It was a very nice room, all things considered. Just like the car ride had been rather comfortable, allowing for the fact that it was happening against Mycroft’s will. Whoever was doing this was a dangerous person. Mycroft understood brutishness. He understood force. Both were perfectly common and would have formed a suitable trampoline off which to bounce ideas about the identity of his abductors. But luxury he found disconcerting. It told him nothing about what might follow, and Mycroft needed to prepare. Were this a high-level diplomatic meeting, he could always have relied on improvisation, but here Mycroft didn’t even know the stakes. However, the fact that very few things about this kidnapping were going by the book was enough to indicate the stakes must be very high. He had gone over the office’s current affairs during the car ride. It was possible this was about the Agra project but Mycroft dismissed that as wishful thinking on his part. He had an inkling that this was a personal matter, which narrowed things down. Drastically.
He poured himself a scotch, added a lot of ice, and went to stand by the window again, but this time not in a futile attempt to explore the scenery. His eyes just needed to roam an open space, which allowed his mind to expand. Oh, such a shame that things here had to be serious. If not for the feeling that his bowls were slowly being filled with lead, Mycroft would have rather enjoyed himself. He took his mind out for a walk regularly, but exertion wasn’t his forte even when it was only metaphorical. Letting his mind run was a rare indulgence, but once he allowed it, he felt exhilarated—as he would have felt now, if his mind weren’t threatening to run amok.
It was dark outside, with hardly any light pollution; he’d already concluded they were deep in the Surrey countryside. The drive had taken a bit over ninety minutes, and it was now past midnight. At this time of the month dark though it was outside, it wasn’t pitch black—whatever powers his “host” had, switching off a full moon wasn’t one of them. This reminder that his enemy was only human grounded Mycroft, gave him the leverage needed to start examining the situation methodically.
Clue number one: timing. Mycroft had taken three trips abroad in the last four days, two of those to different continents. He was as prone to jetlag as the next person. Furthermore, the last business he’d had to attend to had vexed him a great deal, and had invaded the already thin sliver dedicated to sleep on Mycroft’s schedule. He was not in good form; certainly not at his full mental capacity. Only this afternoon he’d had to re-read a paragraph in a document three times—three times!—before he’d seen the obvious bluff in it. On his way home later Mycroft had felt light-headed.
No one but those very close to him would have noticed any of that. Someone had been watching and biding their time for a long while. The thought was so threatening that Mycroft rushed down his list of clues.
Number two: the use of Sherlock as bait.
Sherlock. Mycroft shut his eyes and nearly let his forehead rest against the cold glass of the window. He clutched the other cold glass in his hand, and was suddenly assaulted by the surreal, disturbing image of lifting the glass to his lips but biting on the rim instead of sipping. Crushing the glass between his teeth, breaking it, cutting his tongue on it—
He realized he’d forgotten to breathe. So much for intellect reigning at the core of all human experiences.
When Mycroft was twenty he got into an argument with his first lover. It was about the distinction, or lack of thereof, between the intellectual and the spiritual. His lover had postulated that all human experience emanated from the same source: “Strike the correct centres in the brain and you can wipe out the ability to appreciate music or poetry—both prime examples for ‘food for the soul’.”
It was unreasonable to expect anything different from a neurobiologist, especially one whose psyche had rare fragility—after all that psyche had constructed a paradigm, in which eliminating feelings was only a matter of medical procedure. Mycroft had always been able to recognize which beliefs were optional for people and which were essential for their survival, and he didn’t press his lover too hard. They were going to bed, so he let him feel victorious. Besides, had Mycroft wanted to, he could have won the argument on the spot. True, his evidence wasn’t material, but it still proved to Mycroft beyond a shadow of doubt that there were experiences he himself could not attribute to the intricate workings of the limbic system. Or rather one experience.
It was how he felt about his brother.
Just to look at Sherlock had always stirred emotions in Mycroft that existed on different planes from everything else. It was barely comparable to looking at Louis-Leopold Boilly’s A Girl at a Window. Both evoked inexhaustible fascination in Mycroft—the National Gallery could have done itself a great service had it agreed to sell him the painting. But, like Sherlock, it was to remain free for the world to stare at. Or—and Mycroft didn’t know which was worse—to pass it by blindly.
Also like the painting, Sherlock offered a mesmerising visual in how real he seemed, how beautiful; yet the closer you looked at both, the more disturbing became your feeling of sensory deception—your suspicion that you were indeed in the presence of beauty, but that of a lifeless art work. When Sherlock was little, Mycroft often stopped by his bed to check on him while he slept. Even then he’d had the irrational impulse to gently rub the warm, still curvature of Sherlock’s upper lip, to check whether the line might smudge under his finger. Seeing his brother peacefully asleep still threw Mycroft head-down into a bottomless well of emotion that was impossible to define, but that certainly had very little to do with his brain.
Yet with all of that as evidence already, it was the heavy, subliminal effect of Sherlock’s personality that made Mycroft stand firmly behind his conviction that his was a spiritual experience. As a boy, Mycroft had educated himself on the condition of arrhythmia, because he’d thought he had it since he was seven. It was only with the raging self-reflection of adolescence that Mycroft made the connection between his peculiar heart condition and the year his brother was born.
That one day someone else should figure out the surest way to short-circuit Mycroft’s brain came as a very unpleasant surprise.
As soon as Sherlock opened his eyes he knew something was wrong. His first instinct was to sniff the air—nothing but the staleness of a room that hadn’t been open in several hours. He turned on his bedside lamp and looked about for anything precarious—objects hanging by a thread, an unwanted presence. Again, nothing. Had he spotted something, or made a mental note to be somewhere but subsequently forgotten about it? Had he missed a call from Lestrade? His phone was dark. Sherlock shuffled into a sitting position on the bed, burying a hand in his hair and pulling tightly; he closed his eyes and tugged harder, welcomed the stinging sensation. His brain needed—
Sherlock’s eyelids flew wide open. It was Mycroft! Something was wrong with Mycroft, he just knew it. Sherlock groaned. He detested the very idea of being so connected to his brother. Being cursed with intuition—arch enemy of the scientific mind—was punishment enough. But to have it burst into vociferous existence on behalf of Mycroft’s well-being was just below the belt.
This wasn’t the first time, either. Oh, things didn’t often go wrong with Mycroft. But since Sherlock was a young boy—three or four at the most—he was able to pick up on every change that affected his brother in any way, even when Mycroft wasn’t in the vicinity. Actually, Sherlock had probably been picking up on it before the age of three, but memory was a tricky thing even for someone capable of managing it so efficiently. And it wasn’t like Sherlock could go and ask people whether at the age of two he had become restless or withdrawn when Mycroft had got his first and last reprimand at school.
He always hoped that this wasn’t “one of life’s little mysteries”, the ones his nanny used to gush about—she had found his condition inexplicably endearing; instead, Sherlock hoped there was a logical explanation for the phenomenon that he just hadn’t found yet. Maybe his feeling was nothing but reasoning that camouflaged itself as intuition. For years Sherlock had just been able to throw a glance at something and deductions had arrived in less than a second. Tracing the reasoning backwards step by step was often very difficult. Perhaps he had picked up on something subconsciously, had deduced something was wrong with Mycroft without being aware he’d done it. Plus it was eleven o’clock in the evening—a more appropriate time to go to bed than to wake up—so perhaps the unusual hour had thrown him.
He pushed the covers off; one of the duvet’s stubborn ends refused to unwrap itself from Sherlock’s right ankle and calf, so Sherlock tried to kick it away, managing instead to kick himself quite effectively. Finally free, he dropped his feet onto the freezing floor. He was going about this the wrong way. Deduction wasn’t some psychological hokum. All deductions were glints from the crystal clear diamond of the conscious. There was nothing objective, no data to suggest that anything out of the ordinary was going on with Mycroft. It was simply the sad truth that such factually unfounded feelings just arrived, cooked and even seasoned, not requiring any effort beyond Sherlock’s figuring out what the hell he was supposed to do about them.
He had a few options. One was to call somebody and find a way to make that somebody call Mycroft. Sherlock would have to invent a damn good pretext to confuse the other party about his real motives. That meant Sherlock had to be duplicitous, and although he could cry all the crocodile tears in the world for a case, when it was for a personal matter…it was just one of the things he wasn’t very good at.
Incidentally, duplicity happened to be one the things Mycroft was very good at.
Trust. More confusing than that unsolved 1897 Venice case. Sherlock didn’t know how one trusted somebody—he only knew how it felt when one no longer did. The child who realized that the centre of his little world, the brother who made the sun rise and set, was capable of saying one thing and doing another—or worse, saying one thing and thinking another…that child never found a way to trust him again. Privately Sherlock had tried. The effort of living with his confusion, hurt, and anger at Mycroft had provoked such lassitude in Sherlock that he had given up and tried to love him unconditionally like he used to, because it was easier.
At which point he had learnt one of the most important—and in his case one of the very few—lessons about the human psyche: Trust could not be willed. Sherlock was unable to erase losing Mycroft to the cruel, cold god of deceit. Nor was he successful in deleting all related memories. Certainly not the first one.
As an adult he could see why you would lie to a child—particularly one with whom you shared an exceptionally strong bond—and say that you were only going to the village to buy a newspaper, when in fact you were leaving for boarding school. Mycroft detested emotional scenes as much as Sherlock did. If he had only trusted Sherlock and explained to him, told him not to make a scene, Sherlock would have understood, even at seven. Rationally, like he understood now.
Irrationally, Mycroft never returning from the village that morning—
Well. Things to focus on now, decisions to make. Such as which was better—call Mycroft and expose Sherlock’s concern for him, or risk it and get someone else to call him. There was, of course, the third option of waiting for Mycroft to call first. But the very thought of spending hours—or days! Their last conversation could hardly be upheld as an example of a well-balanced sibling relationship. For all Sherlock knew Mycroft wouldn’t call him for a fortnight, sulking instead in his virtual corner.
Sherlock sprang up and marched to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water, his bare feet making a slapping sound on the linoleum. God, the floor was freezing; the whole place was. He was glad he would be out of here in six weeks. He hadn’t seen the new place yet, but whatever hole Mrs. Hudson had to offer, it had to be better than this. Sherlock rushed back to bed and sat cross-legged on the pillow, wrapping himself in the duvet. He tucked the edges in around his feet, placed his mobile phone in front of him and frowned at it.
Quarter past eleven.
Well, if he made someone else call Mycroft at this hour, Mycroft was definitely going to find out Sherlock was behind it. Waiting until the morning was out of the question, so Sherlock might as well cut out the middle-man and call his brother himself.
It turned out all his inner wringing of hands had been a waste of time—Mycroft’s phone went straight to voicemail. Sherlock tried again, then again. He pulled the duvet tighter, burrowing himself until only his eyes peered out from it, and chewed on his bottom lip. He did not appreciate where this was going, not at all, but he couldn’t really see any other option. It looked like despite the many impolitely declined invitations Sherlock was going to pay Mycroft a home visit after all. He prayed he’d never have to admit to it openly, but he really hoped his brother was in.
Everything about this abduction worried Mycroft. Each element was prepared with such exemplary conscientiousness, it put to shame most of Mycroft’s immediate inferiors—and he chose his staff well. Sherlock’s number appearing on Mycroft’s screen; the hour, compliant with Mycroft’s knowledge of Sherlock’s drug use patterns; the concerned voice of the middle-aged, working class woman. The very scenario was so perfect in its simplicity that Mycroft was surprised no one had used it before: Sherlock buying drugs in a dangerous locale; Sherlock getting robbed and given a few kicks in a dark alley. A woman coming home late from work—such a kind, respectable, ordinary voice—and finding him in a very bad state, slumped on the ground.
And here was the first mistake Mycroft had made—to believe that Sherlock would actually ask anyone to call him. It had crashed through all his worry, that mistake, and it had gone to his head like a champagne of feverish hope. Temporary insanity—that’s what this was. And it had tricked Mycroft into making his second, unforgivable mistake—his failure to realize that Sherlock’s mobile phone would doubtless also have been stolen.
Painful. Every time so painful to realize once again how diminishing his care for his brother was to his intelligence, to his judgement. To his integrity. It was frightening what Mycroft would do for Sherlock, but more frightening still was the fact that he hadn’t yet encountered anything he wouldn’t do for Sherlock.
On some extremely rare occasions Mycroft allowed himself the luxury of self-pity, and he felt that now was one of those moments. He simply didn’t think it was very fair to be saddled with his lot in life. No, he tried not to mean his upbringing. Yes, he had learnt to view his abilities as a blessing. Both his family and his intelligence—his whole character— were something he’d put under careful but firm management, and he had suffered with dignity the rare moments they still succeeded at absconding and challenging his will. But to have whatever power dealt in the cards in life throw Sherlock into the hand for good measure was just wicked. Sherlock, who possessed mind closest to Mycroft’s, but who was so different in every other way—and if it was possible that difference, that made Mycroft love him more. Sherlock, who was wayward, so reckless, so much his own person that Mycroft was perpetually torn between worry, envy, and awe. He could never let his brother see this, naturally. Sherlock was feral and vulnerable—a bristling combination for a younger sibling whose sense of pride was as overdeveloped as the rest of his emotional make-up was underdeveloped.
Mycroft squinted at the generic line of trees, which obscured the field beyond. This was no time to get meditative, especially when his reflections had such an unsettling ring of familiarity. He must have a strategy. She was supposed to pick him up for the airport at 6:30 in the morning. She’d make her provisional check on his house at 5:30. Five hours, plus at least two hours for the rescue operation. Seven hours was a long time to fill, and Mycroft would do well to continue with his analysis of the situation.
Clue number three: Whoever was behind this had vast resources at their disposal. They had observed, had deduced, and it was rather troubling how correct their deductions were. Of course Mycroft would want to keep things extremely private and would go alone to retrieve his cocked up, bleeding brother. Of course he wouldn’t walk to the main road at that hour in an attempt to catch a cab. Of course his kidnappers would intercept his call to the tested mini-cab company. (And wasn’t it irksome that Mycroft would have to de-bug his entire house again, so soon after the last time?) Of course they’d send an innocuous-looking driver in a genuine mini-cab.
And finally, of course Mycroft wouldn’t try to make a dash for it, or fight. He wrinkled his nose, just as his hand automatically smoothed his waistcoat. All that was needed was a discreet firearm to his ribs and a nod in the direction of the sleek Mercedes, the back door of which was already open. Mycroft remembered thinking that the temperature inside the car would be perfect, and he had been right. The tinted windows, the swift search and acquisition of both his phones, the obligatory driving around randomly for the first half hour to confuse him…The whole thing almost hinted at a copycat, but Mycroft very much doubted this was simply the work of a “fan”.
Clue number four: This place. There had been grapes and freshly cut melon waiting for him. Three bottles of his preferred brand of mineral water, too—one at room temperature next to the fruit platter, and two big bottles in the fridge. The house itself was hidden well geographically and architecturally—it was the epitome of “non-descript”. Naturally Mycroft could describe it, but there was nothing to conclude from what he saw: colours in beige, furniture in standard shape and arrangement, cotton and polyester everywhere, some silk...very good quality, all of it. If Plato’s theory of form was right, this was the closest shadow to the one true idea of a generic four-star hotel room.
It gave him the creeps. And at this rate he would have to start awarding points to the mastermind behind the kidnapping. Mycroft wasn’t easily negligent, governed by emotion, confused, or crept out. Nor was he easily frightened.
He turned away from the window, struck by the realization that there was nothing accidental about the amount of time he was left to spend alone here, either. Well. Last time anyone tried to play him, the 2005 panic buying of petrol occurred. Mycroft walked to the centre of the room with the tip of his umbrella ruining the carpet. He chose the armchair facing the door and sat down, careful not to crease his trousers unnecessarily. He lightly pursed his lips just as a thin line appeared between his eyebrows, then he stared ahead. If his opponent really knew him that well, he should know time was up.
Sherlock and Mycroft are reclining against the big oak tree on the hill—or rather, Mycroft is leaning his back on the trunk and Sherlock is reclining against Mycroft’s side. Soon he wriggles down, his body stretching fully on the ground, only his head resting on Mycroft’s chest. When he was four, Sherlock used to worry that his brother had two hearts—it didn’t matter on which side Sherlock rested his head, he could always hear the loud thumping. Now that he’s fourteen, he has other things on his mind. Such as the fact that Mycroft will be gone in two and a half weeks.
The day is warm enough for Sherlock to wear just a t-shirt, but Mycroft has always been more prone to chills. They argued back in the house about Sherlock putting on a jacket; he won that argument. As they were climbing the hill, they argued about Sherlock keeping his shoes on.
“There are ticks this time of year, Sherlock,” Mycroft pointed out sensibly.
“Then I’ll be able to establish how much blood one needs to extract to cause a swelling the size of a table tennis ball, like I read in—”
“You can take your shoes off on top of the hill, after I check the grass.”
Now they are both barefoot, and Sherlock’s toes curl around small tufts of grass, occasionally plucking them. He feels cocooned in warmth with his neck and shoulders pressed into Mycroft’s body, and his front touched by the rays of sunshine beaming between the thick growth of the leaves. Sherlock’s eyelids would flutter down, if he wasn’t too busy thinking about the chat he had with Mycroft last night.
Mycroft has changed. He’s been to University for three years now, and every time he comes back he acts more and more like a grown up. He’s also started treating Sherlock differently. Sherlock isn’t sure how he feels about it. That isn’t surprising in and of itself; after all, Sherlock doesn’t exactly spend a lot of time exploring feelings—his or anyone else’s. He’s found feelings extremely awkward and has decided that they should, somehow, arrange themselves by themselves. Data, on the other hand, is everywhere, waiting to be arranged by someone who has the eyes to see it and the mind to arrange it in patterns.
Yet Sherlock can tell the difference between not knowing how you feel, and not being sure about it. Here he isn’t sure about it, because he seems to feel at least three different things at the same time. The new, adult Mycroft is treating Sherlock more like an adult, too, and Sherlock feels awkward about it, although he doesn’t know why. But he also feels good; he feels important. It all makes him confused and a bit on edge—there are just too many things he can’t explain.
Somewhere in all this he is also worried that Mycroft has somehow…forgotten that Sherlock is his little brother. (In perfect timing with this thought Mycroft’s hand lifts and buries itself in Sherlock’s hair, then his thumb and forefinger start gliding gently up and down the strands, exploring their structure and curvature. Sherlock feels his own eyes starting to close like those of Mr. Whiskerson’s, the cook’s cat, when he, too, is lying in the sun.)
Light has such rich colour behind Sherlock’s eyelids.
The primary good thing about Mycroft treating him differently is that he now tells Sherlock things that are brand new. Not facts, but things about himself. Mycroft’s words have always been something to hope for, or bargain out of him, or be withheld as punishment. He’s never spoken to Sherlock like an equal, no matter how hard Sherlock has tried to show him he’s just as smart. Sherlock doesn’t understand why his brother is like that, but the older Sherlock’s got, the more it has annoyed him, and the more they’ve clashed. (That psychologist mummy talked to in the library said something about Sherlock arguing with Mycroft so that he forced Mycroft to talk back. If Sherlock wasn’t reluctant to give away that he—and only he, not Mycroft—had managed to discover the secret passage between the library and the basement, he would have come out and made that doctor prove to him how Sherlock was doing such an illogical thing. What good was anything without proof?)
But now Mycroft starts conversations on his own. Last night they stayed up late, Sherlock’s stomach tightening as the shadows grew longer. When light turned to dusk, Mycroft went about the drawing room to switch on the lamps, poured himself a glass of scotch, and didn’t send Sherlock away. Sherlock wished he wasn’t still wearing his filthy trousers—he’d spent the afternoon crawling about all over the roof testing the trajectory of stones he dropped from it.
He still hasn’t quite found the way to converse with this grown-up of a brother so last night Sherlock just pulled his knees up to his chest and tucked his chin behind them. Mycroft froze when he looked up from his glass and saw him. Sherlock wondered if it was because he was leaving dirt on the sofa, but then Mycroft silently walked back to the door and switched off the light that was falling directly over Sherlock’s head.
Sherlock doesn’t remember how the conversation got onto this topic, but one moment they were talking about the balance of some chemicals in the brain, and the next Mycroft was telling him about what he saw as he looked at people. Sherlock didn’t dare breathe.
“You know how we notice details everywhere?” Mycroft began. “And they mean something to us that they don’t to other people? These details are always material—we can touch them, taste them, examine them physically. But I notice other…things, too, things about people that can’t be seen under a microscope. Intimate things they might not even be aware of themselves.” Mycroft stopped, squinting at Sherlock, before his eyes shot to the light switch by the door for an instant. “And occasionally it is better that way.”
A few seconds passed in silence, then Mycroft spoke again, voice quiet and so melodic that Sherlock fought the temptation to close his eyes and pretend he was five, listening to his brother tell him the story of some Greek philosopher.
“Let me give you an example,” the melodic voice dragged on. Mycroft has started dragging his vowels in the last year. It makes him sound even more like a man. “When Dad was still alive, Grandmother Holmes used to come for Sunday dinner, once every couple of months. One day we were all at the table, and Dad and Grandmother talked about the meat at some butcher’s shop back in Yorkshire. They both said the name of the butcher’s in a very thick Yorkshire dialect. You were too little to remember, but one could rarely hear even a trace of Dad’s native dialect in his speech. The second time they said this butcher’s name in the same way, Mummy told him this wasn’t how the name was pronounced, then corrected him with the right pronunciation. Grandmother Holmes said nothing, and Dad only murmured to Mummy, ‘Come on, now.’ Then they changed the subject.”
Sherlock felt his eyebrows knit together—he didn’t understand where Mycroft was going with this. Was there something about the butcher? Some secret Dad was afraid Mummy would tell? Mycroft watched him, then nodded to himself.
“What I notice in this little scene,” he continued, “is something far more intricate than the correct pronunciation of the Queen’s English. Grandmother never lost her Yorkshire dialect. Dad pronounced the name of the butcher the way he did only after Grandmother had just done so. Dad didn’t have much connection to his childhood, to his roots. This was his way to touch to a part of his identity. It also gave him a way to endear himself to his mother. As to Mummy’s reaction—she felt that Dad’s attachment to his mother was complicated and unhealthy. Mummy didn’t like Grandmother Holmes—you already know that, as you were so imprudent to inform everyone of the fact at Cousin Albert’s wedding. So Mummy correcting Dad on his dialect was, in fact, a manifestation of two things: one, her annoyance at Dad’s persistence in seeking a link to roots Mummy saw as nothing to be proud of, and two, her resentment at Dad’s regression whenever Grandmother was around.”
Sherlock had no idea what to make of all this. He pulled his knees closer to his chest and stared at Mycroft, frowning deeper. He waited to see if there was more to the story, something that would bring some conclusion to it. So Mycroft saw things that weren’t said or explained; okay, Sherlock had noticed that people hid things. Was this an example of the fact that everyone lied? Sherlock knew that already, in no small part through Mycroft. The question “So what?” asserted itself quite strongly, but Sherlock kept his mouth closed. He felt there was something else important here—something he was missing. He hated missing things.
“Nothing follows from that, Sherlock,” Mycroft sighed. “Nothing…material. It was just knowledge. I had it. Mother and Father didn’t, not in the instance itself. These are the sort of things people don’t realize, because they are happening in their subconscious. I do, though. Everywhere I go, everyone I meet, every situation—I can see these patterns just as clearly as I can see the other, physical ones—the ones you can see, too. People are translucent to me.”
“Don’t you get a headache?” Sherlock asked, before he could stop himself.
Mycroft threw his head back and laughed. Sherlock flushed—he had learnt very early to distinguish between his brother laughing at him, and laughing because he was amused by him, fond of him; this was the latter.
“I do,” Mycroft said at length. His eyes were serious. Sherlock let his right hand dangle, the forearm balanced on top of his knees. He tilted his head and regarded Mycroft for a moment; suddenly he wondered if Mycroft saw through him. The hand lifted to grip the side of the knee again.
“This knowledge is something you can decide to leave alone,” Mycroft said. “Especially where there are closer people involved. I could have tried talking to Mother and Father about what I’d concluded. You’d think people would be pleased to have an insight into their own behaviour.” Mycroft had pulled one leg up to his chest, too. His voice dropped. “They’re not.”
Sherlock opened his mouth to ask the obvious question “Why not?” but for some reason he never did. Mycroft drained his glass.
“I can’t switch it off,” he said, a bit breathless.”And yes, it does give me a headache.” He lifted his eyes to bore them into Sherlock’s. “But occasionally, it can be useful knowledge,” he finished.
Sherlock went to bed deep in thought and stayed awake into the small hours, filled to the brim with questions he couldn’t wait to bombard Mycroft with the next day. But Mycroft had avoided his eyes at breakfast this morning, then shut himself away with his new computer, and demonstratively taken his book with him when they started on their walk. Sherlock has said nothing; he is grateful they are here, by the tree now, and Mycroft seems to be more like he used to be—that is, the way he was a day or two ago. All these different Mycrofts are making Sherlock feel like he is on a fishing boat.
But he feels fine at the moment. He gathers some courage from the soft quiet around them, broken only by the swift rustle of yet another page being turned, and the buzz of insects in the air.
“Tell me about Father,” he says.
There is a long stretch of silence, then Mycroft rummages through his pocket and drops an object into Sherlock’s lap—Father’s fob watch.
“Take his watch,” he says. “You will be able to deduce all you need to know about him.”
Sherlock can’t see Mycroft’s face without turning around or looking up, but he is sure Mycroft still has his eyes on the pages. Sherlock lifts the watch to his eyes and his brain immediately starts working, not even waiting for permission.
All he needs to know…It’s like Mycroft’s deciding what’s good for Sherlock and what isn’t. What if there was something Sherlock doesn’t need to know but wants to know? Teach me how to see people the way you do, Sherlock begs silently. Show me what else you know.
“We ought to start back for lunch in a moment,” Mycroft murmurs. He untangles his hand from Sherlock’s curls, only to stroke them with the backs of his fingers. Sherlock opens the watch and starts cataloguing the data.
Sherlock carefully put his father’s fob watch back into the small drawer, slid the drawer shut noiselessly, and decided Mycroft’s bedroom wouldn’t hold any clues as to his whereabouts. Kitchen next.
The lights went abruptly off, plunging Mycroft into complete darkness. He froze in his spot. His ears sharpened, prickling to capture anything, and they were rewarded with some interesting muffled noises…something heavy. Brought in—carried? By one person…or two? Certainly sounds of movement from two people. Twenty seconds. Click—the door closing. Movement again, only one person left. Thirty seconds—Ah!
At last a more traditional approach! Soothingly old-fashioned even. A mighty light shone directly in Mycroft’s face, completely obscuring the person behind it. The man behind it—Mycroft could smell him, of course. Something British with more than a touch of eccentricity—
“I apologize for the inconvenience but I’m sure I don’t need to explain it,” said a rich, high voice with a lovely twirl to the ‘r’. Irish, 30 to 35 years old.
“Indeed, no,” Mycroft replied, lifting his hand exaggeratedly to block the light. “But I must say it rather mars your otherwise admirable effort at hospitable hostility.”
“Thank you.” Amusement in the voice. Mycroft nodded and dropped his hand. There was little point in expecting a change. This was as much about not seeing the man’s face as it was about him watching Mycroft’s. Still, the light was very bright, made worse by the glare on the glass coffee table next to Mycroft.
“How can I be of assistance?” he asked, tone neutral, with an exemplary RP.
There was a pause, then the man spoke, traces of casual concern in his voice.
“There’s no need to panic.” Mycroft raised an eyebrow. Cocky little thing. “I only want to talk to you.”
“Of course, of course.” Mycroft nodded as if he were letting the gas man in to check for a leak. “However this sojourn could be immensely advanced to its conclusion if I knew the topic you wished to discuss. It’s getting late.”
The pause was lengthier this time. Well played, Mycroft thought. Well played. He wasn’t sure if his palms felt damp because of the wait or the heat from the lamp.
“I would like to talk to you about your brother.”
Breathe evenly. Keep your eyebrows in check. Breathe evenly! Think of the gas man. This is the gas man. This is the gas man you are letting into your house. Careful now. Mild, semi-detached perplexity. A light frown…And go.
“My brother? I don’t understand. Has he caused you any grievances?”
“Yes,” the man said, “many. It’s been annoying but also…exhilarating.” He shuffled in his seat for the first time, crossing his legs. Mycroft suppressed his shiver and grabbed the sound greedily to match it against the rest of the data. Thin, not more than five foot ten. Suited, expensive textile. Galliano? Westwood?
He heard the man tut.
“I would really like to draw your attention back to Sherlock, Mr. Holmes. I’m not half as fascinating as he is.”
“I’m afraid you’re right.”
One was allowed a break once in a while.
A laugh this time—a cross between a huff and a nasal giggle. Oh, how sad—with all that hard work to emulate class…
The voice floated to him, quiet and suddenly void of any mirth. “I’m glad to confirm we share the same affliction with regards to your brother.”
It was the equivalent of a slap across the mouth. Mycroft should really be more careful about his face—no one had been able to read him that well in a long while.
The longest pause yet stretched between them. That was fine. Mycroft revelled at long games. He had six and a half hours to fill, and filling them with silence would be a smashing success under the circumstances.
On the closing of the fourth minute the man spoke again.
“We seem to have got off on the wrong foot.” There was no apology in his voice which Mycroft found to be a surprising relief. He couldn’t deal with pretend emotions now. There was enough running under the surface to waste energy on what was on it. He didn’t nod or show alacrity in any way, but he knew what he could say to that. And how to say it. Honeyed condescension always exacerbated Sherlock—would it work here?
“Continue,” he said.
An intake of breath. Good. Good.
“I wonder—what’s the driving force behind Sherlock’s actions?” The conversational tone of the question only a moment after that angry inhalation wasn’t so good, though. Along with everything else, it suggested that maybe, just maybe, Mycroft was in the presence of a bona fide psychopath.
“My brother rarely does me the honour of sharing his motivations with me,” he said. “Again, I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“I believe you’re the kind of man capable of forming his own opinions,” the man said lightly. “I’d very much appreciate your sharing them with me.”
Mycroft tilted his head to the right and bore his wide-open eyes right into the spot behind the lamp, where the man must be sitting. It was at the cost of great discomfort but Mycroft could have a facial later.
“Why?” he asked.
“I am, myself, invested in the matters of crime and crime solving. It’s not often one comes across a competent fellow…consultant. I’m just interested.”
“Perhaps it would be best to approach my brother directly.” Mycroft dropped his gaze to glance absent-mindedly at his nails.
“We both know that’s easier said than done.” A hint of reproach. “I’d like to make a good impression—it would be better if I were more prepared. And you are my main hope to achieve that.” There was a rustle of fabric once more, possibly a stretch of the neck, before the last line. “I would hate to be disappointed.”
Mycroft crossed his legs, then entwined his fingers and propped them over his thigh. He regarded them from the tip of his nose.
“I am not in the business of meeting people’s expectations,” he said after a beat.
“I can see that.” The reply was the fastest one yet.
Another pause, which grew like a balloon, slowly filled with unspoken words, hisses, shouts. Sherlock would already be crawling about, looking for a pin to burst that ballon with, but Mycroft wasn’t suicidal. He had Sherlock to provide him with rabid bouts of adrenaline, so he wasn’t planning on leaving this room harmed…or on not leaving it at all. Time for the tactical move. He cleared his throat and looked up.
“It seems we’ve reached an impasse. I believe at this point it would be best if we both expressed our regret and went our separate ways.”
The noise of the rustle again—Mycroft could almost visualize this person, moving his neck about like a reptile. Oh, Sherlock.
“I don’t think I want to do that yet,” the man said, outright coldness in his voice. But the next phrase came out almost disarmingly, with a childish lilt to it. “I have no one to have a proper chat with about Sherlock.”
Mycroft would definitely have to do something about the closure of this conversation. Hearing Sherlock’s name being said like that didn’t bode well for anyone.
He stretched his own neck.
“Perhaps you should resign yourself about ever filling that deficit? Or abandon your preoccupation with my brother altogether?”
“Oh, I can’t do that. You know how it is.”
This was the final drop of lead but it was disproportionate to the rest—it arrived as a dollop. Mycroft blinked very slowly and ran his tongue along his front teeth. Obvious threats were so vulgar, yet here he simply must.
But in the instant he opened his mouth the air outside exploded with noise. Three shots in the immediate vicinity of the room had started the proceedings and then it was all one giant cacophony of sound. A window shattered behind Mycroft, followed by another shot. There was shouting all around, yet not in the room. Mycroft found he had jumped to his feet, but was unsure of where it was safe to move—the light was thoroughly blinding and disorientating. His brain had registered a movement from behind it a few seconds ago. The man must be on his feet, too, but was keeping completely silent.
Suddenly the commotion burst into the room—the door flew open and a tall, well-built figure flashed in front of Mycroft’s eyes. It was time. In less than a second Mycroft had already stepped away from the spotlight and was trying to get his bearings. He heard a sudden cry of, “No, Moran, no!”, and then he felt something—someone—heavy ram into him, crashing him sideways into the glass coffee table. Pain seared through Mycroft’s body and fiery spots danced everywhere, then the bright light went out.
Sherlock might be aloof, but he wasn’t oblivious—he’d heard the compliments; he’d seen the looks. He knew he was considered…aesthetically pleasing. His hair had drawn attention ever since he was a little boy, albeit not as much as his eyes. Once his mouth had made an artist all but weep. His skin had got a fair bit of praise, too, turning sensible people into bumbling lyricists.
It was nothing to him.
When he was little he wanted to have freckles like Mycroft. They looked so much more interesting. Freckles were there. There was nothing on Sherlock’s skin—just stretches and stretches of epidermis in the same colour, with no patches of darker or lighter pigmentation, no moles, no redness. No freckles. Mycroft’s freckles covered all of him. Sherlock used to fantasise about how if he had his own freckles, he could turn on the flashlight when he was too restless to sleep, and he could start seeking patterns on his skin, or could simply count the freckles until his eyes closed and he drifted off. The highest number of freckles he’d ever counted was 423. Then he became too heavy for Mycroft to carry him to his bed.
Now Sherlock watched his brother sleep in the hospital bed, and he wondered: If Mycroft’s face, and not his body, had ended up scarred from the impact with the glass, would it have made Sherlock more envious? Was that even possible?
He rubbed his eyes. He could kill for something mellow in his blood-stream right now.
His attention returned to Mycroft. Sherlock wasn’t very good with frustration, but observing Mycroft had always been an activity highly charged with distraction. Take the eyelashes, for example. Sherlock could tell what season it was only by their colour, sometimes to the month. He didn’t need to check the calendar; all Sherlock had to do was look down. The sweep of Mycroft’s eyelashes had already evoked the image of a forest in October: blended colours along a warm brown palette. Except that where the red and yellow were in stark contrast in the crowns of the trees, here there was subtlety. There were the new eyelashes, whose darker colour showed they had taken the place of some summer eyelashes—those had fallen down the slopes of Mycroft’s cheekbones like leaves blown down a hill. But then there was still the odd eyelash so blond its tip was white. It was the true, bold holiday-maker, signifying that his brother was indeed human—one whom the sun had managed to kiss again and again, regardless of his attempts to avoid it.
Leaves fell to the last one but Mycroft’s eyelashes always remained abundant—thin but numerous. Sherlock’s fingers itched with the need to touch, to see if he could remove the gold patina on some of them, maybe reveal a plainer mousy colour underneath. The first thing he ever looked at with a magnifier was one of Mycroft’s eyelashes.
Sherlock rubbed his eyes again and kept his fingers over his lids this time, letting them hide reality in its many forms and shapes.
“If you have a headache, you should take something. Always so negligent about your health.”
Sherlock’s fingers dropped, startled, at the first sound of Mycroft’s sedated voice.
“Said the man with the bandages and the drip, attached to his arm,” he retorted, recovering. Mycroft’s eyes moved to the drip, before travelling around the room. Sherlock used the precious few seconds to glance quickly at the monitors—all numbers good.
“I would have preferred if I wasn’t knocked unconscious for the second time by a hefty dose of narcotics,” Mycroft said. “My input would have been invaluable.”
“And I would have preferred if you hadn’t been knocked unconscious the first time so that I didn’t have to waste my input on your minions.” There was more bitterness than bite in Sherlock’s words. He had been absent from Mycroft’s side for four minutes—four minutes only—while gathering his own evidence at the scene. But his brother had regained consciousness during the last of them. Sherlock suspected that the subsequent lack of co-operation he encountered with Mycroft’s team was the result of some exchange during that period. Time for answers.
“What are you hiding?” he asked.
“A number of cuts in places that common decency suggests are hidden anyway,” Mycroft responded calmly.
“You’re deflecting. What are you hiding, Mycroft?”
Mycroft frowned at the ceiling. Sherlock frowned at him.
“You can’t ignore me, you know,” he said. “I’m here, and oh! Guess what? I’m your next of kin. So I’m not going anywhere. And you’re not going anywhere, either, at least not in the next few hours. So I’m going to keep asking that question until you answer it, then I have plenty more questions, and don’t even think about lying to me or throwing me a fake bone with one of your diversions!” Sherlock felt his throat go dry and stopped long before he’d run out of words.
“Are you quite finished?” Mycroft asked.
“No.” Sherlock reached up and buzzed the alarm; a nurse materialized as if out of thin air. Before she even had the chance to open her mouth, Sherlock spoke.
“Can we have some water, please?”
The nurse threw a glance at Mycroft. “Now,” Sherlock said, widening his eyes at her, cross. The nurse left the room in a hurry and less than twenty seconds later brought back a bottle of water, which she numbly passed to Sherlock.
“Thank you,” he said pointedly, then waved his hand at her. “We’ll buzz you back if we need you. Off you go.”
The woman scurried out of the room. Sherlock opened the bottle and drank half of it, then loudly drew in a full breath. He had avoided Mycroft but now his eyes returned to him of their own volition.
Mycroft was watching him, tired and discerning. Sherlock wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and held his brother’s gaze with as much arrogance as he could muster. Mycroft sighed and tilted his head in that abhorrent, patronizing way of his that had always meant one thing and one thing only: Really, Sherlock?
Sherlock glowered and gripped the bed.
“For a man, who got himself abducted in the stupidest way imaginable, and managed to get himself injured, too, you’re really not in any position—“
“I’m fine,” Mycroft said emphatically. “You can go home now.”
Sherlock could feel his face twitch with the effort to showcase incredulity, sarcasm and—God, he hoped he’d hid that—hurt.
“I’m not here to ensure you’re fine!” He huffed, indignant. “I’m here to figure out what happened for you to end up not being fine in the first place! And before you say anything, I know they used me as bait so this is actually my business. I know you’ve had the time to think about it, and I have some data, too, but I need to know every detail. We should be able to get to them in less than twenty-four hours. You can’t leave your bed, which makes this ideal for you; I’ll be the one to do the legwork, which you only see me fit to do anyway.” Sherlock finished with more spite than he liked.
Mycroft blinked at him. Sherlock froze for a second; time itself froze, as he watched his brother’s eyelashes flutter in slow motion, so alive.
“Are you done now?” Mycroft said.
“Good. You’re pressing on my drip.”
Both Sherlock’s hands flew up from the bed; alarmed, he looked at the place where his palm had been pressing on the thin tube. Clear fluid was running through it again. Sherlock’s eyes followed the tube to where it disappeared into Mycroft’s arm.
“How did you work it out?” Mycroft asked.
Excitement overcame Sherlock’s dread that he might be tricked into talking about just knowing.
“You weren’t answering your phone,” he started. “I had someone hack it. The records showed the last call you’d received was from my number. My…associate told me the software used was extremely sophisticated and all he managed to do was track it down to some space programs. At that point I was already at your house—You’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.”
“Silly of me not to keep my old furniture when there was the chance you might pop in again after five years. Continue.”
Sherlock would have dearly loved to bare his teeth and bicker, growl, snap at Mycroft until he was weightless with the comfort of familiarity. But there was a case—their case. “As I said, I was in your house,” he went on briskly. “I used your laptop and sent a message to that PA of yours. Naturally, the woman doesn’t sleep; true to her Master’s nature she watches—her response was immediate. She isn’t too stupid, either. While I was waiting for your people to arrive I had a quick look around. I found the menu on the counter and called the last dialled number on your landline. “Chez Gerard” answered, grovelling and asking if you wanted your salmon delivered again. I told them I was your brother and was worried about your absence. They said “Charlie” had delivered your order around ten—Dinner at ten, Mycroft? Your dietician must be over the moon.”
Mycroft managed to roll his eyes. His already sallow skin had paled further at the mention of Sherlock’s…doings in his house. There was so much Sherlock would have to think about once this was over. For now he hurried with his explanation.
“I had a major stroke of luck here,” he confessed reluctantly. It always made him feel like he was cheating. “They put Charlie on the phone. Bright fellow, might have a crush on you. It’s just as well you have a touch of megalomania and you’ve chosen to live in what is practically a mansion. It means that when Charlie was about to turn the corner to get to your front door, he was within earshot but out of sight. He heard a car start and he caught your voice. He only caught one word—“green”. Once round the corner he saw a mini-cab in the distance, presumably with you at the back.”
Sherlock drank the rest of the water in quick gulps. Mycroft was looking at him patiently. Sherlock fidgeted with the cap of the bottle.
“I put two and two together,” he said, cursing his voice for lowering. “They’d used my phone; you’re insufferable in your meddling; there was a phone call made from your mobile to a mini-cab company only a minute after you’d received the call from my number. The word “green” wasn’t about the colour. It was part of an address. You were going to Bethnal Green because you’d received a phone call that I was there, possibly injured, after I’d—after I’d seen Tony.”
Mycroft held Sherlock’s eyes until Sherlock felt his own eyeballs itch, then finally he was released with a small nod. He lifted his chin and put his hands in his trouser pockets. “Your team arrived en masse with such equipment that I’m thinking of writing a complaint to whomever people complain to about how their taxes are being used.”
“I pay your taxes,” Mycroft dead-panned.
“So you’re effectively paying for your own rescue missions. Isn’t it nice when things work out?”
Sherlock’s eyes shone as he recalled the final stage of the operation. “Bethnal Green was a good start. I was able to give them a slightly narrower parameter to search. Quite a tight ship you’re running, by the way—no questions were asked. We quickly found which cameras had been blocked, but your kidnappers had missed one. It just managed to catch the Mercedes going into Wellington Row. We went through a lot of footage. You’ve got yourself a real enemy, Mycroft—whoever they are, they’d knocked out all the cameras on your street, too, even the ones no one’s supposed to know about. Your team looked like idiots! If I didn’t have the Knowledge, they’d still be goggling at the screens.” Sherlock’s lip quirked at some memories he was already getting rather fond of. “We finally found the car, and a clear sight of it, too,” he said. “The rest was your average stalking with a side of special-ops mayhem.”
Mycroft didn’t say anything. Sherlock noticed that a thin sheen of perspiration had appeared on his forehead. Feeling inexplicably annoyed, Sherlock walked to the window and opened it wide.
“Thank you,” Mycroft’s voice floated behind him. Sherlock marched back and stood on the other side of the bed, blocking some of the cold air from hitting Mycroft’s sedated body directly.
“And now we’re back to what you are hiding,” Sherlock said.
“Why did you call me?”
Sherlock made a point to not avert his eyes from his brother’s.
“Why did you call me in the first place?” Mycroft repeated.
“To ask about the incident in Calais.” Sherlock had had enough time to come up with that. He was rather proud of himself…but best not to let his pride run away with him.
“What are you hiding from me, Mycroft?” He pressed, grateful to have a genuine reason to change the subject. “I know there’s something. Even your generally paranoid team can’t be that mulish of their own accord. Did you tell them not to work with me? Tell me.”
“It doesn’t concern—“
“I got them there, for goodness’ sake!” Sherlock burst out.
Mycroft closed his eyes and kept them so for a few long seconds. Sherlock noted the tensing of the muscle at his jaw—the painkillers were wearing off. The doctors said there was some heavy bruising. Sherlock had wanted to see; it would have helped him figure out if Mycroft was hit with something or if someone had slammed him down into the table. A lot of cuts, some of them deep. Loss of blood. He swallowed. There had been blood everywhere.
“What happened?” he said, keeping his voice in check.
Mycroft turned his head to look him squarely in the face, flinching in the process.
“A political crisis of no consequence to you. It will be dealt with. Thank you for your very timely assistance. The negotiations had reached a critical junction.”
“Whom did you meet?”Sherlock said, the closest to pleading he was capable of. “What are you hiding from me?”
“Nothing you should know, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, weakness back into his voice. “Kindly stop asking me to divulge confidential information that has no direct bearing onto you.”
Sherlock was shocked to hear his voice so…irregular. It was as if he were breaking into manhood all over again. He hated his brother for making him sound like that, for his obstinacy, for his dismissal, for treating Sherlock as if he were just a sniffer dog to be sent back to the kennel. He should have taken pictures not of the scene but of Mycroft, bleeding there and unconscious, so that he could shove his phone into Mycroft’s face now for him to see what Sherlock had seen. Someone had done that, and Sherlock was burning with the need to throw himself upon all the data and break it apart, find out who this person was, what they wanted, what had happened in that room, but most of all—find them. And Mycroft was acting like Mycroft—
Sherlock realized that his face had slacked, uncontrollable and unguarded. Mycroft’s own face looked distant; only his eyes were bright yet dark, such dark colour for blue eyes. Sherlock leaned forward and looked into them; his fingers lifted to touch the single small gash that a flying shard of glass had left on Mycroft’s temple.
“Don’t,” Mycroft said quietly.
Sherlock’s fingers stopped, remained suspended in the air for a long moment. He could feel an invisible grip twist them until tears threatened to come to his eyes. He straightened himself up, turned on his heel, and left the room.
Mycroft slowly moved his eyes from the closed door to the window. Now that Sherlock wasn’t there to block it, the cold air assaulted Mycroft’s throbbing body and made him shiver. The night was quiet outside; so was the room.
For his sixth birthday Mycroft’s father had given him a nicely-wrapped parcel and a card. The card had said, “Your other present will arrive in seven months.” Mycroft didn’t really pay attention to the message, but eagerly opened his actual present—and found a very old book of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.
To this day Mycroft could quote the beginning of “The Snow Queen” word by word.
“We must attend to the commencement of this story, for when we get to the end we shall know more than we do now about a very wicked hobgoblin; he was one of the very worst, for he was a real demon. One day, when he was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever.”
The glass was broken into millions of pieces, and tiny fragments flew into people’s eyes, distorting the world for them without their knowing it, cursing them to live their days in misery and darkness. One such piece had flown into the eye of a little boy, Kay, and thus begun the story of Kay and Gerda, two children who “were not brother and sister, but they loved each other almost as much as if they had been”.
Kay had a tiny piece of glass in his heart, too, which had turned into ice.
Mycroft gingerly placed his arms around himself.
There was also, of course, the Snow Queen, who took Kay away on her beautiful sledge. She had a face most lovely and intelligent, always smiling at Kay’s attempts to show her how much he knew and always leaving him thinking that he didn’t know enough yet. On little Kay’s days went in the Snow Queen’s palace, on little Gerda travelled in her search for Kay, and on Mycroft’s world filled with crows that spoke, old Lapland and Finland women, robber-girls who slept with a knife by their side…
Until one day Gerda found Kay, but he sat still, stiff and cold.
“Then little Gerda wept hot tears, which fell on his breast, and penetrated into his heart, and thawed the lump of ice, and washed away the little piece of glass which had stuck there. Then he looked at her, and she sang—”
Mycroft pressed his fingers to his eyes.
“Kay burst into tears, and he wept so that the splinter of glass swam out of his eye.”
Mycroft pressed harder.
“Gerda, dear little Gerda, where have you been all this time, and where have I been?”
Mycroft waited for his breathing to return to normal, before he reached out and retrieved his new mobile phone. He pressed a key; the familiar feminine voice answered expediently with perhaps just a touch of concern. “Sir?”
Mycroft cleared his throat. “Sherlock Holmes, surveillance status upgrade. Grade two active immediately.”