The invitation arrives by the morning post and finds Watson alone and, unusual for him, bored. Holmes and Mrs. Hudson are gone when it comes; the elder having requested the younger’s company on the day’s errands. The motivation behind the invitation appeared obvious – separate the two potential troublemakers when the chaperone is unavailable. Charlotte agreed to go without incident and Watson had initially looked forward to a bit of time to himself. He hasn’t a single patient on his itinerary and any number of journal articles he should read and patient notes he should transcribe and having the whole house to himself for the duration of the morning seems the perfect opportunity to achieve those goals. Once the silence truly settles in, however, he finds it more unnerving than inspiring.
Watson is sure he’s never been completely alone in 221B since moving in. It’s an odd feeling, the usually chaotic house so quiet and still. The ticking of the clock on the mantle or the occasional creak or crack of the old brownstone settling might break the hush but even that is calm compared to the usual clatter of the place. He’s used to hearing Mrs. Hudson bustling about in her spaces below, or Holmes puttering about with her experiments or her violin or her rambling (mostly to herself, occasionally to him) in the sitting room. The absence of that familiar noise and chaos is a surprising paralytic; the leaden weight of it perches on Watson’s shoulders and presses him deeper into the couch cushions and his boredom as the silence stretches on. So, it’s a relief when he hears the peal of the doorbell; the sound is all it takes to shake off the dust and drive him down the stairs in desperate relief.
He tips the messenger better than the young man expects; for a moment, he stands staring at the coins in his hand as if waiting for Watson to realize his mistake and correct it. Watson pats him on the shoulder instead and sends him on his way. The boy has no way of knowing he’s spared the doctor from death by ennui. Once shuttered behind the door again, he examines the envelope that is his salvation. Holmes would likely glean no end of information from the choice of stationary, the penmanship, and the ink selection. All he takes away from a cursory glance is that the writer has access to fine paper products, that he favors a heavy hand with his pen, and is likely left-handed. The latter he bases on Holmes’ instructions on the topic of letter angling, the others on the depth of the pen strokes and the weight of the paper. Gender is only made clear by the letter itself (his mind tends to wander when Holmes gets started on things like the handwriting styles of men versus women), which confirms all the other deductions as well.
Please join me for lunch at the Diogenes Club this afternoon. It isn’t an urgent matter, though your company is most necessary. I will send a driver to ensure your prompt arrival. Please be ready at half past eleven. I will leave word with the front desk to expect you.
– M. Holmes
“I wonder what the devil this is about?” Watson mutters aloud, re-reading the missive. He can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of times he’s shared more than a passing word with the eldest Holmes sibling outside the presence of his aunt and sister. Mycroft is of the intellectual sort and, like Holmes, is hardly ever drawn in by discussions of things like sport or hunting or other matters Watson tends to associate with conversations among men of certain age and status. They have very little in common, in fact, except for Charlotte, which makes the purpose of the invitation clear.
The Diogenes Club is one of many such establishments situated along St. James in Pall Mall. While it looks no different than the rest, it serves a segment of the club-going men of London that are disinterested in most of the benefits such institutions typically provide. These are men who prefer their own company, but wish to enjoy it in a certain degree of comfort and richly appointed rooms with the presence of like-minded individuals nearby. And, additionally, in absolute silence. Speaking is prohibited and three violations of this rule can lead to a member’s excommunication. The only exception to this rule is the Stranger’s Room, where conversation and guests are allowed. There is nothing social about this gentleman’s club, and that does little to decrease its membership.
Per Mycroft’s instructions, the driver offers to escort Watson inside. The doctor declines the offer; while he has never visited the club before, he has been warned about its peculiarities in advance. Holmes spends an inordinate amount of time railing against the club and the excuse it gives her brother to embrace his tendency toward laziness. Watson rarely reminds her of her own somnambulant moments; while she abhors boredom and tends towards unspecific mischief when it settles in, she spends great periods of time in idle consumption of scandalous periodicals or traversing the landscape of her own mind for long, indolent stretches. The only differences between the siblings on the topic of inactivity are their individual tolerances for ennui and how they choose to alleviate it.
The gentleman at the front desk greets Watson with a brief wave and a gesture Watson knows is intended to represent “Doctor.” Once identity is confirmed and the required niceties completed, he is then escorted through a large, open room in use at current by a smattering of well-dressed men deeply engrossed in newspapers or magazines and seemingly unaware that a member of the uninitiated moves among them. At the end of the room, he’s shown down a narrow hall and deposited in front of a closed door. The first sound his escort has made since his arrival is the quick, quiet knock of his fist to the wood. He bows then and turns to leave with only a smile offered in farewell. Watson is still looking after him, wondering what sort of man it takes to spend his entire day in enforced silence, when the door opens.
It’s easy for Watson to forget sometimes that Mycroft is not only Holmes’ sibling, but her twin. He is taller by half a foot, and leaner; the softness that Holmes might come upon purely by consequence of her gender is missing entirely from Mycroft’s over-thin frame. This aspect of him is a constant source of amazement for the doctor, who has seen the amount and quality of food the elder twin is capable of consuming. (Watson once asked Mrs. Hudson if Mycroft acquired a tapeworm at some point in his youth that went untreated. She laughed.). It’s not until his eyes make it up to Mycroft’s face that the resemblance is too much to ignore. The same too-keen brown eyes and smug, all-knowing grin look back at Watson from a narrower, bonier visage than he’s used to. The quizzical arch of the left eyebrow is also a well-acknowledged Holmes trait.
Mycroft waves Watson inside and shuts the door quietly behind him before speaking. “So good of you to join me, doctor,” he says after a quick and cursory hand shake.
“The invitation didn’t sound as if it allowed for the possibility of refusal.” Watson removes his hat and clutches it loosely with both hands, held in front of him like an ineffectual shield. Some would call the action unnecessary, based on Watson’s size, age, and martial experience comparative to Mycroft’s; those people have never dealt with an annoyed Holmes sibling, nor contemplated inappropriate things with the younger before being called to the carpet, theoretically, by the elder.
“Perhaps not. Though I still appreciate your willingness to acquiesce.” Mycroft lays claim to one of a pair of armchairs nearest the window. A tray sits on a low table between with a tea service and a selection of finger sandwiches and pastries upon it. “I requested a light meal, if that’s all right. More of a mid-morning tea, really, than a lunch. It’s not so far off my own breakfast so I wasn’t quite prepared for anything heavier.”
“More than sufficient, thank you.” Watson takes the opposite chair, nearly sinking into the soft cushions. As he reaches for the teapot, with Mycroft’s nod of permission, he says, “Your letter didn’t specify what you wished to discuss.”
“No, just that my presence was requested, in a necessary but non-urgent capacity, and when.”
“I would think the topic is quite obvious.” He reaches for the cup Watson offers him, fingers curling around the handle in time with the upward arch of the corners of his lips. The smug smile is just mildly frustrating on Holmes; it’s temptation for a punch on her brother. “Charlotte, of course.”
Watson fumbles his teacup. It hits the table, though not hard enough or from enough height to crack it. “She would be the one topic the two of us have in common, being your sister and my friend. Unless you’re in the market for a new physician, of course.”
“Friend. Yes, I suppose that word suits at least one aspect of your association well enough.” He waits until Watson has reclaimed his cup and begun a sip before continuing. “Lover likely fits the remainder, of course, and is the part I’m far more concerned with.”
A mouthful of tea finds its way down Watson’s windpipe as he attempts, by way of a shocked gasp, to breathe it. It takes several shallow coughs to clear his airway, amusement sparkling in his companion’s eyes throughout the struggle. “Sorry?” he asks when he can finally speak again.
“Don’t worry, doctor. I’m aware you haven’t actively defiled my sister yet.” He raises a hand when Watson opens his mouth to object. “Defile may be the wrong word. I’m well aware she’s no naïve child unaware of the workings of the world and that she would brain me for the use of the term in connection to herself. And yes, my sister has discussed the, shall we say, developments in your association, with me. There is very little she doesn’t tell me; a fact you may wish to keep prominently in mind.”
“If she tells you everything, then you’re aware that those developments have been, though perhaps bold, not wholly inappropriate.”
“You and I may have differing views on what inappropriate consists of.”
Watson huffs a discordant laugh. “You and your sister may as well.”
“True enough.” Mycroft takes a sip of his tea and reaches for a cucumber sandwich with the relaxed air of a man discussing the latest gossip, not his sister’s honor. “Though I think cavorting with a naked man in a bathroom-“
“There was no cavorting, nor was I naked.”
“-meets most definitions of the term, barring perhaps Charlotte’s own.”
Watson sets his teacup down on the table purposefully this time, and hard enough to rattle the spoon in the sugar bowl. “I have not taken advantage of her, nor would I ever.”
Mycroft’s smile dips. The amusement fades from his eyes, which are drawn to the cup and Watson’s white grip on the handle. “I know you wouldn’t. If I had reason to think otherwise, this talk would have a different location and involve more fists than words.”
One of the doctor’s eyebrows arches. “A conversation that would turn out worse for you than me, I think.”
“Be that as it may…” Watson watches as Mycroft settles further back in his chair and his hands settle nervously in his lap; the doctor forces himself not to grin at the sight. “I have thus far let the matter go, because I do believe you to be an honorable gentleman, doctor, and as such…”
“And as such you decided we should calmly meet as men so that you could suggest that I, what…gently remove myself from the situation? Persuade her of the folly in continuing, or present myself in such a way that she reaches the opinion on her own? If I disagree, do you plan to offer a financial enticement? Or threaten my circumstances, as I’m sure your aunt has considered already?”
Watson rises from the armchair and picks up his hat. “I think you may have wasted a perfectly fine light meal on me, Mr. Holmes. I have no interest in it or further discussion of your whip or your carrot. While I understand and appreciate your position here, your sister is an adult. A very unconventional one, yes, but still within her rights to make her own choices and decide her own fate, no matter what you or society would otherwise think on the topic. So if you will excuse me…”
He almost makes it to the door before Mycroft’s voice causes him to pause, hand nearly on the knob. “Do you care for her, John?”
Watson takes a deep breath, trying to force his jaw to loosen and his hands to relax before he turns to face his inquisitor once more. He follows Mycroft’s focus down to the fist at his side, not the one clenched around the brim of his derby, and reads the wariness in the younger man’s eyes and the way he stiffens and presses even further back into his chair. No matter the earlier comment about conversations involving fists, he can tell Mycroft has little interest in seeing the result of that particular contest. A fistfight, Watson knows, is a much different animal than singlestick or fencing; he wouldn’t like his chances against either Holmes in those events but doubts Mycroft has ever gotten his knuckles bloody before.
As the fist uncurls, the young bureaucrat visibly relaxes; the previous wariness bleeds away to leave only the pending question behind. Curiosity looks similar from one Holmes to the other – thoughtful, wondering, and mildly impatient. Watson discovers it is nearly as much fun to leave Mycroft waiting as it is his twin. There is something endlessly amusing about withholding information from a creature that thrives on it and watching the resulting frustration it brings. If he has to compare it to something, Watson thinks it is most like dangling a length of string a foot out of a cat’s reach and watching it jump for it, repeatedly. Mycroft has earned his torment; he deserves to watch the yarn swing a moment longer before he gets a swat at it.
“I would think,” Watson finally says, not moving from his spot by the door, “given I’ve put up with this farce for this long, that the answer is a simple enough one to guess. Especially for the self-proclaimed smarter twin.”
Mycroft’s lower lip threatens to jut out in a pout Watson knows too well, typically seen on a different and more suiting face. “Speculation is for amateurs and assuming never ends well.”
“Then let me remove the necessity of either of those things.” Watson pops the derby onto his head and straightens the lapels of his coat. “Yes. I care for your sister quite a bit.”
He has the door half open when Mycroft’s voice stops him this time. “If you hurt her, Watson, I will have to make you pay for it.”
Watson nods then sees himself out, leaving Mycroft to finish off the tea.