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True Minds

Chapter Text

“Mycroft, my dear. You allow your tea to grow cold.”

His reflection is pale in the lead-lined window, distorted by the irregular glass. Outside, the sky hangs heavy and grey over the park. He turns, pale ripples in the corner of his vision.

“My apologies, Lady Russell. I watch for Mr Shepard.”

“Well yes, but you must keep body and soul together. You have been allowing yourself to grow too thin.”

“On the contrary, Lady Russell. Sherlock informs me that I have gained weight.”

She rearranges her skirts slightly. “He still affects that name, then.”

Mycroft’s smile is a little wry. “It is his middle name. And notable far back in our family tree.”

“Yes,” she says, dubiously, the closest she will come to outright condemnation. “He is quite wrong, in any case. You have certainly lost weight. You must not allow yourself to waste away, for how will you attract a suitable husband or wife if you let your charms fade?” she takes a sip of tea.

Mycroft turns back to his wavering, fragmented image in the window. Suitable. Let your charms fade. His charms had been few enough eight years ago. Now they are non-existent. The dark grey eyes, once admired and adored, have deep shadows beneath. The auburn hair recedes, a little, at the temples. His complexion, once fair as an English rose, has faded into pale dullness. For a moment, he is glad he was persuaded to give up the match. Imagine him returning home from sea to find me thus. At least I shall never see him again.

“Oh my dear,” says Lady Russell wistfully. “If only I can see you established happily as master of Kellynch Hall, as your dear mother wanted! Content in marriage, and already quite as judicious, quite as good a manager as ever she was.”

Mycroft sighs, and turns from the window. He sinks onto the sofa, and takes up his cup of tea. “You know that the estate is to be split between us. Jane and William – Sherlock – tell me that they will be quite happy to sell it, once our father is gone. I shall have to respect their wishes.”

Lady Russell sits up straighter, and places her teacup decidedly in its saucer. “Nonsense. To give up Kellynch! It is impossible.”

“Unfortunately, in the current state of affairs, it would certainly be the most advantageous course,” says Mycroft, watching shivers of movement across the surface of his tea. “The finances of the estate are –” he hesitates. “My father has given me power to act for him in management of the estate, and I have done what I can while remaining fair to the tenants, but if – if the family continues to spend in this manner –” he halts.

“Then what can be done?” asks Lady Russell. “Of course, the decencies must be observed. All dignity is due to your father’s position, but everything must be done to save Kellynch. What can be done?”

“Our only choice is to retrench,” says Mycroft, quietly. “Kellynch must be let. In time – with savings – our debts can be paid. It is the honourable course.”

“Retrench,” says Lady Russell, thoughtfully. “Yes. Yes, of course. And there is no shame in it! Why, half the first families in the country spend all year round in London, or at Bath, for their houses are let. Why should your father mind that? He will see more company, after all! He will be more in the world.” She claps her hands together. “And here comes Mr Shepard. We shall discuss how it is to be done, so that your dear father does not feel it too keenly.”

Mycroft puts down the cup of tea, and shifts, agitatedly. “But he should feel it! We should all feel it! He has – we have lived beyond our means! If we make real economies, it will take just a few years to repay our debts, and the estate will be profitable again. William – Sherlock – and Jane will see that the Hall should not be sold –”

Lady Russell lays a hand kindly on his arm. Her voice is lowered, in the knowledge that Mr Shepard will be shown in at any moment. “Now my dear. You must remember your dear father’s position. He is a proud man, and rightly so. Do not be too hot to make economies. You must remember that this will not be easy for him.”

Mycroft has to stifle his response, because Mr Shepard, round and brisk, enters the room, bowing low.

Once Mycroft has offered his hand, and the agent is ensconced safely in an armchair with tea and scone before him, Lady Russell sits forward.

“Now, Mr Shepard. We wish to discuss a retrenchment.”

*

“Impossible. Impossible!” explodes Sir Walter Holmes, anger blotching his high, fine cheekbones. “To give up all the comforts and rights of a gentleman, merely to pay a few paltry, mewling fellows? Revolting.” He lays long, elegant fingers across his cheeks, and takes a breath, clearly aware that anger does not display him to best advantage.

Mycroft takes a breath, ready to protest that the hardworking tradesmen and tenant farmers who depend on them to pay their debts are certainly not mere ‘mewling fellows’, when Lady Russell places a judicious hand on his arm.

“Sir Walter,” she says, calmly. “I am surprised that after all you should wish to pass up this opportunity to lead the season at Bath. After all, the company there is sadly in need of the guidance and – may I say – the tone that your family will bring. It has been some years since you were much in society, save your annual short trip to London. Think, too, of your children – Jane, it is true, is settled, but as for Wi– Sherlock and Mycroft? They must be more in the world, to meet the best people and make the best match.”

The Baronet watches her for a few moments, but slowly, proudly, he inclines his head. “Well, as for Mycroft, I am sure none of us expect him to –” he clears his throat, looking away. “But my dear Sherlock,” he says, looking at the young man draped, all raven curls and alabaster skin, over a chaise longue. “Yes. Yes, you are right, Lady Russell.” He straightens his cuff. “But to settle at Bath – will that not be dreadfully dull?”

Mycroft restrains the urge to grit his teeth. Bath. Possibly his least favourite place on Earth, but unarguably the cheapest of the options his father will accept. “But Father,” he says, as cheerfully as he can manage, “the society is much more mixed in Bath. You remember how dull you were, last time you wintered in London.”

“Far too mixed,” says the Baronet, sharply, determined in his displeasure. “Why, last time I was in Bath, the place was full of sailors, returning from some campaign or other. I never saw such broken-down wrecks in all my life. I was strolling with Sir Basil Morley when I saw a seafaring fellow so tanned and leathery I could hardly believe my eyes! Quite nine grey hairs, too, at his temples! I exclaimed that I was surprised that such an old fellow should be allowed to serve in our Navy, and Sir Basil laughed at me. ‘Why, how old do you think he is?’ I, most surprised, answered that I thought him at least sixty-five, and he exploded in mirth. 'He is not forty-five!’ he cried.”

Sir Walter widens his eyes in remembered horror. “'Pon my word, I could hardly believe my ears! To think that such an ancient, dried-out fellow should be but forty-five! It is unpardonable that people should allow themselves to deteriorate so.”

“Perhaps they are obliged to, in order to earn their way in life, Father,” says Mycroft, restraining his disdain with difficulty.

“Oh, yes, well,” says Sir Walter, with a sneer. “That is the other downside of the Navy. It allows those of no birth or breeding to raise themselves up above their allotted station, and we are all supposed to behave as if we have something to thank them for! When we know that most of them have nothing but penurious curates or tradesmen for ancestors.” He finishes with a disgusted flourish, taking a seat on the sofa and brushing a speck of dust from his immaculate breeches.

Mycroft, coldly angry, is opening his mouth to return an answer when Lady Russell’s hand again finds his arm.

“Quite so, Sir Walter, quite so. But we must remember, too, that there are so many really well-bred people from our first families in the Navy.”

“And really, Sir,” interjects Miss Morstan, from the window seat. “Only those of the highest birth – only gentlemen and gentlewomen, who are able to employ themselves peacefully, in the country, at their homes – are really able to be in the best of health. All those called upon to take up a profession lose their health in its pursuit, at some time or another.”

Lady Russell’s mouth tightens, and she rearranges her skirts with a pointed twitch. Mycroft is well acquainted with her opinion of Miss Morstan, his younger brother’s new friend and companion. Miss Morstan’s pointed smiles, flattery and fluttering laugh seem always aimed at Sir Walter.

“But must they lose their beauty?” asks Sir Walter, fretfully. “It is quite awful. And that terrible tanned-hide appearance I have spoken of is only if they do not become maimed in the course of their journeyings-about! Sometimes it is much worse, I assure you!”

Lady Russell clears her throat. “This new peace will certainly bring more of our Navy home – but that can only be another argument for Bath, Sir Walter! After all, Bath may attract some sailors, but London society will be quite full of them for the next few months at least.”

Sir Walter bends his head magisterially, as though conceding to overwhelming public pressure. “Indeed, Lady Russell. And, after all, you were right; we have not been in Bath for too long. They will be sorely in need of us, by now.”

*

Mycroft wakes early the next day. In the gloomy pre-dawn he takes his morning walk, attempting to drink in with every step the sight of his beloved Kellynch; to store it up for when he can no longer stroll here.

Memories of walks with his mother return to him. Her calm, sensible advice had always guided him. Every tree, every grassy way, holds memories.

Not all of them are of Lady Holmes.

Over there, he kissed my hands. There, I promised to be his. If only Mother had been alive still. What might she have advised me? Might she have intervened?

Sir Walter had found the match unthinkable: a young naval officer of no fortune and without connections; in short, with nothing but himself to recommend him. But it had been Lady Russell’s advice which finally brought Mycroft – just nineteen, fearful and with an implicit belief in the kind, thoughtful advice of his godmother, his mother’s greatest friend – to break off the match.

Mycroft watches a flock of geese pass over, calling to one another.

To Bath, then. His only memories of the place are bad ones: three years of schooling, violent and lonely; and a miserable winter spent in Lady Russell’s Bath residence after his mother’s death. His godmother had taken him there, seeing in him signs of ever-deepening melancholy.

She had hoped that absence from Kellynch would ease the pain of the memories, but his grief had pursued him, and the society and surroundings of Bath hold only bad associations still.

Mycroft pauses in the grove where the young naval officer – Captain Lestrade, now – had looked at him with shining, dark-brown eyes. In reply to his question, Mycroft had been able to choke out only yes. Yes.

Tears prick behind his eyes now, as they had then. He leans against the rough bark of the tree under which they had promised themselves to one another, allowing his fingertips to explore the pattern of knots and whorls.

If only he had kissed me. I know that he wished to; in his eyes was the kind of  of hunger that I shall never now experience. I wish that we had kissed, before it was all over.

He had wanted to thank Lestrade for asking for his hand. I should never have dared.

It had not taken long for Lady Russell and his father to persuade him that a life of financial uncertainty, of long periods alone while his husband was at sea, would be no life at all.

And I, cowardly, yielded to their advice. But he everything he promised me has come true. He is rich and respected. He will be seeking a husband or wife.

If I judge myself a coward, what must he think of me?

I am the last man on Earth he would wish to encounter now.

Some words spoken in passing by Lady Russell had haunted him: that he would, by giving Lestrade up, allow him to pursue his fortune without the dragging necessity of a husband to support. The logical conclusion, arrived at through his own quick understanding, was that such a financial drain would quickly make him a source of strain and distress for the young naval officer, not the solace and comfort he wished to be.

Mycroft flinches, remembering his own faltering words as he retracted his acceptance. The hurt, the misery in those soft brown eyes, as Mycroft told him that the engagement could not continue.

*

“You play beautifully.”

Mycroft’s eyes fix on the hand which has come to rest on the dark wood of the piano. Strong and finely-shaped; but already showing traces of the hardening and roughening brought about by work at sea. Nails clean, recently and carefully tended, but the back of the hand shows traces of a number of scars, one of them a rope-burn which must have been painful at the time.

He glances briefly up. Yes: Lieutenant Gregory Lestrade, introduced to the company by his brother, Edward Lestrade, the curate of Monkford.

His traitorous heart misses a beat. The naval officer is improbably beautiful, with a strong, clean jaw, dark hair and lively brown eyes. Mycroft had deliberately averted his gaze during dinner; and now he finds himself trapped in conversation.

“Not at all, Sir, I assure you,” he rejoins, quietly. “I play mechanically, the result of learning by rote rather than any genius. I play for the company only because my brother William –” he inclines his head slightly, indicating him, “– happened to forget to bring his violin in the coach, and we had not time to turn back.”

The other man smiles. “Music is but geometry, after all. Perhaps it is not so wrong to take a mechanical approach.”

Mycroft’s eyes snap up, surprised. He refrains from raising an eyebrow, but Lestrade’s amusement and understanding show in his dancing eyes.

“My father is a parson,” he laughs. “My knowledge of philosophy is not so wanting as you might expect.”

Mycroft blushes and returns his gaze to his hands, moving across the keys. “I made no assumptions, I assure you.”

“You did,” teases Lestrade, lightly. “But I am not offended.”

Mycroft makes no answer; he does not dare look up.

“Does no-one else play?” asks Lestrade, after a moment. “There was talk of getting up a dance.”

“Oh – I know a few airs, if –”

“You cannot play and dance at the same time.”

Mycroft looks up in bewilderment. Lestrade wears a look more serious than he has yet seen him adopt. And – yes, there is nervousness in his eyes, too.

“With me, perhaps?” adds Lestrade.

Mycroft curses the blush that stains his cheeks. “My brother – perhaps – may oblige –” he stammers. “Though not if I ask,” he adds, with a touch of awkward humour.

Though his own cheeks are red, Lestrade smiles. “I shall ask him,” he says, determinedly, and steps away.

Somehow, in mere minutes, he has whipped the company into a fever for dancing, brought together four or five couples who wish to stand up, and flattered William into displaying his skill on the piano. His decision and determination in achieving a thing, once wished for, is quite wonderful to behold; and Mycroft marvels alone, shyly, that he has somehow found himself the object of that single-minded resolve.

Their hands part only unwillingly to obey the demands of the dance.

*

In the window-seat of the drawing room, Mycroft peruses the letter from his sister Jane. She writes to him every other day, with many breakings-off and additions as she recounts the course of her life; her unruly emotions and lack of ways to fill her time mean that in the course of a single day she can fancy herself ‘very lonely, and truly very ill indeed; I fear that I may have a ’flu, or perhaps even something more sinister, for I have not felt so ill in many years’; by the night, after an evening of gossip with her sisters-in-law, she is ‘quite recovered, and excited to hear that the Assembly meets next week’.

Mycroft breaks away from Jane’s erratic style of exposition to stare out of the window. What might it have been like, if I had accepted Charles’ proposal?

Charles Musgrove – the son of a gentleman whose property and estates were second only, in that country, to that of Sir Walter’s – had proposed when Mycroft was twenty-two. Lady Russell had been sure that Charles would be a prudent match for Mycroft; though not remarkable for his intelligence, he was nevertheless kind, steady and financially secure. She had counselled strongly in his favour, eager to see her godson settled at the centre of his own family.

Mycroft strokes the pad of his thumb across his sister’s letter. I could not. The words stand starkly in his mind, as strong in conviction now as they had been then. He was –

He was not him. He winces and looks away, across the park.

All Lady Russell’s advice and entreaty had been gently, but steadfastly, refused.

Downcast but practical, Charles Musgrove had proposed instead to Jane, and all had proceeded calmly and in good order. Their two young sons are noisy, stocky lads, hardly kept in check by the rather irregular attentions of their mother.

The letter ends with an impassioned plea to ‘come, please come at once, and stay some time, my dear Mycroft; for I am so ill I can hardly write, and need you to cure me, as you always do. If only anyone here would show me a little kindness, a little attention! As it is, I am left alone from one day to the next, without company of any kind, saving the children, who are so badly-behaved that I simply cannot endure them! Please do come.’

He is roused from his reading by the sound of the servant showing in Mr Shepard. The agent bows to Sir Walter, smiling and nodding to the other members of the family.

“Sir Walter! I have some good news.”

“Oh?” asks the Baronet languidly.

“Yes indeed! An application for the house. I was recently at the quarter sessions in Taunton, and there I met Admiral Croft, a native of Somersetshire who has made a very handsome fortune at sea.”

“And who is Admiral Croft?” asks Sir Walter, with cold suspicion.

“She is a gentlewoman, I assure you; and extremely interested in the house.”

After a moment, Mycroft speaks from the window-seat, his father turning slightly to look at him. “She is a rear admiral of the white. She was at Trafalgar, and was then stationed for several years in the East Indies.”

Sir Walter turns away. “Then she must be as tanned as the leather armchairs in the library,” he says, dismissively.

“Oh no, indeed, Sir Walter,” says Mr Shepard, brightly. “I assure you, she is very healthy-looking; a little weather-beaten, of course, but not much; and very polite and gentlewomanly in her manners. She and her wife will treat the house with the greatest of respect, I am sure. They will certainly not make difficulty about the terms, as they only want a comfortable home; and having no children, they will keep all within in perfect order. The Admiral was only surprised that you were not asking a little more for such a convenient, ready-furnished home.”

Sir Walter raises an eyebrow. “I see. And Mrs Croft? Is she a well-bred person?”

“Oh, certainly! I met her too, at Taunton; she has been to sea almost as much as her wife, for she has sailed with her often, and joined her at her postings. She is a very sensible woman, with quite a head for business; she asked more questions about the terms of the house, the taxes and so on, than did the Admiral!” Mr Shepard smiles and presses his fingers to his forehead. “And as for her family – now who was it – she is the sister of someone who lived among us, for a while. A curate, I believe it was, at Monkford – what was the name?” he sighs and shakes his head at his own forgetfulness.

Mycroft’s breath catches in his throat. “Can you mean – Mr Lestrade?” he asks, quietly.

“Oh, yes!” beams Mr Shepard, “yes, how ridiculous of me to have forgotten. Mr Lestrade, who was curate at Monkford for two or three years. She is his sister.”

“Ah,” sneers Sir Walter. “Of no family, then.”

Mr Shepard, perceiving his mistake, is silent for a moment; Mycroft is too caught up in conflicting emotions to intervene.

“Still, an Admiral,” says Miss Morstan, approvingly, from the sofa, where she and Sherlock have been whispering animatedly. “An Admiral is a fine tenant.”

Mycroft breathes again, while Mr Shepard smiles upon her.

Sir Walter shifts impatiently, but he cannot deny it; there can be no shame in saying, ‘I have let my house to Admiral Croft, who was in the Trafalgar action’.

“Yes. Very well, Shepard. Invite them here. I should like to see them before I decide if we can come to terms.”

Mycroft, cheeks uncomfortably flushed, hears no more. His sister, to live here. And if he returns home to England, he may visit her and walk here, too; may see again the groves and gardens where we walked and talked and loved.

He takes a breath. No matter. I shall not be here.

*

By taking a long walk to Lady Russell’s, Mycroft manages to avoid the visit of the Admiral and Mrs Croft. On his return, he learns that they are to take possession of Kellynch at Michaelmas.

Privately, he resolves that this is when he will begin his visit to Jane at Uppercross Cottage, and starts a letter to her on the subject.

He shakes his head slightly as he writes. Bath, full of white glare and late-summer heat, so different to the quiet autumnal glow, the soft mists of Kellynch in September. Not to be borne. Even several weeks of Jane must be preferable to that.

Once Lady Russell moves to Bath, after Christmas, I can safely go there too; her society, at least, will alleviate the rest.

Jane’s reply is eager, urging him to come sooner if he can, and to stay as long as possible.

*

“My dear, this is a most dangerous course, but truly I do not see how it can be averted.” Lady Russell’s agitation is evident in the restlessness of her hands, her sharp tug at a loose thread on her sleeve, the cup of tea left cooling unheeded on the table beside her.

Mycroft finishes reading a letter from a tenant farmer, holding the paper to the light of a nearby window. “Indeed, Lady Russell,” he sighs, sitting back in his chair. “I had not anticipated that Miss Morstan would accompany my brother and father to Bath. But the decision, it seems, has been taken.”

“You must stay with them, then! She is quite designing, that young woman. I am sure I need not point out how much she has to gain from any – alliance with your father? And how much you, your brother and sister have to lose? To find yourselves disinherited due to such a woman…”

“You do not, and I understand your concerns. I am promised, now, however, to Jane and to all at Uppercross; I cannot break the arrangement. I shall speak to Sherlock.”

Lady Russell makes the same small, scornful huff she makes with every repetition of the name. “William is quite as bewitched with the woman as your father is in danger of being,” she says, her frankness increasing with her anger.

Mycroft sighs, gently. “His time at boarding school was not happy, Lady Russell. I believe he is, indeed, rather ‘bewitched’ by having a friend, a confidante. But I do not think that you need fear any alliance between Sherlock and Miss Morstan.”

“Oh, no,” says Lady Russell. “And besides, your father would hardly allow it; but I fear that, in guarding the honour of your brother, he may forget to examine his own heart. She is a skilled flatterer.”

Mycroft nods, once. “I shall speak to Sherlock.”

*

Sherlock sighs, heavily. “Oh, Mycroft,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I fail to see why I should listen to this drivel.”

Mycroft checks his temper, and tries again. “I am pleased that Miss Morstan is a companion to you, but wilful blindness on this matter is not –”

Sherlock cuts him off, indignantly. “You judge all others by your own standards! She has no idea of attempting a match with our father. It is unthinkable, the inequality of station being so great. She has spoken about such matches being imprudent a number of times.”

Mycroft interjects. “I did not mean to suggest that the inequality –”

“You seek to make me as friendless as yourself,” says Sherlock, with cold fury. “Do you think that I shall be forced into companionship with you, if you drive away Miss Morstan? Because I can assure you I shall not.” The library door slams behind him, with force.

Mycroft closes his eyes. It was not always thus. We were the best of friends, when he was small; until I was sent to school. Until Mother died. Until anger and distrust divided us, somehow.

It is my fault. I left him alone, after Mother –

Perhaps Miss Morstan is what he needs.

Chapter Text

“I believe you think we live without comforts, without civilisation at all,” smiles Lieutenant Lestrade, watching Mycroft as they stroll through the garden, towards the prospect point.

Mycroft shakes his head. “Not at all, I assure you,” he says, marvelling at Lestrade’s ability to tease him without making him uncomfortable. “It appears I have heard and read only horror stories of the sea. The way you describe it makes it sound much more bearable.”

“Bearable?” laughs Lestrade. “Then I have not described it properly at all…there is nothing like watching the dawn break from the deck of the ship…nothing like climbing the rigging and feeling oneself part of the air, part of the rush and swell of the waves, part of the vessel itself…” his voice is full of excitement, of enthusiasm and joy. “Oh Mycroft! If only I could show you –”

Seeing Mycroft’s blush, he stops, and clears his throat. “Oh – my apologies, Mr Holmes –”

Mycroft glances at him, a brief meeting of their gazes. “No – please –” he stammers. He does not know how to continue.

Lestrade bites his lip. “Perhaps – when we are together – alone, we might…” his thumb tucks nervously into the belt of his uniform. “You could call me – Gregory. If you wish.”

“Yes,” says Mycroft, hastily. “And please – do address me as Mycroft.”

Lestrade gives him the sort of smile that could stop his heart. They stand looking at one another for a few moments, before Mycroft turns to continue their walk.

“We even have music, sometimes,” says Gregory, a little teasingly. “Dances, when we put into port.” He glances at Mycroft. “Nothing like your playing, though.”

“Truly, I do not play particularly well,” says Mycroft, looking quickly away. “Compared to some of the concerts I have seen in London – and my brother’s mastery of the violin – he could be a true musician, if he would practice with diligence.”

“Nevertheless, I believe your playing gives me the most pleasure of all,” says Gregory, and Mycroft’s quick glance confirms that the other boy’s dark eyes are warm, and full of sincerity. He blushes, deeply.

They walk in silence for a few moments.

“I had assumed there must be entertainments,” says Mycroft quietly, to break the silence. “In reading the newspaper, it is easy to discover that Navy ships often carry the officers’ families, too. It seemed strange to me though; does that not endanger the lives of civilians?”

“No ship bound for war would carry them; but the officers’ husbands and wives have the right to be taken to where they are, once the danger is past.”

“But – surely there are unforeseen occasions –”

“Yes,” says Gregory, as they come to a halt at the prospect point, looking out over the vast green beauty of the park. “There are times when privateers attack, or a skirmish happens without preparation. The families are protected, of course, by every effort of the officers and crew.”

Mycroft nods, observing sidelong Lestrade’s handsome profile. The other man bites his lip as he looks into the distance.

“You have been to war,” says Mycroft.

Lestrade hesitates for a moment. “Yes,” is all he says, at last.

Mycroft does not know what to ask.

“It is an unholy mess,” says Gregory, at last, glancing back to Mycroft with an apologetic half-smile. “There is no use in pretending otherwise. But it is my profession, after all.”

Mycroft nods, and surveys the land before him. How small, how restricted, how provincial his life must seem, by comparison: lived largely within the boundaries of the estate and its local neighbourhood, and ruled by their immediate concerns. Not an adventurous life, and yet Kellynch feels as integral to him as the very blood in his veins.

“Are you tired?” asks Gregory.

Mycroft glances up from his musings, a little startled. “Oh – no,” he says, shaking his head.

“Let us walk a little farther together,” smiles Gregory. “The weather is most pleasant today.”

*

“You see?” whispers Jane fretfully. “You see how she spoils them? Little wonder that they are so hard to manage when she insists on feeding them sweets without any reason. They are positively clamorous for more when I am alone with them, or they return sick and I am obliged to cope with their illness.”

Mycroft attempts to remain impassive, and not to give away with the direction of his gaze the import of his sister’s peevish whispers. “They have had only one sweet each, Jane,” he murmurs. “Try to enjoy the evening. Henrietta plays the harp with great accomplishment, does she not?”

“Well, I cannot see what is so wonderful about it,” whispers Jane in return. “Mr and Mrs Musgrove are always exclaiming over Louisa and Henrietta’s musical talents, but they do not seem anything out of the ordinary to me, for all they spent so long at finishing school.”

Mycroft stifles a sigh. “I think I shall have another glass of wine. Should I fetch some for you?”

“Yes, please, for I am so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open.”

Moving to the side of the room, Mycroft finds himself gestured over by Mrs Musgrove. “Now, come and sit a while with me, Mr Mycroft! So Kellynch is let, and your father and brother gone away to Bath. Who did you say has taken the Hall?”

“Admiral Croft and her wife. They must still be moving in, but I am sure we shall hear of them soon.”

“Ah, yes, yes, they will do the round of visits, I am sure. And won’t it be interesting to hear more of a seafaring family? Oh, no, here come little Charles and Walter for more sweets. I suppose I shall have to give them some, for really they are so badly behaved that I know no other way to keep them tolerably quiet! Really, Mycroft, can you not persuade Jane to occupy herself with their manners a little more? They are so loud and unruly I hardly know how to invite them here in company.” Mrs Musgrove gestures to where Henrietta is getting up from the harp. “For you know, we have the Hayters here a good deal of an evening, to discuss the day’s news and to dance; the girls are wild for dancing. There, see now, dear Henrietta and Louisa are discussing what kind of dance we shall have –”

Mycroft bends his head. Unwilling to dance, he offers instead, “I can play the piano, if they wish.”

The Musgrove sisters seem so happy in one another’s company, thinks Mycroft sadly, as he plays a country dance. He had soon been separated from Jane by both temperament and her schooling, conducted at a Paris establishment for ladies; but Sherlock, so alike in mind and interests to himself, had been his young friend until they lost their mother. After that, grief had numbed him for a while to the needs of a young and sensitive sibling.

He had realised too late that Sherlock was lost to him.

*

Just two days later, Admiral and Mrs Croft visit Uppercross Cottage, having called first at Uppercross Hall.

The Admiral occupies herself quickly with making herself agreeable to Jane, and to little Charles and Walter. Therefore, with some hesitation, Mycroft seats himself on the sofa next to Mrs Croft, the sister of Captain Gregory Lestrade.

His cheeks flush with painful consciousness. Anxiously, he examines her manner for any signs of constraint or unfriendliness, any sign that she might know the history of his engagement to her brother; but there are none. She is a calm, confident woman, quite decided in her manner. She smiles most readily when engaged in conversation by her wife, who occasionally teases her, or refers to her for small details of news and gossip.

Mycroft examines, in glances, her resemblance to her brother. There are hints of it in the cheekbones and jaw; but it is her eyes which provide the uncanny reminder of Gregory, the same soft, deep brown.

“Well, we are very sorry to have turned you out of it, Mr Holmes; but I must say that the Admiral and I are quite devoted to Kellynch Hall.”

Mycroft smiles, a little tightly. “I am glad,” he returns, as sincerely as he can.

Mrs Croft lays a hand on his arm, just for a moment. “You must come, whenever you wish,” she says, gently. “You must miss it.”

Mycroft looks down at his tea, then takes a sip. “Thank you,” is all he can say.

His stomach turns somersaults when, quite out of nowhere, she changes the topic. “I understand it is you, and not your sister, who was acquainted with my brother when he was here. I had heard the name of Holmes repeated often, but had not realised that it was of you my brother spoke.”

Mycroft’s heart squeezes tight, and for a moment he cannot speak. “I – yes – some years ago –” He can feel himself turning red.

“Then perhaps you have not heard that he is married?” asks Mrs Croft, with a warm smile. “That is our recent good news.”

And now, Mycroft feels the blood drain from his face. All seems silent and grey for a moment. He takes a deep breath, and only then can he reply with a tolerable semblance of politeness: “Ah, yes. A marriage is good news indeed.”

He is married. He is married. Mycroft thanks all that is good that he is sitting down; for his legs feel numb and powerless.

“And of course he has a permanent post, now, as rector in Shropshire. It is quite perfect for them.”

A moment’s pause, and Mycroft’s faculties of thought and understanding seem to return; his lungs fill with air as though rising, gasping, from beneath dark, cold waves. Edward. She is speaking about Edward. Edward is married. Not Gregory.

Voice a little strangled, he finds it in himself to ask, “Shropshire? How interesting. And near which town?”

He does not hear the answer. He watches her, merely, for cues on how to react. Perhaps Gregory is married, too, and I simply do not hear news of it because she does not think I know him. Or perhaps he is still at sea, wounded before the peace; I know he is not dead, or at least the newspaper has not reported it so. His chest feels tight, his heart cold and bloodless.

As the Crofts leave, Mycroft thinks he hears the Admiral say to Jane, “you know, we expect a brother of Sophy’s here soon; I expect you know him by name, in any case,” but he cannot be sure.

It must be Edward, again, who will visit. Gregory is not in England.

Only when Louisa and Henrietta arrive, ostensibly on a walk, but in fact to discuss all the news and gossip brought by the Admiral and Mrs Croft, does Mycroft hear the truth.

“Apparently, Mrs Croft’s brother is coming to stay,” says Louisa, leaning forward to discuss it more cosily.

“Oh, yes, the Admiral told me so,” says Jane, slightingly. “We were quite in confidence, you know, by the time she left; but I do not know why we should all be in a frenzy about some country curate and his wife.”

“Oh, no, Jane,” says Louisa impatiently. “It is not Edward Lestrade who comes! It is Captain Gregory Lestrade, of the Navy! He is just returned to England, or paid off, or something, and has made a vast fortune; he is coming to see them almost directly.”

Charles, cleaning his gun in the corner, gives a laugh. “Well, girls, you must one of you have him as a husband; for a vast fortune will help us all exceedingly.”

Both Henrietta and Louisa laugh at their brother, while Jane pretends disgust at his vulgarity.

Mycroft slips away for a long walk, needing fresh air, solitude, and silence.

*

Sherlock has returned to school, eyes full of dark, furious unhappiness.

Mycroft, tired and concerned about his brother, plays the pianoforte after dinner. His head aches abominably, but he had rather play than be engaged in conversation.

When Gregory takes a seat beside him on the piano stool, his whole body lights with consciousness of his presence, with yearning to draw closer still. Their elbows brush as Mycroft plays, and his blood rushes with the feeling.

“You seem sad tonight.” Gregory speaks under his breath, and in the firelight, covered by the piano, their conversation is a quiet, protected bubble.

“Sherlock has returned to school,” murmurs Mycroft. He is ashamed to find that his unhappiness would rise, if he let it, as hot tears; he bites his lip, hard, to stop them.

“He wasn’t happy?” asks Gregory, sympathetically.

“No.” For a few moments, the piano is the only sound. “He would not confide in me, though.” Mycroft’s voice is weak, raw, and he hates himself for it. He frowns, concentrating angrily upon the music.

“Does he attend the same school you did?”

“Yes.” Perhaps Mycroft’s small grimace is enough to convey a sense of the place.

“Not good?”

“No.”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Gregory nod. “Mine was awful too.”

“I have tried to tell him – he has a first-class mind. I hope that perhaps, for him, university may be possible – if I can make the estate profitable in time – but he must work hard before that. And the school seems to do everything calculated to alienate him.” His eyes skim blankly across the music before him; he has lost his place, playing from memory alone. “Turn the page, please,” he requests quietly, when he finds it.

Gregory leans across to do so, the warmth and closeness of his body stealing Mycroft’s breath.

“Didn’t you want university?” asks Gregory, in a whisper. “You’re clever.”

Mycroft hesitates. “I should perhaps have enjoyed – in other circumstances,” he murmurs. “But my Father – I must learn the running of the estate and Hall. Without my Mother –” he bites his lip.

“You are but nineteen,” whispers Gregory. “There would still be time for you to attend university, and learn the estate business alongside. Why, when you marry, your father will have to manage it alone in any case.”

Mycroft gives a quick half-smile. “I doubt that such an eventuality will arise,” he says.

“Why?” asks Gregory, and his voice sounds a little strange, a little breathless.

I am no catch. Mycroft shakes his head slightly, in lieu of an answer.

“Well I mean to marry,” whispers Gregory, with fierce determination. “Why not be happy, build a life and a family?” After a moment of silence between them, he adds, a little sadly, “still. I am a few years older than you.”

Mycroft’s heart beats wildly in his chest. Is this –? He takes a breath, attempting to forestall a mortifying blush. He speaks only in the abstract. Do not be so presumptuous as to suppose…ludicrous.

“Will you take your family everywhere with you?” he asks, as calmly as he can.

Gregory puts his head on one side for a moment, as though considering. “I suppose that will depend upon their preference,” he murmurs, at last. “The thought of them being caught up in the dangers of the sea –” he swallows, and looks away, to the fire. “But then, the thought of being separated for so long at a time –”

Mycroft tries to concentrate on the music, but it has lost meaning for him. He falls back on memorised phrases, hoping that his inattention is not too obvious to the company.

“What do you think they would prefer?” asks Gregory, in a murmur, long eyelashes sweeping his cheeks. His voice is a little constrained.

“I have no way of…” falters Mycroft.

Gregory turns to him, eyes deep and full of firelight. “If it were you,” he whispers.

Mycroft’s heart throws itself against his ribs. For a long moment, he feels caught in Gregory’s gaze.

“I am sure they would prefer never to be parted from you,” he murmurs, cheeks flushed.

*

The day that Captain Lestrade is due to arrive in the neighbourhood, the Musgroves of both Uppercross Hall and the Cottage are invited to Kellynch Hall for dinner, to welcome him.

A few hours before the dinner, little Charles takes a fall from the pony on which his father is teaching him to ride. The doctor, summoned amid great panic and faintings from Jane, has little anxiety except about the danger of concussion.

As soon as the doctor has left, Jane begins to exclaim loudly, “well, such a thing was bound to happen! Any pleasing entertainment there is, I must always be excluded because something goes wrong with either little Charles or Walter! I am never to be allowed an evening to myself, and Charles does not volunteer to stay behind with the child, though he is his father!”

Mycroft eagerly seizes the opportunity. “I shall remain, Jane, and watch for any signs of concussion in the boy. It is of no consequence to me.”

“Are you sure? Well, to be sure, it is just as well, for he obeys you far better than he does me! And I will be of far more use at the dinner, in talking and keeping the conversation alive, than you should be, for you are grown quite taciturn, you know.”

The whole household being abed by the time Jane and Charles return, Mycroft does not hear until breakfast that the party was a success. Charles pronounces Lestrade “a fine man, and a good fellow.” Gulping down the rest of his tea, he departs to spend the day shooting.

Jane gives a more detailed account of the evening. “He enquired after you slightly, you know,” she says, buttering her toast. Some part of Mycroft’s startled brain notes that she has left crumbs in the butter. “When everyone asked after where you were, he looked quite surprised, and said that he had met you when he visited his brother at Monkford, years ago.”

Mycroft curses the unruly heart lurching within his chest. After a moment, he is calm enough to say, “ah yes. He visited Kellynch a few times.” Jane was away at school. She can have no idea of what passed between Lestrade and I, he reminds himself soothingly. Certainly neither Father nor Lady Russell would have told her, out of concern for my own reputation and for that of the family; and Sherlock does not know. I am fairly sure he does not.

“Well, he is a very handsome, well put-together man, I must say, with charming manners! He must be about thirty, I suppose, and seems well-pleased by the idea of marriage, having made his fortune. Certainly Louisa and Henrietta are quite silly over him already, and behaving in a scandalous manner.”

Mycroft, mouth dry, feigns interest in the morning newspaper.

“And he is out now, you know, shooting with Charles; that is why he was in such haste to leave this morning. I do not suppose we shall see him, though,” she says, resentfully. “He will not come here, when he is invited to Uppercross at all hours.”

By the afternoon, Mycroft has managed to lose himself in correspondence regarding the Kellynch estate, which must after all still be administered, even though the family are not in residence. Certainly his father, busy carving out his social circle in Bath, has no interest in doing so.

Mycroft sits, therefore, quietly at the writing-desk in the parlour. He is engaged in composing a missive to one of the tenant farmers when there is a sudden commotion at the door.

“Jane!” calls Henrietta, from the passage. “Jane! We are come to call, and Charles and Captain Lestrade follow – Captain Lestrade would have nothing but that we warn you of his coming, in case little Charles has taken a turn for the worse, or the time is not convenient.”

“Oh, he is quite well, quite well,” scoffs Jane. “Sleeping, just now. It is certainly convenient.”

Mycroft stands, with some thought of going up to his room; but just as he makes to excuse himself little Walter, only two years old, takes a tumble at the threshold. Jane is already accompanying the Miss Musgroves outside to greet Captain Lestrade, so Mycroft bends down to console the boy, lifting him up to forestall the yell of pain and frustrated annoyance he is about to unleash.

By hoisting the boy up, smiling at him, and patting his fat little knee to show that no damage has been done, Mycroft averts the tantrum that might otherwise have ensued; the little boy, finding himself so tall, even starts to smile.

Mycroft’s opportunity to flee, however, is gone. The guest has been invited to sit in the parlour; the only way out, through the passage, is blocked. Mycroft hears Charles order tea from the servant, and his heart sinks, knowing that the visit is not to be a short one.

As the door opens, he busies himself with giving little Walter a last cheering talking-to.

“– and you know my brother Mycroft, I believe,” says Jane, mid-sentence.

Mycroft bows his head, giving Captain Lestrade the barest smile and glance that politeness allows. Then, putting Walter into his mother’s arms, he takes up the letters on which he had been working.

“My apologies, Jane,” he murmurs, keeping his gaze low. “These are urgent. I must make the post.” With all expedition, he escapes to his room.

His hair. He looks the same – his jaw, oh that clean-cut jaw – those eyes – but his hair has turned silver.

He is beautiful.

Mycroft drops the letters onto the small desk in his room, and sits on the edge of the bed. Hands together, between his knees, he stares absently out of the window.

Beautiful.

*

Mycroft misses dinner, pleading a headache; he had hoped to be late enough to breakfast the next morning not to encounter anyone, but Charles and Captain Lestrade have once again gone out to shoot, so Jane is peevish and ready to talk.

As Mycroft takes his first sip of tea, Jane begins to cut up an apple. “You know, Captain Lestrade was exceedingly kind and attentive to me, yesterday, but he was not so gallant to you, Mycroft.”

Mycroft does not want to know, and yet part of him is desperate to hear what she might say, no matter how bad. Before he can make any reply, however, Jane continues.

“As they went away, Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, although we had only seen you so briefly; and he said that he thought you so altered he should not have known you again.”

Mycroft can eat no more breakfast. Humiliation flushes his cheeks. The eight years between then and now have destroyed in me whatever he once found attractive. And in that time he has only become handsomer, richer, more decided and confident.

He has not forgiven me, then, for deserting him.

His eyes feel heavy, hot with unshed tears. Hating his own weakness, he tries, unsuccessfully, to fasten his attention on the newspaper.

A few minutes later, Louisa and Henrietta arrive, and Louisa exclaims loudly when she sees him. “Why, Mycroft, you look wretchedly pale! Come out with us. We are going to take a long walk, and the air will do you good. There is no use staying in the house; come and take the exercise.”

Henrietta presses him, too, and Mycroft has to admit that he would appreciate the fresh air. Privately, he cannot help wishing for his own silent walks at Kellynch, the well-remembered ways and quiet solitude.

Jane immediately takes offence at not having been asked first, and Louisa and Henrietta make up their mistake by, rather impatiently, inviting her to walk too; and the four of them set out along a way that, Mycroft soon realises, is designed to bring them out near Charles and Captain Lestrade’s sporting endeavours.

Mycroft is on the point of excusing himself to go back to the house, when Charles hails them.

“Girls! Jane! Mycroft! Over here!” He and Captain Lestrade come up on the party, glowing with their exercise.

“That blasted new young dog,” says Charles, with exasperation. “Not ready yet. Should never’ve been brought out. Spoiled our sport.”

“Would you like to join us?” asks Louisa. “We are setting out for a walk.”

“Oh, certainly,” smiles Lestrade. “I am perfectly ready for a walk, if you are, Musgrove.”

Louisa and Henrietta lose no time in claiming him, taking his arm on either side; and they walk faster than Jane, so that two distinct parties develop. Charles and Jane are not in good temper with one another today, having quarrelled the night before over the best treatment for little Charles’ malady; Mycroft does his best to fall behind somewhat, and to gain thus some of the peace, quiet and fresh air for which he had longed.

Cresting a hill, they look down to find Winthrop, the Hayters’ home, not far ahead; and Louisa looks pointedly at her sister. As Charles, Jane and Mycroft catch up to them, the sisters talk apart in animated whispers.

Charles declares his firm intention to go down to the house and visit his aunt and his cousin Charles Hayter. Mycroft observes, with a sense of impending trouble, Jane’s stubborn lift of the chin and flare of the eyes. Many a time has she expressed her annoyance that, in marrying Charles, she should have found herself so closely allied to such an inferior family.

Mrs Hayter is Mrs Musgrove’s sister, but the Hayters are neither so well off, nor so well-educated, as the Musgroves.

The eldest son, Charles Hayter, it is true, chose a profession in the Church; even Jane counts him a scholar and a gentleman, though despising him for his lack of fortune or connections. Mycroft has witnessed a number of marital skirmishes between Jane and Charles on the subject of Charles Hayter.

In Jane’s professed view, the arrival of Captain Lestrade is certainly a good thing; Henrietta being the much more comely girl, he will certainly like her better. There had been some talk of a match between Henrietta and Charles Hayter, with seeming liking for the idea on both sides.

Jane had told Mycroft crossly the week before that the idea was not to be borne. To tie the two families closer together, when it is already insupportable that she, a Holmes, should be forced into such close relation with them?

Mycroft, unwilling to witness the argument certainly brewing between Jane and Charles, and painfully aware that his society cannot be acceptable to Captain Lestrade, strolls some way further along the ridge, next to the hedge. There is peace, here; the light and the landscape across which it washes almost emulate an autumn walk around his beloved Kellynch.

Around a turn in the hedge, he pauses, standing still, and looks out across the countryside. Eventually, he finds a seat on a dry tree-stump, and allows the soft golden sun to play on his skin.

Hungry. I should not have skipped both dinner and breakfast. Nevertheless, he is calm, now, and the fresh air has been beneficial. In a moment, he will have to go and find Jane; she will be cross, after Charles’ insistence on courting the Hayters. In a moment. For now, he sits quietly in the sunshine.

Only when Louisa and Captain Lestrade are quite close does he hear them, talking and laughing as they pick blackberries on the other side of the tall hedge. For a moment, he considers simply getting up and walking away; but then their conversation freezes him in place.

“I am glad Henrietta at last decided to go down to Winthrop; goodness, but I had to speak to her strongly to convince her! And she was so decided, before we left, that she would go there and see Charles. But all in a moment, she changed her mind, and would not!” says Louisa.

“Well, from what you have said, there is much more dependent on their meeting than I had realised,” says Lestrade. He obviously finds a blackberry, for he follows it with, “oh, look at this one! Here – would you like it? Or shall I keep it for myself?” His tone is rather teasing.

Mycroft almost doubles over in pain, so well does he remember that tone of voice. The warmth in his eyes as he teased me thus. Eight years – eight years – and never again

“Well, Charles is a very good fellow, and our cousin, you know; and they have been quite wild for one another until now. She ought not to change her mind so.”

“You have a character of decision and firmness.” Lestrade’s voice is warm, full of praise. “I hope that your sister can learn it; for she and Charles will need it in their lives together, if they are to marry.” His voice becomes more serious still. “To be a yielding, indecisive person is a terrible failing; you can never tell whether a good impression will last, or whether that person will be persuaded to abandon their decided course. Let those who would be happy, be firm.”

Their voices are fading a little, but a rich crop of blackberries detains them.

“Here – if I pull it down for you, can you –” Lestrade murmurs.

Louisa, not knowing, it seems, how to reply to the sincerity of Captain Lestrade’s remarks on decided action, exclaims instead: “oh, Jane does vex me exceedingly! She will be cross, now, all the way home, because Charles and Henrietta went to Winthrop. How we all wish Charles had married Mycroft, instead!”

“Mycroft?” asks Captain Lestrade, with a sharp surprise that causes fresh pain to Mycroft. Seeing me in my altered state, he does not believe that anyone else could have solicited my hand.

“Yes. Oh – I suppose you would not know, unless Mama had talked of it – Charles, being like you, asked for Mycroft’s hand first. But then when Mycroft would not have him, he proposed to Jane.”

There is a short silence, during which Mycroft does not breathe. “I beg your pardon – like me?” asks Lestrade, at last.

“Enamoured of all genders. Your sister told me.”

“Ah – I see.” Lestrade’s voice is rather constrained. After a moment: “Mycroft – refused him, then.”

“Oh, yes, and we are all so unhappy about it still! Mycroft is so much better-tempered than Jane. We cannot understand why he should have refused Charles, anyway; for as you see, he is now getting quite old, and unlikely to be married. But Mama thinks that Charles was not bookish enough, in Lady Russell’s eyes, and that she persuaded Mycroft not to have him.”

Mycroft does not hear Lestrade’s reply, for his mind is reeling with the injustice of this report. He already believes me to have no opinions of my own. Now he will judge me more harshly still. A kind of chilly lassitude steals over him. Any remaining good opinion he had of me is now certainly gone. I can be peaceful now.

His heart twists with almost-physical pain. He stands, and finds Jane, who is indeed in an extremely black mood. When Charles and Henrietta join them, Charles Hayter accompanies them; Henrietta has slipped her arm through his. As they begin the walk back, Mycroft again attempts to separate himself, as if by chance of walking speed. He is tired, hungry, and almost numb with emotional toil.

“I declare, Mycroft,” exclaims Louisa, looking back at him with concern, “the fresh air and exercise have done you no good at all! You are paler than before. I should not have pressed you to come, had I known you were really ill.”

Mycroft shakes his head and musters a small smile. The party is interrupted by the advancing noise of a carriage; coming closer, it proves to be Admiral Croft’s gig. Mrs Croft takes the reins as they approach, pulling the horses to a stop next to the party.

“We have room for one,” calls the Admiral, kindly. “If anyone should be tired. It will save you quite a little walk.”

Jane regards the small one-horse chaise with disdain, but almost steps forward; Captain Lestrade, however, forestalls her.

“Mr Holmes is not well, Sophy,” he says, firmly. “He could certainly make use of the lift home.”

Before he knows what is happening, Mycroft finds his hand in Lestrade’s, and the Admiral reaching down to pull him up; and then the gig moves away, a little too fast with the reins in the Admiral’s hands.

Mycroft looks down at his own long fingers in his lap. He does not think well of me, but he is kind, all the same. He has not forgiven me, but still he cares for my welfare. A good man.

A good man, lost to me forever.

In front, the Admiral and Mrs Croft steer the gig together, happily and haphazardly; occasionally, when the Admiral’s style of driving puts them in danger, Mrs Croft calmly takes the reins.

“Well, he certainly means to have one of them, Sophy,” says the Admiral. “He should hurry and make his choice, then bring her home to Kellynch, for she should always have a home with us there. I do not know why he is dilly-dallying in this manner. Shall we tell Mr Holmes how quickly we were married, after we met?”

“Perhaps we had better not, my dear,” laughs Mrs Croft. “For then he will never believe that we can be happy together. But that was in war; and you had to return to sea. Gregory has more time, in this peace. He can make his choice at leisure.”

“Well, they are both fine girls; indeed, I can hardly tell them apart in looks or in manners. I am sure either of them would make him a good wife.”

“Indeed, indeed,” says Mrs Croft, with what sounds to Mycroft like slightly less enthusiasm. “They are both very good-humoured girls. But allow Gregory to choose which he likes, at his own pace. Oh – be careful, my love! Give me the reins!”

Chapter Text

“Mycroft, you cannot return to Lady Russell’s so soon!” Jane cries.

“It has been two months, Jane.” Welcome news of Lady Russell’s return to Kellynch Lodge had reached him with the morning post, and in truth he can hardly wait until Saturday, when she will call for him.

“We need you, though,” declares his sister. “You are such a good influence on the boys! And what can Lady Russell need you for? She is alone, and with hardly any household to maintain.”

“Perhaps it is precisely because she is alone, Jane.”

“Oh, well – but she is rich, and has plenty of people on whom to call in the neighbourhood –”

“We travel together to Bath, soon. It is fixed that I shall go with her on Saturday.” His air of finality ends Jane’s protests, and he turns back to his book.

On Saturday, I shall be closer to Captain Lestrade than now; but half a mile away, across the park. His eyes skim the same line of text several times, without absorbing its meaning. Thumb smoothing down the edge of the book, he rustles its pages with his absentminded caress. In truth, however, we are likely to see one another less, since he spends so much time at Uppercross Hall.

Mycroft’s mind flinches away from the reason for Lestrade’s devoted attendance there. How long will it be before he takes his bride to live with him at Kellynch? Louisa, happy with Gregory, happy together, in my home.

*

That evening, they dine at Uppercross with the Musgroves; but when Charles invites Captain Lestrade to shoot the next day, he answers in the negative.

“I have had a letter from my friend Captain Harville, who has settled with his family at Lyme for the winter. So tomorrow I ride early to see them, and perhaps to stay with them for a few days.”

“Oh, Lyme!” exclaims Louisa. “Why, Mama, Papa, were we not saying only the other day how much we wished to visit Lyme?”

“Well yes, my dear,” says Mrs Musgrove calmly, “but surely not at this time of year – all the attractions will be shut up. Let us go next year, in the summer.”

“No, indeed,” says Louisa, casting a glance at Lestrade. “I am quite determined on the subject, and you shall not deter me! Let us go. Oh, we have been so stale here, unchanging, for months together! And it will be so all winter, too. Let us go – Captain Lestrade will stay for a few days, but we need not; we can come back home at night! Oh, how I long for some diversion!”

Henrietta taking up the idea, Mr and Mrs Musgrove – never able to resist the whims of their daughters – find themselves the target of passionate entreaty from both of them at once.

In short, the plan is speedily decided; they will all meet again at the Hall for a very early breakfast, and will then depart for Lyme in two carriages.

Mycroft attempts to excuse himself from the party, but is swiftly quieted by Louisa’s injunctions that some sea air is exactly what he must need.

His own weakness disgusts him. In truth, I have not the resolution or strength of character to keep myself away from him. But two more days near to him, and then I shall be gone; he will marry, and the next time I see him will be by chance, at Kellynch or near it, strolling with his wife.

After dinner, Louisa and Henrietta are adamant they wish to dance; the others readily agree, and Mycroft volunteers, silently, to play for the company. He plays mechanically through one country dance after another.

Once, he hears Louisa say, “oh! No, he does not like to dance. He prefers to stay at the piano.” Dancing with Lestrade, she almost glows with happiness and youthful energy.

He must have asked whether I never dance.

Later in the evening, Mycroft, returning to the piano, finds Lestrade picking out an air for Louisa on the keys, something that he had desired to show her. Mycroft immediately turns, attempts to divert his course; but Gregory springs up and, with blank politeness says:

“I do beg your pardon; this is your seat.” As he walks away, he is straight-backed and remote.

*

“Join me for a walk,” urges Gregory, his slim, upright form silhouetted on the threshold of the French window in the morning room. “You cannot claim to be working. I have caught you at the piano.”

Mycroft smiles, dropping his gaze to his fingers, resting lightly on the keys. “I thought perhaps I should do something to earn the compliments you bestow upon my musical talents.”

Gregory laughs, still not advancing into the room. Still waiting for Mycroft to join him in the garden. “You do already. What are you practicing, then?”

Mycroft blushes slightly. “I…was composing. Attempting to compose.” He glances up through his eyelashes, but he cannot see Gregory’s expression against the light.

“Then I shall have to compose new compliments to do justice to your original music,” says Gregory, and his voice is full of feeling. “Will you play it for me?” he holds up a hand as Mycroft begins to shake his head. “When it is finished,” he adds. “I know you will not be satisfied until it is perfect.”

Mycroft blinks. “When it is complete,” he returns, quietly, and the moment is long between them, a silent promise.

“Walk with me.” Gregory steps back, flooded suddenly with morning light; golden skin and gentle inviting smile, broad shoulders and trim waist.

Mycroft glances away, then stands and follows him into the garden. Summer is turning slowly to autumn, and the late-morning warmth has a clean, crisp edge. Under its influence, he feels the thoughts and daydreams which had attended his composition at the piano melt away.

They take the path past the shrubbery, towards the walled garden, where the lavender still attracts a cloud of bees even as the season changes.

“Is your brother visiting the church?” asks Mycroft, to fill the silence. Gregory’s temporary home with his brother in Monksford lies at a distance of around three miles from Kellynch.

“No – I had a yearning to ride, and Mr Clifford’s mare needed exercise, so he consented to let me take her out.”

Mycroft nods. “And is she –”

“Ogden let me tie her up outside your stables, and I believe I saw him giving her a nosebag as I walked up to the house.”

Mycroft smiles. “He can be rather brusque in manner, but he is very kind.”

Gregory seems restless; he watches Mycroft in hasty glances, and sounds preoccupied when he speaks.

Mycroft’s heart sinks. He is weary of our conversation. The ride must now seem to him a mistake, when I have so little of interest to offer. He cannot think of anything of use or import to say.

“Have you heard from your brother,” asks Gregory, “since he returned to school?”

Mycroft looks away, gaze resting absently on the apricot trees trained against the wall, lost in the distant, dappled pattern of leaves, branches and blushing orange fruit. “I should hardly be his correspondent, should he choose to write,” he returns, eventually. He can feel Gregory’s gaze on him.

“How old is he?”

“Twelve.”

“Perhaps none of us, aged twelve, were very good friends with our siblings.”

Mycroft half-smiles, his heart heavy. “Perhaps not.”

But Gregory hears the reserve in his tone, and is not satisfied. “Why, then?” he asks. “Why does he not write to you?”

Mycroft winces slightly. “I was not a good brother when he had need of me. He has not forgotten it.”

Gregory is silent for a moment. “In what respect?”

“When our mother –” Mycroft struggles for a moment with the word, “died, I was – too focused on my own sentiment, my own reactions. I made no move to aid Sherlock, though he was only nine, and must have been very lonely in his grief. It was selfish. He no longer trusts me, I fear.”

There is a long moment during which the droning of the bees on the lavender is the only sound. “Three years ago,” says Gregory, gently.

“Yes.” Mycroft tries to keep his voice under control.

“You were but sixteen,” murmurs Gregory. “Surely he had other adults –”

Mycroft tries to find the correct form of words. “My father’s grief,” he says slowly, “though genuine, was – was not –” he stops. “My sister Jane was at finishing school in Paris. Lady Russell took me away to Bath, fearing for my health. We – I – failed Sherlock.”

Gregory’s hand touches his arm. “You must not take it all upon yourself.”

They walk on, ducking through the low door set in the garden wall. They take the path towards the prospect point, dappled with shifting shade.

“You have two siblings, I believe,” prompts Mycroft.

Gregory smiles. “Yes. Edward you know, but there is Sophy too – she is six years my elder.”

Mycroft nods. “And where does she live? Will you visit her too, before the end of your leave?”

“That would be difficult,” laughs Gregory, giving Mycroft a warm glance in response to his enquiring frown. “Her wife is an Admiral,” he adds. “She is at sea at the moment, bound for the East Indies.”

Mycroft raises his eyebrows. “They travel together?”

“My sister is joining the Admiral at her posting,” Gregory returns. “They can never bear to be parted for long.”

Mycroft blushes and looks ahead. “How much longer is your leave?” he asks, with studied casualness.

Gregory’s voice, when he answers, is deep and full of emotion. “Three weeks more.”

Mycroft’s thoughts will not be silenced. I may never see him again –

“Forgive me.” Gregory’s hand on his arm stops Mycroft where he stands. “I – I must –”

Mycroft has never known him to sound so unsure, so discomfited. “Gregory?”

“I – I apologise,” he says, summoning a weak smile. “Given our relative stations in life – how short a time we have known one another – and yet I must – I must speak!”

Mycroft’s heart seems to stop beating in his chest. Numbly, he realises that Gregory has taken both of his hands in his own.

“Mycroft.” Gregory takes a breath. “This will seem, I am sure, the action of a fortune-hunter – and yet I swear to you, were you without fortune at all –” his eyes are dark, and the light shifts across his face with the movement of the boughs above him. He half-laughs at himself. “Oh – I have said everything in the wrong order. I have had no practice, you see.”

Mycroft can hardly breathe. Gregory’s hands are trembling.

“Marry me,” says Gregory, softly. “I love you.” He smiles, relieved by the words he has spoken at last.

Mycroft blinks, several times. “Gregory,” he whispers, an appeal for reassurance; for it has become his automatic habit, in the last few weeks, to seek the other boy’s help with matters that he finds perplexing.

Gregory’s expression is both tender and terribly full of anxiety. “If you do not – if your answer is no, Mycroft,” he says gently, “it changes nothing. We shall be friends all the same.”

Mycroft’s heart turns with the sudden understanding that, by hesitating, he has made this man – this wonderful, beloved man – wait for an answer. “I love you,” he gasps.

Gregory takes a breath, and for a moment seems on the point of tears. Eyes closed, long eyelashes dark against his cheeks, he raises Mycroft’s hands to his lips; he kisses every knuckle, one at a time. When he opens his eyes, they are bright and full.

“Marry me, then,” he murmurs, as a breeze stirs the leaves above them into a susurating wave. “Today. Tomorrow. As soon as it can be achieved.”

Mycroft laughs, heart full, two stray tears spilling down his cheeks. “Will you leave?” he asks.

“Yes,” says Gregory, but his eyes burn, now, with confidence and determination. “Come with me. We need only be parted if a war comes. I know – I know that I cannot yet support you as you are used but I work hard, always, and I swear to you, you would never regret your choice. With luck and hard work it will not take me long to become Captain of my own ship, and to make our fortune. You need not feel ashamed for long to call me husband.”

Mycroft cannot seem to stop the tears. “I should never –” he stops, unable to speak, and draws his hands from Gregory’s, searching in his pocket for a handkerchief.

When he finds it, Gregory takes it from his hand and gently, tenderly, wipes Mycroft’s tears away.

“Are you sure?” asks Mycroft, his voice unsteady. “That I –”

“Yes.” Gregory’s voice allows for no doubt. His thumb smoothes Mycroft’s cheek, where the tears so lately fell. “My mind – my heart – are full always, only, of you. Marry me.”

Mycroft clings to Gregory’s hands. “Yes,” he whispers. “Yes.”

*

The weather is rather unpromising upon their arrival in Lyme. Not inclement yet, but the sky is grey, lowering the threat of rain.

Once the horses have been stabled at an inn, it is decided that the party will ramble about Lyme for an hour or so, while Captain Lestrade calls upon Captain and Mrs Harville in their lodgings; they will meet, later, to partake of a late luncheon.

The tourist attractions are indeed shut up, a fact which causes much lamenting among the rest of the party. Mycroft prefers it thus, to be able to see the old town without gaudy sideshows. It is beautiful, though cold, and they waste time very happily in wandering about the streets exclaiming at particular buildings and looking in shop windows.

At last, they walk towards the harbour, and stroll slowly along the Cobb; Mycroft draws ahead slightly, to read a sign which has been put up part-way along it. The distance takes him out beyond the point where the harbour ends, so that the sea surrounds him on either side. He keeps walking, drawn by the siren call of the sea’s own kind of silence, the wash and flow of the waves filling his ears, his whole body, until he feels suspended in air, lost to himself, part of the sea and the sky and the horizon between.

Eventually, he strolls so far that he almost forgets he travelled to Lyme with others; he closes his eyes and allows the fresh wind from the sea to whip across his face, through his hair. It seems to strip away his tiredness, his passivity, until he is passionately alive to every impression of the world around him –

“Mycroft!” the voice comes from behind him, and Mycroft turns before he realises that it was Lestrade who had called out; but his consciousness catches up as their gazes meet, and by then Mycroft is blushing, besieged by the knowledge that he has not called me that for eight years – and Lestrade’s face is a confusion of feelings, surprise and self-reproach and embarrassment tangled together in his dark, expressive eyes –

“You are wanted to rejoin the party,” calls Lestrade, breaking eye contact, looking instead at a man just emerging onto the upper Cobb from the lower. He pauses, attention caught, and Mycroft glances over at the man.

A perfect gentleman in his dress and looks, he is dark and handsome, of around Lestrade’s height. He is looking at Mycroft with such lively admiration that it must be obvious to all. Their gazes meet only for a moment, but the man is not abashed to be caught in open admiration; he smiles, touches his hat, and walks on.

Mycroft blushes more deeply still.

“We descend the staircase further back,” adds Lestrade, turning on his heel, very upright in posture. He walks quickly back to where the rest of the party, plus three figures that Mycroft does not recognise, are waiting.

Mycroft turns back to the sea, and attempts to find again the quiet solace it had given him before; but the moment is destroyed, and all peace has fled.

At last, his blush abates, and he finds himself able to walk back down the Cobb to where the whole party has at length descended the narrow, rather treacherous staircase from the upper to the lower level.

As Mycroft approaches, he sees Louisa run impetuously up the steps. “You must catch me!” she cries. She has made it a game, in the last weeks, to ask Captain Lestrade to jump her from every stile and gate they encounter upon their walks; the sensation is delightful to her, and she will not be denied.

The aim of the exercise, of course, is to end in Lestrade’s strong arms, smiling up into his laughing eyes. Witnessing it again and again, Mycroft thought that he had become inured. He had not allowed, though, for how much higher the staircase is than a stile; for how much more closely Louisa would be enfolded into Lestrade’s embrace. At the top of the stairs, Mycroft looks sharply away, out to sea, attempting to quiet his thumping, miserable heart.

“Again!” she cries, as soon as she has been lowered to the floor by Lestrade; and again, she runs up the steps, higher this time.

“No, Louisa!” cries Lestrade, laughing, “you must not! I cannot catch you again!”

“Louisa!” shrieks Jane. “You will fall!”

Louisa, giggling, ignores them all, adamant in her wish to jump. For a moment, she seems outlined against the horizon; Mycroft starts forward, no use whatsoever in forestalling her. She is gone before he can even form a word –

Lestrade will catch her, he is strong

But she had jumped before he was ready, and Mycroft, running forward, sees her miss Lestrade’s grasp and hit the cold pavement of the Cobb with a sickening noise.

Everything seems to happen with bright, startling clarity, as if something has gone wrong with the colours of the world. He starts forward, and seems to be moving faster than everyone else, for no-one is reacting; but by the time he is at the bottom of the steps, Jane has begun to scream.

The men do not seem to know what to do. Captains Benwick and Harville (for it must be they, from the description Lestrade gave of them) have not moved, seeming frozen in shock; Charles and Mrs Harville are engaged in holding up Henrietta, who has begun to faint; Jane is screaming and shouting, “she is dead, oh! She is dead!”

Mr and Mrs Musgrove, who had walked a little farther on, are starting back towards them, grey-faced with fear.

Everything impresses itself in fearful, bright snatches upon Mycroft’s consciousness. He is afraid to look – yet he must – for Captain Lestrade, bending over Louisa, seems almost faint himself.

“Will no-one help me?” groans Lestrade, and Mycroft goes immediately.

If he has entertained any doubts that Lestrade loves Louisa, they are gone as soon as he sees his face. He has known him look so white and unwell only once before.

“Mycroft – no – please –”

“My father has forbidden it.”

“We knew he would not approve of the match. Please – please listen – I know I am not yet a worthy husband for you but I swear, in time –”

“Gregory, I – I cannot –”

“Will not, Mycroft. You mean that you will not.”

“I cannot. I should only be a burden to you as you attempt to make your fortune –”

“It is my decision! Mine! Do you deny me the right to choose?”

“It is my decision too.”

“I cannot bear it.”

Mycroft’s heart feels as though it will burst from his chest. He kneels, takes up Louisa’s hands, which are cold; gently exploring her head with his fingers, he feels for the sticky traces of blood. There are none. He finds, faint indeed, a pulse in her neck.

“She lives,” he croaks out. And then, more loudly: “she lives! Jane, be comforted.”

Jane quiets immediately, knowing the tone of voice.

Lestrade kneels helplessly on the other side of Louisa, watching Mycroft with dazed, frightened eyes.

“Take her head,” commands Mycroft. “Hold it thus. If she wakes, she must be allowed to make no sudden movements.”

Lestrade nods, seeming to recapture some of his self-possession, now that he has something to do.

“Sir,” says Mycroft breathlessly, looking up at the man who must be Captain Benwick. “A surgeon. You know where one can be found?”

Benwick nods. “Yes – yes, of course –” and he is away, running along the Cobb back towards town.

Among the crowd that has gathered, there is a flurrying commotion; a small man, blond, with a limp and a stick, is pushing to the front.

“I am a doctor,” he says, calmly. “Allow me to help.”

Mycroft looks up at him. Cool under pressure; rather tanned for such a light-haired man; injured in both the shoulder and the leg, but with a straight, upright posture despite it. A former soldier, it would seem. He stands, and moves back, out of the way. “Thank you, Sir.”

“Doctor Watson,” says the man, handing Mycroft his cane as he kneels over Louisa. He begins to explore her neck and head with quick, deft fingers.

Louisa’s parents are beside them now, in terror for both their daughters; Mrs Musgrove clings to Mycroft’s arm as they watch the doctor work. At last, he stands, and takes back his cane. “She must be moved,” he says. “She is unconscious now, and it is hard to tell the effects on her brain at this stage; but her limbs and skull are unharmed. She needs a quiet sick-room and a diligent nurse.”

Mrs Harville steps forward. “Then it is all arranged,” she says, kindly, drawing her husband and Charles Musgrove with her. “She will be taken to our house; it is not five minutes’ walk along the Cobb. Come, let us take her.”

No-one argues, and gently, Louisa is borne to the Harvilles’ small rented house, between the two young men; her father walks alongside, in constant anxiety with every step.

Mycroft walks with Mrs Musgrove crying silently on one arm, and Jane crying noisily on the other. She declares loudly that Louisa will certainly not recover her faculties, until Mycroft is obliged to tell her to be quiet in such decided terms that she obeys.

Mycroft is painfully aware that Captain Lestrade, walking just behind the men bearing Louisa, is pale and shaking. Doctor Watson walks next to him, having been asked by Mr Musgrove to accompany them.

*

With Louisa settled in the Harvilles’ house, accommodation must be found for the rest of the party; and Mycroft is about to set out on the errand to find a suitable inn, when Lestrade calls out to him. “Mr Holmes – no –” he does not seem sure how to finish his sentence. His dark eyes are full of doubt and fear. At last, he gives a weak smile. “You are the only one among us with some presence of mind,” he says. “You should remain here in case Louisa needs you.”

Mycroft shakes his head. “She has her parents, her brother and sister with her. I can certainly be of no material use by staying here. I must do something, and in this I can be helpful.” He does not meet Lestrade’s gaze as he speaks.

At that, Charles Musgrove calls for Lestrade, from some other part of the house; and Mycroft goes on his way.

*

That evening, they take dinner all together at the inn, save for Mr and Mrs Musgrove, who remain with Louisa at the Harvilles’ house. The whole party is subdued. Henrietta has hardly been able to stay in Louisa’s room without fainting again; Jane spends her time making dire predictions about the state of Louisa’s health in future; and Charles is quietly fearful for his sister.

Captain Benwick, who had been staying at the Harvilles’ house, sits next to Mycroft at dinner. Before they came to Lyme, Lestrade had related the sad tale of this young man, who had been engaged to be married to Captain Harville’s sister. She had died before his return to England, and Benwick had since been in such a state of grief that all had feared for him. Captain Harville and his wife had asked him to stay with them for the winter at Lyme, but he must now find a temporary lodging while Louisa is installed in his room.

“It was very good of you to allow Miss Musgrove your room,” says Mycroft, as a means of making conversation.

“Not at all, oh! the poor young lady,” he exclaims. “I was perfectly convinced she must be dead. But the doctor seemed sure she will wake and recover, in time.”

They continue to talk, and slowly discover that they have very similar tastes in literature; they discuss the poetry of Scott and Byron. Benwick does, indeed, seem stricken by his loss, and seems to find beauty only in the saddest things; Mycroft, once they have been talking for some time, ventures to recommend some prose which he hopes may alleviate this rather unvarying diet.

Captain Benwick, who has been an enthusiastic listener throughout their conversation, notes down the names of the authors and volumes in question. Altogether, it is a pleasant exchange of views after a miserable day.

As they wait for dinner to be cleared, Jane cries out to Mycroft.

“Why, Mycroft! Come to the window at once! Look, oh, do hurry! Is not that our crest – the Holmes crest – upon that carriage?”

Reluctantly, Mycroft stands and follows her to the window. “It would seem so.”

“Why, look – it is a gentleman – he must be around thirty, I suppose. Isn’t he handsome! But who can he be?” A sudden idea occurring to her, she cries out. “Oh, but he must be Mr Moriarty-Holmes!”

Mycroft raises an eyebrow, then pauses to scrutinise the man more closely. Upon his turning, suddenly, to look back towards the inn, Mycroft recognises him as the man who had admired him on the Cobb.

Others are coming to the window, now, under Jane’s excited urging; even Captain Lestrade stands to look. Out of the corner of his eye, Mycroft sees him glance quickly toward him and away again, having certainly recognised the man.

“Well!” cries Jane. “How interesting to see our cousin! And what a well-looking man. I have never met him, myself, though I know our father saw him in London once or twice.”

Some years before, when Mycroft was twenty-one, Mr Moriarty-Holmes had caused Sir Walter offence by not responding to three separate invitations from the baronet. Mycroft suspects that Sir Walter had wished for Mr Moriarty-Holmes and Mycroft to marry; Sir Walter certainly does not imagine many other people worthy to mingle their blood with that of a Holmes. Mr Moriarty-Holmes, however, was not interested in coming to know either Sir Walter or his children, and had caused further disgust to the baronet when, a few years later, he married a woman of no birth at all who had a great deal of money.

Obliquely, Mycroft sees Captain Lestrade’s silver head turn quickly away, and return to his place at table.

“Oh but look!” cries Jane, clutching Mycroft’s arm. “He is in mourning! And his servant, too. It must be for his wife, for I remember reading that she had died.”

Mycroft nods, slightly, and returns to the table, keeping his gaze low.

Once the carriage has pulled away, Jane and all the others seat themselves again, too; and Jane says, triumphantly: “Well, Mycroft, you will not be able to return to Kellynch with Lady Russell on Saturday, after all.”

Mycroft sees Captain Lestrade’s shoulders straighten a little, though he is in conversation with Charles. Mycroft attempts to stave off the blush which is threatening to embarrass him. To hear Lady Russell’s name spoken, in front of him – when his opinion is so bad of me, and of her – he is consumed with mortification.

“I have written to Lady Russell to inform her of what has happened,” he says as calmly as he can, to Jane. “No doubt we shall not remain much longer at Lyme. Though Louisa cannot be moved, it serves no purpose for most of us to remain.”

“Well, I think that is quite unfeeling of you,” says Jane, crossly. “You ought to stay, and return with us to Uppercross. You are quite welcome to stay with us, you know, and not go to Bath at all.”

Mycroft does not make an answer, knowing that Jane’s primary concern is his willingness to occupy himself with little Charles and Walter, which has allowed her to be freer in her goings-about and parties.

Goodness knows I do not want to go to Bath. But what is my alternative? Remain at Uppercross until the news of Louisa and Gregory’s betrothal is announced? It must certainly be inevitable now, given the manner of her injury, and how unhappy he is over it. Remain there longer still, sitting through evenings of discussion about wedding plans, trousseaux and the happy couple’s removal to Kellynch?

I cannot bear it.

Chapter Text

Luckily, Lady Russell is able to divert her route to pick Mycroft up from Lyme; Jane, Charles and Henrietta are also persuaded to return home to Uppercross at the same time, since Mr and Mrs Musgrove remain devotedly with Louisa.

Returning to Kellynch Lodge with Lady Russell is not without pain for Mycroft, for he is but half a mile from his beloved home. All the same, he can resume once more the walks which give him the most peace and tranquility; and can take up his administration of the estate without trouble.

At last, two days after their return, Lady Russell says, “I am afraid, my dear, that I must pay a call on the Admiral and Mrs Croft; any further delay would be unpardonably rude. Can you bear to come with me? It will be a trial to us both, I think, to be in that home, but especially to you.”

“On the contrary,” says Mycroft, quietly. “By remaining in the neighbourhood, I have grown used to it; and besides, the Admiral and Mrs Croft are people of such sound good sense, that to see them at Kellynch is hardly a trial at all.”

When Louisa and Gregory live there with them, I shall not be able to speak in such sanguine terms.

Lady Russell does not seem entirely convinced.

Being shown into the drawing room as a guest is indeed a strange experience; but Mrs Croft’s kindness, her sensitive and feeling tactfulness, soon abate the sensation for Mycroft.

When they are settled, the Admiral waves away the servant and sets about pouring the tea herself.

Mrs Croft briskly pats Mycroft’s knee. “My dear, I have had a letter from my brother this morning, all about this business at Lyme; the latest news is that the doctor is pleased with her recovery so far, and does not expect there to be any permanent effect upon her health.”

“Quite sings your praises,” twinkles the Admiral, handing Mycroft a cup of tea. “Says you were the hero of the hour, the only one who kept his head in a crisis.”

Mycroft attempts to keep himself from blushing, studiously avoiding Lady Russell’s curious gaze.

“I must say,” chuckles the Admiral, “it doesn’t speak well for our Navy when a clutch of Captains stand around clucking and waiting for a civilian to take action!”

Mrs Croft laughs, then gives her a reproving smile. “They are more used to encountering war wounds to their comrades than harm to civilians, my dear.”

“Aye, aye,” says the Admiral, relenting, “and I dare say there was great feeling in the case for Gregory; enough to freeze anyone’s blood. But Harville and Benwick! Well! I shall have something to say to them.” She laughs again, and takes another sip of tea. “Still, it is a sad way for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking his mistress’ head, is it not, Mr Mycroft?”

Mycroft attempts a smile; out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lady Russell’s disdain in her curled lip, making clear her opinion of a man who can go in eight years from admiration of a Mycroft Holmes, to engagement with a Louisa Musgrove.

“You have received news of the engagement?” she asks.

“No, not quite yet, though we expect it every day,” says Mrs Croft, calmly. “In truth we were a little surprised not to read of it in this morning’s note; but perhaps the time is not yet right, with Louisa still under constant care.”

“Pshaw!” cries the Admiral. “What could be more timely? He can begin making arrangements while she recovers. I wish he would spread a little more canvas, and bring her home to us as soon as possible.”

Mycroft puts down his cup of tea, attempting to control his shaking hand. “I wonder – might I –” he blurts out. “I have missed the piano in the morning room. Might I –”

“Oh but of course!” cries Mrs Croft. “And you know you are always welcome. We have heard how beautifully you play, and would delight to listen to you.”

Mycroft gives her a blank smile and stands, intent only upon leaving the conversation which is causing him such acute pain.

In the morning room, he takes his seat at the piano, not looking at the French window where once Gregory had waited for him.

*

In Bath, Mycroft is obliged to stay with his father and Sherlock at the rented house in Camden Place. Chosen entirely for its extremely correct postcode, it is rather large and draughty for winter, but it supplies Sir Walter with enough pomp and circumstance for the calling cards he leaves while visiting.

Mycroft’s reception in Bath is not as cool as he had expected; Sir Walter is keen to show him the new furnishings and appointments they have put in place. Mycroft grits his teeth when he thinks about the unnecessary expenditure; but it is nice, all the same, to feel somewhat welcome.

Miss Morstan’s influence with Sherlock seems to have waned a little. Her attentions to Sir Walter have become rather more obvious, and Sherlock’s greeting is by no means as hostile as Mycroft had reason to expect.

“And tonight, you know,” says Sir Walter, preening self-consciously at the mirror above the fireplace, “you will meet your cousin, Mr Moriarty-Holmes.”

Mycroft’s eyebrows rise. “He is here? In Bath?”

“Yes, and most desirous to know us,” says Sir Walter, with satisfaction. “It seems that with the passing of his wife, he has lost the uncouth notions of his youth. He wishes, now, to be among people of his own class and station.”

He leans close to Mycroft, making a great show of hushing his voice so that Sherlock, reading nearby, may not hear; nevertheless, his stage-whisper is clearly meant to carry. “Between us, I believe he has quite another reason for coming to the house, besides wishing to know me; he and your brother, you know, are quite friends already. It is most fitting, most fitting.” He raises his eyebrows, archly.

The back of Sherlock’s neck turns red, and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

Miss Morstan, working at her embroidery in the window-seat, speaks. “Oh, how right you are, Sir Walter! He is certainly most struck by Sherlock, as of course anyone must be. Why, how many times has he been here now? And saving only his attentions to you, Sir Walter, which are really most touching – one might say, almost filial –” she looks meaningfully at Sherlock, “there can be no doubt at all as to his reason for coming here.”

Sherlock stands, and takes up his violin restlessly; he moves to the other window, and begins to play a relentless, difficult cascade of notes.

Sir Walter finally approves his own reflection in the glass, and moves to sit upon the chaise longue, arranging himself to best advantage to hear Sherlock play.

*

In the evening, Mr Moriarty-Holmes does indeed call. Lady Russell had joined the party for dinner, and she, Sir Walter and Mycroft are chatting rather aimlessly when Mr Moriarty-Holmes is shown in.

His manner with Sir Walter is deferential, respectful; with Miss Morstan, he is a gallant and bright. When he turns his attention to Sherlock, his focus is absolute. They trade remarks, voices quick, smiles sharp.

Mycroft watches with interest. Except when they were younger – when we were friends – he has never seen Sherlock react to someone like this. It bears no similarity, as far as he can tell, to love, or even partiality – instead, he might characterise it as a kind of fascination, intrigue engendered by Mr Moriarty-Holmes’ clear ability to match him in intelligence.

He checks his thoughts. You judge only from your own experience of love.

Distractedly, he smoothes his thumb over the soft place at his wrist, beneath the starched cuff. Love? Have I any right to call it that? When it was so ready, so unwavering on one side – so cowardly, so easily turned aside on the other?

I should have been happier married to him, despite our poverty, despite my family’s disapprobation. I failed in courage; I was persuaded. I did not understand that to go through such things together could only have brought us closer.

I failed him. I deserved to lose his love.

He blinks, looking down at his hands.

“Well,” says Mr Moriarty-Holmes, settling next to him on the sofa. “This is a most welcome surprise.” His expression is open, and frankly delighted; his eyes find Mycroft’s as they had on the Cobb at Lyme. “I find that you are my cousin.”

His manner is quite different to that with which he had spoken to Sherlock. He is now guileless, friendly; he soon charms Lady Russell, too, turning to her for confirmation when he speaks of seeing certain people around Bath.

It is without doubt a display of skill: Lady Russell had been almost as offended on Sir Walter’s behalf, when Mr Moriarty-Holmes had snubbed him, as Sir Walter had been himself.

Something about it all rings false, to Mycroft; and yet he cannot disagree when Lady Russell whispers to him afterwards, “what a very gentlemanly man, my dear! What a pleasure to speak with someone of such taste and understanding.”

*

Mycroft begins to hope that Bath will not be as much of a trial as he had feared. He makes visits with Lady Russell, some of which are tiresome; he attends the minimum possible number of calls with his father. The majority of the time, he is able to answer estate correspondence in peace. The piano at Camden Place is by no means as good as the Kellynch morning-room grand, but it is adequate. He finds a routine.

Mr Moriarty-Holmes becomes a very frequent visitor, and Mycroft enjoys speaking to him. He is always good-humoured, intelligent and interesting. Still, however, Mycroft sees a change in him when he speaks with Sherlock, something almost – feral; just as bright, just as full of humour, but uncontrolled, somehow.

Sherlock is full of restless, unsettled energy every time Mr Moriarty-Holmes leaves Camden Place.

Mycroft’s relative peace is disturbed with the arrival into Bath of Lady Dalrymple and her daughter Miss Carteret. A cousin of Sir Walter, and the widow of a viscount, Lady Dalrymple represents exactly the society which Sir Walter wishes to court.

There had been a cooling of relations between the two families following a misunderstanding around the time of Lady Holmes’ death; but now all Sir Walter’s efforts go into repairing the mistake, and ensuring that Lady Dalrymple is seen to be visiting them in Camden Place, and receiving them in turn at her own house in Laura Place.

Mycroft endures several visits at Laura Place, remarkable only for the dull and commonplace nature of the conversation. Mr Moriarty-Holmes – also keen to get to know Lady Dalrymple – is as pleasing and attentive to her and to Miss Carteret as he is to everyone else.

The only thing which marks the visits with any happiness for Mycroft is the fact that Sherlock, struggling to contain his exasperation and boredom, takes to meeting Mycroft’s eyes, as though pleading for distraction. Mycroft suggests silently, with a flick of the eyes, that they should play for the company, and they begin a duet at the piano. It is the first time in over a decade. Mycroft almost mistakes several notes in his surprise and delight.

Mycroft finds the company of Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret almost insupportable. Without superiority of manner, understanding or accomplishment, they have been accepted into Bath society as ‘charming people’ thanks only to their birth.

Lady Russell, as often in matters of society standing, disappoints him. “I confess I had expected something better in their manners,” she says, when they are alone; “but still, your father is right. They are a connection worth having, and it will certainly do your family material good to be reconciled with them.”

One afternoon, Mycroft sits practising an air at the piano when Mr Moriarty-Holmes takes a place beside him on the piano-stool. He had been, that morning, at Laura Place with Sir Walter; Mycroft, having a good deal of estate correspondence to answer, had managed to escape the visit.

“And how were Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret?” asks Mycroft, in order to make conversation.

“As boring as ever.”

Mycroft cannot help smiling, slightly. “I wonder that you attend them so often. I am sure you could evade it sometimes.”

Mr Moriarty-Holmes shrugs. “They are family.”

“Well, yes, but if you find them so –”

“They are a useful connection, and good company. They will collect good company around them.”

“Good company?” asks Mycroft, thinking of the Harvilles, so kind and solicitous towards any friends of Captain Lestrade; of Captain Benwick and his interest in literature. “Surely ‘good company’ is the company of interesting, well-informed people with plenty of conversation.”

“Ah, no,” smiles Mr Moriarty-Holmes. “You are mistaken; that is the best company. Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and it is not too particular about the education.”

Mycroft looks down with a rueful smile at his own hands, idle on the keys of the piano.

Mr Moriarty-Holmes continues, persuasively, “we may, after all, accept all the advantages that the connection brings, in helping our family move in the best circles at Bath this winter.” With the words ‘our family’, his look is so earnest, so searching, so full of meaning, that Mycroft must needs look away.

His eyes are as dark brown as Gregory’s.

*

One morning, a long letter from Jane arrives. Mycroft opens it with his other correspondence, skimming quickly first through some yield figures and other news from one of the tenant farmers. At last, turning his attention to it, he finds the usual collection of complaints regarding her health, the dullness of the Christmas they have had to endure, and the inconvenience of Louisa Musgrove only recently having been transferred back from Lyme, ‘for it has meant that Mr and Mrs Musgrove have not held one dinner party all Christmas.”

Sighing, Mycroft allows his attention to run lightly over the letter; until it is caught by the words ‘Captain Lestrade’.

Heart plummeting, he returns to the start of the sentence. This is it: the announcement of the engagement. It must be. He closes his eyes for a moment, gathers his courage, and begins to read.

‘You will never guess what I have learned today, through a note from Admiral and Mrs Croft (more of which in a moment) – I hardly know what to think! Apparently, Louisa Musgrove returns from Lyme engaged, but not to Captain Lestrade, as we all thought – instead, to Captain Benwick! True, upon my honour! Are you not astonished? I shall be surprised if you ever received a thought of it, for I never did. We are all very pleased, of course, for though it is not as good as her marrying Captain Lestrade, it is infinitely better than the match Henrietta will make with Charles Hayter, and only imagine if Louisa, too, had been forced to marry one of them! Charles wonders what Captain Lestrade must feel; but I always thought him more attached to Henrietta, myself, and could not see anything in it.”

Mycroft breaks off, and looks up, staring unseeing out of the window. His heart pounds with the news he has read. Captain Benwick? Louisa – who would make such a choice, when Gregory had offered his heart? Or had he never offered it at all? Numbly, he reads the few remaining lines of the letter.

‘I said that Admiral and Mrs Croft had sent me a note – they wrote to ask whether I had anything particular to convey to you, for they are coming to Bath. The Admiral is not in good health, and has been ordered to take the baths.’ Jane concludes the letter with some very broad hints that she should like to be invited to stay at Camden Place too, but Mycroft hardly sees them.

“What does Jane write?” asks Sir Walter, closer by than Mycroft had realised.

He starts, and looks down at the letter, unable for a moment to think how to summarise. From the corner of his eye, he sees Lady Russell look up from her letter-writing.

“Louisa Musgrove is returned to Uppercross,” he says, cautiously.

Sir Walter does not seem interested. He raises an eyebrow, and rearranges a rose which has slipped slightly in an opulent arrangement on a nearby table.

Mycroft swallows. “And the Crofts come to Bath,” he says, quietly.

Sir Walter looks up. “Oh yes?” He looks rather less than pleased. “Do you know where they will be situated? Will it be a part of Bath where we might visit them without it being too shaming?”

Mycroft presses his lips together. “I do not know. My apologies, Father.”

“I suppose we must visit them,” sighs Sir Walter, “for they are our tenants, and you can be certain that the Admiral will be best-known in Bath as the tenant of Kellynch Hall.”

Mycroft loses patience. “I am sure, Father, that in the Admiral’s profession and time of life, she must have many acquaintance in Bath.”

Sir Walter sighs. “Sailors, I suppose you mean; well, yes, if you count such.” Then, as if a new idea has occurred to him: “You are correct, though; we must leave the Crofts to their own kind of people. Situated as we are with our cousin, Lady Dalrymple, we must be exceedingly careful not to embarrass her with acquaintance she would not approve.”

Mycroft opens his mouth, then, catching a glance from Lady Russell, closes it again. He stands, collecting up his letters. “Excuse me, I have much estate business –” he murmurs, and retires to his room.

Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick! But how on Earth can it have come about? The engagement with Gregory was all but certain – surely not some unpleasantness between the two friends? Mycroft sits down on the bed, and puts his head in his hands. The high-spirited Louisa, with such a love of dancing, of talking and laughter! And Captain Benwick, devoted to the most melancholy poets, to the life of the mind, to reading, and to remembering the love that he had lost. Strange match indeed! But perhaps it will not work out so badly; she has, after all, a great interest in the Navy; and they will grow more alike in time, so that she will think and read more, and he will be drawn more out of himself, into cheerful company.

Poor Gregory. Is he heartbroken? Is he hurt? Where is he?

Mycroft runs his fingers through his hair. I should give anything to know where he is.

And, in one unworthy corner of his mind: he is not engaged. He is free. He is free!

*

The Crofts take, in the end, lodgings in Gay Street, perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction.

The Admiral having been told to take as much exercise as possible, Mycroft sees her almost everywhere he goes, walking together with her wife about Bath.

Looking out of the window of Lady Russell’s carriage, it is rare for him not to spy them, often talking amid a knot of cheerful Navy folk; they seem to know them all, and to be good friends with everyone.

One morning, having left Lady Russell at an acquaintance’s house, Mycroft walks back through the centre of town, lingering for a while at the window of a bookseller’s. Upon turning around, he finds himself hailed by the Admiral, alone for once.

“Mr Mycroft! You find me, you see, all alone, for Sophy is at home; she has a blister on her heel, from all the walking about we have been doing. Here, take my arm, for I feel all wrong without her!”

They stroll on together for a few moments, and then the Admiral says, “now I dare say you have not heard this news – did you know that young what’s-her-name – oh, what is her name – is not to marry Gregory, after all?”

“Louisa Musgrove?” asks Mycroft, quietly.

“Yes, yes! That is it. I never did quite get the names of she and her sister pinned down. Young ladies have such a variety of pretty names. Why we can’t just call ’em all by one, I don’t know – Sophy, for example! Make it easier for everyone. Anyway – where was I?”

“Louisa Musgrove and Captain Lestrade.”

“Yes, yes – had you heard?” Mycroft is saved from answering by the Admiral sweeping on immediately. “Well, you can imagine how surprised Sophy and I were! We had regarded it as a thing complete, almost, but now it seems that she is to marry Captain Benwick. Yes, we had it from Gregory himself, in a letter, for he is gone into Shropshire to see Edward and his wife.”

Mycroft’s heart leaps. He is with his brother. “And –” he stops short, unable to find the words. “I hope that – that Captain Lestrade is not too – that there was nothing in his letter to make you uneasy.”

“Eh? Oh! No, not at all, not at all! He does not even exclaim at the matter; he gives no indication of anything other than happiness for the young couple. It is very strange, very odd indeed; but perhaps there was not much feeling in the case, after all.”

Mycroft nods, not quite convinced; wishing desperately that he could be convinced.

“Poor Gregory!” says the Admiral, cheerfully. “Now he must start again, with some other young lady; I do think we must get him to Bath. I shall tell Sophy she must write to him, and beg him to come here. Do you not think, Mr Mycroft, we ought to get him to Bath?”

*

Mycroft glances from the window of Lady Russell’s carriage and freezes as though turned to stone. Luckily Lady Russell, engaged in attempting to find something in her reticule, does not observe him for the moment.

A flash of silver-grey hair, a trim, straight-backed posture, walking away down the street – and yes, it is him, he is here – he is here in Bath

They are behind him in the carriage, they will pass him; he will be in Lady Russell’s view for a full minute at least. Mycroft searches, in vain, for something to say, for a distraction; he can think of nothing. He blushes, and tries at least to stop staring.

Lady Russell looks out of the window.

She is looking at him, I am sure; she will ask me, now, about him, about his engagement to Louisa, and I must tell her that it has not happened, that it will not – why does she take so long? What is she thinking? Surely she is surprised – surprised that eight years in active service at sea, in tropical climes, no less, have made him still handsomer, as well as rich and respected – perhaps she is taken aback by the change in his hair? And yet it is a change certainly not of disadvantage to his appearance – no wonder, no wonder indeed that she cannot look away from him!

He is breathless with anxiety by the time Lady Russell glances up and catches his eye. She looks at him strangely for a moment, then her expression clears. “You must wonder why I have been staring out of the window so long,” she says, returning to her search in the reticule. “Lady Alicia told me that on this side of the street there are quite the handsomest and best-hung drawing-room window-curtains of any in Bath; but I cannot see them, myself. I shall have to ask her to bring me along and point them out.”

Mycroft, red in the face, eyes wide, almost gives a hysterical laugh; but he turns away in time, and leaning his elbow on the carriage window, puts a hand over his mouth and closes his eyes.

*

He can go nowhere, now, without being on edge, fearful always of meeting Captain Lestrade. For as long as possible, pleading a slight cold, he remains within the confines of Camden Place. Concentrating on estate correspondence, he can see the first signs of how their debt will lift; already, without the manifold expenses of Kellynch Hall, with the first months of rent payments from the Admiral and Mrs Croft, he can see improvements.

On the fourth day, he can no longer remain at home; Sir Walter expects a visit from Lady Dalrymple and her daughter. If Mycroft is at home, he will perforce be pressed into attendance. Sherlock’s eyes are pleading. Mycroft suggests a walk; he must catch the post with urgent correspondence; he cannot wait. Sherlock must come with him. They fly to their rooms to make ready before Sir Walter can demand a fuller explanation. Miss Morstan accompanies them in their expedition, which Sir Walter does not prevent; Lady Dalrymple had, on a previous occasion, enquired rather sharply after her reasons for staying so long in Camden Place.

It begins to rain so hard that they must take refuge in a tea house in Milsom Street. Neither of the brothers hurry over their tea, dreading a return home. They are a rather silent party; and after a few minutes Miss Morstan says that she will just visit a shop next door.

The rain does not abate, and the brothers take it as licence to remain where they are. Sherlock drums an insistent rhythm on the edge of the table-top with his long fingers.

“Must you?” asks Mycroft, absently, mentally working at the problem of how to increase the yield on a farm part-owned by the estate, part by the tenant farmer.

“My brain rots, Mycroft,” hisses Sherlock, and behind the usual petulant tone lies something deeper. Mycroft looks up, quickly, through his eyelashes, and Sherlock’s eyes are silver-green, flashing with restrained urgency for action.

Mycroft blinks. There is the easy answer – suggest a newspaper, a crossword, a walk, a distraction – or the difficult one. “I have not yet been able to put the estate into profit,” he says, quietly. “I wish that we could send you to university, Sherlock.”

Sherlock blinks. “I –” he hesitates, then gives a tentative, one-shouldered shrug. “It was not my meaning.”

“It is exactly the kind of exercise your brain needs.”

Sherlock huffs a half-hearted repudiation, but his eyes proclaim the truth. For a few moments, silence falls between them, but then his lips part; close again; eventually, he speaks. “I – do not believe that marriage will furnish me with the distraction I need.”

Slowly, Mycroft shakes his head. “No.” He sighs. “Do you wish to take on some of the management of the estate?”

Sherlock grimaces. “I cannot conceive of anything more dull.”

Mycroft gives a wry smile and eye-roll. “Your skill on the violin – the course of reading you pursue – both are worthy –”

Sherlock crosses his arms, folds into himself, rolls his eyes.

Mycroft sighs sadly, and hesitates. “Sherlock –” he closes his eyes. “Tell me what you are thinking. Do not simply –” he gestures with one hand, “– reject.”

When he opens his eyes, he expects a further increase of petulance; instead, Sherlock is watching him, eyes both shrewd and vulnerable. At length, he speaks. “It is all stale. Boring. I want – I want more.”

Mycroft looks at him, disbelief coursing through him. I believe my brother has just shared something with me about the state of his heart. He tries not to react as though this is exceptional. “Do you have any idea what ‘more’ might be?”

Sherlock shakes his head, impatiently. “Obviously not, brother.”

“Obviously,” says Mycroft wryly.

Sherlock glances away, but there is a tiny lift of amusement at his lips.

“Will you tell me, if you fathom it?” asks Mycroft, seriously.

Sherlock looks at him from the corner of his eye, as though to detect satire; apparently, he finds enough sincerity to merit an answer. “Yes,” he says, slowly.

Mycroft nods. He wants to thank Sherlock for this conversation; he is moved, raw with fraternal sentiment. Suppressing his unruly emotions, he glances up, and finds himself meeting the deep brown gaze of Captain Gregory Lestrade.

Chapter Text

“Mr Holmes –” stutters that gentleman. “I –” his eyes are wide with surprise, a slow blush spreading across his cheeks. He clears his throat and turns, slightly. “I have just run into Doctor Watson, who I find is also staying in Bath –”

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?”

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.

 

‘Mycroft –

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,

Your Gregory’

 

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.

“Yes.”

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?”

“I did.”

“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.”