It takes Sherlock four hours after John moves his things into 221b to deduce the best music with which to soothe him.
It takes him eight days to use that knowledge for his own gain.
Sherlock is playing Mendelssohn, watching in his peripheral vision as John’s eyes flutter closed and his shoulders lose a measure of tension, when his hand seizes on the fingerboard and the notes turn sour. Air hisses through his teeth and he sets the violin and bow down. He cups his left hand with his right and rubs the aching joints. He flexes the offending appendage over and over and pretends not to notice John’s concerned query, his doctorly gaze. At last the crack of his knuckles resounds between the walls of the flat, and he exhales.
Mycroft had been adamant about the white oak. He thought it a clean material, fair and bright and proper for the occasion. He had been promised a little brother, after all, and he had very clear ideas about what one of those would be like. But Mr. Norbury, the groundskeeper, had a different opinion. He was a broad, sturdy man some years older than Father, and Mycroft had learned that he had great stores of good sense tucked behind those sun-weathered crow’s feet.
“You’ll want something strong but also supple,” Mr. Norbury said. “Something with character. Something that resonates.”
‘Resonate’ was a word for rich sounds, and the richest sound Mycroft could think of was Mummy’s Stradivari violin, which had lain quiet and inert in its case since the late unpleasantness. Mycroft had sneaked into the music room for it and brought it up to Mummy — playing it had always cheered her in the past — but she lay grey and unmoving amid the pillows and turned her face away. Father had shooed him from their quarters with an empty admonition, and since then the silence that descended upon the house threatened to crush him.
“What’s Mummy’s violin made of, then?” he asked as he sat swinging his feet on Mr. Norbury’s workbench. Mr. Norbury didn’t answer for a moment, but disappeared into his supply room where Mycroft could hear him knocking things about. When he emerged again, it was with three slim planks of wood that threatened to brush the ceiling of the workroom. The planks were unvarnished, but they swirled with deep and varying browns and reds. Mycroft imagined he could hear them echo. They would shine, polished and brilliant.
“Spruce for vitality,” Mr. Norbury said, “maple for strength, and willow for beauty.”
A case lands John in the boot of an economy-sized vehicle. Sherlock would make a flip comment about John being proportional to the means of his confinement, but turns out Sherlock is in the same boot and that means less room for everyone. They are pressed chest to chest, John’s back bruised atop the spare tire, Sherlock’s against the boot lid. Sherlock’s face is mashed against John’s neck, and he’s crushing him into the boot bottom.
“God, you’re heavy for a string bean,” John whispers. “Where do you hide all the bricks?”
“I’ve the body of an athlete,” Sherlock says with petulant dignity.
“Yeah, yeah, carved from marble, I’m sure.”
“Wood turned, actually.”
John snorts, and Sherlock tries to prop his knees under him, but there is neither leverage nor space and he manages only to drive himself further into John. He huffs with the effort, and John lets out a high, thin giggle before squirming beneath him.
“Stop breathing on my neck,” he says. “It tickles.”
“I can’t breathe anywhere else,” Sherlock says. “I can’t even turn my head.”
“Christ, the state of us. Can you see anything?”
“No,” Sherlock says, “but obviously we’re headed toward Camden amid no traffic to speak of.” His lips catch on John’s curious little pulse point. John’s breath stutters and he somehow forces his body to shrink from Sherlock’s.
“Okay, you have to not do that.”
“Are you uncomfortable?”
John heaves a noisy sigh. “I realise you delight in the discomfort of others, Sherlock, especially being the cause of it, but yes, if we could get out of this situation with both my manhood and my stiff upper lip intact, that would be great.”
“So is it because you like my body on yours or because you dislike it? Or is it because you think you should dislike it when in fact—”
“Are we really going to argue about this? Isn’t there something more pressing to attend to?”
For Sherlock’s part, he finds that there is no such thing as being too close to John. He came to this conclusion within a month of John’s residence at Baker Street, though thus far the only opportunities to indulge himself have involved sitting too close on the rare occasions John joins him on the settee. John tolerates that, and Sherlock’s cold feet beneath his thighs, and, once, Sherlock’s whole body melting into a reclining position while John sat tucked into the corner with his laptop. John had cast him a look of fond exasperation, and Sherlock attempted to calculate how often he could repeat the experiment without John finding it suspicious. Results were inconclusive.
What he does not want, however, is for John to put a stop to Sherlock’s experiments in touch altogether, and by the increasing tightness of John’s musculature, such cessation is a growing danger.
“I can dislocate my shoulder,” Sherlock says.
“What? No!” John issues a scandalised little grunt, and Sherlock can’t help but press his own smirk into the skin of John’s neck. “Let’s not injure ourselves any more than we already are.”
“I’m not injured.”
“You took a blow to the head. We both did. And a dislocated shoulder would be a handicap once we’re out of here facing God knows what in Camden.”
“The blackmailer, John, obviously.”
“My point, Sherlock, is that we’ll need to be as fit as possible when we get out of this.”
“And my point, Dr. Watson, is that if I dislocate my right shoulder, I can slide off you, which will have the twofold benefit of letting us both breathe better and giving me access to the lock, which I can pick with my belt buckle.”
“Don’t you want to meet the blackmailer?”
“It’s Elaine Ross, John. Elementary. And if we make an escape now we can catch her unawares, which is more fun anyway.”
John takes a moment to consider. His breath is heavier indeed, and it curls hot about Sherlock’s ear. A curious sensation comes over Sherlock’s body — it’s as if his skin shrinks over the structure of his skeleton, and sparks of electricity trill up his spine. He hears, over the sound of John’s breathing, over the sound of the engine, over the sounds of passing cars and the indistinct babble of London streets, the convulsive gulp of John swallowing around the dryness in his throat.
“Fine,” John says. “Fine. Jesus.”
“Might hurt for a second,” Sherlock says.
“Yes.” And Sherlock digs his sharp shoulder further into John, who gasps, and then Sherlock jerks to the left and the maple ball bearing in his right shoulder pops from its socket. The pain is a distant, deadened thing that registers more intellectually than physically — Sherlock is not actually sure what pain is, for regular people. In an instant his arm is dead weight, and John, wonderful, unsqueamish solider-doctor John, flings it away from Sherlock’s body without prompting and frees them both from the crush of proximity. Sherlock slides off and gets to work.
Mycroft spent long hours in Mr. Norbury’s workroom watching Mr. Norbury at the lathe. Mr. Norbury spent longer still turning Mycroft’s brother, crafting and carving him, waxing and sanding him, building a whole of constituent parts. Mr. Norbury was terribly slow and meticulous to a fault, and Mycroft was impatient.
“I already waited nine whole months, Mr. Norbury, and now you’re taking almost as long.”
“Takes a lot of doing, a whole person,” Mr. Norbury replied, nose to the tailstock. Wood shavings gathered atop his hands. “One mistake and it’s all for naught.”
“But I want my baby brother now.”
Now is how Mycroft liked things, but now Mr. Norbury flipped the switch to cease the turning of the lathe and straightened to face him. Sitting on the worktable, Mycroft was of a height with Mr. Norbury, able to look him in the eye. What he found there in the brown depths was a sliver of flint.
“You’ll soon learn, little master, that life deals largely in the trade of disappointment,” Mr. Norbury said. “You have two choices: for now you can keep a curious collection of strangely-shaped wood. For in good time you can have a baby brother who warms in your arms and keeps you company and drives you spare and feeds the growth of your soul for the rest of your life. Choose one.”
Mycroft tucked his lips back behind his teeth. He tried not to scowl; Mummy despaired of that expression on his face. At the thought of one more season passing with only his own companionship, his heart stuttered. He crossed his arms over his chest and balled his fists in his underarms.
“Brother,” he grumbled.
“That’s what I thought,” Mr. Norbury said, and turned back to the lathe.
“Why do you keep making him hollow though?” Mycroft asked. “Wouldn’t it be faster not to?”
The lathe started back up, and Mr. Norbury pitched his voice over the noise. “He’d be too heavy if he were solid, Mr. Mycroft. And besides, where would he fit all his spirit?”
After the case is closed, Sherlock finds himself under the bright lights of the loo in 221b, holding very still as John cards through his hair searching for lacerations.
“It’s funny, you know,” John says. Sherlock hums out a questioning note and tries to lean as discreetly as possible into the warmth of John’s hands. “How little I have to stitch you up. You’re always banged about on your cases but it’s not often I have to pick up the pieces.” There are three neat stitches just above Sherlock’s left ear. The thick crust of blood and the shiny willow of Sherlock’s exposed skull had alarmed John into this examination, this impromptu doctoring. Sherlock doesn’t mind as much as he ought.
“Superstitious minds might accuse you of tempting fate, John.”
“Yes. Sooner or later it’ll all end in a terrible mess, I’m sure of it.”
Sherlock makes no comment when John stops looking for wounds, but keeps inspecting the quality of Sherlock’s hair. John leans down after long, blissful minutes and buries his nose in the curls. He inhales deeply, savouring, and all of Sherlock’s joints go stiff, his casing tight. He feels like he might crack open. John stills.
“Is that how it’s going to be?” he asks.
“I would disappoint you, John. Maybe even hurt you. It’s my nature.”
John scoffs and steps away. He presents Sherlock with his back, sticks his hands into the sink to scrub them down. Sherlock stands, and their eyes meet in the mirror. John’s mouth has gone pinched and small, his jaw set and square.
“Never pegged you for a coward, Sherlock.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
John shuts the tap and sidesteps Sherlock to wipe his hands on a towel.
“When you manage to deduce it, you’ll know where to find me.”
John leaves the loo and the echo of his door shutting rings in Sherlock’s ears. He curls his hands into fists, the crackle of his popping knuckles like distant gunshots. He is alone in the mirror, and he looks closely at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, where no pulse beats a steady rhythm. Regular people, normal people, people like good, warm, tea-making, hair-stroking John, they have visible pulses, pulses that slow and quicken, pulses tied to their emotions and their brains and their life forces. Pulses attached to whatever animates them.
Sherlock has no such time-keeping. Sherlock is blank. Sherlock is empty, quite literally.
Sherlock comes closer to the mirror. The edge of the sink bites into his thigh — the length of spruce that constitutes his thigh. His eyes are a churning grey-green, complete with single brown freckle, and his skin is smooth and white, moles added for authenticity. For resemblance to Mycroft. He is very lifelike — nothing less would have been acceptable — but that’s all he is. An imitation of the real thing.
He exits the loo and hovers outside John’s door.
“For Christ’s sake.” John’s voice, muffled. “I can see your big stupid toes, you know. Just come in already.”
Sherlock swings the door open. John sits at his desk, reading glasses perched on his nose. His laptop is open; the document is blank. Sherlock opens his mouth, closes it again. Shifts from foot to foot. John’s answering sigh is long-suffering.
“I’ll do it, then,” he says, sitting back in his chair. He clears his throat and when he speaks again, his voice is deeper and his pursed mouth moulds around a public school accent. “‘Well John, you’re not bad, as mere mortals go, but I’m afraid entanglements of an interpersonal nature are not my area even though it’s plain as day that I fancy the pants off you. So let’s carry on as we were no matter how bloody maddening and illogical and spineless, because I’m more attached to my emotional constipation than to the possibility of emotional fulfilment.’” John’s brow furrows so hard he looks like he might actually do himself injury. In his own voice, he adds, “Does that about cover it? Sherlock?”
Sherlock could dissemble. Perhaps John even expects him to. He finds himself, however, curiously reluctant to weave falsehoods about how much he neither wants nor needs John Watson. The thought of looking John in the face and lying about that threatens to splinter him beyond repair.
“John. It’s not that.”
“Then tell me what it is, Sherlock, because I’d dearly like to know.”
Sherlock has never told anyone about his unique physiology. He has actively hidden it from people — from John. But now he wants John to know that with his reticence he acts in mercy, not in indifference. It’s better this way. He straightens and inhales, because despite not needing the oxygen beyond the basic requirement for speech, it’s always had a steadying effect.
“The truth of it is that I don’t have a heart,” he says.
John stares long enough to need to blink, then scoffs and turns back to his desk with a shake of his head. He waves a hand in Sherlock’s direction, a wide sweeping motion made with a flick of the wrist. He hunches over his laptop looking like nothing so much as a wounded animal.
“Yeah, of course,” he says. “Sherlock Holmes is heartless. I knew that. I know that. Get out, then.”
Sherlock gets out, and no amount of replaying the conversation illuminates what went wrong. He was truthful. He was tactful. He didn’t insult anyone. Relations with John deteriorate, John gets a girlfriend of all hateful things, and then one night in a long-ago crime scene Sherlock comes face to face with his match, who implies snidely that Sherlock’s chest might not be as vacant as popular opinion would have it.
Deep in the hollow bits of himself, Sherlock starts to itch.
Mycroft’s little brother was finished on 6th January, 1978. Mr. Norbury plucked a hair from Mycroft’s head and sang a low
melody in an unfamiliar, guttural language over the smooth collection of parts as Mycroft tried to steal a peek. Then, a twitch, and shining red wood blanched, flushed, kicked. The bundle in Mr. Norbury’s arms squirmed and a tremulous cry pierced the air. Mycroft couldn’t help it — his jaw hung open and he clasped his hands together beneath his chin. Mr. Norbury stood and smiled down at his handiwork, then cast an indulgent look at Mycroft.
“Oh, did you want to hold him?”
“Yes! Yes yes yes!”
“Sit down then — you have to be careful.”
Mycroft scrambled to sit on the workbench, where Mr. Norbury, in his infinite wisdom, had placed cushions and pillows in anticipation of this moment. Mycroft outstretched his arms and Mr. Norbury placed his little brother in the space provided. Mr. Norbury made a soothing hush sound, and Mycroft’s little brother quieted. Mycroft gazed open-mouthed at him, drinking in the perfection of all his miniature features. Tears shone on long, dark lashes, drying on chubby cheeks. A rosebud mouth worked around nothing, and Mycroft caught sight of tender, toothless gums, a baby tongue. He had a cap of wispy black hair that licked upwards in defiance of gravity. His tiny hands waved about, and he had minuscule pink fingernails. He had a warm, perfectly soft belly with a curlicue navel, and when Mycroft tapped there ever so gently, his baby brother echoed. Then, he opened his eyes, which were a milky, infantile blue, and Mycroft imagined that he saw clear to the very depths of Mycroft’s sadness and understood.
“Well then, Mr. Mycroft,” said Mr. Norbury. “What’ll we be calling the little chap?”
Mycroft tried to tear his gaze from his brother to look Mr. Norbury in the face when he spoke to him, but he could not. His brother seemed a miracle, unbelievable and intoxicating and so, so small.
“Look at all that hair, Mr. Norbury.”
“Happens, sometimes, with newborns. It’ll likely fall out soon enough.”
“No. It’ll stay. And we’ll call him Sherlock for it.”
Mr. Norbury settled beside Mycroft and Sherlock on the bench. Mycroft could feel the heat of his arm where it stretched out behind him.
“And you’ll take care of him,” Mr. Norbury said.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Norbury.”
“That’s your job now, you know. To be sure nothing harms him. To teach him how the world works. To care, Mr. Mycroft.”
Mycroft finally looked up at Mr. Norbury, whose brown eyes now held no trace of levity.
“There’s nothing I care for more, Mr. Norbury.”
“Glad to hear it, lad.”
Sherlock creaks more and more. When he rouses himself after long periods of torpor, whether it’s sleep or a vigorous bout of thinking, his joints make their displeasure known with loud protests. At first, John had a particular wild-eyed look he’d send Sherlock’s way, then he seemed to decide it was funny and devised all manner of unamusing one-liners. Recently, he has settled on silence and a particular concerned expression. Today, Sherlock is stiff and slow to move. He stretches and crackles without end and John sets his paper down with noisy rustle to say, “That’s it, Sherlock. We’re making you an appointment with a rheumatologist.”
“For God’s sake, John,” Sherlock says. “It’s nothing. It’s fine.” It’s my thirty-three year old lumber skeleton disintegrating.
“A chiropractor then, at the very least.”
“Sherlock, this could be something serious, you know? And if it was, and something happened to you, I—” He swallows. “Well. I wouldn’t be able to stand that.” It’s as much reference either of them have made in nearly a year to what lies incipient between them. “So I’ll make you an appointment, alright? Just humour me, this one time?”
Sherlock sinks into the chair across from John’s, deliberately bumps their knees together. John allows it. Sherlock crosses his arms over his empty chest and his whole body grates. John frowns, Sherlock sighs.
“I…have a family doctor,” he says. John cocks his head. “Name of Norbury, very exclusive.”
John’s mouth flattens. “Don’t think you can bullshit your way out of this, Sherlock.”
“John. I’ll call him right now. You can talk to him. Okay?”
John visibly softens, though he makes an effort to hide it.
“I just worry, is all.”
Sherlock has been on the receiving end of the “I worry about you” conversation far too many times. Usually Mycroft being his predictable, supercilious self, sometimes Mummy, sometimes Lestrade. But he never connected the sentiment with anything before he met John. Before John insinuated himself into Sherlock’s existence like wood worms feasting on an old house. Before John was strapped to a Semtex vest and Sherlock felt, for the first time, a chink in his varnish, a warp in his casing.
Sherlock thumbs his way around the keypad dialling the number, and he hears Mr. Norbury’s low, gruff voice greet him.
“Sherlock? What are you playing at?”
“Oh nothing, nothing, doctor, only my friend Dr. Watson wishes to speak with you. And I’ll need an appointment, you understand.” John is sending him suspicious looks, and Sherlock barely contains himself from saying something sickeningly twee to the man who created him. Not only would John’s disbelief overwhelm him, but Mr. Norbury was perfectly capable of sizing a new ball bearing incorrectly just to teach him a lesson. The curious incident of the governess and the salamander came to mind. “Please,” Sherlock added.
“Oi,” Mr. Norbury says wearily. “Give him here, then.”
Sherlock holds the phone out. John’s fingertips are warm in the dry palm of Sherlock’s hand when he accepts it. Sherlock feels only brittle lately.
“Hi, hello. John Watson — surgeon, really, but not lately. Yeah. Yeah. Well, he’s been experiencing some crepitus lately. Quite a lot actually. I’m concerned about the usual things — arthritis, autoimmune disorders, thyroid problems. I mean, maybe it’s a job for a specialist. No, no I’m sure you’re— Look I didn’t mean to cause offence. No. No sir. Yes, of course. I know. I’m sorry. Okay. He’ll be there. Yes. Thank you.” Viciously John poked at the screen, then tossed the phone back into Sherlock’s lap. He scowled. “Jesus, Sherlock. No bedside manner to speak of on that one.”
“I quite like him.”
“Course you do, you wanker.” He gives a little smile and squashes further down into his chair. “You’re to go home right now, apparently. I wasn’t aware you had one. Thought you sprouted fully grown from some chemistry experiment gone terribly wrong.”
“Your wit astounds, John.” Sherlock stands and smooths his dressing gown. “I suppose Mycroft will be arriving at any moment. Tedious.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” John’s eyes are wide and blue. Guileless. He doesn’t want to see proof, doesn’t want to see Mr. Norbury take Sherlock apart in the workroom to wax him up, give him new joints, turn him whole body parts if the need arises. Doesn’t want to peer into all the parts of Sherlock that are characterised by nothingness.
“Yes,” he says, and shakes his head. “No. No, that’s fine.”
“Are you sure? I’ve not got a shift today.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Wiser not to expose you to the Holmes family pile anyway.”
John nods once. He looks at Sherlock and Sherlock catalogues that particular expression as wistful. Regretful, maybe. Best to get out from under it as quickly as possible.
Sherlock’s spine seizes, and his head begins to throb.
Mycroft went off to Eton at thirteen and couldn’t bring his brother with him. Mummy doted on the boy, pretended he was flesh and blood and beating heart, but Father looked at him as if he were a changeling child, otherworldly and dangerous. The world was quiet, tilted and uncanny when Sherlock and Father were in the same room.
Mycroft escaped the stifling inertia of whom Mother had become, the seething, unspoken violence of whom Father had become. Mycroft read books and had discussions and endured the attentions of boys who hated him and boys who did not, and, as adolescents are wont to do, he forgot about what he’d left at home.
When he returned on holidays, it was to a different wooden boy, a different house, a different family. Sherlock’s eyes were jagged ice, and he took to leaving his body parts in Mycroft’s bed just to vex him. Mycroft tried to complain about him to Mr. Norbury, but in his affections too Sherlock had replaced Mycroft.
“It’s not easy round here for such a little lad,” Mr. Norbury said. “Try to remember how it was when you were his age and have a measure of compassion, Mr. Mycroft.”
“He’s not a lad,” Mycroft snapped in reply. “He’s twigs and timber I bloody well commissioned.”
“You’ll watch your tongue else I dash it from your mouth, young man.”
“I am your superior and your employer, Norbury—”
“Don’t fool yourself for one second that you are any such thing, Mycroft Holmes. You’ll leave my house now.”
And he did, thinking invective if not spouting it aloud. When he found Sherlock lurking in the east wing, he threatened to burn him to cinders.
Regardless of fratricidal fantasies, Mycroft was tethered to Sherlock, by the bit of himself Mr. Norbury had lifted to make Sherlock into something that walked and talked and blinked and cried and smiled and deduced and intuited and felt. Mycroft and Sherlock were inextricable, and it was not a question of choice.
And so it went, for many years, until it was time for Sherlock to go to school, to college, to university, to the lowest, dirtiest streets of London. Until he met an army doctor by the name of John Watson.
“You’re looking well,” Mycroft says mildly when Sherlock enters the Rolls. Sherlock cracks and pops as he sits, rubs the dull ache from his knees, his knuckles. He lets the twist of his mouth convey his distaste at Mycroft’s presence and his bumbling use of irony.
“The government must be very lax to allow its civil servants to accompany their siblings on routine check ups. I will write my MP about this outrage immediately.”
“I won’t be accompanying you to Kent,” Mycroft says. The ubiquitous umbrella twirls a despondent pattern at his feet. “I merely wish to caution you. Again.”
Sherlock flexes his aching hands, curls them over his knees. If he weren’t sure his entire body would fragment and crumble at the merest touch, he’d smash the smug from of Mycroft’s face right now.
“If you value your… little friend, you will refrain from an affaire de ceour. He’s not like you, Sherlock. He can be hurt, and you will be the instrument of that pain.”
Sherlock ground his mandibles and heard the strain of it reverberate through his willow. “I have it in hand, Mycroft.”
“Of course you do. That’s why you parade about in front of him in nothing but sheets, why you arrange to share not only hotel rooms but beds, why you drive every girlfriend away, why you burrow your feet beneath him on cold nights, why you—”
“I will find all your bugs, Mycroft, and I will plant them in your own toilet.”
“Never forget what you are, Sherlock,” Mycroft says. The Rolls comes to a halt and he opens the door. “And never forget that the rest of us aren’t as hardy as you.”
Mycroft leaves, and Sherlock fills his empty spaces with clean air in his absence. He takes out his mobile.
Better do another sweep. SH
Oh no whats he done now
The usual. Insufferable. SH
Big brother is watching…from the corner of the window in the kitchen
Probably wank fodder for when we have sweets. SH
Omg lol naughty
Keep looking. He obviously expends more energy conducting fraternal espionage than doing his job. SH
Thank god your hands are alright to txt. Might have an international incident if they werent.
How else would I pass the time to Kent? SH
John’s right though — his thumbs, his hands, twinge and burn. It’s a foreign sensation, one best described as “unpleasant,” though the sensation grows more intense the more he strains himself. He keeps texting anyway. He does not send the text that reads I would try not to hurt you. SH and conversation continues as expected until Mycroft’s car pulls up to Sherlock’s childhood home and it’s time to fix all his ills. Mr. Norbury is waiting for him just outside the groundskeeper’s cottage, and Sherlock stands straight and tall before his maker, bespoke suit dapper and crisp. Mr. Norbury these days is mostly bald and courting emphysema, but he still sucks on a pipe as he looks Sherlock up and down with shrewd eyes.
“My very best work,” he says, and turns to enter his workroom in the back of the cottage. “Come along then, let’s get you put to rights.”
A clean sheet covers the worktable, and Mr. Norbury has even set out some pillows. Sherlock disrobes and perches himself on the edge of the worktable while Mr. Norbury puts out and sets aside his pipe. Mr. Norbury sits in a rolling chair and pulls up alongside him.
“Well. Where’s it bad, then?”
“Everywhere. Joints, obviously, but… it’s like I’m cracking all over.”
Mr. Norbury frowns. He stands and places a hand on the slope of Sherlock’s shoulder. When he was small, Sherlock was not quite cohesive yet, and he could take himself apart and leaves bits of himself anywhere he wanted. It frayed Mummy’s nerves and it enraged father and and it irked Mycroft, but Sherlock found it an amusing diversion. Of course, it resulted occasionally in Mr. Norbury having to turn him a new limb, but Mr. Norbury would wink at him even as he promised Mummy he’d scold him. As he grew older, he lost the ability to deconstruct, as he called it, and there came a time when only Mr. Norbury knew the right words, the right touch. Now, Mr. Norbury’s deft fingers tap along the seams of him and he speaks the proper language — Gàidhlig, Sherlock knows now — to take him apart.
Mr. Norbury smells of pipe tobacco and the outdoors and clean, working sweat. His clothes are freshly laundered. He’s been trimming the hydrangeas, but he’s also been to see his grandchildren recently. He doesn’t know Mrs. Filby, the seamstress down the way, harbours quiet but ardent regard for him, but that’s nothing new in the last thirty years. He does, however, know what’s wrong with Sherlock.
“What is it, then? Mr. Norbury?”
Mr. Norbury doesn’t sigh the way John does. He does it silently, a puff of air through his nose, an infinitesimal drooping of his eyelids. His hands come up and cradle Sherlock’s head.
“You’re my good lad,” he says gruffly. “It’ll be alright, you’ll see.”
With a few mellifluous words, Mr. Norbury puts Sherlock to sleep. When he wakes again, Mr. Norbury tells him he’s been sanded and waxed, and it should hold, but there will be no replacement limbs, no new ball bearings.
“But don’t worry,” he says. “You’ll be right as rain before you know it.”
“I never worry,” Sherlock tells him, and tastes ash.
Mycroft was thirty-two years old when he got the call that his brother was dead. He was found lifeless in a skip, arms littered with track marks, emaciated and bruised. No one cared about another homeless overdose, but Mycroft Holmes had eyes all over the city. Mycroft Holmes was the eyes of this city. And so he got the call and trundled himself down to the morgue.
Sherlock on the slab was a diminished Sherlock the likes of which Mycroft had never seen. Mycroft’s heart thumped wildly, illogically, against the slats of his ribs, and the grey, waxy pallor of Sherlock’s skin nauseated him. He managed to make it to the rubbish bin in the corner, and the attendant discreetly looked away. She pulled the sheet up to cover what was left of his brother. Wood and illusions, but no life.
Mycroft, for the first time, wanted to obliterate himself.
Mummy wailed and locked herself in the bathroom for days. Mycroft picked the casket, the headstone, the suit in which Sherlock would be buried. For a week, Mycroft did not sleep but passed out and woke still intoxicated. He dreamed of green eyes under black curls, fingers beside his biscuits at tea, laughter, playing pirates. He dreamed of leaving, of tears, of wondering where Sherlock even got them, got blood, got emesis, got excrement. He dreamed of long ago.
Of course, Mr. Norbury was capable of performing miracles, and the day of his funeral, Sherlock sat up and gasped.
Mr. Norbury, chuffed, only grinned and squeezed his shoulder. Mummy declared that God was real and crushed Sherlock’s hand in her own, covered his face in kisses. Mycroft looked at Sherlock, at his perfect, restored body and the aplomb with which he accepted his resurrection, and his love curdled into something wicked and bitter within him.
“I will never forgive you,” he said, and Sherlock sneered. He managed hideous so well for someone who had been engineered beautiful.
“Mycroft Holmes!” Mummy bellowed, but Mycroft left the groundskeeper’s cottage, left the estate, left the county, and never forgave Sherlock a moment of his heartache.
The pain eases. And that’s how Sherlock must characterise what he’s been enduring: pain. It eases, and he feels almost even, almost steady, almost Sherlock-neutral. He forgets about pain, but for when John looks at him with a smile or a frown or any other myriad expressions and the tightness starts up again. The sense that something is too big, or something else is too small. Or something. Sherlock can’t pin it. It will drive him mad, his body, so he tries to banish it from his mind.
Regardless of the state of his transport, there’s tea in the mornings. Toast with lots of butter. There are tailored suits that John irons while complaining vociferously. Once, there is a kiss, and the leaning of foreheads together. They do not speak of it, but John loses the revolving door of bland, interchangeable girlfriends.
At last, there’s Moriarty.
There’s a trial, a libel, a frame job. There’s holding hands with John and running through the streets imagining that the pulse he feels in John’s hand is his own. There’s Molly, and sadness, and a plan that hinges on something Sherlock doesn’t observe, doesn’t deduce, but only suspects. Hopes.
There’s a handshake, wood against tin. The passing of a moment of understanding. A suicide, a shock, a frantic intake of air he doesn’t need.
There’s John, getting out of the cab after the sham with Mrs. Hudson. There’s John on his phone. There’s John’s face, whose acrobatics Sherlock can see even from this distance.
There are tears, and where do they come from? It never occurred to him to wonder, but it’s too late now. There’s a lie. There’s “Stay exactly where you are.” There’s “Don’t move.” There’s “Keep your eyes fixed on me.” There’s a loud crack, and a howling from somewhere deep inside.
There’s John’s voice in his ear.
There is wild, desperate hope.
“Look at them. They all care so much. Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?”
“All lives end. All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage, Sherlock.”
He hits the pavement and his body shatters. An echoing crunch, the sound of finality.
But in the spaces where his nothing should be there is something. A spark. Skin against casing. Heat and sweat and claustrophobia. He’s got splinters, of all things. There’s pain — this is what pain really is: the very definition — hot and consuming, bursting along his synapses, paralysing. Lungs fill with oxygen, a stomach clamours for sustenance, ears go deaf beyond the rush of blood to his head.
And in his chest, a thunderous heart begins to beat.