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The Cat Among the Parakeets

Chapter Text

One

Inhaling deeply, Sherlock greedily sucks the nicotine into him with the fervor of a drowning man craving oxygen. God. It has been way too long since he’s had one of these.

“I thought you had bloody quit?” 

He releases his exhale with deliberate slowness into the cool London air through the partially opened window. “I did.”

“You promised you wouldn’t smoke in the flat around Rosie!” Annoyance and exasperation radiate from his flatmate. John then gives a long-suffering sigh before saying what he had originally intended to say. “I am staying over at Amanda’s over the weekend.”

“Who?” He blows more hot smoke out the window. “And Rosie isn’t even here right now. I will quit again tomorrow.”

“Why do I even bother!” Sherlock can imagine John throwing up his arms behind him. “You know even better than I do that those ashes go bloody everywhere. And for your information, Sherlock, she is my girlfriend who you met over dinner last night. You two seemed to have gotten along fabulously… at my expense.”

Ah. That’s who she was. Musician. First violinist. London symphony orchestra. Part Japanese, part Brit. Oxford. Surprisingly witty. Probably out of John’s league, but who is Sherlock to judge? They had traded amusing anecdotes regarding some of John’s not-so-finest moments which Sherlock had never bothered to delete. Accruing potential blackmail material is never a waste of space. Or time for that matter.

“One would have thought you were dating her for the last six months… instead of me.. .” John says ruefully.

“Ah, but John… I told you ages ago that women were not my area.” 

“It seems to me, Sherlock – that no one is your area. If not Irene, Janine… You’ve never given anyone as much as a second glance… Male or female.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Asexuality is a thing… or maybe I just haven’t met the right person.” The latter seems more true to him. He masturbates. He has indulged in gay porn when John is out of the flat. He has toys hidden in the closet. Ever since he’s gotten his memories back from Sherrinford, his libido had increased. It is slightly annoying. Almost as annoying as John’s neverending curiosity about Sherlock’s lack of a sex life and romantic entanglements with the goldfish. 

“It’s not like you have been exactly looking…” Sherlock can feel John’s eyes looking pointedly at his back. He sighs and stubs the cigarette out in the ashtray on the windowsill. 

Weary of discussing matters pertaining to his sexuality, Sherlock changes the topic. “Are you seeing Amanda today?” 

“Yeah. Leaving… um now.” John had just glanced at the screen of his phone to check the time. “And, Sherlock – it’s all fine. As I told you before. I… just want you to be happy.” Sherlock can hear the unspoken regret in his flatmate’s tone. They haven’t discussed everything that had gone wrong over the last few years, but time seems to be lessening the old resentments, anger and guilt between them. He is certain that things would never be as easy as it had been in the beginning, but they are both trying to make an effort to fix their friendship. “I will see you.”

“See you.” Sherlock mutters in reply as he hears the door slam behind John on the way out. 

Did he need someone to be happy? Is he an incomplete person just because he doesn’t have another half? Sighing, Sherlock pulls out another cigarette from the carton and lights it. Before he could bring it to his lips, he hears someone walk up the stairs. John? No – this person is heavier… Mycroft…? His brother hadn’t darkened their flat in a long while. Not since Sherrinford. What has brought big brother here? A case? No. Unlikely. There’s a hesitancy to Mycroft’s steps that normally isn’t there. Unless... if it’s about Eurus? But then, Mycroft would have shown up while John was here. It is clear enough by the timing that Mycroft had waited for John to vacate the flat. The sound of footsteps stop in front of the door. He can almost hear Mycroft thinking outside. It must be personal then. Something pertaining to them. Sherlock and Mycroft. But then again what was personal enough that a few texts couldn’t solve? He takes one puff of the cigarette and puts it out just as Mycroft knocks on the door. Three identical raps. A courtesy. After all, Mycroft does have a key.

He is tempted to let Mycroft wait. But, reluctantly, he pulls himself away from the windowsill and goes to open the door. He is a curious creature after all. As big brother steps in, Sherlock’s eyes give him a quick glance over. The usual three-piece suit. A red tie with dark spots. Matching pocket square. Umbrella. Thinner by three pounds. A mix of expensive fragrance (notes of bergamot and sandalwood) and tea. His brother wrinkles his nose – evidently smelling the tobacco on Sherlock. Mycroft had quit again. There is a somewhat exhausted look on his countenance. Didn’t sleep last night… probably. 

In the old days, Sherlock would had been eager to drive his brother away from his abode as soon as possible, but somehow – he doesn’t feel like going back to the old antagonistic patterns. Maybe it had to do with those childhood memories that Sherlock had gotten back recently – even to this day, months after Sherrinford – some long-lost forgotten memory would bubble up from the depths. There had been a time where big brother and him had been close. Nostalgia. Their eyes briefly meet – a glimmer answers Sherlock’s unspoken question: I will stay as long as you will let me stay. This clearly isn’t a matter of National Importance.

Nodding, Sherlock gestures for his brother to sit while he goes to boil some water for tea. He can almost imagine the surprise that flickers across Mycroft’s face in response to the deviation from their usual routine. He prepares two mugs of their finest Assam with the appropriate amount of sugar and cream for both. Vaguely remembering that Mrs. Hudson had brought something up earlier, he goes to the fridge. Vegetarian lasagna. He notes when he lifts the aluminum foil from the tray. Looking over his shoulder, he sees Mycroft quirk an inquisitive eyebrow upwards: Are you offering me dinner? 

He gives a barely perceptible nod. His brother stands up from Sherlock’s new armchair, which doesn't quite feel as right as the original, and strides over to the kitchen counter. Sherlock divides up the food before reheating the two portions in the microwave while Mycroft finds the cutlery in the drawers and proceeds to set the table. 

“The PM or the Home Secretary?” Sherlock inquires when they had both sat down.

“God. The Prime Minister. Good Lord, somehow they get less and less intelligent with every passing term.” Mycroft shakes his head with dismay after letting out a deep sigh. With the corkscrew, he uncorks a bottle of a decent Pinot Grigio left by a grateful client and decants it easily into two glasses. He passes one of them to Sherlock, who sniffs at the wine before sipping at it. 

It is a little too fruity for Sherlock’s taste. Certainly substandard compared to the alcohol his brother usually consumes. However, Mycroft eats and drinks without complaint. Their conversation topics are kept superficial: the latest case – a missing dog that had led to the solution of a decades-old murder, the latest developments in regard to Brexit (which Sherlock tries hard to pay attention to, but politics had never really interested him unless if there was a grisly murder involved) and, finally they stumble upon the topic of John’s girlfriend. 

“Surely you knew he is dating again?” Sherlock rolls his eyes when Mycroft looks taken aback. “With your surveillance and all…”

“I have to confess that I have significantly reduced the level of security on your person and your flat over the last few months. You’d shown me that you are quite capable of handling yourself.” At Sherrinford. The rest of the sentence goes unsaid, but Sherlock can read it from the slight tightening of his brother’s lips. 

Sherlock merely nods, not knowing how to feel; he had suspected this over the last few months. Part of him is elated – he had always been unhappy with the heavy-handed way his brother had liked to interfere with his life in the name of keeping him safe. Another part of him feels somewhat bereft. As strange as it was… he had liked(?) having Mycroft’s undivided attention. Wow. Where did this even come from? Especially considering that he had spent the last few years of his life trying to get out from being under Mycroft’s thumb.

“So, brother… there must be a reason why you came over…” Sherlock decides to change the topic; he will deal with these confusing thoughts later.

“What if I just wanted to see my little brother?” Mycroft asks innocently. As Sherlock narrows his eyes in disbelief, his brother adds. “In person.” 

“We’ve never met for purely social visits… Mycroft.”

“Well, you never offered dinner.” Nor let me go unmocked during it.  

Sherlock winces. “Touché.” 

“I also wanted you to come with me to Derbyshire next week.”

“So… that is something…” A request. Not for a case.

“Do you remember Uncle Erwin?”

“Vaguely.” The name sounds familiar. But their family tree is rather extensive. It is hard to keep track of all these relatives that they hardly ever see. Or, the reality is that he just doesn’t care. 

“He passed last week. The will was read yesterday, and he left us with his expansive country estate.”

“And… Mycroft – you want us both to go see it?” Sherlock gives his brother a weary look. God. As irresponsible as it sounds, Sherlock really does not care about the material details as long as his trusts coughed up enough money to supplant his income for his needs. His brother is only too happy to manage Sherlock’s finances for him. Country houses are a blackhole for money anyways – that much Sherlock knew. All the repairs and utilities; not to mention the taxes, for example. Why not sell it and have it be done with? Besides, Mycroft already has one such monstrosity conveniently placed in the outskirts of London.

“Humour me, little brother.” Mycroft replies, while polishing off the last of the lasagna on his plate. “I thought it was something fun we could do together.”

Sherlock states sharply. “You didn’t want to go alone.”

“No, I didn’t.” Mycroft agrees all too readily.

“You mentioned a while ago that you weren’t lonely, Mycroft.”

His brother’s lips quirk into a slight smile. “Well… things change.” He downs the rest of the wine, before removing his suit jacket. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he stacks the plates and cutlery. Sherlock follows behind, and somehow he ends up drying all the plates his brother washes. Even the ones left in the sink from earlier meals. Damn. John better not see him doing this. And yet – somehow, this ritual feels rather familiar.

“Have we done this before?”

“Washing the dishes, little brother?”

“I mean… doing this together?”

“On occasion. When you were a child.” The tone is nonchalant, but Mycroft’s expression is wistful.

“Ah…” Sherlock doesn’t know what to make out of this. Trying to suppress a cringe, he recalls Mycroft watching those old videos of them in his house during that not-so-good prank with John months ago. It is evident that crazy sister aside, Mycroft views their formative years with great fondness. Sentiment. They finish their task in mutual silence; there something oddly soothing about this mundanity. 

When Mycroft has put his three-piece-suit to rights, he picks up his umbrella from Sherlock’s chair, before pivoting slightly to make eye-contact with him. His eyebrow quirks Derbyshire?

Sighing, Sherlock nods, reaching over for his Stradivarius. His fingers have the sudden burning itch for Bach. The Chaconne from his second Partita. Needs to let those jagged chords from the beginning fall from his bow. As ridiculous as it all sounds, there is a queer (for the lack of a better word) indeterminate feeling settling within the narrow of his bones about this entire situation. 

“I will text you with the pertinent details.” His brother sounds pleased, while Sherlock shrugs off his sudden flight of fancy and lets the music resonate from the strings. From behind, he can hear his brother gently shut the door on the way out – and he intuitively knows that Mycroft will stand outside or sit inside his car with the window ajar to listen to the lengthy piece in its entirety.

***

Amidst the lush hills and valleys of Derbyshire, stands an ode to bygone British grandeur; a stonework monstrosity of a house that has fallen into some disrepair during the current century. Templeton House, the legend on a swinging metal plaque proclaims as Sherlock drives Mycroft’s personal sleek black Jaguar towards the entrance. His brother directs him to park at a cunningly hidden garage at the back of the house, before they both remove their suitcases from the trunk. He locks the car with the fob, before tucking it into his coat pocket. Their suitcases make thumping noises as they pull them against the unkempt stone tiles, where little green shoots (presumably weeds) grow betwixt the cracks. 

“Damn, it’s even larger than the grange.” Sherlock surveys the pile of rocks dubiously, noting the abundance of wisteria (with its autumn-bronzed leaves) crawling up the walls that make up the back of the House. How cumbersome, these relics that the peers and squires of old had put up as temples for everyone to worship their wealth! It would look beautiful though – Sherlock couldn’t help thinking – in the late spring/early summer, when the wisteria will all be in bloom. He asks with curiosity. “Have you ever been here when Uncle Erwin was still around?” 

“I’ve never been here, brother. It is all so peculiar…” Mycroft admits with utmost seriousness. “Uncle Erwin could have left this house to closer kin than us.”

Intrigued, Sherlock asks, “What kind of man was Uncle Erwin?” 

“By all accounts, an eccentric man…” 

Sherlock’s laughter echoes in the quiet – aside from the birdsong and the gentle rustling of leaves. “I am sure eccentricity is an essential quality to be one of us.”

“Quite right, little brother, quite right – indeed.” Amusement dances in Mycroft’s eyes as they stop to watch a green parakeet hang upside-down on a branch. It swivels its head, looking curiously at them with its orangey-eyes.

“An escaped pet?” Sherlock muses. “I am not going to get consulted about someone’s lost parrot anytime soon, am I?”

“Ah, that’s the ring-necked parakeet – they thrive quite well in certain parts of Derbyshire due to the milder winters.” 

“Birding, Mycroft – really?” Sherlock grins widely.

“A passing fancy.” His brother gives a noncommittal reply.

“At least we aren’t greeted by leafless trees, an unkindness of ravens or a murder of crows, ominous clouds or a cemetery…” Sherlock observes, jokingly.

Mycroft stops again, this time surveying the red-yellow-green foliage of autumn. It is a gorgeous day; there is naught a cloud in the sky. Sherlock has to admit that they are a good storm away from naked trees. In the distance, he can see mountains looming overhead; the view showcases the dramatic Derbyshire landscape. A brightly-feathered pheasant stumbles out of a nearby shrub and makes a run for a cluster of vegetation across the stone-paved path. On a branch, a red squirrel lounges. This place is teeming with fauna.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t joke about these things…” Mycroft says after a long moment. His voice is barely audible amongst the gentle breezes.

Taken aback by his rational brother’s words, Sherlock asks for clarification. “You don’t actually believe in superstitions, do you brother?”

Mycroft gives a small shake of the head. “I believe it’s not wise to tempt fate, in the event that these absurdities are true.”

“Ever a man of caution.” 

“Between the two of us, someone should be.” Mycroft gives him a surprisingly fond smile. “Not everyone can or should be adventurers. Come on, let’s go in and see if we learn a little more about this particular inheritance.”

They pass through a regal stone archway at the front, choked with vines of all sorts. Two formidable doors made up of solid wood and fortified with ornate steel tower above them both. Mycroft reaches up – much to Sherlock’s infinite amusement – to straighten the two intricately-detailed but rusted lion head door knockers, before finally knocking.

***

A middle-aged couple – Nestor and Evelyn Spencer – is what is left of the permanent household staff that keep the House afloat. The balding Nestor, in an impeccable black suit and bowtie, takes their coats and suitcases, while Evelyn directs them into the sitting room. 

The interior of this House is in the Victorian style – the walls of the sitting room are painted in an opulent blue, flowery damask curtains adorn the tall windows and ornate plaster panels depict scenes of myth on the ceiling that go way beyond Sherlock’s head; he’s never had too much interest in the Classics. Sherlock plops his bum unceremoniously on a plush white couch, while his brother sits down on the other side – in that graceful and dignified way of his. An Indian rug covers the rhombus-patterned mahogany floor beneath. Evelyn returns with a simple afternoon tea: fresh buttery scones, an assortment of finger sandwiches, pots of real clotted cream and jams and two generous slices of an egg custard. The tea is placed on the coffee table in front of them. She pours them both tea (Assam) from an antique porcelain teapot into matching dainty teacups. 

“You didn’t make this.” Sherlock couldn’t help but say, after biting into a scone generously covered in an addictive strawberry jam. 

“Our housekeeper, Matilda, who comes thrice a week – Mr. Holmes the younger – made everything. She will be happy to make all of your meals for the rest of your stay.” 

He winces at this new moniker, “Please call me Sherlock.” Mentally, he makes a note to go find this Matilda and coax her to part with every jar of strawberry jam in her possession before they leave. “And that sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it – Mycroft?” He looks pointedly at his brother, who had been sitting with quiet mirth at the previous exchange.

“Whatever you want.” Mr. Holmes the younger. His brother’s eyes almost look gleeful.

Sherlock suppresses the quirk of his fingers to express his true feelings. Instead, he helps himself to a roast beef sandwich, and finds himself consuming a helping of everything with a relish. At some point, Nestor had reappeared, and Mycroft and him become immersed in a discussion regarding the upkeep of the House; the usual boring stuff. When he finishes consuming the custard tart, he gets up from the couch and slips back out to the Great Hall – where they had entered from.

***

Old country houses have a tendency to be damp, regardless of how much heating is utilized. Sherlock hates it; even in Mycroft’s modernly fixed-up grange with efficient heating, things still ended up wetter than they should be. His brother calls it character; Sherlock terms it an inconvenience. 

Despite his suit-jacket, he is shivering slightly in the hall, while scrutinizing the series of oil-portraits in gilded frames that hang on the white-washed, but ornately paneled walls. His distant ancestors and relatives stare back down upon him. Spread equally throughout the hall are two rows of statues – various knights in various poses, with or without their horses – standing guard. It is here where he runs into Matilda, who despite her old-fashioned name, is younger than Sherlock – perhaps by a decade. If John was here, he would be automatically trying to get her number. Blonde curls falling in waves, proportioned like a Greek goddess, fair-skinned – even the dreary garb of her housekeeper outfit fails to hide her beauty; well – Sherlock muses grimly – this is how he knows that he is really gay.

“Wasn’t expecting me to be the housekeeper?” She crosses her arms.

“Not at all… Maybe a dancer?” Sherlock offers – uncharacteristically charitable. He had known she was the housekeeper as soon as she had stepped into the Hall – from her gait.

She laughs delicately – pleased. “You flatter me terribly. Unfortunately, I possess zero sense of rhythm and two left feet. It’s horrendous as it is embarrassing.” She changes the topic abruptly apparently eager to expound on another subject. “So these old portraits? Ghastly aren’t they? Everyone is frozen with the same expression on their face – looking ironed and starched. No personality!”

Sherlock grins in spite of himself; ah here is another irreverent being. “Well, these are my distant relatives that I never knew existed until today. But, to the contrary – there is personality in these pictures.”

“Oh!” Matilda gestures to the closest portrait of Walter Scott Holmes; there is a similarity in facial structure between Mycroft and Walter. “Tell me about him.”

“Liked the sea, a naval officer, meticulous – perhaps a bit OCD… he enjoyed crocheting.”

“That’s amazing! Yes, Walter was a navy admiral. He lived in this House when I was a child in the village over as an old man, when Mum still worked. Used to tell me the most marvelous stories from his seafaring days! He was so mad when one of his cousins mentioned his little crocheting hobby during a dinner party – she said he crocheted so beautifully that they used his work to set the dining table for the party – mum told me he threw a book out of a closed window. Some said that it was the Bible he threw, but Mum said that it was a book of poems. It was quite a sensation for the village! Do him!” Matilda points to the next portrait – and obligingly, because Sherlock really has nothing better to do, he deduces several other portraits in succession (and earns more amusing anecdotes about each relative) until they get to Andrei Eldon Holmes; who in Sherlock’s opinion is the best looking relative of the lot – but he might be biased because he possesses Sherlock’s cheekbones and eyes.

“He was either a pianist or typist. Liked cats. Think he may have had depression.”

“Sherlock…” Matilda says sharply – losing her air of joviality. “He went mad. And then he eventually killed himself. Erwin was devastated; he was never quite the same afterwards. You know – they were brothers; they did everything together. His paternal grandfather also went mad – and was locked up in an asylum for the rest of his days – so Andrei didn’t want to suffer a similar fate, and he ended it. All this craziness went down decades before I was born, but I got to see Erwin. He got into all this spiritual stuff, became a recluse… Mum told me he was the smartest, kindest and the most rational of the lot; he was a civil servant or something with the government before he retired due to grief.”

Sherlock wanted to ask more – considering Mycroft’s interest in their late Uncle (who isn’t an uncle, but out of tradition, they called everyone in that generation an Uncle in their family), but the stern voice of Evelyn (Mrs. Spencer) comes floating through the hall. “Matilda… should you not be making dinner, instead of airing out all the tragedies on this side of the Holmes family?” 

“Sorry, Mrs. Spencer!” She gives a mock-salute, before winking mischievously at Sherlock with one of her bright-blue eyes – before vanishing. 

“Girls these days!” Sherlock can almost hear Evelyn shake her head from the entrance of the sitting room. He ducks out of the hall into another adjoining room out of earshot, before the rest of the tirade could continue. Probably something along the lines of boys, loose women and god knows what else. 

***

The room he slips into is the Drawing Room; it features walls painted the shade of Sherlock’s favourite shirt (aubergine), with white-washed wood panelling. An elaborate chandelier hangs perilously over a white grand piano (a Bösendorfer). In the corners stands a billiards table, and a few sturdy antique wooden tables presumably for late-night bridge or other card games. It is a room made for leisure. The aged wood underneath his feet creaks as he makes his way to the Library. 

He finds Mycroft sitting on a velvet wing-backed chair with a tumbler of whiskey on a side-table across a recently lit fireplace. Damn, he hadn’t even seen Mycroft walk by during his conversation with Matilda – or did his brother go in through the other entrance via the Dining room? A book rests in his hand – an Agatha Christie . At Sherlock’s raised eyebrow, Mycroft says, “Just appreciating the classics, brother dear. So… are you done flirting with the household staff yet?”

Flabbergasted, Sherlock replies, “I have no idea what you mean, Mycroft. I was only acquiring information…” At his brother’s skeptical look, Sherlock feels irritation build within him. He asks, his jaw set. “Why does it matter to you if I am flirting with anyone, Mycroft? Worried that I am causing more work for you because you would have to vet them to make sure they aren’t some closet assassin or something?”

For a brief second, there is a stricken look that slips from his brother’s normally controlled features, but like a rock dropped into a calm lake, the disturbance dissipates quickly. What is this about? Sherlock wonders as his brother says with absolute nonchalance, “You can flirt and date with whoever you want, little brother. I am merely a concerned party.” Mycroft picks up his book and looks pointedly at its pages; it is a clear dismissal. 

***

Dinner is tense. Sherlock and Mycroft sit across from each other at the enormous lace-covered dining table, with its immaculately laid out spread and eat without a word. Sherlock muses that they’ve bickered at meals, but certainly they’ve never had one where they were both silent. Actually, Sherlock is perfectly willing to have a conversation, but Mycroft appears completely closed off. It’s almost as if big brother is sulking. But for what possible reason, other then Sherlock trying to make a usual grab at some independence, could make his brother behave like this? It takes him back to the meal that they had back at Baker Street almost a week ago; it had been surprisingly pleasant and an experience that Sherlock had been willing to repeat. After taking a few bites into the perfectly prepared Beef Wellington, and brussel sprouts that tasted more like candy than vegetable, Sherlock can no longer stand it anymore. 

None of this makes sense.

When Sherlock stands up from the table, Mycroft’s lips twitch as if to say something, but he refrains. He walks over to the kitchen, a room away, where Matilda is cutting up a Bakewell Tart into squares for their dessert.

“Something wrong with the food?” She asks, sounding somewhat worried.

“No.” Sherlock shakes his head, “My brother is being lousy company. And, is that strawberry jam in those tarts?”

“Yes. My own recipe. You like it?” 

“I love it.” Sherlock assures her. “I would love to take some home, if you are willing to spare a jar or more?”

A glint shines from her eyes, “What would I get in return?” 

“My undying gratitude.” Sherlock smirks. “Or, I can cross your palms with silver…”

“That’s so boring!” She exclaims in a way that makes Sherlock grin. It reminds him of someone very familiar… 

“What do you want then?” 

“Hmm…” Matilda mulls it over, just as Sherlock looks over her shoulder and catches Mycroft standing by the entryway. Out of curiosity, he leans closer to the housekeeper while liberating a warm square of Bakewell tart from the tray. He can make out the scent of her citrus-based body wash. His brother turns away – as if he cannot bear to watch, while she asks – unaware of the drama happening behind her, “You are a detective right? Now that I think about it… you are Sherlock. The one who was in the news all those years ago...” 

“Damn… people have long memories.” Sherlock observes; he has been staying out of the limelight since Sherrinford. He primarily consults for Lestrade’s cases, and word of mouth and past success brings the few other problems of note that he tackles these days. John no longer updates the blog, as he has other priorities now, which was fine by him. “So, why do you need a detective?”

“I am sure a man like you might find what I am asking, stupid…” Matilda suddenly sounds unsure of herself. “But there is something… queer about this house. But, my Mum has always said that I have an excellent sense of intuition…”

Sherlock mentally groans; he’s had a lot of cases involving women and their intuition (as well as equally delusional men), and Matilda had struck him as a rational individual in the brief time he had gotten to know her.

“Ah, you are writing me off already…” Matilda sighs deeply. “I can see it in your eyes – they are so damned expressive! But, hear me out at least. I think something happened with Andrei – there’s just something about these stories that don’t add up. Do you know what I think, Sherlock?”

Humouring her, he asks, “What do you think, Matilda?” 

“He was murdered.” 

“I thought he committed suicide.” 

“That’s what the police and everyone else thought. But… I wonder… I just wonder…” 

“Well, considering I am stuck here with my brother – who is unhappy with me for some reason I cannot understand – I guess I can have a look.” Sherlock agrees, happy for a distraction. “But I will need to know everything that you know.”

“You will also have to scour the house. I think Mrs. Spencer plans to put you in what used to be Erwin’s room, and your brother will be in the main bedroom which Andrei used. I mean, I would have been nosy and combed through the house myself for clues, but you know –”

Sherlock does indeed know. Mrs. Spencer probably breathes down Matilda’s neck. “I will need your assistance then.”

“Oh! I can be John Watson then!”

“Just be Matilda, and we will be fine.” Sherlock says with utmost seriousness.

She beams. “I can do that. Let me finish my duties for the evening – and you go take these tarts to your brother. That may sweeten him up a bit. The Spencers are going to vacate the premises before eight, as they do every night – so around 8:30, I can meet you – let’s say in the Drawing Room. We can chat then.”

Sherlock nods, and Matilda gives him a cheeky wave before he strides out of the kitchen, tarts in hand.

***

“Mycroft…” Sherlock can hear the trepidation in his voice. “I brought something for you.” 

His brother looks up from his book, although Sherlock can deduce that he hadn’t actually been reading. What is Mycroft’s great brain thinking about? There is something peculiar going on with big brother… another mystery to figure out. If this had been anyone else besides Mycroft, Sherlock would have deduced jealousy. But why would big brother be jealous of a pretty housekeeper? Absurd. 

He finally speaks. “Thank you, little brother.” Taking the plate, Mycroft gingerly picks up a slice of tart and delicately sniffs at it. He then nibbles at it. It’s almost dainty – the entire maneuver.

Sherlock realizes that his eyes had been watching Mycroft’s hands for too long and as smoothly as possible, he casually walks over to the bookshelves – letting his eyes roam over the contents of the shelves, but not registering anything in particular.

“Is there something wrong with us?” He finds himself asking, finding it insane that watching his brother eat a simple tart had affected him more than all of Matilda coquettish ways.

Mycroft’s tone is sharp. “Why do you ask that, Sherlock?”

“Nevermind.” This is madness. Whatever this is. “So…” Sherlock quickly asks, “Did you find out anything about Uncle Erwin and why he left this estate to us?”

“Unfortunately no. I only gleaned some knowledge about how much it costs to run this House, and how much repairs would cost. It’s rather exorbitant, but that is to be expected. Nestor is all for turning it into a place for people to stay and enjoy the country. I told him that we will consider it. If we do this, little brother, we would be exempt from the inheritance tax.”

Sherlock wants to say ‘why not sell it?’ but he refrains from asking. Mycroft must have considered it at some point. 

“And little brother… I apologize for my behaviour from earlier. You do have the right to flirt and date with whoever you wish. My reaction was uncalled for.”

Sherlock brushes it aside. “Mycroft… I think you out of everyone is entitled to a sulk now and then. But, I will just inform you that I will be having a further discussion about our family with Matilda later tonight.”

“Let me know what you find out tomorrow, Sherlock. I will see if there’s anything useful down here in the Library.” 

***

Matilda is lounging against the grand piano when Sherlock walks into the Drawing Room at the appointed time, after having been shown to his room by Evelyn. He sits down on the piano’s stool and lets his fingers caress the smooth surfaces of the keys.

“Ever play?” She asks.

“The piano? Not my area. But… the violin – is mine.” 

“You are a man of many talents.”

“So I’ve been told.” Sherlock replies, somewhat dryly.

“A humble man!” 

He snorts. “Depending on who you ask, my ego can be as large as the known universe; that is to say, infinite.” Deciding that this conversation is going nowhere productive, he then asks, “So, are you going to tell me what you know?”

“Let’s go see Andrei again.” Matilda says while gently pulling the hem of Sherlock’s shirt, and they both walk over to the unlit Great Hall, where the moonlight shines through all the windows, illuminating the place in a series of eerie shadows. She flicks a switch. The electric lights flicker a few times before bathing the room in light.

“I think… I should start from the beginning…” Matilda turns to look at Sherlock after glancing at the portrait. The young curly-haired man stares straight ahead, his lips quirked in some sort of secret smile. 

“It’s the best place to start, from my experience.” 

“When I was young – or rather younger than I am now – I’ve always found Andrei the most striking of all the portraits in this room. And, you look quite like him. But anyways, my mum told me that Andrei was a brilliant man… he was a fantastic painter, pianist and philosopher. If you go into Library, every one of those paintings you see on the walls were done by him. Andrei and Erwin were brothers and the sons of Alden and Elizabeth – who were originally the owners of the House. Growing up, Erwin and Andrei were as thick as thieves – pardon the expression. You would never see one without the other. But of course, as with everything else – people grow up. Erwin decided to go to University after completing his education at Eton, while Andrei stayed at home, learning to run the estate and dabbling in his many hobbies. But Erwin visited home frequently – and they were as close as ever. The only rift that happened between them was when Andrei got married – it was the expected thing to do for someone in Andrei’s station; to be the Master of the House, with a wife and children to take up the mantle as he did. But they reconciled later.”

“Out of curiosity, how much older was Andrei?” Sherlock asks, intrigued.

“Three, I believe. Not too large of an age gap.”

“And what was his wife like?” 

“His wife – his wife… Helen was her name. Everyone said that she was the most beautiful girl in the village, the girl with the flaxen hair. A beautiful singer; she sang like a lark. Her parents were wealthy merchants. She was by all accounts passionately in love with her husband. After Andrei hung himself, she grieved and died soon after that. Suicide, my Mum said. An overdose of something. A real tragedy.”

“Is there anyone alive who saw the actual crime scene?”

“I highly doubt it. It was at least fifty years ago.”

“And the police ruled it a suicide and called it a day?” 

She nods, slowly.

“To be honest… the odds of us figuring out anything from this is very slim.” Sherlock admits. This is essentially a cold case, with very little to go upon. All the players and witnesses of this particular tale have passed. And likely everyone believed – with the exception of Matilda – that this was a suicide. Any crucial evidence is likely to be long gone now. 

“Will you just try? If anything, you will learn a little bit more about your late relatives… and I will give you five large jars of that strawberry jam that you love so much. And I will cook for you whenever you visit the House in the future. Please, Sherlock?” 

“Fine. For the jam.” Sherlock nods. “And the cooking.” And also because Sherlock needs a distraction for the weekend. 

“Brilliant!” Matilda’s eyes dance. “I will come make you breakfast tomorrow.”

***

In Erwin's room, Sherlock tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep. There is the howling of the wind blowing across the grounds outside. The House creaks – and Sherlock knows that autumn, the transition point between the hot and the cold seasons – causes the various materials, the wood, the nails and the pipes, to contract and expand with the fluctuations in temperatures. His rationality offers him limited comfort. Damn. Did he mention that he hated these old houses? 

And then, he hears footsteps. The wood creaks loudly outside the door of Erwin’s bedroom. Too loud to be that of an animal; they are definitively human. Mycroft? He hopes feverently. The footsteps stop – seemingly right outside Sherlock’s door. And an uncanny silence falls… Even the wind dies down abruptly. 

A quick glance over to the sturdy wooden door ensures that it is properly shut. 

Rolling onto his side, he tries to sleep again; he dozes on and off before feeling the distinctive dipping of the mattress, as if someone had slipped in. And he feels. Vividly. The sensation of frantic kisses under the moonlight. A nose tenderly nuzzling his own. Fierce blue eyes staring directly at his, mirroring need. Hands, ever so gentle, cradle his battered body – scarred from so many of his adventures and misadventures. Fingers gently stroking his bare flesh; the cunning tips teasing his nipples before hot, warm and moist flesh suck and devour them. A whisper of quiet affection; conveyed so sweetly that it hurts. Lips caressing his scars; pausing to bestow words of thankfulness that Sherlock is still alive – still alive to receive such worship. A tear clings to the corner of his eye, threatening to drop due to the weight of sentiment. And then, a large hand encircles both their pricks and gently strokes. God, he has never felt so good, so euphoric. His breathing becomes increasingly laboured as the pleasure crests and reaches its pinnacle. A voice tells him to ‘let go’ and he does.

When he wakes up the next morning, he is greeted with a sticky quilt and sheets. Fuck. Staring at the mess in disbelief, he flushes with embarrassment; this hasn't happened to him since he had been an adolescent. A chill runs down his spine when his eyes finally catch sight of his bedroom door.

It had been left ajar.