Between the whirring of the tattoo machine and the incessant chatter of their customer detailing his relationship troubles, John hears it: a portentous sound promising impending death and destruction. John stills, lets the working draft from Sherlock's previous appointment slip noiselessly from his fingers and debates the wisdom of intervention. Every time Sherlock's breathing slows to a deliberate anger management countdown, John's hackles rise.
"...and den me wife, she said she be moving back t' her mum's place. I tell 'er 'ey, dat's just stupid, y'know, you dun e'en like de woman..."
"...I mean, c'mon, 'twas just a tiny argument, ain't nuffin' t' get all bovered about..."
"...'s not like I never been out wid dem boys before, but on she goes about de tenner I took from 'er purse..."
"...how else was I s'pposed t' pay for a pint when you scoundrels took me last money as deposit..."
That must have been the gloves. A whisper of plastic. Yes, he just binned them. Three sharp steps and the tap creaks on. John can understand if Sherlock needs a break after three hours of too much information served on a silver platter and garnished with juicy details of a life particularly uninteresting. Sherlock's favourite.
"That's it for today, Mr Berkoff."
"Already? But it's not done yet. That's not what I paid for."
"Apart from the deposit we scoundrels took from you, you haven't paid me anything. You know what? Keep the money. Just leave. I'm sure your wife will appreciate you spending less than you thought you would. That is, if you told her at all."
"What's that s'pposed t' mean? You've got t' finish."
"I have got to be about my own business now. Be glad I finished the outlines for you and get out."
Spluttering with indignation and threatening to warn all his mates never to come near Sherlock's parlour, Mr Berkoff snatches his jacket and dashes out of the shop. Another customer they'll never see again. Sherlock will be glad for it, but Sherlock's low tolerance for the aggravating doesn't pay any bills. How Sherlock managed to keep the business running before John started helping out will forever remain a mystery, unless John could coax the answer from Mycroft. Sherlock's brother probably covered the costs when Sherlock wasn't looking, which, judging by the state of his books, was often.
In the back, Sherlock hunches over his workspace, pencils scratching at the paper with a ferocity that almost tears them. Sherlock's bouts of inspiration can be intense, and so can the accompanying mood swings.
"Well, that must have been boring for you," John says and watches the muscles in Sherlock's hand shift beneath the skin. Felt tip pens litter the space next to his tattooed arm, most of them uncapped, one even vanishes in Sherlock's curls above the ear. "He told you his whole life's story before you could read it on him."
"Silence, John. I must concentrate."
Without looking, Sherlock raises his hand in John's general direction to stop his advance, then fishes the pen from out of his hair and ignores him again.
John returns to sorting the printouts their customers left as reference material for their tattoos. Between some sheets John finds early drafts of Sherlock's transformation of them. A realistic bluetit on a cherry branch, a Chinese dragon spitting fire, a complex Celtic knot in rainbow colours. These are all really good. It would be a crying shame to throw them away. John might scan them later and describe the story of their creation on his blog.
His blog was meant to help him cope after Afghanistan, but has become more of an ad campaign for Sherlock's tattoo studio since John has started helping out as a shop assistant and realised Sherlock doesn't much care for "flaunting" his work. Including Sherlock's art on his blog was one of his more inspired ideas. Not only did John gain a wider readership, but he also drew in more customers who complimented them both on the designs as well as the coverage. That is, until they got to know the man behind the images.
"What's this mess?" Sherlock speaks up behind him, gesturing at the papers on the counter as he steps around it. "I told you not to leave anything flying around. Chaos distracts me."
John knows better than to mention the state of their flat, which Sherlock maintains is in perfect order. To think a neat freak who flips tables at every hair that contaminates his working environment would allow himself to drown in takeout boxes and used art supplies. The disarray extends only to the living and sleeping quarters – and sometimes the bathroom, depending on whether Sherlock wants to experiment in it or not – but John likes his surroundings tidy, thank you very much. Sometimes, when John stoops to playing cleaning lady once again, they argue about boundaries. Which, it appears, John is not allowed to have, but has to respect in Sherlock.
He's exaggerating, of course; Sherlock turns his vexation inside out, until John no longer knows what he was vexed about in the first place. Ella would probably surmise it has less to do with the immediate than with long gone, but not entirely processed, circumstances.
John clears his throat. "Yes. Well. I was getting to it." He holds up Sherlock's sketches. "I found these among the disposal pile."
"Yes, I don't need them anymore." Not bothering to look his way, Sherlock breezes over his bookshelves, pulling out old magazines, artbooks and medical journals before reordering them.
"But these are amazing! It's what people want to see."
"Oh God," Sherlock groans and moves on to the next shelf. "You're already blogging about them. Next you're going to tell me to display them. I don't care what people want to see, John. Drop it."
"Display them? Yes! Why not? It's a brilliant idea. Imagine how many customers you could draw in that way."
"Mycroft has offered that and many other arguments in various different phrasings already. As if he thought I wouldn't notice he's repeating himself." Sherlock snaps his current book shut, not bothering to flip to the end. "The answer remains no."
John has the impression Sherlock is answering by rote and not actually listening to a word he says. It happens when Sherlock is otherwise preoccupied. Not liking the idea of being mere background noise for Sherlock's thought, he crowds into the other man's space to make sure his next words register. (A mixture of soap, ointment and sanitizers wafts to his nose.)
"You know, that was our last customer for the week. You scared everyone else away."
"Thankfully, the week is almost over, wouldn't you say?" Sherlock's smile is tight. He makes no move to evade John. In fact, he leans in as though forced by some inner magnetism. This close, John can see twin dimples of healed perforation below Sherlock's lips – and why is he staring at the man's lips again? Sherlock (his boss!) mentioned having had snakebites once. (This job may have started as a temporary arrangement to repay Sherlock, but professional pride dictated John to learn the terminology of different piercing placements as soon as he came across it.)
John forces himself to concentrate on the issue at hand rather than his not so secret attraction to his employer and – as he came to think of him – his friend.
"He didn't even pay for your time! How are we supposed to foot the bills if you don't bring in any money?"
"Last I checked, you were not footing anything." Sherlock's voice drops to a teasing murmur. For a moment John thinks Sherlock might kiss him, before the man straightens again and waggles his fingers, as if conjuring coins out of thin air. "Not to worry, though. I'll scam the money out of Mycroft, tell him it's for the good of Queen and Country. He'll listen."
"Oh, will I?"
John and Sherlock whip their heads around to the source of the disturbance. Neither of them has heard the chime above the door ring.
Mycroft steps inside, umbrella dangling from one arm, looking for all the world as though expecting to scuff his hand-sewn Italian leather shoes on something unsanitary. According to Sherlock, his brother affords the same amount of disdain to his parlour that's certified by the local health department as he would a rat-infested den of drunken sailors. Sherlock entertains the idea of adopting a pet rat just to screw with that notion. But he wouldn't keep it in the shop, so there goes that jest.
Sherlock's spitefulness is almost cute, although John wouldn't dare say so even under threat of violence. He imagines Sherlock might poke his eyes out with the tattoo machine. And then continue to bicker with Mycroft.
Their rivalry – if that's what it is – is something incongruous, a remnant of their childhood they apparently never grew out out of no matter how much they've changed. And John expects they've changed a lot, or at least Sherlock has, rising to become an underground rock star of tattoo art, according to DI Lestrade. His rebellious streak is more pronounced through Mycroft's conservative demeanour, keeping the family tradition and embodying the perfect English gentleman complete with golden watch chain, brocade silk tie and pocket square. Not to mention the manners.
Mycroft's grey three-piece suit is at odds with his surroundings, but John has learned not to judge by appearance. More unlikely people have come here for a tattoo or a piercing. John himself was one of them, as was the unassuming office worker from last week who wanted to complete his magic cross. It takes all kinds; it's no more surprising that Mycroft and Sherlock are brothers when their only common denominator is a dizzying intellect, than it is to believe that homeless Dmitri from Drury Lane used to be a lawyer in his home country.
John is still staring at Mycroft in the doorway, who is inspecting the tip of his umbrella, when he feels warm breath ghost over the shell of his ear.
"Watch me," Sherlock murmurs, before returning the book that served as physical barrier between them to its rightful place on the shelf.
John is suddenly too aware of Sherlock's proximity and, of course, Mycroft's scrutiny. He beelines to his desk and picks up his mug. Just to appear busy. Watch me, he said, as if John could do anything else. He made it sound like an indecent proposal. Swallowing, John rather welcomes the cold tea that counterbalances the heat in his bloodstream.
"Mycroft," Sherlock says and walks over to his brother. "Came to get your portrait of the Queen done?"
John stares, waiting for that statement to sink in. "You're getting a tattoo, Mycroft?"
"Sherlock has promised me one – or shall I say threatened? – though I would much prefer it on canvas. My skin is growing too old for this type of lark, I'm afraid."
"Nonsense," Sherlock retorts, "your back was made for this."
John bites back a smile at the thought of Mycroft, stripped to the waist, with Sherlock colouring the profile of Elizabeth II. In all honesty though, John cannot picture Mycroft out of his clothes, or even out of his jacket. The man must have come into the world wearing a bespoke suit. Driven in a sleek Mercedes with tinted windows, no doubt.
"I'm not here to undress, Sherlock." Mycroft's mouth twists into the semblance of a smile that John interprets as I'm going to have you killed slowly and painfully and I'm going to enjoy watching. Or perhaps, Another word, and you will be the one undressing. John gulps down the rest of his tea and adds, for a spanking. There, less ambiguous. Though not by much.
"A pity," Sherlock says, lounging against the counter. "I would have loved to see you squirming under my hand."
"You will have to earn that privilege, brother dear."
"Oh, I intend to, rest assured. One day you will submit."
Mycroft chuckles. "I'll leave you to your vain hopes."
John's eyes ping-pong between the two, lobbed back and forth across an umbrella-length of court. He clutches his mug tighter, vaguely uncomfortable by this exchange. Are they still talking about tattoos? Their verbal sparring contest sounds an awful lot like flirtation to John's ears, but the innuendo he hears may just be his tragic lack of a sex life talking. Nothing to worry about.
"What did you come here for, Mycroft?" John blurts, before Sherlock can return the serve. If this was an Holmesian exercise in making him feel like a bug on the wall (or a rat in the gutter, because that's where his head is) – well, sorry boys, he's not gonna have it.
A tiny part of him, however, goes over the image of Mycroft propositioning someone. The man may be a glacier toward Sherlock, but he's civil toward John and the difference in temperature is large enough for John to believe Mycroft could easily add a few degrees more, given his penchant for manipulation. Sherlock doesn't strike him as the most sociable of beings, but on one occasion, John has heard him twist an ink supplier around his little finger. Had it been him on the other end of the line, he'd have needed a bucket of ice cubes to cool down after. (That throaty laugh still shudders through him.)
"Hello, John," Mycroft addresses him in that same low timbre he caressed Sherlock's eardrums with; his own name resonates curiously within him, like Herodias' words in Salome's ear. He might need those ice cubes after all. "I have business with Sherlock."
"Not for another two hours," Sherlock says and their eyes lock again with the force of gravity.
"I saw your earlier customer storming off and gathered you would be free for the rest of this fine afternoon."
The implications of Mycroft's comment no longer alarm John. Barely a week after John started working for Sherlock, he got the privilege to meet the "British government" in person, if Sherlock's epithet of Mycroft is accurate. John has no doubts about it, not when the man boasted his ability to control the London surveillance system before they ever met in person.
Sherlock huffs and rolls down his sleeves. "You wanted to make sure I don't bolt before our appointed time."
"It's my turn to choose the venue, so I have reason to suspect I'll meet with your reluctance."
"Mild way of putting it."
Okay, John may be small, but he's not actually invisible. It must be Mycroft's presence that extends beyond his immediate person in an almost palpable radius and drowns him out. John usually flatters himself into observing a slow build of tension when he is alone with Sherlock, but it has nothing on the way the air electrifies when Sherlock's attention shifts to Mycroft. He waits for sparks to shoot out of Sherlock's eyes, intent on burning Mycroft to cinders.
"Where are you headed?" John asks, drumming his fingers against the mug.
"Oh, I don't know. Mycroft won't tell me until we're there. He fears I might resist. So, if I want to find out I'll have to let myself be spirited away."
"Is this some kind of magic carpet ride?"
Sherlock's lips quirk. "Something like that."
"Curiosity is a strong motivator for Sherlock," Mycroft adds. "Otherwise he'd never agree to go out with me."
"I don't care about dinner or your fancy art galleries. Not when we've been to them a couple of hundred times already. A little more creativity on your part in the choice of activity wouldn't be amiss. But a sad lack of creativity is a requirement for civil servants, is it not?"
"You've never minded the auctions."
"Only because I might have the chance of seeing something new. Private collections are fascinating. There's nothing you can't deduce about the previous owner."
"What auctions?" John begins to feel like a parrot for tossing their cues back at them in the form of a question. Curious how quickly they ignore their surroundings in favour of quarrelling.
"Art auctions, for the most part," Mycroft says. "At least, those are Sherlock's favourites."
"Why art auctions?" John turns to Sherlock. "I haven't seen any pieces around the flat that weren't done by you, so you're not investing in your own collection."
"Well, I mainly let myself be dragged along because I'm waiting for shunga woodblocks to appear, so I can get one for Mycroft. He goes to buy boring pieces for his boring government friends. Bribery, I presume."
So many questions are floating around in John's head, but he goes for the most obvious one. "Shunga?"
"It's Japanese erotic art," Mycroft explains and studies the bookshelves, no doubt picking out which books Sherlock has rearranged since his last visit. "Quite explicit in most cases."
"Don't forget to mention homoerotic," Sherlock adds.
Mycroft smiles politely; John mirrors him, but with more puzzlement and less razorblades. He's not entirely certain what they are trying to tell him, or what reaction they expect of him. Should he be shocked about Mycroft's choice in art, or amused that Sherlock wants to force it on him? Their expressions betray nothing but superior helpfulness, so at least they're not poking fun at him.
"Right," John manages finally. "Well. I think I'm going to clean up. You two have fun."
"We'll see about that," Sherlock scoffs while Mycroft says, "Thank you, John. Have a nice day." Then, to Sherlock, "Shall we?"
John sidesteps Sherlock as he breezes to the coatrack, grumbling all the while, and wonders why he'd go with Mycroft if he's so averse to the idea. A tiny part of John also wants him to stay, because minding the shop in Sherlock's absence is brain-numbingly boring. Well, he can always draft his next blog entries.
Sherlock rummages in the pockets of his coat. Paper tears, and he slips a nicotine patch under his sleeve, before buttoning the cuff.
"If nobody calls or pops in until six," he says, "you can close the shop early."
John glances at the clock on the far end of the wall. That still leaves an hour and a half to entertain himself, because business on a Thursday evening is slow to non-existent. At least Sherlock had enough books lining the walls for John to be occupied into the next decade. The French ones would give him trouble.
Before Sherlock turns to leave, his eyes find John's again and they look guarded, as though he's trying to tell John something, but uncertain how to go about it. Does he want John to stop him from leaving, to make up some excuse as to why Sherlock has to stay? It's not like Sherlock couldn't come up with his own excuses; he has a stock of them, but maybe they would sound more convincing coming from John.
John has nothing to say though, nothing to save Sherlock from what he seems to think of as an ordeal.
He watches Mycroft hold the door open for Sherlock and guide him through it with a hand to the small of his back. Sherlock allows the touch, doesn't even seem aware of it through his coat.
John sets down his mug on the edge of his desk. His palms are sweaty. He rubs them on his trousers, then goes to the back to wash them with soap. Even before his days at medical school, John has been called efficient, reliable, precise – attributes he takes great pride in. As he bins the used ink caps and disinfects the countertops, he feels rather out of it: his movements slow, his mind retracts, his objections fade. He forgets what he was about to do until he spots the cloth in his hand again and resumes its circular motion, as though one of life's mysteries has unfolded in front of him and his mind's still reeling to catch up with what he witnessed.
When John picks up the felt tips to put them in a jar marked with biohazard stickers, his eyes fall on the drawing that compelled Sherlock to throw out a customer mid-appointment. It's a half-coloured Japanese-style bonsai tree with a dark olive crown and a light brown trunk in fine detail. John frowns. The gnarled bark is suggestive of tanned skin and wrinkles—John turns the sheet around. The tree actually looks like a penis jutting from a coarse jungle of hair.
John goes over the snatches of conversation he can remember to find out just what has inspired such a design – the customer himself wouldn't get anything going in him. Did Sherlock think of anyone specific when he drew this? None of the appointments he marked in their calendar mentioned trees, or anything Asian for that matter. Once again, it must be his imagination that supplies the connection.
Exasperated, he drops the paper onto the spot he's taken it from, gathers the felt pens and dumps them into their jar with more force than necessary. John seriously doubts his state of mind, when everything he sees or hears reminds him of sex. His frustration is maxing out.
That's it, he thinks. When his work day is over, he will go to a pub and chat up a cute blonde. He's had enough of dark-haired madmen with wicked miens and fiendish voices.
The pale afternoon sun stings in his eyes as Mycroft steps out onto the rain-flecked street. The slate grey cloud cover has broken since he entered the shop. Sherlock is standing three steps away from the car, eyes following a pair of malnourished street performers that hunch in their jackets to cover their garish neck tattoos. Mycroft waits for a young mother to push her buggy past him, slowed by the bawling five-year-old clinging to her arm. Sherlock would likely tell her to get over her petty jealousies and make up with her ex-husband so she wouldn't have to take her two sick children with her when she can't afford a babysitter. Useless knowledge. Mycroft discards it again.
No outward sign of displeasure mars his features, but he is reminded yet again why he prefers the indoors. The London cacophony is a strain on his sensitive ears.
However, leaving Sherlock alone for too long is not an option. John might be reliable enough to keep Sherlock out of trouble on a day-to-day basis, to make certain he eats proper food, or even to tag along on his more ridiculous exploits. Like that unnecessary chase through half of London last month, when Sherlock deserted his untouched plate of pasta alla norma at Angelo's in favour of learning the name of an intriguing artist who had tattooed a man Sherlock has spotted hailing a cab from across the street. If John hadn't been on his heels to defuse the situation, Sherlock might have collected more than just a black eye.
Unfortunately, Sherlock needs more maintenance than the occasional rush of danger to stay away from harmful patterns. Mycroft likes to think of their outings as ways to draw Sherlock out of his own head, to show him glimpses of a life outside of his own chosen world, to remind him of everything he likes, or used to like when Mycroft was capable of making sense of Sherlock's preferences.
Sherlock is biting his thumbnail when Mycroft reaches him, nervous energy transforming itself into repulsive habits. Without a word, Mycroft tugs Sherlock's hand away by the wrist and their gazes lock. Mycroft knows then that Sherlock will not be able to sit through three hours of Macbeth at the Globe, nor would he want to.
"Let's not," Sherlock says, shifting his eyes and his weight.
"We'll talk in the car."
"I don't want to get in the car." Sherlock spits.
"I'd rather not walk home. It might rain again."
Sherlock frowns at him. He anticipated a different argument. "What have you planned? Will you be cooking? I'm not hungry."
"I have planned nothing of the sort. But I am willing to accommodate you if that is what you wish."
Sherlock's frown deepens as he's trying to process Mycroft's suggestion. He may have expected to fight for the privilege of skipping Mycroft's plan for the evening, because that's what he usually does. Even if he's interested. Mycroft's day has been long, however, nearing the 36-hour mark, and he lacks the energy to insist on following through with his programme. It's not worth the hassle.
Fatigue tugs at Mycroft's body and he reconsiders the sagacity of meeting with Sherlock in this state. Sherlock is a handful at the best of times, and he needs more attention than Mycroft can offer him. Still, Sherlock neglected their last appointment and the past has taught Mycroft not to let matters drag out too long. With the upcoming elections in the UK, Australia, as well as in the US and Egypt later this year, Mycroft's schedule has been growing tighter, and finding enough time for his brother will become more difficult as the weeks progress.
Mycroft opens the car door for Sherlock, whose jaw muscles clench.
"Fine," he says, and climbs into the car without another word of protest.
Mycroft follows him and informs his driver of the change in destination. They're silent throughout the ride to his lodgings, but Sherlock is tapping his fingers against his knees, crossing and uncrossing his legs, and pointedly not looking in Mycroft's direction. His fidgeting is beginning to affect Mycroft as well, who starts picking at his trousers. Touching Sherlock is an unconscious imperative he has to suppress in public, and sometimes in private too. Urges are a weakness Sherlock would exploit if he knew of their existence. Mycroft is not going to give him that satisfaction.
"How is Mrs Hudson?" he asks, engaging Sherlock on the aural plane.
"Why didn't you ask her yourself?" Sherlock looks at him then. Gazing out of the window, Mycroft keeps his profile to Sherlock. In the reflections, he can see Sherlock staring at his lips.
"Tonight is her bingo night."
"Ah, in that case you could have guessed she's fine. I doubt anyone would go through this kind of boredom unless they could handle it."
"And John? Will he be all right without you?"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Sherlock's expression is suspicious; he obviously doesn't want to discuss the matter with Mycroft. As if he thought to hide his interest in the man.
"He seemed rather displeased about your unforeseen leavetaking."
"He seems rather displeased about everything these days. Says it's my fault we don't have any customers. If they would bring interesting—no, you don't want me talking shop, so I won't."
Mycroft smiles. "How obliging."
"What's this sudden interest in the people around me? Do you want me to detail Lestrade's workday for you? Or maybe Molly's? I'm beginning to lose faith in your observational skills if you can't gather that yourself. Or maybe your surveillance equipment is faulty."
"I want to hear it from you," Mycroft says. Sherlock's tirade sounded no more worrying than anything else he has to say, but Mycroft is wary nonetheless. "I want to make certain you're still aware of your surroundings."
Sherlock's eyes narrow. "Are you still going on about the drugs? I've been clean for what – three years? Five? Get off my back already."
"Your recent behaviour is cause for concern."
Mycroft may be used to a lot from Sherlock, but when the boy is spending more time with his homeless friends, all alarm bells in Mycroft's head are sounding. He's had them approached informally, asking around for a variety of substances, none of which they could provide his informants with, or so they claimed. Mycroft suspects they're smart enough not to bargain with newcomers, and rightfully so. Sherlock, however, knows them well enough, and they trust him not to turn them in.
If this were an isolated case, Mycroft could believe Sherlock was buying information or sending the homeless on errands. However, Mrs Hudson has reported Sherlock being awake all night painting disturbing images in garish colours that have none of his usual vibrancy.
"This is about last time, isn't it? I bail on you once and you have to punish me by being an arse about it. You know what? Stop the car, I'm leaving."
"We're almost there," Mycroft says as they leave St James Park behind them. "Surely you can bear another minute in my presence."
Sherlock sneers, lets himself fall back against the seat, and crosses his arms. His posture suggests he's not going to jump out of the moving car for the moment and Mycroft relaxes. Sherlock's petulant silences stir a vague nostalgia in Mycroft, evoking a time when the worst Sherlock could run into was open fire. Now the world unfolds in front of him and with it, all its dangers – and its temptations. Which, for Sherlock, are one and the same.
The car stops and Sherlock rushes out before Mycroft can tell him to wait. He thanks his driver, hoping the courtesy hasn't offered Sherlock too much of a headstart for Mycroft to whistle him back. Lord knows what Sherlock might come up with if left to roam London in this frantic state.
"Sherlock!" he calls as he gets out of the car, but his brother is nowhere in sight.
Instead, the door to his flat is gaping open. Mycroft shakes his head. Not five minutes ago Sherlock all but fled from the car, now he lets himself in with stolen keys. Mycroft has considered changing the locks on occasion, if that were all it took to keep Sherlock out. Still, his staff would be less than pleased if Sherlock dropped in unannounced, probably hoping to asphyxiate Mycroft in his sleep or steal documents from his office. Or both.
"Looks like Easter's come early in here," Sherlock says once Mycroft has crossed the threshold.
In the hall, an arrangement of narcissus adorns the narrow table below the mirror. Mycroft tucks his umbrella into its designated spot in the stand and hangs up his coat. Sherlock is still wearing his, as if he's about to change his mind any second and barge out the door again.
"Victoria must have put them here while I was away." Mycroft traces the inside of one. Its head bobs when he lets go. "Do they offend you?"
Sherlock cocks his head, but his eyes never leave Mycroft's fingers. "Flowers don't offend me."
"You've been offended by stranger things," Mycroft says and straightens his lapels. Then he smiles at Sherlock in the mirror. His reflection looks different, skewed, and Mycroft wonders not for the first time what their life in a looking-glass world would be like.
"They take me back, to Mummy and her love for seasonal decoration." Sherlock is strangely thoughtful now, as if echoing Mycroft's mood by letting memories mute the energy in his system.
"How you loathed it when she changed them."
"Imagine a world where nothing ever stays the same. Imagine needing the security of permanence. Not even in my childhood home was I given that."
Mycroft turns to Sherlock, who has already spun on his heel. "Now you're being overly dramatic. Permanence is a myth. Everything changes."
"Platitudes," Sherlock murmurs. moving as if in a dream, pulled onward by a siren call.
"Are we here then to philosophise about the insubstantiality of the waking world? I didn't notice you'd go in for that sort of thing. You always hated the boredom of stability."
Sherlock strolls into the kitchen without answering, maybe without even listening. Which is for the best; Mycroft doesn't like the turn their conversation has taken.
"Oh, look," Sherlock calls. "She even left you something to eat. How thoughtful of her."
The aroma of garlic, pepper and ginger permeates the air as Mycroft nears the kitchen, with lighter notes of cumin, turmeric and cinnamon. Jasmine rice rounds off the spices with a flowery base and reminds Mycroft that he had to forgo lunch in favour of an urgent meeting with the councillor. He ignores his rumbling stomach.
Condensation runs down the inside of the glass dome as Sherlock lifts it off the table. The dish was still warm when Victoria covered it. Sherlock picks up the fork and takes a bite.
"Hm, vegetable curry," he says, and grins around the piece of silverware. He has thrown his coat over the back of the chair and now looks smaller for it, less imposing. "At least this she does right. Tell me, when was the last time you had some real hollandaise? Or buttered toast?"
"I hardly see why it matters."
Sherlock eats another forkful, then lets the cutlery clatter against the plate, no longer interested. Despite the insufficient quantity, Mycroft is glad for any morsel Sherlock ingests willingly; Sherlock doesn't believe in regular food intake and force feeding his brother is not on today's agenda.
"You used to cook for me when we were younger," Sherlock continues. "Simple things like scrambled eggs, although I hardly ever ate anything."
"You've always been a picky eater."
"Picking at my food doesn't make me a picky eater," Sherlock says and steps around the table. "I've just never been in the mood for what's been set before me."
"In that case, pardon my inability to read your mind."
"John also takes it as a personal affront when I don't sit down to eat what he's prepared. I don't understand what all the fuss is about."
"We worry about your health." Explaining matters Sherlock doesn't want to understand is never easy. Mycroft has given up on the attempt.
"Isn't that always your excuse?" Sherlock slides his fingers down the lapels of Mycroft's jacket. "As if that would justify your conditioning of me."
Mycroft encircles Sherlock's wrists, willing him to meet his eyes. "Sherlock, are you all right?"
His brother is ranting and Mycroft doesn't see the connection. The onslaught of Sherlock's mood swings are harder to adapt to the faster they are alternating. Mycroft feels a headache pressing against the back of his skull.
"That's exactly what I mean!" Sherlock rips his arms away and stumbles against the table, rattling the silverware. "I'm not acting like you want me to and suddenly I'm an aberration."
Mycroft wants to groan, to sit down, to suggest Sherlock do the same to get hold of himself, but Sherlock needs to vent his excessive energy.
"We've been over this," he says softly. Sherlock explodes.
"Maybe you've been over this, talking at me. Have you ever considered waiting for another's reply? Maybe Victoria rolls over at a word from you, brainless, subservient bitch that she is, but I'm not—"
The back of Mycroft's hand hits Sherlock's cheek with a satisfying smack.
For a moment, his brother looks stunned, as if the impact rattled all the accusations in his head. Gingerly, he touches the side of his face. He opens and closes his jaw, mechanically working out the sting, as though still not believing what has happened.
When his eyes lock on Mycroft's, they are smoldering. Sherlock sends no more warning before throwing himself at him, fingers tearing at fabric, mouth parted and ravenous. Mycroft has no chance to be shocked – Sherlock's blind ferocity jolts through him like lightning. In a heartbeat, his hands are fisting Sherlock's hair, tugging at his clothes, shrugging off his own.
Buttons pop, teeth graze, and breaths surge hot against each other. For the moment, nothing else exists.
Faint curls of steam rise from the bowl of water Mycroft places next to his desk. Sherlock has not moved an inch from where he lies stretched over the surface, arms and legs dangling from either side of it. Wringing out the washcloth, Mycroft wipes down Sherlock, careful not to apply pressure on the welts and bruises discolouring the koi pond on his back.
Sherlock might be sleeping for all the responses he makes, but his breathing comes in shallow bursts. Mycroft cards through the sweat-matted curls at Sherlock's temple, before dabbing the cloth at his forehead. Sherlock's eyes open, but remain unfocused. His shoulders and buttocks spasm as if he wanted to heave himself up, but found himself too weak.
Mycroft, on the other hand, feels strangely invigorated, despite the ordeal Sherlock put him through. He's not altogether fond of exacting corporal punishment, although it has its uses. Once his brother begs, however, Mycroft can deny him nothing. He found himself engrossed in the beads of sweat shining on his welts, reading every quiver, every jerk, every tilt of the head like an elaborate score, played to the rhythm of Sherlock's cries and grunts and whimpers. Mycroft ignored the rush of air, or his own perspiration stinging in his eyes, and concentrated wholly on Sherlock's expressive body language.
Now, Sherlock's body has gone silent, except for the occasional twitch when Mycroft nears a sensitive area. He's peaceful like this, unravelled and able to reconstruct himself from scratch. Pain is a powerful stimulant, a means to focus that Sherlock would otherwise find in narcotics. Mycroft is relieved they have found another way to address Sherlock's needs, although catering to them is often obstructed by time constraints and Sherlock's vacillating moods.
"Can you stand?" Mycroft asks.
Sherlock hauls himself up and inches away from the surface of the desk. The damp handprints that palm their way along the edge disappear right after, like hoarfrost in the sun; the pools of sweat from his chest and stomach remain. Mycroft tosses the washcloth on them.
Once Sherlock has more or less righted himself, Mycroft helps him to his divan in the corner. Sherlock winces as he shifts his weight onto it. Mycroft leaves him to settle on his stomach and returns to his desk to wipe it clean. Behind him, Sherlock groans. Mycroft slips the cloth back into the water and retrieves a tube of ointment from the bottom drawer.
Padding back to the divan, he taps Sherlock's shoulder and manoeuvres him until his chest is draped over Mycroft's lap. Sherlock relaxes into him while Mycroft applies the ointment to his welts, rubbing soothing circles over his skin and tracing the inked lines on his back. Sherlock makes a sound very close to a contented sigh.
Mycroft is not going to lie and say he could stay like this forever, but having Sherlock close to him without dripping venom is a welcome change from their usual routine.
While tending to Sherlock, he involuntarily thinks of John, whom they would have to deceive later about Sherlock's bruises. Living together makes hiding them impossible, especially since Sherlock has no qualms about wading through the flat naked. He would likely flaunt them before John to hook his attention.
Sherlock's attraction to his flatmate and employee of course hasn't passed Mycroft by. It was likely one of the reasons for Sherlock's erratic behaviour. The boy never knew what to do with his feelings. Once they grew too vast and complicated they had to be done away with, because sorting through them is just too troublesome and time-consuming. Not to mention the headspace they took up.
So once again, Mycroft is left to deal with them for Sherlock. And finds himself confronted with a curious absence of aversion.
For as long as he can remember, he has been territorial about Sherlock, certain in his belief that no one could offer him what he could – after all, they had never met anyone whose mind worked quite like theirs. However, Mycroft has to concede that even though their minds are superior to others, they are less similar than he would have liked. Over the years, it has become apparent that Sherlock has cravings Mycroft can't fulfill, cravings he sought to satisfy in attempts at relationships that were doomed to fail, because Sherlock himself doesn't realise what he needs. He still thinks he can fix everything with drugs and pain and the odd scraps of affection Mycroft throws him during times likes these. He wouldn't lie so still otherwise, content to let Mycroft caress his skin.
Mycroft suspects his brother's attachment to John stems from his unconscious desire of emotional fulfilment that Mycroft can't address. John cares for Sherlock's well-being, accepts his many character flaws and offers him stability by not turning his back on Sherlock no matter how difficult he proves to be.
John complements Sherlock; he is good for him. The reverse, unfortunately, doesn't hold true. If left to run its course, Mycroft imagines they would find each other in a relationship, until Sherlock can no longer deal with his conflicted feelings, because they make him vulnerable – and caring, after all, is not an advantage. When it all becomes too much, he would turn back to the drugs and leave Mycroft to pick up the pieces.
If left to run its course. Other solutions present themselves along the way. But first, Sherlock had to realise certain things for himself.
Once the ointment has sufficiently dried not to leave lasting stains on his clothes, Mycroft nudges Sherlock, who seems to have drifted off. He murmurs something inaudible and shifts, blinking up at Mycroft. For a moment, a smile flits across his face, probably until he notices who it is that is staring back. Mycroft touches Sherlock's cheek, the one he backhanded earlier; it has swollen a bit, but not enough to be noticeable if one doesn't know what to look for.
Grimacing, Sherlock raises himself up on his arms, and noses up Mycroft's neck. When he reaches his jaw, he presses his lips to it. Mycroft tilts his head down to capture them with his own. Their kiss is languorous, gentle, sweet.
"Are you ready to dress?" he asks at last. "It's getting late. Time to get you home."
Mycroft has a situation to assess.
John doesn't know whether to count the evening as a success: he got a phone number, but the woman who wrote it on his beer mat reminded him too much of his sister – the deep voice, the hair dyed dark, the heavy drinking. Not a pleasant association. He's not gonna call tomorrow. Or any day after.
The more immediate plans for what's left of the evening include winding down with some crap telly as source of light and noise, until Sherlock can take over. He shouldn't be too much longer. The length of time Sherlock can stomach to be in his brother's presence surprises John, given their fondness for pushing each other's buttons. Unless, of course, Mycroft lies murdered in a ditch somewhere and Sherlock is fleeing the country. Which is unlikely, because John suspects he'd be the first person Sherlock texted to help him dispose of the body.
Now that he thinks of it, John notices he's been missing Sherlock's running commentary. Normally, John's phone would have been abuzz with creative texts illustrating the exact manner and depth of Sherlock's boredom in as many synonyms the man could think of. In essence, every alternative The Oxford Thesaurus of English lists for such entries as tedious, dull, boring.
But his phone remained free of life signs from Sherlock or anyone else. During the first hour John wondered whether Sherlock didn't have any reception; during the second he thought that maybe they've gone somewhere even Sherlock considered fiddling with his phone impolite; during the third he began to worry that they might have been kidnapped and held hostage in some dank, hidden underground lair, waiting for Mycroft's goons to bust them out. Not an entirely unlikely scenario. Between the two of them, Sherlock and Mycroft probably had enough enemies to populate a small country.
After the third hour, however, John had to concede that maybe Mycroft actually knew how to engage Sherlock's mind so he forgot all about sharing the experience with John.
He has hoped Sherlock would share, maybe coupled with a request to break him out. If only to spice up John's evening. Or better: to divert him from replaying the look Sherlock gave him before leaving. It went right through him and John felt hooked – Sherlock could have reeled him in and John would have followed gladly, Mycroft be damned. But Sherlock operates in mixed signals, squeezing into John's personal space to pick up whatever is located behind him, then ignoring every verbal cue for the next two and a half hours. So John believes he can't exactly be blamed for failing to get the message. If there was one.
Once John has rearranged the reference books and drawings on the couch, he sinks into it and reaches for the remote. Just as he wants to press the power button, he hears unfamiliar footsteps trudging up the stairs. There are two sets, a heavy tread muffling a lighter one.
John jumps to his feet again and wonders if something has happened. Are these Mycroft's people coming to get him? Police officers looking for Sherlock? Clients? The mob?
Before John can come up with more extravagant examples, the door opens and Sherlock shuffles inside. He doesn't greet John, or even notice him, he just heads for his bedroom. John is used to feeling invisible when Sherlock is deep in thought, but he has never seen him so out of it before.
Mycroft at least acknowledges his presence. John looks at him, startled to find him in the room. Sherlock's air had so engrossed him, he didn't see Mycroft practically following on Sherlock's heels. He trails after Sherlock, apparently intend on accompanying him into his bedroom, but Sherlock swings the door shut behind him. Another odd gesture – Sherlock's door is never closed.
"What happened?" John asks, alarmed. "Is he on drugs?"
Mycroft turns to him, face pleasant but exhausted. "Sherlock got into a scuffle," he begins, rendering the circumstances for John. On their way out of the theatre, someone must have ticked off Sherlock, because he was goading two figures into beating him before Mycroft could hold him back. From how Mycroft tells the story, John gathers this wasn't Sherlock's first time doing something like that.
"Does that happen often? Sherlock wanting to get beaten, I mean?"
"Fairly," Mycroft says and moves to the stack of papers John has relocated to the coffee table. He leans his umbrella against the sofa's armrest and picks up the topmost sheet. "Whenever he becomes too distracted to focus on his art properly. It's his alternative to the ensuing boredom. And the drugs."
John bites back a groan and rubs his face. "Please tell me there is something we can do to help him."
"Give him a task," Mycroft says, more intent on Sherlock's drawings than the conversation, "one that interests him."
John throws up his hands. "I'm trying! You of all people should know how hard it is! Sherlock's work is really amazing. I mean, you can see for yourself. He could have so many customers, but he's such a bloody git sometimes. He sends almost every second person home, because what they want of him isn't challenging enough. I have no idea where to go looking for potential clients anymore."
"Clients, yes." Mycroft says, lacing that word with disdain. "His talent is wasted on his little parlour belowstairs. He could do anything with his art and I could help provide him with interesting projects. But he wants to hear none of it."
"Well, Sherlock loves tattooing. I doubt there's anything that would ever talk him out of it."
Mycroft shoots him a cool look through his eyelashes. "He used to love all manner of creating. Compared to what he fashioned before, this is mere tinkering."
John stares at Mycroft, incredulous. Sherlock's designs are multi-layered, inspired, intricate – whatever is needed – and he calls it tinkering. "Have you ever seen any of his finished tattoos?"
"I am not interested in any of that," Mycroft says, moving on to the next drawing.
"I've got some of them. On my blog, I mean. There are others on his website. You should have a look at them; they're bloody gorgeous."
"No, thank you. I think I'll pass."
John cocks his head. He doesn't understand the man. Okay, so tattoos may not be his cup of tea, John gets that. But Mycroft claims to want what is best for Sherlock and fails to see how important tattooing is for him. It's no small wonder that they're so often at loggerheads. Harry never supported John's choice to join the army either and look how well they get on. Then again, Harry is a different kind of difficult and John a different kind of stubborn. Not to mention their fundamentally different type of relationship. But still.
Mycroft means well, in his own very strange and very twisted way, John honestly believes he does. But Mycroft is also a pompous tosser who can't leave off trying to manipulate Sherlock into doing what he wants him to. And he's so, so bloody wrong in this.
"You know," John says, crossing his arms and leaning closer. "I think you really should. How can you say you're interested in his art if you don't want to see it all, hm? You can't just ignore the biggest part of his life like that."
"Oh, is it? The biggest part of his life?" Mycroft says in a voice that suggests John doesn't know what he's talking about, having met Sherlock barely four months earlier. And maybe John doesn't, unlike Mycroft, who so obviously wants to showcase his familiarity with all things Sherlock, but John is not blind.
"Well. Yes. Now," he says. Very eloquent. That's sure to persuade Mycroft. Well done. John clears his throat. "So maybe he did some fantastic things before. I wouldn't know. He doesn't show me anything and I've only seen what's around the flat. But that doesn't change that he's doing fantastic things now, too."
Mycroft inspects the charcoal outlines of a partridge and doesn't look up when he says, "I have certain works of Sherlock's in my possession, if you'd like a sampling."
"Look, I don't expect us to—wait, what?" John stumbles over his own tongue at the change of pace. When did they go from arguing about taste to a private viewing of Mycroft's collection? "You own some of Sherlock's art?"
"I believe that is what I said. It's only a tiny fraction though, I'm afraid. Sherlock used to be very prolific, but not everything survived his more destructive moods. Or his creative ones for that matter. He would simply paint over used canvases or break them apart for woodworkings."
John feels a sudden tug of delight inside of him. He never would have believed he'd get the chance to look at Sherlock's older works and wonders what Mycroft would show him. Something from Sherlock's youth, perhaps? His first drawings? John imagines them to be more accurate than anything he himself could produce now. The thought makes him grin like an idiot.
"I'd love to see more of Sherlock's traditional pieces," he says and immediately corrects himself, because he didn't even begin to convey his interest. "All of it, actually. Or whatever is left of it, that is."
"That might prove difficult. I tried collecting some of his more engaging works, but Sherlock wouldn't let me have everything. Or even see everything. I once had the notion of opening a gallery displaying his pieces, to share with the world what Sherlock is capable of. Unfortunately, Sherlock dislikes the public and would never agree to it. You may have noticed."
"Indeed," John finds himself nodding vigorously. "In fact, that very same topic came up earlier, before you showed up. I think the idea of a display is brilliant. People would want to see that. But Sherlock doesn't. His 'no' was pretty clear."
A change has come over Mycroft's expression as John spoke. The tired lines around his mouth disappeared and his eyes lighted up, suddenly interested. "Was it, now?"
"Sounded final to me." He shrugs.
"My dear John," Mycroft says, fixing John with an almost provocative stare. "There is something you should know about my brother: with the right incentive, he'll let you do almost anything. He may not care about displaying his art himself, but if we took everything out of his hands, what more objections could he have?"
"Apart from his general dislike of 'imbeciles' drooling all over his artwork? Can't think of anything."
Belatedly, John swallows. Something about Mycroft's statement sounded wrong to his ears. It may have to do with his mental image of Sherlock tied up on his bed. John clears his throat again, trying to ignore the fact that he's once again having sexy thoughts of his friend and boss, while said friend's brother is in the room. Looking at him. Quite appraisingly. Now that's getting a bit scary.
"Wonderful," Mycroft says and picks up his umbrella. "That would be set then. I'll phone you with the details."
"Wait, what? What details?" John wonders what part of the conversation he missed.
"The exhibition, of course. You expressed your willingness in helping Sherlock, so I expect your co-operation."
"Sorry," John says, once more unable to follow Mycroft's line of thinking. "How is that gonna help Sherlock?"
"It'll provide him with a distraction. Something to struggle against. That always seems to interest him. Now. Have a good night, John. I'll see myself out."
Before John can form a reply, the door closes behind Mycroft. John stares after him for a full minute, not quite believing what just happened. Did the man really decide to put his brother's artwork on display, so Sherlock would no longer pick fights with strangers? Put like that, this chain of causation makes no sense whatsoever. And strangest of all is that Mycroft trusts John to help him with the project. When did that happen? And how is he going to face Sherlock tomorrow, knowing his brother is hatching something behind his back?
Slowly, John sinks onto the sofa, wondering what he has signed up for this time.