Mycroft stood a half-step behind Sherlock, enough distance to give propriety its due but close enough to take inventory of the way his brother held himself.
Always respectability. A part of him longed to close the distance between them and hold himself flush against Sherlock, but no. Propriety must claim her due, seemingly always would. The paradox was not lost on him; the more he had cause to want to toss said propriety out the nearest window, the tighter his nature, his chosen course, bade him cling to it. Even here, in this firing range buried in the basements of a Whitehall office where its occupants might practice their marksmanship and where even the lowest of attendants were chosen for their discretion and loyalty, he could only relax the iron grip he held on himself so far.
The pistol sat almost naturally in Sherlock's hand, admirably so, and if he hadn't known better Mycroft might have mistaken the man he'd seen on the surveillance feed three days ago – the very man now standing before him, the weapon an almost seamless extension of his natural grace – for an experienced gunman. If he hadn't also seen said man scratch the back of his head with that gun still in hand in a way that had made Anthea catch her breath and Mycroft sigh in a fair imitation of long-suffering exasperation. Mycroft had believed (hoped) his brother couldn't be quite so stupid as all that. He would give Sherlock this much credit, though: it had been a rather convincing display of competency up until that point, so much so that Mycroft had wondered just where he'd learned to hold the gun to which (strictly speaking) he should not have had access. Still, it would have been foolhardy not to assess Sherlock's skills in a more controlled environment, to teach him properly how to handle the weapon if need be.
Hence the need for today's target practice, and for Mycroft's hand on the younger man's elbow, the assessing eye turned to every detail of the way Sherlock held himself. There was nothing untoward in that appraisal, not the slightest hint of indulgence. So he told himself, again and again, as if by sheer force of repetition he might transmute that belief into the truth.
Sherlock held himself admirably well, but there was always room for improvement. Thankful to at least be given a reason to close the distance between them, Mycroft took the half-step forward and matched his brother's stance: feet apart, shoulders back. Good. Then the arms: he reached forward, set his hand around Sherlock's wrist and corrected the angle by a nearly imperceptible degree.
"Tighten your grip," he said. Sherlock looked over his shoulder at that, one perfectly-groomed eyebrow arched in a mockery of scandal, and Mycroft realized belatedly how that command might be given just as easily in other contexts. He imagined himself pushed back against the partition wall, his trouser-zip open and Sherlock's hand inside, those elegant fingers wrapped firmly around him. Quite against his will, Mycroft felt his pulse quickening, his fingers tightening by the smallest measure where they held Sherlock's wrist. Really, though, he chastised himself. This was hardly the place.
"On the gun," Mycroft said pointedly. "If you pulled the trigger like that, it would fly across the room. And eyes forward." Taking one more inventory of Sherlock's form, he nodded approvingly. "A ten-shot set, I think. Aim for precision, not speed." Mycroft turned the dial beside him, wheeling a paper target into place, and stepped back. "Begin."
Sherlock's smirk, the arched brow, the teasing humor suffusing his every word: these were chess-moves in a game the two of them have played for long years now, one Mycroft had initiated years ago but which Sherlock had long embraced as well. The first move had been (had seen) so inevitable, and each step had proceeded quite logically from the lay of the board, after their shared past, and by society's immutable expectations. He was not bitter, did not wish things could have been different, save perhaps in the way God might move Aquinas's immovable boulder by rewriting the laws of reality.
So Mycroft had always insisted, to himself most of all, and if a small voice in the back of his mind insisted otherwise, well, surely that voice could be silenced if it ever became truly necessary. A part of him looked at his brother, the charming youth he had been and the giant of a man he was becoming, and longed to be the kind of man who might claim him fully, in body and mind and soul. Yet Mycroft was hardly God (much as those who answered to him might laugh at the admission), could not alter the way things were by a sheer act of will, and like all mortals he was compelled to play by the rules laid out for him.
A more poetic man than he might have likened Sherlock to a modern-day Adonis, a sculpture patterned on the Greek ideal sublimated into living flesh through sheer force of will after the manner of Pygmalion. Mycroft had never been such a man, but neither was he blind. When he had returned from university that first Christmas and found the brat he'd left behind wholly replaced by a gangly youth striding toward maturity, that first glimpse had taken his breath away. He nearly could have written a love-sonnet himself, that day, or perhaps fallen to his knees and paid homage some other way. The arching curve of his back, the porcelain-white skin almost begging to be marked, the eyes shining with a natural curiosity so different from the dullards that surrounded Mycroft even at Cambridge: it would have taken a hard-hearted man indeed not to be inspired by such a sight.
Yet Mycroft had decided (and later informed Sherlock as established fact, when his brother broached the question possibility some years later) that such a relationship was out of the question. It was not, he had assured Sherlock that day, that he found him unattractive; quite the opposite. Nor did he value respectability for its own sake more than the pleasure he was sure Sherlock and he could wring from each other's company. At Cambridge, though, he had taken to the study of law like a bird to flight and he'd found in it a tool equal to his ambitions. The world seemed so chaotic, sometimes, with the most idiotic of men wielding power over others for their own advantage or out of spite. What sort of man would he be, if he threw away that chance?
Men, and boys. It had been Sherlock's own mistreatment at school that had driven him to not throw away his chance. The late-night text about the latest freak whispered behind his back, the bloodied noses when Sherlock had made one too many unwelcome deductions in front of his peers – he had never spoken of those incidents, never let himself shed a tear, but that hardly meant he was unaffected by them. Mycroft had long desired to order things so those boys (and the men they became, and other men like them who hurt lesser men's brothers in kind) would be forced to pay the price for their cruel words and fists. Justice (vengeance, if he was being less kind to himself) was a thoroughly attractive ideal, in those days.
But to bring that about, Mycroft had needed respect, and opportunity, and above all power. He knew what those other people, his mentors and predecessors and those on whom he relied to grant him authority, would think of him if they knew his heart's desire. They would be wrong, but that hardly mattered. What sort of man would risk the chance to accomplish so much good? Sex was cheap, after all, and love? A chemical defect, their mother had often described it, and Mycroft had never let himself challenge that assessment.
Still, Sherlock was... alluring, to say the least. Compelling. Tempting. Mycroft looked when he was sure no one else would see but never touched, never offered the advances he suspected his brother would not refuse. And Sherlock, brat that he was, taunted him at every opportunity, then and now. Mycroft had never been able to work out whether this stemmed from some half-rejected hope that Mycroft might be persuaded away from his chosen course or whether he simply enjoyed the power he derived from teasing his brother for its own sake. Most likely a combination of the two. He seemed to take no small pleasure in driving Mycroft to the brink of endurance, the way he pouted and flaunted his not inconsiderable virtues whenever the two of them were alone together, chose those clothes that best accentuated –
Now, that was something. Usually, Sherlock chose just those garments that were most likely to provoke a response. Given the sharp cut of his frame (more befitting a Byronic hero or one of Bram Stoker's timeless beauties, his brain unhelpfully suggested before he could redirect his thoughts), that typically meant a wardrobe cut tight to accentuate his almost ethereal beauty. Fine wool trousers that left so little to the imagination, shirts in rich hues that complemented Sherlock's near-porcelain skin in ways that would make a lesser man blush (carmine and plum, hunter green and a deep wine red) (and oh, but Mycroft wished he could claim reliable superiority on this point!), and those suit-jackets, pinstripes and charcoal coats that hung just so on him. Mycroft had always been particularly fond of his brother's bold choices where his wardrobe was concerned.
Yet with this last item, today's outfit was a rather definite departure from what Mycroft had expected. (Would have expected, had he dedicated any thought to how his brother might look, which he emphatically had not. Mostly.) Sherlock had never made much allowance for practicality in his clothing choices, but he did make one concession: one suit coat of a looser cut that allowed him the freedom of movement he needed to play the violin in the dramatic way he seemed to prefer. He was wearing that same jacket today. And that meant –
"You expected me to bring you down here," Mycroft said.
Sherlock chuckled. "That deduction took you long enough. It's almost as though you're... distracted." Then, more seriously: "After that trick at the pool, I would have been a fool not to. I was quite surprised none of your agents intervened that night, actually. I half expected you to have them descend en masse." He looked over at his brother, Mycroft supposed expecting to see surprise writ plain across his face, but Mycroft had long since mastered the art of hiding his reactions to Sherlock's antics. And this was plainly that, whatever other category it might fall into.
Sherlock held the gun in the palm of his hand, muzzle pointing away from them, and flipped the safety switch to the off position. "Lestrade took me out to his parents' house in Richmond once," he explained, "when I was six months' clean and just starting to take on interesting cases. They shoot clay pigeons around there so a few more gunshots would hardly prompt them to call the police. He said if I kept myself clean, I would sooner or later go after a criminal dangerous enough that I'd feel the need to arm myself. He'd be 'damned,' he said, if he was going to let me loose on London without teaching me to use one safely."
"Prudent," Mycroft said. "Your partnership with him is well-known enough that, if there was any kind of trouble involving you and an illegal gun, fingers would point to him quickly enough."
Sherlock frowned at that. "It's more than that, I think. He doesn't wish to see me hurt. He..." Sherlock paused as if looking for just the right word. "He cares for me." He thumped his forefinger against his chest, over his heart. "Sentiment, brother dearest. They are not all immune."
Indeed not! Privately Mycroft wondered at the wisdom of teaching a recovering drug addict how to use a dangerous weapon. Surely the detective inspector could have mustered some means of persuasion to get Sherlock to let someone else carry the gun? This was, after all, his brother Lestrade had helped arm. Still, he couldn't deny that Sherlock had put the gun to good use that night at the Southgate pool. Criminals of the caliber Sherlock seemed drawn to were hardly so stupid as to meet an adversary where a single bullet could make much difference, but a handgun could make an effective prop in other ways. Had made. It signified determination. Competence. Danger.
He examined Sherlock's target-paper. "This is a good grouping. Better than you'd learn in a single afternoon all those months ago. How often did Inspector Lestrade work with you?"
Sherlock grinned at that, an expression Mycroft recognized as a sure sign that Sherlock had been clever, or thought he had been, and had been waiting for the opportunity to exult in it. God save them all. "Just the once," Sherlock said. "He taught me the basics that day, how to hold a handgun and proper sighting and the like. But it's amazing what you can learn online, how far that can take you. Americans, you know. I fashioned a laser to fit inside the barrel of John's gun that generated a flash of light when the trigger is pulled. It marks photosensitive paper but doesn't create a gunshot. Mrs. Hudson, at her time in life, you can imagine – she'd hardly appreciate the fright."
Mycroft could not quite suppress the smile that burst forth at that thought. "No, indeed. Nor would your friends at Scotland Yard enjoy being called out by your neighbors." Then, after a pause: "Lestrade might have taught you the rudiments of safety protocols, though." Sherlock ran his finger along the safety switched to the on position in answer, as if that settled the matter. This gun would not fire even if he hadn't just emptied the magazine, so the theory went, but Mycroft would never have willingly trusted his brother's safety to that fact. "Sherlock," he said with a sigh. "Every gun is always loaded. Every safety is always off. It is... dangerous to assume otherwise."
Sherlock waved his hand dismissively. "So Lestrade told me. That night at the pool, I thought John could use something to focus on other than his recent near-death and latent anxieties over his sexuality. I judged it an acceptable risk. As was your involvement in the whole affair. No real risk to you, and a chance to get the world's only consulting criminal behind bars and me under your thumb, all in a single swoop if things had gone according to plan. A shame they didn't."
Sherlock had always been a bit overly dramatic, but that was brusque even for him. Did he really believe Mycroft had agree to go along with Sherlock's plan simply because he saw an opportunity to advance his career, or a chance to force Sherlock into line? He allowed himself a long, careful look at his brother. Usually, at least when they stood face to face, Sherlock's mood was impish, or daring, or querulous or challenging or some other temperament more suited to a petulant child than a grown man. Today, though, he wore his normal childishness like a façade over a much more sober mood, transparently so. Why? There were some stories better told in more secure settings, and as Sherlock clearly needed a good smacking much more than further firearm instruction, Mycroft suggested they move this conversation to his office down the corridor where they would be less likely to be disturbed.
They deposited the gun in the weapons-locker and made their way to Mycroft's office and, ten minutes later, they sat side by side on the couch generally reserved for those few people powerful or valued enough not to respond to the show of force that was Mycroft Holmes behind his desk. Mycroft took a sip from his cup, breathing in the sweet-smelling steam as the caffeine worked its way through his system, and for a long moment he sat in sated silence. When he looked over at Sherlock, though, he saw that his brother hardly shared his satisfaction. Sherlock's tea sat on its saucer on the table, hardly touched, and he wore a pensive look on his face.
"Tell me, Mycroft," Sherlock said at last. He rolled his head back, exposing the column of his neck, a seductive gesture that hardly matched the serious expression on his face. "Would you touch me, if I asked? After all this time, and behind closed doors no less?"
Mycroft's breath caught in his chest at the clear need in Sherlock's voice. He could see his pulse fluttering just under the skin, could well imagine what it would do to that pulse, to feel Mycroft's thumb against it. Or better yet, his lips. Mycroft imagined sucking at that pulse point until a bruise formed. Sherlock's shirt-collar would not have covered it there and when the younger Holmes boy left this office and made his way through the labyrinthine corridors and lifts up to the cabs outside, people would see and they would know. Mycroft reached out, toying with the idea of doing just that until his better judgment caught up with him. Sherlock had never asked for this before. There must be something more at work here than simple desire. He let his hand fall short of its goal, his fingers whispering across Sherlock's knuckles before returning to his own lap.
Sherlock groaned in frustration and looked away. "Am I really so untouchable, Mycroft?"
That expression flayed Mycroft at his core. "Sherlock," he said more tenderly. "You know how it's always been between us, and you know why." How it always should be, must be. "Or have you forgotten about Bard's quiver, and the need to have your weapons ready before you go adventuring?"
He remembered the first time Sherlock had come to him with a jagged cut along his cheek and a good start on a black eye the first time he'd gotten with a fistfight at school, with a boy who had three years and sixty pounds on him, no less. Sherlock had been reading at The Hobbit at the time and the story had proved an apt metaphor. He'd sat with Sherlock in the infirmary and they'd talked of dragon-slayers and bargemen who were really princes in exile, of the need for a full quiver of arrows specially suited to your foe along with the will to use them if you hoped to take down a dragon. Over the years the story had grown into a shared metaphor, of the need to choose their battles and formulate plans based on hard-won information, to only attack when you had a hope of winning through, but equally to gather and horde your arrows so you were ready to strike when the opportune moment came along.
He set his teacup down and patted the couch next to him, gesturing for Sherlock to sit closer. Sherlock edged over and leaned over so his head rested on Mycroft's shoulder, and Mycroft ran his fingers through Sherlock's hair as he had when they'd been boys. "It's been a long while since we've hunted a proper dragon, hasn't it? I do try, though. As for your desirability as a general principle, well." Mycroft struggled to imagine Sherlock walking into any club in London, gay or straight, and not turning half the heads in the room. Equally he struggled to imagine a possible world where Sherlock wasn't fully aware of his natural beauty. He wondered, though, whether he was truly concerned about his physical beauty, the aesthetic appeal of the part of him he derisively described as mere transport. Sherlock had always worried that people only thought him good until they really learned what kind of person he was; perhaps a different tactic was in order. "You seemed to be doing quite well with your army-doctor in that department," he said at last, "when you left the pool."
Sherlock craned his back and Mycroft had to suppress a smile at the blush rapidly spreading across Sherlock's pale skin. "You saw that?" he asked. His face settled back into a milder version of his earlier scowl. "Of course you did. We were, at first." He reached into his trouser-pocket and pulled out a memory-stick patterned after the one he and John had retrieved from Andrew West's killer, containing the ersatz missile-defense plans Sherlock had offered Moriarty that night at the Southgate Leisure Centre. "John was making quick work of – well, you know all that. Do not pretend you don't have cameras hidden around 221B. You always did have a voyeuristic streak."
Mycroft rolled his eyes at that. "I do have other uses for my time than spying on you, you know." He took the memory-stick from Sherlock and set it on the table before him. "You may have heard but we recently had a madman blowing up whole blocks of flats all around England, to say nothing of the Korean elections. I haven't had the agents to spare."
He could have found them, of course. Anthea is a common enough sight on the stairs of #221 Baker Street that Mrs. Hudson would most likely would have offered her tea after she broke into Sherlock's flat. He had another reason not to replace the cameras Sherlock had discarded, though, one he would never share with his brother. He had seen how Sherlock and that Watson got on, the night after the business with the cabbie, and he'd wanted to let Sherlock see what might come of it. Sherlock was no virgin but three one-offs a decade ago did not make for a particularly rich sex life, and if Sherlock wanted to broaden his experience in that area, Mycroft wished to give the both of them the chance to see what they could manage without Big Brother looking in. Anthea still kept an eye on the CCTV footage from Baker Street and the agency's own video from inside #221 (discretion was one thing; throwing all caution to the wind another), and thanks to a rather embarrassing briefing the morning after the incident at the pool he knew that both men had seemed quite keen to get behind closed doors that night.
But put together with this new evidence – a memory stick and his brother's clear frustration over the topic – Mycroft could well imagine what came next: Watson kissing Sherlock rather enthusiastically, caressing his brother in ways Mycroft had never dared, until a hand chanced upon the memory-drive and the full weight of that evening's revelations, the weight of queen and country with which Mycroft was so familiar, crashed through the cloud of adrenaline and testosterone. If John Watson was half the man he seemed to be, he would be hard-pressed to continue in the face of that reminder. It was dangerous to proceed on guesswork of course, but he guessed Sherlock would not thank him for testing that particular hypothesis, and the way Sherlock's gaze kept drifting back to the memory-stick left him any room for doubt.
"Why did you involve me, Sherlock?" he asked. "With Moriarty? You might have bought a memory-stick at any electronics store and had men from the Yard ready to arrest him. Your friend Lestrade hardly seems the sort to go outside his division, but he could have pointed you to a striver, that Dimmock perhaps, Moriarty's most recent crimes at least are domestic and could have earned him a long stay in Pentonville. If he'd accepted the memory-stick thinking it contained the Bruce Partington Plans, that arrest could do wonders for a young DI's career." Another thought occurred to him, unnervingly late in the game. "Come to it, why involve yourself? Moriarty is hardly the most interesting opponent you have come across."
"It is – " Sherlock broke off, catching himself before he said something foolish, but Mycroft could guess well enough what he'd been about to say.
"Personal?" Mycroft said. "Don't give me that rubbish."
"It is personal." Sherlock leaned back and turned around so he could face Mycroft fully. "Was. He had that cabbie murder four people in order to come after me," Sherlock said.
"He had Hope kill four people before you. He might have killed the first four, and however many after, whether you crossed his path or not."
"He abducted John not once but twice, first because he thought he was me and then because he thought him a good way of tormenting me."
"Only once before you arranged the rendezvous at the Southgate pool, and any connection between Moriarty and the Black Lotus Tong is speculative at best." That answer, at least, struck closer to the truth; Mycroft rather suspected Sherlock's passion for "taking out" Moriarty, as he'd put it when proposing this plan, had more to do with John's involvement than the way the man had taken a special interest in Sherlock himself. Mycroft fixed his gaze on his brother. "Is that really all?"
Sherlock's eyes seemed distant for a long moment, an expression Mycroft had once likened to a computer processing its memory banks. He was not just answering the question reflexively but was truly considering it. Good. After a long moment, his gaze softened and he smiled wanly up at Mycroft. "I know you think caring isn't an advantage," he said at last, "that Mummy thought it, too, and I have heard both of your reasons. They always seemed good to me, before. John, though..." He swallowed hard in a gesture that struck Mycroft as perilously close to an emotional response. "John. I disappointed him when I couldn't care, you know, about the hostages. I don't want to let him down like that ever again. I asked him if caring about them, the hostages, would help save them, but it's not really about advantage. John admitted as much, and I quite agree. It goes deeper, somehow. It's good even if it's not an advantage." He sighed to himself. "Which leads, perhaps, to my original question. John was willing enough to have me, I'd even say eager, until he felt the memory-drive in my pocket and was reminded of what I'd done. You have always held me at arm's length. Am I so unworthy that no one can touch me, once they know what I truly am?"
"Oh, Sherlock," Mycroft said, letting a degree of tender sympathies creep into his voice. He wouldn't reach out to Sherlock, wouldn't pull Sherlock to him as a brother, much less a lover. No, Sherlock deserved an answer unclouded by emotion. He tried a dozen explanations out in his mind but somehow they all sounded false. He kept thinking of a line of poetry his Latin master had recited to their class more than once and, without consciously having decided to say it, he heard himself speaking those words into the silence stretching between them. "Quod licet ingratum est. Quod non licet acrius urit."
Sherlock laughed bitterly at that. "I bear my soul to you, and you come at me with Latin. How typical. Then, considering the matter more carefully: "Aurelius?"
"Aurelius?" Mycroft repeated. "Honestly, Sherlock, you couldn't have come up with a poet who wrote in Latin?"
Sherlock shrugged. "I was guessing, and Aurelius was at least of the Roman era. The Stoics always struck me as your philosophical kin – love only those things you cannot change, be secure in your only self, and so on."
"Love only – "Mycroft saw Sherlock's eyes glistening just a little under his serious demeanor, and he guessed this was an attempt at humor. The prat. "I don't know that I've ever heard a more thorough mangling of philosophy. Eton should refund a good part of your fees for failing you so utterly."
Sherlock laughed outright at that. "I never cared much for the classics. You know that."
"Clearly," Mycroft said. "Or for Latin, if you think that line could have been written by even your mangling of Stoic philosophy. It means, roughly, 'Those things which are permitted, we don't care for; that which is forbidden, we seek with a keener passion.'" Very roughly, but it got the point across. "Sherlock, never doubt that you are worth possessing. Or of having, and being had. You are, as your Watson often puts it, fantastic: beautiful, and clever, and more daring than anyone I have ever known." That was an effusive turn of phrase, more flowery than he had spoken to his brother in quite some time, and he felt Sherlock lean more heavily against him. "Considering my line of work," Mycroft continued, "that is perhaps saying something. But you know what I do and why I do it, and how much difficult that would become if I let my affection for you grow into something more than the expected filial love, if other people saw it. Would you truly have me if I was the kind of man who would risk that work – all that I am – for sentiment?"
Sherlock ignored that last question for the moment, turning his attention instead to Mycroft's more academic statement. "Ovid. Wasn't he the one who said that Jove smiled on lover's perjuries?"
That was remarkably close to the mark, for Sherlock at least. "Laughs at," he corrected him. "But point taken. Perhaps if there actually was a god on high we could amuse with our heart-felt foolishness, caring might actually be an advantage in spite of its obvious liabilities. Do tell me you are not such a sentimental fool to believe the world really works that way." Sherlock stared at him evenly, refusing to take the bait, which was something. Mycroft continued, "Ovid also wrote, 'The crops grow now where Troy once stood.' Paris's great love of Helen could hardly save it." Sherlock seemed to consider that, at last nodding without further comment. "Why is this coming up now, anyway?" Mycroft asked. "I thought we'd come to an understanding long ago.
Sherlock picked up his tea from the table and set it down again without taking a sip. Testing his own cup, Mycroft guessed Sherlock's had gone lukewarm and was well on its way to cool. He should offer Sherlock a fresh cup and he would, in a moment, but he was loath to disrupt this talk. He guessed they were on the cusp of something important. "Mycroft," Sherlock said at last, "I was fifteen. I thought I could bear to give you anything, if only you wouldn't pull away from me."
"I'm hardly fifteen" Mycroft started to answer that with a quip but Sherlock smiled knowingly and so Mycroft held himself back. "Oh, I know I can play the spoiled child. Perhaps I am one, in some ways. But I'm old enough, I think, to desire something more real than this game we play." He paused, as if choosing his words carefully before giving up the quest for the perfect expression as futile. "Sod it," he said to himself before looking his brother directly in the eye. "Will you not touch me, Mycroft? Won't you even try?"
Before he could stop himself, Mycroft was leaning in closer. He lifted his forefinger and middle finger to his own lips, lightly kissing them, before reaching over to caress Sherlock's own lips with those same fingers. His brother's breath was warm against his skin, he could feel it ruffling through the wiry hairs along his knuckle, and it was all he could do to keep from closing his eyes against the sensation. This was the closest the two of them had ever come (would ever come) to a lover's caress, it was in some ways not nearly far enough for Sherlock's taste but still, Mycroft felt as a man venturing out onto ice too thin for him. It was exhilarating, and stupidly reckless, and he'd be damned if he wouldn't store every detail of this moment, capture every aspect of it to make up in depth what he could never let himself enjoy in duration. Oh, but it was a rich extravagance, just this once. Yet he knew, even as his fingers traced his brother's lips, that he had been right all those years ago. The kind of man who would trade moments like this for a more lasting good in the world beyond locked doors would hardly be worthy of them. And Sherlock deserved more.
Which left them pitifully few options, really.
Mycroft moved his fingers from Sherlock's lips, running his thumb once over the skin behind Sherlock's ear and along the nape of his neck before bringing it back to lie on his thigh. "Do you love him?" he asked. "John, I mean?"
Sherlock frowned. "It's not a choice between the two of you, you know. And, really, I'm not even sure what that word means." He tucked Mycroft affectionately under the chin. "I am fairly certain you have wrecked me, Mycroft Holmes. But I do like the way he smiles when he looks at me, and I want to be more like the man he has mistaken me for. I want him to know the truth, too, know how mistaken he is about me, to know me through and through – and to know him in kind." Sherlock's eyes shone with a fierce light that Mycroft didn't think he had ever seen before, one that a part of him (a part he would do well not to indulge, but a part of him nonetheless) wanted to see there when Sherlock spoke of him. "I would have him under my skin," Sherlock all but growled. Then, more gently, "Is that love?"
As if Mycroft would know. He had always been well-served (so far) by another of Ovid's lines: Love gives way to business, and if you would escape from love's bondage, remain at work. Just now, though, Mycroft found himself at a loss. Luckily, Sherlock had never been one to be overly concerned with this sort of distinction. "You care or him," Mycroft said, "deeply so, it seems. Whether or not that is love? It is enough. His well-being now concerns you, and your happiness, me." So now they came to it. "What do you need of me?"
"I need you to try again," Sherlock said, "and this time I need us to get it right." His voice was cold. Precise. Free of sentiment. "He strapped john in Semtex, trained a sniper's sight on him, and paraded him out in front of me. To toy with me, Mycroft. For that he must pay full penalty, and just now a life wiled away in Pentonville seems entirely insufficient." Mycroft realized with a start that this was not cool rationality at work in his brother; it was a righteous fury, Sherlock's gaze fell to the memory-stick and he grasped his hands into a clenched fist where they rested between the couch cushion and Mycroft's leg. Mycroft doubted he even realized he did it. "That seems more your division than the justice I might get from the Yard," he said. "But what I want – need – is to keep John safe. Whether that's love or not, I can't quite manage it alone, and it needs to be done."
An angry Sherlock, Mycroft knew, had never been one safely left to his own devices. And why shouldn't he work with Sherlock to apprehend Moriarty? It could be tricky, dangerous even if Moriarty had grown so occupied with Sherlock, but that might be a dagger they could use to their advantage. And Sherlock had asked him to help. Hadn't that once been reason enough? He had spent too many hours gathering arrows for his quiver lately, and not nearly enough hunting actual dragons.
Was that love? He'd always tried to do what was best for his brother, took pleasure in his company, been fiercely protective of his well-being. He'd always thought sentiment an anathema, unworthy of him. Unworthy of anyone worth loving, and a weakness that rendered the lover too liable to be swept away entirely. Could passion really be hemmed in by reason and still warrant that name? But perhaps that was a question best left to the philosophers. Mycroft knew, he was certain of it with every fiber of his being, that he'd do whatever he could to ensure his brother's happiness. Not a whim, perhaps, but whatever else this business with Moriarty was, he was sure it wasn't that.
He patted Sherlock's leg encouragingly. "I think we can manage that." Sherlock unclenched his fist at his side and his face relaxed: a decision made; good work at hand; relief. Standing, Mycroft went over to the outer office, telling Anthea to bring them a fresh pot of tea and those vile chocolate digestibles Sherlock had an inexplicable fondness for. He retrieved the Middleton file from a locked drawer and returned to Sherlock. "I may have a way to approach Moriarty from a different angle," he said as he sat down again beside him, "one he is less likely to suspect. Tell me, Sherlock, how are your acting skills?"
By the time Anthea came in with the tea, Mycroft had laid out the bare skeleton of his plan, at least the connections that might yield one. Moriarty's phones, mobile included, were more or less a black box and Mycroft doubted they would get much advantage by trying to hack into it. (A sore point with him, how the criminals always seemed to have better tools than the men going after him, and Moriarty's security measures were more impressive than most.) He had received a call at the Southgate pool, though, a call which, thanks to the surveillance of that scene, Mycroft could state with precision when it began and how long it had lasted. His agents had traced the call back to one Irene Adler, and she at least was the sort of threat Mycroft was professionally bound to address. More to the point, she was clearly well-acquainted with their Moriarty, and while in many ways she was as much an unknown quantity as the consulting criminal, Sherlock's unique blend of charm and daring would give him a definite advantage over any other agent Mycroft might have used. She was a friend of Moriarty's. She might provide the link they needed, or Moriarty might even rise to her defense.
Perhaps. Unlikely, yes, but stranger things had certainly happened, and if this plan didn't get them Moriarty, they would try something else. Mycroft reached out to turn a page of the file and, on his hand's journey back to his side, allowed his fingers to ghost across the back of Sherlock's hand. This whole affair seemed built on sentiment – why shouldn't love prove to be its Achilles' heel? It just might work, and at a minimum Sherlock stood a better chance of retrieving the pictures than any other agent he might send.
There was a practical advantage to Sherlock's involvement, no question, but even more than that, Mycroft found himself inspired by Sherlock's description of John. Sherlock was not the only Holmes brother who wanted to be the person the man he loved (or wanted to love, which was at least a step in that direction) – who wanted to be who that man thought him to be. And it could just work. They would have to work out the proper time to spring the trap and trust that Sherlock would act suitably when the time come. But it was possible, so wonderfully possible in a way few things had seemed to Mycroft for entirely too many years now.
That, for him, was reason enough to make the attempt. If Sherlock had loved a dragon-slayer, a man capable of deeds no less impossible than Lazarus's crawling out of Sheol, then just this once Mycroft would be that man. He would at least try.