No real plot development in this chapter, just Sherlock navigating a tricky path through some personal relationships. ;)

Chapter Sixty-Seven

As Sherlock and his father turned into the lane at the lay-by end, on the final leg of their two-hour morning walk, Siger's mobile vibrated in his pocket with a call alert. He pulled it out and glanced at the screen then opened the call.

'Mycroft?'

'Ah, good morning,' Mycroft replied. 'Where are you?'

'Just approaching the house. Why?' Siger asked.

'The hospital called. They said they rang but you didn't pick up.'

'They must have rung the landline; we've been out for a while – walking.'

'Ah, that would explain it,' Mycroft replied. 'Mummy is ready to come home. She's had a full body scan this morning and there are no internal injuries. She just needs to rest. And make an appointment with her GP to have the stitches removed from her eyebrow, in two weeks.'

'Well, that is good news. Thank you, Mycroft. We'll go and collect her, right away.'

They said their goodbyes and Siger closed the call and pocketed his phone, turning to Sherlock just in time to catch the frown before he rearranged his features into a neutral expression.

'I will talk to him, Sherlock,' Siger reassured him.

'Yes, Pa, I know you will. Thank you.'

They had reached the path to the front door of the cottage and Sherlock's eyes were drawn to the pile of logs neatly stacked against the wall of the house, protected from the weather by the broad thatched eves.

'You don't still chop your own logs, do you, Pa?' he asked, aghast at the thought.

'Oh, no, not any more. The log man chops them and dumps a load in the lane. I just have to barrow them up the path and stack them. It only takes me a couple of hours.'

Sherlock was still aghast at the idea of his octogenarian father spending two hours loading logs into a wheelbarrow, hauling them up the path and stacking them against the wall. The stack looked quite well-stocked at the moment but Winter had barely begun. No doubt, there would be at least one more log delivery before Spring.

'Well, next time you order lags, ring me and I'll come and help you stack them,' he declared.

Siger nodded his thanks as he pushed open the front door.

'I'll just change out of these walking shoes and get your mother's change of clothes and then we can be off to the hospital,' he announced.

Sherlock had borrowed his father's wellies for the walk and was in the process of pulling them off, using the boot jack just beside the front door, before slipping his feet back into his Oxford brogues.

'I'll go and fetch the car,' he announced, tying his laces, 'and meet you out here.'

When he drew up outside the cottage in the hire car, Siger was standing by the front gate and climbed straight in. Sherlock waited while his father fastened his seat belt, before moving off.

On arrival at the hospital, they found the car park full, in stark contrast to the night before when they'd been able to park right opposite the main entrance. A number of other cars were cruising up and down in search of a parking space or waiting for someone to leave so they could occupy the vacated space. Sherlock opted to drop his pa at the entrance, leaving him to go inside and collect Mrs Holmes, while he parked in one of the 'Waiting' bays, where one could wait for up to twenty minutes, free of charge. As he turned off the engine, he heard and felt a text alert on his phone. Taking it out of his inside breast pocket, he saw it was from Molly and read simply,

Thank you.

He wondered, for a moment, what she was thanking him for and then remembered – the social media post! Of course, it would have been uploaded that morning and, it would appear, had gone according to plan. He was about to text back but thought better of it and dialled Molly's number instead. She picked up immediately.

'Thank you so much,' she said, even before he could say hello.

'You liked it, then?' he asked.

'No, not immediately,' she confessed. 'When I first saw it, all I could think of was our faces being shared all over social media and splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the UK! But then Parmina explained about Craig's algorithm. And when we went into the staff canteen, no one batted an eyelid, so I knew it had worked.'

'Craig never promises something he can't deliver,' Sherlock remarked.

'Your monologue was very sweet,' she said. 'And the song…oh, my goodness! That was so lovely!'

'Well, I'm glad you liked it,' he smiled, feeling that warm glow he always felt when he made her happy. 'Although, I knew you would.'

'Well, as ever, you were correct. Parmina said you had to ask someone the song title?'

'Yes, my pa. He used to play it to my mother every year, on their wedding anniversary – he probably still does, actually. I think that's what he was alluding to, yesterday morning, when he said he'd been hearing so much about you. I was really worried he was about to blow the gaff!'

'He nearly blew it again, when we were taking tea in Charlotte's kitchen, yesterday afternoon,' Molly chuckled.

Sherlock was not surprised. His pa was not a good keeper of secrets. He was just too honest.

'He said you asked him the sweetest question when you rang to tell him I was coming with you to Edinburgh. And he was right. It was very sweet.'

There was that word again…sweet. And he didn't even have the excuse that he was high!

'I'm surprised you didn't choose one of Louise Redknapp's songs,' she giggled.

He sighed, knowing he would never live this down, but replied anyway,

'I don't know any of her songs, never did. I just liked…her.'

Aw, thought Molly. His first crush!

'Don't worry,' she assured him, 'your secret is safe with me.'

'Good, because otherwise I would be forced to arrange your sudden demise.'

'Well, then we'd be quits,' she smiled. 'Anyway, how's your mum?'

'She must be reasonably OK, since she's being allowed home. We're at the hospital, now. My father just went inside to collect her. I'm waiting in the car.'

'Oh, that's good news. Just try to be nice to her?'

'I always try to be nice to her but she can be extremely annoying.'

'Everyone can be annoying according to you,' Molly chided, gently.

'That's not true,' he retorted.

'Oh, no?'

'No. You're not annoying.'

'Never?'

'Not so far.'

Molly smiled again. She was glad she was in the mortuary changing room, where no one could see her grinning like a Cheshire cat and blushing fit to bust.

'But I do wonder if perhaps I project my anger toward Uncle Rudi onto my mother,' he confessed, furrowing his brow.

'I'm not a psychologist but I think that could be possible,' Molly replied. 'But it's good that you're considering the possibility.'

'I was considering the possibility for most of last night, in that awful lumpy bed!' he exclaimed. 'And I've come to the realisation that I've been blaming her for Uncle Rudi for a very long time, ever since that day in his study, I suspect. I mean, Pa has always been my favourite, without a doubt, but I believe I used to love both my parents equally – until that day. Then I began to notice that Mummy always took Rudi's side in any situation, against any and all of us, including Pa. I think she loved him more than she did her children or her husband.

I honestly believe that her animosity towards Mycroft is because, when he became Rudi's protégé, she felt he replaced her in her brother's affections. She was jealous of all the time Mycroft got to spend with Rudi and she didn't. And I don't know this for sure but I suspect she was equally jealous of Eurus when she was Rudi's favourite. I think that's why she was so willing to believe that Eurus was evil and should be locked away.'

That was quite a bit of considering, Molly could see. And he had come up with some very profound conclusions. She wasn't quite sure what to say but decided to err on the side of mitigation.

'I imagine being groomed by someone like Rudi for as long as she was could have that effect on a person,' she suggested.

'Yes,' he concurred. 'I just need to remember that when she's actually being annoying!'

'That's the spirit!' Molly laughed. 'So, will you be staying there another night?'

He rather hoped not. For one thing, he was already on his second day wearing the same shirt, socks and underwear. He didn't relish a third. But he had to consider the possibility.

'Perhaps. My pa might need some back up.'

'OK. Well, I'm babysitting Rosie tonight but if you are in London, I'm sure John won't mind if you tag along.'

'Ah, yes! It's his first date with the other Mary, isn't it!'

'Indeed, it is,' Molly confirmed, wincing slightly at his use of the term 'other Mary'. She knew he didn't mean anything by it and was not suggesting any sort of comparison between the two women. It was just his way of identifying this new person. But just to be on the safe side, she said,

'You probably shouldn't call her that in front of John.'

'Ah, no, probably not,' he agreed.

'I'm sorry but I really must get back to work,' said Molly, ruefully. 'I have another PM this afternoon and then three reports to write, so…'

'Yes, of course. I shouldn't monopolise your time. Perhaps I'll see you tonight but, if not, tomorrow night.'

'Yes,' she confirmed. 'Take care.'

'I will,' he replied. 'You, too.'

They closed the call together and Sherlock noted the battery indicator on his phone was showing red. He hadn't charged it last night but, since it was switched off for most of the day before, it hadn't been an issue. But, if he was to be staying another night at the cottage, he would need to borrow his father's phone charger.

The twenty minutes' waiting time was very nearly up when he spotted his parents exiting the hospital – Maura in a wheelchair, being pushed by a porter. Sherlock reversed out of his 'Waiting' space and drew up right beside the entrance, jumping out of the car to hurry round to the passenger side and greet his mother. Bending to give her a peck on the cheek, he murmured,

'Hello, Mummy, I trust you're feeling a little better?' It was an olive branch which he hoped would be accepted.

'I am, darling, thank you,' she replied, with a weak smile. 'Just glad to be going home.'

Sherlock opened the front passenger door and stood back as Siger assisted his wife out of the wheelchair and into the car. Then, as the porter disappeared back inside with the chair, Sherlock closed the front passenger door and opened the rear one for his father to slip into the back seat. Both parents safely installed, he returned to the driver's side and climbed in, too.

'Thank you for coming to pick me up, dear. It's very kind of you,' Maura said.

'It was the least I could do,' he replied, 'especially after being so rude last night. I do apologise for that.' It was a lot easier to say that in the car than it would have been in the hospital or the house, since he had to keep his eyes on the road and, consequently, could avoid eye contact.

'Oh, don't worry about that. Daddy said you'd had quite a difficult day in Edinburgh, uncovered some uncomfortable details about the day that child went missing.'

Still not using his name, Sherlock observed.

'I know it was a long time ago but he was your best friend, after all. And I can't imagine anything Eurus could say could possibly atone for what she did to him.'

Calm, calm, calm, thought Sherlock.

'Actually, what she had to say was extremely reassuring,' he replied. 'It rather confirmed something I already suspected – something we all already suspected, in fact.'

'Oh?' she sounded surprised.

'Perhaps we should talk about this when we get home?' Siger suggested from the back seat, making eye contact with Sherlock via the rear-view mirror and shaking his head most decisively.

'Oh, yes,' Mrs Holmes agreed. 'You must concentrate on the road. These country lanes can be death traps, you know, with huge tractors around every bend.

Sherlock was happy to defer the conversation. In fact, he would have been more than happy to leave the explaining entirely to his father, who would know exactly the right approach to take with Maura.

They continued on in companionable silence for the rest of the short journey from Uckfield to High Hurstwood, barring the occasional comment from Mrs Holmes regarding some detail in the scenery…

'They really should cut back these hedges. It makes the roads even narrower than they actually are!'

…or the subject of some random 'For Sale' board…

'Oh, I wonder how much that's going for? I must look up the Estate Agent, on line, when we get home.'

…or the maintenance - or otherwise - of a garden…

'That used to be such a lovely garden until the owners went abroad and let the property. Now look at it! What a mess!'

On arrival at his parents' home, Sherlock pulled up in the lane and jumped out to assist his mother from the car to the cottage then left his pa to take it from there – installing her in the Snug – while he drove the hire vehicle to the lay-by and parked up.

'That's a nice car,' his mother commented, as she watched him pull away. 'Is it his?'

'No, it's a hire car,' Siger replied, as he assisted his wife along the short stretch of corridor between the front door and the Snug. 'I don't suppose one really needs one's own car in London. Besides which, I can't imagine there's anywhere to charge an electric car on that row of terraces where Sherlock lives. And, actually, the traffic congestion in the capital is bad enough without adding more road vehicles.'

'Oh, I hope you haven't been brainwashing him with your eco-warrior propaganda, Daddy!' Mrs Holmes chuckled.

'Not just me, Maura,' Siger exclaimed. 'Molly is an eco-warrior, too.'

'Molly? Who's Molly?' Maura queried.

'Oh,' said Siger, fearing that he had spoken out of turn with his unguarded comment and, possibly, opened a can of worms. 'Er…She's a pathologist at St Bart's Hospital,' he replied, hoping but not confident that his wife would accept that answer and move on.

'So how do you know she's an eco-warrior?' Maura asked, not moving on.

'Well, she, er…I mean, we, er… I met her yesterday.'

'In Edinburgh?'

'Er, no…in the lane. She was in the car.'

'Why was she in the car?'

'She came to Edinburgh with us.'

'Really? Why would a pathologist need to come to Edinburgh with you? Was there a body that needed to be examined?'

'Em, no, no, she…she… Well, she's Sherlock's girlfriend, Maura,' Siger confessed, at last. 'And she's absolutely lovely.'

Maura's brow furrowed as she attempted to lower herself into the comfortable armchair, in front of the fire. Her hip gave a sharp reminder of the deep bruising in that area and she gasped but pushed through the pain and settled into the seat. Siger had damped down the wood burner before leaving for the hospital, by closing the vents at the bottom and the top of the door. He now opened them up again to let in some air and get the fire burning brightly once more then stood up and turned to his wife, noting her disgruntled expression.

Though pursed lips, Maura remarked,

'So, Sherlock has a girlfriend?'

'Er, yes, he does,' Siger replied, uncomfortably.

'And is this a real girlfriend or a fake one, like that one who told all those lies about him to the press?'

'I think she is a genuine girlfriend, Maura.'

'And you've met her, Siger,' she added, with ominous calm.

'Yes, my dear. We met yesterday. She came to Edinburgh with us.'

'Oh, how lovely!' Maura declared, with false jollity.

'Yes, indeed,' Siger confessed. 'She's delightful, my dear. You would love her.'

'I'm sure I would, given the chance,' she replied, through tightly pursed lips.

Sherlock could sense the dramatic change in the atmosphere the moment he entered the house. His mother's rapid mood swings were nothing new - she could turn on a sixpence – but he had been hoping the amnesty would last a little longer, for once. He breathed a silent sigh and, closing the front door, turned to the left, pausing to hang up his coat and scarf before pushing open the door to the Snug to find his mother ensconced in the comfy chair and his pa perched on the edge of the sofa, looking apologetic. He exchanged a look with his father, who shook his head and mouthed 'sorry' but that was all the clue available as to what had precipitated the plunge into an arctic ambiance.

'Well, Sherlock,' Maura exclaimed, tartly. 'Did your girlfriend enjoy meeting my daughter, yesterday?'

Ah, he thought.

Sherlock had hoped his father would break the news to his mother about his new relationship status though he hadn't expected – or wanted - to be present at the time. But he could see the problem here was not that he had failed to advise her of the change in his circumstances but that Molly, rather than Maura, had been invited on the visit.

'Molly came to Edinburgh as a favour to me,' he stated, calmly. 'She has certain skills which I felt would be crucial to the success or otherwise of the visit.'

'Oh, I see. Well, I suppose expertise in cutting up dead bodies might be seen as an asset by your sister, especially if Rudi was right about her all along and the rest of you have been hoodwinked into believing she's entirely innocent! Yes, I can imagine that coming in very handy.'

Siger's eyes closed and his chin dropped to his chest, a picture of despair, but Sherlock kept his cool.

'The particular skill I refer to is personal, not professional. Molly has a gift for empathy. Her ability to read a person's emotions and respond appropriately is almost preternatural. She was a huge asset, yesterday. Now!' he added, with a bright smile. 'Who's for a nice cuppa tea?' then, promptly turned on his heels and strode off to the kitchen to put the kettle on. As he passed the house phone, it rang out, stridently, demanding to be answered. He stopped and picked up the handset.

'The Holmes residence,' he intoned. 'How may I help you?'

There was a long pause on the other end of the line and then a voice said,

'You must be one of the invisible sons. Are you the diplomat or the detective?'

'I am the latter,' he replied. 'And you are?'

'Sally Gibbs, friend of your mother. Just called for a progress report.'

'She can tell you herself,' he replied and, about facing, retraced his steps to the Snug and handed the phone to his mother. 'Sally Gibbs,' he announced. 'Dragon-in-chief of the local WI, I suspect,' then turned and exited the room, grinning from ear to ear.

'Did he just call me a dragon?' Sally Gibbs could be heard exclaiming.

'My sincere apologies, Sally,' Maura replied. 'Sherlock can be quite charming when it suits but he rarely bothers.'

Siger, spying his chance, pushed himself up off the sofa and hurried from the room, pulling the door to behind him, and followed Sherlock to the kitchen.

'What a timely intervention that was!' Sherlock exclaimed, when his father appeared in the doorway. His mother would wax lyrical for at least an hour about how her inconsiderate off-spring had invited some random stranger on a trip to visit her long-lost daughter while she was abandoned, home alone, and she could bask in the warm glow of her friend's sympathy. 'Sit down, Pa,' he insisted, 'and don't apologise for anything. She had to find out sometime. Better sooner than later.'

However, he was quite surprised when he took his mother's mug of tea through to her, less than ten minutes later, that the phone call had already ended.

'Sally Gibbs gone already?' he remarked. 'I presume horde of gold, in a cave somewhere, needed guarding?'

'No, actually,' his mother huffed, clearly not amused by his witticism. 'She's on her way here – she and a few more of my friends.'

On their broomsticks, no doubt, he thought, his mother's friends having morphed from dragons to witches, in the blink of an eye.

'Well, that's lovely,' he said, instead. 'I'll go and put the kettle back on, make them a fresh brew. Eye of newt and toe of frog,' he muttered as he retraced his steps to the kitchen.

'What was that, son?' his father asked.

'Mummy's coven is on its way,' he replied.

When the ladies did arrive, it was actually on foot and laden with gifts of freshly baked goods and a Lancashire hotpot. Siger greeted them warmly at the front door and received their offerings graciously, thanking them profusely for their thoughtfulness and shepherding them into the Snug. He returned to the kitchen and unburdened himself onto the farmhouse table.

'Well, we certainly won't starve while your mother's recuperating,' he declared, with a wry smile.

'Do these ladies imagine men incapable of cooking a meal?' Sherlock remarked.

'Perhaps that's their personal experience,' Siger shrugged, ever the voice of conciliation.

The whistling kettle interrupted this exchange and Siger removed it from the heat and filled the waiting teapot then placed it on the tray he had already prepared, with cups and saucers, milk and sugar, teaspoons and a strainer, side plates and dessert forks.

'Would you mind bringing the cake?' Siger requested.

'Please, allow me,' Sherlock insisted, stepping up and lifting the tray in both hands, leaving the Victoria sponge cake, supplied by one of the guests, for his pa to bring. He was keen to meet face to face the woman who had referred to him and his brother as 'the invisible sons', without any knowledge of the circumstances that had led to that state of affairs.

He strode through the cottage to the Snug and tapped on the door with his foot.

'Chai wallah,' he called and waited for someone to let them in.

He didn't have to wait long. The door opened and he was met by the disapproving glare of the lady he had previously referred to as 'dragon-in-chief'.

'Ah! Sally Gibbs, I presume,' he declared, with fake bonhomie.

'You presume correctly, Mr Holmes,' she replied, stiffly.

'It's a pleasure to meet you…'

In your human form, his inner demon snarked, though what he actually said was,

'…in the flesh,' as he manoeuvred his way through the room and deposited the tea tray on the side board. Siger placed the cake beside it.

Turning to face the room, Sherlock gazed in turn at the three visitors, gracing each of them with a charming smile whilst performing a rapid visual scan…

First guest, Sally Gibbs, wife of a former senior diplomat, probably an ambassador; time spent residing in the Far East, leading a champagne lifestyle; accustomed to ordering staff around, as the Ambassador's wife; resentful of reduced circumstances now said husband was retired; prone to making snap assumptions based on minimal evidence...though that last deduction may have been a little biased.

Second guest, farmer or market gardener; used to hard work and long hours; rather in awe of Sally Gibb; attended WI for the company and a brief escape from the daily grind.

Third guest, retired school teacher, Secondary school, not Primary; widowed, three cats; painted water colours as a hobby; recently moved to the village, joined WI to make friends in new location.

'Shall I be mother, Mother?' he asked.

'No, thank you, dear,' Maura replied, giving her husband a meaningful look, communicating her annoyance at her son's mock civility. 'My guests are happy to serve themselves.'

'As you wish,' he replied, with an ingratiating bow. 'I'll leave you ladies to your chattering.' And he swept from the room, pleased to have ruffled a few feathers.

Siger took a moment to stoke the fire with a couple of logs then, turning to the room, he said,

'Enjoy your tea and cake, ladies,' and departed, closing the door behind him.

'I think it's probably time you went back to London,' said Siger as he joined his son in the kitchen.

Sherlock turned to face him, wearing a puzzled and rather hurt expression but Siger smiled, benignly, and placed a hand on his arm.

'I have really enjoyed spending time with you, these last two days,' he said, 'despite the emotional ups and downs, but I'm afraid spending any amount of time in your mother's company seems to have a retrograde effect on your emotional development.'

'Really?' Sherlock queried. He thought he'd been quite restrained.

'Yes, I'm afraid so,' his father replied, squeezing his arm to reassure him that this was not intended as a rebuke. 'It seems to turn you back into a petulant teenager – not a good look, I have to say, in a man of your age.'

'Ah,' Sherlock replied, conceding that his father was probably right, on all counts.

'We'll be fine, now. Mummy's friends will see to it that we want for nothing. And I'm sure you'd rather be spending time with your pathologist.'

Sherlock had to concede that point, too.

'Well, if you're sure…' he replied.

'Absolutely. But you don't have to leave right away, if you don't want to. Your mother will be busy with her friends for a while. You could stay for a late lunch, if you like.' Siger had not failed to notice that his son had barely eaten in the last two day, that morning's breakfast being the only meal he hadn't merely picked at. 'Fancy some beans on toast?'

'Love some,' Sherlock replied, with a sheepish grin.

ooOoo

As this is probably my last update before Christmas, I'd like to wish you all a happy, peaceful, covid-free Festive Season, spent in the bosom of your families. :)