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A Month in the Country

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“He’s going where?”

“Northumberland, sir…”

Anthea noted her employer’s raised eyebrow. “Really? I had him pinned as a Majorca-type,” he said, mildly confused. “He tends to follow such typical male stereotyping as a rule; football, pubs, karaoke, sun, sea, and cheap alcohol… He tans so easily…”

What an observation, Anthea wondered, as if that were the man’s sole reason for looking for a holiday destination. “He does,” she agreed. “However, he has been observed to enjoy a spot of culture.”

That earned her the side-eye. “I never cease to be surprised that the man can still surprise me,” he said. “Just as I think I have his measure, he does something unpredictable.”

Admit it, she thought, you love that about him. He doesn’t bore you, just as John Watson doesn’t bore your brother. “Part of his charm,” she said, offhandedly. That earned her an outright glare. She smiled, inwardly, no hint of it reaching her Dior Rouge lips. “I have all the details of where he’s staying, when he is leaving, and the fact that it is a single booking. He’s going alone.” She watched her employer’s gentle intake of breath. “He’s been given a month’s leave and it looks like he intends to use every minute.” Mycroft hummed noncommittally. “I have taken the liberty of rearranging your schedule to have the entire month of August off work, despite your requesting only two weeks. Parliament is in recess, there are only two conference calls I cannot deal with next week, both of which are scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, and the rest is laughably easy for me to handle. I have made you a hotel booking from the Wednesday, and reserved a moderately sized Audi Q5 from the carpool for you. Love and Langdale are similarly on vacation and you will all take a single week to be on standby, yours is the first, Langdale second, Love third.”

“What about the fourth week?”

“Fourth week, sir?”

“The last time I looked, a calendar month consists of four weeks. Who will take the fourth week?”

“Oh, I will, subject to my contacting the first person who is available should there be anything I cannot deflect long enough for you all to return, and believe me when I say, you will not be my first choice, sir. Love has upped my security clearance to enable me to engage with pretty much anything.”

“Anthea…”

“Sir?”

“When I return...I have already had words with Lady Smallwood, concerning elevating you to become the fourth member of our cabal. Should you wish it, of course, and subject to your training a new assistant for myself…”

“Sir?” She was shocked, and tried not to let it show. Her voice betrayed her though.

“It is long overdue, as is my retirement. I know none of us are getting any younger. If you agree, then we shall all be able to take a small step back, and none of us will be required to work ourselves into the ground…”

“I would be honoured, sir. Thank you. Now, go take your holiday. There will be plenty of time to discuss it when you get back, but...for now, I agree, in principle.”

That drew a genuine smile. “Thank you, Anthea. Code name?”

“I favour Lamia,” she said, smiling. “A Queen, and a demon.”

“How fitting,” he said, appreciatively.

0000000

The morning dawned fresh and bright, sun shining through the curtains. Greg stretched, yawned mightily and relaxed into his pillows in the sure and certain knowledge that work did not require him for a whole month. A complete month with no early morning call-outs, no late nights unless he wanted them, no missing his bed or his meals or his footie. Tomorrow he would be heading north, a long drive to Bamburgh, Northumberland, to a self-catering cottage, and a long-overdue visit with his cousin, Vera. He had relatives in Northumberland. Distant ones, apart from Vera, but relatives nevertheless. He was looking forward to getting away, leaving the stress behind. If he had one regret, it was that he would be going alone. He missed sharing stuff with someone, with a like-mind, a confident, a friend. Vera was a good friend, if a bit irascible. Like him, she was a DCI, committed to her career. Their shared blood was irrelevant really, they liked each other despite the familial connection.

The drive up was uneventful, despite brief rain showers that didn’t manage to put the mockers on an otherwise buoyant feeling of anticipation, as though he were a kid again. He recalled family holidays into the wilds of the north, feeling like a foreigner in his own country. The Somerset lad from Weston-super-Mare with his rolling accent and the Geordie lass from Blyth with her double-vowel lilt and her forthright opinions were an odd team, but somehow, shared holidays had meant they hit it off, and when they both went into the police, nobody was very surprised. They had been possessed of a friendly rivalry through their twenties and thirties, he making sergeant before her, she making DI before him.

The radio blared and Greg sang to the music he knew, and although his voice was rusty from lack of practice, he could still hold a tune. He liked to sing, just never did it much. On his own in the car, driving to his holiday destination, he really felt like singing.

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Mycroft Holmes surprised himself sometimes. He gazed into the mirror critically and a casually dressed man stared back, hair devoid of its product, no suit in sight. He was wearing a short sleeved polo shirt, the colour of which brought out the blue of his eyes, and left his arms bare, showing off freckles and fair ginger hairs. His pale cream chinos bore a neat knife edge crease as a concession to dressing down, and his long feet were encased in comfortable leather loafers… He nodded, pleased, and picked a linen jacket up off the back of a chair. His bags were packed, his car ready downstairs, his house prepared for his absence (his cleaner would call every three days to keep the place free of dust, and to water his collection of plants, and to make sure his mail was removed from the porch). There was no excuse to linger. He was two days later in travelling north than Lestrade, the man would already be there, but it would give him time to settle in, and not look so much like Mycroft was stalking him...

The drive out of London was...interesting. He turned on the radio, listened to Classic FM for a while, and then flicked through the channels, fingers familiar with the controls on the wheel that allowed him to manipulate sat nav, radio, air con and everything else without risking taking his attention off the road or his hands far from the wheel. He listened briefly to popular hits, caught a traffic report as he navigated the M25, switched to Jazz for a time, and then settled back to Classic FM. The M1 took him north, the Audi a pleasure to drive. Other people’s driving wasn’t such a pleasure, but then, there was some element of risk, the unpredictable factor of other people’s lack of driving skill proved to be the unknown quantity that spiced up an otherwise boring trip. Evasive action was taken at least three times in the six hours it took to get there. Mycroft reflected that he might have flown from London to Newcastle, picked up a hire car there, but somehow, taking the car all that way was liberating. The time allowed him to think, and plan.

0000000

Greg got out of the car and inhaled deeply. The warm air was infused with the scents of salt and fresh cut grass, there were skylarks calling overhead, and he felt peace begin to steal through his bones. The cottage was in a small terrace of single-story white-washed stone houses adjacent to a farm, and Greg could hear the soft calls of cows and the bleats of sheep vying with the sound of the wind in the nearby trees. He stood still for a while and soaked it all in, his only regret that he was alone in it all.

His stomach rumbled, successfully snapping him out of his meditation, and he pulled his phone out of his pocket. He quickly brought up his emails, and finding the booking details from the property owners, he located the code number he had been given to access the keysafe mounted on the wall by the door. Rotating the little dials to the correct numbers was a bit fiddly, but he managed it, and clicked open the front panel to reveal the keys in their box behind with a little spike of triumph. Letting himself in, he found a neat front room with a fairly modern leather sofa and armchair, and a good-sized flat screen tv mounted on the wall. There was a bookcase with board games, a selection of family dvds and an eclectic collection of books. On the coffee table sat a folder overstuffed with information on local attractions. There were take-out leaflets, and adverts for local restaurants, as well as farm shops and breweries. There was also a welcome basket containing a small bottle of locally produced apple juice, a loaf of fresh bread, two apples, a bunch of grapes, and a small box of high-end chocolates. A welcome note wished him a happy stay, and gave the phone number to call if there was anything he needed to ask about. It also told him that there was a pint of milk and a block of butter in the fridge, compliments of Jill and Tony, the owners.

Greg went to explore the rest of the property. He tested the double bed in the small bedroom and found it comfortable enough, and took a cursory look at what seemed like a newly fitted en suite bathroom, finding a shiny shower with what looked like decent water pressure. His steps sounded loud on the quarry-tiled floor of the well-appointed kitchen, and the back door opened into a small lean-to utility room with a washer and a dryer. Beyond the back door, there was a reasonably-sized garden consisting of a small patio with a barbeque, and a neat lawn. Everything was new-looking, and comfortable, and Greg found himself immensely pleased with his choice.

He filled the kettle and switched it on, then went to unpack the car. He hadn’t brought a great deal. He had his own dvds, his laptop, phone, and mini speakers. He had enough clothing for a week, along with his waterproof hiking jacket, walking boots, thick wool socks, and gaters. He had a walking pole, his binoculars, his camera. He aimed to take plenty of photos, do a bit of birdwatching, book a boat trip around the Farne Islands, if the weather held, and visit castles and country houses aplenty. He wanted to indulge in his hobbies, things he never got time to indulge in as a rule. He made tea, and sat in the window, gazing across the fields toward the sea, the folder of information open in front of him, chilling out nicely.

0000000

Mycroft Holmes checked into the country house hotel and sighed as he elbowed open the door to the suite he had booked, or rather Anthea had booked. The place was rather quaint, but well appointed. The staff were pleasant. There was an old world charm to it; lots of oak panelling and mullioned windows. His bed was a four poster too, a rather grand thing. He settled himself, wondering what Gregory was doing right at that moment. Not for the first time he wondered if he had miscalculated, if he would be rejected. However, Sherlock had said not. Sherlock, unless he was winding his brother up terribly, seemed certain that Gregory was attracted to Mycroft but would never act upon it, for fear of rejection. Or worse. Somehow he still seemed to fear the power Mycroft emanated, the ability to have him demoted or worse.

“I asked him to make sure you were alright,” Sherlock had admitted quietly one evening.

Mycroft’s head had risen sharply, eyes fixing his brother with a gimlet stare. “You did?”

“Yes, I did.”

“What did you say to him?”

“That you are not as strong as you think you are,” Sherlock said softly.

“I wondered why he was contacting me,” Mycroft admitted. “Asking if there was anything I needed. It was confusing. I barely know the man.”

“You know him well enough,” Sherlock retorted.

“Perhaps not as well as I should.”

“And whose fault is that?”

Mycroft had regarded him coolly and made to leave. “I think, Brother mine, you are at odds with the situation. DCI Lestrade is not interested in one such as myself. He fears me, fears the power I wield.”

“Don’t be a fool, Mycroft,” Sherlock had said, somewhat gently. “You don't notice the way he looks at you. If you want something, seize the day.”

“That day is long since gone,” Mycroft had said, fully believing it. “Goodnight, Brother dear.”

On the way home, he had received a text from Sherlock.

You could simply kidnap him and have him delivered to your club. Dinner for two?

And what would you know about relationships, Sherlock?

Enough to know that life is too short to procrastinate. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Even if you ask, you might still not get.

So if you don’t have him anyway, what have you got to lose, Brother mine?

Mycroft stared out of the Sun Inn’s dining room window, after his rather acceptable lemon sole, and contemplated desert. It was a pity not to be able to share some.

0000000

The knock on the door that evening was unusual to say the least. Aiden wouldn’t usually call on a weekend, and nobody from work knew where she lived apart from him. Vera Stanhope levered herself out of her chair and made her way to the door, fully expecting to turn away some hopeful double glazing salesman.

“Hi, Vee. Came early. Hope you don’t mind?”

“Greg!” She exclaimed and grabbed her cousin into a hug. “How are you, pet? Come in, come in…” She let him go and lead the way to the kitchen, clattering the kettle on as she went. “Tea? Or coffee?”

“Tea, Vee, you know me. I reserve coffee for work. Here…” He handed over a bottle.

“Ee, Pet, you’re spoilin’ me.”

“Not seen you in a while. I thought it was only right.”

Vera admired the amber liquid in the bottle, a good vintage, a very good make, and an even better taste. “Do you want to join me?”

“Nah, not yet. Too early for me. Don’t let me stop you though. How have you been?” He plonked himself into a chair and regarded her with that cheeky expression that hadn’t changed much since his youth. She smiled, charmed by the patented Lestrade grin, even though she knew him better than he knew himself.

“I’m alright, I suppose. Nothing you don't understand about work stress,” she added.

“True enough, but...you not retired yet?”

“Bugger that,” she said indelicately. “I’m not ready to leave yet. A couple more years maybe.”

“I’m thinking of retiring in a year or so,” Greg admitted.

“That doesn’t surprise me, but what will you do? Write a book? Buy a farm?”

“I was thinking about moving up here somewhere.”

“Canny lad,” she said. “It’s a bit quieter than you’re used to, but you know that.”

“Too long since I was up here.”

“Well, you’re here now.” They settled into companionable conversation, picking up where they had left off. Coffee turned into dinner, and the conversation turned to recent cases, the foibles of particular colleagues, reminiscences of their childhood, shared laughter over various eccentric uncles and aunts, how their remaining relatives were (what few were left in South Shields), and plans for after retirement. “I was thinkin’,” Vera said eventually, “when you do retire, you could come up here, share the house a while, if you want to get a feel for the place.”

“Honestly? What a great idea. You’d get sick of me eventually though.”

“Maybes, but I can put up with you for a while, Greg. You could house hunt to your heart's content. Explore the area a bit more.”

“Might hold you to that.”

“Please do.”

0000000

Mycroft went out after dinner, ostensibly to explore the area, to get a feel for it. He had never been so far north, apart from a brief stint in Edinburgh for a while in the 90s. He had to admit it was beautiful country. Rolling hills and heather moor, a rugged coast with castles and fishing villages, bird reserves and sand dunes that were of special ecological interest. He drove almost up to the address Anthea had given him where Gregory was staying but he had no idea how to affect a casual meeting. In truth there wouldn't be anything casual about it. It was too coincidental him being in this neck of the woods. He decided that honesty was the best policy where Greg Lestrade was concerned and Mycroft would not jeopardise anything by lying to the man.

He pulled over, seeing the driveway in front of the picturesque little terrace, no car in front of the one Gregory was supposed to be lodging in. Suddenly, Mycroft had an idea. He could leave the man a note, pushed through the letterbox; a note explaining his presence, and leaving his contact details. If he heard nothing, well, nothing lost. If he did… he would take it from there. He scrabbled in the glove compartment, not finding anything to write with or on. He sighed, and checked his watch. There was a petrol station about five minutes drive away that might have a shop. Everything else would be shut by now. It was nearing nine in the evening. Mycroft wondered where Gregory was, if he was out to dinner somewhere, or at a pub…

The garage yielded a pad of paper and some of his favourite biscuits (a bonus) and also petrol (he was quite low after such a drive and pottering around the area for the evening). He sat in the car in a layby near the dunes, and tried to pen an appropriate letter, but no words would come. He stared out at the sea thoughtfully.

Dear Gregory, he began, then paused. What should I say? Some eleventh hour romantic clap-trap would probably not go down well. I am in the area, call me? Oh for Heaven’s sake…

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Greg left Vera’s late, after a very nice meal, and an even better catch up. Nothing had changed, he was pleased to note. They got on as well now as they had when they were fourteen. Her offer to let him stay with her if he decided to look for a property up north was enticing. The place was in darkness when he got back, although the outside light snapped on as he drew close, enough to allow him to see well enough to put the key in the lock. He switched lights on and went into the bedroom, drawing curtains and turning down the duvet. As he went back into the living room, he spotted the folded paper on the floor, by the front door. He had missed it on entry. He picked it up, unfolded it, and boggled.

Dear Gregory

I find this sort of thing quite difficult, but on the advice of my brother (a first) I have made a move which, on the surface of things, may seem reckless, invasive and somewhat out of character. Or perhaps completely in character, if you consider the fact that I have technically invaded your privacy to deliver this missive. However, my brother has recently revealed things to me that I wish to discuss with you, things of a personal nature. As such, Anthea located your destination and address and I followed you, to Northumberland, to hopefully meet with you and talk earnestly about the future, free of the fetters of work and the demands on my time and yours. You see, Gregory, there is someone in my life that I admire and fear I may lose all contact with unless I am clear in my desires and declare my intent honestly. This man is honest, honourable, and possessed of integrity and sincerity. I can therefore offer no less in return. Sherlock asked you to take care of me, and you have done your utmost to do so, given that I have been less than accommodating after Sherinford. I find I am lonely, and Sherlock is repeatedly pointing out that life is too short. I do not want to regret missed opportunities.

I am therefore offering you a choice. My number is at the bottom of this page. I will abide by your wishes. Either contact me, via phone or text, and we can meet, or not, as you wish. I will not be surprised if your answer is no, considering the liberty I have taken to find you. However, should you wish to be left alone, I shall do so. You will hear no more from me. Simply do not reply to this message. I shall return to London. You won’t hear from me again. However, in the slim chance that you take pity on my clumsy efforts to make meaningful contact, I will be at the Sun Inn, Warkworth, until Sunday. Unless I hear from you before then, of course.

Yours

Mycroft Holmes

Well, that's a turn up. Greg didn’t know for a moment whether to be angry at the invasion of privacy, disappointed that he had missed the man, or affronted that this was happening at all. What had Sherlock said? Greg rolled his eyes. Typical bloody Holmeses. He went to bed, determined not to give in too easily. He needed to think.

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Friday. Mycroft rose and showered, dressed and went down for breakfast. He sat for a pleasant hour, nodding to fellow guests, and feeling somewhat anticipatory. In his heart of hearts he was convinced that Gregory Lestrade would not call. Sherlock was wrong. Mycroft figured that following the man up here had been a little excessive, however they were both on holiday, with time on their hands to think, and talk, if Greg deigned to contact him. He sat despondently in the dining room, sipping coffee and reading the morning paper. There was a bookshop in Alnwick he really wanted to visit, and he had a yen to see Bamburgh Castle in all its glory. Possibly Lindisfarne. He had heard the bird watching was very good.

His phone buzzed. He ignored it. It was most likely Sherlock… When it buzzed again, he glanced at it, and this time, shock fizzed through him. Gregory…

Hi, Mycroft. Got your note.

Unconventional way to make contact, but I’ve got used to it from you Holmeses. Dinner? My place? 8pm tonight? You know where it is.

Oh, my….