Now Mummy and Father are in the room, looking down at Sherlock and conferring in low tones. Mycroft is standing at the door, hanging onto the knob. No one has noticed him.
"He needs to go to hospital," he says, suddenly. "He needs to!"
Father gives Mummy a worried look, but Mummy only smiles, and he goes quiet. She half-turns to Mycroft and says, "Don't be silly, Mycroft, Mummy's boys don't go to hospital."
He can't, he can't fight Mummy, she's too much, but this isn't right. In desperation, he cries out, "I'll tell. I will. I will!"
Mummy turns back to Sherlock and smoothes her hand over his forehead. "No, you won't, my darling."
He knows it's true, and he breaks and runs from the room.
Sherlock gets better, but it's two months before Mycroft can even look at him without feeling choked with shame.
Mrs. Holmes is widely acknowledged to be the great beauty of the county. It is more than her physical appearance; she is so charming she leaves people dazed. In a different era, duels would have been fought over her.
But physical beauty she has, too. She is tall and slim, high-cheekboned, with a tumble of dark curls. In just the right light, her pale blue eyes seem shot with silver.
Her boys both resemble her, but only the younger one, Sherlock, has her eyes.
Mycroft stands in front of the long mirror in the hall and adjusts his tie for the fifth time. He is seventeen and going away to Clare, Father's college, in the morning. Mummy's boys have been privately tutored; he has no idea what it will be like to live with other students.
The only person he's ever lived with is Sherlock, who is sitting on the great staircase, scowling furiously.
"You're always pretending to be normal. It's loathsome."
"It's useful," he says, grazing the knot with one finger. "You should try harder."
An obstinate silence, then: "You'll never be able to stop, there."
"I don't want to stop." That's true. He wants to wind himself so deep into it that there's no way out.
"The smarter ones around here know, you know," Sherlock says. "'Something not quite right about that older Holmes boy.'"
Mycroft glances back at him. "Did you overhear that, or deduce it?"
Sherlock huffs, pleased to have gotten more of his attention. "Both."
"Give me time," he says. "Soon, no one will be able to tell."
The silence from Sherlock lasts long enough that he looks back again. Sherlock is sitting hunched, with his arms wrapped round himself. In a very small voice, he asks, "What about me?"
For a minute, the tie chokes Mycroft. He turns away from the mirror and comes over to the steps. Sherlock gives him a defiant look, but he doesn't pull away when Mycroft bends down, takes his shoulders, and kisses his forehead. "You'll always know, Sherlock," he murmurs into his hair. "I promise."
"I'll never go to university," Sherlock says, and he's trembling, trembling as though he has a fever again. "Never, never!"
"You'll be at Clare in six years' time," Mycroft tells him.
This time, it is Sherlock who breaks away and runs.
Mycroft finds Clare to be an even greater challenge than he'd expected. Cambridge is tolerant, even welcoming, of a certain kind of childish eccentricity amongst the undergrads--it's the last gasp of individuality for all the dreadfully bourgeois future leaders of Britain--but he doesn't dare indulge. It's like he's reading an extra subject that no one else is, or wearing some additional, invisible layer of lead under his clothing. He sits with his chin on his arms, looking out into the Memorial Court at his classmates and wondering how they all do it. He eats too much, not so much for comfort as out of the sense that he's engaged in some vast and endless battle and needs all the sustenance he can get.
But he does well, brilliantly well, in PPS. His tutors are suitably impressed, as he needs them to be. He makes, slowly, a handful of friends, chosen primarily for their social usefulness. He becomes, slowly, someone who is known. Not loved, perhaps, but someone who must be reckoned with. He's even elected representative to the UCS--not because he's so popular, he knows, but because he's managed to give the impression that he can get things done.
He never, ever tells anyone what he observes.
Sherlock, at home, does not do so well, and less so as time goes on. He's rude enough to the staff that two of them give notice. He gets into fights with local boys (how does he even manage to meet so many, Mycroft wonders). He begins arbitrarily rejecting certain subjects offered by his tutors, and says something so insolent to one of them that Mr. Riverton actually chases him a quarter mile with a riding crop before recalling, too late, that corporal punishment is not tolerated in the Holmes household.
It's only when hearing about Sherlock that Mycroft is grateful he inherited less of Mummy's gifts than Sherlock has, has had to piece together his own way of dealing with the people around him. Mummy is like an illuminated fountain at Versailles, always graceful, always scintillating. Sherlock is like a Roman candle, fizzing, coruscating--then going out, leaving nothing but ash and an acrid smell. An ugliness. His charm is far too unreliable to build a life on, but he refuses to learn more subtle and steady means of dealing with the world.
He writes to Sherlock, long letters in French, German, one of their many ciphers. He does try not to lecture, only to entertain, but he's fairly confident he's failing in both regards. My genius brother, he wants to write to him, why won't you learn?
In blacker moods, he wants to say, We're the same, you and I. If I can do it, then you ruddy well can, too. It's lazy and selfish of you not even to try.
But that's not fair. After all, he knows, and Sherlock doesn't.
Instead, he slips in little mathematical puzzles. Those are the only ones Sherlock deigns to answer. By return post, of course.
He's not surprised when hes approached in his third year by a careful, quiet man and woman, but he is pleased. He's tried so hard to put out, without seeming to, the signals that would attract them.
The interview goes well, as does the one in London, until the very end.
"We have, of course, been reviewing your background," the man says, looking down deliberately into a file. "And we do have one concern..."
He makes himself look pleasant, puzzled, bland. What is it? his mind scrabbles to deduce. The lack of a vaccination record? One of his early tutors, bearing tales of how he'd urged Mummy to have Mycroft evaluated for a personality disorder? "Oh, really?"
"Yes. It's your social life at college. You don't seem to have found any...intimate companions."
"Girls or boys," the woman adds quickly. "We don't care which. But when there's a total absence, it makes us wonder if something else isn't going on. Something which could raise difficulties."
They're both looking at him with disciplined curiosity, but he can sense how it's poised to slip into distaste. Mycroft flushes, violently. It's not as if he hasn't looked through his window and coveted. There'd been a girl in one of his supervisions his first year, a first-class cellist, tiny with long black hair and favoring man-tailored suits, who had set his heart thumping whenever he looked at her. He'd gone to all her recitals, pain and pleasure intermingling until he was ready to faint from it. But he knows it's not safe. The contact would be too close, the expectations too unpredictable. Mummy had had Father, of course; but Mycroft's not Mummy.
He has done everything else for them, all the dutiful study, all the tedious navigation of deeply irrelevant student politics, all the slow-motion, skin-crawling suffering of ginning up a presentable social life. And it's not enough. They still want more. They still think there might be something wrong with him. Because--he lets himself see--a woman who's choosing to stay with someone who teases her brutally about her weight and a man who's on his third affair with a departmental secretary are so much better. He hates each of them individually, in ways specific to her five speeding citations and his appalling rudeness to office staff, and resolves that, if he has his way, he will end their careers one day.
He smiles and smiles. It may be his best smile yet, a blind within a blind: see how sophisticated a liar I am already? You can trust me. "I assure you," he says, "I'm very discreet."
Mycroft comes home and announces the offer at dinner--the cover position, of course, not the real one, but Mummy's eyes twinkle. It's the thing that has always made him happiest in the world.
Or it would be, if it weren't for Sherlock's elaborate silence. Mycroft glances at him, half-grown now, sulking like a toddler, and he wants to shake him.
Late that night, he smells the smoke drifting in his bedroom window. He pulls on his dressing gown and goes down to the garden, where Sherlock is enjoying a forbidden cigarette.
"I'll have to have a word with Barrymore," he says. "Buying you cigarettes is not part of his remit." No matter what observation Sherlock is blackmailing him with.
"What's the real position?" Sherlock asks, and takes a lengthy drag.
"You know I can't tell you that."
"I'll figure it out."
"I also can't stop you from deducing," Mycroft says, with a gentle smile, oddly pleased at the idea of being the focus of Sherlock's deductive powers for the moment. "But I advise you not to share the fruits of your labors with anyone."
"Why would you even want a ridiculous job like that?"
"Call it a lust for power," he says, which is another, more roundabout way of saying safety. They can't hide forever.
"Power," Sherlock scoffs. "You'll be taking orders." Another drag on the cigarette. "I'll be damned if I'll ever hold a job."
"Are you planning to sponge off Mummy for the rest of your life, then?"
"I'll think of something," Sherlock says. "And it won't involve toadying to a batch of morons."
"Since the world is largely composed of morons, I suppose that means you'll have to work alone," Mycroft observes.
"They always said you were brilliant," Sherlock says, perfectly deadpan.
"And it's not toadying if it accomplishes your goals."
"What shall I call it, then? Mycrofting?"
Mycroft's only response is to extract the packet with the three remaining cigarettes from the crack in the tree where Sherlock had hastily secreted it when he came out, turn on his heel, and walk back into the house.
Mummy falls ill, very suddenly, when Mycroft is twenty-five. She refuses to see any doctors; she calls her solicitor, shuts up her house, and sends for Mycroft.
When he comes to see her, she's so pale she's almost transparent, slipping back amongst the pillows in her dimly-lit bedroom. Her wrist, between his fingers, is bird-small, and her pulse slow. Yet she's still heartstoppingly beautiful. His mind finds it difficult to reconcile her obvious illness with the bedrock faith in his mind: Mummy isn't like all the others. Mummy is forever.
"Why is this happening?" he asks, taking a seat by her bed.
"I don't know."
"Won't you let me..." he trails off. All the expertise he might ordinarily bring to this kind of situation: useless.
"You know there's nothing to be done, Mycroft. It won't be long."
He nods, accepting it, and considers the implications as he strokes her wrist with his thumb. He's never spoken about it, since that one terrible day, his ninth birthday; it just wasn't done, like asking ladies their age or men their income. That prohibition has stretched across his entire life. But this might well be his last opportunity.
"Is anyone ever coming?" he asks, finally. "Or will it always be like this?"
Mummy's smile is so sad that she doesn't have to answer the question directly. After a little pause of her own, she says, "What good would it even do you, my poor darling?"
The question pierces him, in a way he isn't prepared for. He's never allowed himself to have what he knows would have been a rich and detailed secret vision of what life would be like with Mummy's people; he's always understood, instinctively, that such dreams could be a fatal diversion of his energy. But it has never come home to him til now that they would recognize him as theirs even less than the people around him do. A whole world he's held in reserve somewhere in the back of his mind vanishes. He bows his head with the weight of the loss--just for a moment. Then he says, "It might help Sherlock, though."
"Will you ever tell him?" she asks softly.
He leans back in his chair, loosening his grip on Mummy's hand. "Sherlock thinks he's chosen to be the way he is. He thinks the problem is with the rest of humanity, not with him. If he ever learns that it's him who's wrong, that it's beyond his control..."
She nods, and he finds himself wondering how he bears it, how it is that he's been expected to bear it all along. Just because he'd been nine years old, and had observed, and had asked. "But you'll keep looking out for him, won't you?"
"Of course, Mummy." For so many reasons, only some of which involve sentiment, he doesn't really have a choice.
Without the sentiment, though, it would only be one of his many duties. Not something that threatens to shoot a fissure right through him.
"That's my boy," she says. "My dear, dear Mycroft."
Mycroft could ask more questions, but his spirit is crushed by the conviction that none of the answers will ever do anything for him. So he sits with her, watching the last light of fall fade from the windows, and thinks about nothing at all. It's been such a long time since he did that. But now, he suspects, there's a vast empty space inside he will always be able to fall into, if he ever stops working.
After the funeral, Mycroft finds Sherlock standing near the little brook on the property. "So," his little brother announces, "alone in the world."
Mycroft can see him writing that into his personal melodrama, as if he's watching himself from the outside, admiring his own performance. "Yes."
Sherlock scowls at him. "Mycroft, when you look at me like that, you make me want to flatten you. I don't want your pity."
"Good," Mycroft says. "It's not available."
Sherlock had gone to Clare after all, in natural sciences. Keeping him from being sent down had turned into one of Mycroft's avocations. It was difficult in the best of times. At this moment, he has nothing extra to spare for Sherlock.
Sherlock turns away sharply. "You shouldn't have had her cremated. Mummy, reduced to smoke and ashes. It's too horrible."
"It was her explicit wish," Mycroft says, even though he agrees wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
"You could have waited!" Sherlock bursts out. "You never gave me the chance to see her!"
There's a thudding in his temples. "You could have seen her if you had been accessible to the college authorities when I called for you." He would be working for the next five years to redeem the favors he'd had to request to have Sherlock located.
"So, you went ahead out of spite? That's low, even for you, Mycroft."
Mummy had insisted that it be swift. He had felt more frantic with every passing hour, not sure what would happen. It had to be done. "You were here for the funeral, Sherlock. Isn't that enough?"
"Oh, yes, the funeral." Sherlock sneers. "Well, the funeral is over, Mycroft. The guests have left the house. All the little ceremonies and decencies performed. What will you do now there's nothing to pretend to anymore?"
"Comfort my grieving little brother, apparently," he says, and he knows that his smile has missed its mark and ended up horribly distorted on his face, but he doesn't seem to have the control over the muscles to fix it.
Meanwhile, Sherlock's sneer has tightened into a look of pure disgust. "You promised me I'd always know what you were really feeling. I don't think you're feeling anything at all. I think you've been pretending so long that there's nothing left of you in there."
The fundamental unfairness of it--Sherlock has to be able to see--
Sherlock's look, when he hits him, is pure astonishment. Mycroft watches as his arms windwill in slow motion and he topples over into the brook. He strides away, leaving Sherlock there, splashing and shouting remarks whose words can't even reach Mycroft through the howling silence in his ears.
They barely speak for the next two years.
Mycroft's career is progressing nicely. If he'd hoped that people in his department would be less, well, mundane than elsewhere, his hopes are dashed--there are still office parties, gifts, small talk on the lifts. But the scripts are simplified, at least, the interactions more perfunctory. More importantly, he can be far more open about his deductions. He still can't admit to the speed at which he solves the problems that come to him, but not having to waste time fabricating cover stories for his observations is a relief.
As for the rest of it...he's aware that he is being noticed. He joins a small, most particular, and highly discreet club not too distant from the office and takes pains to visit once a month. This does lead to occasional awkwardnesses--he may not be Mummy, or even Sherlock, but he knows there is something compelling about him, to a certain eye--but the rules are explicit, and there are no lasting difficulties. It's a little unorthodox, but he thinks it will be enough to satisfy them.
Sherlock leaves Cambridge abruptly, three months before examinations. He doesn't see the value in proving to anyone besides himself that he's mastered the material. Mycroft, who got a First himself as a matter of course, certainly does, but he doesn't bother to remonstrate. Nor does he try to find Sherlock a position; that is something he will do when asked, and only when asked.
Sherlock drifts into London, where it is at least marginally more convenient to keep track of him. Boredom finds him there within a matter of weeks, and Mycroft must once again devote a not-insignificant fraction of his energies to keeping Sherlock from the attention of the authorities. It's not, at least, that Sherlock is self-destructive or looking for trouble; he is simply dying for stimulation and heedless of the consequences; but that is enough.
Mycroft interferes as little as he possibly can. No matter how elaborate the fantasies of dismemberment he entertains about Sherlock's dealers, for instance, he lets them severely alone. He observes with something like envy the paradoxical soothing effect cocaine has on Sherlock, yet he never utters a word on the subject. He knows it is no solution, especially in the longer run, but he is sure that any commentary on his part will only exacerbate the problem, and he has no intention at all of getting enmeshed in some tedious narrative of intervention and rehab. Despite the way it may feel sometimes, he has other concerns to attend to--greater every day.
But there are still events that could be disastrous, for both of them, and he must remain on guard against their occurrence. So he finds himself at a crime scene late on a November night, sleet blurring the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. Sherlock had intervened in some sort of a scuffle on the street, quite possibly saving a young lady from an extremely unpleasant experience, and had gotten hit hard on the head for his troubles. He's lurching and slurring his words, and the detective in charge, understandably, wants him sent off to A&E.
Understandably, but completely unacceptably. Mycroft calmly invites himself under the yellow tape, lifting it with his umbrella, and moves to stand next to Sherlock, who starts and glares at him blearily, as if it were nothing but an unpleasant surprise to see his only brother after nearly ten months.
"I believe he is refusing treatment, Detective," he murmurs. "That should be the end of it."
"Sorry," the detective growls, not sounding it at all, "but who are you?"
Sherlock bursts out laughing, a harsh, obnoxious laughter. There's a bleeding cut on his cheek that lends him a gruesome air. "Oh, that's done it. He'll be miserable for a week."
"I'm his brother."
"There's two of you? God help us," the detective mutters. "Look, I'm not convinced he was competent even before he was knocked on the head."
Mycroft focuses in on him more sharply. Married, with two children. Lives with his family in a flat that's too small for them. In the force a number of years and expecting a promotion to detective-inspector within a short period of time. Bribable, perhaps not, threatenable, yesbut he hopes it won't come to that.
"Perhaps not," Mycroft lies, "but I've his LPA and I would refuse treatment on his behalf, as well. Come along, Sherlock."
The detective looks back and forth between them, then shakes his head, exasperated. "All right, if you want him, you're welcome to him." He waves his hand. "But if I were you--"
"Fortunately for us all, Detective, you are not," Mycroft says, and steers Sherlock away.
Sherlock, of course, had pulled his arm out of Mycroft's grasp immediately, but when they are well out of sight of the police, he stumbles against him and lets it go across Mycroft's shoulders.
"Just, just get me a cab," he mumbles. No thanks, even though Sherlock has the same instinctual fear of doctors as Mycroft. That was a lesson Mummy taught well.
"Absolutely not," Mycroft says. "You probably have a concussion. You need to be kept under observation."
"I don't see anyone else volunteering for the job," Mycroft says. Thankfully, the car pulls up at that moment, cutting off Sherlock's response.
As he half-carries Sherlock into the room at the Diogenes, Mycroft decides that it's past time to take a safe flat or two that are completely unconnected with his position. He takes the first-aid kit from the porter--they're well-supplied there--and locks the door.
He eases Sherlock onto the sofa and stands to take off his own overcoat, which is now spattered with Sherlock's blood. Pity. It'll have to be burned. He sits down next to him. "I'm going to stanch that wound first."
Sherlock doesn't protest, which worries him. Mycroft has no idea what to do if he takes a turn for the considerably worse. He pushes the thought away and reaches for the suture kit.
As he stitches, Sherlock remains still and pale, his breathing shallow, fingers barely hooked into the upholstery. The trick is not minding that it hurts, Mycroft thinks, and has to swallow a giggle. He's done this more than once before, but it's a great deal easier when his hands aren't shaking. At least Sherlock doesn't complain.
"There," he says, snipping off the last thread. "Finished."
Sherlock sighs raggedly and puts his hand up to touch the newly-closed cut. He winces the instant his fingertips press the flesh. "What, no lecture to accompany?"
"Subject matter?" Mycroft inquires, dabbing at Sherlock's face with a steri-pad.
"Oh, I don't know, the importance of discretion?"
"Not compared to helping someone in imminent danger, Sherlock."
"You're perfectly absurd," Sherlock says dreamily, leaning his head back as Mycroft continues to try to wipe the blood off. "You care about them less than I do."
"I--" He stops. Even to Sherlock, he thinks, it may be impossible to explain the great tenderness and longing he feels for humanity as a whole, the difficulty and repulsion of dealing with any one individual specimen. There's a reason he's chosen government, the anonymous direction of the fate of the masses. "I'd still rather you not pass by, in such a situation."
Sherlock's eyes go closed and he doesn't say anything. The silence stretches on for almost five minutes. Mycroft realizes with dismay that he is going to have to invent conversational topics--he has to make sure that Sherlock isn't slipping into unconsciousness. But before he can find a subject, Sherlock says, slowly, "Carl Powers."
It's a sign of how distracted he is that it actually takes him two seconds to place the name. "What about him?"
"He was murdered."
He reflects, and with more experience to guide him, now he has no doubts. "Most probably, yes."
"You wouldn't help me. You told me to keep quiet about it."
He remembers it with a twinge, and leans his own head on the sofa. Sherlock had been only fifteen, and so frustrated. "You couldn't have done any good."
Sherlook looks over at him. "I could have solved it," he insists, sounding like the small, stubborn boy he had once been.
"That is not the same as doing any good." You could never drain London of killers. The supply is inexhaustible.
"It might have done me some good."
"Hunting murderers is not a suitable pastime for a third-former," Mycroft says firmly. And yet...
Sherlock's lips twist. "Big brother always knows what's proper." His eyes flicker around. "Might be more convincing if we weren't having this conversation in your...your sex club."
"It's not my--" he starts, then abandons it. Even a concussed Sherlock knows at one glance what the rest of the world would require considerable investigation to determine.
"Taking your little brother into a place like this," Sherlock murmurs, clearly pleased to have scored a point. "What would Mummy say?"
I'm sorry, darling, but it can't be helped, Mycroft thinks, and that awful yawning chasm in his spirit threatens to open up and swallow him.
Sherlock is frowning at him, as if he's seeing something new and not entirely welcome. Mycroft shakes himself. "Nothing. It's nothing."
Sherlock continues to frown, but then loses the thread in his general fog. "Well," he muses, "at least this evening hasn't been boring."
"I'm glad I've managed to entertain you."
"Not at all, Mycroft." Sherlock waves a hand. "The criminal element of London. I owe them a debt of gratitude."
"Sherlock," Mycroft says decisively, "if investigating Carl Powers's death would have spared you boredom for a little while, I regret ever discouraging you."
Sherlock's eyes widen, as if in genuine surprise. Then he blinks and mutters, "Left it rather late, haven't you?"
He wakes with a gasp in the middle of the night, fifteen minutes before he's supposed to check on Sherlock. He doesn't remember what he'd been dreaming of--he almost never does--but the sense of terror and sorrow is overwhelming. He reaches instinctively for Sherlock, who's curled at the other side of the bed and rolls over limply at his touch, onto his back.
He snatches his hand back, just as Sherlock's eyes flutter open. An improbable relief breaks over him.
Sherlock's voice is creaky, fetched from the deeps. He should ask him to perform a cognitive test, but he can't summon one. "Nothing. Go back to sleep. It's early yet."
"Mmmm." Sherlock's eyelids drift downwards, but he doesn't roll away. After a minute, he says groggily, puzzled, "You're hyper--hyperventilating."
"I"--much as he might prefer to, it's futile to deny it, when every word gives it away--"yes."
His eyes crinkle faintly. "Silly. Not going to die, Mycroft."
"Of course not," he says, forcing his voice even.
"Shouldn't worry so much."
"Probably," he agrees.
"Poor old Mycroft," Sherlock sighs, almost to himself. "No one to worry about you."
Mycroft takes it as mockery at first, and tenses, but quickly realizes that his brother is in no condition for advanced sarcasm. Sherlock is very pale against even the spotless white pillowcase, his dark hair tumbling down. In the moonlight, his eyes shine. Mycroft is transfixed by that silver gleam, the beauty of everything he isn't and never will be.
"I don't need it," he whispers.
Sherlock reaches out and pats his face clumsily, with uncoordinated fingers. "Can tell when you're lying, you know," he says. "Most of the time, anyway."
Mycroft wants to shut his eyes and let it go on for as long as it can. He wants to reach out in turn and stroke Sherlock's hair, the way he used to when Sherlock was just a little boy who wanted to follow him everywhere even before he could walk. He wants to tell Sherlock about the greatest lie of all, the one Sherlock's never been able to detect, because he would have to be able to believe that the truth was even possible, and even the most brilliant thinker of his generation knows it can't be.
That last thought freezes him where he lies. He reaches up and takes Sherlock's wrist, very gently, lifting it away from his face as his thumb finds the pulse to count.
"Count backwards from forty-four for me," he says. "By threes, please."
Sherlock's brow furrows briefly, but then he complies, his voice sinking lower with each number as he drifts back towards sleep.
When he's done, Mycroft has forgotten to let go of his wrist, and Sherlock's forgotten to pull away.
Sherlock slips out, unsurprisingly, between the six and the seven a.m. check-ins. Mycroft considers pursuit, but decides it isn't necessary if Sherlock has been able to negotiate getting clean clothes and breakfast from the staff.
Life goes on as it has before. Mycroft continues to maneuver his way upwards. He sees a time, not too far off, when eccentricity, a certain affectation, will itself be an expression of power. He acquires a pocket watch and a more elaborate umbrella and begins to practice.
Meanwhile, if Sherlock remembers much of that night, it's not apparent in their brief, tense encounters. But the first time Mycroft unfolds the paper to see Sherlock's name mentioned in connection with the arrest of a murder suspect, he smiles. A rare, genuine smile, which would have astonished anyone in his department, if they had been there to see it.
It's not what he would have chosen, but it's a beginning.