sore muscles and bruises made their presence felt; a smile crept over his face as he remembered just how he had got them.

He stuck a foot over to the other side of the double bed, finding the sheets cold. Sherrinford must have left some time ago then. John was slightly disappointed but, if he were honest, not exactly surprised. Opening his eyes, he glanced at the clock and did a double-take, realising that he had slept most of the morning away. A glance out of the window revealed a dark sky, grey with rain.

John leaned back in the bed, put his arms above his head and prepared to conduct a post-mortem.

For a previously straight man, John thought, Sherrinford had proved a surprisingly adept and skilful lover. Once he had overcome his diffidence, his energy and inventiveness had been both electrifying and exhausting. John had spent whole nights without sleep before, but only in his teens and early twenties. Sherrinford had managed to coax response after response out of him, well into the small hours of the morning, until they sank at last into an exhausted doze only to turn to one another once again, hunger reawakening, as the early morning light filtered through the curtains.

He had lusted after this man since he first set eyes on him, John acknowledged, wanting him for his gentleness, his compassion and his intelligence, but there was no escaping the fact that the attraction was heightened by familiarity and Sherrinford’s inevitable resemblance to Sherlock – to dead Sherlock, whom John had loved.

Okay, time to finally bite that particularly bitter bullet. John turned over and propped his head on one elbow.

Sherlock, the ever-present ghost; salvager of lost vitality, architect of unorthodoxy, purveyor of the very stuff of life and, yes, awakener of John’s long-suppressed bisexuality.

John sighed. Sherlock and sex – honestly, it was a no-brainer, and John had never had any real hope. How surprising was it, then, that he would fall straight into bed with the first person who reminded him of Sherlock? That this person happened to be Sherlock’s brother was just further proof that the universe was out to get him. John scrubbed his palms over his face as his brain helpfully threw up full sense memories of the previous night’s activities.

The first time, Sherrinford had used his hand, staring intently into John’s face the whole while, reading every fleeting expression and feeding it back into his working. John had flailed and fought, he had sworn and wrung the sheets and pounded his hands hard against the wall. When he came, it was like a river bursting its banks, releasing all the pent up love, sorrow and frustration he had kept locked away for so long inside the cage of his mind.

And John had cried. Shaking helplessly with grief and need, John had vented all the misery and heartache he had held back for so long, and Sherrinford had held him through it, murmuring quietly and rubbing circles into his back until his sobs quietened and his trembling died away.

“He didn’t deserve your love, John,” Sherrinford whispered, the stubble around his upper lip scratching the edge of John’s ear, “Maybe it’s not the done thing to badmouth your brother, but Sherlock would have thrown you away as soon as you were past your sell-by date.”

John frowned and turned his head. “What?” he said fuzzily.

John felt Sherrinford smile. “As soon as he got bored with you,” he replied, “Sherlock’s interest in people was always based on how much use they could be to him. No one ever stayed the course.”

John had stirred a bit at this. He wiped his face on the top sheet and sighed quietly. “Okay, Sherlock could be a bastard,” he replied steadily, “but he was my friend and I will never believe that he lied to me. I know what I know.”

Sherrinford had made no further comment, just gathered John into his arms, spooning up behind him and holding him tightly, proof against the world.

“Sherlock just wasn’t interested in sex or relationships,” John continued, absently patting Sherrinford’s hand. “He told me so during our first case together. Married to his work, he said; you can’t get much more uninterested than that.”

Sherrinford smiled; John felt him shaking his head as if pondering the nature of his dead brother. “Many years ago,” Sherrinford said thoughtfully, “Sherlock made a passing comment that I found quite amusing. He said he had been wondering if he was actually straight, but the vapidity and continual chatter of the women he had encountered turned him off before he could consider the possibility of bedding them.”

John chuckled and nuzzled the pillow to cure an itch in his nose. “That sounds like the Sherlock I knew,” he said, the words slurred with sleep. He pulled Sherrinford’s arms more firmly around his waist and started to drift off.

“I reckon he just thinks too much to let his body tell him what it wants,” Sherrinford said thoughtfully just as John tumbled into oblivion.

 

John levered himself out of bed and under the shower, scrubbing at his scalp and working the flannel hard against his chest. Everything was oddly normal, just the same as yesterday; he felt somehow resentful of that, cheated as though his skin and his body should reflect the sea change that his mind was taking its time coming to grips with in some concrete fashion.

He towelled off equally roughly and wiped condensation off the mirror with the side of his hand. He examined himself critically in the wet surface, but the same old John Watson peered back at him. John gave it up as a bad job; he had never been good at ashes or hair shirts.

Chapter Text

John was finishing a well-deserved mid-morning cup of coffee together with some very nice gingerbread men left for him the previous day by Mrs Webster, when he was disturbed by a knock on the door.

Instantly, John’s antennae started broadcasting. The maid wasn’t due until tomorrow, Mrs Webster never called personally but used the internal phone and as for Sherrinford – well, he would already be in the kitchen raiding the biscuit tin by now.

John padded to the door in bare feet. Standing on the threshold was a young man, scarcely more than a boy really, who introduced himself as Mart, the Gardener’s Apprentice. To John’s initial consternation and later extreme amusement, the boy touched his cap respectfully and handed John a small, folded piece of paper affixed with a miniature wax seal.

It took John a moment after breaking the seal and reading it to realise what this was about. The note was from Mycroft inviting John to join him for tea at three o’clock the same afternoon. When John enquired, the boy politely informed him that the Earl was indeed in residence today, had arrived this morning, in fact. John re-read the message; yes, this was a summons not a request.

He looked up to meet Mart’s expectant gaze. “The Earl said there would be a reply,” the boy said worriedly.

John smiled tightly. “Just a moment,” he said, going back into the kitchen in search of a pen. In the end, he could only find the stub of a pencil. He turned Mycroft’s impeccably handwritten note over and scrawled: SEE YOU THEN-J on the back. Refolding the note haphazardly, he passed it to the boy who touched his cap once again and left at a fast lope.

John shook his head; another world indeed.

 

Three o’clock found John tramping up the path to the Great House wondering what was expected of him now. Earlier, he resisted the temptation to change into something smarter and merely settled for putting on socks and shoes. Mycroft may be the Earl and therefore his host, but John was not going to be cowed into any kind of submission.

He was received by Mycroft himself, furled umbrella and all, in his office, not in the Breakfast Room.

“John,” Mycroft beamed, advancing with outstretched hand, “Lovely to see you looking so well. I declare the Scottish air agrees with you; you must have put on at least five pounds.”

“All muscle, I assure you,” John replied, grinning toothily and wringing Mycroft's hand rather more strongly than usual, just to make the point.

“Ah, the invaluable Mrs Webster and her trusty kitchen staff,” Mycroft said jovially. “What would we do without them? Now, tell me John, what have you been doing with your time while you have been here? Have you found the cottage comfortable? What do you think of the local beer?”

They made polite, desultory conversation for a few minutes around the topics of the Estate, the staff, the village and the local people. John kept it going as best he could but began to feel he had been set up when Mycroft seemed to know without being told all about his disastrous date with Violet Hunter.

“Violet is the daughter of one of my neighbours,” Mycroft said smoothly. “Her father still owns the Estate House – it’s just on the edge of Orlington, about a mile and a half south east from here.”

“Yes,” John replied, “she told me he’d had some bad luck and your father bought him out. Bit of a shame.”

“Indeed,” Mycroft returned. He grimaced slightly, showing his teeth in a less than encouraging smile. “Violet is a pleasant woman,” he continued, his tone careful and slightly reluctant, “but her family situation is, ah, rather unfortunate. While her father lives, she is still at liberty to reside in the family home. Once he dies, however, his creditors will sell off the property and its adjoining land.”

“And I suppose you will be first in the queue,” John replied.

Mycroft arched an eyebrow. “I shall certainly make my interest known,” he said. “John, I am merely warning you against any kind of, ah, liaison with Violet. She may seem like a suitable match but I’m afraid her financial situation is parlous.”

“If I were seriously interested in her, that would scarcely matter,” John replied with some heat. “Mycroft, we’re not living in the eighteenth century here, you know.”

“You would be surprised how slowly things change in these small communities,” Mycroft told him. He shifted around in his chair and steepled his fingers in an alarmingly familiar gesture.

“However,” Mycroft continued, opening a slim file precisely lined up on the blotter, “I did not travel all the way from Westminster by helicopter merely to police your sex life. I have news, John. Read this.”

He handed John a printout of an email addressed to Inspector Lestrade (John winced at the reminder of the man’s demotion), copied, to John’s sudden horror, to Mycroft Holmes at his private email.

Mycroft acknowledged John’s incredulous look with a shrug. “That address has long been superseded,” he replied to the unspoken question. “I suspect he obtained it from James Moriarty’s files.”

Wide-eyed, John bent his head to read the text. To his astonishment, it referred to him, John Watson, by name. The writer admitted to instigating the assault that had nearly killed John and, by way of proof, gave details of his injuries down to the last bruise, stating that the attack was successful and wholly intentional. It was signed Colonel Sebastian Moran.

“Who,” John demanded putting down the printout, “the hell is this Moran?”

“He was Moriarty’s henchman,” Mycroft replied, “His second in command.” He leaned into his chair and rested his arm over the back.

“Moran has had an interesting if chequered career,” Mycroft began in a didactic tone. “He was cashiered from the British army for torturing Iraqi prisoners in Kuwait in 1991. He then became a mercenary, on hire by whomever for whatever, just so long as it was well paid and dangerous. We know he was in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994; we don’t know exactly what he was doing out there, but we can make an educated guess. He disappeared off the map in 2005; presumably that was when Moriarty got wind of him.”

“So we’re looking for both of them now, are we?” John asked.

Mycroft gave him a pitying look. “John,” he said quietly, “James Moriarty is dead. He shot himself through the head at point-blank range on the roof of St Bartholomew's hospital. At least, that’s what we think happened.”

John stared. “You mean…” he began.

Mycroft nodded impatiently. “Yes, indeed,” he replied. “My little brother up to his tricks again,” He sighed, “Or not. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.”

John took a quick breath, expelled it just as quickly and then frowned. “Okay,” he said, “but why? Why did Moran target me?”

“Moriarty dreamed up this entire insane nightmare for no other reason than to discredit my brother,” Mycroft explained. “Sherlock’s death and disgrace were the whole point. However, Moriarty’s death wasn’t part of the original plan and Moran, in his one-track, military way, has concluded that Moriarty’s death means that my brother is still alive.”

John sat bolt upright. “But that’s…” he began.

“Insane. Yes, we know,” Mycroft interrupted, “but sanity is not currently one of Moran’s problems. The attack on you was supposed to flush Sherlock out.” Mycroft smiled ironically. “Moran never believed the party line in his life and he is not about to start now.”

John’s mouth worked but nothing came out. After giving him a moment to reply and concluding that he couldn’t, Mycroft continued.

“We know that Moran is somewhere in Europe,” Mycroft said composedly. “So far, Interpol has been unsuccessful in tracing him. Their last sighting was in Switzerland where he was believed to have been searching for Sherlock. He has now either gone to ground or has managed to evade any and all pursuit. Either conclusion is perfectly believable; our allies on the Continent can be just as incompetent as our own police force.”

Mycroft gave John a searching look. “You need to look to your laurels, Doctor Watson,” he said sombrely, “Orlington Park may not be the sanctuary either you or I imagine it to be.”

Abruptly, John’s mind flashed back to the grove of the orchids and he shivered involuntarily.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow. “Someone walking over your grave, Doctor Watson?” he remarked mildly.

John rose to his feet. “Are we done here?” he asked bluntly.

“Not quite,” Mycroft consulted a document on his blotter. “You would do well to take this threat seriously, John,” he continued without looking up. “I would like to extend to you the offer of a bodyguard while you are here.”

John was shaking his head almost before Mycroft had finished speaking. “No,” he replied firmly, “Absolutely not. Thank you anyway, but no.”

Mycroft looked up briefly and shrugged. “It’s your funeral, Doctor Watson,” he replied with a slight smirk at his own bad taste. He looked back at his document.

John frowned. “What I don’t understand,” he said scratching his head “is why you haven’t got your brother in on this.”

Mycroft raised his head very slowly. “I’m sorry, John?” he replied quietly and if John hadn’t known better, he would have sworn he could detect a hint of sympathy in Mycroft’s tone.

John shook his head impatiently. “No, your other brother,” he corrected.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow. “Sherrinford?” he offered, frowning slightly.

John nodded. “Unless there is a fourth Holmes I have yet to hear about,” he responded, drily.

Mycroft’s lips twitched very slightly. “So you’ve met my brother,” he said; it wasn’t a question.

John nodded. “In a manner of speaking, yes,” he replied.

Mycroft nodded. “News had filtered through to me that he had been seen on the Estate,” he said, “but not by whom.”

John gave Mycroft a hard stare. “I think there was every likelihood that it would be me, don’t you?” John said somewhat acidly, “Seeing as Sherrinford makes a habit of using the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage when he needs a roof over his head, something you unaccountably chose not to warn me about – thanks for that, Mycroft.”

Mycroft shrugged easily. “Usually only in winter, John,” he said, “otherwise he prefers to live out on the estate itself. He has the odd contact in the village but on the rare occasions he is at Orlington, he tends to spend his time on the land.”

Mycroft smiled and spread his hands. “Eccentric, I know, but we Holmeses have never been orthodox.”

Having known three Holmes brothers, this was in no way news to John.

“Look, Mycroft, Sherrinford has his ear to the ground,” John continued with a slight chuckle, “almost literally when it comes to the woods and fields. He could assist in securing the Estate by providing information neither the local police nor your Estate workers could have access to.”

When Mycroft didn’t react, John continued. “I know there’s been bad blood between you,” he said, more quietly, “and I don’t wish to pry, but I’ve seen him in action. He knows these parts like the proverbial back of his hand, and his woodcraft is far superior to mine, even when I was up to snuff. He’s really good.”

John shut his mouth with a snap, horrified to hear the ring of hero-worship in his own voice. Get a grip; you’re a thirty-nine year-old ex-army doctor not a blushing schoolboy.

Mycroft was silent for a beat or so and when he did speak, his tone was almost too casual. “You have been – associating with my younger brother, with Sherrinford Holmes?” he asked.

John shifted uncomfortably. “I’ve met him, yes,” he replied. “We’ve walked in the woods together; he taught me to split logs with an axe.”

It all sounded so adolescent now John put it into words. He straightened his spine and fixed Mycroft with a level stare.

Mycroft returned it expressionlessly. “How long have you been aware of Sherrinford’s presence on the Estate?” Mycroft demanded; he had gone very still.

“Pretty much since I moved into the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage,” John replied.

“I see,” Mycroft rose from the desk and started to walk slowly around it, tapping his bottom lip with his index finger, “And what, may I ask, have you been doing with my brother all this time, John?”

The unassuming question hung in the air between them. For one panicked moment, John’s mind skittered horribly over the possibility of surveillance cameras and audio devices. He immediately rejected the idea as unlikely, but the spike of adrenaline put him on the defensive.

“I could be wrong,” he said thoughtfully but with a ripple of underlying anger, “but I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“And indeed you are wrong, Doctor Watson,” Mycroft said, standing a mere two feet away from him. “Everything concerning my brother is my business, particularly now.”

“But not concerning me!” John flung back, stung. He stepped forward into Mycroft’s personal space; a flicker of something rippled across Mycroft’s face but he rapidly morphed it into an easy smile.

“John, John,” he said mock-admonishingly, “you are jumping to conclusions, as usual. I make neither accusations nor assumptions. I merely ask for a modicum of information in order to ensure your safety – where you met with him, the approximate geographical area, how often he stayed over with you at the cottage…”

Mycroft trailed off as John pushed an index finger almost to his nose; John noted the other man’s lack of immediate reaction to the gesture.

“I may be your guest here,” John began in a calmer tone, “I may be trespassing on your hospitality for my recovery, but that does not give you the right to police my every move.”

Righteous anger bubbled to the surface. “I am sick to death of your constant intervention,” John continued, his voice rising, “so you can take your insinuations and your stupid, invasive questions and shove them!”

John turned on his heel and marched out, heedless of his direction and with no idea where he wanted to go. Eventually, he stormed off back to the cottage, hoping against hope that he would find Sherrinford once again drinking beer outside.

The cottage was cold and unwelcoming and John’s tea tasted sour. He pottered about the place for the rest of the day, unwilling to admit that he was waiting for Sherrinford. Finally, at midnight, John decided to call it a day and went to bed, but sleep was elusive. He spent the night tossing and turning and his dreams were formless, anxious things of pursuit and forest noises.

 

John was woken the following morning by a banging on the door of the cottage early. He staggered out of bed, shoved his feet into his slippers and scrambled down the stairs, struggling to pull on his dressing gown over his pyjamas. Blearily, he opened the door to find a man in a chauffeur’s uniform standing respectfully on the step. He handed John a letter and stood, clearly awaiting a response.

The letter was from Mycroft Holmes; it was dated the previous day. John gave a tiny sigh and began to read:

My Dear Doctor Watson,

I apologise for not delivering this message in person but urgent business calls me back to Westminster immediately.

I trust you will forgive my presumption in arranging for your immediate removal back to Baker Street. In a nutshell, Colonel Sebastian Moran has been sighted at Dover; he entered the country on a false passport and has since gone to ground somewhere in England.

The local police in the environs of my ancestral home are competent at dealing with traffic offenses but almost completely unused to the ways of mercenaries and professional assassins. In addition, we have no way of knowing whether or not Moran is now aware of your presence on the Estate. Arranging protection for you will be infinitely easier at Baker Street. My chauffeur will give you bona fides that this message is genuine.

Mycroft Holmes

Seeing that John had finished reading, the uniformed man returned and slipped something into John’s nerveless hand. He looked down, totally at a loss, and took in a black smartphone with a keyboard embellished with gold. He blinked stupidly then suddenly his brain seemed to gather itself with a rush of noise between his ears: Irene Adler’s cameraphone. Where in the world did Mycroft…?

“Sir?” the chauffeur said quietly.

Still staring at the phone, John was assaulted by a jumble of complicated emotions. He took an unconscious step out of the cottage, looked around, down at his pyjama trousers and slippers, and frowned.

The chauffeur shook his head. “As you are, sir,” he replied impassively. “All your possessions will be forwarded as soon as possible.”

John sighed; sometimes in his association with the Holmes family, he felt like he had strayed inadvertently through the Looking Glass.

John dozed on and off through the journey back to London. The car was opulent, leather-upholstered, equipped with computers, screens and a cocktail cabinet. John ignored them all, gazing sightlessly out of the windows, drifting in and out of sleep until the car drew up outside 221 Baker Street.

Mrs Hudson had clearly been advised of John’s return because he scarcely recognised the Baker Street flat, it was so clean and tidy. Later, he learned that Mycroft had arranged for a retainer to be paid in John’s absence; Mrs Hudson had used it to engage a team of contract cleaners and kept her head down.

 

John’s feelings about his return were very mixed. His departure was so sudden that he had no chance to say goodbye to any of the friends and acquaintances he had made at Orlington. Having not seen Sherrinford since their – well, their encounter, John was certain that the man would assume John was having second thoughts. John sighed; it seemed unlikely that he and Sherrinford’s paths would ever cross again unless John took the initiative. Considering the other man’s crazy, unorthodox lifestyle, predicting his presence on the Estate would be a challenge John might not be up to meeting. Also, John could not see how he would be likely or able to find him if Sherrinford did not wish to be found. And in view of the present circumstances, this was all too likely.

John’s sense of regret prodded him into action. Over the next fortnight, he spent some considerable time trying to locate Sherrinford Holmes. Searching the web for him proved fruitless, even when coupled with “location scout” or “marine biologist”. Sherrinford was certainly listed amongst the Brookes alumni and he had a Masters’ from the University of California, Berkeley, but after that the trail petered out. It was only when it occurred to John that after his falling-out with Sherlock, Sherrinford might choose to steer clear of using the family name, that he eventually changed the search parameters.

A Cowan Sherrinford was credited as cameraman on a series of marine documentaries produced for Cornell University in Iowa. A Google search on the name brought up a modest portfolio of work, largely educational but including a couple of productions for network television. Cowan was listed as resident in California but his details were vague and there was no photograph available.

John gave up; he also went back to work. Sarah was sympathetic to his plight and receptive to his need for shifts. It also did his credentials no harm that Sherlock was no longer around to drag him away at a moment’s notice. John worked hard, putting in all the hours he was contracted for and more. The longer he was away from Baker Street, the easier it was to cope with everything that had happened. The harder he worked, the closer to peaceful sleep he could get; it was a reasonable trade.

Eventually, Sarah stepped in again and ordered John to take a weekend off. After offering token resistance, John spent the next eighteen hours largely unconscious. Eventually, hunger and boredom drove him downstairs to the living room where he sat on the sagging sofa watching bad television, no longer feeling exhausted, just pleasantly drowsy after a curry and a beer or two.

His long convalescence away from London seemed to have given John the perspective to start making some decisions. Snagging the newspaper and a pen from the coffee table, he began to take some notes:

Revamp CV – he really should start looking for something permanent. Locum work was all very well, but now he was unlikely to be chasing over London at all hours of the day, he could afford to take on a job with a more regular structure. That way he could actually start to build something of a social life, maybe.

Enrol at a local gym – the outdoorsy life and the exercise at Orlington made John take stock of his physical condition. He had put on some weight and regained strength; now he should capitalise on it.

Touch base with Molly – and Stamford and Lestrade too. It had been far too long since their last proper night out, and Molly really had to get over herself. John had always liked her, had thought of her as a friend. He had tried to take her out on a casual basis but since Sherlock, she seemed to scuttle away every time he was around. He always had the illogical feeling she was avoiding him.

Plans for the rest of his life; it all sounded so bleak. Pushing the thought aside, John took down a few more ideas then yawned widely.

Find Alice Rucastle

This notion took him right back to Orlington Park. John decided to call it a day. The curtains were open onto the street; he couldn’t be bothered to close them. He gave up on The Italian Job and elected to turn in. He left the newspaper and his empty glass on the coffee table, intending to dispose of them in the morning, threw on his pyjamas and fell instantly into a dreamless sleep.

 

John was snatched back into full wakefulness in the small hours of the morning, confused and uncertain as to what had disturbed him. A muffled curse from the living room had him sliding his hand beneath the top drawer of his bedside cabinet to where his Browning was taped onto the underside. Heart hammering, he fished the magazine out of his sock drawer and made his way stealthily onto the landing. From the living room, John could hear hoarse breathing interspersed with the occasional murmured word and felt something icy cold creep up his spine. With a sudden, inexplicable certainty, he snaked out a hand and snapped on the light. There was a moment of total silence, and then John raised the barrel of his handgun, engaged the safety and ejected the magazine into his left hand, pocketing it.

Sherlock was crouched over the upturned coffee table holding his own wrist. Blood dripped from his hand onto the jagged surface of a broken glass.

Chapter Text

John’s grip on reality was slowly turning itself inside out – or was it actually righting itself after a long time out of balance? He had no idea. Dropping the Browning onto the armchair, John advanced on Sherlock, gesturing with his hand.

“Come on,” he said, clicking his fingers impatiently, “That’s a nasty cut. What did you do? Smash the glass and then fall on the shards? I imagine your full weight must have been on that hand when you went down.”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock said in a low voice.

“No, it isn’t,” John replied mildly but insistently. “It’s very far from fine – there’s a bloody great chunk of glass buried in the muscle for a start. You’re going to need several things for that including a couple of stitches.”

“You can do that for me here, can’t you?” Sherlock protested.

“Yes,” John nodded, examining the wound critically, “but when was the last time you had an anti-tetanus shot, eh?” He stared coldly at Sherlock who shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sherlock insisted.

John set his jaw. “Yes, it bloody does!” he ground out. “Now, you can let me do my job and see to this properly or watch while I lose it completely and beat hell out of you – I’m not kidding, Sherlock!”

Sherlock rolled his eyes and sighed in an exaggerated fashion.

“Alright,” he replied. “Where do you want me? In the kitchen?”

“I think that would be best, yes,” John replied. “Now, you can help me here; wrap your hand in a clean tea towel and spray some Dettox over the kitchen table while I go and get my bag, will you?”

John turned on his heel and marched back up to his bedroom without a backward glance. He felt fairly sure Sherlock would obey him, but right at this moment he didn’t really care one way or the other. As soon as his door had closed, John fell to his knees on the carpet, gasping and scrubbing his hands repeatedly over his face. He shook his head violently.

“God, god!” he whispered into the void opening up in front of him. What was this? Some kind of hallucination? Had he been drugged? Had Mycroft had him Sectioned? His ears rang and he swallowed frantically, trying hard not to gag. This was insane; it couldn’t be happening, not after everything he had been through.

Digging his fingernails into the palms of his hands, John forced himself to slow down and breathe normally. Whatever was going on, wallowing like this was not going to help. After a while he got up, fished out his doctor’s bag from beside his chest of drawers and went back downstairs.

Sherlock was still there, real and solid as he had been earlier. He looked up as John came in the kitchen and smiled ironically.

“I see you've got over your panic attack,” he said drily. He had cleaned and disinfected the table and was poking with interest at the shard of glass sticking out of his hand.

John slapped his fingers away with rather more force than was strictly necessary. “Don’t mess with that, you’ll just add the bacteria on your skin to the cocktail that’s already in there,” he said in a deceptively mild tone when Sherlock looked up in surprise. “Now, hold your hand supine, please, and spread your fingers.”

John snapped on some latex gloves, set out forceps, surgical alcohol and cotton wool and turned Sherlock’s hand over, assessing the damage. He removed the glass splinters carefully, swabbed the wound with alcohol and informed Sherlock that in his professional opinion he would live to fight another day.

“You need to get down to the local surgery first thing tomorrow for a tetanus jab,” John warned as he prepared a local anaesthetic and some sutures. “You’d find a resurrection after full-blown lockjaw a bit more difficult than after jumping off a roof, I imagine.”

The silence that followed was tense; John felt Sherlock’s speculative gaze on him as he put in three textbook stitches with perfectly steady hands. He kept his eyes firmly on his work.

“Keep it still,” John ordered as he taped a Melolin pad over the wound. “Try not to put any strain on the stitches. I’ll check it for infection later and maybe change the dressing to Tegaderm.” John moved away to clear his equipment and supplies.

Sherlock flexed his hand in exactly the manner he had just been told not to and cleared his throat self-consciously. “John,” he began, “I realise I owe you an explanation.”

“Too bloody right you do!” The sudden flare of anger was quickly tamped down. John clenched his teeth and turned away to clean his forceps.

Sherlock sighed. “This is ridiculous,” he said petulantly. “I can scarcely enlighten you satisfactorily if you’re going to jump down my throat every time I speak.”

John didn’t trust himself to reply to that. For lack of anything else to do, he reached for the kettle, wrapping his dressing gown tightly around himself, more for reassurance than warmth. While the water boiled, John sneaked several quick glances at Sherlock, realising that the man was even thinner than he had been six months before. His clothes hung off him loosely and he looked curiously unkempt; not exactly scruffy but somehow feral, as though staying alive for the past six months had really taken it out of him.

Making an impatient noise, Sherlock got to his feet and started to pace the flat, moving John’s armchair an inch or so to the left, picking up the skull and meeting its empty eye sockets with a smirk. When he pulled the dagger out of the Monopoly board, it fell to the floor with a crash making John jump hard enough to jog his elbow as he poured water on the tea.

“Stop breaking up the place, Sherlock,” he replied, more angrily than he had intended, “You don’t live here anymore.”

“I beg to disagree,” Sherlock replied with dignity.

John’s hand paused in the act of removing a teabag. “What do you mean?” he demanded.

Sherlock shrugged, glancing over a gas bill plucked from behind the shadow box on the mantel. “Where do you imagine I have been living for the past three months?” he replied without looking up.

John’s hand, currently involved in stirring his tea, slowed then stopped. He removed the spoon, rinsed it under the tap and placed it carefully on the draining board.

“What did you just say?” he asked, his voice very quiet.

“I said I’ve been living here.” Sherlock had picked up John’s newspaper and was reading his notes from yesterday with a critical frown.

“Living here? In the flat?” John continued in the same quiet tone.

“Yes, of course, John, where else?” Sherlock snapped back glancing up sharply.

John placed his tea on the table. He gave a weak chuckle. “Sherlock, don’t you think you might have thought to give me some kind of heads up on this?” he began, wiping his palms on his pyjama pants.

Sherlock frowned. “I’m sorry?” he said, shaking his head slightly, clearly puzzled.

John gave a sigh and smiled faintly, shaking his head. He squared his shoulders. “I mean,” he continued, “You were dead, I saw it happen. I buried you, I coped with the fallout.”

John turned away and raised his eyes to the ceiling as he drew breath. “And you claim you were here all the time,” he finished. His fingers curled reflexively into his palms.

Sherlock sniffed. “Seeing as my brother has been paying the rent for the past six months,” he commented with haughty disdain, “I fail to see how you can justify getting on your high horse.”

Sherlock jabbed a finger at John’s notes on the newspaper. “Molly’s been avoiding you because she was part of the deception, John. Keeping a secret this long was always going to be difficult for someone of her emotional incontinence, but I had little choice at the time.”

Sherlock bared his teeth at John in a mirthless grin. “She kept away so she could keep it in,” he said succinctly. “I have to hand it to her; she did reasonably well under difficult circumstances.”

John blinked, frowned and coughed. “Molly…” he began, and tried again. “Molly knew? Molly? For god’s sake Sherlock, why? How?”

“The answers to both those questions, John, are tedious and complex in the extreme,” Sherlock said, still reading John’s notes, “and you would oblige me greatly if you could cease harping on the subject until such time as I can state with confidence that you, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson are, and will continue to be, safe from Moriarty’s legacy.”

“Moriarty… Moriarty’s what? Sherlock, I only learned that he was dead the other day; that he died on the roof at St Barts the same day you-you jumped off it!” John thrust his hands into his hair.

Sherlock finally looked up from the newspaper. “John, don’t be boring,” he said impatiently. “Of course Moriarty is dead; someone had to be buried in my coffin after all, and better my arch-nemesis than some John Doe off the street. Molly fixed it.” He frowned and pointed at John’s list. “Why do you want to find Alice Rucastle?”

A red mist descended over John’s sight. When it cleared, he was standing over Sherlock’s supine form breathing hard, his fists clenched tight. “Dammit!” he shouted, shaking out his suddenly painful right hand.

Sherlock looked up at him from the floor. “Next time remember not to tuck your thumb in,” he said, pressing careful fingers gingerly to his bruised jawbone. “Ah,” he said with satisfaction, “not broken – good.”

John gritted his teeth. “One more word,” he said, “just one more, Sherlock, and I will do it again. And again, and again – do you hear me?”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows and held up both hands palms outermost; he locked eyes with John. “Noted,” he replied quietly. “May I get up now?”

John spun on his heel and walked over to the window. He stared out sightlessly at the empty street. A few moments later, he heard Sherlock come up quietly behind him.

“I only lived up here during your hospitalisation and convalescence, John,” Sherlock said. “On the odd occasions I was in London during the three months prior to the attack on you, I used my other boltholes and occasionally a hotel; it was too risky to come here. The rest of the time, I was abroad, gradually tracking down the three hired snipers who had been employed to take you, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson out if I did not commit suicide publicly and convincingly.”

“Snipers?” John whispered.

Sherlock nodded seriously. “I couldn’t return until they had been traced and neutralised,” he continued, “and one of them is still at large. It pains me to admit it, but the assistance I received from my brother Mycroft in this matter has proved invaluable. However, even he has his limitations.”

John stared then compressed his lips in a hard line. “Mycroft,” he said. His voice was stony, “Mycroft and Molly – I might have guessed, but I didn’t.”

“I had to have assistance, John,” Sherlock replied, “and neither of them was targeted; they were safe. However, the job is not yet finished.”

“Don’t tell me,” John snapped. “The one sniper still outstanding is Colonel Sebastian Moran, yes?”

Sherlock stared. “Indeed,” he replied after a beat. “Moran is something of a problem because he is not only an assassin but was Moriarty’s second. He has been stalking you but he now has other, bigger fish to fry.”

“Such as?” John demanded huskily.

Sherlock turned an expressionless face towards him. “Me,” he replied succinctly.

John nodded. Of course,

 

Morning brought a hasty phone call to the surgery claiming a sudden family emergency.

“That’s the big problem working with doctors,” John remarked to Sherlock as he hung up afterwards. “You can’t pretend you’re ill because they know only too well when someone’s swinging the lead.”

“Will that affect your future employment there?” Sherlock asked, minutely dissecting a piece of toast spread with marmite on the sofa.

“Probably,” John replied. “Look, don’t do that in here, Sherlock. Marmite is impossible to get out of upholstery.”

“Why do you care?” Sherlock replied without looking up.

John reached down, shoved the toast shreds back onto the plate and removed it. Sherlock looked up at him irritated.

“I care because I care,” John replied quietly. “You can’t change me and I won’t let you try.”

Sherlock stared back just a little too long before dropping his gaze. The swelling on his jaw was starting to develop a spectacular array of colourful bruises.

John sighed, refusing to let himself feel guilty. He glanced down at the living floor and frowned; around the sofa, strewn open and abandoned on the floor, was what looked like every medical textbook John owned.

John gestured helplessly with Sherlock’s plate, eyebrows almost meeting in the middle of his forehead with exasperation. “Have you forgotten or did you delete the conversation we had about personal property, Sherlock?” he said forcefully.

Sherlock shrugged. “I needed to look something up,” he replied, rising from the sofa and treading carelessly through the books on his way to the table.

“It didn’t occur to you to put them away?” John said, spreading his hands. Predictably, Sherlock ignored him, already distracted by something in the morning paper.

John sighed exaggeratedly, perched Sherlock’s plate on the sofa arm and went down on one knee to gather up his precious tomes.

“What did you want my Atlas of Forensic Pathology for?” John demanded, picking up the book from where it had been left open, face down.

“What?” Sherlock said, looking up. He made a brief motion of dismissal. “I didn’t want it, not as such, but it was solid enough to hold several books open at once.”

John sighed again and smoothed out the dustsheet, flicking through the colour plates with a vague interest. As he did so, his eye was caught by one particular photograph and he turned the book sideways to take a closer look.

The wound wasn’t a particularly serious or bloody example, merely a graze wound from a narrow-gauge firearm sustained to the outside edge of a fleshy-looking thigh, but John found himself staring at it wide-eyed.

Hang on a mo – that’s almost exactly like…

John felt his pulse quicken and his breathing begin to shallow out. The shape, structure and healing pattern of the wound exactly resembled the one he had remarked upon the day Sherrinford had taught him how to split logs. At the time, when Sherrinford had described the acquiring of it as an occupational hazard, John had assumed he had done it while swimming – on rocks, maybe, or even sharp coral, depending on where he was working.

How could I not have recognised it? I mean, it's not as though I'm a stranger to this kind of injury...

“Hmm,” Sherlock said suddenly propelling himself out of his chair and towards the door, “Much as I would rather not, I think it’s about time I touched base with Mycroft in person.”

John simply stared without speaking, still clutching his book, as Sherlock took off out of the room, snagging his coat off the floor and slinging it round his shoulders as he went. There was a brief exchange of conversation on the stairs and moments later, the front door banged.

“Oo-hoo,” trilled Mrs Hudson, putting her head round the door. “Gone off again, has he?” she said with a smile, “Some things don’t change, do they?”

“He’s gone to see his brother, Mrs Hudson,” John managed.

She nodded, unsurprised. “He was the one who told me,” she said conversationally, “Mycroft Holmes, that is; round about the time you went off to Scotland. I’m very glad he did, to be honest; if he hadn’t, I’d probably have died of a heart attack the first time Sherlock turned up here.”

“Yes,” John responded flatly.

“I’m just popping to the shops,” Mrs Hudson continued, the irony completely lost on her, “If you’re needing anything? No?”

John just shook his head. He turned back to the colour plate; this was a real mystery. What in god’s name is Sherrinford doing sporting a gunshot wound? I must have been well gone not to have wondered about it at the time, or even later…

John shook his head again, meaning something different. There was little point in worrying about it now, particularly as the chances of his ever meeting up with Sherrinford again had to be fairly slim. An odd gnawing regret worked its way into his chest, leaving a trail of slightly gloomy guilt. Unfinished business, his brain supplied helpfully, and John shook his head. There could be no future for him with Sherrinford. A man like that, a free spirit who eschewed even a roof over his head until weather conditions forced him to take shelter, who spent his life in relentless curiosity about his environment, its wildlife, the weather and the endless round of the seasons. Such a man could never adjust to the humdrum boredom of domestic life with a partner, especially if that partner happened to be an ex-army doctor turned civilian with a psychosomatic limp, a busted shoulder that complained whenever the weather was damp or cold, a love for city life and a penchant for home comforts.

It just wasn’t going to get off the ground.

John sat down at the table, knocked back his now cold tea and determinedly pulled his Samsung over; he was not going to allow either of the Holmes twins to monopolise his day, physically or virtually.

John’s email programme chimed and he obediently brought up the window. Program updates, news from Amazon, details of a couple of conferences he expressed interest in, an offer for Viagra – John snorted and clicked “Junk” – Hello. An email from Violet Hunter. John frowned, wondering how she had managed to get his details, and inwardly winced in anticipation. However, as he continued to read, his eyes widened and all of this faded into the background.

Violet had sent her message to John’s blog. He remembered very carefully avoiding giving her any contact details, so clearly she must have Googled him. She was rather diffident about sending this, she said, because he had disappeared from Orlington so suddenly and she really didn’t quite know what to think. Mycroft had been very short on details when she asked him and had quickly changed the subject; no one else seemed to know anything at all.

John winced. He had sent emails to Henry and Mrs Webster thanking them for their hospitality but being deliberately vague as to the reasons for his abrupt departure. It seemed rude and churlish but there was little else he could do.

When Violet stopped beating about the bush and got to the point, John began to sit up and take notice. She brought up the subject of Alice Rucastle’s disappearance and admitted to a certain nagging doubt about the truth of what she had been told all those years ago.

On a second analysis, brought up seventeen years after the event, Violet was now puzzled as to why everyone had simply taken Terry Smithson’s word for it that Alice had left the village of her own free will. Reading between the lines, John could see that Violet had been secretly quite glad to see the back of beautiful, adored Alice Rucastle in the manner of a sportswoman quietly rejoicing over the withdrawal of a long-standing rival. However, Violet admitted wryly that the removal of competition had scarcely benefited her in the end. To begin with, Alice had never competed in the same arena as Violet, if at all, and as for Violet herself, after all these years she was still a spinster pining hopelessly after a man who would never be able to sustain a viable emotional connection. John spared a little pity for her situation as he carried on reading.

Guilt and curiosity had lent Violet energy: she had tracked down a postal address on Terry Smithson. On the death of his father, Terry had taken over the butchery business and continued to run it successfully, but once his mother also died, he sold up and moved south. Violet discovered a forwarding address left with the Estate Office at Orlington. It was several years old, she said, but it was a start.

Terry Smithson had traded as T. Smithson Butchery & Delicatessen, Violet said, and the residential address she provided was in Didsbury, just outside Manchester. John called up Google again and started to research butchery businesses in the city and its environs, coming up with nothing. Gradually widening the net, John ended up searching everywhere north of the Watford Gap, all of it proving a bust. There was nothing at all with the name Smithson in the title, and John was only too well aware that this was already a long shot; Smithson could be trading under a new name, he could have gone out of business, he could be driving a bus – who knew?

John managed to get a phone number for the address Violet had given him, but Smithson had only lived there for a year. The landlord answered the phone in person; he was between tenants at the time, he said. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for John because the man remembered that Smithson had mentioned he was going further south, in fact, to London.

John hung up with a sense of foreboding. He would be very fortunate indeed if he could find Terry Smithson amongst the millions of people living in the teeming metropolis. It was with a heavy heart that he began his search with the Yellow Pages, and with sheer disbelief that he found himself staring, ten minutes later, at the name T. Smithson Butchery & Delicatessen with an address in Islington.

 

John leaped to his feet and punched the air. He grabbed his jacket and took off down the stairs at a run. Flinging open the front door, he collided heavily with Sherlock on the way in and they teetered in an awkward dance on the top step before releasing each other.

Sherlock stared at him and frowned. “You can’t go out, John!” he protested.

John raised his eyebrows. “And why not?” he demanded, perching his hands on his hips.

Sherlock considered. “I need you,” he replied, “for an experiment.”

John waved him off, suppressing the desire to give him the finger. “Forget it, Sherlock,” he replied. “You gave up your right to order me around when you pushed off for six months without a by your leave. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will keep. Alternatively, get Mrs Hudson to help, or maybe just do it yourself for a change?”

John took off rapidly down the street, conscious both of Sherlock's fixed gaze and also of having had the last word; it felt fantastic.

 

Highbury and Islington was only a few stops away from Baker Street on the Tube. Once there, it took John a little while to track down the shop and even longer to make the somewhat dim-witted assistant behind the counter understand that he didn’t want to buy anything, he merely wanted to talk to the proprietor. After much effort, John finally managed to glean that Smithson only ever visited this particular establishment occasionally, sometimes on the first Monday of the month, sometimes not. Smithson had four other shops scattered throughout Greater London to look after, the assistant told him suspiciously. Requests for a telephone number or other form of contact met with a blank, uncomprehending stare and eventually John gave it up as a bad job and went home.

Sherlock had apparently gone out again during John’s absence, which was all to the good. Strangely, even after reading the name Alice Rucastle jotted down on the newspaper, Sherlock had not questioned him again.

John fixed himself a quick, late lunch and sat down again at his computer. Further research revealed that T. Smithson Butchery & Delicatessen also traded under the edifying name of Multimeats Ltd and had three other addresses. One was clearly a wholesale premises situated down by the docks, and of the two others, only one was within reasonable striking distance – an address in Leytonstone a few streets off the High Road.

John once again took to the Tube. The journey was a good half-hour and John was tired by the time he reached his destination. It was rush hour and the place was teeming with traffic, heaving with commuters and shoppers all returning home at the same time. It took John a full twenty minutes to find a taxi because the GPS on his phones was on the blink, only to be told that his destination was five minutes’ walk in the opposite direction.

It was with a sense of deep relief that John peered in through the window of Multimeats Ltd. As he did so, his eyes widened at a familiar face. He pointed a finger at the dim-witted assistant of the Islington branch then leaped for the glass front door as the man moved, quick as lightning, to close and lock it.

“Oh no you don’t!” John spat, shoving his foot hard between the door and the jam. They struggled together for a moment, but John’s military training wasn’t so far in the past that he would let a civilian get the better of him; taking momentary advantage of the gap, he thrust a hand through and pulled the man’s nose hard.

There was a surprised and pained cry and suddenly the pressure on the door withdrew; John fell clumsily into the shop, only just retaining his footing. He scowled at the man tenderly massaging his nose and pointed an accusing finger.

“You were at the other shop this morning,” John accused, “and now you’re trying to prevent me getting into this one. Who are you and what’s going on?”

John took a good look at his would-be adversary. The man looked young, possibly in his mid-twenties, with almost white-blond hair and the slender, graceful body of a dancer. He was dressed in a white shirt and canvas trousers with the traditional striped butcher’s apron and his huge blue eyes were restless and scared, darting hither and thither above aquiline, almost androgynous features.

“I know you,” he said in a hushed, nervous voice. “You’re that Watson bloke, the one as used to work with Master Sherlock, aren’t you?”

“I’m – John Watson, yes,” John replied carefully.

The boy’s eyes grew round and scared. “You’ve come for us, haven’t you?” he said. “You know all about it. Oh, lord, after all these years…” He broke off and buried his face in his hands.

John was unsure what to do but fortunately he was not left in indecision for long.

“Awright, what’s going on here?”

The voice came from behind the counter. John spun round to see another man, also traditionally dressed, but there the similarity ended. This man looked in his late forties but was probably younger. He was tall and overweight, bordering on obese, and this together with his lack of head hair made him look rather like a pig in an apron. His eyes were almost concealed by rolls of fat and his skin was a uniform pink, smooth and unbroken. John noticed, almost unconsciously, that the man’s lack of hair was complete; he had no hair on his arms or face, no eyelashes and no eyebrows. His appearance was certainly striking, but also very unsettling.

John held his hands up, palms outermost.

“Are you Terry Smithson?” he asked.

“Who’s askin’?” The words were said belligerently and the man crossed his arms over his barrel chest.

“He’s the one I told you about, Terry,” the other man said, wide-eyed, almost gibbering with nerves. “He came to the shop in Islington asking questions – about Alice…”

“Yes, ye told me,” Terry Smithson said, turning to him, his attitude suddenly gentler. “Tell ye what, Adrian, why don’t ye go and start on the mix for the sausages? I’ll come down and give ye a hand once I’m done here.”

Adrian gave Terry one frightened nod and scuttled out of a door at the back of the shop behind the counter, looking over his shoulder the whole time with big, scared eyes.

Terry’s attitude became considerably more aggressive after Adrian’s departure.

“I know who ye are, Doctor Watson,” he began in a threatening tone, “and I’m tellin’ ye to stay away from Adrian and from my shops, and that’s a warning ye’ll heed if you know what’s good fer ye.”

Terry Smithson’s Scots accent had mellowed over the years, John thought, and incorporated some of the East End vowels. However, there was no mistaking the menace in the words. John swallowed and made one last ditch attempt.

“I’m trying to trace Alice Rucastle, Mr Smithson,” he said quietly. “I know it’s a long time ago, but I understand you were the last person to see her before she left Scotland…”

“I’m admitting to naethin’,” Smithson said between his teeth, “naethin’ at all, d’yer hear? Now, get outta my shop. If I catch you anywhere near me or mine, I’ll have the polis on ye!”

John knew when he was beaten. He nodded mutely at Smithson whose expression did not flicker, and turned on his heel. He knew where to find him now, though; he would be back and by Smithson’s speculative expression, the butcher knew it.

Chapter Text

Back at Baker Street, Sherlock had papered the living room walls with A4 photographic printouts of the room from different vantage points. To John’s bewilderment, a number of the stills appeared to have been taken from outside the windows.

“Did you use a telephoto lens?” John asked, peering closely at one of them. He looked up at Sherlock. “You must have taken these from the flat across the road.”

The other man shook his head; he was doing something unspeakable and potentially extremely messy with what looked like a flour and water paste, but could just as easily have been a high explosive.

“Cherrypicker,” Sherlock said succinctly, “Hitched a ride when they came to check the guttering forplastique; Mycroft's doing.”

John stared. “Does Mycroft think that we're in danger of being blown up again?” he demanded.

Sherlock waved his hands around and fitted a slide delicately under the microscope with wet hands. “Who knows what Mycroft thinks?” he said, looking through the eyepiece, "Trying to cover all bases, I suppose. Personally, I think he's being paranoid; if the Colonel discovers that either of us is here before either Mycroft or I manage to track him down, he won't mess about with explosives - too unreliable. No, he'll use his favourite sniper rifle.”

The last was said with impatient scorn. Sherlock furiously adjusted the microscope without looking up. John nodded to himself and took off his jacket, moving into the kitchen to begin making some kind of supper preparations.

John was surprised and yet not surprised by the ease at which they had slotted instantly back into their accustomed orbits after the six month hiatus. He shook his head, partly perplexed, partly admiring. It was still early days, he thought as he hunted down a tin of tomatoes; they could go on ignoring the elephant in the room for some considerable time before either of them snapped.

The doorbell rang. John was just adding minced beef to the onions already sizzling in the pan and decided not to hear it.

Sherlock was still engrossed in his microscope. “It’s probably for Mrs Hudson,” he said without looking up.

“You just hope it is,” John replied, still stirring.

Voices downstairs in the hall and a heavy tread on the stairs meant that they were both wrong.

John looked about wildly; it was too late for Sherlock to hide so whoever it was, John could only hope that they had been in hibernation for the past year or so. When the door finally opened, John was nonplussed to see Terry Smithson’s rotund figure ease its way past the door posts.

Smithson nodded at John. “Doctor Watson,” he said in salutation, and then also nodded at Sherlock, “Master Sherrinford.”

Sherlock froze. He raised his head slowly from the microscope and stared expressionlessly at Smithson. “Who,” he said, “are you?”

“You don’t recognise me then?” Smithson said and smiled slightly. “Aye, it’s been a good few years, Master Sherrinford. Smithson’s the name; Terry Smithson. My family used to own the butcher’s shop in Orlington village.”

Sherlock nodded stiffly. “I remember you,” he replied. “What are you doing here?”

Smithson glanced awkwardly at John. “Doctor Watson came lookin’ fer me today, and my assistant…” he paused, “…caused a wee bit o’ a stramash – a disturbance.”

“And you’ve come to apologise, yes?” Sherlock continued impatiently.

Smithson shuffled his feet. “Well,” he said, “to explain, mebbe.” He looked pleadingly at John.

“Yes,” John broke out of his paralysis, rubbing his hands together. “Okay, well, no point in disturbing you, Sherl.. ah, Sherrinford. I think we’ll go down to Speedy’s, Mr Smithson. We can still get a cuppa there, he’s open till seven today.”

John could feel the atmosphere in the flat crackle as he turned off the gas under his sauce and threw on his jacket once again. He kept his eyes down and his face turned away, but he knew that Sherlock would be on his case when he returned, if not sooner.

 

Smithson sat pensively, taking up two chairs on one side of the table. John ordered two teas, paid for them and brought them back to the table before he realised what he was doing. Smithson stirred in enough sugar to float the spoon then stared pensively at the table top. John fidgeted.

“I’m sorry about Adrian…” Smithson trailed off with a shrug. “Well, ye saw him fer yerself. Ye know what I mean.”

“Yes, Mr Smithson, I did,” John replied, “and I have to make it very clear that I am trying to find Alice Rucastle for reasons of a, well, personal nature. Whatever you or your assistant have done, are doing, have done in the past – well, none of this is my business.”

Smithson was shaking his head. “It’s not about Alice,” he replied. “That’s all past now, years ago. What’s worrying Adrian, well, it has a bit to do wi’ her but naethin’ that’ll help you now, Doctor Watson.”

Smithson looked up. “Alice was a wonderful lass,” he said reminiscently, “A bonny girl, kind and good. I weren’t a lot different to how I am now as a bairn, Doctor Watson. People didnae take to me much even then. But Alice – no, Alice was good and kind and she took the trouble to get to know me. She was the only lass who would talk to me. It meant all the difference to me as a laddie.”

Smithson drank his tea seemingly without noticing. “When I was seventeen, my father took on a cheil – an apprentice,” he explained at John’s puzzled look. “Adrian was only fifteen and alone in the world. I resented him at first but when I realised who and what he was, I could see why my da had helped him.”

Smithson shifted awkwardly in his chair. “You’ve met Adrian, Doctor Watson,” he said, “You’ve seen how little he understands of the world and the people in it. And you’ve seen how he looks too; he couldnae survive alone.”

John could well imagine; that innocent beauty would be a magnet for every pervert and pederast for a fifty mile radius.

Smithson looked away. “Alice helped us,” he continued. “Lassies never interested me. God knows, they wouldn’t have anything to do wi’ me anyway, but I knew quite early on in my life what I was. Well, so did Alice. She was wise.”

“She covered for you?” John asked.

Smithson nodded. “Yes,” he replied, “We had this wee fairy tale going that I was pining for her and she had let me down gently.” He shrugged. “It seemed to work.”

“And you and Adrian?” John prompted, because he wasn’t stupid.

“And Adrian and I – well,” Smithson shrugged and looked up “You seem to already know what I’m trying to tell ye, so why mince words?”

“So to cut a long story short,” John summarised, “You sold up and left Scotland taking Adrian with you so that you could set up in London living as a couple, yes?”

Smithson’s cheeks were pink but he nodded stiffly.

“Right,” John continued, “so where did Adrian get the idea that you’re doing something wrong?”

Smithson winced. “Ah, well,” he said consciously, “that would be from our time in Orlington.” He looked up at John. “You see, I know what it looks like, but it’s not, believe me, Doctor Watson. Adrian’s only two years younger than me, despite the way he looks and acts. He’ll never be any different and that’s aright by me.”

Smithson looked belligerent. “He was twenty-two and I was twenty-four when we left Scotland,” he continued, “but by that time, well…”

Smithson trailed off and John’s mind started to work overtime. “You…” he began, then snapped his fingers. “By that time you had been together for a number of years secretly.” He narrowed his eyes. “You were together as teenagers, weren’t you? Adrian was underage when you got together, so you made him realise the dangers of talking about what you were doing.” John looked sympathetic. “I guess you must have laid it on with a trowel.”

Smithson nodded, his face twisted in chagrin. “I was - forceful,” he replied, “and now I can’t make him accept that we’re safe.” Smithson spread his fat hands with a shallow laugh. “We’re living in the most sinful city in the world; no one cares.”

John nodded. “I don’t envy you,” he said without thinking.

Smithson gave him a neutral look. “I dinna think many people would, Doctor Watson,” he replied blandly.

John swallowed and cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said, “now I know that you were pursuing Alice Rucastle for cover, what do you know about her disappearance?”

“Probably more than most,” Smithson returned equably. “I knew she was seeing Master Sherrinford and that she was smitten wi’ him. There were many who disapproved, but I wasn’t in that number whatever else anyone tells ye. I hadnae seen Alice for some time before she turned up late that night, crying and in a turrible state.

“It was just luck that I was working late and not with Adrian,” Smithson continued. “Father had a good order of sausages to fill for the Estate and I had to make them up that night while he went oot drinking in the Green Man. After Alice turned up, I had no sleep at all that night.”

Alice had appeared on Smithson’s doorstep disturbed, dishevelled and incoherent. Smithson thought she had been raped at first, particularly as she talked about being with both Sherrinford and Sherlock that evening. He sat her down and made her drink some of his secret stash of Talisker until she had recovered enough to give him chapter and verse. Despite what she had been through, Smithson said, Alice didn’t seem to be frightened in the usual way, just sad and regretful. She told him everything that had happened then she fell asleep in Smithson’s arms and he had cradled her like a baby until dawn broke and she stirred again.

Smithson’s face was thoughtful and for a moment, John thought he could see an echo of that awkward, haunted teenager during the one and only night he had or would ever hold a woman in his arms.

Alice came to a decision that morning, Smithson said. She was resolved to leave the village and she asked for his help. She had been adamant about taking nothing with her – claimed it would slow her down and make for questions, Smithson said, so he had opened the till and stolen the previous day’s takings. He forced her to take the money by threatening to raise the alarm if she refused. Her promise to repay the money he took with a pinch of salt; he really didn’t care.

“Why did she have to leave immediately?” John asked. Smithson shrugged, uninterested. All he knew was that he had taken her to the station where she had waited, concealed on the platform, for the milk train. Smithson had no doubt that she would have been able to board the train and stay hidden for the entire journey; it was something that the youngsters in Orlington had been doing for many years.

“Where did she go?” John asked. Smithson didn’t know.

John sighed. “So I’m guessing the trail goes cold now, eh?” he said despondently.

Smithson smiled; it was an odd look on him. “Well,” he said, “ordinarily, you’d be right, Doctor Watson, but remember – it’s Alice Rucastle we’re dealing with.”

John stared for a moment then his eyes widened. “You mean, she paid back the money you gave her?” he replied. “Well, I mean, how? What, did she send you some cash, a cheque – what?”

“She sent me a cheque for the full amount plus interest,” Smithson said proudly. He brandished a faded, well-worn envelope. “It's been years now, but I kept the letter and the envelope. There’s a return address on the back.”

He handed the letter over a tad reluctantly. John carefully examined it; the postmark was W12. Shepherd’s Bush, John thought, reaching for a pen. Now I’m getting somewhere.

 

The following day found John walking out of White City tube station, patting his pockets and pulling out a scrap of paper. He hailed a taxi and handed the slip over to the driver who nodded comfortably and put the cab into gear. Ten minutes or so later, the vehicle pulled up outside a respectable-looking terrace of houses and John alighted, paying off the cab and scanning the numbers keenly.

His ring on the bell was answered by a nice-looking blond woman with a baby in her arms and a toddler around her bejeaned ankles. She smiled in a friendly fashion.

“Alice Rucastle?” John said kindly.

The woman blinked. “I used to be, yes,” she replied. “It’s Alice Foreman now and has been for the past five years.”

John felt a load of residual tension suddenly drop away, unaware until that moment that somewhere down in the depths of his mind had lain the niggling doubt that Alice Rucastle had met her death that night and that Sherlock had been responsible for it in some way.

He turned to the woman and frowned, trying to put together something sufficiently bland that she wouldn’t slam the door in his face. Suddenly, she smiled and her lovely face lit up.

“You’re John Watson, aren’t you?” she said. “I’ve been following your blog. I’m so sorry about Sherlock.”

“Yes, well,” John shuffled his feet and looked away.

Alice’s expression grew slightly sharper. “Is it because of Sherlock that you’re here?” she asked shrewdly.

John nodded his head. “Yes,” he replied, “I was trying to uncover a mystery, but I think you’ve more or less solved it for me.”

The woman paused for a moment, and then seemed to come to a decision. She jerked her head.

“Come in,” she said. “It’s time for Drew’s nap anyway, so I’ll just put him down and we can have a cup of tea.”

Alice seemed happy to talk to John while her baby slept and her little girl played contentedly around her ankles. She sipped her tea and smiled reminiscently, but she didn’t seem unhappy.

“It was all a very long time ago,” she told John, “and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge.”

She fixed him with a keen glance. “I assume you found me through Terry Smithson, yes?” she asked. John nodded.

“I thought so,” she replied and sighed, “Poor Terry! The young people were always so cruel to him because he was different. I was the only one who would talk to him – apart from Adrian, that is.”

Alice turned her beaming smile on John again. “Are they doing alright now?” she asked.

John nodded. “Very well, it seems,” he replied. “Smithson’s butchery business appears to be thriving.”

Alice nodded. “I‘ve not made contact since,” she said, “and neither has he. To be honest, I’ve taken great pains to keep that side of my life separate and I think Terry understands. We all have secrets, Doctor Watson, and it’s often not comfortable to be with someone who knows yours, even if you trust that someone implicitly not to spill the beans.”

She gestured around the modest but comfortable house. “I’ve got what I always wanted,” she said, “Children, a home, a husband who loves me – I’d be a fool to jeopardise any of that unnecessarily.”

“I understand,” John replied. He shifted in his seat. “Mrs Foreman, I’m not here in any official capacity; my involvement is completely personal.”

She nodded. “I’d gathered that,” she replied. “Doctor Watson, I’d have to be living in the wilds of South America to be ignorant of what’s been happening around you lately.”

Her face grew pensive. “I’m so sorry about Sherlock,” she said again, “I imagine Sherrinford is devastated.”

John looked away uncomfortably but fortunately Alice interpreted his awkwardness as diffidence and not deceit. She laid a consoling hand on his arm and began to tell her story.

It had all happened a long time ago, but Alice still seemed to feel it deeply, John thought. She couldn’t bear it in the end, she told him. The rivalry between the two boys was new and surprisingly bitter. It wasn’t even as if Sherlock wanted her, she said in bewilderment; he hadn’t wanted anybody.

John nodded, taking stock of his own impressions. So Violet had been right. Sherlock had never wanted Alice at all; his jealousy was all for Sherrinford, never of him.

Sherrinford had been lovely and beautiful, joyous and free-spirited, Alice said, smiling and closing her eyes. John took a deep breath in a remembrance of his own and tried to tune out his body’s sense memory. However, Sherrinford had been torn between Alice whom he wanted and his brother whom he loved. Sherlock had always been completely other – obsessive, serious and extremely intelligent with a devotion to his brother that was almost maniacal in its intensity.

Finishing her tea, Alice placed her cup carefully in its saucer. “I was never entirely sure that Sherlock had grown out of childhood,” she said carefully. She turned hazel eyes on John. “Was he…” she began hesitantly, “Did he seem less – obsessive as he grew older?”

John shrugged and spread his hands. “I really don’t know,” he replied, “I never knew Sherlock when he was young, don’t forget.”

Alice nodded sympathetically. “I never saw him as an adult,” she replied sombrely, “and now I never will.”

She took a deep breath and started to tell him what she could remember about the critical night she left Orlington. Sherlock had made the appointment, just as Mrs Webster had explained, but what no one else knew was that Alice had not been deceived; she realised that it was Sherlock calling her, not Sherrinford.

“He was three kinds of a fool to think he could hoodwink me like that,” she said, “but in the end, I was the fool. I thought I could handle the situation without letting Sherrinford know. Thinking back on it, I must have been out of my mind; heaven knows what could have happened!”

When Sherrinford appeared unexpectedly, Alice realised that the situation had spiralled way out of her control. However, she kept her head well enough to run to the only person who could help her without question and not betray her.

“When the twins started to fight, I couldn’t believe it,” Alice said, shaking her head. “There had never been even a whisper of conflict between them all through their lives. I knew then that there was no way I could bear to be responsible for something like that.

“I left as quickly as possible,” she told him. “Terry wanted me to wait, to go home and pick up some stuff, maybe think about it a bit before jumping ship so quickly – you know the kind of thing. I told him I had to disappear and the less I had with me the more likely it was that I could slip through the net.”

John was puzzled. “What were you worried about?” he asked.

Alice stared. “Have you met the older brother?” she said, eyebrows raised. She broke off at the sound of a key in the front door. There was a slam and some quick footsteps.

“Hey, mum,” a tenor voice said.

Alice’s face broke into a smile. “In here, darling,” she responded, angling her body towards the door and lifting her face.

Elfin features with a pointed chin framed by a mop of blond hair peered around the door.

“Hey,” the boy said again. He looked at John and nodded absently; John returned the greeting.

The boy came into the room; he was lanky and tall and had big blue eyes. “Mum,” he said again, “I’ve got to go round to Michael’s; I’m going to help him with his Mechanics.”

Alice smiled affectionately. “Meaning that you’re going to check his homework for him – that’ll take about five minutes – then you’re going to carry on building that computer of his, yes?” she interpreted.

The boy shrugged. “Something like that,” he replied with a small smile.

“I suppose I should be grateful you’re actually together and not gaming online,” Alice commented.

The boy grinned wickedly and pointed an index finger. “That’ll come after Christmas,” he told her. “Dad’s already agreed to buy me the components I need, now all I’ve got to do is find a way of keeping the thing cool enough.”

Alice waved him away, shaking her head. “Spare me the details,” she protested, laughing, “You know how little I understand your technobabble, don’t you? Dinner at seven-thirty sharp, alright?”

“Yeah, cool,” the boy threw over his shoulder as he left the room and bounded up the stairs.

Alice smiled warmly at John. “Sorry,” she said, “Now, where was I?”

Alice had taken the milk train the following morning and arrived in London five hours later with nowhere to go and no one to help her. It was difficult, but she went about it in the right way: to a shelter, having concealed everything of value beneath her clothes, and after an uncomfortable and frightening night, to a Citizens Advice Bureau. There she had struck lucky; her first contact was a rabid feminist who, when she learned of Alice’s situation, moved heaven and earth to help her.

“Your situation?” John asked, tilting his head.

“Yes,” Alice allowed herself a fleeting glance up the stairs. “His name is Sigerson and he is sixteen.” She gave a wry smile. “I expect he’ll ask me the right questions sometime when it suits him. At the moment, he’s happy; treats my husband as his dad and that’s good enough for me.”

She smiled. “We lived in shelters and a Women’s Refuge for some months, Siggy and me,” she said, “I signed on at a domestic service agency; there was so much work available I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t take Siggy with me on most of the jobs, but I’d made some good friends in the Refuge who helped out with the childcare. I did the same for them, of course.”

Alice offered John more tea; he refused with a shake of the head. “When Siggy started school, I set myself up in business,” she told him, “In a very minor way, of course; I started an agency to provide temporary extra staff for catering companies who serviced office bashes, public venues at Christmas – you know the sort of thing. I employed the people I’d met and made friends with at the Refuge and the Shelters, trained them too. Then I went with them myself to lead the team. That’s where I met Theo, my husband.”

She leaned forward in her chair. “I’m trusting you with everything here, Doctor Watson,” she said seriously, “and I’m only doing it because if you’ve got this far, then nothing I can do or say will stop you. I can only plead with you to leave us alone and to keep my secret. Siggy is my son and I’d like to keep it that way.”

John frowned. “And you think that Sherrinford might…” he began.

Alice was shaking her head. “I don’t know,” she interrupted, “but I can’t afford to take the chance, can I?”

A short time later, John found himself walking towards the tube station through a dusky, drizzly evening, his head buzzing. Although several important issued seemed to have been resolved, John felt as though he had merely exchanged them for new ones.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

By the time John found his way back to the Great House, it was clear by the presence of the still rotating helicopter that Mycroft had already divined their presence at Orlington and had taken appropriate action. John sighed and tramped his way around to the Breakfast Room.

Mrs Webster was supervising the clearing after lunch. She smiled broadly at John.

“Doctor Watson, so lovely to see you back after your sudden departure,” she said. “Are you hungry? Could you be doing with something to eat?”

John shook his head. “Thanks,” he replied, “but I had a sandwich at The Green Man. Mrs Webster,” he began again carefully, “is Mycroft – I mean, the Earl, occupied at the moment?”

She nodded and smiled brilliantly. “Yes, indeed, Doctor Watson,” she said, “He’s with Henry and Master Sherrinford in his office, would you believe? It must be something important to bring Master Sherrinford up to the Great House. I can’t remember the last time I saw him any other place than in the woods or at the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage.”

John felt his face freeze. “Did Henry tell you about the text he received this morning?” he asked, frowning.

Mrs Webster shook her head, eyes wide and guileless; John put a hand on her arm

“I think you had better sit down,” he said gently.

 

Once Mrs Webster had finished reeling from the shock, she poured John and herself a strong coffee and fired questions at him. John tried to answer them as best he could but found that he had only taken two or three sips of his drink when they were interrupted.

“Excuse me, Mrs Webster,” Henry Jenkins said, apologetically, “but Mr Holmes has sent me to bring Doctor Watson to his office; he wishes to speak with him rather urgently.”

Henry’s face was pale and his eyes a bit on the wild side, but he was still a going concern. John looked regretfully at his coffee and stood up.

“Oh, don’t worry, John,” Henry said reassuringly, “Mr Holmes has plenty in his office; Mrs Webster’s shortbread biscuits too.”

John gave a wan smile and followed.

 

Mycroft and Sherlock were going at it hammer and tong; John could hear the echoes as he and Henry Jenkins approached along the black and white corridor. Sneaking a sidelong glance at Henry, John watched the other man’s lips press together and thin out.

The sound of arguing resolved itself into actual words as the pair approached the large oak door which led to Mycroft’s wing.

“I have lost count of the number of times in the past you have tried to force me to return here and do exactly what I propose to do now!” Sherlock’s voice rose in pitch, exasperated and angry but edged with something else, something obsessive.

“I wanted you to return to Orlington to try to find peace over a very long-standing issue, Sherlock,” Mycroft’s delivery was exaggeratedly patient, “Not to rush off on some ludicrous scheme to…”

“Ludicrous nothing!” Sherlock interrupted, “It’s by far the best possible plan!”

Henry knocked discreetly and listened for an instruction.

“Plan, poppycock!” Mycroft was actually angry. “There is no way – no possible way you can use Sherrinford in the manner you describe. This is madness, pure and simple, not to mention unbelievably dangerous, in more ways than you know.”

John and Henry exchanged glances and Henry knocked again a little more loudly.

“Frankly, Mycroft, it’s about time my brother stopped navel-gazing and started to pull his weight!” Sherlock’s tone was sulky.

“Oh, and you are such a shining example of that yourself, Sherlock,” Mycroft’s voice oozed derision. “Since when have you ever had the moral high ground with regard to your family?”

“Since you betrayed my trust, Mycroft.”

Henry bit his lip and opened the door, stepping over the threshold, John in his wake.

The Holmes brothers were so close their noses were almost touching. Under other circumstances, John might have found the situation funny but the atmosphere was so charged, all he could do was stare.

“Betrayed your…?”

“What right did you have to bring John Watson to Orlington?”

“It was the logical and charitable thing to do, Sherlock. Even you have to admit that it...”

“I admit nothing! You could have paid for his treatment in London; you didn’t have to bring him into my brother’s orbit.”

“I had no way of knowing whether Sherrinford would be on the estate or somewhere in Timbuctoo, Sherlock; now, be reasonable…”

“Nonsense! You have tabs on absolutely everyone who has ever been within ten feet of you; you even stalk your school friends…”

“Now you’re being ridiculous. John had been badly injured, Sherlock; it was only fitting…”

“Fitting? Fitting? To throw him in Sherrinford’s path when even you cannot have failed to notice my brother’s predilections over the past few years …”

“I had no way of knowing that Doctor Watson’s tendencies would veer from the…”

Henry coughed, loudly. Sherlock broke off his invective abruptly and the two men whirled.

“My apologies, Mr Holmes,” Henry said; his face was pale, “You failed twice to respond to my knock.”

And you were shouting so loudly that Doctor Watson could hear every word was unsaid but heavily implied. John cringed inwardly and his face heated; he frowned in puzzlement. Sherrinford's predilections? Sherrinford's?

“Ah, John!” Mycroft straightened his tie and visibly regained his bonhomie, “So good of you to join us. Henry, pour Doctor Watson some coffee.” John coughed awkwardly and nodded without speaking.

Sherlock glared round the room then made a sound of intense impatience and flung himself out of Mycroft’s office without a backward glance.

John accepted his coffee from a very red-faced Henry who had difficulty meeting his eyes. John wandered over to the French doors overlooking the lawn and pushed the delicate voile curtain aside to see Sherlock striding across the wet grass leaving a trail of dark footprints leading in the direction of the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage.

“Sherlock always was headstrong,” Mycroft murmured from slightly above John’s head; John tried not to startle.

Mycroft sighed and replaced the curtain. “He is convinced that Sherrinford is on the estate,” he said.

“And is he?” John replied slightly too quickly. He covered himself by taking a sip of excellent coffee.

Mycroft gave John a long look then turned to gaze after Sherlock’s departing figure once again. “I’m very much afraid, John, that I don’t know,” he replied quietly.

 

Sherlock was gone for the rest of the afternoon. John found himself reaching for his phone then replacing it in his pocket unused; whatever Sherlock was up to, he clearly didn’t need John’s help and John had to live with that. It didn’t stop him from sitting in the Morning Room after dinner, starting at every small noise.

After pulling back the curtain, scanning the darkness outside and returning to his armchair for the seventh time in half an hour, John slammed the flat of his hand against the coffee table and went to get his jacket.

He made good time on his walk to the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage, pushing impatiently past intrusive shrubs and splashing over puddles. There was a light in the kitchen and John heaved a sigh of relief; at least his journey was not entirely in vain. When he opened the door, the dark-haired figure sitting at the table drinking tea looked up and John felt his breath catch in his throat.

“Hello, John,” said Sherrinford.

The easy smile was slightly strained and the eyes were anxious but Sherrinford had clearly decided to tough it out.

“Ah,” said John, temporarily lost for words. He stood stupidly on the threshold until the other man’s smile slowly faded.

Sherrinford glanced down into his tea mug, inspecting the surface. “If you’ve come for Sherlock,” he said quietly without looking back up, “you’ve just missed him.”

John frowned. “I didn’t see him on the path,” he remarked.

Sherrinford shook his head slowly. “He’s gone off into the woods,” he replied. John stiffened.

Sherrinford gave a dry laugh. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said, smiling wryly up at John, “He won’t go far. He just lost his temper, that’s all; needed to burn it off for a while. He’ll get over it soon enough.”

John took a step into the kitchen. He gestured to the teapot and a rinsed-out mug drying on the draining board. “May I?” he asked.

Sherrinford shrugged. “Please yourself,” he replied, “there’s no milk though and nothing stronger on the premises since you… went home.”

That was the least of his worries, John thought as he tried to still his shaking hands. He heaped sugar into the brown liquid, even though he didn’t usually indulge; in the absence of any alcohol, another form of easily metabolised carb would have to do.

John slid into a chair next to Sherrinford and took a pull of his tea. There was a long silence.

“So,” Sherrinford said out of the blue, “he’s back, then.”

John found himself nodding. “Yeah,” he replied with a sigh.

“How do you feel about that, John?” Sherrinford asked, his tone carefully neutral.

John shrugged. “I don’t think I quite believe it yet,” he replied truthfully, “I went on hoping for a miracle for so long that now it’s actually happened, well…” He trailed off and took a slurp of tea. He glanced at Sherrinford over the rim of his mug. "How do you feel about it?" he asked.

Sherrinford shrugged. “I never really believed he was dead,” he replied. He gave a huff of laughter. “Sherlock was always too much the bad penny in my life to truly disappear.” He turned to look John head on. “So what now?” he asked gently.

John felt his face begin to flush. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Sherrinford raised his eyebrows. “I’ve only known you a short time, John,” he said, “but I’d have to be totally blind not to see how you feel about him. Will you do anything about it now he’s back?”

John frowned, shaking his head distractedly. “Sherrinford,” he said, “we’ve already had this conversation. Sherlock just – doesn’t, not with anybody, let alone me.”

Sherrinford nodded. “And that was why you let me…” he trailed off and drank some tea.

So that’s what this is about.

John put down his mug. “For the record,” he said softly, “I didn’t let you do anything, Sherrinford. I started it, if I remember correctly, and I also enjoyed it very much.”

“But you don’t want to do it again?” Sherrinford carefully didn't make eye contact.

In answer, John put two fingers to Sherrinford’s chin and tilted it until he could cover the other man’s mouth gently with his own.

Sherrinford just melted into him; there was no other way to describe it. “Oh,” he sighed when he withdrew at last for breath. “John, I was sure that you wouldn’t…”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” John interrupted, leaning his forehead against Sherrinford’s and breathing him in. “I was the one who woke up alone and cold, for god’s sake!”

“I’m sorry,” Sherrinford said, closing his eyes against the sensation, “I thought you’d be angry. I reckoned if I wasn’t there when you woke up, you’d be able to forget it more easily.”

John shook his head. “I’ll never forget it,” he said, moving back to Sherrinford’s mouth.

Necking like teenagers in a kitchen; John’s inner cynic mocked him mercilessly but he was too overcome with relief and gratitude to listen.

After a blissful few moments, John’s brain started reminding him of a few things. Firstly, that Sherrinford hadn’t yet told him about Sherlock’s plan and whether he was willing to go along with it; secondly, that Sherlock’s return from his hissy fit was probably imminent, and being discovered by Sherlock in his brother’s lap was something John strenuously wanted to avoid; and thirdly, John was starting to feel extremely cold.

He detached himself gently and shivered. “Sherrinford, haven’t you laid a fire or started up the central heating yet?” he asked. The cold wasn’t icy, but the cottage felt damp and unused.

Sherrinford looked slightly confused; he shrugged. “I haven’t been here much lately,” he admitted. “I’ve been in the Channel Islands looking at sharks, believe it or not.”

“Well, it can’t be exactly warm there at the moment either,” John protested, “I suppose you hardy outdoor types don’t feel the cold much.”

John glanced at his watch. “Look,” he said awkwardly, “I’d better go look for Sherlock. If we don’t get back to the Great House soon, they’ll lock us out and it’ll be embarrassing having to wake Henry or someone to take down the alarms.”

Sherrinford smiled, warm and easy; he nodded. “Alright, John,” he said quietly, “Take your time.” He wasn’t just talking about Sherlock or even that one evening, and John bowed his head, embarrassed.

“And don’t worry about Sherlock,” Sherrinford said dismissively. “I may not have spoken to him for seventeen years, but leopards don’t change their spots; once he's worked off his tantrum, he’ll go back to the Great House and sulk in his room. I’m afraid our little conversation didn’t go quite as he would have liked.”

“Oh?” John encouraged, but the other man merely shrugged.

“I’ll give it some thought and get back in touch very soon,” Sherrinford promised easily, “but I warn you - Sherlock’s plan is hare-brained to say the least.”

“And probably downright dangerous to boot,” John agreed, “They usually are.”

He didn’t know whether kissing Sherrinford goodnight would be ridiculously girly; John had no frame of reference for this situation. Thankfully, Sherrinford took the decision out of his hands, leaning forward to give John a gentle, firm kiss.

“Goodbye John,” he said softly, his eyes huge and liquid. John cleared his throat awkwardly and gave the other man a nod and a brief smile.

John returned to the Great House to be let in discreetly by a knowing Mrs Webster. He returned immediately to the Morning Room and stayed there, finally retiring to his allotted room, yawning fit to dislocate his jaw, sometime during the small hours of the morning. Sherlock had still not returned.

 

The news from Lestrade the following day was not encouraging; Moran had indeed been sighted at King’s Cross Station. Transport Police had tried to apprehend him but he had given them the slip and promptly disappeared, presumably departing by train, no one could be sure. Mycroft’s people were currently sifting through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage, so far without result.

John roused a very sleepy Sherlock and dragged him complaining bitterly down to breakfast.

“What bloody time in the morning did you finally roll up, then?” John demanded, standing in the middle of the room holding the quilt he had just fought Sherlock for and won. “Up and in the shower with you; Mrs Webster doesn’t work all the hours there are just to provide you with room service,” he added firmly.

Sherlock gathered the shreds of his dignity along with his dressing gown and marched into the bathroom. “I don’t need room service,” his voice floated back above the noise of the shower, “I just need coffee.”

“Come downstairs for it then, like normal people do!” John replied closing the door behind him.

After breakfast, John read the newspapers and fidgeted in the Morning Room, waiting for something to happen. When Sherlock swept in, John suggested taking a walk into the village and to his surprise, Sherlock agreed to accompany him.

The Green Man served good beer but awful coffee, John learned by sampling it. Sherlock stuck to orange juice. Alastair had no news of Sherrinford but Sherlock loftily informed him that his assistance was no longer necessary as he, Sherlock, had already tracked his brother down and they would be meeting later on. Despite John’s persistent questions, Sherlock would divulge nothing further except that he intended to go back to the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage that evening to try to persuade his brother to cooperate.

John was silent and thoughtful as he and Sherlock walked back up to the Great House. He was torn between very real pleasure at the prospect of spending time with Sherrinford and a deep foreboding about Sherlock’s potential reaction to the situation.

“Dreaming about your lover, John?” Sherlock snarled nastily as they rounded the corner of the drive.

John’s jaw dropped; Sherlock could be thoughtless and rude but this was just plain mean. John stopped dead and glared. “You know what, Sherlock?” he said, “Either engage your brain before you put your mouth in gear, or turn off your ignition.”

“I’m not sure I need you anymore,” Sherlock continued composedly as though John had not spoken. “You’ve outlived your usefulness, John Watson. You’ve served your purpose and I’m bored with you.”

John frowned. “What,” he began slowly, “are you talking about?”

“You’re past your sell-by date, John,” Sherlock declared airily, “After we’ve cleared up this little misunderstanding with the Colonel, I think we should go our separate ways, don’t you?”

John’s frown deepened. “Just a minute, Sherlock,” he said slowly, “Is this about Sherrinford?”

“Good heavens no, John,” Sherlock returned in a totally false tone of voice, “Whatever gave you that idea? I mean, why on earth would I object to you engaging in carnal relations with my brother behind my back?”

John shook his head violently; he found himself suddenly short of breath. “You know, Sherlock, I really have no idea,” he said helplessly, “In fact, I would never have imagined that something so pedestrian and mundane would have any relevance to you at all. I would have judged my shagging your brother to be beneath your notice; irrelevant, trivial, indelicate and very, very vulgar.”

Sherlock’s mouth twitched. “Of course I have no interest,” he returned quickly, “I told you this when we first met. But since when, John, have you harboured an interest in your own sex? At the beginning, I deduced you to be a 1 on the Kinsey Scale; predominantly heterosexual, no more than incidentally homosexual but in strict denial for the sake of future hearth, home and 2.4 children. I gathered that you had felt the occasional urge to act on your feelings, particularly during tours of duty abroad, but you had never done so. Perhaps the opportunity never arose, or maybe you felt that if you once tasted the forbidden fruit, it would likely make it more difficult to get back on what you consider to be the straight and narrow. Any or all of the above, am I right?”

John swallowed. “Sherlock, I am not discussing my private life with you here in the middle of the street,” he protested, “Particularly not after you throwing me out on my ear!”

Sherlock sighed. “So dramatic!” he complained, “All I said was I thought it better we ceased to be flatmates. I’m quite happy to give you as much time as you want to find somewhere else.”

“And this is all about what you imagine went on between me and Sherrinford, is that it?” John shot back, by this time beginning to lose his temper. “Tell me, Sherlock, just out of interest - do you get off on this, or what? Does it give you some kind of twisted satisfaction to muscle in on the personal lives of your friends and relatives, hmm? Do you get a kick out of picturing exactly what I got up to with your brother while I was here on convalescence?”

Sherlock made an angry noise. “I have told you before, John,” he said, “what and who you do in your spare time does not concern me unless and until it impacts on the work. Your putative involvement with a member of my family whilst living with me at Baker Street does exactly that and I take great exception to having my peace of mind disturbed. It must cease immediately.”

Sherlock rounded on John, his face twisted with dislike. “You are very much surplus to requirements John; I suggest you leave as soon as possible.”

John stood, twitching with rage and clenching his fists. One more word, Sherlock Holmes; just one more and I will beat you black and blue, I swear I will…

John spun on his heel and marched back to the Great House; he didn’t bother to check whether Sherlock was following.

 

Dinner was a dour, silent meal with Sherlock glowering mutely in a corner like some discontented ghost, eating nothing and drinking only water. John and Mycroft made desultory conversation over the grilled sole but neither appeared to have much appetite, probably for very different reasons. John made his excuses as soon as possible and retired to his room.

 

A loud, peremptory knock on his bedroom door startled John out of a dark, post-dinner introspection.

“Time, John,” came Sherlock’s stentorian baritone.

Bile rose in John’s throat. He swung his legs over the bed and padded across the room. “What do you want?” he demanded, opening the door a crack.

Sherlock stood, clad in his trademark coat open over a tee shirt and jeans. He gave a thin smile.

“It’s time for us to meet with Sherrinford, John,” he said in deliberately patronising tones, “or has your miniscule brain failed to process that particular piece of information?”

“Go on your own,” John told him, attempting to close the door, “You gave me the sack, remember?”

Sherlock put his size 11 Loake Oxford against the door. “Now, don’t let’s be childish,” he admonished.

John flung the door wide and stood feet apart, arms folded over his chest. “Childish?” he said, “That’s really rich coming from you, Sherlock. Of course, impersonating your brother in order to get a crack at his girlfriend is the height of adult behaviour, isn’t it? Admittedly, that was a good seventeen years ago, but it’s easy to see you’ve hardly changed much in the interim. I tell you, if I were Sherrinford I wouldn’t bother with you, I’d just let you rot. But you see, that’s exactly what I think is going to happen anyway.”

Sherlock’s face twisted into something ugly, his eyes narrowed and he jerked as though mastering a sudden impulse to throw a punch.

John gave an unpleasant half smile, pleased at having at last got under Sherlock’s skin. He shifted onto the balls of his feet, holding out his hands and curling the fingers in a “come hither” gesture.

“Alright then, Sherlock,” he said mockingly, “You think you can take me? Well, prove it then. Tell you what? I’ll let you off your head-and-a-half height advantage and I’ll even go a bit easy on you, seeing as you’re a rank amateur and all.”

Sherlock growled low in his throat, his hands clenched into fists and he took a step forward. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re something special, John, just because you got through Basic,” he spat, “It’s really rather pathetic, you know, that you think you’ve still got it despite your injuries. But brute force and ignorance always were the order of the day in the armed forces, were they not? It seems the RAMC is no exception.”

John stiffened involuntarily and forced his muscles to relax. He bounced slightly on his toes and willed his face into a smile. “Nice try, Sherlock,” he said, “Now, just give it a go – come on! – and you’ll see just how injured I really am. Lay one finger on me and I’ll bury you.”

“I’d like to see you try; it might make for an amusing Youtube video.”

“It’ll be a bit short – only a matter of seconds.”

“Ah, gentlemen, there you are!”

An easy tenor rang across the landing, making both men freeze in their tracks. Slowly, John forced himself to lower his arms and rest his heels on the ground. Sherlock suddenly breathed out explosively and spun to face the owner of the voice.

Mycroft smiled urbanely. He was dressed in Donegal tweed trousers, Hunter waterproof leather boots and a Barbour waxed jacket open over a crisp cotton shirt and cashmere pullover. Collins’ choice, I imagine, John found himself thinking, inconsequentially.

“Leaving for the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage?” Mycroft asked rhetorically, “Very well, if you must. I suppose I had better accompany you if only to prevent bloodshed. It’s a good thing Alastair owes me several favours otherwise I would never have known about this little, ah, rendez-vous. Shall we?”

Sherlock turned on his heel. “If you insist,” he snarled sarcastically at his brother and swept down the stairs, clearly expecting the other two men to follow him but just as clearly not caring if they didn’t.

Mycroft raised his eyebrows at John. “Is everything alright, Doctor Watson?” he asked in a low voice.

For one mad moment, John felt like telling Mycroft exactly how wrong everything was that day, that week, that month, this whole god-awful bloody year; like giving him chapter and verse on how off-balance he felt, how completely drained and gutted, filleted and squeezed dry he was by his continuing friendship/association/interaction – whatever he chose to call it – with all three of the Holmes brothers.

Instead he just smiled wryly and nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, “it’s all fine.” He glanced after the departing Sherlock. “Don’t know what’s got into him, though; he’s been acting very strangely ever since I told him about my convalescence here.”

Mycroft sighed. “I’m afraid that was inevitable, John,” he replied, “In some ways, Sherlock has never really grown up; even as a child, he could never, ever bear to share his toys.”

John gave Mycroft a sharp look which was completely lost as the other man turned to descend the stairs, swinging his shooting stick as he went.

Chapter Text

Sherlock was surly and uncommunicative during the short walk to the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage, striding ahead and ignoring the others. Mycroft kept his own counsel, but John dragged his feet, dogged by a restless sense of foreboding.

There was a fire already laid in the grate in the living room. John set a match to it, feeling damp and chilly in the unused air. Once the flames had caught properly, he repaired to the kitchen to make tea, more for something to do than any real desire for a drink. As he was washing out the teapot, the heightened tones of Sherlock’s hectoring baritone made him raise his head and sigh.

Bringing three mugs back into the living room, John once again interrupted a Holmes brothers’ standoff. “Oh, for the love of Mike!” he said, putting the cups down on the coffee table with enough force to slop liquid over the surface. “What is it this time?” He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket to mop up the mess.

Sherlock made an impatient noise and turned away. “Despite Mycroft’s scepticism, I am indeed expecting Sherrinford to grace us with his presence at some stage this evening,” Sherlock insisted, glaring back at his brother, “As to exactly what time he will arrive, I have no data on which to base any assumptions.”

“And I am imploring you, Sherlock, one final time to give up this charade!”

Mycroft paced the room stiffly, hands clasped in the small of his back. “Sherlock, I decided to accompany you on this fool’s errand,” Mycroft said heavily, “because I felt somebody should be present who understands the true situation.”

“You’re talking nonsense, Mycroft,” Sherlock snapped. “It’s perfectly plain; families should pull together in times of trouble. Sacrifices must be made and it is now Sherrinford’s turn to step up to the crease.”

Mycroft was shaking his head from side to side. “Sherlock, please try to see reason,” he said. John had never heard so much genuine human feeling in Mycroft’s voice; it sent a shiver down his spine.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft began again very gently, “you cannot kill your brother this way.”

John’s eyes widened into saucers.

“Kill him?” Sherlock shot back, “Don’t be ridiculous, Mycroft; I have no intention of killing him. If he is going to die, it will be Sebastian Moran who does the job.”

“If Colonel Moran does gain access to Orlington, Sherlock,” Mycroft replied, “it will be your death and that of Doctor Watson that he will be seeking. You cannot make your brother into a shield; surely even you must see that now.”

“What I see is a meddling older brother who never could keep his nose out of other people’s business,” Sherlock exploded. He whirled. “Don’t you have a life of your own, Mycroft?” he spat, “Oh, of course, I was forgetting; other people’s business is your life; you live vicariously through the rest of us, don’t you?”

“Now, that’s hardly fair, Sherlock,” Mycroft responded, without lowering his eyes, “and rather off topic; we are not speaking of me at the moment but of you.”

“And Sherrinford too, don’t let’s forget him,” Sherlock put in quickly, “My brother, my lifelong companion and helpmeet whose stupid, stupid emotional incoherence led him to betray me.”

“There was no betrayal, Sherlock,” Mycroft countered, “We have been over this time and again.”

“He was totally infatuated with that – that girl…

“Sherrinford wasn’t obsessed; he simply fell in love…”

“No!”

Sherlock clapped his hands over his ears shaking his head violently. John realised that he was standing with his jaw hanging stupidly; belatedly, he closed his mouth. Distantly, he heard the clock strike eight; the agreed meeting time.

Mycroft approached Sherlock and firmly took hold of his hands, pulling them away from his ears.

“I should never have allowed this state of affairs to continue for so long,” Mycroft said softly, almost affectionately, “I should have intervened, forced you into some kind of mediation, therapy, whatever.” He sighed. “I was younger then and beset with the twin burdens of a large inheritance taken on suddenly, and a keen political ambition.” He gave a watery laugh. “I let you down, Sherlock, and I am sorry for it.”

Sherlock stared at his brother. “Mycroft,” he replied, “I have no notion from whence this improbable humility has suddenly sprung, but it really doesn’t become you. There is nothing to be sorry for; my brother will appear when it suits him to do so, and we will wait for such time as it does.”

Sherlock was pacing the living room, coat swirling round his calves, compulsively looking at his wristwatch and thrusting his hands into his hair. He was sweating and his eyes were almost black. John had taken in so much over the past few minutes that it took far longer than usual for his doctor mode to shift into gear and alert him that there was something deeply wrong with Sherlock.

“Sherrinford was always late for everything,” Sherlock babbled, “even when we were children; he was always the last one into the taxi when we went back to Eton.”

Sherlock swiped a hand over his forehead and stared at the moisture. “It’s extremely hot in here,” he complained, “Why are you running the central heating?”

The question was levelled at Mycroft, but John answered instead. “We’re not,” he said slowly. “The only heat is coming from the fire. It’s nippy tonight, Sherlock; you do realise we’re nearly into winter, don’t you?”

Sherlock ignored him, throwing off his coat, dropping it where he stood. “This is ridiculous!” he spat, marching over to fling the front door wide. An icy wind blew into the cottage, moulding Sherlock’s thin tee shirt to his torso; the fabric was soaked through with sweat.

John shivered, choking back an exclamation, and moved to draw Sherlock back into the room but before he could do so, the other man gripped the sodden material of his shirt and stripped it off, throwing it carelessly onto the floor.

Everything went into slow motion.

John stared slack-jawed at Sherlock, his eyes raking down the thin body in shock and amazement. John’s brain stopped abruptly in its tracks, refusing to comprehend or process what he was actually seeing.

It was Mycroft who slammed the front door and dragged the shivering, sweating Sherlock into the living room, forcing him down half-naked in front of the fire. John spun round, his mouth still agape, his world slowly cracking into a number of ill-fitting pieces with no guide or instruction as to how to reassemble them. He couldn’t stop staring at Sherlock’s torso, at the healing patch of skin just below his ribs… Glancing gunshot wound; he was lucky to get away so lightly. High velocity, narrow gauge weapon. Fortunate that the sniper missed; must have been going for a head shot, target was sitting, got up unexpectedly…

John cut short his reflections as Mycroft tried with difficulty to force Sherlock’s attention.

“Sherlock, listen to me,” Mycroft gripped his younger brother’s face between his hands, “Sherrinford is not coming here tonight. No, no – listen to me!”

Mycroft released Sherlock’s face to still the hands that tried ineffectually to push him away and then ducked his head to look directly at Sherlock, into his eyes.

“He isn’t coming, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, his face very tired and his voice calm and ineffably sad, “He’s not coming – because he is already here. Isn’t he?”

Already here, already here…

The words seemed to echo, to resonate backwards and forwards, slamming against the walls of the small room.

And John reeled as the world abruptly slotted together again in a different shape and with a different order.

 

Sherlock stared wide-eyed at his brother, unmoving and with pupils so huge there was scarcely any iris left.

“Sherlock?” Mycroft waved a hand in front of his brother’s face; there was no response.

The doctor in John sluggishly crawled to the surface and he approached, gently pushing Mycroft out of the way. “Let me,” he said, kneeling down.

Checking Sherlock over as best he could without a diagnostic set, John sat back on his haunches and sighed. “Respiration and pulse are okay if a little rapid,” he said, “however, he’s not responding to stimuli – his pupils aren’t reacting either.”

“Meaning you can’t wake him,” Mycroft summed up crisply. He looked up from his Blackberry.

John nodded. “That’s about the size of it, yeah,” he replied. He manoeuvred Sherlock until the man was lying on the floor on his side, and then shifted him into the recovery position. Reaching for the rug from the back of the sofa, John gently covered the other man.

Mycroft nodded at his phone. “I’ve called for an ambulance,” he said, “but there’s been a landslide in Craigross due to all the recent heavy rain and nothing can get through on the roads. Jenkins is on it as we speak.”

“I’m fairly sure Sherlock’s not in any immediate danger,” John said carefully, “He’ll probably come round spontaneously within the next few minutes. However, if he doesn’t, we should probably start thinking about trying to get him back to the Great House somehow.”

John let his hands fall away from Sherlock and looked up.

“What’s happening to him?” he asked. Mycroft seemed deep in some unpleasant world of his own and made no reply.

John took a deep breath, reached out to grasp Mycroft's Blackberry and push it gently aside. “I think it’s about time you came clean, don’t you?” he said quietly.

Mycroft took a long time to react. When he did, he sighed and lowered himself carefully to the rug, leaning his chin in his hands before beginning to speak.

 

“I’ve no doubt you have heard any number of different accounts as to what exactly occurred on a certain night seventeen years ago just before my brothers were due to leave Orlington for Oxford,” Mycroft began quietly, “The tale has grown in the telling, speculation and exaggeration have run riot on the Estate and in the village, and you have no doubt been party to most of it over the past months, John.”

John nodded. “I’ve, er, heard quite a bit, yes,” he replied; he gave a nervous cough.

Mycroft nodded. “Well, now you’re going to hear my version of events,” he said, “and although I can’t claim to be an impartial observer, I think I am at least a reliable witness.”

 

“When my brother Sherrinford started courting Alice Rucastle,” Mycroft began in the same quiet tone, “– and make no mistake, John, he was serious about her – Sherlock simply could not handle the situation.

“Some people assumed that Sherlock disapproved of his brother becoming involved with one of the working class,” Mycroft continued, “I confess that I was in that camp. Others took a fleeting look at Alice Rucastle and assumed that she was a gold-digger, intent on trapping Sherrinford into an unequal marriage and that Sherlock was desperate to preserve his brother’s integrity. I very much doubt Sherlock was ever that altruistic in his life. Others still took an even longer look at Alice and concluded that her beauty was more than skin-deep and that Sherlock’s evident jealousy meant that he wanted her for himself.

“All of these conclusions were wrong.”

Mycroft sighed. “After Father died, mother became extremely busy with the running of the Estate,” he continued, “Her health was poor and her strength limited, and the twins were left very much to their own devices. They had to bring themselves up during the times when they weren’t at school and as a result, they became very close, perhaps unnaturally so.

“Sherlock and Sherrinford had a somewhat symbiotic relationship,” Mycroft continued, “They were both intelligent but in very different ways. Sherlock’s analytical brain meant that he could tackle anything concerned with memory or pattern standing on his head. Sherrinford, however, was creative and had a real talent with visual art and words.” Mycroft paused, “They flourished in entirely opposing subjects at Eton and I always wondered if they swapped identities to take some of their GCSE exams,” he glanced sharply at John, “just for fun, of course… But no matter.

“Sherlock did indeed try to muscle in on his brother’s romance with the village girl. They argued about her endlessly, something that absolutely devastated Sherlock, but his putative solution to the situation had nothing to do with seducing her himself – no, what he wanted was to frighten her away, to make her call it off with Sherrinford. Unfortunately for Sherlock, Alice was much more emotionally aware than he thought and she spotted his deception almost immediately. After debating with herself for a while, she eventually decided against telling Sherrinford and came to me instead.”

John sat up. “To you?” he said in surprise, “Alice didn’t tell me that.”

Mycroft raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Congratulations, Doctor Watson,” he said ironically, “I can see that it does not do to underestimate you. Of course you found Alice Rucastle, or Foreman as she is now called. No,” he continued, “Alice would not tell you about me. She was that rare thing at eighteen, a truly good and honest person, and when I tracked her down in a Women’s Refuge a few months after she left the village, I was both glad and humbled to see that her situation had not changed her. I was also delighted, if not terribly surprised, to discover that I was an uncle.”

Mycroft paused. “It was a peculiar state of affairs,” he said thoughtfully, “one of the strangest and most delicate I have ever had to deal with in all my diplomatic life. Alice fled from the father of her child because she believed, naively but sincerely, that she was detrimental to his life and to his relationship with his family. I may have, ah, encouraged that view but my motives were very different from those that had governed my actions prior to that pivotal evening when she chose to disappear.”

Mycroft fixed John with a direct stare. “I instructed her to keep every detail of her son’s parentage and her connection with the Holmes family secret,” he said carefully. “I did not threaten her, John; I did not need to. I merely swore her to secrecy and, to my satisfaction and also my surprise, she has kept her promise to the letter.”

“Had you the right to do this?” John protested earnestly, “It seems rather, well, cruel.”

“Cruel?” questioned Mycroft; he gave a cracked laugh, “Yes, I suppose not knowing the full story yet, you would interpret it as cruel, John. Nevertheless, Alice genuinely fears what might happen to her current family should Sherrinford become aware of Sigerson’s existence before her son’s eighteenth birthday. I’m afraid I share her qualms, for different reasons of course, but nevertheless I do agree. Even so, my hands would still be tied no matter how I felt about the situation.” Mycroft spread his hands in a pictorial gesture.

John narrowed his eyes. “You frightened her out of it, didn’t you?” he growled. “Alice would have had no information about Sherrinford except what she got from you. You must have told her about his studies at Oxford, his brilliance, his ambition to do his Masters in California. You would have emphasised how limiting it would be for such an exceptional young man to be hamstrung by domestic responsibilities so young. She didn’t stand a chance.” John shook his head, reluctantly admiring. “God, you’re a piece of work, Mycroft, really.”

Mycroft looked away, his glance suddenly shifty. “I assure you, John, that my intentions were honourable,” he said, “and besides, Alice didn’t have to take my advice; she is, after all, a free woman.”

John cocked his head, frowning. Abruptly his face cleared and he gave a dry laugh.

“Come on,” he scoffed, “Pull the other one; you were bankrolling the family, weren’t you? That’s how Alice could afford to set herself up in business. Maybe you still are – you can put the screws on them any time you like!”

Mycroft looked pained. “Not quite now I would put it,” he said, “but true in essence, I suppose. Nevertheless, I won’t.” He gave John a level look. “Whatever you may think of me, Doctor Watson, Sigerson is my nephew. My contact with the family is infrequent and discreet, but when he becomes of age, things may well change.”

Mycroft smiled faintly. “The boy has the frightening insight of his younger uncle together with the cooler logic of his older one,” he said, “Added to that, he has his father’s even-tempered, charming disposition. Sigerson could go far, if he wants to. Whether or not the boy ever needs my support or assistance in the future is something only he can decide.”

Mycroft showed his teeth in something John thought might be a smile. It’s really creepy to think that his might be “proud uncle” Mycroft.

John shook his head to dispel the disquieting thought and made a vague gesture with his hands. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “Alice came to you about Sherlock’s little scheme, yes?”

“Yes,” Mycroft broke off, sighed and leaned his head into his hands, “And thus occurred one of my more spectacular miscalculations in this comedy of errors,” he muttered. He looked up again and his face was haggard.

John frowned. “You think it’s funny?” he said incredulously.

“No, John, I don’t,” Mycroft replied, his tone so full of weariness that John gave him a sharp look of concern.

“I’ve lived with this situation for seventeen years,” Mycroft continued with a sigh, “I’m entitled to some gallows humour, surely.”

He didn’t pause long enough to allow John time to respond, but ploughed straight on.

“I told Alice to go ahead with the meeting on the riverbank,” he continued, “I arranged to go with her, but agreed to conceal myself in the undergrowth until Sherlock’s purpose became apparent, whatever it was. I would then confront him with the whole might of the family behind me and, with luck, he would depart with his tail between his legs and trouble the young couple no more. That was her plan, at least. It was possible that I had, ah, other ideas.”

“Such as?” John shot back quickly.

“Getting them all to see reason,” Mycroft replied imperturbably, “Convincing Alice to let Sherrinford go, at least for the time it took for him to get his degree; forcing Sherlock to back off, making him see that not everything surrounding his brother was his business; enlisting Alice’s support in persuading Sherrinford not to give up everything to stay on the Estate but to go to Oxford and take up his university place…

“It all went terribly wrong,” Mycroft sighed, “I should have known that Alice couldn’t keep secrets from Sherrinford. Unfortunately, before anything could be resolved and before I could even show myself, Sherrinford appeared on the riverbank shouting and cursing. Sherlock lost his temper and swung a punch.” Mycroft laughed bitterly. “It was a lucky hit, John. Sherlock was a clumsy child – dyspraxia, they call it nowadays – and he wouldn’t have been able to hit a barn on purpose. He bloodied Sherrinford’s nose and that, as they say, was that.

“Alice ran to me in real fear,” Mycroft continued, “She had never imagined that this might happen and neither had I. I told her urgently to leave the woods and go back up to the Great House, to tell Mrs Webster I had sent her and to stay there. It was only later I learned that she had obeyed none of my instructions.

“With Alice now safely out of the way, so I thought, I imagined that I would be able to help resolve the situation. I came out of hiding and approached my brothers. They were still grappling on the side of the river, but by this time they were down, struggling on the ground. One, I don’t know which, was holding the other’s head over the edge of the bank, trying, I think, to lever him into the water. I remember watching their muscles straining as they struggled.

“I hesitated. John, you have no idea how many times I have relived that moment, hoping fruitlessly that memory would take away my indecision and give me the resolution I crave. But it is not to be. The truth is harsh and I have lived with it every day of my life ever since.

“Sherlock or Sherrinford, whoever was on top, made the mistake of trying to strangle the other. The sudden unexpected pressure on the carotid caused the one underneath to struggle convulsively, instinctively fighting to break the hold. The results were, I suppose, inevitable; they fought so furiously, their exertions propelled them into the water and they were immediately carried off by the current. The river was swollen with the heavy spring rains and they were swept along in the maelstrom, struggling to stay afloat. I ran along the bank through the bracken and brambles and I watched helplessly as my brothers were both swept over the falls and down onto the rocks beneath.”

There was a short silence, broken only by the ticking of the clock. John glanced at Sherlock, taking in his unnatural pallor and wide eyes. John took his pulse absently; a bit fast but still within the parameters of normal.

Mycroft shook his head hopelessly. “I climbed down to the bank,” he continued, “I waded into the water and by sheer luck I found one of my brothers. I looked out into the darkness, but I could see nothing more. I dragged my brother to the shore and checked him over by the light of the moon. Mercifully, he still had a pulse and he didn’t seem to be seriously injured in any way. I performed CPR until he started to breathe for himself, then I held him as he coughed up much of the river.”

Mycroft stopped speaking. After a short while, John rose to his feet, stretching stiff limbs. He threw some more wood on the fire and went to the kitchen to fill the kettle. Coming back with two steaming mugs of tea, one of which he passed silently to Mycroft, he settled himself once again on the rug, one hand resting protectively on Sherlock’s neck.

“Which of your two brothers died that day, Mycroft?” John asked quietly.

Mycroft raised stricken eyes and shook his head. “For the sake of the deception, Sherlock had ensured that he was dressed identically to Sherrinford,” he said, “and despite the fact these were my brothers and that I was there when it happened,” he sighed, “even I cannot now be certain.”

“And the other body?” John asked gently.

Mycroft shrugged. “It was never recovered,” he replied, “Because I was so sure that I had seen both of my brothers go over the falls, an exhaustive search was carried out but it turned up nothing. My surviving brother claimed to be Sherlock and he was believed - I believed him, John; I had no reason to doubt his word. He packed up his life and departed for Oxford as soon as he could; the search for Sherrinford continued.”

Mycroft gave a weary sigh. “When Sherrinford presented himself four days later at the local police station, I started seriously wondering if I could have been wrong. After all, I could not swear on the Bible that my brother had met his death that night – I did not see it happen – and there were no other witnesses. Sherrinford gave some extraordinary tale about being stunned by the rocks and washed down the river for several miles. To be perfectly honest, it sounded like so much moonshine at the time, but I confess I merely assumed that Sherrinford had decided to lie low for a while until Sherlock had left the Estate before revealing himself. My own account of the evening sank into something of a local legend,” Mycroft laughed bitterly, “The renowned self-control of Mycroft Holmes completely shattered in one fell swoop.”

“And a DNA test could prove nothing between identical twins,” John said soberly.

Mycroft nodded. “Indeed,” he replied, “And even if it could, I saw no reason whatsoever to doubt that Sherlock was who he claimed to be; that is until Sherrinford returned. When that happened, I began to believe that I truly was going insane; I knew in my heart that one of my brothers had died that night, but hey presto - there he was, resurrected.”

Mycroft gave a bitter little laugh. “It was too much for mummy,” he said. “Her heart gave out not long afterwards.”

Mycroft paused to drink some of his tea. “However,” he continued, squaring his shoulders, “when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. The conclusion I came to was that I did indeed have only one brother and that he, in his own individual and slightly insane manner, was trying to compensate for the death of his twin. Sherlock took over Sherrinford’s life as best he could, and he has been doing so ever since.”

John’s jaw worked and he shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he replied, “they attended different universities…”

Mycroft smiled almost admiringly. “Sherlock attended Balliol, Oxford,” he replied, “Sherrinford attended Brookes – Oxford Brookes, a new university based a little outside the city. It used to be the old polytechnic, I believe. Sherrinford’s degree was in Biological Sciences with a subsidiary in Marine Biology and Ecology; Sherlock’s was in Classics. Sherlock was continually being threatened with suspension for non-attendance at lectures, but his work was so brilliant that his tutors pulled strings for him; Sherrinford needed the time to attend his field courses, you see. Around the time Sherrinford was doing his Master’s in California, Sherlock went to ground in London, supposedly burying himself in a life of hedonism and pharmaceutical abuse, but did you ever see any track marks on his arms, John?”

John frowned, shaking his head.

“No,” Mycroft nodded, “because there never were any. He was arrested and charged with possession. The police assumed he was using because he told them so.

“Sherlock never came back to Orlington,” Mycroft continued, “but Sherrinford established a life in and around the Estate, deliberately vague and unsettled to match his jetset career.”

“You mean, he had a career?” John asked in astonishment, “It wasn’t all just moonshine?”

Mycroft shook his head. “If you are interested,” he replied, “I will show you examples of the footage Sherrinford shot; some of the documentaries he has worked on are visually quite stunning.”

Mycroft sounded just as though he were offering John a cosy afternoon’s video entertainment. John stared; this explained Sherlock’s frequent absences, also his insistence on sending John to crime scenes and solving mysteries by Skype – John had always been slightly confused when the background was clearly not Baker Street, but Sherlock generally fobbed him off with some kind of plausible excuse and John did not trouble to push the issue.

As the years went by, thought John, Mycroft would have worried increasingly as to what would become of Sherlock; John’s appearance at Baker Street must have seemed like a gift from the gods.

“I did my best to persuade him into some kind of therapy,” Mycroft continued, “I visited Oxford regularly during Sherlock’s undergraduate years, trying to make him see reason. I made myself so unpopular during that time that Sherlock eventually tried to take out a legal Injunction against me to prevent further visits. Fortunately, the Court threw it out but the experience taught me a little more circumspection.”

John’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension; he pointed a finger. “I heard the two of you,” he said, “at Baker Street. I wondered what on earth… But it makes a certain kind of insane sense now.”

“Indeed, John,” Mycroft agreed, “I remember the occasion.”

“Why didn’t you talk to Sherrinford?” John asked curiously.

Mycroft’s answering expression was bleak. “Because I never met him,” he replied crisply. “Sherlock would only interact with me when he was being Sherlock, and that reluctantly. My inability to make contact with the other side of his personality was, as I saw it, a serious security risk, particularly when one of our major adversaries was of the calibre of James Moriarty. For him to know that Sherlock had a twin brother was bad enough; for him to begin a campaign against that brother was potentially disastrous. It was really quite frustrating.”

John nodded; it must have been.

“Short of having him Sectioned, I had little choice as to my actions,” Mycroft summed up, “I learned to treat him very carefully and to avoid the obvious flashpoints, such as Orlington or his brother. Nevertheless, I have been waiting for many years for this particular crisis to occur and now that it has, I’m feeling even more helpless than before.”

John nodded, pursing his lips. “So instead of having him committed to a Secure Unit, you left Sherlock in my charge,” he remarked, “You left him in the hands of a retired army doctor with lapsed emotional ties and an unhealthy attraction to dangerous situations, who you kept in total ignorance of the lie of the land. Have I got that more or less right?”

Mycroft spread his hands. “And if I had told you, John?” he said, eyebrows raised, “Would you have believed me?”

John glared at Mycroft for a moment, receiving a neutral stare of placid enquiry in return, and then John sighed and shook his head. “Probably not,” he replied.

“Well, then,” Mycroft said, lowering his hands.

John shifted, put down his tea and leaned forward. “So who is Sherlock?” he demanded urgently, “Come on, Mycroft, you knew both your brothers for eighteen years, none better. You must have some idea.” He grabbed Mycroft by the shoulders, but all he could get from him was a weary shake of the head.

“I don’t know for certain, John,” Mycroft told him; his eyes were sad, “I’ve never known.”

There was a long silence. Mycroft stirred briefly to stretch his legs. “None of this was part of the plan,” he said quietly. “Sherlock was supposed to go to ground in Europe and quietly track down the three snipers, with my help of course. When Sherrinford was spotted on the estate, I assumed Sherlock had either finished the job or needed some respite.”

Mycroft looked at John apologetically. “I deliberately threw the two of you together by moving you into this cottage,” he confessed, “I thought perhaps your presence here might promote some kind of healing between the two sides of Sherlock’s nature.”

Mycroft’s face twisted into something frighteningly like remorse. “Believe me, John,” he said, “it never occurred to me that you might become… emotionally entangled; your profile cited you as a solid Kinsey 1,” John flushed and looked away. “I thought the risk to be minimal and as soon as I realised the danger, I tried to remove you from the source.”

Mycroft sighed. “It seems that all my decisions on this topic have been doomed to failure,” he said sadly. “As soon as I had you moved back to Baker Street, Sherlock came out of hiding. Prematurely, I might add; Moran was still at large.”

Mycroft turned empty eyes on John. “You must understand,” he began, “that I never planned for…”

A groan had both heads whipping round; Sherlock had his hands wrapped around his head like a vice and his body was rocking backwards and forwards. He was clenching his teeth, hissing great panting breaths between them.

“Sherlock!” John cried, jumping up quickly, ignoring the cramp in his legs. Sherlock swayed, tiny stifled moans of pain forcing their way out. He didn’t seem to be aware of John at all.

“Sherlock,” said Mycroft, laying a careful hand on his brother’s shoulder; Sherlock went rigid then threw Mycroft’s hand off like an unwanted garment. He leaped to his feet and ran to the outer door, flinging it wide. Casting aside his blanket, he ran out into the night at breakneck speed, naked to the waist.

“Sherlock!” yelled John, making for the door. He turned back for a moment. “Mycroft!” he called, “Move your arse and get after him – never mind your bloody mobile!”

For Mycroft was staring aghast at his Blackberry. He raised a dismayed face to John and silently offered it.

John leaned over to read and buried his head in his hands. “Lovely,” he replied bitterly, “just exactly what I needed to hear; bloody fantastic!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Mycroft sombrely.

Chapter Text

John lifted his head and grabbed Mycroft’s Blackberry, re-reading just to make sure he had all the details:

Man answering description of Col S Moran sighted on 0708 service from Kings Cross to Edinburgh today. Railway police suspect armed. Travelling with 4 poss 5 others. No positive sightings as yet in Scotland. Local police advised. G. Lestrade

Six strangers sighted in GMan within last 60min (Alistair). Disturbance among pheasants past 30min (Jock). Instructions? Henry

“Moran and his associates will have been holed up in the village for most of the afternoon,” John muttered, absently closing the Blackberry and handing it back. “Waiting for full dark – they must know we’re here, in the woods. How?”

Mycroft stirred. “It’s no secret, John,” he replied, “Sherlock’s sudden appearance is the talk of the village, and I don’t suppose there’s anyone living who hasn’t heard that he is trying to effect some kind of a reconciliation with his brother. And where Sherlock is, so will you be, Doctor Watson.” Mycroft’s tone was more regretful than ironic.

“And I don’t suppose it would take much imagination to predict where Sherrinford was likely to be, eh?” John dragged a hand through his hair. “Right,” he said, “Right. Mycroft, get back to the Great House by as close to a back route as you can manage. I’m going after Sherlock.”

Mycroft was shaking his head firmly. “John,” he said earnestly, “you can’t go out there. You know that Moran and his cronies will be armed to the teeth. You’ve got nothing except your teeth.”

“I’ve got rather more woodcraft than you do, and I’m willing to bet I’m better at hand-to-hand,” John protested.

“I don’t doubt it,” Mycroft persisted, opening his phone and texting one-handed, “but Lestrade says they’re armed; you wouldn’t stand a chance against automatic weapons.”

“We don’t know that.”

“We can’t take the risk,” Mycroft looked up, his eyes bright and shrewd. All trace of the heartbroken brother John had seen earlier had been wiped clean away as though it had never existed; the Iceman was back.

“John,” Mycroft began swiftly, “you are indeed correct about my lack of woodcraft, which is why I intend to stay here at the cottage; I have no desire to expose myself to danger unnecessarily. I will attempt to track any trespassers in the woods – I have an interesting little programme on my Blackberry that plots heat sources by satellite over a surprisingly wide area – and I’ll keep in contact by phone. Here,” he reached out a hand, “Give me your mobile.”

John obeyed, intrigued, and watched as Mycroft did something to the settings before handing it back.

“Now it’s a walkie talkie – just choose the network labelled “Orlington”, Mycroft explained. His Blackberry chimed with two texts in quick succession and he read them swiftly.

“Lestrade’s information appears to be good,” he said wryly, “Alastair’s sighting has been confirmed by two other sources; there are six of them and they’ve been in The Green Man this evening asking questions. Jock, the Head Gardener, has just confirmed multiple intruders already on the Estate. All appear to be armed and wearing night camouflage.” Two more texts came in promptly as he read.

“John, get back to the Great House as quickly as you can,” Mycroft ordered without looking up, “Go straight to the gun room and get kitted up.” He looked up and flashed a brief smile. “I think your military skills could do with an airing, don’t you?”

John grinned widely and took off like the wind, needing no second bidding.

 

He encountered no one on his frantic dash for the Great House. John was not reassured by this; the implication was that Moran was already in the woods. He gritted his teeth, resisting the almost overpowering temptation to turn on his heel and rush back to find Sherlock. He could only pray that the younger man would have the sense, in his confused state, to keep his head down.

John was not entirely sure what he was expecting to find on his arrival at The Great House, but all lights blazing, all doors open and the place a hive of activity was definitely not it. Unchallenged by anyone, John went straight to the gun room to find Peter, the gamekeeper, assembling a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. He looked up as John came in panting for breath, nodded to him and tossed the L115A3 lightly into his outstretched hands. John caught it, checked the action then shouldered the weapon by its strap and looked over Peter’s shoulder. He barked out a brief laugh.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” he commented. On the bench in front of him were night vision goggles, night scopes , ammunition and spare magazines, but what really interested John were the six assorted handguns and four sub-machine guns carefully laid out in a row.

John shook his head admiringly. “No one hunts with those,” he said, gesturing to the automatics.

Peter looked up. “Not deer, no,” he replied, handing John an unfamiliar set of goggles. “Thermal imaging,” he said, “An alternative to infrared.”

In for a penny; John hung them round his neck.

“Get this on you,” Peter said; something black and solid hit John in the chest. He gave a huff of grim laughter through his nose.

“Kevlar,” John said, nodding over a grim smile, “And you just happened to have this handy, hmm?”

Peter was buckling on his own vest; he grinned toothily and gestured to the table. “Take a few of these,” he said, “Assemble in the Entrance Hall.” He slung three of the submachine guns over his shoulder, scooping up some handguns and a selection of ammunition before striding out of the door. John hastened to comply; picking up the remainder, he followed Peter into the corridor and heard the gun room lock snick shut behind him.

 

As they reached the Entrance Hall, John became aware that they were not alone; four other men were already present and turned quickly as the two came in, reaching for the weapons and equipment. They were all similarly kitted out in Kevlar and looked efficient and businesslike.

“Good to have you with us, John,” said a voice at his left shoulder. John turned to see Henry Jenkins smiling grimly as he shouldered a weapon John identified as a Hechler and Koch MG4 and pocketed a spare magazine. To his left stood Collins, imperturbable as always, checking the action of his Remington. He nodded seriously to John and tested the fastening of his belt before holstering his pistol. Jock, the toothless Head Gardener, was leaning against the wall sucking on his unlit pipe, Colt M4 carbine slung casually around his chest, while a tall, grey-haired man unknown to John who turned out to be Gerald White, the Estate Manager, tried out a night sight.

Henry pulled a handful of gadgets out of a bag and tossed one to each of the men. John caught his and turned it over curiously.

“Bluetooth headset,” Henry explained, “Try not to lose it in the woods; they’re expensive to replace.”

As John activated his device and fitted it into his left ear, he became aware of a strange dreamlike quality descending over his mind. He blinked and blinked, but it didn’t change or clarify.

“Take it easy,” Henry’s quiet voice murmured in his ear. “I know it’s surreal but let’s face it, this is the Holmes family we dealing with.” He passed John the Browning semi-automatic John had examined in the gun room what seemed like an age ago.

John gave a strained laugh as he strapped on a holster for the weapon. “Here I am about to join a group of vigilantes,” he said, “in order to chase down a pack of criminals over terrain I don’t know with people who don’t know me. Henry, this is a recipe for disaster.”

“Would you prefer to stay here?” Henry asked. John’s silence was answer enough, “Thought not. For the record, Peter outranks all of us – including you, Captain – but I’m the best tactician so control has been delegated to me. We’ve thrashed out a strategy already, but you’re going to have to go out on your own at some stage, if that suits you?”

“Suits me fine,” John replied with a grim smile. He held up the L115A3, “Marksman, remember?”

Henry smiled composedly. “So am I,” he replied. He gestured around the room, “We all are here.” John stared as Jock waved the barrel of his carbine in a friendly fashion. “Mr Holmes demands that everyone in a key position on the estate is trained at Bisley,” Henry explained. “Even Mrs Webster is a decent enough shot with a pistol.”

She’s probably an Olympic Gold Medallist, John thought slightly hysterically; he closed his mouth and just smiled back.

 

Tramping through the Orlington Estate with five of the most dangerous people he had ever met, the feeling of unreality descended back over John. His mind was preternaturally alert yet his imagination was making him feel as though he was part of one huge, co-operative video game, complete with weapons, stealth tactics and technology to match.

They halted on the edge of the woods for their final briefing. John blinked and looked up at the stars; his eyesight was almost at its peak of adjustment to the darkness. He felt the familiar jolt as adrenaline start to pump its way through his system and stepped forward to join the others grouped around their leader.

Henry had a nifty little GPS program on his phone that seemed to allow him to track anything within a 200 yard radius by its heat signature, very similar to Mycroft’s but rather less all-encompassing. He gave orders in a low, level voice through the headsets to each of the others; a swiftly moving figure John belatedly realised was Collins brushed past him, disappearing quietly into the undergrowth.

“John, do you read?” came over the headset deep in his ear canal, sounding unnecessarily intimate. John scrabbled with the volume control.

“Loud and clear, sir,” he responded. There was a pause, and then Henry laughed.

“No need for the title, John,” he said, “This is about as far from the military as it gets.”

John was in hearty agreement with that sentiment. Henry checked communications with all the others, including the absent Collins, and began to muster his forces.

”Collins is on protection duty,” Henry explained, ”He’s already gone. No offence, John, but we don’t know you as well as we know each other. You’re with me; keep under cover and start to move slowly north-east into the woods towards the cottage. Heat signatures can be deceptive, but we can at least get a general idea of where these people are.

“Remember, they are professionals,” he said seriously to all, ”of an unknown calibre and likely greater experience than us. Our only advantage is surprise and possibly superior firepower. Please, gentlemen, try not to kill anyone; you know how annoyed the Earl gets over unnecessary paperwork.”

John wondered how long Henry had been in Mycroft’s employ and whether he had ever met Sherlock on his occasional visits to London.

Henry snapped out a few more efficient commands and the others fanned out quickly like a well-oiled machine, weapons at the ready.

John pulled on his goggles and kept Henry’s bright image in sight as they made their way swiftly and almost soundlessly through the bracken. The infrared sights on their weapons allowed total invisibility; now all they had to do was rely on their woodcraft to stay totally silent.

Something flickered in John’s peripheral vision. He stopped and rotated, carefully surveying his surroundings through the specialist goggles, and made out a distinctive shadow higher up among the trees to his right. He held up a hand and Henry turned, eyebrows raised. John held up one finger and indicated his right eye in the signal for “sniper”. Hand signals for “three o’clock” and “ten metres” followed rapidly.

Henry pointed to John and made a circling motion with his hand. John gave a finger and thumb circle and peeled off to retrace his steps for a few metres.

The sniper hadn’t realised he had been made, John thought as he threaded his way carefully through the vegetation. The man held his weapon loosely against his body and he was scanning the woods with his night sight. John drew his Browning noiselessly from its holster, advanced on the preoccupied man and pressed the barrel carefully into the back of his neck.

“Don’t move,” he murmured into the man’s ear, “Put your weapon on the ground very slowly.”

Either John wasn’t convincing enough or Moran had hired lackeys just as crazy as himself. Either way, the man clearly had a death wish; he ignored John’s instructions, pushed the handgun aside and started to turn. John sidestepped quickly, reversed the Browning and brought the butt down hard on the unprotected back of the man’s neck. The sniper collapsed soundlessly.

Breathing heavily, John patted his breast pockets, breaking into a smile as he found what he was looking for; a plastic tie-tie. Clearly Peter thought of everything. He secured the man’s hands behind him, manoeuvred him onto his side, secured his feet for good measure and then searched him for weapons, finding a semi-automatic pistol, a folding knife and a garrotte too for good measure. John raised his eyebrows.

“That’s overkill, don’t you think?” he muttered to the unconscious man. He unloaded both weapons and pitched the magazines far into the trees; Peter would have to retrieve them some time or some unsuspecting shooting party was going to have a bit of a surprise. The garrotte he eyed with distaste but pocketed anyway, if only to take it out of commission. He then rolled the unconscious man into some shrubs until he was completely concealed.

John touched his earpiece. “Target neutralised,” he said.

”Jesus, you didn’t kill him, did you?” came Henry’s voice, "I heard a bit of a disturbance…”

John smiled to himself. “No,” he replied, “although I had to be rather firm with him; he wasn’t very polite. He’s secured now and his weapons made safe. Take note of my position and you should be able to recover him later.”

”Roger that,” Henry replied, “Stand by, John; I’ll join you.”

A quiet rustling of leaves a moment or so later and Henry’s bright image swam into view signalling for John to “halt” as he listened through his earpiece. John saw him nod twice.

“Collins has taken another of them out on the path to the cottage,” Henry told John, “and Peter reports that he and Jock have tracked down another three and are in pursuit. He’s requesting backup to head them off.”

John shouldered his rifle and prepared to go but Henry shook his head.

“It had better be me,” he replied, ”No offence John, but I’m more used to how Peter does things. Besides, there’s one still outstanding and I’m guessing he was partnering the one Collins took out.”

John bared his teeth. “And I would lay odds on the missing man being our old friend Colonel Moran, hmm?” he added.

“No intel as yet,” Henry replied. “Okay John, you’re on your own. Get down to the river – that’s where Mr Holmes says his brother has gone. Secure the area. Peter, Jock and I will mop up this little mess. I’m ordering Gerald to rendez-vous with you asap and Collins will be your backup once he’s secured the cottage. Stay in touch.”

“Okay,” John turned and took the path down to the river at a run.

 

John knew the place Sherlock would be making for without having to think about it; the little backwater where Sherrinford had gone swimming with the otters… John closed his eyes and banished that image firmly; this was not the time. He felt the wood stock of the rifle beneath his fingers and the press of the Browning handgun at the small of his back.

The attack, when it came, was so unexpected that John knew nothing about it until he found himself in an expert chokehold being dragged behind a rock outcropping. His inner cynic laughed at the simplicity of using a natural landmark to conceal a heat signature. He struggled frantically but his attacker knew his business.

“Keep still or I’ll break your neck,” a low voice breathed in his ear. John clenched his jaw and relaxed his struggles.

“That’s better,” the voice said, “Now, Doctor Watson, I think you know who I am and I’m also pretty sure you know what I want.”

Moran released the pressure on John’s windpipe long enough for him to choke in a breath.

“You want…” he rasped, “You want Sherlock.”

“Quite right,” Moran agreed, applying the pressure once again, “I want Sherlock, of course I do, but I also want you.”

“Why?” John managed.

Moran appeared to consider. “I keep my word,” he said. “I take on a job, I finish it come hell or high water. The deal was Holmes dies, you stay alive – and the cop and the old lady. He’s still alive, god knows why, so it’s my professional duty to make sure that you’re not.

“You have to understand, Doctor Watson,” Moran continued seriously, “that it’s really nothing personal; I have my reputation to consider.”

John shook his head frantically, partly as a negative, partly through anoxia. Moran released him once again.

“Why… Sherlock?” John choked out.

Moran smiled nastily. “Well now,” he said, “that’s a horse of a different colour, isn’t it? Once I get my hands on Holmes, I will make it worth the trouble the both of you have caused for me.”

“Sher… Sherlock didn’t kill James Moriarty,” John croaked.

“Whether or not he pulled the trigger,” Moran said, his voice icy, “is beside the point.” He squeezed down hard on John’s throat once again.

“I’m going to make sure that you pay for his death, both of you,” he said more quietly, “Your meddling ruined the plans of a lifetime, you know, not to mention depriving the world of one of the greatest criminal minds in history. His death was a travesty, and for what? To win the game, to beat Sherlock Holmes, that’s what. Only he didn’t, did he?”

Moran grinned unpleasantly. “Sherlock Holmes pulled a fast one,” he continued, “and James Moriarty paid the price. All I want to do today is put the record straight.

“I think you know what’s going to happen to you, don’t you, Doctor Watson?” Moran grated into his ear, “You’re going to die – yes, you are, please don’t imagine that your little pal Holmes is in any fit state to ride to the rescue; no, the cavalry’s not coming today, Doctor. As I understand it, he’s wandering around this woodland half-naked and barking mad. Don’t worry, Doctor, my men won’t hurt him; well, not much anyway. They’ll just deal with your troop of village vigilantes first, then they’ll probably rough him up a bit before they bring him to me, not too much though, don’t want to spoil things. Once I’ve got him, I’ll hurt him, you can be sure of that.

“And I’ll hurt you too, Doctor Watson,” Moran purred, tightening his arm over John’s windpipe; stars started to explode in John’s vision, his ears roared, “while Sherlock Holmes watches.”

“I’ll hurt you so badly you’ll beg me to end it for you,” Moran continued in his quiet, inexorable voice, “Really, there is so much choice as to where to start when you torture a man, and we have all night, Doctor. Seeing as you were once a surgeon, I might start with your hands. I could sever the tendons gradually, one by one – I know exactly how to make that excruciatingly painful. I was taught by an expert, you know, in Burundi; he was a total artist. But I digress.”

John was only half conscious by now and hardly hearing Moran’s words. When he came to, he was efficiently trussed, disarmed and lying in a corner; his Bluetooth set lay in a pile with the rest of his gear, including the confiscated garrotte. John flexed his legs, wondering why only his hands were restrained.

Moran grinned. “I think you might have divined just which part of you I am going to start on,” he announced cheerfully. “I can scarcely give your feet the attention they deserve if they’re tied together, now can I?”

Moran approached John and stood over him.

“I am an adept with pain,” he said quietly.

“So you keep telling me,” John croaked; his larynx felt odd, misshapen.

“And I’ll willingly demonstrate,” Moran confirmed, not at all put out, “I can calculate to within a whisker how much agony a man can stand before unconsciousness takes him and I can bring him back from the edge again and again. This is something you will learn to appreciate before you die, Doctor Watson.

“Sherlock Holmes is, of course, already insane,” Moran continued, examining John’s sniper rifle with a connoisseur’s interest, “But I know how to wake up his pain centres, and I will make him watch while I peel your life slowly away in strips until you beg for death. Then I will stop with you and begin on Sherlock Holmes, making certain that you both remain in a fit state to appreciate the show.”

A distinctive sharp crack made Moran whip his head round.

“Sniper fire,” John said. Moran glared at him with intense dislike and jerked his head again at a burst from an automatic weapon from no more than a couple of hundred yards away.

“What, you expected my reinforcements to be incompetent?” John enquired, very calmly considering the circumstances. “They have superior fire power and the element of surprise, Moran. I don’t think it will take too long.”

Moran made a sudden grown of intense frustration. “No matter,” he replied, grinding the muzzle of a pistol into John’s ear. “I have most of what I came for right here.”

John screwed his eyes shut against the anticipated explosion.

Chapter Text

The snick of a safety catch being disengaged can seem very loud in when you are holding your breath. John slitted his eyes open.

“I advise you very strongly to put down your weapon and step away from Doctor Watson,” said a tenor voice crisply, “Now.”

Mycroft Holmes emerged from the shadows; in his hand was John’s Browning and it was as steady as a rock.

“Firearms are not usually my metier, of course,” he continued calmly, “but I make it a priority to keep up to snuff with all the usual refresher courses, just in case of emergencies such as this. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I will not shoot to kill, Colonel Moran.”

Mycroft took careful aim at Moran’s head; his threat was made even more immediate by the appearance of Collins behind his left shoulder. The other man nodded at John and raised his weapon.

Moran merely screwed his gun even more painfully into John’s ear. “Go ahead,” he replied composedly, “You can be very sure that Doctor Watson won’t survive the experience.”

Mycroft nodded. “That is, of course, true,” he said without missing a beat, “but there will always be collateral damage in every conflict and Doctor Watson knew what he was taking on when he became involved with my family. My brother Sherlock is my first priority and I will sacrifice any and all to ensure his safety. You, Colonel, will die and there will be an end to it.”

You bastard, Mycroft. John clenched his teeth.

Standoff.

All at once, Moran seemed to stagger and then hit the ground with a grunt as though under a heavy weight. The pistol dropped from his hand and skittered into the undergrowth. John stared, slightly uncertain as to what had just happened, until he realised that Moran was suddenly fighting for his life. Sherlock had vaulted noiselessly over the top of the rock outcropping to land on Moran’s back and was now laying into the other man with all the ferocity of a New York street fighter; vicious, undisciplined and totally silent.

“Sherlock!” Mycroft tried to intervene, still holding the Browning, “Sherlock! Kindly desist – you don’t need to beat him to death. The others have been taken out or captured; it’s over now.”

Sherlock turned his head no doubt to snarl a scathing reply. His face twisted and his mouth worked but no sound came out. He frowned, concentrating hard, then his eyes flew open in terror; he released Moran and grasped at Mycroft, panting, his fingers bruising his brother’s arms. Collins lowered his weapon, coming to Mycroft’s aid.

John stared, puzzled, but Mycroft, always quicker, saw what was going on. “Sherlock,” he repeated insistently, “Your speech centres are blocked; trauma will do that sometimes. If you can calm yourself and try not to panic, you will remember that it’s only temporary.”

Mycroft forced Sherlock’s clutching hands down and held them firmly. There was a sudden flurry of movement.

“Hands where I can see them,” barked Moran. John swivelled his head to see Moran flat on the ground holding John’s own rifle as if he knew exactly what to do with it. The business end was circling gently between the two Holmes brothers and Collins with the occasional glance at John. A nod from Mycroft had Collins engaging the safety on his weapon and lowering it to the ground, his hands held up, palms outermost. Mycroft himself carefully laid down the Browning and stood, his hands raised. Sherlock froze, breathing heavily, his eyes wild but no longer terrified.

“Over, is it?” Moran said between what were left of his teeth, “Well, I think we’ll just see about that.” There was an open gash down one side of his forehead, his right eye was rapidly swelling and his lower lip was split; he spat a mouthful of something bloody to one side without taking his eyes off Sherlock.

“Your dental bills will be very expensive for the next few years,” Mycroft remarked mildly, “should you live out the night, that is.” Moran refused to rise to the bait, eyes alert and watchful over the weaving barrel of the L115A3.

Mycroft shook his head. “Give it up, Moran,” he said coaxingly, “None of this will bring Moriarty back. Let us go and make your escape.”

“My freedom for your lives, is that it?” Moran rasped. He rose painfully to his feet and pointed the barrel of the rifle at Mycroft, shaking his head. “I might not get as much fun out of it, but I’ll finish the job I came to do.”

Mycroft raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so you’re including me in the deal now, are you?” he remarked, “You are certainly branching out, aren’t you, Moran? I’m in a completely different league to my brother or to Doctor Watson. My demise at your hands may possibly bring you to the notice of a future employer or two, but just imagine how many international hit lists will have your name added to the top as a result.”

Moran shook his head. “It makes no difference,” he replied, “Whatever you are to the British Government pales into insignificance when compared to what you are to Sherlock Holmes.”

Mycroft actually laughed. “If you truly believe that my presence on this planet has ever been of any import to my brother, you are considerably less intelligent and well-informed than I think you are,” he said; he sounded amused. Moran frowned but continued to point his weapon at Mycroft.

“In fact,” Mycroft continued, “your sources must be even less reliable than usual to have left you with any doubt as to the level of concern my little brother has for my wellbeing; or indeed the wellbeing of any other creature. Let me give you an example of Sherlock’s monumental indifference to people in general and myself in particular: when he was still at Eton, there was a …”

John’s feet slammed into the backs of Moran’s knees. The other man stumbled, holding fast to John’s rifle but Mycroft was ready, bringing his shooting stick down sharply on Moran’s arm. Moran grunted and the rifle dropped from his suddenly paralysed hand; struggling to his feet, John kicked the weapon aside, looking frantically about him for his Browning, a knife, a tree branch – anything.

Moran was absolutely white with rage. “You insignificant little nobody!” he shouted suddenly at John, “You and that-that policeman, and that old woman – you were the reason Jim died, not Holmes! It shouldn’t have happened that way…”

Moran swiped a hand under his right trouser leg and came back up with a tiny knife. Arms still bound, John kicked out hard and connected, sending the little blade spinning away into the undergrowth. Moran bellowed with rage. He looked around wildly and snatched up the discarded garrotte, lunging at John and aiming the lethal wire at his neck.

Quickly, Mycroft scooped up the fallen Browning and jammed it against Moran’s skull. “Let him go,” he commanded. Too far gone in rage, it was doubtful if Moran even heard him. Mycroft withdrew and reversed the weapon, preparatory to using it as a club but found himself pushed roughly aside. He watched in shocked fascination as Sherlock hooked his arm around Moran’s throat and tightened the elbow, wrenching hard. There was a horrible choking sound and Moran suddenly gave ground, raising his hands helplessly to his neck, releasing the garrotting wire. Sherlock dragged Moran away as John heaved in great gulps of air, hands still bound behind him, bending double with effort.

Sherlock increased the pressure and Moran’s face started to turn purple. John noted that there was no more talk of clemency from Mycroft. Moran scrabbled desperately at Sherlock’s arm, then changed tactics and slammed his elbow hard into Sherlock’s solar plexus. Sherlock grunted in pain and reflexively loosened his hold. Moran flung off the grasping hands and took off into the woods, staggering and crashing through the undergrowth with no thought of concealment or safety. A second later, Sherlock was off like a gazelle in pursuit.

“No!” shouted John, struggling to his feet.

Mycroft held his shoulders. “You cannot help Sherlock if your hands are tied,” he told him, “Literally, in your case.” He cast about him and came up with Moran’s little knife.

“Hmm,” Mycroft said looking at it thoughtfully, “A sgian-dubh; how very appropriate.” He started to saw at the plastic tie-tie around John’s wrists.

“I am thankful that you were quick on the uptake, Doctor Watson,” Mycroft continued as he worked.

John gave a small smile, holding very still; the blade was extremely sharp. “It wasn’t hard,” he replied, “I mean, it’s not as if you make a habit of relating family anecdotes in response to threats on your life. You were clearly both playing for time and distracting him.”

“Indeed,” Mycroft agreed as the plastic strips parted company. John flexed his hands, wincing as the blood returned to his fingers. Mycroft held out a hand to Collins for his headset and donned it quickly.

“Henry, do you read me?” he said, turning to pace through the undergrowth.

John massaged his wrists, picked up the L115A3 and checked it over for damage. Finding none, he slung it over his shoulder and checked his pockets for the spare magazine. As John crouched to fish his own headset from the undergrowth, Collins eyes dropped to John’s neck with raised eyebrows, nodding.

“You’re going to have some pretty deep marks there, Doctor,” he said, “A garrotte’s a nasty weapon; good thing Master Sherlock was ready for it.”

John only had time for a brief nod before Mycroft was returning.

“All accounted for,” Mycroft announced with satisfaction, “One shoulder wound – non-fatal, one smashed femur, now stabilised, and three unhurt including the one you rendered unconscious, Doctor Watson. No casualties on our side; I count that as a win.” He smiled.

John straightened. “The only one still at large is Moran,” he said, “unarmed, and with Sherlock in pursuit. Okay, I’m on it.” His face was set.

Mycroft nodded at Collins who shouldered his own weapon and fell into line with John.

Mycroft studied his Blackberry intently. “Their heat signatures appear to be making for the river,” he said without looking up, “Follow the path to the east and you should be able to track them from there.”

John smiled grimly. “Cheers!” he said and turned to go; Collins followed a step later.

 

John followed the pathway in the direction of the river with Collins bringing up the rear. The rush of water and the distant roar of the falls grew louder as they jogged through the leaf mould. It seemed a very short time before they sighted Sherlock and Moran and a curious sense of déjà vu came over John as he took in the tableau.

Sherlock had run Moran into a dead end, cornering him at the bank of the river. With no space to manoeuvre and nowhere to run, Moran had evidently stood his ground and attacked.

The moon was up and the river was high, John realised with the sting of panic; the recent torrential storms had fed not only this but other waterways higher in the mountains, and the resulting overflow was threatening to burst the banks.

They were locked together, Sherlock and Moran, only inches from the water. They strained and struggled for the upper hand, feet slipping on the muddy bank as they fought, John realised with dawning horror, to the death. Only one man would emerge alive from this conflict, that much was patently clear, unless John managed to stop it now. He raised his rifle and sighted on Moran, but the risk of hitting Sherlock by accident was too great. He lowered the weapon in frustration and thought helplessly of the Browning left with Mycroft.

”Mayday, mayday,” John said quickly into his headset, “Request backup at the river stat. Sherlock is in danger, repeat, Sherlock is in danger.” He stopped at the silence and tapped the earpiece.

“Come on!” he muttered, “You’re supposed to be state of the art tech - don’t give up on me now!

John flicked the switch again; still nothing. He turned. “Collins!” he shouted, “send out a Mayday – this is an emergency!”

Collins spread his hands, tapped at his ear and shrugged. With a sense of acute frustration, John remembered that Mycroft had taken Collins’ headset. He made a split-second decision.

“Go back to the cottage and raise the alarm,” he ordered, “I’ll deal with this here - get a helicopter, for god’s sake!” He shouted after the departing Collins.

A sudden cry from the river caught John’s attention; Moran’s leg had given way and he was slipping slowly down the bank towards the foaming water. Sherlock loosened his hold on Moran’s upper body, trying to kick free. John saw, as though it were in HD, the thought appear in Moran’s mind then bloom over his face. Moran reached out, grabbing at Sherlock’s tattered trousers, winding his fingers into the material and hanging on for dear life – or death, whichever. Then he pulled.

“NO!” screamed John as the two men teetered on the brink. He broke cover and pelted straight for them even though he knew there was no way on god’s earth that he would get there in time. Sherlock turned his head, momentarily distracted, and stared, wide-eyed and horrified, straight at John. Then Moran finally overbalanced, dragging Sherlock with him into the maelstrom beneath. The roar of the swollen river was so loud that the splash went almost unnoticed.

“No, no, no,” John moaned to himself as he ran along the bank, trying against all odds to see if either of the two men had surfaced. He touched his headset, flicking the two-way switch again and again.

“Mycroft, Henry – anybody – emergency! Two in the river, current is strong. Mayday, mayday!”he yelled helplessly; the device remained stubbornly silent, not even static.

A dark head came up through the foam and shook itself, glistening in the moonlight. Glittering spray flew off the long strands and John felt his heart clutch. He ran to the bank shouting at the top of his voice against the thundering water. Miraculously, Sherlock seemed to hear him. He turned, spotted John and started for the bank.

Moran also surfaced, a little further away from John. He too made for the shore. John hurried to the edge, moving crabwise along it, trying to keep pace with the current.

“Come on, Sherlock!” he shouted, “You’re too slow! Move it!”

The boom of the falls grew closer. Sherlock didn’t seem to be making much headway. In fact, if anything Moran was gaining on him.

Must have hit his head on the way down. “Sherlock!” John shouted in alarm, “Moran! He’s behind you! Watch out!”

There was no way either man could hear him clearly above the din of the water. As John watched in agonised suspense, Sherlock seemed to falter, to lose his stroke. Behind him, Moran reached out to grab Sherlock’s hair, thrusting his head under the water. John yelled helplessly. Kicking out hard, Sherlock managed to wrench himself free and turned in the water, snarling.

“Sherlock!” John yelled, powerless to help, "My god, the falls! You're too close!"

Moran drew his head back and slammed it at the bridge of Sherlock’s nose. This move would have worked, except that Sherlock chose that moment to try a sudden dive and Moran’s chin caught on the top of Sherlock’s head. Moran gave a pained grunt and grabbed at Sherlock’s slippery body, holding him around the waist as he tried to wriggle away.

“Sherlock!” John bawled, taking a panicked glance ahead of the two men; the falls were so much closer than they had been a split second ago.

Sherlock got his legs around and kicked Moran once in the face and again under the chin. John saw a spurt of red as the blow broke Moran’s nose; still he held on grimly, this time to Sherlock’s ankle. Sherlock thrashed, sinking under and back up again, struggling to keep his head above the water. Before John’s agonised eyes, unable to intervene in any way, they were both swept smoothly and inexorably nearer and nearer to the edge – then abruptly they were gone.

 

John tumbled down the rough pathway hardly knowing what he was doing, screaming into his dead headset for assistance. Leaping the last six feet, he plunged straight into the icy water, looking about him frantically and calling for Sherlock. Belatedly, he remembered the torch on his rifle’s night sight and pulled it hurriedly from his pocket. Shining it over the boiling waters, John searched with increasing urgency for some trace, anything at all, that two men had, until a few seconds ago, been struggling in this vortex.

There was nothing, no sign at all. John waded further into the turbulence, calling on untapped reserves of strength as he struggled against the current, feeling with his feet.

“Mycroft, you’d better be reading me,” he gasped into his headset. “Mycroft, I need assistance immediately – this is a Red Alert. Mycroft… Mycroft!”

The headset was still totally silent; John plucked it from his ear and threw it into the water in frustration.

“Come on, Sherlock,” he muttered, carefully negotiating slime-covered rocks, “Where the hell are you? Look, just give me a little help here, will you?”

John was waist-deep by now and hanging on for dear life to a jagged-looking chunk of rock.

“Don’t give up on me now, Sherlock,” he shouted, “I haven’t chased through unfamiliar woods all night, been tied up, threatened with torture and death, and got soaked to the skin and freezing into the bargain just so you can die on me again! Where the hell are you, you stubborn idiot!”

John’s feet slipped out from under him. “You can’t die on me, you ornery bastard,” he said, flailing hard, “I can’t cope with losing you a second time – losing both of you, both brothers – oh, hell, I don’t know what I mean.”

John spat out river water and regained his footing. He panted, righted his torch and carried on searching.

“Just – don’t die, okay?” John said, his voice trembling and his hands losing feeling. “I can keep this up all night, you know; just see if I can’t. Just – stay with me, alright? Stay alive; don’t be dead, don’t be dead, Sherlock.”

A particularly strong current swept John’s frozen hands off the rocks. He struggled for a short while then turned onto his back. The water felt strangely warm.

“Come on, Sherlock,” he murmured, “Come on! You’ve got to be here somewhere, I won’t let you die, I can’t let you go.”

The water carried John through the rocks and downriver, the numbness spreading through him almost unnoticeably. He closed his eyes wearily; if this was death by hypothermia, it was a decent enough way to go by comparison; it beat bleeding out on a battlefield, he would testify to that.

Rough hands grabbed him and hauled him painfully out of his watery cocoon. There was a lot of noise and shouting, he was slapped hard, covered in a blanket and dragged shivering onto the river bank where he was set upon by a team of very loud people who looked as though they knew what they were doing. Later, he would remember vomiting a lot of river water over someone’s shoes and being praised for it.

John’s brain felt like it was wrapped in cotton wool. He looked up to see Mycroft with a makeshift bandage around a head wound. He wondered vaguely when that had happened and reached forward to bandage it for him properly. His arms wouldn’t respond and he realised when he tried to stand that neither would his legs.

“John,” Mycroft's face swam blurrily into view. “John, they’re air-lifting you to hospital.”

John shook his head, fought him weakly. “No,” he breathed, snatching at Mycroft.

Mycroft held his arms down. “You have to go, John,” he told him, “You’re exhausted, hypothermic and you nearly drowned. You can’t help Sherlock now, John; it’s over.”

I can’t lose you again. The thought was so painful that John actually whimpered; him, an Afghanistan veteran. Then he lost consciousness. Well, at least he guessed that he must have done.

Chapter Text

Beeping machines, the smell of antiseptic, coarse cotton sheets – oh dear god, I’m in hospital again.

John tried to turn over, realised he had a cannula in his arm attached to a drip and sighed

“Where am I and what is the time?” he said clearly, without opening his eyes.

There was a rustling next to him as though another person was shifting in a chair.

“Kindly refrain from quoting The Fellowship of the Ring at me, especially after trying to act out the end of book two, most ineptly I might add. What in the world did you imagine you were doing, John?”

That voice…

Sherlock. John luxuriated in the wave of sheer relief that washed over him. He opened his eyes and blinked back moisture, feeling it totally justified for once.

“Do you know how annoying that is?” John said after a long moment spent gazing at the white ceiling. He turned his head.

Sherlock frowned. “What is?” he replied puzzled.

“When you set yourself up as the damsel in distress,” John continued, “and you end up taking over as the rescuing hero. And where do you get off knowing about Tolkien? Doesn’t that qualify for deletion just like any other piece of popular culture?”

“Of course not, John,” Sherlock scoffed, “The Lord of the Rings was written more than half a century ago, so it’s scarcely popular culture. Besides, it was required reading at Prep School.”

“What about the films?” John asked, unable to resist.

Sherlock looked puzzled. “Films?” he asked politely.

Sighing, John gave it up as a bad job. “I suppose I have you to thank for my survival?” he said nonchalantly.

“Well, not exactly,” Sherlock responded, rubbing a hand over his stubbled jaw. He’s been up all night – sitting in that chair?

“No,” Sherlock continued, “Mycroft and Air Sea Rescue may claim that honour; I merely saved myself from an unpleasant death by drowning. I fetched up quite a way downriver; it was a long and tedious hike back.”

“And Moran?” John asked.

Sherlock gave him a level look. “Moran is dead,” he replied evenly.

“Are you sure?” There was something Sherlock wasn’t saying.

Sherlock sighed. “As sure as I can be until his body is found,” he replied. “They’re still looking, but considering he was injured and weighed down with clothing, not to mention a poor swimmer in comparison with me, I think it’s a foregone conclusion.” He looked away. “And besides,” he continued in a quieter tone, “I saw him go over the falls. I saw him land.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t pretty.”

John nodded and there was silence for a moment.

“And you?” John asked, blinking up at Sherlock through gritty, bloodshot eyes.

“Me?” Sherlock smiled and squared his shoulders, “Just raised adrenaline levels and a few abrasions; nothing that a prolonged dip in water at a constant seven Celsius couldn’t cure.”

“Are you okay?” John persisted.

“I should be asking you that,” Sherlock replied, “After all, you’re the one who was air-lifted to hospital with all the symptoms of exposure. You were unconscious, John, it’s a miracle you didn’t drown – Mycroft said he had to slap you to keep you awake.”

John nodded; he had been dimly aware of that at the time. “What happened?” he asked.

Sherlock sighed. “You’re probably not in any fit state for this,” he said, “and pretty soon some interfering busybody with a medical qualification is going to decide that you need rest and will throw me out, so I’ll be quick about it. You’re at Borders General Hospital and apart from exhaustion and a sore throat from inhaling river water, there’s not much wrong with you now. They’re given you all the shots against anything nasty you might have picked up but I can testify that the water’s pretty clean; I’ve been swimming in it for years and never had a problem. They’re going to discharge you tomorrow, all being well, and my dear brother has arranged to transport both of us back to Baker Street – he seems to think the sooner I leave Scotland the better.”

“Tomorrow?” was the only thing John could think of saying.

“Yes, they’re springing you tomorrow. Do try to pay attention, John.” Now there was the Sherlock Holmes he knew and – loved. John turned his head away with a huff of laughter through his nose.

“What about… well, you know: Moran,” John tried awkwardly.

“What about him?” Sherlock fixed him with a steely glare.

“Well, his body…” John trailed off, still too weak to be having this kind of conversation.

Sherlock sighed and was silent.

“Sherlock?” John said, levering himself up on one elbow; it hurt his chest.

“Lie down,” Sherlock told him, moving into range again. “Don’t act like all you have is an ingrown toenail, John. Your lungs will be sore and will need time to recover, you could possibly develop pneumonia, but with all the shots they’ve given you that’s probably less likely now. You’re on intravenous antibiotics as it is; you know Moran actually got you in the leg with that itty bitty little knife, don’t you? That’s why you’ve got a bandage round your calf.”

“Oh god, not again!” John said, flopping back into the pillow, “Ah well; at least it’s not the same place as last time, I suppose.”

“Relax, John, it’s just a scratch,” Sherlock replied wryly.

“You mean just a flesh wound, don’t you?” John joked weakly then held up a hand. “Okay, okay – never mind.”

To his surprise, a warm smile spread over Sherlock’s face. “Monty Python,” he replied, then at John’s shocked expression, “What? There is some popular culture around that’s worth leaving undeleted, you know.”

“Can I have that in writing?” John murmured rhetorically.

Sherlock ignored him. “With regard to Moran,” he said more quietly, “I am due to accompany the local police in their search and rescue operation this afternoon.”

“This afternoon?” John repeated, “Why aren’t you with them now? I mean, surely the sooner you get to it…” He trailed off at Sherlock’s serious expression.

“I know where Moran is,” Sherlock said softly, “or at least, I know where he will be late this afternoon.”

John frowned in incomprehension.

Sherlock continued slowly and with no particular signs of impatience. “I know where he will be,” he said, “because the river on the Estate behaves in a very particular and peculiar manner when it is swollen with rain, and I know the time he will get there because seventeen years ago…” He paused to take a very deep breath.

“Seventeen years ago, John,” Sherlock said in a low voice that shook, “I found my brother there.”

A frozen moment passed then Sherlock rose to his feet, shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat and walked rapidly out of John’s hospital room into the corridor. John cleared his throat and swallowed. This is not going to be easy, for any of us.

 

John had no other visitors before the hospital discharged him the following day, but he did find a shiny limousine parked discreetly to one side of the entrance.

“Ah, John!” said Mycroft jovially as he slid onto the back seat, “You are very lucky; a couple of hours later and I would already be on my way back to Westminster.”

“Well, thank you for the consideration,” John replied with only mild sarcasm. “Will I be hitching a lift with you in your helicopter, or are you expecting me to take the train again? Or maybe walk?”

“Oh, you’ll be travelling with me, of course,” Mycroft replied unperturbed. “So much quicker and more civilised; if you have the choice, of course.” He laughed softly.

“Of course,” John echoed flatly.

“Your bags have already been packed,” Mycroft continued, superbly unaware of John’s irony, “Collins is clearly still as efficient as ever, despite a wrenched knee sustained in my defence at the Old Beekeeper’s Cottage.”

Mycroft looked the same as always except for a cut on his forehead secured by two butterfly strips. John nodded at it.

“How d’you get that?” he asked.

Mycroft’s expression became chagrined. John sat up, interested.

“Go on,” John said, raising his eyebrows. He gestured for Mycroft to continue.

Mycroft gave a slight sigh. “When your Mayday came through, I left the cottage for the river as quickly as possible,” he said. “Rather too quickly, I’m afraid: I fell foul of a tree root.”

John’s lips twitched and he turned away to hide his laughter.

“However, I’m giving it out on the Estate that I tackled one of Moran’s goons single-handed,” Mycroft continued in a firmer tone, “It’s good for morale, you know.”

Whose? Yours or theirs? John merely nodded, not trusting himself to comment out loud.

“Sherlock is already in transit,” Mycroft continued blithely as the car purred its way out of the hospital grounds. “Once he had located Colonel Moran, I considered it politic to have him return to London as soon as possible. The Procurator Fiscal has done a preliminary examination on the late Sebastian Moran and recorded a Death by Misadventure.”

How very convenient. John resisted the temptation and said nothing.

Mycroft paused for a moment then turned towards the window and began to speak again.

“At the same time he discovered Colonel Moran’s body,” Mycroft said quietly, “Sherlock also uncovered the remains of our younger brother, Sherrinford.”

John shot Mycroft a sharp look, but the other man merely adjusted his cuffs minutely without looking up.

“We are certain that it is indeed Sherrinford,” Mycroft continued, “but tissue samples have been sent for DNA analysis to confirm his identity and the results should be available in the very near future.”

John lowered his eyes. He felt inexplicably sad, as though having the death confirmed made what had only been a suspicion in his mind into something concrete. He had truly not realised until now that part of him had been clinging on to the impossible hope that Sherrinford was a real independent person and that this nightmare had all been a figment of his or Sherlock’s twisted imagination.

Mycroft paused for a moment. “We are, of course, extremely saddened by this series of events,” Mycroft said sombrely, “but I feel that now the Holmes family can at least look towards a measure of closure.”

John took a breath and turned in his seat, glaring at Mycroft. “Alright,” he said firmly, “the truth, please.”

“You doubt my word, Doctor Watson?” Mycroft protested but without any rancour.

“All the time,” John responded without missing a beat, “Now spill!”

Mycroft gave a tiny shrug but his expression did not change. “Seventeen years ago,” he began, “Sherlock used the brief time before he went up to Oxford to assist in the search for his brother’s body. Sherlock had never been a great one for outdoor pursuits – his brother Sherrinford had always been much more of that persuasion – but it was easy for anyone to see why Sherlock would want to be involved and he was allowed to take part.”

Mycroft paused. “Sherlock had his own ideas about river currents, flood patterns and the effects of the weather,” Mycroft continued, “and despite the fact that several teams had already tried and failed to find Sherrinford’s body, Sherlock being Sherlock, he succeeded.”

John swallowed but kept his chin high.

“By chance or design,” Mycroft continued in a measured tone, “Sherlock was alone when he discovered his brother.”

“In the same place you found Moran’s body this afternoon, I’m guessing,” John said.

Mycroft nodded. “Correct, John,” he replied, “But the shock of this discovery to the eighteen year-old Sherlock was so devastating that it fractured his personality; hence the double life.” Mycroft sighed, “He never divulged where Sherrinford was, despite my pleading with him on numerous occasions to do so, and none of the search teams ever discovered where Sherlock had been that afternoon. Eventually I was obliged to call off the search and return my staff to their normal duties and as you know, it was at that point that my surviving brother’s dual lifestyle had its beginning. The secret was a well-kept one until today.”

John fidgeted a little, and then angled his body round to face Mycroft. “So who is he now?” he asked, “Sherlock, I mean. After all, he’s having to face up to the fact that not only is his brother dead but he has been dead for seventeen years. That’s going to involve a lot of adjustment, surely.”

“Indeed,” Mycroft agreed, “and he’s going to need some help. We’ve put it out that Sherrinford died three days ago in a tragic accident on the Estate along with one other unnamed person. It will be an open and shut case. There will be a private funeral in the next couple of weeks – I will represent the family – with a closed casket because the body was so badly disfigured by its time in the water.

“Sherrinford will take his rightful place in the family plot,” Mycroft continued, “and Sherlock will have to come to terms with melding the two sides of his fractured personality. It’s either that or spend the rest of his life under constant supervision.”

And how’s he going to manage that, I wonder?

 

John did not see Sherlock for several days. He was whisked back to London via Mycroft’s helicopter with the promise that his luggage would follow by more conventional means. Baker Street was just as he had left it a few days previously, but Mrs Hudson had been in to stock the fridge so John could at least rest up after his journey.

John ate, slept a lot and watched bad television for the next few days, aware that he was waiting; when the rattle of the front door finally came, it was almost an anti-climax.

“Where have you been?” John asked casually from the sofa. Sherlock’s footsteps paused on the threshold then he walked slowly into the living room.

“Mycroft,” he said, as though that explained everything, and then yawned expansively. “’Scuse me – I’ve been awake for most of the time since I visited you in hospital.”

“Why?” John asked, eyebrows raised.

Sherlock shrugged. “I wanted to get it over with,” he replied, “so I made them carry out the evaluations end to end. Over the past several days, Mycroft has had me assessed by the most eminent shrinks the world has to offer; all totally hush-hush, of course.”

John stared. “You – submitted to that?” he asked in genuine astonishment.

Sherlock looked confused.

“I mean,” John floundered, “the Sherlock I know and lo… well, the Sherlock I used to know would have sooner swallowed glass shards.”

Sherlock stopped to think about that. “You’re probably right,” he replied.

“And the results?” John scrambled.

“Inconclusive,” Sherlock replied scornfully, flinging himself down in an armchair, “Psychiatry isn’t a science anyway.”

“Speaking as a medic, I’d take issue with that if I weren’t so bloody glad to see you.” John replied. He beamed suddenly and swung his legs of the sofa.

“Tea?” he asked, going into the kitchen.

“Coffee,” returned Sherlock, hanging his coat on a hook on the landing. He followed John into the kitchen.

“John, I…”

“Don’t.”

John held up a hand; the kettle clicked off and he poured hot water automatically on his teabag and Sherlock’s coffee granules.

“Just… let me have you here for a bit,” John managed. “Let me get used to being back in Baker Street with you before we try to tackle, well, anything else, okay?”

Sherlock gave John a long, searching look then nodded tersely and took his coffee.

 

Later, John awoke in the small hours of the morning, uncertain as to what had disturbed him. Lying motionless, he heard a small, stifled sound from the direction of the living room. The door was ajar; John padded silently downstairs and carefully looked through.

The curtains were open and the lights of London cast long shadows in the dark room. Sherlock’s pale, thin features were picked out by the yellow streetlight as he sat by the window in his sweat pants, legs drawn up and dressing gown loose, leaning his chin on his knees. His face was wet.

John stood watching for a long moment. More than anything, he wanted just to bridge that gap, to walk over and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder, to rub his palms down those long, lean arms and between his thin shoulder-blades, and murmur comforting things into the shell of his ear. It’s alright, it’s okay, you can do this, I understand; I loved him too even though I never knew him.

Instead, John turned and went back upstairs just as silently.

Chapter Text

Life returned to normal.

Well, that was what John told anyone who asked. Truth was, not many people dared to ask.

Oh, the press screamed it from every corner – newspapers, TV, radio, internet. No one who wasn’t living on a desert island could escape the news that the Consulting Detective had not only come back from the dead but had been completely exonerated.

John assumed they could thank Mycroft for the latter. Good old Mycroft, working tirelessly behind the scenes, masterminding everything, keeping track of his crazy-ass brother… John gritted his teeth.

The front page of The Sun shrieked “HE’S BACK!!” above an old picture of Sherlock wearing the deerstalker. It was one of their more restrained headlines in John’s opinion; Mrs Hudson had the front page framed and displayed it prominently in the front hall.

Molly apologised. Oh, god was she sorry! Ashamed, penitent, remorseful – John lost track of the adjectives he could use to describe Molly’s abasement. He took to darting into the Gents at Barts whenever he saw her worried little face approaching rather than listen to it all again for the hundredth time. Sherlock seemed to cope with her rather more patiently than John would have expected, but then it was his fault all along so John’s sympathy meter was on a bit of a permanent low.

Lestrade was his usual imperturbable self, shouting at Anderson when he made some smartarse comment, and briskly dismissing Donovan to the canteen when she uncharacteristically burst into tears. Later, over a pint or three in the Cat and Fiddle, Lestrade had confided to John that he had suspected that something was up when the Met reinstated him as Detective Inspector.

“That was probably Mycroft,” John told him, eyeing Lestrade’s cheese & onion crisps hungrily.

“Yeah,” Lestrade replied, eating the last of them, “but even the British Government has to have some kind of a reason for what it does, however lousy.”

Sherlock reopened his old website, the Science of Deduction, and was immediately swamped with messages, requests and offers of everything from insoluble puzzles to tantric sex. Sherlock treated all of them with equal disdain, but his comments seemed uncharacteristically mild.

John’s blog was so oversubscribed that it collapsed under the strain almost as soon as it was reactivated. Amid the endless congratulations, oaths of fealty and desperate reassurances that no one had ever really believed in Rich Brook in the first place, there was firstly a trickle then a healthy flow of new cases. The Yard, spearheaded by Lestrade and, surprisingly, Donovan extended cautious, low-key invitations, carefully slipped in under the radar of the local press so as not to excite too much interest.

Yes, all in all, life had gone back to normal; so normal it was almost quiet by comparison. And that was the trouble, John thought with a mental sigh.

 

He had a lot to come to terms with, John realised as he measured blood pressure, sounded chests and signed prescriptions. Few people got to grieve for the same man twice. The surgery was hellishly busy with the annual round of colds, chest infections and ‘flu inoculations, but amid the mayhem John found himself regularly slipping into a quiet, lonely place where the outside world was grey and colourless and he himself became transparent, insubstantial. Sherlock was home and whole, apparently more whole than he had ever been in his life, but John’s spirits had never been so low nor his thoughts so hopeless.

He had thrown in his lot with Sherlock from the outset without a second thought, never troubling to ask how or why Sherlock had come to be who and what he was. His grief at Sherlock’s apparent death had stayed with him, unresolved, throughout the horrors of the last few weeks. There had never been the time to properly address the issue and now, confusingly, it was not even valid. John’s regret for the loss of a man whose goodness and compassion had helped him to begin healing was now tainted with bitterness. Sherlock had never intended to deceive him, John thought despairingly, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he had. He snorted softly in self-derision. I’m not a romantic person, god help me, and this is simply crying over spilt milk. But his thoughts just continued to spiral endlessly, coming to no real conclusion.

Sherlock had been uncharacteristically subdued since their return from Scotland. Mycroft seemed to be keeping his distance, which John thought was probably all to the good, but he sometimes found himself hoping for an unscheduled visitation just to precipitate one, really good Sherlock tantrum; it would help to clear the air.

The silence and the secrecy and the lack of complaints about boredom, the police force, television, traffic, life in general, was beginning to get to John. Where was the point in trying to return to normal if “normal” was something that yawned ahead of him, bland and colourless?

When Sherlock came in late, wet and smelling strongly of chlorine for the third time in a fortnight, John was ready for him. His mild questions sparked a characteristic “all of you are idiots” scowl, the advent of which lifted John’s spirits immediately.

Sherlock shoved his gear behind the sofa. “I’m merely keeping my skills current, John,” he told him impatiently.

“Since when did Sherlock Holmes do scuba?” John asked with no particular inflection.

“For your information,” Sherlock continued belligerently, “Sherlock has never willingly swum below the surface of a body of water in his life. However, Sherrinford is an expert diver and he aims to stay that way.”

Sherlock’s expression was aloof and disdainful, but John could see the muscles in his jaw twitch.

John shook his head; to his horror, he felt a tremendous wave of pity and sympathy well up under his diaphragm and threaten to spill over.

“Is this what it’s like for you?” John asked very quietly, “Like a multiple personality disorder?” Treading on eggshells, this.

Sherlock rolled his eyes then his mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. “So we’re having the talk now, are we?” he replied unkindly.

John shrugged. “I suppose so,” he said spreading his hands helplessly, “I can’t think what else to do.”

All at once, the fight seemed to drain out of Sherlock and he sank down on the sofa with a weary sigh. He looked up at John and smiled gently, laughter lines appearing around his eyes.

“It is a multiple personality disorder, John,” Sherrinford said softly.

John shivered. “Can you do that at will?” he asked, “I mean – switch like that?”

Sherrinford nodded. “Pretty much,” he replied, “but I haven’t always been able to. For most of the past seventeen years, the two personalities seem to have been unaware of each other, at least on the surface. Deep down, of course, I must have been doing a lot of compensating just to be able to sustain the situation as long as I did. My condition is a bit unusual, actually,” he continued, his light tone belying the tension in his eyes, “For me, it was just one single episode that shattered my psyche; most other sufferers have years of abuse of one kind or another to blame for it; it’s a compensatory mechanism, you see.”

“And you’re… Sherrinford at the moment?” John asked.

The man in front of him shook his head slowly. “Sherrinford is dead, John,” he said sadly, “I am the part of me that mourned for my brother, the part that accepted the guilt and the responsibility for his death. Sherrinford was Sherlock’s attempt to make amends for what happened.”

“But it wasn’t his fault!” John protested. He winced, “I mean, it wasn’t your… Hell, I don’t know what I mean!”

Sherrinford was nodding. “There’s really no syntax in the English language to cover this particular situation,” he agreed, with something like Sherlock’s usual acerbity.

John bit his lip and, for want of something to do, sat down next to Sherrinford on the sofa. “So,” he said after a short, awkward pause, “will you carry on being two separate people?”

Sherrinford gave John a long, long look. “I’m not strictly two separate people anymore,” he said quietly.

“Oh?” replied John, tilting his head quizzically. The other man nodded without speaking.

John shrugged awkwardly. “How did that, ah, happen, then?” he asked, tugging his ear lobe distractedly.

A characteristic wrinkle appeared between Sherrinford’s eyebrows and he pursed his lips, shaking his head.

“Trauma, perhaps,” Sherlock replied composedly; John shivered again, tried to suppress it. “Perhaps just simply mind over matter,” Sherlock continued, “I don’t know for certain.” He looked directly at John. “You knew though, didn’t you? At the hospital?”

“Well, I knew that something had changed, yes,” John admitted, “but there’s a lot of ground to cover between plotting to kill off part of yourself and willingly absorbing it, Sher… oh, god, whoever you are.”

“Sherlock,” the other man replied, “I assure you, John, that had our positions been reversed, my brother – my biological brother – would have mourned me in the conventional sense and this whole tragi-comedy would never have occurred. Sherrinford was always the sane one.”

John shook his head vehemently. “But surely you can’t just pick up where you left off more than fifteen years ago, Sherlock,” he argued, “The human brain doesn’t work like that.”

“Since even the best medics in the world don’t understand exactly how it does work, I think you may let me be the best judge of that,” Sherlock returned evenly, “Besides, courtesy of Mycroft, I have on call several doctors eminent in the various fields of psychiatry should my own resources at anytime fall short.”

Sherlock got up from the sofa and started to pace. “My difficulties are likely to be more in the area of cataloguing and filing,” he continued thoughtfully, “You see, I remember everything now, including the memories I consciously created for each of my personalities to fill in the gaps when the other character was dominant.”

“You mean…” John stammered, “You mean you have two concurrent lives in your head? Two lives that you’ve been living for the past seventeen years? Sherlock – or whoever you are – how can you cope with that?”

“Yes, it is still Sherlock,” the other man repeated patiently, “and it’s… confusing, even for me. It drove me temporarily insane when it first happened; you saw me melt down completely out there on the river. Mycroft at least had some idea what was going on; I imagine he had been preparing for such an eventuality for many years.

“I’m gradually sorting my various memories, John,” Sherlock told him, “Sifting out the real from the manufactured and trying to impose some kind of order on them. The Mind Palace is extremely helpful with this – that was a technique well worth learning.”

John swallowed around a lump in his throat. “So,” he said taking a deep breath then expelling it in a rush. “I realise this might seem rather… tactless?” he began diffidently, “under the circumstances, but I have to know.”

John hesitated; Sherlock waited. John made a pained face and drew in another quick breath. “So, who did I sleep with?” he asked all in a rush, looking at the floor and stumbling over his words.

Sherlock paused for a moment. “I might be able to answer that,” he replied, “if I knew what you were really asking.”

“It’s a perfectly simple question!” John realised that he was shouting. He bit off the words threatening to spill out of control and clenched his fists helplessly.

“If you are asking me which personality was present at the time,” Sherlock continued quietly, “then the answer is Sherrinford, of course. But I think the answer you really want is to a different question.”

“Okay,” John nodded, his head drooping; he leaned his elbows on his knees and hunched his shoulders defensively.

“I asked you if you loved my brother,” Sherlock said very softly, “You told me you didn’t know.”

John’s head sank lower and lower, blinking furiously. He dashed a hand over his eyes, nodded mutely not trusting himself to speak and leaned his head down on his arms. “I feel like a teenager,” he muttered, “Falling in love at first sight and discovering that she’s your best friend’s sister.”

There was an apprehensive silence, and then John raised his head and sighed. “Yeah,” he told Sherlock, finally abandoning all his defences, “yes, I was in love with Sherrinford; well, as far as I could be, given the circumstances.”

“Those circumstances being that he was an enigma?” Sherlock ventured, “Someone impossible to know?”

“Nope,” John shook his head, “The circumstances being because I was already… well, you know – committed.”

Sherlock frowned and tilted his head. “John, I know for a fact there was no one else in your life,” he said crisply, “No one at all since the boring teacher.”

John stared. “Have Mycroft keep an eye on me, did you?” he said, a sharp edge creeping into his tone.

Sherlock shook his head seriously. “I kept my own eye on you,” he replied. He started to pace. “I suspected that you might be… disturbed by my death, having been living closely with me for more than two years, so I had my network keep tabs on you; I take it you never wondered how the Landlord of the Drummond Arms knew to contact Lestrade when Moran’s goons targeted you?”

John’s jaw dropped. Sherlock nodded.

“A quiet word to the landlord from one of the regulars who just happened to be one of my informants,” he said.

“And this was your way of looking after me, was it?” John said almost to himself. He shook his head. “Never mind; water under the bridge, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” Sherlock said. He frowned. “I must admit though, I was rather surprised that you took it as hard as you did,” he continued, “In fact, if I hadn’t known that it was me you were grieving for, I would have seriously wondered if you weren’t mourning, well, a life partner; a wife or a…”

John merely sat and nodded, his face impassive, waiting for Sherlock to catch up for once. When he finally did, Sherlock froze stock still and stared.

“Oh,” he said and sat down again abruptly.

“Yeah, oh,” John replied, rolling his eyes.

Sherlock took a quick breath and swivelled in his seat. “But John, you…” he began and stopped, frowning. He pointed a finger at John, pursing his lips as if to start speaking again then let out his breath in a single whoosh.

“Well,” he said finally, drumming the fingers of both hands on his knees, “That has actually… surprised me.”

“Oh, really?” John replied slightly ironically, “Why?”

“Well, Sherrinford handled all of that side of things,” Sherlock insisted. “I – Sherlock – was always, well, unlovable; deliberately so, I think.”

John gave a wry smile. “It appears that Sherlock was wrong,” he replied simply, “That has been known to happen from time to time; you might have noticed.”

Sherlock gave a brief sneer then stood and paced the room. “I can understand physical attraction,” he said, “That’s easy. And of course I knew you, well, wanted me; it was as plain as a pikestaff.”

“Thanks for that,” John returned dryly, “And I suppose you’d know, would you?” He was beyond true sarcasm at this point.

Sherlock fixed him with a glare. “John, you have a distressing habit of confusing lack of interest with lack of experience,” he said curtly, “Just because I don’t indulge doesn’t mean that I haven’t.”

Sherlock turned his head away and examined his fingernails. “There have always been people who wanted to sleep with me,” he said more quietly.

“Why didn’t you, then?” John asked.

“Haven’t you been listening?” Sherlock fired back glaring, “I did, on occasions.”

“And?”

“It was tedious; a waste of time.”

“Right,” John nodded and looked down at his hands, “So that would be why you ignored the issue then. Not because you didn’t know?”

“Of course not, John; you were absolutely transparent, it was pitiful,” was the reply.

John huffed out a laugh through his nose. “Now, there’s the Sherlock I know and…” he began. He stopped and squared his shoulders, “Look, I can’t deny any of this.”

Sherrinford turned back, his face stricken. “John, I’m sorry,” he said, “Sherlock can be a bit of a pig at times… well, you know that.”

Sherrinford moved closer and put a hand on John’s shoulder. “You weren’t tedious,” he said quietly, “Anything but, I promise.”

John nodded; he clasped his hands together and took a deep breath, slightly perturbed at how normal he was already finding this madness.

“Look, I wanted you – wanted Sherlock,” John said. He was laying all his cards on the table now and his hands were as steady as a rock. “Of course I did, who wouldn’t? But I didn’t know it was anything more than that until I… until I met Sherrinford. God, even when I was in b-bed with him, with you, I couldn’t…”

John shook his head, unable to finish. He gave a dry laugh, perched one hand on his hip and gestured with the other. “And now here you are,” he said, “Both of you in the same container and what’s more, you’ve always been there! I’ve known you, Sherlock, I’ve loved you already; it should be easy. God, I should be thanking my lucky stars!”

John turned away and went to the window; he swallowed hard. “Instead, I’m wondering how long it’ll be before you throw me out for real.”

Sherrinford frowned. “John, I…”

John held up a hand. “Don’t,” he said quietly, “Just… don’t.” He turned on his heel and left the room.

 

John did not stop until he had reached his bedroom and when he got there, he did something he had never felt necessary in all the time he had lived at Baker Street; he locked the door.

John lay down on his bed without even taking off his shoes. He put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. After a moment or two, there was a quiet knock.

“Go away, Sherlock,” John responded tiredly, “or whoever you are at present.”

There was a pause.

“John,” Sherlock said eventually, “however little you trust me now, and I fully understand why that should be, I promise you have nothing to fear from me. Truly, I expect nothing; nothing at all.”

John turned over onto his stomach. “You realise that’s not exactly encouraging coming from you, don’t you?” he replied.

“I don’t understand,” Sherlock replied after a pause.

John shook his head even though Sherlock couldn’t see him. “Never mind,” he replied.

“John, will you open the door?” Sherlock asked, “It’s really difficult to have a civilised conversation through two inches of chipboard.”

John chuckled dryly. “It’s not chipboard,” he replied, swinging his legs round and planting his feet on the floor, “This is a quality flat; Mrs Hudson would never replace the original doors with rubbish.”

With a feeling of resignation, John turned the key in the lock and went back to sit on his bed. Slowly, the door opened and Sherlock padded in.

He looked around curiously standing in the doorway. When he didn’t speak immediately, John glanced up.

“What?” he said.

Sherlock shrugged. “I’ve never been in your room,” he said simply, “It’s very – tidy.”

“Unlike yours, you mean,” John retorted. He frowned. “You mean you never looked? Even when I was away?”

Sherlock looked confused. “I wasn’t here when you were away, John,” he said, “I was at Orlington the whole time.”

John mentally kicked himself. He looked at Sherlock despairingly and gave a wry grin. “It’s going to take some sorting out, this,” he replied.

Sherlock didn’t seem to be listening. He stood, hands hanging loosely by his sides, actually chewing his lip in indecision.

“This is difficult,” he said finally.

“Oh?” John replied.

“Yes,” Sherlock raked a hand through his hair, “On the one hand, Sherrinford took care of all of my, well, sexual and nurturing urges. On the other, I seem to have taken all that back on board since the… well, since things came to a head.”

“Wait a mo,” John frowned, rubbing his temples between thumb and forefinger of one hand, “Are you telling me you remember everything that happened at Orlington? I mean, sense memory and all that as well as mind?”

“Yes,” Sherlock replied, “as if I had been there – which, of course, I was.”

John’s face heated suddenly; he looked away. “And you don’t…” he waved a hand in a vague gesture, “mind about that?”

Sherlock sighed in exasperation. “John, I’m trying to tell you…” he stopped abruptly and brought a hand to the back of his neck in a gesture so reminiscent of Sherrinford that John felt a lump rise in his throat.

Sherlock turned away for a moment then without meeting John’s eyes, he walked over to John, sank slowly to his knees and took John’s hands in his own.

“Sherlock…” John breathed. He suddenly found it difficult to swallow.

Still not meeting his eyes, Sherlock raised each of John’s hands to his lips and gently kissed the knuckles. Placing John’s hands back down on his knees, Sherlock knelt up into John’s space and slowly, carefully brought his mouth to bear against John’s.

It was curiously peaceful kissing Sherlock, John thought as he leaned gently into the embrace, bringing his hands up over Sherlock’s shoulders and down either side of his face. On the odd occasions he had ever allowed himself to imagine it, John had envisaged that kissing his crazy, antisocial flatmate would be something of a battle of wills. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sherlock’s mouth was soft and lush, the inside was warm and wet and his breath came in tiny hitches. His huge, spidery hands curved around the back of John’s skull and twined into the short strands of his hair.

John remembered velvety darkness and the smell of green, the rustle of the forest at night and the whir of flying insects. He sighed luxuriously; he thought he could kiss Sherlock like this for the rest of his life.

Eons later, Sherlock gradually began to pull away, pulling John’s lower lip gently between his teeth before nibbling down over and beneath his chin. John made a small sound of protest and tried to follow Sherlock’s lips blindly with his mouth, his eyes still closed. He heard Sherlock chuckle quietly and opened one eye.

“I have no real objection to remaining on my knees,” Sherlock said without any particular inflection, “but I’m going to have to move sometime and I think this might go better if we’re on the same level.”

John opened both eyes. Sherlock’s expression was his usual thoughtful one but it was overlaid with fondness and a certain vulnerability that John had learned to associate with Sherrinford. John swallowed and reached out a hand to caress Sherlock’s cheek, shaking his head slowly.

“All those clues,” he said wonderingly, “all those little things that didn’t add up – and all the things that did, but I didn’t notice. I must have been so out of it not to see, Sherlock.”

“Hmm,” the other man rubbed his face against John’s hand, closing his eyes rapturously. “I’ve told you before, John; you see but you do not observe.”

Sherlock deftly kicked his shoes off and pushed John carefully backwards into the rumpled bedding. John had a single, blinding flash of a log fire, a worn, woollen rug and a soft, smiling mouth below dark, dark eyes. He blinked and scrambled to remove his own shoes, together with his socks for good measure, before they became a serious obstacle. Sherlock gently manhandled him onto his bed and slotted their bodies then their lips together easily, almost as of long practice.

This was nice, John thought hazily; really, really nice. He remembered how it had felt in his teens and early twenties, necking on the sofa with no thought of trying to increase the pace because there was no guarantee of anything to increase to. It felt very much like that.

Sherlock sighed, a rumbling noise low in his chest and John seemed to wake up, immediately on fire. Suddenly all their clothing seemed annoyingly superfluous, despite the chilly temperature of the room. John tore and swore as he fought to separate Sherlock from his jeans and shirt. A frenzied few minutes later found him pushing Sherlock unceremoniously under the bedclothes and wrapping both of their bodies in the quilt. Sherlock was shivering.

“Remind me to alter the thermostat,” John murmured between kisses.

“Don’t bother,” Sherlock muttered into his ear. He licked into the crease between the lobe and John’s neck; John drew in a sharp breath. “It won’t take long to warm up – you do know that friction generates heat don’t you, John?”

“Yes, Sherlock,” John flipped his flatmate deftly onto his back and crawled over him, “In order to be accepted on a medical degree course, you usually have to have passed at least a GCSE in basic physics.” He thrust carefully against the other man’s body and was rewarded with a deep groan.
Dizzy with desire, John repeated his actions, remembering a rough and ready cottage bedroom with a deep soft bed, cool smooth sheets and fluffy woollen blankets, pale creamy skin, acres of it, laid bare like a banquet…

John cut off the memories before they became overwhelming. “How,” he managed between his teeth, “do you want to do this, Sherlock?”

Sherlock’s head was tilted back and his mouth was open. He swallowed with difficulty. “It won’t…” he stuttered, “It won’t take long; just… don’t stop.”

John didn’t.

 

Afterglow is a curious thing, John found himself thinking as his heart rate stabilised and his breathing gradually returned to normal. He heaved himself off Sherlock’s limp body and turned onto his back with a groan, wiping the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his hand.

What’s the protocol for this? Are we supposed to cuddle? This is my bossy, sarcastic, disdainful and very, very male flatmate, for god’s sake!

He decided that discretion was the better part of valour and allowed his eyelids to drift shut.

John felt Sherlock fidget and turn onto his side; he could almost feel the laser-like burn of the other man’s stare. John stayed still and mute and kept his eyes closed. After a short pause, Sherlock moved very carefully closer and slid an arm cautiously over John’s chest. John fought very hard indeed to stop his lips from curving into a smile, particularly when Sherlock began to run his mouth gently along the tendon running between John’s neck and shoulder.

“You’ve heard of a thing called the refractory period, I take it?” John said quietly. Sherlock’s reply was a murmured “hmmmm?” which reverberated through John’s chest and started him doubting the validity of his question.

After a little while of this, John turned onto his side, dislodging Sherlock, and propping his own head on one elbow.

“What is it?” Sherlock demanded impatiently, barely suppressing an eye-roll.

“What? I just want to ask a question, that’s all,” John replied, smiling.

“Too much talking,” Sherlock responded, “I could be kissing you.” He leaned forward to demonstrate; John placed a hand in the centre of his chest.

“In a minute,” John replied. “Look, you… at Orlington, you told me that you’d never been with a man before, do you remember?”

“Sherrinford hadn't, yes,” Sherlock replied, turning onto his back and putting his hands behind his head with a long-suffering sigh.

“Really?” John rolled onto one side and slung a leg between Sherlock’s. “Well, how’s that then? I mean, Alastair told me you twins were up for everything and everyone when you were teenagers.”

Sherlock was silent. John sneaked a look and saw, to his amusement, that Sherlock was actually blushing; John supressed a snigger, not terribly well.

“Oh, laugh away, John,” Sherlock complained; John chortled out loud rolling onto his back.

“Alright,” Sherlock grumbled, sitting up, “My brother Sherrinford dated girls - well, mostly. Actually, I know for a fact that he swung both ways but once he had fallen for Alice Rucastle, that became irrelevant. No, Sherrinford liked to believe he was straight;I was the experimental one.”

“Meaning that you dated boys?” John put in.

“When I bothered at all,” Sherlock added, hugging his knees, “I remember the whole thing seemed to be something of a waste of time, to be honest.”

“But you told me, when you were Sherrinford, I mean,” John said slightly hesitantly, “that you didn’t do men.”

“No, John, I said I hadn’t, not that I didn’t,” Sherlock corrected prissily, “Remember, we were only eighteen when Sherrinford died; that's precious little time to be gaining much in the way of sexual experience. And in any case, I knew Sherrinford’s history – remember, I was being him, not just pretending.”

John sat cross-legged and frowned. “This is all very confusing,” he protested. He looked back at Sherlock. “Can I assume, then, that Sherlock was always at least bi-curious?”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows thoughtfully and then smiled. “If it makes you happy, John, then yes,” he replied, “Although I have to confess that until very recently the point was probably moot.”

John smiled back and a warm feeling started to creep over him. He reached out a hand to smooth Sherlock’s wayward hair back from his face; the other man closed his eyes and almost purred.

“Like that, do you?” John murmured.

Sherlock nodded, rubbing his cheek against John’s palm. He smiled without opening his eyes. “Do you want any more than this?” Sherlock asked, “Or is it still too weird for you to stomach a second round in cold blood, as it were?”

John choked slightly on his own saliva.

Sherlock opened his eyes. “Alright?” he asked, placing a hand between John’s shoulder blades and patting gently.

John coughed into the quilt and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Please don’t do that again,” he croaked.

“What? Proposition you?” Sherlock widened his eyes. “That’s something of a tall order. I had hoped to spend the next several years doing precisely that.”

John swallowed. “You see?” he said, “Saying something like that without even giving me a chance to recover first.”

Sherlock grinned. “You’re just so easy, John,” he replied, lying down on his back again with his hands under his head.

“Lucky for you I am,” John replied good-naturedly. He swung a leg over the other man and straddled him, running curious hands over his chest. Sherlock smiled warmly enough but a tiny frown gathered between his eyebrows.

“Something on your mind?” John asked, still stroking gently.

Sherlock sighed. “A funeral,” he replied, “on Tuesday in the family chapel at Orlington.” He gave a dry laugh. “It has taken quite some time to get the paperwork on Sherrinford’s body released. Strangely, there are a few things my brother Mycroft cannot expedite and Scottish procedure happens to be one of them.”

John’s hands slowed their movement. “Do you want to attend?” he asked carefully, “Would you like me to go with you?”

“I would appreciate it, John,” Sherlock replied sombrely, “It may be seventeen years too late, but I think I should probably be there. For the sake of closure, you understand.”

Chapter Text

His black suit jacket was too tight under the arms and the trousers kept slipping down his hips. John sighed and tugged furtively at his tie.

Sherlock leaned in, lips just brushing the edge of John’s ear. “You’re ruining the knot,” he murmured.
John ignored him, trying to focus on the droning of the homily.

He glanced about him carefully. Mrs Webster sat with Henry Jenkins and Peter, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. Alastair (representing the village) and Jock the Head Gardener whose surname John had never learned, were in the pew behind them along with Collins and Gerald White. There were no others from the Estate present; the service was strictly private. Mycroft and Sherlock sat in the front pew flanked by John and Anthea. Further down the row was a capable-looking man with “bodyguard” written all over him next to a London type in a suit about whom John was clearly not supposed to speculate or ask questions. Three rows back was a representative of the local press who was evidently feeling just as uncomfortable about the whole business as John and lastly, keeping discreetly to the shadows was a tall, bespectacled man in a dark overcoat whose face was vaguely familiar to John from a psychiatry periodical he had been reading online. He thought he remembered that the man currently held a Chair in Psychology at one of the Ivy League American Universities; Mycroft was clearly taking no chances on his remaining brother.

Outside in the fresh air, John found it difficult not to touch Sherlock. His friend’s pale face was stony but his body language was stiff and arrogant; John just wanted to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder but he knew it would be shrugged off impatiently if he tried.

The interment was as pagan and elemental as these things usually are and left John feeling empty and raw. At least the rain had held off. They adjourned to The Great House for lunch, prepared by the kitchen staff in Mrs Webster’s absence, and were presented with an excellent buffet which John hardly touched.

He wandered over to the window, pushed aside the gauze curtain and stared out over the lawn through the drizzle. He remembered watching Sherlock stride across the grass, on his way to meet his brother… John shook his head wonderingly and took a small sip from his glass.

“Things will get easier, John.”

Suppressing the impulse to startle, John turned his head tiredly.

“Doesn’t that ever get old?” he asked.

Mycroft raised his eyebrows and smiled. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he replied composedly. He looked over at Sherlock and his expression became troubled.

“I find myself in something of a quandary, John,” Mycroft said seriously, “My brother appears to be coping admirably with a difficult situation. Indeed, I am reliably informed that this scenario could easily have sent him permanently insane. It is really only his strict mental discipline that is allowing Sherlock to hold the fractured parts of his mind together at present.”

“Yes,” John returned impatiently, uncomfortable at discussing Sherlock behind his back, “get to the point, Mycroft.”

“You would have my sincere gratitude and perhaps something more tangible by way of a retainer,” Mycroft said smoothly, “should you find it in yourself to keep me apprised of my brother’s mental condition; a brief monthly report should suffice.”

John stared for a moment then started to laugh. He shook his head admiringly. “You never give up, do you?” he said, “I thought we’d settled this one long ago. You remember? A warehouse somewhere in Camden Town, I believe.”

Mycroft’s face fell. “I imagined, John, that you might reconsider my offer under the current circumstances,” he said, “After all, things could become difficult for you in a number of different ways…”

But John was listening to another voice, deeper and faster: Did he offer you money to spy on me? Yes. Did you take it? No. Pity, we could have split the fee; think it through next time.

“Okay,” John interrupted the flow of words.

Mycroft trailed off and stared. “You mean,” he began, “you are willing to accede to my wishes?”

“Yes, fine, whatever,” John replied with a broad grin. He clapped Mycroft on the shoulder, drained his glass and made for the buffet table. “You know my bank details,” he threw back over his shoulder.

“What did my brother want?” a dark brown voice murmured in John’s ear as he inspected the salmon in aspic.

“Oh, the usual,” John replied casually, heaping his place with foie gras, real dry melba toast and Serrano ham. He looked up at Sherlock. “If you want your cut, you’re going to have to write the monthly report.” He shoved a wafer of toast in his mouth and grinned. Sherlock sniggered quietly.

John pushed his brimming plate into Sherlock’s hands and reached for a clean one. “Eat,” he commanded, filling his own rapidly, “We’re commandeering your brother’s helicopter later on to get back to Baker Street tonight, but even so it’ll be a long time till dinner.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes but reached for a fork, poking it indifferently at the ham.

“Chinese later?” John suggested, “Or Angelo’s?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Either,” he replied, “or takeaway; maybe the new Vietnamese.”

John nodded. “Alright, but you’re paying,” he replied with a grin.

Sherlock grunted in a non-committal manner. “It’s pleasant here,” he remarked after a short pause.

John stared and blinked.

Sherlock made an impatient sound. “I don’t mean standing in the family Drawing Room eating funeral baked meats, John,” he protested, “I mean Orlington itself. I had forgotten how very beautiful it is.”

“Ah, yes,” John replied, frowning. His expression softened. “You told me once,” he began awkwardly, “when you were Sherrinford, I mean, that your heart was here.”

Sherlock paused, pushing his foie gras around the plate. “I think that’s probably true, John,” he replied softly, looking down at his fork unseeingly, “I had the brain and Sherrinford had the heart. Now I have my heart back, now that I’m, well, joined up, for want of a better word, I feel – vulnerable.”

John was suddenly struck by a blinding truth. “Jim Moriarty,” he said, his eyes wide, “He knew, didn’t he? He knew that you had a twin!”

Sherlock’s eyes snapped up. “He knew that I didn’t,” he replied and raised his eyebrows. John’s jaw dropped.

If you don't stop prying, I will burn you. I will burn… the heart out of you. I have been reliably informed that I don't have one. But we both know that's not quite true.

“Sherrinford had your heart,” John murmured, “he was the one who took care of all your emotional issues…”

John swung round on Sherlock, his face alight with realisation. “How did Moriarty…?” John whispered.

Sherlock shrugged. “How did Moriarty find out half the things he knew about me?” he replied, “It didn’t all come from Mycroft, you know. All he needed to do was track down my home, dig around a bit and then draw a few conclusions. His was the only brain I have encountered in the whole of my life that could match mine; even Sherrinford was a slouch by comparison.”

“And Mycroft?” John put in slyly.

Sherlock rolled his eyes and simply sipped at his champagne.

“And you didn’t want him to die,” John said wonderingly, “Moriarty, I mean, even though he knew who and what you were. Even though he could have blown your whole life wide open.”

“He was fascinated by the duality,” Sherlock admitted, “and he wanted something from me I wasn’t prepared to give.”

“And what was that?” John was interested.

Sherlock’s eyelashes swept lazily upwards. “My co-operation, at the very least,” he replied with a tiny smile, “and my partnership. Maybe more, who knows? After all, he did leave me his number.”

“You were never tempted?” John asked; his eyes were very blue.

“I considered it,” Sherlock continued composedly. He held his glass up to the light and squinted at the bubbles, “Well, at least, Sherlock did; he rejected the idea.”

“Why?” John asked.

Sherlock put down his glass, a slight frown building between his eyebrows. “Perhaps because I have always been on the side of the angels,” he replied carefully, “no matter who I am, but if you’re looking for reassurance, John, I suspect you might have had something to do with it.”

Sherlock’s eyes wandered away from his companion. “Before this year,” he said, “the closest I came to meltdown was standing in a deserted swimming pool at the dead of night watching a sniper sight on a vestful of explosives which just happened to be wrapped around my best friend.” He gave a weak chuckle. “It was something of a defining moment, you might say.”

John smiled wryly and stopped to slide his empty plate onto a side table; Sherlock followed suit.

“It’s not over yet, John,” Sherlock said, his expression turning serious. “It’ll be a long time before I’ll be able to function as a single personality, perhaps never.”

John nodded. “Oh, I know,” he replied, “and I’m a jobbing GP, not a psychiatrist, but we’ll get by.” He grinned up at Sherlock and snagged two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray. He pushed one into Sherlock’s hand and raised the other in a toast.

“Here’s to crimescenes and mayhem,” John said, “madmen and criminal masterminds, incompetent pathologists, dithering landladies and sarcastic policemen. And here’s to London and Baker Street, The Yard and St Barts, and to you, Sherlock. Thank god you’re finally whole.”

“And to you, John,” Sherlock added, raising his glass to clink it with John’s and smiling warmly over the rim, “And to you.”