If the members of the Diogenes Club were given to speculation about the activities of the other members - which they were not - and if any of them happened to glance at the founding member - which they never did - they might well have assumed that his disinterested and faintly contemptuous penscratchings upon the newspaper were the swift destruction of the Times cryptic crossword or some other foolish temporary part-engagement of the mind.
Those who were close to Mycroft - a smaller number than any of them realised - might have assumed he was still mourning for Sherlock, although all of them would have deemed it uncharacteristic as outside of the service of his country he seemed to be emotionally attached to approximately nothing.
As it happened, Mycroft Holmes was pleasantly enjoying the fact that communicating through silly little codes in the letters' page of the Times had rendered his brother quite unable to waste words on recriminatory bile.
Mycroft underlined the wrong letters in the wrong paper, in the wrong order, to spell out entirely the wrong messages in the wrong rotational cypher, of course, because he wasn't - despite what Sherlock's messages heavily implied - an idiot.
Anyone rifling through his papers would have believed that Sherlock was sending messages through the opinion column in the Telegraph using a pathetically simple deviation from ROT-18, and that he was currently in South America, exercising his rusty Portuguese.
The most recent message, assembled in Mycroft's head as easily as his own postcode - they had spent rather too long as children engaged in a cryptographical arms race - assured him that Sherlock was in Bhutan, needed more money, and, reading between the lines, probably bored and lecturing people.
Mycroft composed his reply in his head, interspersed a suitably snide letter, and emailed it to his vessel of choice: the obituaries of the Economist.
This amused him, naturally, although he kept an entirely straight face while typing his obit. with the side of his thumb.
The obituary completed, Mycroft transferred approximately half the amount Sherlock had asked for to his bank account, rather childishly making sure that the confirmation code he'd be sent would spell out F_U_C_K_Y_O_U in binary, and pocketed his phone again.
This was of course, Mycroft thought, before he turned his mind over to more important matters, not mere pettiness. He knew what the cost of living was in Bhutan, and for the amount of money Sherlock was asking for he either had plans for getting married - Mycroft nearly laughed - or a military coup.
There was, he accepted as he stirred slightly more than his sugar ration into his third cup of tea, the possibility that his brother was planning a return to the motherland, and needed the money for a plane ticket, but he was quite sure Sherlock could sort himself out.
Five days later Mycroft found the Times bearing a letter which assured him that Sherlock was now in Kazakhstan, needed more money, and wasn't terribly impressed.
Mycroft sighed expansively, transferred half the amount he'd been asked for again, and sent Blakney and Anthea along to 221B to make sure everything was in order.
They returned slightly dusty and bad-tempered, and assured him that Mrs Hudson was as angry with him as she had been, that nothing had been moved, that the police tape across the door was in place, and that the whole place still smelled of mildew.
Mycroft returned himself to the matter of running the bloody country instead of picking up after his nuisance of a little brother.
Two days after this the Times was prevented from running a letter from the same acerbic Major in Tunbridge Wells lamenting the high instances of homosexuality in the government. Mycroft had it delivered to him at the Club because he had flagged any potential threats to privacy in the papers a lot time ago and after the editor's little mishap he had free reign with D-notices on the Times, no questions asked.
He deciphered the message with a degree of satisfaction; the context suggested Sherlock was annoyed enough to be puerile, and the content confirmed it. He was now in Sofia, and Mycroft could please send him enough money this time because buying additional passports was expensive.
Mycroft very carefully keyed an amount into the transfer window that was just short of the remaining quantity. He'd get back to London - probably city airport, Sherlock hated Heathrow, and the passport controls were less rigorous there - without any trouble, but he was going to have to walk home.
Then, Mycroft thought happily, there was the matter of Sherlock's finances in London. He was officially dead, and dead men do not have bank accounts. They do not have access to their brother's bank accounts regardless of what they may think, and Mycroft, while above pettiness and vindictive vendettas, was not above removing the stash of neatly-bundled fifties from under the floorboards at 221B for safe-keeping.
Still, Mummy had always been very firm that sometimes the best thing one could do for Sherlock was to stop him from getting himself into any further trouble. Admittedly Mycroft had got him into this particular trouble in the first place but, well. That was the price one paid for a clean slate.
Mycroft dined at the Diogenes Club. He supped at the Diogenes Club. He directed Anthea on a fifteen-mile round-trip through various parts of Central and City from an armchair via text message, at the Diogenes Club.
However, as in some terrible oversight he'd never provided the Club with members' rooms for sleeping in outside of the propensity of his fellow-members to doze in their chairs, he was required at last to retreat toward home, and that was when he received a message from an unknown number.
The message said: Answer your bloody phone. SH.
A moment later his phone began to vibrate, and Mycroft - now able to answer the summons rather than redirecting it to voicemail - wearily hit the "receive" button and said nothing.
"I need a waxwork," Sherlock said impatiently. "Didn't you get my message? By tomorrow morning. And I can't bloody well get it myself because I haven't got any money."
"Of yourself, I assume?" Mycroft asked, licking his lips.
"Who else would I want a waxwork of?" Sherlock grumbled.
"For Baker Street," Mycroft confirmed. "Goodbye."
But Sherlock had already hung up.
It's lovely to hear your voice again, Mycroft thought with considerable sarcasm.
The acquisition of a waxwork designed to look like his late, scarcely-lamented brother was not so likely to make him look like a weirdo; various museums had already expressed an interest in hosting an exhibition about his "life and work", much to John's horror and Mrs Hudson's simple delight. It was the haste with which he was required to acquire it that rankled.
There were certain advantages inherent in being in Mycroft's position, and one of them was that people could be persuaded not to ask questions.
By the end of his drive home, Mycroft had arranged the manufacture, and covert delivery and assemblage of the waxwork at the street-facing window. In a fit of pique he had the thing equipped with an imitation violin.
He was not altogether surprised to find that his wife was asleep on his return. Partially because it was her custom to sink three five milligram diazepam tablets before he returned so that curiosity wouldn't get the better of her, and partially because it was three in the morning and if she hadn't been asleep there would have been something awry.
He was also not surprised to find that aside from his wife, he was not alone in the house.
"I thought your plan was to stick a hat above the battlements and see who took a potshot at it?" Mycroft asked sourly, removing his gloves. Sherlock had apparently felt it necessary to regress to being a perfect eight-year-old and was curled up in Mycroft's chair with his bare bony feet tucked under the cushion, and he had brought his violin from the flat in a display of quite uncharacteristic sentiment.
"Can't do that until the waxwork is in place," Sherlock muttered, staring into the cold fireplace and plucking fitfully at the strings of his violin in a deliberately discordant and unmusical pattern.
"Really, Sherlock, a text would have done. It would have been ready by now. You might even have mentioned before you got here." Mycroft laid his gloves on the coffee table and settled awkwardly into the sofa opposite. The seat was moulded to suit Anna's backside, not his, and he felt immediately uncomfortable.
"You wouldn't know it was me unless you heard my voice," Sherlock said into the collar of his coat. It was not, of course, the coat Mummy had bought him and which had cost a small fortune to tailor to fit the unreasonably-shaped wretch, no. This was a shabby-looking grey affair from at least the Sixties, worn at the elbows, but with the unmistakeable cut of Hawk's of Savile Row.
"Code," Mycroft said, pursing his lips.
"They can be broken," Sherlock retorted, sneering into nothingness as if sniffing a sewer, his fingers moving mechanically through one of his own compositions.
"Not by the kind of man you have in mind," Mycroft said. "And James Moriarty is quite, quite dead."
"I know that," Sherlock snapped, closing his fingers around the neck of his violin. "He shot himself in the head in front of me."
"Well, you're used to it," Mycroft said soothingly. "How was the uprising in Bhutan?"
"And the Kazakh invasion of Uzbekistan? That was, thank you, very ... distracting."
"Also boring," Sherlock snapped, drawing his eyebrows together. He pulled one leg around until it was bent under him at such a painful angle that Mycroft's own knee began to ache in sympathy.
"Would you like some food?" Mycroft said in the same tone of voice that he used when someone very, very important had made the very, very foolish mistake of totally ignoring his presence in a meeting, or addressed him as a secretary.
"No," Sherlock said almost before he'd finished the sentence. Despite what were no doubt his best efforts to avoid doing so, he had caught a little of the sun and, as it did on Mycroft's intractable little brother, it had brought out freckles.
"There's cheese in the fridge," Mycroft insisted, closing his eyes. "Put the violin down and don't wake Anna."
"She's not going to wake up," Sherlock said, stubbornly tapping the strings with the tips of his fingers. He had brought the body, Mycroft noted, but not the bow. "She's in a Valium coma again.”
"Then don't keep me awake," Mycroft retorted, getting to his feet very slowly. He felt the sofa sucking at his willpower the way Anna always claimed it did, and undid his cufflinks. It was customary not to remove them until he was upstairs and could put them in the appropriate dish, but then it was customary for Sherlock to never set foot inside his house either.
"You're not going to sleep," Sherlock said, thumping the base of his violin repeatedly off his knee in a slow rhythm of Morse code; F_U_C_K_Y_O_U
The sole problem, Mycroft thought as he waited for Sherlock to either put the violin down or say something marginally more inflammatory so that he could throw him out and go to sleep in peace, with being two very, very sharp boys, was that there was no need for confrontation or interrogation. It didn't help particularly that they were both supremely inclined toward passive-aggression, but both knew, and so neither needed ask, and therefore resolution was never made.
Sherlock did not need to ask "why did you do all of this?", because he had a perfectly functioning memory.
Mycroft did not need to ask if Sherlock remembered what had landed him in this enormous mess in the first place, because he knew perfectly well that he did. And so they skirted it, as they always had.
"Are you sure you won't have something," Mycroft said, with venomous precision. He never enjoyed having Sherlock in his bedroom as a child, and having him in his house was no better.
"Had quite enough from you," Sherlock muttered.
"Yes, several thousand," Mycroft sniffed, unable to stop himself. Sherlock bounced his violin off his knee again, but there was no coded message this time, only his usual twitchy nervous energy.
"It's my money," Sherlock said, furtively tightening the pegs on the left side of the head.
"You're dead, Sherlock. Dead men don't have money."
"You gave him ..." Sherlock began, drawing back the first of several tarpaulins to reveal only the toe of the vast and complex elephant in the room. "You gave Moriarty -"
"Everything he needed to bring you back down to earth," Mycroft agreed, with a nod. He calculated that he was out of reach, even if Sherlock overcame his attachment to the violin and used it as an extension of his arm, but it paid to be careful all the same. Mycroft still had a very small and unassuming white scar on his shoulder from underestimating just how hard his three year old brother was capable of biting him, after all.
"John was doing a perfectly good job."
"Hardly," Mycroft sighed. "You were stampeding through the papers like a celebrity divorce case, week after week. He was just a useful combination of outcomes." He held out his hand, palm open. "Give me the violin."
"I drive Moriarty to suicide and you get a degree of public humility from me?" Sherlock said angrily to the bridge of the violin. "What if I'd killed myself?"
"That wasn't going to happen." Mycroft waggled his fingers encouragingly at the violin.
"He was going to kill -- all of them." Sherlock's voice hit an apparently speedbump in his throat, and he tightened his grip still further on his violin. "Unless I jumped."
"You and I both know you are far too love with yourself and your own intellect to allow that to happen."
Sherlock rapped his fingernail against the underside of the violin's neck and sat for a moment with his mouth partially open, no doubt feeling the line of his solitary filling with the tip of his tongue, the way he did when dealing with matters that weren't logical enough to require his lobes and not quite aggravating enough for his amygdalae.
"The violin, please, Sherlock. I have neighbours," Mycroft said, his hand still extended.
"You have sound-proofing," Sherlock corrected, without moving.
"The violin," Mycroft repeated patiently.
"People died," Sherlock said, turning the violin over in his hands so that the strings faced downward.
"Some hired killers and a criminal mastermind. Hardly a loss to humanity. Some might call it a gain," Mycroft said. Sherlock was being obstructive purely for the sake of being obstructive, as was his wont; it was late, and Mycroft was not so much tired as he was beginning to experience a certain degree of emotional yearning for sleep.
"And if they'd shot Mrs Hudson? If they'd shot John?" Sherlock asked, balancing the violin in one hand.
"It wasn't going to happen."
“And you’re sure of that, are you?”
"My conscience is a good deal more flexible than yours, Sherlock, that's why I am in government and you are in a second-hand coat clutching your violin like a fluffy bunny," Mycroft said, irritated. "Give. It. Here."
Sherlock tapped the violin twice on his knee and finally slapped it into Mycroft's palm without looking at him. Mycroft laid the instrument on the sofa, and clasped his hands behind his back.
"I am sure you already know where the guest room is -"
"I'm not sleeping."
Mycroft forced on one of his vomit-retention smiles, the ones he had for when his overtrained gag reflex threatened to get the better of him, and said, "Then you can put on your shoes, take your violin, and get out of my house."
"Don't have any shoes," Sherlock said, talking into the collar of his coat again. "Pawned them for the taxi."
Mycroft rolled his eyes. "Go to bed, Sherlock."
Sherlock stuffed his hands into his armpits and buried his chin inside the collar of his elderly grey coat, sinking deeper into Mycroft's chair as if he intended to take up residence. He finally turned his head sufficiently to look Mycroft in the eye with a glassy blue stare like a porcelain doll, and said very deliberately, "Do you really think you have any business ordering me around after everything you've done?"
"I'm not ordering you anywhere, Sherlock," Mycroft said, keeping his hands very carefully behind his back. "I don't order dead men around. But I suggest that for the sake of not drawing further attention to my house, you go to bed whether you choose to sleep there or not."
Sherlock made a face and a very firm point of digging deeper into Mycroft's chair.
"And," Mycroft said, glaring at him, "You are about ten minutes from losing consciousness and if I have to carry you up the stairs myself at the cost of my knees I am going to make you regret it."
They engaged in what Mycroft recognised even as he entered it as a very juvenile and unnecessary staring contest, and after a long moment in which Mycroft neglected to count the echoing ticks of the mantel clock’s second hand, he shook his head and let his brother win the dubious honour of dried-out eyeballs.
Sherlock sprang from the armchair with his obnoxious, heavy-footed grace and thumped away up the stairs without saying anything resembling goodnight, which was at least in keeping with the pain in the neck Mycroft had been given the unending task of shepherding by Mummy.
Mycroft left him to whatever it was he planned to do to the guest bedroom in order to make himself comfortable in it (since there was scarcely time for him to fill the place up with anatomical models and disgusting chemical smells), and went with measured pace to the kitchen.
He pulled open the fridge door. There was indeed cheese. There were six types of cheese, in fact, a jar of pickled herrings which probably didn't need to be in the fridge, half a side of ham, some left over roast vegetables in oil, two bars of chocolate which someone had given Anna, a small lake of cling-film covered gravy, three slightly different jars of stuffed olives in varying levels of consumption, two cartons of pre-mixed molé sauce which hadn't been opened, one which had, a wall of greek yogurt pots, two punnets of blueberries...
Mycroft stopped cataloguing his fridge; it had been evident since he opened it that someone had used two of the eggs and three rashers of bacon and there was no need to stand here letting the cold air out.
With a sigh that momentarily cramped his chest, Mycroft reached into the fridge - the light was blocked by a stack of sausage packets - and picked out a roasted pepper. He pushed it into his mouth without tasting it, and noted even as he chewed mechanically that at least this was vegetable matter rather than the three boxes of Matchmakers he'd been forced to purge after John's last angry entrance to the Diogenes Club.
He ate a chunk of artichoke. There was something to be said for this method of food consumption, Mycroft though with a detached lack of interest in what his hands and mouth were doing; he never used a knife and fork or chopsticks, spoon, or any kind of eating implement when unthinking ingestion overtook mere hunger.
Two carrots, a handful of pea pods, some sliced leeks, more peppers, and something Mycroft assumed was parsnip followed, and he spread the cling-film guiltily back over the dish with an oily hand before moving onto the cheddar.
It was the blandest possible cheddar, presumably acquired with some finnicky guest or finnicky guest's children in mind, but this was worse temptation. The less flavour, the more likely he was to keep eating: Mycroft broke the end of the block off with slippery, unsteady hands and shoved it haphazardly into his mouth before slamming the fridge door shut.
The machine hummed at him quietly, as if taunting him.
Mycroft chewed the cheese into the largest possible swallowable chunks, nearly choked himself in swallowing them, and went to the sink to wash his hands.
He stared out of the kitchen window into the floodlit garden, seeing the stark shadow of the bird-feeder drawn on the tiles as if stencilled there, and squirted endless gouts of pine-scented hand wash over his palms and fingers until they were almost raw from washing.
Feeling around in his teeth with his tongue, Mycroft dried his hands. He dislodged chunks of matter and swallowed them without stopping to examine them; after a compulsive and wholly unnecessary glance at the door, he stooped below the line of the sink, opened the cupboard door, and pulled out a mostly-empty bottle of Listerine.
Mycroft ascended the staircase slowly, his mouth and lips burning and the taste of mildly alcoholic synthetic spearmint. The house was too big to carry the sound of his wife's adenoids down the corridor to the room he slept in, and the floor too well-tightened to creak under his step the way Sherlock's preposterous staircase did in Baker Street.
A fox made a ghostly protest somewhere in the street and somewhere further into the distance - to the east, back toward the city centre - a police siren began to wail. Through the window at the end of the landing, branch-diffused orange streetlight and the weak reflected vestiges of last quarter moonlight cut a messy shadow on the carpet.
Mycroft walked past the door to his own bedroom and pushed open the door to the guest room.
Sherlock lay sprawled face-down on top of the covers with his long arms drooping off the mattress on either side, his bare bony feet - with their conspicuously dirty soles - twitching as if in some dream. Mycroft sighed internally, and went to the wardrobe.
The blanket was folded into such a tight square that it took Mycroft a moment to unfold it once he'd plucked it down from the topmost shelf. It smelled - despite dry-cleaning - of petrol and smoke and frightened sweat, and though it was clean down to the core of the fibres he couldn't help imagining a film of grease on it all the same. He wished he had worn his gloves.
He spread the blanket tidily over the lumpen starfish of his brother's form, stopping to note a half-healed nick on his ankle and the ragged line of a too-long toenail broken-off in some conflict with the pavement. When the blanket lay in place, Mycroft hesitated and pursed his lips. There was no need to tuck the damn thing in. Mummy was not about to send anyone in to check; he could just leave the wretched item untucked.
He fiddled, briefly, with the gap where his cufflinks should have been (blast, should have waited and put them in the dish as usual), and tucked the blanket in with the nearest approximation to hospital corners that Sherlock's weight and inconvenient limbs; Mummy would have been deeply critical of this bedmaking as she usually was over his work on hers, but, Mycroft thought sourly as he discovered some cheese in the pit of a filling with the tip of his tongue, Mummy wasn't here.
His hands were itching rather badly when he folded them behind his back, bent stiffly at the waist, and muttered in Sherlock's ear, "I know you're not asleep."
Mycroft held his breath, placed a stiff-lipped kiss on the place on Sherlock's head where he would eventually start to go bald, and shuffled hastily out of the room before Sherlock could say anything.
In his own bed, pyjama-clad and by all rights exhausted, Mycroft reached into the bedside cabinet and withdrew the packet of Nice biscuits with a hand that trembled only a little. He folded two into his mouth, crumbs cascading onto the bed, and shut his eyes. They tasted of nothing.
Mycroft pretended he couldn't hear the tapping of knuckles against the wall by his head:
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