William and Violet Holmes never fought, both believing it to be beneath their dignity. Instead, they preserved vicious, icy silences that cast a pall over the house and all its inhabitants. Even the butler spoke in murmurs and the housekeeper in whispers, while the maids could not be persuaded to vocalise at all, but made terrified curtseys and communicated via twitchy nods and shakes of their sleek heads. All eyes in the house flicked towards the missus, steadily and silently sipping tea from her celadon set while looking everywhere but her husband; every mind counted the minutes since Sir William looked up from his paper to narrate the news for the purposes of prompting his wife’s acerbic commentary.
It suited Mycroft down to the ground. When all was well, others’ petty considerations often drowned out his own symphony of thoughts. Lily building up the fire while wondering whether the butcher’s boy really meant all he said at the village dance on Friday, and planning how she could get away with wearing her satin tap pants to see him this week without Deborah noticing and mocking her to the whole staff, could delay his train of thought fifteen whole minutes. But it worked not so well for Sherlock, who was all of six when his parents began their extended campaign of verbal starvation. Mycroft came home from school, his head full of the visiting MP’s speech to the third form, and found his brother lying bewildered and near catatonic in the stables.
“Sherlock?” Mycroft hunkered down and peered at the form squeezed under the bench in the tack room. “I’m home.”
An explosion of small boy launched itself into Mycroft’s arms, bowling them both over onto the rough floor. Tears streaking down chubby cheeks and snot travelling in runnels over trembling lips turned the Raphaelite cherub into a real boy. Mycroft, oblivious to the threat his little brother’s bodily fluids posed to his bluer, lay on the floor and stroked the rough curls until Sherlock’s shoulders stilled their heaving and his weeping diminished into hiccups.
“Are you ready to get up now?” Mycroft asked.
“No.” Sherlock’s favourite word.
“Okay.” perhaps Mycroft’s least favourite word, but the only possible response when the person you love most in the world is using you as a combination security blanket and bear rug.
Sherlock sucked on his lower lip and gripped more wrinkles into his brother’s jacket. “Mycroft?”
“Are Mummy and Dad going to get divorced?”
Mycroft exhaled slowly, breathed in the smell of horses, sweat, and Sherlock, and said three words he almost never used in succession. “I don’t know.”
He could feel Sherlock’s forehead contract into a frown through his grimy shirt. “Well, think it out,” Sherlock said, imperious and impatient as ever.
Mycroft thought. He mapped the current situation, factored in two probabilities based on the car’s hubcaps and his mother’s shoes, extrapolated, and verbalised the scenario that would cause his little brother the least pain. “Yes.”
“I don’t want to live with Dad, I want to live with Mummy and I want to live with you.”
Mycroft bit his lip. “Sherlock, love, I’m the heir. I’d have to stay with Dad.”
“Hush,” Mycroft said, hugging his wriggling brother tighter. “Plenty of people live with their dads instead of their mums, and they like it. Mummy wouldn’t go very far away,” he said, speaking aloud the thoughts as they arrived neatly at the forefront of his conscious mind. “She would stay with Auntie Edna for a fortnight before taking up permanent residence at the house in London. Garret and Mrs. Garret would go with her, and we would see her every Boxing Day and over the Easter hols, and for weeks in the summer. We could get a kite, like Benjamin Franklin, and fly it at Regent’s Park.”
Sherlock resembled nothing so much as a prostrate mule.
“And we could build models of the Adventure and the Ranger and sail them at Kensington gardens. You would be Blackbeard, of course.”
A perceptible thaw. And, typical Sherlock, give the boy an inch and he’d take a colony. “But you would have to let me win. And we could make a head out of bread and cover it in raspberry sauce and hang it from the bowsprit of the Ranger while we sailed to Virginia and conquered it. And then we could hang the governor. And eat your head.”
Mycroft swallowed a chuckle. “Only if it has currants in it.”
Sherlock considered the anatomical implications of that amendment.
“Oy, stop counting my spots!”
They both burst into giggles and rolled around on the hard packed floor, Mycroft tickling within an inch of his life and Sherlock threatening Mycroft’s bed with itching powder, a colony of hedgehogs he uncovered in the garden, and the bottle of hot sauce Mummy brought back from India.
Mycroft loosened the covers and sat down on his little brother’s bed, a book hidden behind his back. Sherlock eyed him suspiciously.
“What is it?”
Sherlock’s glare could have fried a lesser boy’s brain stem. “That’s not Under the Black Flag.”
Mycroft smoothed his features into a semblance of guilelessness. “I thought we could try something different. Put an extension on your mind hovel.”
“Mind palace, you twerp. It’s not the Bible again, is it?”
“Now, Sherlock.” Mycroft fixed his brother with a stern gaze. “Despite your persistent lack of faith in a power greater than your own, it is nonetheless useful to familiarise yourself with the tropes that influenced literature, politics, and human relationships for thousands of years. But no,” he said, holding up his hand before Sherlock could protest, “it is not the Bible. It’s American.”
“Is that supposed to be better? Americans are the only people more deluded than the Christians. No doubt a result of the demographic overlap.”
“Shut up. I’m the reader, so I choose. When you read tomorrow night, we can go back to Cordingly.” he brought the book forward and started to open it.
“To Kill a Mockingbird?” Sherlock apparently spent part of the last term learning to read upside down. “That sounds suspiciously like fiction.”
“It is, like all great literature, a series of true stories disguised as lies.”
“It’s a book about a brilliant older brother who tolerates his snot of a sibling following him around while he torments the neighbours.”
Sherlock’s silence was assent. Mycroft took a moment to savour the first crack of the book’s spine and the smell of fresh paper. Then he cleared his throat and began to read. “‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…’”