Assume The Perpendicular
John woke at 8, put the kettle on, made two cups of tea – one PG Tips, one black Darjeeling – put them on a tray with a large slice of Mint Vienetta and knocked on the downstairs bedroom door. There was always the chance that his housemate was out, but they'd finished a case only the evening before, which usually meant Sherlock would catch up on sleep a little. The groan from the room beyond corroborated this.
John pushed the door open with his foot. The room was a darkened state – the only hint that Sherlock was still in it was a long, angular lump beneath the quilts.
John cleared his throat, nervously. 'Happy Birthday…?'
'Don't,' grumbled the quilt-lump.
John cast a glance ceilingward. He might have known Sherlock Didn't Do Birthdays.
'Don't worry, I haven't organised a surprise party or a marching band or anything.' John set the tray down on a space on he bedside table that had until recently contained a glass bowl of dead goldfish. The quilts shifted slightly and two small, suspicious eyes glared out at the tray from beneath it. 'Made you some brekkie. You don't have to eat it if you don't want.'
The quilt shifted up a little more again. Now the end of a nose and a mess of hair were visible beneath it as well as the suspicious-weasel-eyes.
'Vienetta for breakfast?'
'Birthday treat. And I'm taking the tree down today – you'll like that.'
A hand snaked out of the quilts, grabbed the Darjeeling and pulled it back in.
'Wretched thing,' complained the quilt-lump.
Their Christmas Tree was a little plastic affair, sparsely decorated in black and silver. John had thought Sherlock might like that. Merry up the place a little bit without going too gaudy. Sherlock had just complained bitterly that it took up too much space, and had regularly walked into it 'by accident'. Nevertheless, John had insisted on keeping that one piece of Christmas decoration up until the festive season was over – that day being today. The 6th of January, thought John, must be a bloody awful day to be born. Freezing cold, dark, dank, everybody skint, first day back to normal after the holidays. Back to work, back to school, down with the decorations and cards… actually, the more John thought about it, the more that actually seemed to suit Sherlock down to the ground.
'And,' said John, sliding a vinyl LP out from under the tray, 'um.' He waved it at the hole in the quilt. 'If you don't want it as a Birthday Present, I can wait a few days and then it can just be a thing that I bought for you.'
Sherlock's entire head finally surfaced from the quilt as he inspected the record. 'Peter Grimes. Oh! 1967 recording. Mm.'
'You said that was a good one.'
'How did you…?'
'If I ever divorce my work, remind me to marry the internet.'
John got up, sipping his tea. 'I'll take that as a "thank you".'
He heard the sound of a spoon crunching into the Vienetta as he left the room, and smiled.
He was just packing the last of the tree away as Sherlock finished in the bathroom when there was a knock at the door. Probably Mrs Hudson, John told himself. With a card and a box of biscuits or something, no doubt, bless her. He opened the door, only to be presented with Mycroft, bearing a picnic hamper, a golf umbrella and a wide, if faintly disingenuous smile.
'Good morning, Dr Watson,' he beamed. 'I take it from the sound of brushing teeth that the Birthday Boy is in.'
'Tell him I'm busy!' Called a voice muffled by toothpaste and brush from the bathroom.
Mycroft stepped in to the flat. 'I know for a fact that you aren't. Congratulations on solving the Staines Strangler case last night, by the way.' He barely turned to John as he headed straight to the kitchen. 'Mind if I pop the kettle on? Parched.'
John gave Mycroft an 'I suppose so' sort of shrug.
Mycroft felt the kettle. 'Lukewarm. Which means my brother will be more than ready for his next caffeine injection by now.' He got out two mugs, his hand hovering over a third. 'Will you join us in a cup of coffee?'
John shook his head. 'Trying to cut down on caffeine. Maybe later.'
'New Year's Resolution?' There was that smile from Mycroft again. 'Capital idea.'
Sherlock made a noisy show of spitting in the bathroom sink before padding out to meet his brother, sullenly.
Mycroft spread his arms wide in greeting. 'Many happy returns.'
'God, I hope not,' grumbled Sherlock. '36! How did I live to be 36? Still, chances are, this'll be the last one.'
Mycroft's only response to this was to turn back to his task of coffee making.
John tutted reproachfully at Sherlock. 'Don't say that! How can you say that?'
'Ignore my brother's seasonal morbidity,' said Mycroft, seemingly addressing the kettle. 'The first time that he announced he had become too old and that his lifestyle choices meant that he was highly unlikely to last another year was at the tender age of 25. And then reaching 26 only proved him wrong, which simply annoyed him more. He's been like this every birthday ever since.'
Mycroft turned back around to his brother, offering out a cup of coffee and a card, produced as if from nowhere. Sherlock took the coffee without thanks, and threw the card on the floor without so much as glancing at it.
'And yet, fully aware of my distaste for birthdays as you are, you insist on marking the day every year,' Sherlock reminded Mycroft. 'What on Earth is there to celebrate about getting another year older?'
'It's a celebration of the event of your birth, Sherlock,' Mycroft replied. 'A celebration of you. You usually need no excuse to celebrate yourself.'
'It's a celebration of aging,' Sherlock muttered into his coffee. 'Why would you think I'd want to be reminded of the fact that I age and wither like every other idiot on the planet? What's so special about it? Anyone can age. You just sit there and… get old. It's such a stupid thing to make a lot of fuss and bother over. It's so pedestrian…'
John closed his eyes, bracing himself against Sherlock's imminent use of his favourite word.
Yep. There it was. John decided to seek sanctuary in the bathroom for a little while, and leave the two brothers to it.
'Sometimes, Sherlock,' he heard Mycroft say as he disappeared upstairs, 'I wonder if that's the only adjective you actually know.'
John locked the door, and found his crossword book. He intended to take his time.
After quarter of an hour or so, he gingerly came back downstairs. All was serene once more. The card that Sherlock had dropped on the floor was now on the mantelpiece. Mycroft was rinsing out the coffee mugs, and Sherlock was putting his coat on. There was an odd expression on his friend's face that John couldn't quite put his finger on.
'Off out?' John asked.
Sherlock nodded. 'Mycroft brought a picnic.'
John blinked. 'You're going for a picnic?'
John was surprised how close he came to reminding Sherlock that he'd only just eaten before stopping himself. If his friend wanted to eat more than one meal in a day, then he was definitely all for that. Who knew – maybe the world was going to go completely mad today and Sherlock would be persuaded to eat a vegetable. Still – a picnic, though…? In the first week of January?
'Wouldn't a restaurant be a bit more comfortable?' John asked. 'It's bitter out – there's still snow in some of the hedges.'
'I thought it would be rather jolly to have it in the car,' Mycroft replied. 'We're going out for the day. Kent, I think.'
'Garden of England,' added Sherlock in an oddly approving tone. 'Get your coat, John… John's coming too, right?'
'If you want to,' Mycroft told John.
It wasn't as if John had anything better to do that day. And Sherlock had asked. What sort of mate turns going out to lunch with a friend down on his birthday? Besides, Sherlock's suddenly strangely languid demeanour had him intrigued.
'Yeah, all right.'
He pulled on his coat, stamped into his boots and followed the Holmes brothers and their picnic hamper down the stairs.
There was no driver to the Mercedes that waited outside 221b for them this time. Mycroft slid himself into the driver's seat, and strapped the picnic hamper carefully into the front passenger's seat as Sherlock got into the back without complaint, followed by an increasingly confused John.
'Your present's in the boot,' Mycroft told his brother as they headed off.
'Guess what John got me,' Sherlock replied.
'Peter Grimes, 1967 recording, original vinyl, perfect condition,' said Mycroft.
'You didn't guess that,' said Sherlock with a wide smile. He turned to John. 'He didn't guess that. He's watching your eBay account. Email too, I'll bet.'
'So I gathered.'
'Listened to it yet?' Mycroft asked.
'Saving it for when I have time. Since I knew you'd be coming this morning I didn't bother putting it on straight away only to have it interrupted.'
'My brother does love his Britten,' Mycroft told John.
'Yes. I noticed.'
'I do have some Britten,' Mycroft added, 'if you'd like some music along the way.'
'Got any Bartók?' Sherlock asked.
Mycroft shot his younger brother a glare that could wilt trees. 'What a ridiculous question, Sherlock. Of course I've got Bartók.'
The further they got out of London, the thicker the snow left over from the blizzard on New Year's Day became. By the time they approached Leeds Castle, every field and verge was still crisp and white.
Mycroft didn't stop in the visitor's car park, but drove straight up to the service vehicles' barriers, flashed a piece of card very briefly at the staff manning it and was swiftly allowed to drive through, without a word. The Mercedes crunched up a gritted service road before coming to a stop in a picturesque spot overlooking the castle, framed by snow-white grounds and a magnificent pond of ice. Mycroft unbuckled himself and turned around to face the back.
'Well, this looks as good a spot as any. Shall we Luncheon?'
There was definitely something wrong with Sherlock, John thought, watching as his friend not only ate an almost average sized meal without a fuss, but actually managed a couple of vol-au-vents that John was sure had spinach in them. He was behaving too… too calmly. Too normally. Which was, in itself, abnormal. There was something about his eyes that just wasn't right. They'd lost their sharpness. John's stomach sank as the most likely explanation hit him.
Oh no. He's Using again.
What was it this time, John wondered with a heavy heart. It wasn't cocaine. John knew exactly what Sherlock was like on that poison, and this wasn't it. It couldn't be Heroin or LSD either. People didn't react that way to those things.
Cannabis? No. That wasn't Sherlock's style.
It was just as John drew breath to say something that Mycroft announced 'Your present is still waiting for you in the boot, Sherlock.'
Sherlock looked up from a plastic cup full of Eton Mess with a snort of amusement. 'And how did you wriggle your way around our "we're never going to buy one another gifts ever again" arrangement this time?'
'I didn't buy it,' Mycroft replied, 'I found it. In the attic at Mummy's.'
Sherlock gazed at his brother, as intently as he could through the haze of whatever it was he'd taken. 'My first microscope?'
'We buried Fluffy.'
'You think you buried Fluffy.'
'We all know you exhumed her, Sherlock. She was re-buried in a private ceremony after your bedtime.'
'Yes. I know. That's why I re-exhumed her. She was my hamster!'
Mycroft just smiled back, patiently. 'It's your old kite.'
Sherlock's face broke into an excitable, childlike grin. John usually only ever saw that smile when several bodies had just been found in mysterious, gruesome circumstances.
'John!' Sherlock was out of the car and heading towards the boot in a flash. 'Help me out with this!'
John realised that his mouth was still open in order to bring up the sticky subject of Sherlock's odd behaviour before the matter of the present had been raised. He closed it again and followed Sherlock out into the cold.
Sherlock lifted a dusty but beautifully crafted kite from the boot of Mycroft's car. It was black. Of course it was black. What other colour kite would a young Sherlock Holmes have?
'Don't fly it too close to the trees,' warned Mycroft as they crunched off into the snow to get some more space. 'You know what happened the last time.'
'Wherever did your parents manage to find a completely black kite?' John asked.
'They didn't'. Sherlock started to break into a run through the snow. 'I made it.'
'From a kit?'
'From scratch?' John wandered how old he'd been.
'Seven and a half,' Sherlock called, answering his unasked question.
John ran after him until he felt the tug on the kite and let it go. He watched Sherlock with the kite for a moment – a vision of wild ebony coat tails, legs and hair flapping and thrashing against the snowscape. He found himself humming the 'Black Beauty' theme quietly, despite himself.
'Something's bothering you,' called Mycroft from the car. The elder Holmes brother was pouring tea from his Thermos.
John left Sherlock to it and stomped back to the car.
'Sherlock's all wrong.'
Mycroft cast a glance to his brother, skittering like a crane fly through the frost. 'He seems perfectly cheerful to me.'
'Exactly,' replied John, accepting the tea.
'You're worried that he's been taking drugs again.'
John frowned. 'He promised after that unpleasantness last month. He promised.'
'There really isn't anything for you to worry about on this occasion,' Mycroft told him in soothing tones. 'Let's all just enjoy today, shall we?'
John watched Mycroft from over the rim of his plastic mug. 'He wasn't like this first thing,' John recalled. 'In fact, the first time I noticed he was behaving strangely was after he'd been alone with you for ten minutes or so… after you'd made him a cup of coffee.'
Mycroft just smiled.
'You drugged him,' John gasped. 'Didn't you? Your own brother!'
Mycroft shrugged, genially. 'A mild sedative, to help him relax.'
John continued to gape. 'Just so that he'd let you take him out for his birthday? That's… that's twisted.'
'But he's happy! Doesn't a man deserve to be happy and relaxed on his birthday?'
'He's only "happy" because you've pumped a load of God-Knows-What into his system!'
'There's always plenty of God-Knows-What floating around Sherlock's system,' said Mycroft. 'These sedatives are actually prescribed especially for him, he reacts terribly well to them. We've just never been able to get him to actually take them of his own accord.'
'That's a lie. I'm his doctor, I've got his medical records. He's never been prescribed anything of the sort.'
'You're one of his doctors,' Mycroft countered. 'And you only see the records that Sherlock wants you to see. He needs a day off from time to time.'
'A day off from being brilliant, you mean,' John scowled. 'A day off from being Sherlock Holmes.'
'He'd burn himself out without the occasional break,' said Mycroft.
'No he wouldn't.'
'Yes, he would. Yes, he has. You've known my brother for less than a year, Doctor Watson. I've known him for his whole life. Let's not forget that.'
John sat back, shaking his head in disbelief. He gazed out of the window at Sherlock still scampering through the snow, transfixed by the black kite sailing through the white overcast sky.
'I've got to tell him. I can't just let you do this to him and not tell him.'
'I really rather think that you should.'
'I really rather…'
'Finish your tea first at least, Doctor,' Mycroft said. 'You look frozen. It'll warm your cockles.'
John looked down at his half-drunk cup of tea. A sudden suspicion hit him that maybe it wasn't the plastic cup that was making it taste a bit funny.
'What have you done?'
Mycroft sat back in the driver's seat. 'The sixth of January. Twelfth Night. One of my favourite plays. Misunderstandings… sibling devotion… and a happy ending, of course… well, for some of them, at least. Everybody deserves to be simply, blissfully happy sometimes, Doctor. Even my brother. Especially my brother. I hope you understand that.'
For some reason, as Mycroft had spoken, that nagging suspicion in John's mind had melted away into a soft, warm, blanketed sensation. Yes. Yes, Sherlock deserved this one day off, surely.
'He does look happy,' he muttered.
'And, are you happy, John?'
John smiled, and nodded, and took another couple of vol-au-vents from the picnic hamper.
'Good,' replied Mycroft with a smile. 'Then everyone's…'
'Mycroft!' called a voice from the distance. 'Mycroft!'
John looked out of the window to see Sherlock calling from where his kite had become entangled in the skeletal branches of a chestnut tree.
'Mycroft! It happened again!'
And Sherlock was happy – or certainly seemed for all the world to be to John. And why shouldn't he be? The snow, the lovely grounds… it took them around ten minutes to disentangle the kite from the tree, after which they threw scone crumbs to the ducks and swans waddling despondently on top of the frozen pond. Whatever Sherlock had been given certainly hadn't made him in the slightest bit drowsy – he tugged at John's sleeve time and again as they toured the castle, eager to show him this mantelpiece here or that tapestry there and "Ooooohhh John, look at those buttresses", and so on. They all spent a good half an hour in the exotic aviary, and Sherlock became so caught up cheerfully telling Mycroft and John about the time that he worked out that what had been assumed to be a double murder had actually been a suicide pact from the noises made by the dead couple's budgerigar while he led them straight through the topiary maze to the centre and then straight back out again that he didn't once complain about how pointless is was to make such an easily navigated maze in the first place.
Similarly, John didn't feel in the slightest bit put out when Sherlock commandeered his snowman, gave it a blindfold and cigarette and proceeded to perform a snowball execution on it. The resulting snowball fight remained good natured, even when it spilled out to incorporate around a dozen visiting French students. John noted at the time that it could be like the Battle of Agincourt… except that at the Battle of Agincourt, the horribly outnumbered English army won. Sherlock shook the snow from his hair and scooped what he could from the neck of his coat and claimed that they had still won this time, too.
And all the while, Mycroft walked with them, an ocean of smiling calm. He took a couple of photos and, just before they got back in the car to return to London, asked a passing tourist to take a photograph of all three of them – the whitened castle and silver pond in the background. John and Sherlock were both in fits of giggles by that point, but John wasn't so far gone that he didn't notice a sadness in Mycroft's expression after his camera had been returned to him. His car keys jingled in his hands.
'Well, then. Let's go home.'
Sherlock fell asleep almost as soon as the car had left the castle grounds, and John didn't make it to the M26 junction before starting to nod off himself. The cozy, blanketed sensation he'd had since that Thermos of tea, coupled with the gentle motion and rumble of the car became too much to resist. He couldn't keep his eyes open. He rested his head back and drifted away.
He awoke groggily as he felt the car draw to a halt. The seatbelt was digging into his neck, there was a weight on his shoulder and his head was resting on something superficially soft, but hard underneath. The thing between his shoulder and cheek snorted and moved, and John realised that it was Sherlock's head.
'What…?' muttered Sherlock, echoing John's thoughts exactly. He was sure that he hadn't just dreamt the day out that they'd had, although the more he woke up, the more he wished that he had done.
'You fell asleep,' Mycroft told the men in the back seat, matter-of-factly.
Sherlock's expression went from confused to furious in the blink of an eye. 'You drugged me! And John! Didn't you?'
'I just thought it would be nice for us to have a jolly day out together.'
'You did this for your own amusement, you interfering, overbearing, selfish, arrogant bastard! And bringing poor John into all this, too.'
Mycroft shrugged again. 'You did say you wanted him to come along.'
The cozy sensation had left John as he'd slept. Now all he had was rage at being used like this, at being drugged and infantilised just so that this… this maniac – and John didn't use that word lightly these days having lived with Sherlock for nearly a year – could have the charade of a nice, family get-together. He had to get out of the car, but whatever he'd been dosed with seemed to be bringing back that old tremble to his hands as it left his system, and he found himself fumbling with the seatbelt buckle.
Sherlock undid his seatbelt for him and dragged him out of the back seat so quickly one would think the car was on fire.
'Happy Birthday,' called Mycroft, still coolly sat in the driver's seat.
'Oh, piss off, Mycroft,' Sherlock shouted back at his brother, ushering John towards the front door to the flat. 'Piss off and take your stupid kite with you.'
Mycroft waited until the door to 221b had slammed shut behind his brother before quietly replying 'it's your "stupid kite", Sherlock.'
He drove home in silence. Hopefully, Sherlock wouldn't be too angry to enjoy his new LP. He couldn't imagine that he would be. Sherlock was rarely in so foul a mood that he couldn't find delight in Benjamin Britten. He'd felt so terribly sentimental when he'd watched John Watson win that bid on eBay. That record was probably the nicest, most thoughtful Birthday present Sherlock had ever received. He wondered if John had been made aware of that. Probably not, knowing Sherlock.
He opened the door to the large town house that he shared with nobody save the odd plant here and there and a very occasional spider. Perhaps he too should get a housemate, he thought, or a pet at least.
He switched on his computer, plugged in his camera and fed photographic paper into the printer. He printed out the last photo of the three of them – him smiling and pink cheeked from the cold, Sherlock and John giggling with snow specked hair and dilated pupils. He cut out the photo carefully and went to fetch a small, silver photo album. He flicked through its pages, momentarily – Starting with 'London Aquarium, 2001', going through the Natural History Museum, the Tate, Stonehenge, and so on and so on as the years crept up and the two men in the photos – one smiling, one giggling with dilated pupils – got a little older every time. What a difference a year made, he thought as he stuck that day's photo in the first blank page. Now there were three men in the picture instead of only two. Who knew what the year ahead would bring. Perhaps next 6th of January there would be four people in the photo, or just two again. Or perhaps Sherlock wouldn't have a 37th Birthday to celebrate. Oh yes, that was a very real possibility. As was the possibility that next time, Sherlock simply wouldn't drink a cup of coffee that he knew full well had been drugged.
Still. They'd had a lovely day today. Just as they always did.
Mycroft neatly wrote 'Leeds Castle, 2011' underneath the photograph, and closed the album.