Note: I own nothing but my own plot, everything else is the BBC's, Stephen Moffat/Mark Gatiss's, and Arthur Conan Doyle's. I just like to play here. Not beta'd or Brit-picked. This is the latest story in my "Heritage" series—where I take one fact, change it, and then watch as it alters every aspect of the story. In all of them, John is the grandson of an earl but is still an invalided-home army-doctor who decides to share a flat with Sherlock Holmes.
What if John's father had disowned him (like in the first story), but this time he was in the line of succession … which makes John was his official heir?
(And before you ask, no, I don't know the legalities of being able to exclude a disfavoured son from the succession for an Earldom if you don't want him to inherit. For the sake of this story, we're just going to go with the "you can't argue with bloodlines" argument.)
They were sitting in a café when the news broke.
"Earl of Undershaw Dead.."
John stared up at the photo as the news reader described the Earl's unexpected death early that morning in a car accident.
His father was dead, he thought, staring at the face on the screen, so much older than the last time he had seen him. Twenty years, it had been. John had been barely 18 when his father had thrown him out of the house, insisting that his urge to join the army was a blemish on the Brandon name.
John hadn't let that stop him, though. He'd joined anyway, and gone on to study to become a doctor as well, dropping the Brandon name as he went. (If his father felt strongly enough to disown him, it was the least he could do, wasn't it? Not to "drag" the name down with him?) It had taken some work to get new ID in his mother's name without leaving any traces, but he had managed. He had lived the last twenty years as he wanted to, trying to think as little of the family left behind as possible.
He supposed it was helpful, in its way, that his mother had died before this happened. Leaving her would have been much more difficult.
Still, it was a shock to realize that his father was no longer breathing. His grandfather had passed on several years ago, too, which meant …
He could feel his eyes widen as he realized—had his father not disowned him, if he hadn't kicked him out…
If things been different, John would now be the new Earl of Undershaw.
It wasn't something he had given thought to in years. He had been too busy trying to make a living, make a [new] name for himself. He had thought about his grandfather and his family from time to time—of course he had—but he hadn't spent time thinking about how his grandfather happened to be an Earl. It had been so long since John had seen the man, which he still regretted. He had adored his grandfather and had always thought he would have disapproved of the way John's father had handled things. But then, if his father had been more like his grandfather, John's life would have been very different. He probably wouldn't have been wrapped in a bomb vest just last week, for example, or be living with London's most frustrating genius.
A genius who was giving John an odd look at the moment. John hastily schooled his expression. "Sorry. Distracted. You don't think of Earls being in car crashes, eh?"
"Don't care," said Sherlock. "I'm more interested in figuring out how Mr Applethwaite managed to get himself strangled by his bread machine." He stood up, tossing money on the table. "Coming?"
"Oh, right," John said, shovelling a few forkfuls of pasta into his mouth as he rose. He should just start ordering all his meals in take-away containers to start with, maybe then he'd be able to finish them from time to time. He couldn't resist a glance back at the television, though, but the news reader had moved on to some story about holiday shopping and he turned away. It wasn't like he would be getting a piece of his father's estate—or wanted it. He'd managed without it all these years, he wasn't going after it now. It would just make him look like a vulture circling his father's bones, and frankly, that was more attention than he wanted to give the man.
He wondered if they would be looking for him, now that his father was gone—though really, why start now? It had been twenty years with no signs of anyone hunting for him and, anyway, he'd been John Watson for twenty years now. He didn't need John Brandon anymore.
He kept an eye on the news for the next few days, but after the first flurry of headlines, nothing came of it. In fact, it became almost eerily quiet. To his relief, there were no articles, no posted photos of a missing heir to raise questions he didn't want to answer.
He admitted to a certain amount of curiosity. His father aside, he had been fond of his family, years ago. Except for a handful of illicit meetings with Harry, he hadn't seen any of them in twenty years. He couldn't help wondering about them, much like he wondered about old school mates from time to time. He tried to tell himself this was healthy. Just idle curiosity. It wasn't like he had any obligations toward them, or anything. Not like he by rights was the next Earl after his father and therefore titular head of the family. No, nothing to see here, just move on.
What John didn't expect was that the decision about getting involved was going to be taken out of his hands.
"John, we have a case."
John paused in the middle of removing his jacket. Why couldn't the man let him get in the door before springing this on him? Unless … "I should leave my coat on, then?"
"What? No, why would you? We've got a case."
John just sighed. This was what happened when Sherlock got too bored. The least possible stimulation made him lose all sense of proportion. "Right. So, what's the case?"
"Not that exciting, really, just a missing persons case," Sherlock said, "But it's not a recent one, either, though I haven't the details yet. It's still better than nothing, even if it was a referral from Mycroft."
John was starting to have a bad feeling about this. "Not a recent missing person? Or not a recent case?"
Sherlock just gave him a look. "Person, John, obviously. Had I been on the case, it wouldn't have gone so long … though, to be fair, I was only about fifteen at the time the man went missing, so I doubt they would have come to me at all."
That sounded … suspiciously familiar, thought John. "What, a twenty year old case? And they're just coming to you now?"
"Apparently the father just died and the family is looking for the heir. The interesting thing is that nobody seems to have looked for the man when he disappeared. Apparently since he had just turned 18 and was no longer considered a child, they weren't as concerned, or something."
"Sherlock," John interrupted, "What case are you talking about?"
"The Earl of Undershaw, surely you've seen the news?"
And there it was. "The Earl of Undershaw," John said faintly. "Yes, I've seen it. And—they want you to look into it?"
Sherlock nodded. "They're on their way now, in fact, or at least the cousin who contacted me. He works with Mycroft, apparently, and I came recommended. I only hope the case is interesting enough to get the taste out of my mouth."
"Coming here?" John repeated, unable to help himself. This was a disaster. He couldn't be here when … who was it that was coming? He shrugged his jacket back on. "We … we don't have anything in, Sherlock. I'm going to … run down to the shops to get some milk for tea, shall I? Need anything else? No? Excellent. Back soon."
He was heading down the stairs before Sherlock could even answer. He wasn't even thinking, he just needed to get out of there, as quickly as possible. The thought of bumping into his estranged family on the stairs was haunting him, and all he knew was he needed to be out of the building before any of his cousins came knocking for Sherlock. The entire way down the stairs, he was terrified that he would open it to find David on the other side, hand lifted to knock. Or Sara. Or, God, Harry.
He was almost panicked as he pulled the street door open, and breathed a quick sigh of relief as he hurried out, just as a black car slid up to the kerb. Too close, he chanted to himself. That was too close, far too close, much too close. It was all he could do not to take off running down the street.
He had spent so much time keeping his distance from his family over the years, had spent so much time mentally separating himself from the Brandons … how was he supposed to deal with this now? So suddenly?
But was it really sudden, he asked himself? It's not like he hadn't been watching the news, hadn't known his father had died. It hadn't been beyond the realm of possibility that someone might come looking for him.
He had never expected this to be a case of Sherlock's, though. Easiest case ever, he thought. If his cousin or aunt or whoever it was in there had brought a photo of 18-year old John, well … that would be it. Case done. Person found. Sherlock would probably be upset that it hadn't taken more effort than lifting his head and looking across the room and asking the simple question, "John? Is your surname Brandon, by any chance, rather than Watson?" John could just see it. He would nod in agreement and Sherlock would drop his head back on the couch and say, "I thought as much. Dull. Bored, John!"
Right. This was not going to go well.
Sherlock nodded to the man at the door, still wondering why John had felt it so important that they have milk for a consultation. It wasn't like they usually served beverages, after all—especially since so many potential clients were indescribably dull. Maybe he had spooked at the title? Some people acted oddly around the peerage, though he wouldn't have expected John to get nervous for any of them unless their surname was Windsor. The army instilled respect for higher ranks, after all, so how was this any different?
He gestured the man in, trying not to think about the fact that he was only here because of Mycroft. "Have a seat, Mr…?"
"Brandon. David Brandon," the visitor said, reaching forward for a handshake. "You come highly recommended, Mr Holmes."
"I can imagine," Sherlock told him, as he waved him toward a chair. "You said something about a missing cousin?"
"Yes, my cousin John," David said. "Son of my Uncle Jonathan, the Earl of Undershaw, who recently passed … you may have seen the news coverage?"
"My flatmate was interested," Sherlock said. "So, the man you're looking for, your cousin, he would be the current Earl?"
"Presumably. The thing is, without knowing exactly what happened to him, it's hard to say. You see, Mr Holmes, none of us actually know what happened to him—if Uncle Jonathan disowned him for a good reason that would prevent him from inheriting, if he ran away, if he's alive, or dead. We just don't know."
"Nobody looked for him?" Sherlock asked, feeling a surge of curiosity. "At all? How old was he?"
"Just 18. My aunt—his mother—died of cancer right around his eighteenth birthday, and it was only a few months later that he was suddenly gone. My uncle never said a word about where he'd gone and forbade all of us from looking for him, saying it was between him and John, that John knew where home was. He refused to hear another word on the subject. Not even my Grandfather—the Earl at the time—could get a word out of him. We all just assumed they'd had another one of their fights … though when John didn't show for Grandfather's Christmas party that year, we wondered."
Sherlock leaned back in his chair, finger tips steepled under his chin. "And you're searching for him now because his father died and you need to know if he's alive for the sake of the title … and his unclaimed inheritance."
There was a spark in the other man's eyes as he responded, "It's not as callous as that, Mr Holmes. I am well off in my own right, as is my sister, but Uncle Jonathan was the older brother and if John is still … alive … he is the one who should inherit the title."
"Yet you hesitate. I can hear the doubt in your voice—you think he's unworthy?"
"I… I suppose I won't know what to think until I see him again." He paused. "Understand, Mr Holmes, I always liked my cousin John. He was smart and caring and responsible. He looked after his sister and kept an eye on all of us when we'd get together. My grandfather adored him and even as children, you could see that he would grow up to be exemplary, a credit to the family. But then … this sudden mystery. He just disappears!"
David was on the edge of his chair, as if fighting the urge to get up and pace. "At first we chalked it up to grief for his mother, and the sudden changes—about to head off to Uni with his home life in disarray, worrying about his sister, about his father … because he would have. Responsibility and concern were practically the hallmarks of his character." His voice trailed off for a moment as he stared into the fire. "My Uncle on the other hand … I hesitate to speak ill of the dead, but … let's just say he was never the man his father was. Or that John was becoming. I could well believe he and John quarrelled, that John might have stormed off one day, ridding the dust from his feet as he sailed off to Uni to become a doctor, or whatever he was thinking at the time. So, those first few months? We weren't… Well, we expected to see him at Christmas … but he didn't come."
"And still nobody searched for him?"
"Uncle Jonathan refused to allow it," David said quietly. "Oh, I believe Grandfather asked around, put out some queries, but without any cooperation from John's immediate family … nothing came of it. Not even Harry knew. Or if she did, she never said anything."
Sherlock blinked. "Harry?"
"Harriet," David said with a tiny smile. "John's sister. She's refused to answer to Harriet since she was five…"
He started to explain, but Sherlock cut him off, resisting the urge to leap to his feet. "Do you have a photo of your cousin?"
"What? Oh, yes." David opened the briefcase he'd brought with him. "It was hard to find, actually. Uncle Jonathan rid the house of all photos of John at some point, but luckily, my mother enjoyed taking photos, and I found a few pictures from when I was a child. John would have been about 16 or 17 here…"
Sherlock all but snatched the photos from his hand in his eagerness to see them. It had to be a coincidence, didn't it? A brother John with a sister don't-call-me Harriet, Harry? A John with a tendency even as a child for being responsible and caring. A John who had spoken of being a doctor…
…A John who looked so very young as he grinned up at Sherlock from the snapshot in his hand. Twenty years younger or not, he would know those features anywhere. Sunny blond hair with a matching sunny smile as he stood in the photo, glancing over his shoulder with affection for the woman—his aunt—holding the camera. That wasn't John Brandon at all, Sherlock thought, but John Watson—an impossibly young, eager John, one who had not yet seen war or death or had his career ripped from him by an Afghani bullet.
Sherlock's mind raced. But how was this possible? John couldn't possibly the be the son of an earl, could he? An Earl himself? And yet, he remembered the interest John had shown, the look on his face when the news reader had announced that the Earl had died.
He also remembered how John had practically fled from the flat when he learned Sherlock had taken this case and was expecting his client at any time.
Mouth dry, he glanced over to David. "You said he wanted to be a doctor?"
"Yes, it's one of the things he fought Uncle Jonathan about. My uncle didn't believe the peerage should do anything as constructive as work."
"Not unusual," murmured Sherlock. "But John felt differently?"
"Very much so. Like I said, he just wanted to help people. He'd even joked about joining the army at some point, but I think that was mostly to rile up Uncle Jonathan."
"Have you checked, though?" Sherlock asked. "I would think with your contacts, you'd be able to check the registry rolls."
David gave a weary nod. "Nobody named Brandon who could remotely meet John's description. Nor could I find a record of any Uni training, either. He'd been slated to attend Oxford, but … never arrived. So far as we can tell, he dropped off the face of the earth." Now he did stand. "At this point, Mr Holmes … I do realize how unfortunate it is that we left this search until after Uncle Jonathan was dead, but … he wouldn't…"
"Wouldn't allow it," Sherlock said with him. "And that didn't make anybody suspicious?"
"Of course it did," David said with a snap, "But what were we to do? The problem now is that we need to find John—or find proof of his being dead. And if he is alive, we need to verify whether he is fit to inherit the title. If he's spent the last 18 years on the street for example, or in a mental institution, he may not be equipped. The thing is, we don't know. And we must. Can you help us, Mr Holmes?"
Sherlock just looked at him. "Did you show these pictures to my brother, Mr Brandon?"
"Yes, just before he recommended your services."
"Of course he did," Sherlock said with a snarl. "Leave this with me. I make no promises with a trail this cold, but … I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you, Mr Holmes. I'm really very grateful."
Sherlock stood and shook his hand. "What do you hope to gain, if I find him, Mr Brandon? It's been twenty years, after all, he'll have changed. You obviously weren't very close if it's taken you this long to look for him—yes, yes, your uncle said not to. But answer me this—if your uncle hadn't died and left you these legal hassles, would you still want to find this cousin of yours?"
David met his gaze steadily. "I know this looks bad, Mr Holmes, and believe me, I regret deeply that I have not looked for John sooner. I meant it when I said I admired him, and the thought that he may have been suffering these last twenty years because we didn't bother to look for him … there are no words. I want to find him, for his sake—but also, I confess, for my own. If I find he's been gone, dead, these last twenty years—or worse, that he's died recently from some kind of neglect—I'll never forgive my uncle. Worse, I'll never forgive myself. The cousin I remember deserves better than that. It's not about the title, Mr Holmes, or the money. It's about finally doing the right thing, now that I can."
Sherlock nodded. "In that case, I will do my best."