18: The Consul
If Henry Knight's house had contained myriad riches, Mycroft's flat was only countable in comparison. John had known Sherlock came from money, but he hadn't known his flatmate came from this much money – or at least had access to this much money. He couldn't help but shoot the taller man a quick glance, brows raised in surprise, but received only an eye-roll in exchange. The flat didn't impress Sherlock even half as much as it impressed John.
Sherlock's voice was shrapnel. "Quarter to nine, Mycroft. I do hope you don't mind that we're early. John thought it better than turning up late."
Why involve me in your digs at your brother? But he couldn't say that to Sherlock, and he didn't want Mycroft to think for an instant that he'd forgiven either of them for keeping Sherlock's survival a secret. Hands at his sides, carriage straight, he stayed silent, gazing over the diplomat's left shoulder towards a painting. A Stubbs, recognizable even to him from the giant, rampant horse, about to pounce on the right of the frame. An original, most likely, but he'd only recognized it from the National Gallery.
"John thought so, did he?" The balding man's focus drifted from his younger brother, and John felt himself tense. He'd have liked nothing better than to launch into a screaming fit at Mycroft, to dress down the older man for hiding Sherlock's whereabouts from him, but that would be unproductive. Mycroft was already talking, anyway: "And what else does John think?"
Sherlock's voice was sharp, full of reproach for the question. "Ask him. Not me."
Some small part of John was impressed by that. He'd half-expected to be the involuntary target of analysis and deduction again, to be the subject of dissection by both Holmes brothers, but Sherlock, at least, wasn't going to do that.
"No time. His thoughts are unimportant." Mycroft didn't even deign to glance over at John, who was left wondering why the older brother had even bothered to ask in the first place. But Mycroft's current focus was for his younger brother. "I was left a message, but I think it was meant for you as much as for me. It was a signal for me not to intervene in whatever concerns you." The slightest lift of brows, a signal that John couldn't quite parse. "And a spoken message, no less, but I'm more interested in what it didn't say than in what it did."
A nod from Sherlock, who stepped a few paces away from Mycroft to sink into the overly ornate Rococo chair in one corner of the room. There was a strange tension to the position he took in the armchair, primed to leap out of it and already defensive, even though Mycroft had said nothing untoward.
"What – what did the message say?" It was a sensible question, but, the moment that he asked it, John knew that it was distinctly unwelcome. Mycroft turned on him, his gaze blandly impassive but his mouth curling up in disgust; Sherlock sent him a more direct glare. Still, John saw no reason to retract the statement.
"It said that he was working for Moriarty. I knew as much from the message Sherlock sent."
Why did he feel the need to insist that he'd helped Mycroft figure out the message, to some extent? Despite himself, John couldn't resist: "Along with my answer to your text regarding the sweets."
"That as well," Mycroft admitted, although he didn't seem terribly invested in the confirmation. He stayed perched against the wall, umbrella propping himself up as if it would have been a genuine effort to stand otherwise. "Can I get you anything, John?"
"John doesn't want anything to drink," Sherlock replied for him. There had to be a reason the snappishness had cropped up, but at least it wasn't directed at John himself this time. Instead, all of Sherlock's venom seemed to be directed at his brother. John couldn't necessarily blame the detective. After all, Mycroft hadn't helped either of them, from the looks of things. He'd almost reveled in not helping.
Still, from the look on the diplomat's face, ready to launch into a tirade at the younger Holmes brother, John knew he should try to make peace. If matters between Mycroft and Sherlock devolved into an argument, they'd never get anywhere. Some part of him knew that this was what Moriarty wanted, to set everyone at loggerheads, and so he shook his head and tried to temper his tone into something that both of the other men would find reasonable.
"Sherlock – " But he only got the single word out before both sharp-featured faces turned towards him, and John drew in a breath, shaking his head. "Doesn't matter. Forget it. You two have your little confab. I'll be outside." He rolled his shoulders, shaking his head, and spun around.
He couldn't be sure at the moment which of them had requested his presence, but it didn't matter. Whichever one it was could just take a flying leap as far as he was concerned. Why were all of the self-proclaimed geniuses so bloody aggravating? Not smart enough to keep themselves from having slap-fights with one another, then. He shook his head, and stepped towards the door, but didn't make it far enough to exit before Sherlock was up and at his side, pulling on his jacket like a kid cousin at Adventure Island, trying to drag him off to another amusement down Southend Pier.
He sighed, shaking off Sherlock's hand. "Not unless you both talk civilly. First one that says something cross to one another, I'm off." He glanced past Sherlock towards Mycroft. "Agreed?" He almost didn't need to ask for Sherlock's input. Sherlock would do as he asked, or would at least try to do so. Whether Mycroft would also agree was a thornier issue.
Mycroft nodded silently, though he looked displeased at the arbitration, one corner of his lip curling up in disgust. John couldn't be sure whether the disgust was for Sherlock, himself, or both of them, but it didn't matter. He didn't need to ask. Running a hand over his face, he stepped back into the drawing room, wondering if there was a way to avoid stepping in the Oriental carpet. Everything in the flat had a 'look, but don't touch' air that he was more used to in museums than in homes. It was as if Mycroft never actually lived in the place, only kept it up as a showpiece, and yet Sherlock had sworn that Wilton Crescent was his main residence when in London.
"So." John waited until he had both of the others' attention. "You both know the problem. You both know how to avoid it. What's the next step?"
"No chance to properly discuss the issue," Mycroft muttered, shooting Sherlock what John knew instantly was a gaze of endurance. "Doesn't care about details, about intimations – only about the facts as far as he can see them. How do you live with it, Sherlock?"
John felt himself bristle. Mycroft had never liked him, but now he was trying to turn Sherlock against him as well. Some small part of John, buried deep down, knew it was possible to do. Appeal to Sherlock's sense of superiority and the detective would gladly join in.
"So I'm not up to par with you lot. Right, fine. Granted. But that doesn't mean that I'm wrong. We were supposed to have a discussion as to how we were going to proceed."
Mycroft chose to ignore him, but John couldn't say he was surprised by the diplomat's reaction. "Sherlock. Do you remember the Crown Equerry? The one to whom I introduced you when you chose to show up at Buckingham clad only in a sheet?" Disdain colored Mycroft's words; his hand rubbed on his suit a bit as if ridding it of the contagion of such a memory.
"Public school, non-smoker, dog-owner, children." John could almost hear the bullet points in Sherlock's words.
"What about his voice?" It was the tone of a schoolmaster calling on a student, not that of a caring brother speaking to his sibling.
"Accented." Sherlock thought for a moment, his brows drawing together as he blatantly attempted to recall the particulars. "It was at least a year ago." His gaze flicked up at John, doubtfully, and then back towards the suited man. "Not a Londoner. Scottish?"
"Welsh, Sherlock." Mycroft's voice was disapproving. "You could tell from the keening tone in his voice. But that's all right. You can't be expected to notice everything."
John stared hard at Mycroft for that, and Mycroft couldn't meet his eyes. No wonder Sherlock held himself to such an impossibly high standard with his observations, if his brother had always done the same. "What about him, Mycroft?"
"Well, John," Mycroft's voice was ice, "if you must know, he showed up in Pall Mall last night to meet me, as I had asked. Well, mostly as I had asked. He was missing a finger. And I think even you can deduce as to who has possession of the missing appendage. He was supposed to tell me that you were working for me, which means…"
"That he doesn't know Sherlock already alerted you," John replied. Both of them were staring at him in surprise now, before Mycroft's attention drifted to Sherlock, who shrugged wordlessly in reply. "Can we just get to the bloody point already?" The constant back-and-forth between the two brothers had been old the moment that he stepped into the flat, but by now it was positively ancient, and fallow as well. "What do we do next?"
"You? Nothing," Mycroft said pointedly. "You stay out of this. Sherlock got himself into trouble again, and it's his responsibility to solve it before it causes trouble for me – or trouble on a national scale." He picked up a newspaper, leafing through it. It would have been a clear gesture of dismissal even if Mycroft hadn't turned away from him as well, focusing all of his attention on Sherlock.
John would have spoken up, would have told Mycroft that the bureaucrat had no right to turn him away like that, not when he was here with Mycroft's brother, not when Sherlock had saved Mycroft's life – but something stopped him. He wasn't sure what it was, except a vague sense that saying that would sour things even more than they already were. He would be taking sides, and there was little doubt in his mind whose side he would take when the choice was between two Holmes brothers. Instead, he had to find some way to make them agree on something.
"Give me my wallet, Mycroft," Sherlock demanded, holding out a hand peremptorily. "You texted me and said that I could retrieve it."
Mycroft's smile was sharp and somewhat cruel. "Heaven knows why; there's not a pound in it."
"The fifty-pound notes – "
" – Have been reclaimed, since you saw fit to waste one. I see no need to throw money at an ingrate."
John sighed. He knew he shouldn't say what he was about to, but he couldn't hold it back. He'd kept his mouth shut and played along for far too long. He could hear his voice crack from the strain, but that didn't matter a jot at the moment. Besides, this could help. If they could move past their sniping at each other and focus, they'd be in better shape. If it took him being a pain to set them on the right course, then he'd do it. Sherlock owed him that much for putting up with his risen-from-the-dead show, and Mycroft owed him a world of tolerance for all the casual put-downs he'd had to endure for months.
"Both of you are ingrates! Sherlock, you shouldn't waste your brother's resources! Mycroft, your brother put himself in danger to save you! If you can't see that, with all your brilliant perceptions, then you're both idiots. And I am not going to be a party to your petty feuds. Sod off, both of you. Don't stop me this time, or you'll regret it, no matter which of you does."
As he left the flat, two thoughts occurred to him. First, that he wouldn't have been surprised if the Stubbs had crashed upon his head from one or the other of them, given their incensed stares, and secondly, that he hadn't even managed to last a full five minutes in the same room as the two of them.
It wasn't Sherlock who came to him first. That was a surprise. Once he'd exited the flat, he'd crossed the street to the park, to collect his thoughts while the brothers hashed things out, breathing in the lush summery air outside, instead of being stuck in the constricted, inexplicably claustrophobic confines of Mycroft's vast quarters. He didn't want to be around for the heated exchanges at best, and didn't want to imagine what would be worst. So by the time he'd rounded the garden once, he looked up at the quick footsteps heading his way, expecting to see Sherlock. But no, he could see Sherlock heading out of Wilton Crescent, and fought the urge to follow him upon spotting Mycroft heading his way. "John. A moment of your time?"
"What do you want, Mycroft?" He was feeling less than charitable at the moment.
"Sherlock asked me to inform you. I think he thinks that he's gotten one over on me by asking me to lower myself to this." Mycroft shook his head. "It wasn't worth the fight." For a moment, John felt like he could understand why Mycroft reacted to Sherlock the way he did. That feeling of not having the energy to respond to Sherlock's barbs was quite familiar. But before he could express that to the diplomat, the other man continued. "I want you to do something for me."
John scoffed. "Paying me to watch him again? I wasn't interested. I'm still not. Sherlock suggested back then that I should've said yes and taken the money, but…"
"Ethics. I understand." Whether Mycroft agreed, however, was another matter. The balding man's voice was free of any more emotion. It frustrated John, as it usually did, but Mycroft had a message to impart to him, from the way that he was leaning forward on his umbrella and gazing avidly at John. John saw no reason to interrupt merely to point out that Mycroft was cold as usual. "Sherlock has told me that the two of you have decided to take this on by yourselves. I've agreed to that, much against my own better judgment."
Had Sherlock and he actually decided that? John stared past Mycroft at the rich denizens of the Crescent passing them in the street-lit background, but could no longer see Sherlock in their number. He must have already headed away, as eager to be out of his brother's company as Mycroft was to be rid of them both. But here Mycroft was stuck talking to him, and waiting for a reply, so John simply nodded in agreement. If there were details to the matter that he would have to sort out, he'd sort them on his own time, with Sherlock, rather than antagonize Mycroft tonight.
"Oliver – the Crown Equerry – will be taken care of. But I would like you to tell Sherlock that if whatever he has planned places me in a compromised position, I will not hesitate to revoke all of the privileges I give him. He will well and truly be on his own."
John felt his mouth go dry. "You're already compromised, Mycroft. That's why he left you the message."
Mycroft's words were as precise as the ironwork on the park around them. "Only regarding bodily harm." And, with that, Mycroft smiled his best politician's smile. "Do consider what I've said, John. I trust you'll act in my brother's best interest."
More than you might, and definitely more than you have already. But John kept silent, nodding. Mycroft was used to talking to a statue of an army captain by now.
Without another word, Mycroft left John's side, strolling across the finely manicured lawn to reenter his flat. John stood there for a moment, staring, wondering what had prompted Mycroft to suddenly take him into his confidences. He wasn't certain what it had been, but he was entirely certain that Sherlock Holmes could in no way convince his brother to seek assistance from anyone.
He should have asked Mycroft what made him think that things would turn political, but some small part of him said that he already knew. Moriarty had gone after the personal attendant of the Crown in an effort to get a message first to Mycroft, and then of course to Sherlock, and though John had never been much for Royal gossip, he would have to make a special effort to check the tabloids tomorrow.