Original Story Title: honey-bees, come build in the empty house
Original Story Link: http://wreathsandbells.livejournal.com/33932.html
Original Story Pairings: John/Sherlock
Original Story Rating: G
Original Story Warnings: None
Remix Story Title: The Bee Master’s Pattern
Remix Author: tazlet
Remix Beta: tryfanstone, megankent
Remix Britpicker: tryfanstone
Remix Story Pairings: John/Sherlock
Remix Story Rating: PG13
Remix Story Warnings: None
"The Bee Master’s Pattern"
When John consulted the man at the station, he’d been warned that weather was coming. But the guide book, right there in his hand, said that it was a pleasant walk, and the feathery white mare’s tails on the horizon had been far to the south.
He hadn’t thought to ask from what direction the expected weather would come and, after an hour, wind-blown dirt was stinging his face. In front of him a thick grey blanket of clouds was rolling in from the west, cutting off the high blue sky, and somebody had swapped a bloody sack of bricks for his light backpack. Since he was alone, he could admit that he’d overestimated his strength; his leg hurt like hell, but it would have been further to turn around than to go on.
Another half-hour’s painful walking took him past the Manor gate. It was open and rusty with weeds growing up beneath the bottom rail and encroaching on the unpaved drive. There would have been no point in going in; the letter that had arrived with the key to the cottage had said that there’d be no one home. In any event, he didn’t feel there was any real need to say thank you.
One more painful, circuitous mile brought him to the turn off to a narrow track that went up and over and, finally, there was Bee Hive Cottage with its back to the humps. Despite the charming name, it merely looked bleak with its weatherboard sides and shuttered windows, staring blindly out to sea.
He got the door open, as the rain arrived sideways.
Older than the manor in its core, the cottage was two up and two down with fireplaces in every room. The kitchen and bath had been additions in 1920’s and, at least, there were night-storage heaters. Thank God the electric was on; he wasn’t up to building a fire.
He’d known it would be furnished, but what a mishmash of vernacular, cast-offs from the manor, and whatever other tenants had seen fit to leave behind. The plain table and chairs in the kitchen were all right, but there was a hard-wood settle that looked uncomfortable as hell, although, he wouldn’t have been surprised to find it worth a small fortune on Roadshow. He was grateful there was one comfortable arm chair. As for the bed, it looked like iron-framed war surplus, and he had to brush the striped ticking off before he could spread his sleeping bag on top of it. The springs complained every time he rolled over.
Next morning, he stepped on a black beetle in the bath, and almost called the whole thing off. Adding insult, there was nothing to eat in the kitchen and heaven only knew how long the teabags had been sitting on the shelf. He had to rinse out the kettle, and dump a layer of dry brown frass out of every one of the set of blue china cups.
Only when it couldn’t be avoided any longer, he opened the front door and went out. The air had been washed clean and clear, and that convinced him the first thing to do to make the place habitable was to let some light in. Butterflies went fluttering out of the tall grass, as he walked around opening shutters.
Then there was the barn, and the shed behind it, to explore. He found the mower, but the petrol can was empty. The farm car’s battery was dead. It was obvious, when he opened the bonnet, that something had been keeping house in it. That made his second task cleaning the accumulation of hulls, seeds and fluff out the engine-well.
Mid-morning, a transit van brought the boxes with his bits of gear, and all of the books that Mycroft hadn’t wanted, and he caught a ride with the driver back into Exmouth.
In his pocket was a list of things that you don’t give more than a passing toss about in town: pillows, mattress covers, Fairy Soap, salad cream, a toaster…all the comforts Mrs. Hudson had provided, convinced that the two them would starve to death in rancid squalor, if it had been left to him and…
The driver, Neal, advised him that Mrs. Baker, the ‘widow owns the farm three miles over,’ was already expecting him to come to her for milk, butter and eggs. And she did good cheese. He was a medical doctor, wasn’t he? Too bad. What that one wanted was a vet. But then you’re one of a sort, aren’t you?
Ex-serviceman, that is.
Yes. He got it.
Ridiculous to resent it, considering what had been all over the front pages.
In Exmouth, he arranged for BT to come out, talked to a mechanic, had lunch at a cyber-café, and sent an e-mail to Lestrade: Send SAS Survival Handbook yesterday.
That afternoon, after hitching home with the grocer, he managed an acceptable tea of cream crackers, cheese and pickle. Doing the washing up after, he could see birds outside the kitchen window flying into the eaves of the barn with bits of grass and twigs in their beaks. Some of them had dark glossy heads, and some of them were speckled brown. He wondered what kind they were; there’d be a book in one of the boxes with a green cloth cover…
John had been staring at the tops of cars passing down on the street, when Mycroft had said, “Do you know anything about birds?”
The two of them had been sharing the task of cleaning out the bottom shelves of the bookcases. Most of it had been the kind of thing your mother kept because your great-great uncles’ bookplate was still glued to the endpaper; deadly beyond dreary, Mycroft had gone through all of it, commenting.
John had given a perfunctory no to the question about birds; adding “Fish got to swim, and birds got to fly.”
Mycroft had looked pained.
“Well, here’s British Birds,” he’d said, rather waspishly, dropping the book on the pile to come down. “You’ll want that, as well…”
That evening John had opened boxes. After putting his own things away, making up the bed, and spreading the plaid rug on the easy chair, he sat down to see what other interesting items Mycroft had lumbered him with.
There were volumes on history, historic murderers—Jack the ripper—someone, with a spikey hand, had glossed Idiot! over and over in the margins—famous poisoners, poisons, tobacco, forensics, cyphers, medicine—A Modern Persecution, or Insane Asylums Unveiled—religion, law, animal husbandry, apiary—a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen—everything but astronomy. It looked like the harvest of an insatiably literal and restless mind…a hundred years ago. None of it was going to be the least bit useful, but he shelved the lot and broke down the boxes.
The next week he spent getting the car running, and learning to manage the mower. The work was exhausting, at first, but he found falling asleep difficult; the bedsprings squealed; moths knocked at the windows; he missed the whirring commotion of city lights and cars.
Thursday, he woke from a fading dream, piss-proud, and feeling restless.
Considering Neal’s snigger, he drove over after breakfast to see what the Widow Baker was all about.
She was about being blonde and attractive, but whatever he imagined might happen, wasn’t going to, because Mrs. Baker had a way of making it perfectly clear without saying a word, looking right over his head, that she didn’t need anything from him, but his money, which he could put through the letter box; she’d leave the milk and cheese in a crate by his drive.
On the way home, he’d pounded his fist on the steering wheel until it hurt.
Home, still feeling like an ass, he fixed tea and sat down to drink it in the easy chair. Then, after days of silence, the phone rang. The shrillness ripped him apart and, next thing, there was a brown stain on the daffodil wall. One of the little china cups lay shattered on the floor; he couldn’t recall throwing it.
Two weeks later, though, he felt as if he were getting things in hand. He’d learned to recognize a few neighbors to wave at when their cars passed. The grounds had been mowed and trimmed. While working, he’d noticed a profusion of wildflowers covering the whale-backed hills, and growing along the road beds, and he’d begun to sense the deeper background hum of unseen living things.
It was hardly going to be an exciting life, but he had known going in, and, at least, he wasn’t entirely cut off from civilization: there was internet. Lestrade emailed Congratulations on bending British Telecom to your will. Seriously, so you still want that book?
One day he heard high-pitched cheeping in the eaves; the racket became constant. He discovered it was wise to pay attention when the air was heavy, and the adult birds were in a frenzy, carrying grubs and worms to the cracks in the masonry. It meant a storm was coming.
It was one of those leaden afternoons that Emma Baker called to tell him that his bees were making a nuisance of themselves.
His bees? He’d seen the hives on the edge of the property, but with most of the land, except for the parcel on which the manor and his little keeper’s cottage stood, being deeded to the National Trust…
Since when were they his bees?
Since the day he moved in; why else did he think it was called Bee Hive Cottage?
Well what was he supposed to do about it?
“Call Dick Yeardley,” Mrs. Baker finally snapped. “He’s the swarm collector.”
He made the call, and fired an angry email at Mycroft: Bees?! No!
In return, he got: It’s in the lease, Doctor. Have you been drinking? Read the book.
He looked at the book, found the language impenetrable, and stormed out to glower at the hives. He took a cup of tea with him.
The ten white stacks that sat out of the wind at the foot of the humps reminded him of nothing so much as dilapidated council housing. And some of the inhabitants shared the same entrenched suspicion of strangers.
Bees came straight for him, even though he was just standing there. They were curious about the sugar in his cup, but he hadn’t known that then, and it was unnerving having them zipping around his head and his hands. One landed on his wrist; without thinking, he swatted it. It flew into his cup, buzzed hysterically, and then curled up and died. He couldn’t make himself stop staring at the tiny golden-brown body, until pain announced itself like a match-head burning on his palm.
He ran back to the cottage for tweezers to pull the barb, but the only thing he had with which to treat the welt was bicarbonate of soda. His hand swelled to twice its normal size. It was a shock that first sting. He spent the night drinking; tears and snot ran down his face; rain poured down outside. And, early the next morning, hung-over, he’d gotten up to meet the swarm collector under the crabapple tree in Mrs. Baker’s yard.
Her problem was obvious: bees, thousand, were massed in a dense fizzing brown bolster around one of the tree’s lower limbs.
John was appalled, but Yeardley, who had to be in his 70s, just sprayed the whole clump with sugar water and knocked it into a mesh sided box with a rake handle. It took the old man less than half an hour to round them up, working bareheaded and barehanded the whole time.
When he was done, Mrs. Baker, who had stayed inside her screened porch, said, “Good job, boys,” and invited them both for breakfast.
The only thing he’d done was stand around, nursing his swollen hand, but John heard himself say yes; he was sick of his own cooking.
They had talked about bees. Emma Baker had a keen interest; she ran a farm; she was allergic. But to Yeardley, whose family ran the meadery in Exmouth, they had been a life-long obsession, and John learned that such swarming was more than likely at that time of year, if bees weren’t managed. That batch had simply outgrown their hive and flown off in search of new accommodations. It wasn’t likely they’d have stung anyone who didn’t attack them first…
Attack? You mean like swatting them?
Exactly swatting them; fast little buggers. And what did he want to do with that swarm? Sell it?
Could he do that?
Yes. Or establish another hive. And all of the hives would need to be checked; they might be ready to abscond, as well.
By then, John had read the lease: the bees, ten hives of them, were the historic responsibility of the cottage. There was nothing for it, but to arrange for Yeardley to bring his lost girls home, along with a new hive.
John spent the rest of the morning, and early afternoon, on the British Bee Keeper’s Association website and, by the time Yeardley drove up with the errant swarm, and a bill for services rendered, he had a head full of new words—propolis, royal jelly, worker, drone, super, deep… He’d grasped that the deep was the part of the hive where the bees raised their brood, and that supers were the penthouses on top of it for honeycomb.
When they went out to ‘hive’ the swarm together, Yeardley carried a new deep, along with his bag of tools. John toted the swarm, hoping they hadn’t heard about the wanton murder of their fellow. He knew it was his imagination, but the constant droning from the box was intimidating; it felt personal; he wished he had a pair of gloves that would fit over his swollen hand.
“We’ll give them a little something to eat, until they settle down and start making their own food,” Yeardley had said, and poured a bowlful of clear syrup and set it inside the super. “They’re won’t be the least bit interested in us, unless they feel threatened, or we’re setting to rob them. Then they get a little testy, and who’s to blame them? Come on, I’ll show you how to smoke them.”
Yeardley loosened the lids of the other hives with small crow-bar, shooting in puffs of smoke from his smoker. The bees fled, letting him check the brood frames. Except for the one that had already swarmed, they were all crawling with excited bees.
“Just waiting for their visas to be stamped,” Yeardley said, as he closed the closed the last deep. “Like to try a taste?”
“Why not?” John said. After all, it was only honey.
Yeardley opened the top super and lifted out a frame filled with glistening honeycomb. “Good flow,” he approved, prizing out a glistening chunk with the tip of his knife. He handed it to John.
That first taste was much of a shock as the sting had been. He hadn’t known honey could taste like sunshine, and wind, and meadowsweet, and white clover, and there was a hint of bitterness in it at the back of his tongue. That hint of contrast spoke more clearly than anything could have to the labor that had made it, and the challenge of harvesting it. It did the impossible; it caught John’s attention.
His research had already told him that there were courses on-line that he could take for bee-keeper’s certificates. Would Yeardley sign off on the set questions…?
John started working on them immediately and, when he mentioned his new hobby to Lestrade, Lestrade had written back, Send me some? He replied, Pooh!
His evening hours became filled with study. It turned that out most of the equipment he needed was already stored in the shed behind the barn; it only required cleaning. All he had to buy were a white suit and a silly hat with a veil.
But a bee’s multi-faceted eyes bees see vertical things, such as flowers, easily. And they see things in motion, like a hand flailing at a bee trapped in the veiling of a silly hat, much more quickly than a human ever can. The second sting felt like a hammer blow to the side of his head, with a nail in the head of the hammer.
He learned that the life of a bee—whether queen, worker, or drone—is prescribed from birth to death. Honeybees are incredibly fastidious and mild creatures, unless the brood or queen is threatened, then they will bravely sacrifice their lives to defend them. He caught himself thinking that Sherlock would have approved of bees without ever feeling the least need to emulate them. The sudden pain of that thought was almost as bad as the second sting had been.
As a doctor, he began became curious about honey, discovering that it was full of anti-oxidants, amino acids, and vitamins. He started using it in his tea, instead of sugar.
He developed respect for his industrious little pollinators and deep affection for their cousins, the solitary bumblebees, who kept him company on the days he mowed. He reset the blade to encourage the flowering cover they preferred, and joined the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust.
One evening, when he was drinking from one of the blue cups, he recognized the picture printed inside: two men in front of a cottage, similar to Bee Hive Cottage, and they were carrying an old fashioned woven bee hive. He looked up the pattern, and discovered it was called ‘The Bee Master.’
Shortly after that, he discovered that you’ll never get propolis off of your pants, no matter how many times you wash them.
In June, he started planning a bee garden, to be ringed with stones, on the side of the cottage that got most sun. He began setting lavender. There was a long, hand-written letter from Mrs. Hudson, who was seeing a psychic because, as she said, she kept sensing a presence… Vaguely, John recalled something horrible about elasticized liver, and wrote back, suggesting she check the refrigerator in the basement flat…there might have been something left.
She’d written back: Oh, isn’t that just like him.
In July, with a little more time on his hands, he attended his first meeting of the Sussex Beekers.
In August, he had Lestrade for a week, feeling sorry for himself. It hadn’t worked out with Molly, and Lestrade was inclined to blub about it on a camp bed in front of the fireplace. Fortunately Emma Baker came by looking for a lost sheep, John introduced the two of them, and something clicked. There was less of Lestrade after that.
In September, he bottled his first honey.
In October, he prepped the hives for winter, and was awarded his last certificate. He was a certified bee master.
In late November, it was lonely without the bees, and Lestrade threatened to come back down. He emailed: Don’t use me for an excuse! and started working part-time at a clinic in Exmouth.
At Christmas, there was a box of cookies, a muffler, and another long letter from Mrs. Hudson. She thanked him for the honey, and said that the presence had finally been dispelled. Lestrade sent a book about the history of bee keeping. In the section on the mythology of bees, he learned that bees were a symbol of immortality and resurrection. And that you must tell the bees everything that goes in the house.
That January and February, it was extraordinarily cold.
On the first reasonably warm day, when he went out to check hives, he found the ones furthest from the protection of the hill suspiciously quiet. Pulling off the lid, he discovered bees starved and frozen in the empty honey cells where they’d died trying to scavenge the last scrap of food. When enough of the workers died, there weren’t enough to keep the queen and colony alive. He’d lost half of his hives.
He apologized profoundly to the survivors and started the empty hives over with mail-order bees. He began paying closer attention to articles on bee health, conning the alternative literature, and, after talking it over with Yeardley, installed a Warré hive in the bee garden.
Yeardley wasn’t crazy about newfangled things and, for Yeardley, newfangled was anything less than a hundred years old. John pointed out that people had been doing similar in Japan since the Edo period, and got an even terser comment about foreign doings…along with the acknowledgement that, on consideration, it might be worth a try.
The bees took to the new hive. They started building free-form combs in the super. By August the stack was four deep.
That September, his local Beekers sponsored a honey fest on the grounds of one of the larger farms outside of Exmouth. On a whim, he entered three jars of honey from the Warré hive, and won a second place medal.
When he was leaving the barn after the judging, carrying his silver medal and a bag of apples, he passed a picnic table by the door. The couple sitting there were patients of his at the clinic. He stopped to say hello, accepting congratulation on his win. There was a radio on the table. The BBC announcer said something about the death of another Iranian physicist. Another Iranian physicist? He hadn’t heard about a first one. With a shock, he realized that, even though he had the internet in the cottage, he browsed it the way a bee browses for flowers, going only to the sites that interested him.
Before heading home, he stopped at a shop in Exmouth and bought a radio that could pick up shortwave.
When got home, there was a brand new Range Rover with Government plates in the drive. A uniformed driver was leaning against the bonnet, reading a newspaper. White on red headlines said Showdown Looms?
The name plate on the driver’s uniform said Swinburne, and he smiled affably as John stomped past. “Nice day.” There was a cup and saucer from the blue set, standing on the bonnet, and a serviette underneath to protect the car’s glossy finish.
The rest of John’s tea things were out on a painted tray, the wrapping from his last pack of digestive biscuits was crumpled in the trash, and, of course Mycroft had taken the one comfortable chair.
“Shall I tug my forelock?” John said, hanging his coat on the door peg.
“I’ve always been a respecter of tradition, but suit yourself,” Mycroft said. He was swirling a healthy glop of honey into a teacup. When he lifted it, he closed his eyes to drink in the aroma before sipping. “I’m so glad you got some use out of those old books. This is my third cup.”
“Not so much. No.”
“But,” Mycroft’s brows contracted, “you’ve kept busy, you’ve learned about our local birds…”
“They’re starlings, Mycroft. In some places they’re considered pests. What are you doing here?”
“I’m visiting my late brother’s dear friend. I wanted to see how you’re getting on.”
“Mycroft, you didn’t come down here to see how I’m getting on.”
“In part I did. Have you always been this suspicious?”
“You’ve given me reason.”
Mycroft finished his tea, and finally said, “You’re a very fortunate man, John. But, I have to say, that I was hurt when you sent three jars of honey to Lestrade. Not even one for me? I hear you win prizes.”
“Tell you what; I’ll give you a jar to take with you when you go. Do you think Sergeant Swinburne would like one, as well?”
“I’m sure he would,” Mycroft said. “You know I could almost see myself doing this, when I retire. Apis Mellifera is the only honeybee kept by English beekeepers. Amazing, when you consider.”
“By the way, weren’t there four cups in this set?”
“No. Only three.”
When they’d gone, and he was cleaning up, the cup that Mycroft had drunk from accidently fell in the sink. It was too bad, but at least he didn’t have to wash it. He almost called a locksmith; then realized changing the locks would be a futile gesture, at best.
He dreamed that night.
He’d had dreams like it before, most frequently in the months after he’d gotten out of the military hospital. They had always been a series of discrete scenes, like a silent movie trailer. First there were trucks in the road with their canvas panels flapping behind them. There were white tipped mountains in the distance against a leaden sky. Then there would be a bright ball of flame.
He was always running in those dreams. Bending over broken bodies. Working frantically. Sometimes there would be a hand clinging to his. There was always bright red blood.
This time was different.
This time the dream featured a slender figure standing on the edge of a building with the skirts of a black coat fluttering against a grey sky. Then there was a body sprawled and broken on the wet flagging below. John saw himself running; bike careening into him. He felt himself strike the pavement. He rolled over, staggered to his feet, and fought his way through the crowd to seize hold of a still-warm hand.
He clung as hard as he could, but they’d been pulled apart as the body was lifted onto a gurney and trundled down the road.
The crowd melted away, and the only thing left was blood pooled on grey stone.
John woke with sheets damp from sweat, staring at his hand. He could still feel the grip of those fingers. Dead fingers don’t clutch.
Flickering and fleeting is how a bee sees the world. He picked up his morning cup, went out and told them all about it.
“I laid it out for Ella, step by step. The phone call. The apology. The flailing arms. It was five stories! No one could possibly survive a fall from that height.” But dead fingers don’t clutch.
But dead fingers don’t clutch.
That evening, on impulse, he called Lestrade and invited him down for the second weekend in October.
The two of them got drunk at the kitchen table on a bottle of Yeardley mead and the subject of relationships came up: why do they fail?
They agreed that it was because people aren’t honest. But is total honesty necessarily a good thing? They agreed that it should be. But what about certain truths like ‘I’m having an affair,’ or ‘I can’t leave my wife.’ Or ‘You’re an ice-cold manipulating bastard!’ Truths that don’t do any real harm, but might make another person feel bad. Maybe those are best kept to yourself. And, certainly, there are truths that can kill. What kind of truths kill? State Secrets. Objectively, State Secrets are more important than hurt feelings. Shouldn’t tell those. Definitely keep your lip zipped. But what about big honking paradigm-shifting truths that make you question the very nature of reality itself? Like Bush organized 9/11! Yes! No! Wait! Have you gone spare? Like the concept of matter/anti-matter. If you mean a man can be in two places at the same time—that's not a truth, that’s a theory. But reality is only a theory we all agree on! Isn’t it…?
They’d both started laughing, and fallen quiet. Reaching out to refill the glasses, it occurred to John that it was actually strange to find they were smiling companionably at each other. Because one truth was that the two of them had one thing only in common, and they hadn’t agreed about that.
Lestrade gave a cheeky grin, and John recalled a line from a cheesy country and western song You’re not my type, but I guess you’ll do.
And, yes, there was some fumbled groping, later, but the hangover had been ferocious, and the next day Lestrade had gone to see Emma.
Maybe reality was only a shared delusion, but he started leaving the radio on—for the classical music, and the news.
He started dreaming more and, sometimes, when he woke with wet sheets, it wasn’t because of a nightmare.
There was no moon the night the first autumnal storm blew in. It was rain, more rain, gusts of wind, and spates of thunder and lightning. He put a space heater by his desk, and spent the evening setting up the schedule for winterizing the hives, and listening to the World Service report a chain of terrorist cells had been broken up in the mid-east.
It had seemed like the storm was moving off when the power went out. Since there was never any knowing how long it would be before it would be restored, he folded the laptop and got up to get the battery lantern from under the kitchen sink.
It was the penultimate flash of lightning, white and black, that disclosed the man standing out by the bee garden.
As the slow rumbling trailed away, he knew he hadn’t imagined it. That was another legacy of the war; the hair on the back of his neck was bristling.
He backed into the kitchen, and found the LED torch in the drawer where he kept it on purpose near the back door.
He slipped outside, ran to the corner of the house, and pointed his head around. One last flash showed him that the figure hadn’t moved.
Stepping around, he called out in a sentry’s voice, “Oi! Who’s there?” and turned on the beam.
“Hello, John,” said Sherlock Holmes.
Rain was dripping from short spikes of flattened hair, and the face was thinner. But there were the same high forehead, and the same eyes: pale grey, and as clear as glass.
“So Moriarty was telling the truth, after all; the key-code was real.” John said.
He didn’t expect an answer; Sherlock didn’t disappoint him.
They stared at each other, getting wetter, until John said, “You want to come in for a cuppa, then?”
Neither of them moved.
“The torch, John,” Sherlock, finally, said.
“What about it?”
“You’re blinding me.” The pupils of Sherlock’s eyes had shrunk to pinpoints.
“Sorry.” John flicked off of the light. “That’s right; you said you’d like some tea.”
Inside, he shut the door, and flicked the switch up and down before remembering what a useless exercise it was. In the dark, it was deeply disturbing to smell wet cedar bracken and boiled wool and, underneath those odors, one that he’d known so intimately for such a brief time.
“Stay where you are,” he said, “I’ve rearranged the furniture.” Half way to the sink, he recalled that the torch was still in his hand, and turned it on. “Sorry,” he said. “Don’t know where I’ll put my head next.”
He got out the battery lantern and set it up on the table. The thing cast a harsh circle of white light. While he put the kettle on, and measured tea, Sherlock took off the black pea coat he was wearing and hung it up on the back of the door.
Even outside the circle of light, John could see that he was holding his arm more stiffly than before.
“For God’s sake,” he said, “sit down.”
“I came across the fields; I’m soaking wet.”
“You should have called, I would have driven.”
“I wanted to see you as soon as possible.”
The teacup in John’s hand fell and shattered. Suddenly he was freezing. His knees folded. He sat down on one of the chairs, and shook.
Sherlock started cleaning up the mess.
“Don’t,” John said. “Touch of shock. Fine in a tic.”
Sherlock ignored him, sweeping up the shards of china. He then filled a coffee mug with tea, setting it in front of John.
“The Englishman’s panacea,” John said, “hot tea and honey. Sugar for shock.”
“Drink it. You’re babbling.”
He tried. But, when he picked up the mug, his hand was shaking so badly that tea slopped over and burned his fingers. He set it down with a thump. “Sorry.”
Sherlock went to his knees on the floor beside him. He wrapped his fingers around John’s, and helped him lift it to his mouth.
John got half of it down, and then said, “I’ve got it,” and Sherlock let go.
He put the mug down, and concentrated on breathing. After a bit, he realized that his already damp corduroys were getting damper; Sherlock was lying cross his lap with his head on his knees. John gave the rough velvet head a clumsy pat. “Snakes and Ladders,” he said.
“Toss me on my ear,” Sherlock said. “Do anything you like, but don’t be cryptic.”
“D-didn’t you play it with…no, of course you d-didn’t. Where you throw a die and m-move a marker. If you land on a square at the bottom of a ladder, you can go up. If you land on a snake’s head, you slide down, and s-start over. Whoever gets to the end first, wins.”
“The snake doesn’t bite you?”
“No. If the snake bit you, you’d be dead. You can’t start over when you’re dead.”
“Not if the snake wasn’t poisonous.”
“I don’t’ get it.”
“You don’t get it, because it’s fun. This hasn’t been fun. Tell me it was worth it.”
“I can’t.” The arms around John’s thighs tightened. “I don’t know.”
“Tell me you believe it was worth it.”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s all right then,” he said.
“Can we go to bed?” Sherlock sighed. “I’m so tired. I’ll tell you everything I can in the morning.”
“Long as you understand this isn’t over.”
“Yes, Da.” Sherlock got up, pulling John with him. “Spank me tomorrow.”
“Don’t tempt me,” John said, picking up the lantern.
He carried it upstairs, and put it on the nightstand.
They undressed in the shadows, and climbed into bed naked. Sherlock fit his body to John’s and fell asleep as if he’d never been gone; it took John longer. The body against him felt too thin and hard. Close physical intimacy was a thing he was no longer used to. When he did fall asleep, though, he wasn’t aware of the springs squeaking once.
He woke to pale sunlight and someone’s breathing tickling his forehead. The power had come back on; the room was warm.
He must have moved; Sherlock sighed in his sleep, and turned on his back. John levered himself to an elbow, and took the opportunity to look over how pitifully thin he’d become. The scars on his chest and shoulder were several months old; probably caused by shell fragments. The angry red color would fade in time.
Nature, and his professional instincts, forced him out of bed. After making use of the loo, he dressed himself in yesterday’s clothes, and went downstairs.
Happily, he’d done a shop earlier in the week, and there was a fresh loaf. While the tea steeped, he made toast, slathering slices with butter as they popped. When he’d done half the loaf, he added a honey pot to the tray and took it up to the bedroom. Sherlock was sitting up.
“Start with this,” John said, putting it on the nightstand. “I’ll fry up some bacon and eggs in a bit. Remind me to check that shoulder, later.”
He turned to go; Sherlock looked up from reaching for a mug.
“You’re not staying?”
“I have to go check the hives.” It wasn’t true, but it was a good excuse; he took the last cup from the Bee Master set out with him.
There was still frost in the shadows of the humps, but the sun was drying the grass and bees were launching themselves off on cleansing flights.
“You know what they say about being careful what you ask for?” he said, out loud. “I asked him not to be dead. Now, what am I supposed to do?”
He listened for the oracle, but the bees were silent. What he heard was Sherlock coming up behind him, and he didn’t bother turning around.
“John, are you all right?”
“No. No, I’m not. How do I even know it’s you standing there? I saw you fall, remember? That was smart, by the way, how could I doubt what I’d seen with my own eyes?”
“John,” Sherlock’s voice sounded young and lost. “People were watching. A combat physician, of all people, should know the difference between a living man, and a dead one.”
“So even my therapist was compromised.”
“You had to be convinced, if you were going to be convincing.
“I get it. What you mean is that no matter how much you want me, what Mycroft wants always comes first.”
“No. The assurance of your safety was Mycroft’s part of the bargain.”
“You can’t stand each other, but I’m the one that gets benched. You have any idea how that feels?”
“No. But Mycroft…is Mycroft. Until that changes…”
“I get it! At least apologize for knocking me down in the road.”
“I told you to stay where you were.”
“You might have been killed! And, if you had, I…” It sounded as if Sherlock weren’t sure what should come next. “And I…”
“I couldn’t have borne it.”
John’s hand shot to his mouth. It felt like ice cracking inside.
“Is that how it works? I can’t change, John”
“But I have!”
John rounded on Sherlock to tell him how much he had changed. He meant tell him to go back London, and get the hell out of the life that John had made without him…
Sherlock was standing barefoot in the wet grass, wearing a blanket like a toga.
All John could think to say was, “You’re going to freeze your feet.”
Sherlock looked so much as he had the day they’d gone to Buckingham Palace, with Sherlock in a sheet, and filched one of HMQ’s ashtrays. In fact, John still had the ashtray. It was in the sitting room next to his laptop, full of ashes; surprising Mycroft had never confiscated it.
Sherlock finished the toast, and began to lick the honey that had dripped down his wrist.
“Are you out of your mind?” John said. A scout had already buzzed over his shoulder.
“Sorry. I’m hungry,” Sherlock said, catching the look on John’s face. “And my clothes are still wet.”
“Move!” he shouted. “Get moving! Go! Do you want to get stung?”
Like a sheepdog, he herded Sherlock back into the house, up the stairs, and back under the covers. Throwing himself on top, he said, “I should have taken Mycroft out and shown him the hives.”
“Mycroft was here?” Sherlock sounded surprised.
“In September. Pass that over,” John said, reaching for the plate of buttered toast.
“Interesting,” Sherlock said, taking another piece before, passing the plate. “He hates it here.”
“Really? He told me he thought he might like to keep bees, someday.”
“When pigs fly!” For a while the only sound was two men eating. Finally, when most of the toast was gone, Sherlock started eating honey from the pot with a spoon. “Still mad?” he said.
John considered the question. The anger was still there, but underneath it was a tiny bright feeling that he recognized. “Give me time,” he said.
“We can stay here for a while, if you’d like.”
“I would. Fatten you up. Not sure if I like having a coat rack cuddling up to me.”
“This is good. Is there more?” Sherlock said, sucking on the spoon. “Anyway we’re going to have to work out how to explain me being alive to Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade.”
“Don’t worry,” John said. “Neither one of them is convinced you’re really dead.”
Sherlock shook his head. “Impossible.”
John shrugged and reached across Sherlock’s stomach for the last butter-soaked slice of toast. He concentrated on chewing until Sherlock nudged him. “Go on.”
“What you were saying about Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade.”
“Oh, sorry. Mrs. Hudson kept having dreams. She consulted a professional psychic, who told her that he could sense your spirit hovering outside a monastery in Tibet.” John twiddled two fingers in front of Sherlock’s nose. “Mrs. H took it to mean you were alive. I don’t think that’s what he meant, but each to their own.”
Sherlock smirked. “What did Lestrade consult…his Magic 8 Ball?”
“No. We were drinking and he asked me if I thought you were capable of faking your own death and I had to say that, if anybody was, it was you.”
“Well, yes, but what made him ask?”
“He noticed that Molly had on a pink blouse at the funeral.”
“And a black skirt, and a black hat with netting. Very proper.”
“Exactly! But when he called her a few weeks later…wait a minute, you went to your own funeral!”
“It might be the only chance I’ll ever have. I was the bearded old book dealer at the back.” The spoon was scraping the bottom of the pot. “Go on, you were saying…why did Lestrade call Molly?”
“To comfort her.”
“For your information Lestrade is very good at comforting people.”
The sound of metal scraping glass halted. With an eyebrow rising slowly, Sherlock looked hard at John.
“I don’t think I like where this going,” he said.
“Women,” John said. “He’s very good comforting women.”
“I’m sure.” There was still a suspicious squint in Sherlock’s eyes. “I’m still waiting for the big revelation.”
“When he asked her out to dinner, she wore a green dress.”
Sherlock transferred the squint to an old mezzotint of Chinese Gordon, hanging on the wall over the fireplace. It was badly foxed, but John had never bothered taking it down. There was more spoon-sucking. Finally he said, “That makes no sense, whatsoever.”
“Really? You wouldn’t find it the least bit odd that a highly romantic female pathologist, who has just performed an autopsy on a man with whom she has been hopelessly in love for years, doesn’t even appear to be mourning him?”
A look of perfect disgust came over Sherlock’s face. “Because Molly Hooper wore a green dress?”
“It’s not a color that screams heartbreak,” John pointed out. “Lestrade said that he’d almost have thought you hadn’t died.”
Sherlock drew his head back, like a turtle retreating to its shell.
“Neither you, nor Mycroft, saw that coming did you? Don’t worry; he didn’t follow up on it, and I’m only saying it because no one listens to old ladies who get their cards read, but even you have to admit that Lestrade’s actually good at his job, and if he’d wanted to make a fuss…”
“Oh, for…No! I do not! That’s soppy!”
“I’ll do nothing of the kind!”
“Then kiss me,” John said.
Sherlock put the spoon and jar down and, for once, he didn’t argue, or quibble.
It was amazing where crumbs and honey had gotten to.
Laying sleepily in the tangle of sheets and legs afterwards, John whispered, “Thank you.”
“For not being dead.”
“Is there any more of that honey?” Sherlock said.
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