Sherlock watched and waited until the door of the flat ceased to rattle in its wood frame, and the footfalls on the other side of it took on a series of steady clunks as the visitor descended the stairs, before he turned back to face Mycroft.
"Not what I expected," Sherlock remarked in his quick, terse way.
Mycroft fixed him with a wary glance and adjusted the right lapel of his gray jacket with a sharp gesture of his left hand, then smoothed one palm along the perfect crease of his left trouser leg.
Sherlock tilted his head to one side and listened as the footfalls on the stairs shifted, as the visitor turned onto the main floor and headed towards the door. The two brothers heard the front door of 221B Baker Street open and close.
"Certainly, this is a different gender than I would've thought that you preferred," he continued, as he casually ignored the darker glare that settled upon him at the near-insult. "In actuality, I did peg you for someone that would be more into transvestites, for some reason. Perhaps it's the extra vanity that's involved in the makeup and clothing. Always thought it would be to your liking. Perhaps you, yourself should consider an alternative lifestyle. That would be a welcome change." He shrugged. "But that's neither here nor there, now that you've shown me what it is you do like."
"I am not here for your approval, dear brother," Mycroft responded in a stern, low voice. "I am here to pick up the letters."
With a chuckle and a slight smirk, Sherlock pushed himself out of the well-worn chair by the fireplace and stood up, then sauntered up to the mantelpiece and pulled down three envelopes. He handed them over to Mycroft.
"There you are," he said cheerfully. "Three letters, from our parents, as promised. Personally, I can't see why you don't simply obtain a private box somewhere rather than having them sent to me."
"Boxes can be traced," Mycroft muttered as he flipped through them.
"It's not as if I've never experienced any break-ins. This isn't exactly a secure location, either. But, you do as you like. I have no objections to being your personal post office." Sherlock noted his attention to the postage stamps and leaned over him a bit. "You see how frequently she writes?" he asked in a near-whisper. "Much more to you than to me. I've told you that you're her favorite."
Mycroft slapped the envelopes on his knee as he watched his younger brother resume his seat.
"This," he said as he waved the envelopes in the air, "is not a competition. We are not in competition for the love and affection of our parents."
"Not any more."
Mycroft's eyes narrowed. "And since when were we?"
"Oh, please. Every waking moment of my life, we've been out to prove who is the better son. Sibling rivalry is what made us what we are. The firstborn versus the younger-"
"I think I've proved that I'm the better man," Mycroft interrupted. "More intelligent, more knowledgeable, able to attain positions in government and society to which you have never had the discipline nor the sensitivity-"
"-nor the inclination-"
"-to attain. But as far as being the better son? No, Sherlock, that has always been your category."
Sherlock gave out a snort of resentment. "Far from it. I'm the most coddled, perhaps. They nearly lost me after that bout with appendicitis when I was eight, so I admit that there is an irrational emotional bond that extends in my direction more so than yours. But you, Mycroft, are the one that they contact first when they come into London. It's you that our mother takes the time to write to, not me. A phone call is all I ever get."
"That's because you can't be bothered to respond."
"You see?" Sherlock stretched one pale hand forward. "The very fact that you take the time to write her back puts you on top in our relationship."
"Not quite the choice of words that I want, in this circumstance," Mycroft muttered, as he slipped the letters into the inside coat pocket of his jacket.
"Ah. Which brings us back to your trophy date."
"That is in poor taste, and it is not a trophy date, all right? It's quite simple. We met when I went out for a run. This is merely an acquaintance. Of sorts."
Sherlock cocked his head to one side. "You never go 'out' for a run," he clarified. "You have your private gym and your workout regimen and your five treadmills-"
"Six," Mycroft corrected. "I was just given permission to buy one for the country estate. Shipment should be arriving in the next day or so." He paused. "My journey was not 'going out' in the sense that I altered my usual habits in any way," he clarified. "You are perhaps aware of the visit of Thierry Kipler to our fair country?"
"Indeed. A man who miraculously escapes three attempts to take his life in one year hardly escapes my attention."
"Mr. Kipler is not only a politician in France, but he is also an avid runner. A bit beyond 'avid,' really. The problem with his training routine is, only two of his people and almost none of ours are able to keep up with him."
"Save for you. My brother, the obsessive-compulsive runner."
Mycroft acknowledged the statement with a slow bow of his head.
"So is your new love one of those athletes?"
"It is not a love, Sherlock," he hissed through clenched teeth.
"They why would you want to introduce this 'non-love' to me, eh?" He waved at the window. "Your phone is always on. That important message which was ushered up here could've been sent to you by text. There was no need to keep someone waiting down below to come up and deliver any information… you plan out your days much better than that. Unless you're slipping?"
"I am not slipping." Mycroft paused. "But I would value your impressions, yes."
"After a mere forty-second meeting? We were not introduced. Our eyes didn't even meet."
"You don't need to look someone in the eyes, Sherlock. If anything, you've had to train yourself to look someone right in the face. With my advice and tutelage, I might add. Just tell me what you think."
He gave Mycroft a steady look. "Are you suspicious, for some reason?"
"No more than normal," came the honest reply. "And that, perhaps, is where I need a bit of assistance to balance paranoia with caution."
Sherlock closed his eyes, inhaled, and rattled off a series of basic observations-average looks, the high-end clothing (casual in nature, yet incredibly expensive to the point where many items required special ordering), clear and almost blemish-free skin (slightly tanned from a recent trip to the Caribbean), the utter lack of jewelry despite their wealthy status (although a tiny scar ran along both earlobes, indicating that earrings had once been ripped out from the skin), the almost-imperceptible bump to what would've otherwise been a straight nose (hinting at previous injury to the face), the trim athlete's body which indicated an entire lifetime of physical activity…
He paused. "Mycroft," he said slowly, "you've… well…"
If he'd been a Labrador, Mycroft's ears would've perked up at that point. Instead, his voice did what his body could not. "What?"
"It's just that, time and again, you've mentioned how slow the rest of the human race is in comparison to yourself. Indeed, I sympathize with you in that regard. And yet here is someone that is by no means mentally superior. I'd say average, definitely, and perhaps a bit beyond the usual mundane status, but not much more than that. Certainly, not your equal in any way."
"Not quite an accurate observation, Sherlock," he corrected. "We haven't raced one another, but I daresay that I might actually be inferior when it comes to running." He gave a quick flash of a smile. "Perhaps. It depends on if we're talking about sprinting, or cross-country, or long-distance-"
"Spare me the athletic discussion," Sherlock interrupted. "You are the one with the running addiction. Please don't torture me with such issues." He dropped his hands onto the arms of the chairs again. "I have no impressions of anything suspicious, Mycroft. The question is, why do you?"
"I don't," Mycroft grumbled. "That's what bothers me."
Sherlock chuckled. "Ah, so how about that? My brother has a genuine interest in and attraction to another human being. It's irrational, it's pointless, it seems to involve only one commonality… how can that be?"
"How, indeed?" he mused. "I'm not proud of myself, brother. This is not something that fits into the weave of my life, by any means."
"You can make accommodations. Surely, once Mr, Kipler departs for his own country, your romantic interest will depart as well?"
Mycroft gave him a pained look. "Not quite that easy, I'm afraid. You see, Mr. Kipler is dead. He was killed fourteen hours ago."
Sherlock's eyebrows went up. "I had not heard."
"No one will hear about it for another sixteen hours. We have the situation under control. Our sources indicate that there were two attempts planned on his life, the second to be carried out tomorrow morning. We do not want his assassins to think they succeeded today, thereby interfering with their capture during the second attempt."
"So… how could they not know they succeeded?"
"Because the shot which struck Kipler went through the body of one of our runner-bodyguards first. We were in the park, passing by some heavy shrubbery. The bodyguard was shot, fell against Kipler, and knocked him behind some bushes-thus, the gunman can't be sure if he succeeded. At that point, everyone was on the alert and had guns out and ready. We had two surveillance vehicles in the area," he explained. "One came over to pick up Kipler while the other tried, and failed, to chase down the killer, who was on a motorcycle. Kipler was still able to stand and climb into the vehicle of his own accord. We shielded him from view, keeping him next to the bodyguard to hide where the blood might be coming from. I don't mind boasting that it was my insistence for two vehicles that was our saving grace in this situation. We'll have them by tomorrow, Sherlock. I guarantee it."
A comfortable silence passed between the two men. Sherlock closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed and opened them again.
"Have you thought that perhaps your increased level of attraction is one borne out of adrenaline?" Sherlock suggested. "Perhaps this is a relationship based on an intense experience? You have, of course, seen the movie 'Speed' to which I'm referring?"
Mycroft looked away and remained silent.
"Oh, come now. You might have done your best to normalize your appearance, but you've waltzed in here with the unmistakable odour of bandaging about you and the dilated pupils of someone on heavy medication. Perhaps it was not serious enough for hospitalization, but the gunshot wound that you suffered has clearly left the stench of hospital on you, even if your overall demeanor appears unchanged."
"It was through-and-through, as they say," Mycroft replied bluntly. "Nothing of consequence was damaged. This entire affair still amounts to a failure on my part to protect our esteemed visitor, and I will not rest until I have rectified that error. And I don't wish to discuss it any further, if you don't mind."
He gave his brother a gentle smile. "As you wish. You will have your revenge tomorrow."
Mycroft gave another slow nod of determination. "Tomorrow."
"Meanwhile, I suggest that you take yourself back to wherever it is the British government is hiding you." Sherlock stood, and Mycroft followed suit, his face a careful blank as he stood up and followed his brother to the door. "No doubt, they are not allowing you to go home yet."
"No, they are not."
"Yet you made a visit here. To show to those watching that you are up and about, and to downplay the seriousness of the situation?"
Sherlock released a tiny chuckle. "And your… new friend?"
Mycroft blinked. "I thought we've already gone over that. Not my type. 'Wrong gender,' you said."
"I said 'different gender.' Either way, we are not in Victorian London, living up to ancient standards. There is no such thing as a wrong gender these days. I would encourage you to explore this relationship. At a time like this, when you seek parental comfort-" he pointed at the bulge of letters in Mycroft's coat pocket, "-and family reassurance," he pointed at himself, "perhaps this will be something to help ease the unnerving situation that you find yourself in."
"Do I look unnerved?"
"No one besides myself would ever know it," he reassured Mycroft. "You are as you always are… very British."
"Thank you, Sherlock."
Sherlock opened the door and stepped back, allowing Mycroft to pass into the hallway. He watched with some concern as his brother made his way down the stairs, his body rigid and his shoulders hunched; it had been easier for him to climb the stairs than to descend them. He eased the door shut and walked over to the window, waiting until Mycroft emerged. Two people emerged from the vehicle parked outside-the chauffeur, who obediently stepped out and opened the rear door for Mycroft, and the passenger in the back of the black car, who stepped out and engaged Mycroft in conversation. They talked for a minute, then Mycroft urged the person into the car with a hand on the lower back and a gentle push of encouragement. They got into the back, the chauffeur closed the door, and drove off. Mycroft did not look up at any time.
"She is surprisingly average," Sherlock muttered, "but perhaps that is precisely what you need right now."
Sherlock stepped back and let the drapery fall, blocking out the warm afternoon sunlight that fell on Baker Street.