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Title: The Continuity of Empires
Author: [ profile] spacemutineer
Rating: G
Word Count: ~1450
Author's Notes: Written for [ profile] rabidsamfan for the Autumn 2013 [ profile] acd_holmesfest exchange, as part of a fic collection called Head to Toe with [ profile] tweedisgood and [ profile] methylviolet10b
Summary: Two years before the events of His Last Bow, Sherlock Holmes has unexpected illustrious visitors one morning. A case of international proportions stands in the balance, but Holmes takes his work seriously. All of his work.

Mr. H. H. Asquith was not the first Premier ever entertained in Sherlock Holmes' house during his long lifetime, but he was the first to step through the door in Sussex and not London. He and Sir Edward Grey, at that time the foreign secretary and one of the newest Knights of the Garter, sat at Holmes' table and considered him and their offered tea and honey grimly. They expected an answer. Only ten minutes earlier, Holmes had expected breakfast.

"The matter is dire, Mr. Holmes. The safety and continuity of the very Empire lies at stake."

Undoubtedly it was, for these men of stature to travel out to the empty shores of Sussex unaccompanied by even servants or protection, as incognito as politicians can ever possibly be. The shabby wrinkling of their jacket sleeves was particularly compelling. They had stayed the night prior in the wretched Little Spotted Hen inn down in Fulworth, undoubtedly under fictitious names. It was all a remarkably long way for ministers of the Crown to go to lure an old man out of his pleasant rural hermitage.

The explanation was curt when it finally came. English agents of the international spy game were disappearing, presumed captured or killed. All attempts to root out the cause were failures, although they pointed to a single central and powerful force pulling the strings on the marionettes of foreign intrigue. What needed to be answered was who this puppeteer was and how he could be stopped.

It was obvious Sherlock Holmes was their second choice for this task, of course, although the men sitting at his kitchen table had the tact not to say as much. In years past, a different Mr. Holmes would have been asked to discover the culprit at the bottom of this conspiracy of espionage through pure thought, but that particular gentleman was long unavailable, lounging himself now in a cozy pine box instead of an overstuffed chair in the Diogenes. His inferior replacement would have to be accepted in his stead. That is, if he was willing to acquiesce to it.

"I am retired. You gentlemen do realize that."

The Prime Minister spoke with his hands, sweeping them through the air. "No one else in all the world can be trusted for such an intricate operation, sir. If England is to weather this crisis, we must find this leak now and plug it before more time and more agents are lost. These are tenuous times for all nations, Mr. Holmes, and without proper intelligence, we are running blind. Your country calls you, a great man of honour and justice, into duty once more for the sake of all her citizens."

They were lofty words, but unnecessary. Holmes saw the pressing need for his skills. That was clear the moment he'd seen the foreign secretary rubbing thoughtlessly but ceaselessly at the brim of his hat in his hands in the doorway, worrying his way through the fabric. But another factor had yet to be considered.

"I rather doubt the queen would approve of any efforts on my part for you."

Looks of sudden consternation darkened the countenances across the table in an instant. Asquith and Grey passed a nervous glance between themselves, hesitating on a reply as it dawned on them that the genius they believed they were speaking to was now very possibly only a doddering old man, unaware any longer of the world outside the walls of his mind.

"Ah, with due respect, sir, the King himself requested your assistance in this matter."

"Did he, now? That explains a few things. But I was not speaking of the monarch of our land, gentlemen. I was referring to the leader of that other expansive empire, the one out there in the field." He pointed through the window at a set of three white boxes standing resolute in a clearing. "Well, one of them, at any rate. Come, and we'll discover her answer together. I have work to do this morning and we can better ponder the issue with the clarity offered by the cooling sea breeze."

The enthusiasm Holmes had seen for his participation in this affair evaporated rapidly as he made his preparations. Sanity was questioned outright, albeit nonverbally, when simple straw hats with veils were handed to heads and shoulders more accustomed to silk top hats and knighting swords. An admonition about keeping hands in pockets brought open stares of disbelief.

Holmes walked out into the sunshine toward his hives without once looking back at his unexpected company. Asquith and Grey would follow him if they wanted his help; it was that simple. Either way, he had work this morning, whether or not he had an illustrious audience behind him for it.

They came, of course, in due aghast aristocratic time. By then, Holmes was in mid-shove with a crowbar, breaking up the sticky propolis to open the hive with the benefit of his weight and the thick leather of his work gloves. The ministers stood at as far a distance from the buzzing throng in the air as they could manage without needing to shout their national secrets across the fields.

"Please, Mr. Holmes. We require an answer. England herself requires an answer, not these theatrics. If you do not believe you are up to the task, you must say so."

In his younger years, Holmes would have been offended by that remark, or at least Watson would have been offended for him. Now, he did not even grace the statement with a glare. He was busy.

"I shall have my answer in but moments and you shall have yours. Have patience, gentlemen."

With the frames exposed, the atmosphere thickened with honeybee guards testing the newly open air for intruders. The smoker calmed the cacophony somewhat, just enough, and Holmes tugged the hard leather gloves off his hands and tossed them aside.

As he reached to lift the first frame out in search of the young queen, a gasp rose from the gallery under the shade of the oak tree.

"Sir! You have forgotten your gloves!" the voices cried. "Mr. Holmes!"

"I have forgotten nothing," Holmes said calmly as he pulled a comb pulsing with Apis mellifera out into the daylight with his bare fingers. "Harsh treatment with heavy and clumsy gloves leads to angry bees, but a light touch preserves their docility, as you see."

"But they are crawling onto your skin!" came the horrified reply. So they were. Many dozens of tiny workers' legs scrambled across his knuckles and scurried down the backs of his hands to his wrists in widening, exploratory circles. "Mr. Holmes, they'll sting you!"

Holmes half-smiled sideways at the beleaguered politicians but left his vision on his active colony. "No, they won't. Not if I am careful."

Despite themselves, Asquith and Grey stepped forward, mesmerized by the casual spectacle before them. It was highly unlikely they had ever before watched a beekeeper at his work, and without a doubt these men had never seen one like Sherlock Holmes.

"I do not understand," the Prime Minister stammered. "How are you doing this?"

"It is the direct result of patience, skill, and a practiced, delicate hand that remains steady under any duress. There is a reason you gentlemen came today to me."

Taking his time, Holmes gently rotated the brood frame in his hands, never with any startling movement and never trapping an insect under his palm where it might feel the need to sting.

And there she was at last, his young and handsome queen. All the commotion had her out of her natural routine, and she stepped irregularly across the comb, accompanied by her vigorous attendants. He would not keep her stressed for any longer than was necessary. A quick count was made of capped cells, new larvae, and freshly laid eggs. This new queen's reign, still so early in its first season, was progressing impressively well. She would have years left before her era would come to an end and a transition to a new queen would begin.

Which meant Holmes had years as well. Although he could not bear to miss the coronation of another successor, there was time enough for him to conduct other necessary work in the interim. Time enough to concoct a new identity for his own spycraft on another continent. Time enough for infiltration into treacherous enemy territory. Time enough for an old bloodhound to sniff out one last trail in the grand service of justice.

"I will take England's case, Mr. Asquith. I shall require passage to America, and enough resources to sustain me for the next several years. You'll have your man. On that, you have my word."
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