School, Mycroft thought, was a waste of time and money, and he wasn’t convinced that university would be much better. He could learn as much from his family’s own library and connections, surely, and with less… well, rugby. Less rugby would be an excellent start.
It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t very interested in sports. Not in playing them, anyway. He knew the rules very well, as it happened. He just wasn’t very good at running all over a field in the mud in those awful clothes. Why should he be? What on earth was the point?
Coaching might be different. Mycroft had a very good idea of how the players ought to be fielded against the opposing teams. In fact, he had notes about appropriate player positions based on each different opposing side, calculated not only on individual game skills, but personalities and their behaviour under pressure: a hundred things that could tip the balance in favour of their side over the other side.
The coach hadn’t been impressed. Said ‘it wasn’t playing the game’.
This, on top of the morning argument with Father, a regular occurrence these days, about Getting On and Playing the Game. Father and Coach McGarrity would get on like a house on fire. Mycroft violently wished for the pair of them to be together in a house on fire.
Stupid coach. Stupid game. Stupid rules. He could see a dozen moves ahead what needed to be done. Why wouldn’t people just listen when he could see what was necessary?
At the end of the day, he’d nipped past the shops on his way home and bought himself a treat. Several treats. Hot chips. A jam donut. Salt and sugar. The non-judgement of food, the little thrill of something that tasted good, that reminded him of Nanny and the way she used to slip him treats and cuddles. A full belly. Like a hug from Nanny on the inside.
And well, isn’t that an uncomfortable revelatory thought, Mycroft decided as he mooched into the Second Lounge Room. This was his room for study, now, or should be, except for that unholy, unmitigated pest of a little brother. Sherlock was banned from Mycroft’s Room, Mycroft’s Library and Mycroft’s Second Lounge, but horrid little Sherlock seemed incapable of grasping what ‘banned’ meant.
With a heavy sigh, Mycroft kicked off his shoes, flung himself onto the too-short sofa and studiously licked his fingers. Salt from the right hand, sugar from the left. He had methods for this, to prolong the pleasure.
He was contemplating a sugar crystal clinging to his left thumb when he heard the tiny sound, like a creature trying and failing to be stealthy. It wasn’t a familiar sound. Mycroft turned his head, listening.
And there it was again, followed by a tiny sigh.
Bloody hell. That rotten little brat.
“Sherlock,” said Mycroft in his sternest voice, “Get the hell out of my room.”
“’It’s not your room,” came the defiant voice, “It’s our room. Yours and mine. Mummy said.”
“That was last year. This year it’s my room. Get out.”
“My room, Sherlock. Piss off.”
Silence. Another small and miserable sigh. Sherlock stepped out from behind the heavy curtains that draped over the French windows. The little bugger had been hiding.
He’d also, Mycroft noted, been crying. That was unusual. Sherlock was moody, stubborn, excitable and frequently hyperactive, but he almost never cried. All those sad little sighs were not like him, either. Usually, if Sherlock wanted to be dramatic, he’d heave these great big diva sighs, flouncing around the room like he was about to perform an aria.
Mycroft was unhappy enough himself to feel a twinge of kinship with the kid, for a change. Holmeses were not prone to tears, even when they were eight years old.
“Hey,” Mycroft called out as Sherlock reached for the door handle, “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Sherlock frowned angrily.
“No, really, Sherlock, what’s the matter? I’ve had a fairly putrid day myself, so I am feeling hypersensitive to the putrid day of others. Did you get told off for destroying the rose bed again?”
“No.” Sherlock’s voice was very, very small and very, very miserable. Generally, Mycroft thought, only one person could really make a Holmes feel as small and as miserable as that.
“Was Father mean to you?”
“He was. I can tell.”
“No. H-he wasn’t. He simply s-said that Mister Abelman was right, and that I am a l-little f-freak.”
“Mister Abelman called you a freak, did he?”
“And why did Mister Abelman call you a freak?
“B-because he asked me why his wife didn’t do her duties like a wife ought to, and why she hung around with that awful Mrs Crawley and why Daniel Junior never visited home any more.”
“And you answered his questions.”
“M-mummy said I should always answer when an adult asks a question, so I d-did.”
Someone, Mycroft thought, should teach the precocious brat the concept of rhetorical questions. “And was Mister Abelman drunk?”
“Yes. And he hit me.
Mycroft sat up straight. That drunken, useless clot of a groundsman hit a Holmes. Hit his little brother. Sherlock was a brat, and a twat, and all kinds of irritating, but no-one smacked Sherlock but family. And not even then.
“Show me.” He held his hand out and Sherlock, hesitant, stepped closer to his big brother. He pulled up his sleeve to reveal an unblemished upper arm. Mycroft could barely discern a mark.
“He didn’t hit me hard. I was just surprised.”
“And then Father told you it served you right, I suppose.”
Sherlock bit his lip and nodded.
Mycroft scowled. He rather suspected that Father had also been drunk. That wasn’t terribly uncommon these days either.
Mycroft pulled Sherlock’s sleeve down for him, took the boy by his shoulders and stared solemnly into those pale eyes.
“Just because Father says things, it doesn’t make them true, Sherlock. Father says a lot of things.”
“H-he said I was a… was a… was a…”
Mycroft closed his eyes. He knew what was coming. He’d been on the receiving end of this particular insult himself, though Father had waited until Mycroft was a teenager to start.
“He said I was a bastard. It didn’t sound like when he calls the Prime Minister a bastard, so I asked him what he meant.”
“And he told you.”
“Yes. And then I looked it up.”
“Why is it a bad thing, Mycroft?”
Mycroft opened his eyes to find Sherlock regarding him with puzzled intensity. “It isn’t, Sherlock. It isn’t even true, but it’s not a bad thing these days, really. And even if it was true, it wouldn’t be your fault.”
“He said I was a freak and a bastard and that Mummy was a whore.” A moment’s silence. “I looked that up too. That’s quite bad.”
Mycroft bristled, his hands squeezing Sherlock’s arms, and Sherlock flinched. Mycroft released him at once, patting the boy’s shoulder instead. “Sorry, Sherlock. It’s not your fault. Father can be a bit rotten, when he’s drinking.” Which he does increasingly. “There’s nothing wrong with Mummy, and there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“So there’s something wrong with Father?”
Mycroft sighed. “Sometimes. But don’t tell him so, or you’ll get a thrashing.”
Sherlock’s eyes grew wide. He’d witnessed Mycroft get a thrashing once, and Mummy had rescued Sherlock himself from another. Thrashings were definitely on the list of things to be avoided. He nodded rapidly. Then, remembering how Mycroft had stayed so, so silent while Father had hit him, he leaned suddenly forward, wrapping his arms around his brave big brother’s waist, pressing his face into Mycroft’s school shirt.
“You’re not a bastard either,” he said, voice muffled against the cloth, “Or a freak. Or a whore.”
Mycroft grinned at that. Good lord, what this boy picked up.
Sherlock released him and his face lit up in a huge, conspiratorial smile. “I can’t be a whore either. I’m going to be a pirate.”
Mycroft’s grin broadened. “I thought you gave up on being a pirate.”
“I did. But today, I thought I might, again. I thought it would be better to be a pirate. I could get away from here and the mean things people say. I could make all the mean people swab decks. Or walk the plank.”
Mycroft thought there might be merit in that idea.
“It would be me, and my First Mate, and maybe a bosun,” Sherlock was warming to the idea. “If you don’t want to be a pirate with me, I could take you away and make you governor of some islands. We’d have to save booty for Mummy, of course. She’s the Queen, like Elizabeth the First, and I’d be a privateer having adventures with my First Mate and you could boss everyone around in your colony, because you’d like that. And when people were mean to you, you could keep them in dungeons or make them work on the plantations.”
“That sounds like an excellent scheme, Sherlock.”
“And we could be friends,” Sherlock declared.
“I’d be a governor and you’d be a pirate,” Mycroft pointed out, “We won’t be allowed to be friends.”
“Well, we can fight in front of everyone else so they don’t know, but we’d be secret friends.” Sherlock nodded; satisfied that he’d dealt with that objection.
“Yes,” Mycroft laughed, “That might work.”
Sherlock scrambled up onto the sofa while Mycroft collapsed back into it. He watched the boy stand on the arm of the sofa, at his feet, Sherlock's hands stretched above his head.
“Actually,” said Sherlock, “I think that walking the plank looks like fun, except if there were sharks in the water.” He stood up on tiptoes then glanced down at his brother’s supine form. “But I could try it. If you could…” Sherlock stretched a little more, eyes shut, looking nothing less than a little dark-haired angel.
Then he deliberately toppled, his thin little body falling towards Mycroft, all angles and lanky limbs. Mycroft’s arms shot up to catch Sherlock around the chest. Little pest. Light as a feather, though. Trusting as a lamb. Mycroft had half a mind to let him drop, but the other half kept the boy safe, aloft.
Sherlock opened his eyes, his angel-face now wreathed in an impish grin. “You could catch me.”
“Not if you get much bigger.”
“But I’ll catch you. Certainly.”
Sherlock wriggled down to lie across Mycroft’s torso and wrapped his skinny arms around his brother for another hug.
So rare, so rare, to be hugged, by family, by anyone. Mycroft closed his eyes and wound his arms around the child, nose buried in that unruly hair. A little pest, but his little pest, make no mistake.
“I like you,” said Sherlock, “And I think you’ll be a very good governor.”
“I like you too, and you will be an excellent and dashing pirate.”
They lay like that, until a soft sound made Mycroft aware that his little brother had fallen asleep. How like Sherlock. Run madly around like a demented waif at warp speed and then drop like a stone. He would one day make a very entertaining pirate, indeed. Mycroft hoped he’d find a First Mate with a modicum of sense who would keep him in line.
He patted Sherlock’s back, kissed the top of his head. “I love you, you wretched little blighter.”
Well, Mycroft thought, if Father is going to be a drunken wretch, and Mummy is going to be the Queen, I will just have to look out for my little brother, the privateer, and plan ten steps ahead, like any good governor.