Sherlock's hand was bloody, cupped beneath his face to catch the fall as he leaned forward. The other was holding him up against the wall of Bruce House, which was where Mycroft found him.
Mycroft cursed, in rapid succession, the school's misguided propensity for placing boys from the same family in the same house; the fact that he'd been too successful in becoming Prefect of Bruce House and therefore not moved to one of the Sixth Form houses; the supposed responsibility Prefects were supposed to carry; Sherlock in general; Sherlock's specific ability to say the wrong thing and end up in pieces because of it; and his own sodding inability to shake the feeling that if he didn't do something about this, Mummy would know and be all over him for it.
"You're not meant to be round here," Mycroft muttered, examining the clouds, the grounds, and anything that wasn't his 13-year-old brother trying not to bleed on his school shirt with an expression of such barely-suppressed rage that he looked almost crazed.
"Neither are you," Sherlock said into the palm of his bloodied hand. His hair was getting too long. He looked ridiculous, and more to the point, he was going to be in contravention of school rules soon. Even where it wasn't bleeding, his face was red; Mycroft tongued the fragments of breakfast caught in his own molars and diverted his attention back to the grounds once more.
A pause passed between them in the relative sanctity of Out of Bounds, and Mycroft gathered up his reluctance like an armful of dirty sheets and said through terse cheeks and clenched teeth, "Who this time?"
"I will deal with it myself," Sherlock said as haughtily as a bare-teenager who is dripping blood from his nose can.
"You're not meant to," Mycroft corrected him, suddenly very aware that his gloves - waterproofed kid leather this time, a Christmas present to himself from himself, since no one else could be relied upon to combine accuracy and affection - were in his coat and that his coat was in his room rather than on his person. "You're supposed to tell a Prefect, which is unfortunately me. Or you can go and tell Farrell. She'll ... take care of you."
As expected, the mere mention of care made Sherlock bristle and glare like an alley cat. He wiped the side of his hand against the underside of his nose, pouring half-clotted blood on the gravel and streaking his skin brownish-red. There were spots on his cuff, Mycroft noted, with irritation, which meant that he had been careless and therefore upset.
"I will deal with it myself," Sherlock snapped, as a fat glob of vivid red slid unregarded down his filtrum and onto his top lip. The wind in the lee of Bruce House wasn't the same violent assault it was elsewhere in the grounds, but his little brother's excess of curls still bobbed determinedly in the gusts that made it this far. "I don't need you."
Mycroft wholeheartedly wished that was actually the case.
"What's Johnson allergic to?" Sherlock added, scrubbing at the blood clot on his mouth with the bony lump that had begun developing in the side of his wrist; it seemed as if the taller he got the more he insisted on resembling the Elephant Man, a fact Mycroft was not above pointing out. "He takes prescription anti-histamines."
"Johnson Major or Minor?" Mycroft asked, mentally cataloguing the possibility that his brother was going to attempt murder and then he'd have to find some way to deny this conversation ever happened and, most likely, that Sherlock was capable of being that vindictive... there must surely be some way to prevent him from being such an endless fly in the ointment.
"Minor," Sherlock said, gesturing to his nose, and without any prompting added, "I pointed out that it was obvious he had homosexual tendencies and he introduced my face to his knee several times."
"Have you considered," Mycroft murmured with considerable sarcasm, as Sherlock bled angrily at him, "keeping your deductions to yourself?"
"It was painfully obvious!"
"Emphasis on the painfully, I should imagine," Mycroft sighed. "Go and see Matron."
"She'll want to know what happened," Sherlock pointed out, now furiously wiping at his top lip and filtrum with his previously unbloodied hand. He looked, Mycroft thought dispassionately, as if he'd been interrupted in the process of disposing of evidence.
Mycroft rolled his eyes as a particularly vicious gust of wind pulled on his hair. "Then lie."
He did not add, you're good at that, because praise was the opiate of morons and Sherlock didn't need telling things he already knew. He only watched Sherlock straighten up, prod experimentally at his nose to make sure it had stopped bleeding, and stifled with difficulty the urge to pull out a handkerchief and start blotting drying blood off the boy's face.
"Stop telling people everything you notice about them," Mycroft instructed, tucking his hands into his pockets to compensate for the lack of gloves. Sherlock was making his fingers itch again; it had taken him years, but he'd finally made the connection. Sherlock gave him itchy hands. He had no idea how or why, but it did little to quell his desire to disclaim any connection with "weirdo Holmes in the first year".
Sherlock gave him a withering and bloodstreaked look, his red palms turning russet in the air. "Oh I suppose I should be more like you, and just tell everyone what they want to hear?"
Mycroft gave a minute shrug. "One of us is bleeding all over his face and one of us is a Prefect, Sherlock. Think about that."
Balliol's stony embrace was, in some respects, a little reminiscent of Mummy. One could be certain that it meant to do the right thing, and that it would make a success out of one, and that those accustomed to more giving mothers might find it difficult - three girls and one boy dropped out of Mycroft's class in the first term - and it expected the best from one at all times. Mycroft found university insultingly easy.
Unlike Gordonstoun, where he'd at least had the challenge of spending his first three years trying to avoid having his head shoved into a lavatory or being sent on endless penalty drills for being "a smartarse" and a parade of teachers who believed him to be "an oily git", Mycroft discovered rather quickly that Oxford Dons were easily flattered, easily manipulated, and, should one find one that was not to one's taste, easily broken.
The key to his peers seemed to be to keep a middling profile, and to let them think they'd come up with his ideas. He slid into treasurer roles in various societies with the inevitability of a lead weight plopping to the end of a plumb line; he slipped seamlessly into the role of the background director in every endeavour. Mycroft was therefore not surprised at his invitation to afternoon tea with Henthorpe.
There were three others with him that afternoon: two interchangeable blond classicists he never saw again, and a fat, intense-looking Asian girl with an eyebrow piercing and a scabbed chin that looked like the result of having tripped up the notoriously tricky stairs that littered the place.
Mycroft helped himself to scones, biscuits, and cake; no one else ate. Mycroft sat back in his chair and listened to the blond classicists bicker relentlessly about philosophy with occasional interjections from the fat girl, and from Henthorpe, directing the conversation this way and that through a maze of morality and plucking at threads to draw them out, away from their comfortable, well-trodden paths.
He ate a second slice of cake while Henthorpe watched him watching the conversation.
"And what do you think, Mycroft?" Henthorpe said, with the encouraging smile of some advertisment grandfather.
"I've observed," Mycroft said, stealing his little brother's most obnoxious intonation and multiplying it with his own, "that at least some participants of the debate are arguing a position they don't practice."
It sickened him, sickened him so thoroughly that he could almost feel the sweat standing out on his forehead, when he realised what they were about, those interchangeable blonds, but he kept eating; and so he kept eating. One of the interchangeable blonds rather hotly called him a pig and asked how he could observe anything around the mouthfuls of bloody cake he was consuming. Mycroft gave no answer to this at all.
The remainder of the tea was somewhat frosty, but Mycroft was hardly a stranger to that.
It took a small handful of Docusol and Dulcolax to shift the effects of that afternoon tea through him at a speed that he found acceptable, and while Mycroft's abdomen clenched and cramped with renewed vigor and he thanked every twist of fate that had left him with an en suite in which to suffer this, he wasn't wholly sure the advancement was worth the pain.
It was far from the first time he'd had this doubt.
Mummy wrote to him, of course; it was to be expected. She wrote to him stage-managing his affairs; which professors Mycroft needed to favour; which classes Mycroft should take; which invitations he should accept and which he should reject; the number of 2.1s, as opposed to firsts, she would tolerate him achieving; the amount he should be eating.
Mummy did not mention in her detailed copperplate letters precisely how many laxative tablets Mycroft should be taking, because Mummy was - as far as Mycroft was concerned - now convinced that he had been broken of that "pathetic" habit in the same way that Sherlock had definitely and certainly quit his unexpected underage smoking.
Mycroft suspected that the amount he should be taking was rather less than the amount he was taking, and the stomach cramps and diarrhea which occasionally left him anemic and shaking did rather bear that theory out. But he also suspected that he was young enough, strong enough, that at this precise moment his digestive system could bear a little abuse. He would stop when he graduated, he decided. He would put aside the hoarded packets of cheap cornershop sweets and the textureless white pap of endless dry bread, and he would recover. Simple. Just not yet.
Sherlock also wrote to him, and this Mycroft had not been expecting at all.
"Chemistry SATS 100%," Sherlock's letter read. "Pointless examination. Anyone could have guessed their way through the theory. Multiple-choice. Unbelievable. Johnson Minor still not returned, convalescing at home. Hayes continues to copulate with the sixth-form girls but has moved base of operations to basement of main building. Given eight PDs this week, could probably run a bloody marathon in my sleep now. K. Bines (new) propositioned me after idiotic weekend trek in mountains, please advise how to get rid. Have tried "FO" but doesn't take no for an answer."
The admission of Mycroft's greater expertise in even this one area surprised him so much that he read the letter twice (the second time hunched over on the en suite toilet, grinding his teeth against the pain). It did not quite stem the tide of spite that suggested he reply with "why not acquiesce, you're going to die a virgin otherwise".
It occurred to him, once his mental processes were no longer so dulled by the action of his bowels, that "K. Bines" gave no indicator if the propositioner were male or female, and with Sherlock the disdain gave no hint; he'd demonstrated as little interest in either sex as he did in refraining from shouting about how bored he was in class. Mycroft sipped water until his hands were no longer apt to produce the tiny tremors that, knowing his brother, would inform Sherlock that the entire business of 'being weaned off his self-destructive and childish habit' was a lie, and began his reply in dark red fountain pen.
"Humiliation is the key to expelling unwanted advances," Mycroft wrote. "If they are indeed unwanted. Might as well just get it over with."
I did, after all, Mycroft thought. Emily Bakewell, who was now competing in Commonwealth-level sailing contests and who had looked far less alarming naked than his dorm-mates, and "get it over with" they had; Emily didn't seem especially disappointed, and Mycroft felt no great discomfort at having done the deed, wrapped up in the security of a condom and the immediacy of the following shower. He was clean again within minutes, citing the nearness of discovery, and out of Emily's room in what she later informed him was a "prissy whirlwind".
Mycroft began a relationship, in May Term, with a girl called Hannah. She had brown eyes and studied physics and insisted on anal sex, which Mycroft found beyond repellent but acquiesced to because he knew how thoroughly envious his male peers would be if they found out. He insisted - more vehemently than she - on condoms.
"Don't see what all the fuss is about," Sherlock wrote, just before Mycroft was due to return to Wyndham House (Sherlock, of course, had a further month and a half at Gordonstoun to complete before being allowed to return into the welcoming bosom of their happy home). "Hormones everywhere. Classmates rutting like animals. Convinced there's nothing in the entire building not stained with semen."
Mycroft, who had finished both first year exams and with Hannah in the same week, had far bigger things on his mind than his brother's (understandable) revulsion at the unrestrained carnality of his classmates. He had temporarily lost consciousness in the dining hall and rather than waving it off as a hangover or preliminary celebration the way it might have been with - Mycroft thought bitterly - anyone else, he was manhandled into a demeaning tutorial and quizzed relentlessly about his health and whether he was taking drugs.
His indignation at this accusation was seismic. "I am taking medication," Mycroft insisted, and his intestines threatened to give a demonstration there and then. "It makes me light-headed occasionally. You can ask my doctor."
"And what is the medication for?" asked Reeves, who had shown approximately no inclination toward pastoral care in the preceding terms and would show none again for the rest of Mycroft's degree.
"My digestion," Mycroft said with great dignity, "is delicate."
“Henthorpe is trying to recruit me into MI5,” Mycroft said, over dinner. He measured out each mouthful, trying to eat slowly. Mummy was no doubt watching like a hawk. It would be one of only two ‘family’ dinners this summer, for she hated to come down stairs, and all he had to do was to keep her on side until it was over. His jaw muscles seemed to leap away from him, eager to swallow the entire plateful, shovel in seconds, take Sherlock’s plate…
“Sherlock was suspended,” Mummy said, ignoring him.
The evening light came into the dining room in vertical stripes through the long, office-like blinds. Sherlock, whom Mycroft noticed was going through an elaborate dance of hiding most of his meal under other parts of his meal, and occasionally slipping the larger parts into his napkin, looked no more concerned by this development than by the onerous business of sitting with his family.
“For fighting,” Mummy added, grimly.
Mycroft restrained the urge to raise his eyebrows. He very, very slowly reached to his lap for his napkin, as if to adjust it, and in the process patted his pocket with his far hand. The gloves were there, ready to be worn the moment Mummy was out of sight. Sherlock “fighting” was about as likely as Mycroft dancing.
“He has to write a letter of apology,” Mummy finished, directing the remark at Sherlock.
This meant Mycroft would be writing a letter of apology, and Sherlock would – under duress – be copying it out; Sherlock was decidedly ungifted in the department of apology.
“Henthorpe thinks I would be a shoo-in,” Mycroft said doggedly.
“You’re not going into MI5,” Mummy said, using the peculiar habit of addressing herself to one brother while staring at the other. “It isn’t respectable and the long-term prospects are unsatisfactory.”
“And you do enough spying on people already,” Sherlock said into his artfully-stacked plate.
Mycroft made a face at him across the table. He tried to remind himself that he was a mature man of the world and a valued member of several Balliol societies and that Sherlock was just an irritating little boy who was failing to progress through the stormy seas of puberty in the normal and sensible way. Sherlock made an equally horrible face back, and Mummy laid her fork down with a pointed clink.
“We have discussed this,” Mummy said, watching Mycroft again as his fork raised, lowered, conveying an endless chain of untasted food into his stomach. Mummy was using the special version of "discussed" which meant she had written Mycroft a letter and Mycroft had gone to McDonald's and then spent all night curled up on the en suite toilet in a state of acute misery, having plundered his overdraft to buy more over-the-counter Sennakot. “The funding for MI5 is in continual flux. It is unstable; the members are at the whim of the fickle public, and the civil branch are as much in thrall to Whitehall’s financial initiatives as –“
“I’m bored,” Sherlock said loudly, “and I’ve finished. Can I go now, please?”
Under the cover of Sherlock’s abrupt departure – he did not so much as wait for Mummy to grant him permission – Mycroft reached under his napkin and pulled on his gloves, slowly. A finger at a time, his hands disappeared into the kid leather enclosure, and he felt with it a sudden cessation of almost everything but the gut-wrenching cramps.
“You’ll end up with blood in your stool,” Sherlock said from the doorway of Mycroft’s room.
“Get out of my room,” Mycroft snapped. Three varying perspectives on Keynes were spread about him on a desk that was too small for serious study, and Sherlock’s voice had the irritating and irrational property of transporting Mycroft back several years every time he opened his mouth.
“I’m not in your room,” Sherlock said, “I’m in the corridor.”
“Mind your own business and shut up,” Mycroft said, his head throbbing. He had a jug of water in the room but it was no use; or rather, it seemed to have no effect other than making him need to urinate more often. “Anyway, if you keep hiding sausages in your pockets she’s going to catch on.”
Dust hung in the sunlight that striped the bedroom carpet, and looking at it made him want to sneeze. Sneezing, however, involved contraction of the stomach muscles and contraction of the stomach muscles at the moment involved having to stealthily launder his clothing. Mycroft held his breath.
“If you tell on me I’ll tell on you,” Sherlock said simply. “I’m not the one bleeding from the anus.”
“You are the one on suspension because he can’t keep his wretched mouth shut,” Mycroft said, finally turning on his chair to give Sherlock the benefit of his most patronising look. “So you can shut up.”
The stomach cramp was ill-timed, and caught him like a fist in the guts. Mycroft twisted his face around the pain and doubled over the arm of his chair, trying not to pant, and when he looked up Sherlock was staring at him as if he was an unfathomably complex puzzle. “How can you think while that’s happening?” Sherlock asked, fascinated in Mycroft for the first time that Mycroft could remember. “Isn’t it enormously distracting?”
“Get out of my room,” Mycroft repeated, wrapping an arm over his stomach and holding in the pain but not the associated sweats. “Virgin,” he added, for good if exceptionally childish measure.
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
He left, which was the important thing, and Mycroft bent over his source books. It was extremely hard to think very much with his guts rebelling in violent and alarming fashion, but fortunately there was little thought required for the study of first-year economics. He was almost certain he’d be able to do this in his sleep.
-- Get laid. This is your sole commandment for 1st year, Sherlock. Put your penis inside another human being. Prefer live one. - M
-- Why? Waste of time. Bodily functions tedious. Invitation to disease. Other people boring. - SH
-- Important not to startle the proles. You're going through MY college with MY surname, bad enough that you left a nasty taste in everyone's mouth at school. Stop being selfish and make the effort to fit in. - M
-- Plenty of other freshers not copulating their way around the college. - SH
-- They are freaks. - M
-- So am I. Don't care. Fail to see importance. Get on with running country & leave me alone. - SH
"Did you get the job?" Mycroft asked as pleasantly as he could - pseudo-pleasantries were becoming a specialty of his, as Sir Horace became ever more cantankerous and Mycroft's experience in handling the difficult-and-ostensibly-brilliant became more and more useful - as Sherlock sat stiffly behind a plate of cooling turkey and sniffled.
His nose was seasonably red, and Mycroft knew that, were Mummy not drifting through one of her Bad Patches, she would see as easily as he that Holmes the Younger was keeping himself up at night with substances that carried a sentence on possession.
"You know I didn't," Sherlock snapped.
"Mm," Mycroft said, his cheeks bulging with rubbery potatoes that were supposedly roasted, "maybe the next one."
"You know how many positions like that there are in the country."
"Well try a different country, then."
Sherlock only looked at him as if he'd suggested he try to get a girlfriend, and shoved his plate away from himself, trying to escape the contaminating temptation of carbohydrates. Mycroft chewed thoughtfully.
"Social skills," Mycroft said, when the silence had gone on sufficiently.
"Team work," Sherlock corrected, screwing up his nose at the very words. "I 'lack the aptitude for team work', as if there was any merit in slowing down so that the idiots can keep up --" he broke off and scowled into his untouched dinner. There were nicotine stains on his fingertips, and he had clearly neglected the business of combing his hair for several days. Mycroft once again thanked providence for Mummy’s Bad Patch and her subsequent lack of interest in seeing them at all; Sherlock could be an unkempt, unemployed weirdo and Mycroft would not be held responsible.
“You’re supposed to ask how my work is going,” Mycroft prompted.
“I’m not interested,” Sherlock said, tapping his foot against the floorboards.
“Social skills,” Mycroft repeated, dabbing at his mouth gently with the napkin. “Learn to take an interest in other people outside of what they’ve stolen and who they’ve killed and they might let you into a forensic position after all.”
“They need me more than I need them,” Sherlock said with such absolute conviction that Mycroft found – for the first time in nearly ten years – his gorge rising along with his temper. He had never been one for demonstrative rage, but there was something in his brother’s confidence at his indispensable nature that made Mycroft fantasise very briefly about hurling the remains of his dinner in his face.
Mycroft finished Christmas dinner in silence; while Sherlock tapped his foo t. The tempo only increased as Sherlock’s patience decreased, and as his tapping speeded up Mycroft’s chewing slowed down, until the glances they cast each other across the otherwise deserted table could have frozen lava.
Outside the windows a winter storm battered with futile fury against the glass panes, rattling them in their frames.
Mycroft cleared his plate.
“You don’t happen,” Mycroft asked, when he had moved his cutlery into the four o’clock position, “to have seen my wooden ruler, do you?”
“Why would I know where your possessions are when I barely know where mine are,” Sherlock said in a lower voice than he had been using. He got up abruptly, leaving his dinner untouched. “Are we going to dance attendance on the crippled dictator or can I go now?”
“Sherlock,” Mycroft sighed, pushing his empty plate aside and reaching without subterfuge for the brand new kid gloves in his hip pocket. “That is unnecessary.”
The soft leather cradled his hands, and as he did up the poppers at the cuff Mycroft thought that, it being Christmas, he could forgo the necessary jettisoning of his indulgence after all. Perhaps. Maybe.
He ascended the stairs behind Sherlock, because climbing up them in front of him made him nervous.
At the landing, where the bannisters were chipped and dented because Mycroft and Sherlock’s disputes had not always remained in the realms of the dignified, vitriolic, and verbal, Sherlock – eighteen, gaunt, full of cocaine and sourness – stopped directly in front of Mycroft and said, “It’s in my room, under Shriver & Atkins.”