Mycroft blinks, and looks up at the man standing next to Captain Lestrade. Remembering his manners, he stands and encourages Sherlock to do likewise. They all bow. “Please, join us,” murmurs Mycroft, indicating the empty seats opposite. He avoids making eye contact.
Lestrade hesitates for a moment. Mycroft, unable to look at him, turns to Sherlock as they resume their seats. “Doctor Watson came to our aid in Lyme,” he says, with a small smile for the doctor. “When Louisa –” he pauses, suddenly terribly conscious that to talk of her must necessarily cause Lestrade pain. “When –” he clears his throat.
“When Louisa decided to take a dive from the sea wall, and Captain Lestrade failed to mitigate her stupidity,” says Sherlock, sharply.
“Sherlock!” hisses Mycroft, avoiding his brother’s amused, glittering eyes.
Lestrade settles himself into the chair opposite Mycroft. “Nice to see you again, too, after all these years,” he says to Sherlock.
In lieu of looking at Captain Lestrade, Mycroft examines Doctor Watson. He looks tired; there are dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks are rather sunken, despite the healthful glow lent by foreign sunshine. He must be around my own age.
“You have been in India, I perceive.”
Mycroft glances up, surprised, at his brother. It used to be a game, with us; to find what we could tell about others. I had no idea he does it still.
Doctor Watson is looking at Sherlock with astonishment. “Indeed, although I should be glad to understand how you came to know it.” His chin has a slightly pugnacious lift.
Sherlock smirks. “You are tanned, but it is fading. You carry yourself as a soldier does. You returned to England some months ago to aid an ill relative – brother, I think – and have been busy establishing yourself in practice in London ever since.”
“Are your family well?” asks Captain Lestrade awkwardly of Mycroft.
Mycroft glances at him, briefly. “Sherlock is quite well, as you see,” he says, wryly; Lestrade smiles. Mycroft’s heart turns in his chest. “My father is also in good health, thank you. And – your brother and his wife? I have seen your sister and the Admiral only once since coming to Bath.”
Lestrade nods. “All – all in good health, thank you.”
“And – the weather in Shropshire?”
“Quite clement, for the time of year.”
Mycroft looks down at his own hands, playing nervously with the pen and paper he had been using before they were interrupted.
Sherlock finishes his explanation of the inferences he had made about Doctor Watson with a flourish.
“That was – extraordinary,” says the doctor. He and Sherlock do not break eye contact.
Mycroft and Captain Lestrade glance at one another. “Sherlock,” says Mycroft, with some amusement.
“Oh – yes?” asks Sherlock, frowning slightly, and looking up.
“We should make our way home, I think.”
Lestrade turns, glancing out of the window. “It rains hard, still.”
Mycroft looks out, too, and cannot deny it; all the same, he feels he must get away. “Oh – it is nothing –”
Lestrade looks down. “Warned by my sister of the variable nature of Bath weather, I provided myself with this,” he says, holding out an umbrella. “If you are determined to walk, I wish you would make use of it.”
Mycroft shakes his head; “oh! No, there is no need –”
Lestrade looks again out of the window, and his expression changes; Mycroft glances out, too. Mr Moriarty-Holmes’ carriage has drawn up outside. Lestrade must have noticed the crest.
Mr Moriarty-Holmes springs from the carriage, head lowered against the rain. In a moment, he has ducked inside the tea house, and makes for their table, smiling at Mycroft all the while.
Lestrade withdraws the hand holding the umbrella. They all stand, amid formal introductions.
“I met Miss Morstan on my way,” smiles Mr Moriarty-Holmes. “Quite soaked to the skin! I have dropped her off in Camden Place, but discovered that you are in need of rescuing too.”
“Not at all,” says Mycroft, gently. “We are quite able to walk, and indeed, the rain is, I think, lessening –”
But Mr Moriarty-Holmes will not be satisfied; he is adamant that they must accept the ride in his carriage; and in any case, he means to return to Camden Place in order to see Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret. He has promised Sir Walter he will bring his sons home at the same time.
Sherlock seems in a daze and is no help at all. Captain Lestrade looks fixedly at the floor. Doctor Watson has eyes only for Sherlock.
Reluctantly, Mycroft acquiesces. Casting a glance at Lestrade from under his eyelashes as he and Sherlock collect themselves to leave, he sees how serious, how hesitant he looks.
Mycroft ushers Sherlock in front of him; and then in a moment everything seems to stop, fall away from him, and for a second he cannot comprehend the feeling. He places it, at last, glancing down to find his wrist caught gently in Captain Lestrade’s strong, tanned fingers; the umbrella being pressed into his hand.
“You will have to walk to the carriage,” murmurs Lestrade, but Mycroft hardly hears. His only impression is of those eyes: soft, deep brown.
Mycroft cannot answer; he follows Sherlock from the tea house, and in his hand is the black umbrella.
As they get into the carriage, Mycroft hears Sherlock murmur to himself, “that is not what people usually say.”
In the corner of his room, leaning against the desk, is the umbrella.
Mycroft sits on the edge of the bed, looking at it. He almost cannot believe its existence, and yet here it is; tangible proof of friendship, of kindness and perhaps – perhaps? – of willingness to bury past memories.
And yet – he was still reserved in his manner, still cautious. It was but by accident that he greeted me. He looked almost as tired as Doctor Watson. Certainly the business at Lyme has exhausted him; how much of that is due to solicitude for Louisa, and how much to grief at the loss of her?
Mycroft puts his hands over his face, takes a steadying breath. None of this is my concern. I shall probably not see him again before he leaves Bath, either to return to sea, or to settle somewhere else.
The thought of Lestrade returning to sea – eventually, to war, for is war not inevitable? – causes Mycroft almost-physical pain. To be so much advanced – to be better friends than they had been, and yet to part, thus, with no words of import spoken, no thoughts exchanged. Acquaintances, merely. His heart feels raw in his chest.
After two days of tedium, of private parties and ‘our cousin, Lady Dalrymple’, Mycroft feels that he may run mad. Sherlock has been more out of temper than usual, and passes his time screeching discordant noises on the violin; as much as he can, Mycroft keeps to his room, attempting to lose himself in estate business.
In the evening, however, he must attend the concert at the assembly rooms; Lady Dalrymple is going, and so Sir Walter will go too. He has already promised on behalf of his sons and his nephew. Mycroft, though regretting that he must spend the evening in company with Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret, is nevertheless grateful for a distraction. The music, after all, he will probably enjoy.
Captain Lestrade loves music, too, and three of the pieces are for piano –
He tries not to think it. Not to hope.
Sir Walter ensures they arrive early, to reserve the best seats and to wait for Lady Dalrymple; they take up a place near the fire in the Octagon Room.
Sherlock, impatient, snaps at all who speak to him, and Mycroft must soothe Sir Walter’s ego. He is relieved when Lady Russell arrives, before whom Sherlock does not dare to misbehave so openly. Moreover, she is an expert at flattering Sir Walter, helping him to appear to best advantage in company, and seeming always to be able to keep her temper where Mycroft’s own exasperation is liable to triumph.
Sir Walter is on edge, waiting for Lady Dalrymple’s party to arrive; he starts and looks over at every new entrant. He comments on everyone who comes in, usually slightingly on the nature of their features or the quality of their dress.
Once, though, he whispers, “what a handsome fellow!” adding, a moment later, “a shame about his hair, of course.”
Mycroft turns, consumed with the conviction –
Captain Lestrade has entered the room alone, looking somewhat self-conscious, but straight-backed and proud.
Their eyes meet. Mycroft can do no other than take a few steps away from his party to nod and speak a few words. Behind him, he hears his father hiss, “what is he doing? Mycroft – Lady Dalrymple may be here any moment – this is certainly not an acquaintance –”
Mycroft closes his eyes with shame and anger at his father’s unkindness.
“Good evening,” says Captain Lestrade, with a tentative smile.
Mycroft bows, and returns the greeting. “I hope that you are well?” he asks, looking only briefly into Lestrade’s eyes, dark in the firelight. “After I left you stranded in the rain with no umbrella.”
Lestrade smiles with more assurance. “Doctor Watson and I waited out the rain with tea and scones.”
Mycroft nods. “I am relieved to hear it.”
There is a pause as Captain Lestrade’s attention is caught by something behind Mycroft; then he bows. Mycroft realises that Sir Walter has paid Lestrade the very basic courtesy of acknowledging him; and though he is ashamed that the gesture should be both so belated and so elementary, he flushes with pleasure all the same.
“You must let me know where I should have the umbrella returned to,” says Mycroft, to cover his confusion.
“By no means,” says Lestrade, watching Mycroft, smiling now. “It is yours. I have already provided myself with another.”
Mycroft opens his mouth to argue, but Lestrade shakes his head, eyes crinkled with that so well-remembered warmth, and Mycroft, after all, says nothing. Gregory.
“I have not seen you since our day at Lyme,” says Lestrade, growing more serious. “I am afraid you must have suffered from the shock, the more so since you were the only one who kept his head at the time.” There is a bitter note of self-recrimination in his voice.
Mycroft drops his gaze, and shakes his head. “Not at all, I assure you.” He hesitates a moment. “You must not reproach yourself,” he adds, quickly, not looking up. “I only found it in me to act where others did not because I was less – involved – and in truth, I hardly saw the accident.”
Lestrade’s hands are restless. “It was an awful hour!” he says, feelingly, “an awful day!” For a moment, his eyes close as if in pain; but then he finds a half-smile again. “Of course, it has had its own good consequences, for Louisa and Benwick are to marry; did you know?”
Mycroft flushes. “Your sister-in-law had told me.” He looks away, towards the fireplace. I wonder he wishes to talk of this. “I hope it will be a happy match; there are on both sides good principles and good temper.”
“Indeed,” says Lestrade, looking towards the floor, “but there, I think, the resemblance ends.” Mycroft hears the reserve in his voice, and his heart squeezes painfully. He is hurt, after all. Badly so.
“I wish them happy with all my heart,” adds Lestrade, and it sounds like truth. “But I think they are dissimilar, and it is no less a difference than that of mind; Louisa Musgrove is a sweet-tempered girl, but Benwick is a clever, thinking, reading man! Fanny Harville was just such another, able to match him in mind and education, as well as in temperament; and I wonder at him, that he is able to think so soon of –” he hesitates, and looks restlessly away across the room. “A man does not recover from such a love with such a person. He ought not. He does not.” His eyes seem to burn with dark fire.
Mycroft’s chest is too tight for him to speak. He can feel the unstoppable, awful blush beginning to stain his cheeks. In that moment, he finds himself gathered up by Sir Walter and Lady Russell. Lady Dalrymple has arrived.
Behind her follow Miss Carteret and Mr Moriarty-Holmes. The latter wastes no time in greeting both his cousins, pleasant as usual. He gives the barest nod of politeness to Captain Lestrade.
Mycroft looks regretfully back, attempting to catch Lestrade’s eye; but he does not return the look, turning to the fire, his posture very upright and correct.
During the concert, Mr Moriarty-Holmes contrives to sit next to Mycroft, and is in constant need of Italian translation. Mycroft murmurs the words in English into his cousin’s ear. He hardly attends the music; he translates mechanically, his mind worrying at Captain Lestrade’s words. He does not. He does not.
“You are very proficient in Italian,” murmurs Mr Moriarty-Holmes.
“Not at all,” demurs Mycroft, absently. “An Italian would not be at all impressed with my knowledge.”
“No, no, of course not; you have only the proficiency to translate with no preparation these transposed, curtailed lines of a love song into clear, comprehensible, elegant English. Now I see my mistake.”
In the interval, Mycroft is on his feet immediately, pretending the need for a draught of water. He sees Lestrade enter the refreshment room, too, but he does not approach; Mycroft’s heart thumps, cold unhappiness in the pit of his stomach. ‘He does not.’ Surely – after what he has said about Louisa – surely not –
He draws to the side of the room, in the cooler space of the wide bay window. The glass is misted with condensation; he cannot see the dark world outside.
“Are you enjoying the concert, Mr Holmes?” asks a calm, determined voice beside him.
Mycroft turns to find Doctor Watson looking up at him.
“I am, thank you,” he returns. “And you?” Doctor Watson’s dark eye-shadows have not abated. He stands proudly upright nonetheless, with the help of his cane.
“Mmm,” he says, with a brief nod, lips pursed. “The aria was fine.”
“Yes,” says Mycroft, absently, for he perceives Captain Lestrade approaching; he cannot look up, he cannot meet his eye –
“Watson,” says Captain Lestrade, clapping him on the shoulder. “I didn’t know you liked this sort of thing.”
Doctor Watson smiles and turns to him. “An old soldier has as much right to enjoy some music as an over-familiar tar has.”
Lestrade grins. “Alright! No need to bite.”
Doctor Watson smiles, but his expression changes as Sherlock joins them. He licks his bottom lip, nervously.
“The first violin is appalling,” says Sherlock, without preamble.
“You should offer to replace him, Sherlock,” says Mycroft under his breath, rolling his eyes. Lestrade cannot restrain a smile.
“You play the violin?” asks Doctor Watson.
“Among my other vices,” says Sherlock, eyes flashing silver in the firelight. “I can actually play it, too, unlike the idiot who is apparently paid to do so.”
Mycroft passes a hand over his mouth to hide his smile. Lestrade catches his eye, and suddenly it could be eight years earlier; a current of warmth, of electric amusement and connection runs between them.
“Sherlock,” says Sir Walter’s voice, from behind them. “Come here, please. I must speak with you.”
Sherlock, deep in conversation with Doctor Watson, does not reply; and in a moment, Lady Russell is at his side. “Come, dear,” she says, firmly, her hand on his arm.
Politeness dictates that he go. Mutinous, angry, he does.
Mycroft knows that his own expression has changed; he looks down at the floor, in an attempt to hide it. I see it happening again. Doctor Watson – a good man, from what I can tell – interests Sherlock as I have never seen before. Not in the way that Mr Moriarty-Holmes fascinates him; not with restless, hard-eyed exchanges of ruthless wit. He inspires him to think, and even to listen. He is a doctor who has established himself in his own practice, without connections or advantages; he has served his country with honour. And yet he is not worthy to speak with Sherlock, according to my father. According to Lady Russell. He blinks, stricken.
Doctor Watson’s voice, when he speaks, is full of violence. It is just one syllable – “you!” – but he sounds dangerous.
Mycroft looks up, shocked at the change. Mr Moriarty-Holmes is approaching, come to draw him back to his family party.
Doctor Watson is looking directly at him.
Captain Lestrade glances, wide-eyed, from Mycroft to Doctor Watson; he grabs the doctor’s arm, dragging him as inconspicuously as he can towards the door. For a moment, Doctor Watson resists; then Lestrade’s muttered cautions obviously do their work.
They are gone.
The second half of the concert passes in a blur. Mycroft hears not a note that is played, not a word that is spoken to him.
When they emerge from the Rooms, Mycroft can see no sign of either man. Next to him in the carriage, Sherlock is alive with nervous, tense energy.
“What was –” he whispers.
Mycroft shakes his head. “I do not know.” He flashes a warning glance at Sherlock. “Not here.”
The next day, Mycroft springs to his feet at the first ring at the door. Sherlock has been pacing and scraping at the violin since early morning. At last, there must be news.
The morning room door opens, and Charles Musgrove and Jane are ushered in.
“Well, what a place Bath is!” cries Jane, without the preamble of a greeting. “Already we have run into Admiral and Mrs Croft, out walking; and we saw Captain Lestrade and that doctor – oh, Charles, the one from Lyme, what was his name, Doctor –”
“Watson,” snaps Sherlock, with a particularly hair-raising screech on the violin.
“– yes, Watson, before we had even gone ten steps from the lodging-house. I do not know how we will ever find any peace and quiet, with so many people always about to disturb us; for you know, it is quite impossible, here as we are with Mrs Musgrove, Henrietta and Captain Harville; they do all talk so, and Mrs Musgrove and Henrietta will not cease to talk of wedding-clothes and so on for both Henrietta and her sister – Mr Musgrove, Mrs Harville, the children, Louisa and Captain Benwick are at home at Uppercross –”
Jane being forced to draw breath at this point, Charles relates how Henrietta and Charles Hayter’s wedding has been brought forward, through the lucky chance of Charles having come into a living in a parish in Dorsetshire which, though not rich, will certainly be enough to sustain the young couple. Mr and Mrs Musgrove have therefore acceded to the young people’s wishes, and Henrietta and Charles will be married within a few months.
“That is excellent news,” says Mycroft, quietly. “I hope that Louisa is quite recovered now?”
“Yes,” says Charles, cautiously. He hesitates. “Although she is much altered. There is no laughing or running about, now; she is nervous, even the slamming of a door or the sound of a gun in the woods makes her jump! Benwick is quite devoted, though,” he says, more confidently. “There he sits, at her elbow, reading or whispering to her, all day long! I could wish, perhaps, he would try to cheer her a little more; but there is no doubting his love for her.”
Mycroft smiles. “Then they will be happy, I am sure.”
Here they are interrupted by Sir Walter, who is eager to show Jane and Charles all the fine appointments of the house; and Mycroft and Sherlock must return to their caged, restless state.
After ten minutes, Sherlock throws his violin down upon the sofa. “You must need to catch the post, Mycroft,” he snarls.
Mycroft watches him carefully. If we find no relief other than walking, even to be free of the stifling atmosphere of this house will be a great thing indeed.
Sherlock asked me to come with him.
And Jane said that Captain Lestrade is out walking.
Sherlock attempts to stride impatiently on, but Mycroft holds him back.
“A stroll, brother, if you remember.”
Sherlock sighs, theatrically, but slows his pace to match Mycroft’s.
Mycroft directs their steps toward the bookshop; he wonders whether perhaps – if not, he vows to try the Milsom Street tea house next.
Captain Lestrade and Doctor Watson are idling outside the window of the bookshop.
Lestrade and Mycroft glance at one another as the Holmes brothers pause to look in the window. Lestrade’s brow is drawn down, with a grey, worried expression.
As they bow and greet one another, they draw together as a group.
“Please allow me to apologise for my conduct yesterday evening,” says Doctor Watson, tightly. He glances up at Sherlock as he speaks. “It was –”
“Yes, yes,” says Sherlock impatiently, waving a hand. “You recognised Mr Moriarty-Holmes. It is obviously no coincidence that you have been at both Bath and Lyme at the same time as him. Why?”
Doctor Watson looks rather taken aback, but licks his lips. “I –” he clears his throat, shifting uncomfortably. “He has been the means of ruining both the health and happiness of a most beloved sister.”
“Sister!” exclaims Sherlock. When Mycroft and Lestrade look at him, he sighs. “Alcoholic – the scratches on his pocket watch. Sister! There’s always something.”
Mycroft puts a restraining hand on his arm. “Sherlock –” Treating Doctor Watson’s unhappiness so lightly will not help you.
Doctor Watson shakes his head, wonderingly. “I shall never understand how you do that.”
Sherlock blinks, silent for once.
“Explain,” prompts Captain Lestrade, quietly. His eyes find Mycroft’s for a moment, full of unhappiness.
Doctor Watson settles his stance. “My sister Harriet loved a woman – an American – and they were happy together, for a while. Engaged, until Mr Moriarty-Holmes tempted Clara away with the promise of devotion and a title.” He looks down at the floor. “They were married. At the time of marriage, Clara did not sign over her money to Mr Moriarty-Holmes; her father influenced her not to. Once he died, however, she consented to change her Will so that Mr Moriarty-Holmes would receive all the money – now including a handsome inheritance from her father – on the event of her death.” He looks up, and meets Sherlock’s eye. “She died within three months.”
“How do you know all this?” asks Sherlock, sharply.
“Clara, though having spurned my sister, did not cut herself off from her. They continued to correspond.” His mouth twists as he adds, “when Clara died, my sister began to – to drink.”
This time, Sherlock says nothing, watching the Doctor with something that, to Mycroft, looks suspiciously like sympathy.
“My sister confided in me that she believed Clara had been murdered for her money,” continues Doctor Watson. “I was busy establishing my practice; to me, it seemed impossible, the fancy of an ill woman. But to satisfy her, I hired a private agent to find more information about Mr Moriarty-Holmes and –” he glances to Mycroft, somewhat awkwardly. “I found that he has very close bonds, both of friendship and financial concern, with one Colonel Wallis. He is well-known as a runner of illegal gambling circles. I fear he may also have ties to an opium operation in London.”
Mycroft’s eyes widen. He cannot speak for the moment.
“The private agent – located – some correspondence which I believe makes my sister’s suspicion more credible, but he had reached the limits of his resources and could go no further.” He licks his lips again, unhappiness drawn in the lines of his forehead. “My sister disappeared,” he says. “I have reported it to the Metropolitan Police, but they have done nothing –”
Sherlock sighs and rolls his eyes, angrily.
“I am sure that I will find her where he is,” says Doctor Watson, sadly. “And the more I follow him, the more I believe he is more closely involved with Colonel Wallis’ operations than I previously thought.” He glances up at Sherlock, at Mycroft. “I am grieved to give you this news of your cousin’s character, but it can certainly not be of advantage to your family to court his company.”
Mycroft looks to Sherlock. He looks interested, his eyes are bright, but he does not look shocked, and there is something of pink in his cheeks – he avoids my eye –
Sherlock bridles and looks away, but when Mycroft grips his arm, he makes haughty eye contact. “He is certainly involved with the opium operation,” he says, coldly.
Mycroft feels the blood drain from his face. For a moment, everything seems to swim around him. “I beg your pardon?” His voice is a dry, cracked whisper.
“Lestrade! Watson! Mycroft!” Charles Musgrove and Captain Harville are coming up the street, hailing them merrily. They join the group, clapping Doctor Watson and Lestrade on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” says Mycroft, blankly. “We must return to Camden Place.” He drags Sherlock with him, protesting.
In Mycroft’s room, Sherlock shakes Mycroft’s grip from his arm and glares at him, angrily.
“How dare you drag me about the place like a naughty child?” he hisses, eyes intense green.
“Did he give you opium?”
Sherlock’s cheeks flush an angry red, but he does not lie. “The – the offer was made. But I did not take it.”
The bands of iron gripping Mycroft’s chest seem to loosen a little. “Why not?” he asks, watching Sherlock with a piercing gaze.
Sherlock shrugs; he looks away. “I wasn’t bored enough. That day.”
Mycroft breathes more easily. “Promise me you will not,” he says, tightly.
Sherlock looks at him. “You are not our father, to do this.” He gestures with one hand.
“Do you think our father would?” asks Mycroft. “You know his wishes regarding Mr Moriarty-Holmes.”
Sherlock gives a dry little huff of amusement. “It would never be boring, at least.”
Mycroft loses patience. “He killed his wife.”
“An amusing game,” says Sherlock, acerbically. “Guess where the poison is today.” He gives a wry smirk and turns for the door.
Mycroft takes hold of Sherlock’s arm to retain him, earning himself an angry, shrugged rebuff. Sherlock remains in the room, however, standing still, breathing hard.
“Sherlock, when I was one year younger than you I was persuaded – I was persuaded to eschew sentiment, and to give up a deeply-cherished plan which might have made me happy for life.”
Sherlock stares at him, eyes wide.
“Save only my blindness in the wake of our mother’s death – my neglect of you then – it is the greatest regret I shall ever have. In something that matters so deeply…” Mycroft takes a breath. “Do not allow yourself to be swayed by the judgements of others. Verify your opinions, judge them as clear-sightedly as you can, but do not be led by the prejudices and priorities of other people. Or by idle whims and curiosity of your own.”
Sherlock shrugs, dismissively. “I cannot imagine what you are speaking about.”
“Doctor Watson may not be a gentleman in the eyes of our father, but he is an intelligent, sensible, hardworking man of honour and integrity. He is financially secure and driven by a desire to better the world. He values your intelligence. Make your own decisions. I shall back you.”
For a long moment, the brothers look at one another. Finally, Sherlock gives a tiny nod, and walks from the room.
Mycroft drops into the desk chair, eyes wide and blank.
The next morning, Mycroft has been bidden to the Musgroves’ house, for he has not yet seen Mrs Musgrove and Henrietta since their arrival in Bath. He is rather delayed in setting off, however, by the rain; after a while, he takes up the umbrella Captain Lestrade had given him, and resolves to go despite the downpour.
Halfway to the Musgroves', he is hailed by Captain Harville. “Mr Holmes!” he calls, himself under a large black umbrella. “We had begun to be sure you would not venture out. I am sent on an errand for Miss Musgrove, but I am glad to have seen you – this is for you –” he presses a letter into Mycroft’s hand. “I must run on, but I shall see you soon at the Musgroves’, provided we both get there without drowning!” he waves as he sets off again.
The hand is unmistakably Gregory’s. Mycroft – an unmoving island in a sea of other umbrellas on the pavement – tears open the letter with shaking hands.
I can wait no longer – you do not come, and it is an agony to listen to the Musgroves speculate on your absence when I fear I know too well its cause. Oh! the expression you wore as Watson narrated your cousin’s infamy – I grieve that you must suffer this pain.
I cannot wait – I can be silent no longer. Do you remember that stumbling proposal I made, under the trees in the garden at Kellynch? ‘I must speak’ – and I must again.
What must you think of me? I have been weak and resentful, I have blamed you when I should have blamed my own stubbornness and pride, but I swear that I have loved none but you. I tried, and could not.
I hardly remember that first proposal; only the look in your eyes when you accepted me. But I know that I told the truth. I said that my mind and my heart are full of you, always, and it is true now as it was then. You pierce my soul. You are the standard against whom I compare every other person; your wit, your understanding, are unparalleled. For you alone I think and plan.
He has hurt you terribly. I understand it. But tell me not that I am too late – that all feeling for me has gone forever. Allow me, and I shall help you in your grief. Let me undo what he has done.
I can bear it no longer; I must go home; I beg of you but one line of text, to decide whether I shall remain at Bath to see you, or depart forever.
Believe me to be, always,
Mycroft cannot move. Tears, unshed, swim in his eyes. His feet are soaked, the rain a rhythmic pattern on the umbrella above him.
Only when he is ushered into the Admiral and Mrs Croft’s living-room does he realise quite how wet he is.
“Mr Mycroft!” cries the Admiral. “Good gracious! You will certainly take cold –”
Captain Lestrade stands, eyes wide and dark; he looks terribly young, suddenly. Mycroft cannot tear his gaze away.
Mrs Croft, looking between them, stands up and moves toward the door. “I must speak with you for a moment upstairs, dear,” she says to the Admiral.
“Sophy,” says the Admiral, reproachfully. “Mr Holmes has just arrived –”
“Theresa,” says Mrs Croft calmly.
The Admiral jumps, looking at her wife with great surprise. They close the door quietly behind themselves.
There is a long moment of silence.
Mycroft still holds the letter in his hand, folded back into its envelope. He gestures slightly with it.
Captain Lestrade swallows, breathing fast.
“I am not, and never have been, in love with Mr Moriarty-Holmes,” bursts from Mycroft, at last.
Lestrade looks at him with wide, startled eyes. “Pardon?”
“Never,” emphasises Mycroft. Then, as though his chest will crack, “you. Always you.”
Everything seems to happen too fast for Mycroft to comprehend – Gregory’s eyes, full of understanding at last – his hands in Mycroft’s – his lips pressing Mycroft’s knuckles one by one, eight years becoming insubstantial, inconsequential –
“Marry me,” murmurs Gregory.
Gregory smiles, wide, against the skin of Mycroft’s knuckles. “You are determined?” Two errant tears stripe his cheeks.
“Utterly. Irrevocably.” Mycroft swipes away the tears with the pads of his thumbs. His fingers tangle in Gregory’s silver hair. He steps closer, watching for any sign of reluctance. I regretted, every day we were apart, that you never kissed me.
Gregory’s small noise of surrender, of need, is overwhelming. Nothing else in the world can intrude, now. Their lips meet softly, and then harder; they kiss, breathing each other in, pressing close.
Their breathing is uneven by the time they stop, pushing their foreheads together.
“You are soaked,” smiles Gregory. “Did you not have your umbrella?”
“Useless thing. I shall buy you a better one.” Gregory draws him to the sofa. They sit, arms winding around one another, as close as possible.
“You will do no such thing. It is mine. I shall have no other.”
“I must go soon, and ask your father for permission.”
“We shall see him together.” Mycroft’s lips press tight.
Gregory’s sigh of relief, of thanks, is warm against his neck. “He and Lady Russell will be as against it now as they were then,” says Gregory, and there is a note of vulnerable enquiry in his voice that makes Mycroft’s heart turn in his chest.
“I am not as I was then. That is the difference.” They look at one another for a long, silent, wondering moment.
“When?” asks Gregory, thumb following Mycroft’s jawline.
“Today. Tomorrow. As soon as it can be achieved.” Mycroft smiles, resting his head against Gregory’s.
“You never loved him? Moriarty-Holmes.”
“Never. You never loved Louisa?”
Gregory laughs and draws him closer still. “Never.”
“Will you return to sea?”
“I do not have to. I am paid off. I have enough for us.”
Mycroft breathes a sigh of relief, pressing his forehead against Gregory’s temple. “Your hair is beautiful.”
Gregory grimaces. “I am engaged to a very kind man.”
The shock of it is physical; Mycroft's heart lurches in his chest. Engaged. He takes a breath. “I am not lying. You have only grown more handsome.”
“It has been torture to be near you, and not to touch you.” Gregory tightens his arms around Mycroft.
“Will you kiss me again?” whispers Mycroft, in his ear.
Gregory smiles. His eyes are dark and full of warmth. “I can be persuaded.”