The Strangers’ Room at the Diogenes Club was, naturally, sound-proofed. As founding member, Mycroft had insisted on it. He also insisted on a regular sweep, borrowed from MI5, for recording devices. Given the high numbers of public figures and more shadowy background silhouettes who were members of the club, and given who was asking, MI5 complied without complaint. Rarely, if ever, did they turn anything up.
John Watson was using his cane again. Mycroft watched him limp angrily into the room – there was always something in his uneven gait that brought to mind hostility – and take the far seat. Mycroft had deliberately chosen the armchair nearest the door, to see if this time the man would open his mouth and ask him to move.
“Tea?” Mycroft asked. John had come straight from his therapy session again, clearly viewing these conversations with Mycroft as part of the necessary process of blurting out whatever emotional maelstrom he carried about with him, something therapeutic. It was an odd notion.
He supposed he could have put a great deal of effort into deducing that John had been in the pleasant, low-lit, large-windows rooms of this therapist immediately prior, but it was a lot easier just to have him followed.
John shook his head and lowered himself into the armchair with more difficulty than he had on his last visit. Whatever he’d talked to his therapist about, it had exacerbated his phantom pain. Mycroft poured him a cup of tea anyway.
“How’s the practice?”
“Closing.” John stared through him blindly. “Thanks to your Mr Lansley.” Even in the depths of his distraction he was capable of sounding quite convincingly bitter.
“I don’t have any party allegiance,” Mycroft said with a twitch of his mouth, as John picked up the tea he’d claimed not to want, “as I believe I’ve mentioned.”
“Yeah, but you must vote,” John said, worrying at the subject as some sort of antidote to the subject he wanted to raise; he had done this every time so far, sinking his teeth into an irrelevance and shaking it to death before he moved onto the core of his visit. It was tiresome and irritating and Mycroft frequently considered ejecting him from the club and not bothering to wait out the whole conversation, but his brother would know and then he would be even more unbearable.
“Must I?” Mycroft asked, leaving his own tea to cool, though it was growing tepid already. “I rather think not.”
“Well why not?”
“I’ve met them,” Mycroft said sweetly. “You wouldn’t want to vote for them either if you’d had to eat breakfast with them.”
John shifted slowly in the armchair and arranged his cane against the side. “He must have had some other friends,” he began, diving headfirst into his preoccupation with any further small talk - he was getting better.
"Why?" Mycroft asked, reaching to give his tea a stir.
"Why?" John started. "Because everyone has more than one friend. Even him."
"Firstly, no, you were the only one I have ever been aware of," Mycroft said with a small, tight smile intended to convey the fact that he was aware of almost every coming and going of his brother's whether he liked it or not, "and secondly, why do you want him to have had other friends?"
"Because I want to talk to someone else about it," John said stiffly, giving Mycroft the kind of direct, fearless, and slightly constipated look that captains were apparently trained into; Mycroft had stared down enough of them by now to be familiar with the form. "That's why I've. Been here, talking to you. Because you'd understand, a little. Maybe."
"Oh make no mistake," Mycroft said, with a grimace, as he fished the lemon slice from his tea with his spoon - he had no intention of drinking it, the damn thing was merely for show - and laid it in the saucer. "A surprisingly large number of people cared about my brother, John. You were just the only one he felt compelled to care about."
"No childhood fri--" John began, apparently unable to let go of the idea.
Mycroft glanced at his indoor gloves, laid neatly over the arm of his armchair, and back at John with half-closed eyes and a smile that drew his whole face into a tight, closed mask around his mouth. "For a while," he said, interrupting John as easily as shutting a door, "even our own mother thought he was a sociopath. Do you understand? He didn't have friends. He had me, and he didn't particularly like me."
“He told Lestrade he was a sociopath,” John said with sudden sadness. “I don’t believe that and neither do you.”
Mycroft shrugged. “He was always very attached to that diagnosis. I suspect it sounded cooler than the reality.” He brushed a speck of lint from the leg of his trousers and gave John another closed-down, unassailable look. He seemed to have shrunk since Sherlock’s stunt, like a balloon with the air let out of it; it had been rather the effect Mycroft had been hoping to achieve with his little brother and had failed to get.
“Never fully agreed upon,” Mycroft said, waving the question away with a flicker of his eyes, keeping his hands perfectly still. “Granted for a while the psychologist was allowed to settle on Asperger’s Syndrome but Mummy didn’t like the sound of that so she paid him to change it.” He sighed, temporarily bogged down by the inefficiencies of the past. “I’m afraid Mummy occasionally harboured the belief that changing the record of a thing changed the reality of it; alas, as I am sure you know, medicine and PR are not the same discipline.”
“No,” John agreed, sipping crossly at his tea. He was at least no longer the red-faced, vibrating-with-fury man who had hobbled into the Diogenes Club some several months ago, but it would be, if Mycroft was any judge, a long time before he stopped having to suppress his desire to hit Mycroft in the face. Of course, if Sherlock deigned to show himself a little sooner than he’d intended there would be no more of these annoying visits.
What are you planning, you carbuncle? he thought.
“Who said he was a sociopath?” John asked, looking over the rim of his teacup. The tea service was worth more than John’s entire pension; Mycroft wondered if he needed to point that out, or if John was observant enough to know. “To begin with.”
“I did,” Mycroft said slowly.
“Oh of course,” John muttered.
“Because,” Mycroft snapped, “I was ten and my five-year-old brother had taken to dissecting road kill in his bedroom. All of the available literature suggested this was aberrant behaviour and in the absence of a professional it was the best conclusion I could come to.”
He raised his eyebrows, and watched John take another mouthful of his tea. Mycroft did not bother to outline the point more obviously: that Sherlock preferred to define himself with a petulant misdiagnosis of Mycroft’s from his childhood than to accept a potentially accurate and useful label produced by a professional. Either John would understand, or he wouldn’t. It would surely be irrelevant to him either way, for as far as John was concerned, Sherlock was dead.
“Don’t you ever miss him?” John asked in accusatory tones. He clearly had his answer in mind already.
I might if he gave me the opportunity to, thought Mycroft wryly; he still had an inbox full of demands, instructions, entreaties, and photographs of places that Mycroft was supposed to be directing various people to while Sherlock was playing dead.
“He was my brother,” Mycroft said, aloud. “Regardless of what bad blood there might have been between us.”
The tediously reliable thing about most people, he’d found, was that this was explanation enough. They immediately forgot the endless parade of families who’d stabbed, shot, or drowned each other; the Jeremy Kyle Show rogues’ gallery of people who tormented each other for long lifetimes with hatred and pettiness. They forgot everything they themselves had experienced and only remembered what they had been told to think: family was all, and relief was not applicable to mourning.
John finished his tea, and left under a cloud of thoughts he didn’t feel compelled to share with Mycroft, to Mycroft’s relief.
At 3pm his phone vibrated discretely, and Mycroft sighed.
How was John? – SH
Limping. – MH
Still angry then. –SH
Mycroft left the text unanswered. It was apparent that along with everything else, he’d had the responsibility of being John Watson’s keeper thrust upon him by Sherlock just as the responsibility of being his brother’s keeper was shoved onto him by Mummy.
Sherlock was of course proving an even bigger and more persistent pest while “dead” than he was when he was alive.
“What was it like, then?” Sherlock asked, when they were back in Wyndham House. He had, to Mycroft’s relief, affected to have no idea who he was for the entire train journey home, and although Mycroft had to sit in the same carriage as him there was no need for him to actually speak to or acknowledge the existence of Holmes Minor.
Mycroft didn’t bother to ask how he knew; there was no point in exacerbating his propensity for being a disgusting show-off, and he had no desire to have the acute details of his appearance paraded before him in the ugly and crime-obsessed mirror of his younger brother’s gaze.
“You’ll find out for yourself,” he said, although he doubted it. Sherlock might conceivably succeed in having sex with another member of the human race, but Mycroft rather suspect that they would either be dead or unconscious at the time, in which case his brother was more likely to try to take samples of their skin cells for testing than he was to put his penis inside them.
“I hope not,” Sherlock said, standing in Mycroft’s bedroom doorway like a persistent spectre. “It all sounds disgusting and quite tawdry.”
“You’ll change your mind,” said Mycroft, who secretly still found it somewhat tawdry and disgusting but had no intention of ever telling his brother that.
“I don’t think I want to,” Sherlock said, standing on one leg in the doorway. He looked like an ugly heron. “It just seems to distract people.” He put his foot down on the metal strip that separated the carpet of the hallway from the carpet of Mycroft’s room, which served during their innumerable arguments as the official barrier between “in my room” and “not in my room”. Leaning on the doorframe precisely the way he had been told not to several times before, he added, “Did you ejaculate?”
“None of your business,” Mycroft said coldy.
As it happened, or rather failed to happen, he had not. But Mycroft had already set about carefully editing the memory to make that an irrelevance, and Sherlock's uncharacteristic interest was only eliding his ability to close down the details.
"Orgasm?" Sherlock persisted. "They're different, you know."
"Neither your business nor an appropriate question to ask anyone you aren't having intercourse with," Mycroft snapped. "Get out of my room."
"I'm not in your room," Sherlock pointed to his toes on the metal strip. "You can't not talk about it. Everyone else refuses to discuss it. There's no documentation anywhere that explains the psychology, just pornography and hints." He sounded exceptionally disapproving.
Mycroft considered slamming the door in his face, but - he reminded himself - it was good practice to work out how to remove people without resorting to such petty and juvenile behaviour.
"Well it's hardly my job to tell you."
Sherlock sighed extravagantly. "No one else will," he complained. "I wouldn't ask you if I could get an answer from --"
"Wait until you get back to school and interrogate someone else," Mycroft said, casting about for a bit of furniture he could put between himself and his brother. There was no need; he just felt the empty air between them was insufficient protection from whatever rabid nonsense was undulating through his nasty little mind.
Sherlock snorted and pointed to the fading vestiges of a black eye - now more a yellow-and-spots-of-purple-eye - which adorned his left side. Mycroft gave abrupt attention to his bed, which looked as if something heavy had been placed upon it, distorting the covers. It would need smoothing down.
"I told you no one will talk to me about it."
"What did you do?" Mycroft sneered, patting the mattress with the palms of his hands, "Did you walk around with a notebook asking them to describe their masturbatory habits?"
"I don't need them to tell me about that," Sherlock complained, "I can hear them at it all night."
"It remains none of your business," Mycroft said as firmly as his position would allow. His stomach ached, but that was de rigeur these days; it might presage a hasty retreat to the bathroom, or it might not. He might even merely be hungry, although he wasn't sure he believed in the sensation in its own right.
"Do you suppose," Sherlock added, leaning onto Mycroft's door so that his body extended into the room but his feet remained on his side of the line: a tactic doubtless picked up at Bruce House, as he'd never engaged in it before Gordonstoun, "all your Ducolol abuse is somehow inhibiting your ability to --"
"You should start taking it, then," Mycroft said with unnecessary savagery, "since you're so determined to never engage in sexual activity with a living soul."
"You're still taking it," Sherlock said, mercifully refraining from his party trick - or what would be his party trick if either Holmes brother were ever invited to anything resembling a party - of rattling out an obnoxious list of factors which had led him to this conclusion.
"Were you planning on excavating every single circumstance of my life that is none of your bloody business," Mycroft asked, straightening up from the bed and violently suppressing the desire to slam the door in Sherlock's face, "Or only those which involve the contents of my underwear, you wretched ... little ... pervert?"
"You're not supposed to be taking it any more," Sherlock said doggedly, fixing his arrogant china doll stare on Mycroft's head as if he was measuring it for a coffin - for all Mycroft knew, he probably was. "You told Mummy you were going to stop at once."
The purpose of his visit became clear in an abrupt, blinding flash, and Mycroft was quite sure his face settled into a rictus of disquiet at that moment. Ah yes, blackmail. The staple diet of both school and home and indeed Holmes.
"Oh won't you come in," Mycroft said through gritted teeth and a waterfall of sarcasm. He extended his arm as a mockery of courtesy. "Shut the door behind you. Have a seat. Ask your wretched bloody questions."
Sherlock stole through the door, closed it, and leaned on it with his back, evidently not so keen now that he'd effectively trapped himself in Mycroft's room which was - theoretically at least - forbidden territory.
Mycroft glared at him. There was no comfortable position for him to take: his bed was for sleeping on, not sitting on. His chair was too close to Sherlock and intended for studying in. He did not want to remain standing.
"What did it do to your mind?" Sherlock asked, resting all of his not-noteworthy weight against the inner panels of Mycroft's bedroom door as if holding himself prisoner lest he flee. "I have observed the diminished intelligence it leads to in normal people, what does it do to you?"
Mycroft swallowed an I am normal thank you, I'm not like you; he knew Sherlock meant 'ordinary', even if he persisted in not picking his words with the correct care.
"Very little," Mycroft lied. In truth it was humiliating to think of how thoroughly panicked part of him had become. Not that it would have shown externally, but he'd felt near-bilious with anxiety at the prospect of introducing his fingers to a vagina, and he knew well enough it was a necessary part of the business.
In the end it had been much less horrifying than he had feared; if one thought of it as a machine in need of fixing in a particular way and didn't dwell too long on thoughts of why it couldn't just be sent to a mechanic or one of those other people who liked to do things with their hands.
"Then why bother doing it at all?" Sherlock asked, apparently honestly perplexed. "Everything I've read says it triggers the release of various neurochemicals linked to pleasure --"
Well what would either of us know about that, Mycroft thought, unable to keep the words from forming in his head.
"-- in addition to the vasodilation and increased heart-rate," Sherlock went on, and Mycroft realised too late that he was about to have a biology lecture in his own bedroom unless he shut his brother up.
"There is sufficient material for your own experiments," he pointed out, shoving his hands in his pockets in a desperate search for gloves which he knew weren't there. "Which, I should mention, I never want to hear about."
Sherlock fixed him with a flat stare and, rather unexpectedly, put his hands in his armpits so that his arms were folded across his chest. It was a classic gesture of protection and evasion, one which Mycroft had made considerable effort training himself out of as soon as he'd realised it was readable. Either Sherlock was doing it on purpose or he was truly uncomfortable.
"It doesn't work," Sherlock said eventually, with a defiant expression. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong."
A high-pitched whine began inside Mycroft's head. He couldn't get the door open to shove Sherlock out of his room without moving Sherlock and to move Sherlock he'd have to touch him and he didn't have any gloves. He took a deep breath and told himself he was fortunate that his brother was at least surly and scientific about it rather than plaintive and emotional; Sherlock could be relied upon in this, if in nothing else. He did not turn a matter of simple physiognomy into a three-act melodrama.
His stomach contracted painfully - unusually, for it was usually his gut which troubled him - and Mycroft began to feel acutely nauseous. He wondered if he had the requisite climbing skills to shin down the drainpipe, but leaping around like a moronic mountain goat was far more Sherlock's area than his. For possibly the first time in his life, he was moved to very briefly regret his laziness.
"What is it supposed to feel like?" Sherlock persisted.
You are asking entirely the wrong person, Mycroft thought grimly. He shuffled around to his desk, initially to put something between himself and Sherlock's hunched shoulders and twelve-year-old awkwardness and merciless preoccupation with something he claimed to have no interest in at all.
His desk was strewn with textbooks, naturally - A-levels waited for nothing and no one, and while he was quite sure only an imbecile would walk out with less than a handful of As, he wasn't taking any chances - and pencils, and a wooden ruler with singed-in measurement points. He knew it well; there was an annoying messy patch where Sherlock had stolen it some years ago and uncharacteristically scratched his initials into it to "prove" it was his; Mycroft had been forced to scrape them off and replace the S with an M.
"I can only assume that the usual neurological response is disrupted," Sherlock said crossly, his hands still crushed in his own armpits, as he watched Mycroft turn the ruler over in his hands.
"Vasodilation, increased heart rate, and endorphin release are also features of strenuous exercise," pointed out Mycroft, who had made a concerted effort never to do any. "Does endorphin release manifest when you're on one of your perpetual PDs?" He gripped the end of the ruler thoughtfully.
"I don't know."
Ah, Sherlock's least favourite phrase. Sometimes it took months to wrangle it out of him; the speed with which he replied was of some considerable concern. For a boy who claimed to be utterly without interest in either fitting in or getting off, Sherlock was making a significant mountain out of the molehill of his own aberrance today.
Mycroft, who had heard about sympathy and considered it - as did his little brother - to be a colossal waste of precious energy, sighed, rolled his eyes, and pressed his finger against the mangled and scratched patch of the rule where he'd erased Sherlock's vandalism.
"It manifests in other forms of extremis," he said. "The same system is used for any number of bodily responses, it's only the emotions that change --"
"I know that," Sherlock scoffed, dropping his arms again. He was plainly happier to be back on ground he'd read and, knowing him, memorised.
Mycroft said, "Including pain."
"No," Sherlock said, leaning back on the door. Mycroft studied his face with an unpleasant suspicion growing like fungus in his mind. There were the ugly remnants of someone's frustration with Sherlock painted into a fading haematoma on his eye socket, and the vestiges, too, of something that looked a very little like guilt. Sherlock's emotional range was not what anyone would have called broad, but there were occasions when Mycroft believed he was not entirely honest about what he experienced.
"How many times have you contrived to have yourself assaulted by the boys in your dormitory?" Mycroft asked with studied idleness, not quite able to keep a grimly triumph smile from dogging the corners of his mouth. He tapped the end of the rule against the tip of his forefinger. Puzzle solved.
The look Sherlock gave him was pure venom.
"That has nothing to do with --"
"Doesn’t it," Mycroft said, entirely unable to keep down the smirk now. "You little deviant."
Sherlock glared at him, his weirdly-shaped eyes burning into Mycroft's face; he'd seen teachers turn from the intensity of his stare, but Mycroft had a lifetime of being looked at as if he was the architect of all evil in the universe and it had ceased to bother him years ago.
"Give me your hand," Mycroft suggested. He meant hold your hand out; anything nearer would have choked him on his own bile, and he was uncertain that he could so much as brace Sherlock's hand with his.
"Don'ttouchme," Sherlock barked, flattening himself against the door and throwing up his hands to defend himself, as if this wouldn't just bring his skin into contact with Mycroft's fingers, as if Mycroft had ever in his life attempted to put his flesh against anyone else's.
“I’m not going to touch you,” Mycroft sighed, rolling his eyes again in wild disgust and disdain for Sherlock’s sudden stupidity, “I’m just going to hit you with this.” He gestured with the ruler.
Rather improbably, Sherlock relaxed a little, and let his arms drop awkwardly. “Not my hand. I need my hand.”
“Make a sacrifice for the sake of an experiment,” Mycroft said, rather more nastily than he’d actually intended.
Sherlock ignored this and turned to face the door. At first it seemed bizarrely as if he didn’t want to see Mycroft’s face (although, Mycroft acknowledged, that wasn’t bizarre in itself; no one was falling over themselves to rhapsodise about his features, which were homely at best) but it was clear he meant only to present his back to Mycroft for the use of the ruler.
Mycroft raise the ruler hesitantly. He had, he was sure, never struck anyone before. He was not a fighter (unlike Sherlock, who, as a smaller boy, was severely reprimanded for the savagery of his response to tormentors, and who had been sent to both judo and boxing classes in an effort to calm him down). All of their quarrels took place in the realms of the verbal or, if absolutely pressed, the feet.
Kicking and tripping had been Mycroft’s favoured approach for as long as he could remember; it was on Sherlock to retaliate with fists, forehead, and one occasion by biting Mycroft’s arm through his shirt sleeve so hard that he bruised him.
He slapped the ruler as hard as he felt he could without breaking it against the shallow curve of his brother’s bony back. Mycroft pretended not to hear any sound of pain, and raised the ruler again. He decided quickly that there must be a set number of strokes and a defined end to this experiment for both of their sakes, and as he struck Sherlock again the unmistakeable sensation of cramp in his gut came upon him.
By the fourth stroke his face was hot from exertion. Mycroft was unused to physical activity and had been surprised not to be winded by his recent foray into intercourse.
Sherlock made no move to stop him or to protest but to Mycroft’s intense disquiet it was not possible for him to miss the tensing of his brother’s negligible thigh muscles, nor the splay of his thin, bony fingers over the door panels as they grew white with pressure.
He couldn’t have said how he knew: in the pornography he’d been unable to avoid there was a deal of grunting and in the tiresome romances the sixth form girls liked to shout to each other to make the younger boys blush there were exaltations to God and waves crashing on the shore and the calling out of names.
All Mycroft heard from Sherlock was a short intake of breath which was not released, and a lessening of tension in his legs as if the pegs holding his catgut body taut had been loosened, detuning him.
He thought he might say, ‘is your curiosity satisfied now?’ but instead his digestive system went into crisis, or so it seemed. Mycroft felt himself go cross-eyed with the effort of not doubling up in pain, and as his bile duct and intestines thundered in simultaneous dumb protest at some terrible slight, he felt sweat prickle his brow.
Sherlock’s fingers remained pressed against the door but, Mycroft noted even as his vision temporarily fogged, they were slowly suffusing a healthy pink through their skin again as Sherlock released them. He also released, at last, the breath Mycroft had heard him take.
Don’t say anything, Mycroft thought, still clutching the ruler, though his fingers ached from holding it. Don’t say anything. Don’t say a single word.
Sherlock reached down to the door handle with an arm that was not entirely steady. He turned it, and jerked the door open too hard and too fast. He slipped out of Mycroft’s room as silently as he ever did and left Mycroft holding a wooden school ruler with a hot face and an abdomen that screamed twisted agony.
Mycroft had hardly expected him to make any acknowledgement of the conclusion to his experiment, but at that moment he rather wished he’d at least say ‘thank you’.
Mycroft found himself wondering, as he timed himself through the Times Crossword, if men with homosexual brothers felt the same level of tense anxiety about the prospect of them "coming out" to the world as gay as he was currently experiencing about Sherlock's compulsion to "come out" as alive. At least a propensity for buggery was something some of the populace could stretch themselves to understand.
"Gentleman for you in the Strangers' Room", read the card slipped into his hand by the passing doorman. There was a look of forebearance on the man's face that presaged ill for the identity of the gentleman in question, and Mycroft was not even a little surprised when he entered to find John Watson standing in his shirt-sleeves, quite without his cane, and looking out of breath.
"Why didn't you say something?" John snapped, before Mycroft had even closed the door behind him.
"I see my brother has seen fit to tell you -" Mycroft began, dripping sarcasm into the too-small void between him and the angry little man. "Where is Sherlock?"
"In hospital having his cheek sewn up," John said, with a gruffness that failed to stifle a hot flush of shame. He'd evidently given vent to some of his frustrations on Sherlock before storming in here, which was only to be expected, and the way he was holding his left hand at least suggested that he'd broken his ire on Sherlock's cheekbones and hadn't enough left to take a swing at Mycroft. Mycroft doubted he would anyway; he neither liked nor hated Mycroft enough for that. "Why didn't you ... give me any ... do you have any idea what that was like?"
Mycroft bestowed upon John one of his most gag-reflex-stifling smiles and concentrated on not backing into the door. "He asked me not to, I'm afraid."
"Oh and you just do what he tells you all the time, I suppose?" John spluttered, cradling his left hand with his right. "When have you ever done what he wanted you to?"
More often than I've done what I wanted to, Mycroft thought huffily, but he said nothing.