“It’s not my fault,” Sherlock growled in the exact tone of voice that let Lestrade know it almost certainly was-so his fault. “You got yourself in trouble—too clever by half, she said. Don’t blame me.”
Lestrade followed Sherlock’s gaze and the angle of his body until he found the dog-fox hidden by the old-style metal bin tucked into the turn of the old brick townhouse. Lestrade knew enough to recognize it was a big animal—large and rangy, well-fed, with a tidy ruff and body language that made Lestrade none too interested in getting too close. He’d helped corner a fox once along with Animal Control, back in his constable days. Those things could bite…
The dog-fox never spared Lestrade a glance, instead glaring back at Sherlock. It growled—a long, complex growl with ululations and stops, as though it were trying to talk.
“I don’t understand a word of it,” Sherlock said, smugly. “It’s only a week. You’ll be back at work an safe in the Diogenes when the dark of the moon passes. Meanwhile—enjoy your menses, brother-mine. Better you than me.”
The dog-fox growled, then, deep and angry, and gathered itself to spring—but then John moved, sending something bouncing and skittering along the little side-alley. It skipped along the concrete, pinged off the trash bin, and sent the fox leaping back in an undignified scramble. Sherlock barked out a sharp laugh, and leaned over, finding a rock of his own, and sent another down the little walk between the two buildings. “Not. My. Fault,” he shouted again, as the fox disappeared into the shadows.
Lestrade, gape-mouthed, looked at the two warily. “That was Mycroft? Your brother Mycroft?”
Sherlock huffed and frowned. John growled outright. Sherlock glanced at him, and said again, with a stubborn pout, “It wasn’t my fault.”
“Even if it were, I wouldn’t let you fix it,” John snapped. “Dealt with my share of soldiers with curse-recoil. I’m not letting him guilt you into taking the risk. If his own people can’t lift it, that’s his problem.”
Lestrade shivered. John Watson was one hell of a battle mage. He could lift spells and drop curses like no one’s business. He knew his trade. But war had not made him a particularly nice man in some ways, and he had never been very close to Mycroft.
“What happened to him?” he asked the two other men, cautiously.
“Damned if I know—or care,” John said.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Sherlock said again, this time with an uneasy glance at Lestrade. Lestrade could hear the lie in his voice, though. “He got himself into a bit of trouble skulking around nosing into my business,” he added, as though hoping Lestrade would accept the excuse. He then glanced back at John, as though checking the mage had not clued into the undertow in Sherlock’s comments.
He hadn’t. But John seldom saw what he didn’t wish to see.
Lestrade didn’t say anything more. But after concluding his business with Sherlock and John, he circled back around to the little walk between the two buildings. He chirped, feeling a bit of a fool, and called, “Mycroft? Mr. Holmes?”
There was no answer, but he thought he saw the gleam of two eyes in the darkness. He chirped again. The long, leggy form slipped out from the pools of darkness and minced warily out toward him.
The animal growled—less a threat than a proud man’s sulk. Lestrade had to fight back an amused little grin. Poor Mycroft Holmes.
“Curse, then?” he said, softly.
The fox huffed, sat, and groomed its handsome tail.
“Curse. Let me guess—Sherlock and John got in over their heads, and you went to provide them with a bit of a Big Brother bully-guard?”
Copper eyes flashed and narrowed, then looked away.
“Ok. Let’s see what else I can figure out. ‘Menses.’ Once a month—Sherlock said a week. So you go all foxy for a week every month, dark of the moon. Any other bits?”
The tail quivered with fury. The eyes looked back in mixed anger and dismay.
Lestrade sighed. “Never as easy as you’d like it to be. All right. Got a place to stay that’s safe?”
The long muzzle rose. He could almost see the eyes roll. He laughed. “All right. You’re too smart to have let this go on without setting yourself up with a safe den or something. Would you prefer a safe flat with a nice back garden and a flat mate who won’t be surprised if you like bacon for breakfast and tea with milk and sugar?”
The stare he got back was long and slow and contemplative. After a while, though, the fox rose, and came to stand by Lestrade’s ankle. It yapped once, sharp and commanding. Lestrade laughed again, and led his vulpine companion to his car, and drove them both home.
After that he had a monthly visitor. He put in a dog door in the back garden, and showed Mycroft the spot where the back planks were a bit loose in the fence. He didn’t complain that Mycroft appeared without warning, left without warning, and made no contact during the weeks in between visits. If nothing else, he knew curse work—it was as likely as not Mycroft couldn’t tell him anything, and might complicate the curse if he mingled his fox-time with his human time any more than could be helped.
“How would you lift a shape-changer curse,” he asked Anderson, on a visit to their favorite pub. He was still crazy as tap-shoes for boa constrictors, but he knew his mage-craft better than Sherlock had ever been willing to concede.
“Depends.” The shaggy, bearded man frowned, considering. “Depends a lot on what the curse was pinned to. Usually one of your vices. Talk too much, and you’ve got to run silent until someone believes in you without explanation or witness. If you’re vain, you get turned ugly.”
“If you’re clever, you get turned into a fox?”
Anderson considered. “Could be,” he said, thinking slowly and carefully. “Could well be.”
“What would change you back?”
“Well—somewhere in there you’d have to choose stupid over clever. And most of these curses have an outside element, too—someone has to want you changed back. That one-two kick tends to make lifting a curse hard. Changing a curse victim back usually is as hard on the one helping as on the victim. You know—stay totally silent while you pick thistles from a grave-yard and weave them into shirts. That’s a good old one. Or choose the monster-form over a prettier lover. Or kiss the accursed when you think it’s going to kill you. Or go to the back of the north wind, and serve in the kitchen, and on and on. There are some that are really tough to lift.”
“I see,” Lestrade said—and he did. He had no idea what he had to do to help Mycroft, and he was willing to bet Mycroft couldn’t tell him. It was possible Sherlock could—but Sherlock wouldn’t. Which made Lestade even more sure it was a long, annoying curse. If it was easy, Sherlock might tell him. But a nasty curse would embarrass him. He knew he should be the one to lift it, and he was too stubborn and too self-centered to want to. Not when it wasn’t life or death.
Lestrade thought Sherlock probably enjoyed the complications the curse caused his brother—the ones as a fox, and whatever additional ones beset him in his human form. Sherlock could be a terrible brat. He’d save Mycroft’s life—but not his pride, or his comfort, or lift his curse.
That month the fox arrived at New Scotland Yard at mid-day. Lestrade frowned.
“Dark of the moon?”
The fox, sitting neatly in the guest-chair in front of Lestrade’s desk, stared at him.
“That’s not telling me anything useful,” Lestrade said, reproachfully.
The fox managed to convey a lack of fucks so profound as to constitute a serious national fuck-deficit. Lestrade called down to his new forensic mage. “Bertolli? Yeah, Lestrade. Need some info. If a curse is tied to the dark of the moon, can the victim get hit in broad daylight? He can? Oh. Yeah. Ok.” He hung up and looked at the dog-fox. “Dark of the moon—but that’s a phase, and it’s going on before the sun sets. Am I right?”
The fox blinked. His eyes were like beaten copper, cat-slit and shining. He was a quiet roommate. Lestrade had not ever expected him to show up at work, though. Not that he could see any reason the fox shouldn’t join him…
“I’m doing paperwork now,” he said. “Off to interview a witness at her home later. You can come along, if you like.”
The fox seemed to sigh in relief—then it curled up on the worn vinyl chair seat and fell asleep, tail over its nose, feet tucked under.
“Oi, who’s your chum there?” Donovan asked when Lestrade showed up at the car to go to their interview.
“Friend of mine,” he said. “Cursed, poor bastard. He comes around sometimes when the curse is running. Thought he might as well tag along today, if you don’t mind.”
She studied the fox—and the fox studied her. She made a dour face. “Don’t you ever attract any ordinary people?” she asked. “Or are they all clever as a fox?”
“I wouldn’t complain,” he pointed out. “After all, I picked you, too.”
She laughed, and opened the passenger door for the fox, who jumped in willingly and settled in the back seat with a regal ease. “There is that, gov,” she conceded.
He was surprised how pleasant the afternoon was. Sally, not knowing she had a Holmes in the car with her, relaxed, and chatted equally to Lestrade and the fox. The fox, at first uneasy, soon seemed to relax and even catch on to Sally’s biting wit. His jaw hung open and his tongue lolled in a foxy laugh when Sally slid another quick, observant little dagger in under Lestrade’s guard…and when she realized she had an audience, she worked twice as hard, catching the fox’s eye and grinning when it looked at her approvingly.
“He’s a right sort,” she said, at the end of the day. “Did you see how he caught that woman out when she began lying? Smart. Bet he’s smart when the curse isn’t on, too.”
“I think you can say that,” Lestrade considered Mycroft Holmes in his office, king of all the secret agencies, master of all the mysteries.
“Nice bit of a change, after too much of Sherlock and John,” she said. “Good to have a chum.”
He grunted agreement, and climbed from the car, heading for his own. The dog-fox ran at his heels, black feet a flutter of motion against the concrete.
That night Lestrade risked running a square palm over the fox’s satin skull, fingers sliding between its eyes and over the dome, lingering around the base of the fox’s ears. He half expected a sharp nip and a lost companion. Instead the fox remained still as a statue. Its copper eyes closed. Lestrade sat carefully beside it on the sofa, and leaned back into the cushions. He ran his hand over the smooth fur again, then curved his palm into a bowl and simply let it rest on the fox’s shoulders. It sighed, then, once—deeply. Then it turned and rested its chin on Lestrade’s thigh. They slept together all night, unmoving. Afraid to move.
“You’re always welcome, you know,” Lestrade said to the fox the next morning, as he made coffee and fed the fox scrambled egg. “Here. At work. Whatever. Hell—Sally likes you, and you’re clever as Sherlock even if you can’t talk. Which after Sherlock is a bit of a blessing, I don’t mind saying…”
The fox yipped and pounced toward him—but it was mock-anger, only play. Teasing…
The fox went to work with him. By the end of the dark of the moon, the team had adopted him. They were sad when Lestrade warned them it would be gone the next day. He was amused to find Sally soberly looking at the fox in the squad kitchenette, saying, “You come back. You’re good people, for a fox.”
He was stunned when the fox leapt onto the counter and with great elegance and poise licked her chin. It was a courtly gesture, and Sally blushed as much as she laughed.
“What can you tell me about the curse,” he asked Anthea the next day, calling when he hoped Mycroft would be off to the Diogenes.
“Nothing,” she said, her voice tense and dangerous.
“Come on, Andy-panda…”
“I said, nothing.” There was intense meaning in every growl.
“Ah.” He sighed. “I was afraid of that, but… Look, when he’s…”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” she said. “Nothing. Tell me NOTHING. You tell me something and he might end up in Siberia with you having to chase after him to save his arse. Curses work like that, you muggins. Just shut up and do what you think feels right, and I’ll do the same, and we will both hope someone can lift it. All right?”
It wasn’t what he’d hoped for—but he’d at least learned that the curse had enough effect between darks of the moon for Anthea to know and be worried. Upset, even.
He pondered it for several more months—months marked by the tidy rhythm of three weeks waiting, one week suddenly and powerfully alive in a way Lestrade didn’t know how to explain. When the fox was there, his entire life seemed to glow. There were trips around London with Sal driving and quipping and teasing the fox, and the fox somehow contributing with yaps and pants and odd, carefully timed croons and yowls. There were hours working on documents and forms and sorting through paper trails. Sometimes the fox curled and napped in the guest chair. Other times he leapt up onto the desk and peered into Lestrade’s monitor, or cocked his head and tried to read print with such frustrated patience that Lestrade could not bear it, and broke down to read pages aloud. The fox would curl up on the desk for that, eyes pinned to Lestrade’s face and tail tucked over his own feet like an afghan against a draft.
At night they’d come to a strange, inexplicable balance. They played chess, the fox moving pieces when he could, and tapping and yapping for help when he couldn’t manage it without tipping the board. The fox always won, but they both seemed to enjoy Lestrade’s desperate struggle to at least give his companion a good game. Lestrade wished they could play cards…but after several attempts both gave up and the cards disappeared mysteriously overnight. Lestrade suspected the fox had stolen them and buried them in pique. They’d watch movies together, or Lestrade would let the fox pick a book from the bookshelf, and read out loud. Then they’d go to sleep, the fox curled on Lestrade’s bed—at first primly in one corner, but in time it crept closer and closer, letting Lestrade stroke its ears and spine, until at last they simply coiled together, the fox wrapping slim paws over Lestrade’s wrist and tucking its head under his chin. And then he’d be gone, disappearing with the change of the moon’s phase.
One day Lestrade could bear it no longer, and went to the Diogenes. He walked up the marbe stairs to the portico, and asked to see Mr. Holmes. The footman looked at him, long and slow and without expression—then nodded, and walked into the dim recesses of the club.
Lestrade’s feet were silent on the thick carpet. Everything was silent. No voices rose and fell. No music sounded anywhere. They went through a vast parlor, down a hall, around a corner—and Lestrade’s hair rose on the nape of his neck.
The sound was simple, and horrible--the wordless huff of someone in pain. The footman opened the door, and said, “Detective Inspector Lestrade, sir.”
Lestrade inched in. Mycroft sat at a smooth oak table. A box sat to his left, a burning candle in a candle-stick sat before him, another box sat to his right. His eyes met Lestrade’s—eyes caught in agony. The candle wavered, and Mycroft startled, looking back in near panic. Carefully he reached out with one hand, faltered, frowned, changed hands—and slowly, slowly pinched out the burning wick. He huffed as the ember scorched his fingers. When the candle was out, he took it from the candle-stick and placed it in the box to his right. Then he removed a new candle from the box at his left. He placed it in the socket of the candlestick. He lit it, waiting until it burned securely and well. Then he reached out again, this time with the hand he’d not used the time before. He pinched out the wick.
Lestrade swore internally. No—this was nothing Sherlock would do for his brother. Not with those long, elegant, violinist’s hands. Not with fingers that would never play again after the blisters turned into sores and the sores healed to scars, only to blister again.
Mycroft put the candle in the box. Removed another. Lit it.
Unsure he wasn’t damning them both somehow, Lestrade let his hand dart in and quick-quick, pinched the candle before Mycroft could.
They both waited, eyes huge. Nothing happened.
“I can do this much, then,” Lestrade whispered. It would not break the spell, apparently, but it would ease it.
Every day after, he came. Sometimes the footman pulled up a chair and helped, too, now that they knew the curse would allow it. Lestrade insisted Mycroft try pinching quickly, the way he did. That, too, was allowed.
Mycroft never spoke.
The footman assured Lestrade he never did.
Lestrade nodded. The curse at work…
He was afraid to go to Mycroft’s office. Anthea was right—there was too much chance he’d jinx things. Curses were so good at turning an action into a catastrophe.
He talked about it to the fox, though. The fox pretended not to hear, but its jet-black ears flicked, and its copper eyes gleamed and shot glances loaded with contemplation and conjecture at Lestrade.
“How’s it going, Reynard?” Sally greeted the fox one morning. “Any progress on the curse?”
The fox flicked its tail, seeming somehow to suggest it couldn’t be arsed about curses. Sally laughed. “Yeah—life’s good as it is, curse or not, ennit?” She shook her head. “Hard to imagine it better, really. I’d miss you if you stopped wearing scarlet and trotting along of us—and you’d never be allowed if it weren’t for your nice fur coat. Only Holmes gets away with it—and he’s another matter entirely.”
The fox yapped agreement.
Lestrade knew Sally was right. He’d miss the fox, even if he won Mycroft free.
“It’s stupid,” he said. “I know you’d be better off saved. But—I enjoy having you here—and even if you came over once the curse was lifted, it wouldn’t be the same.” He forced a crooked grin. “I suppose we could play cribbage.”
The fox sighed and curled up on Lestrade’s lap.
“Shape shifter curses usually go two ways,” Anderson said the next time they were at the pub together. “Either you have to accept the beast—or kill it. It depends on the curse. Most of them seem to want the spell-animal killed. Cut off the head, skin the animal, save the paws. Sometimes it speaks to you as a corpse until you complete some final act. Sometimes it transforms because in killing the animal you killed the curse itself.”
Lestrade blanched. The thought of killing the fox—his fox—Mycroft—was unbearable.
Anderson shrugged. “Hey, I don’t write the rules,” he said. “Maybe you have to make that shirt out of graveyard thistles instead.”
Lestrade, reluctant to even think about killing the fox, went hunting thistles. They burned when he picked them, and stung like nettles when he retted them. They fought the breaking, sending chaff up into his eyes and knotting around his fingers. He’d work at home every night the fox was gone. He spun the fiber and wound it, then threaded it on a loom. He wove the cloth and then clumsily, carefully cut out a shirt and sewed it in silence. At last the fox arrived, on the day after the shirt was finished.
Lestrade, holding his breath, threw the shirt over the lean, long form.
The fox, never a fool, studied him with wise eyes, then curled beside him on the sofa, licking his hand gently.
“Anderson thinks I may have to kill you,” Lestrade said. “I don’t think I can.” He hunched tight, pulling the fox close to his side, gripping the dense russet fur. “I don’t think I can kill you, even to break the curse. I don’t mind the candles. I don’t mind the burns. I can even bear that once you’re free, you’re…gone. But I can’t kill you, Mike. Not even to set you free.”
He hung on tight, tears dripping, and the fox wormed and squirmed and stretched its neck to lick the tears away.
“Shh, shh, it’s all right—you don’t have to. I don’t mind, really…”
The fox’s voice was rough and out of practice. His paws stretched back into hands—hands forever marked with burns on the tip of his index fingers and thumbs. Then two men were there, curled together, both stunned out of any emotion at all but surprise.
Long moments later, Lestrade simply said, “Oh,” and hugged the other man tight.
“I’m afraid I’m rather under dressed,” Mycroft murmured.
“I’ll miss the fox,” Lestrade husked. “But I’m glad you’re free now.”
Mycroft shivered, then said, softly, “I suppose that depends on what you mean by freedom. I don’t think I could leave now if my life depended on it.”
Which proved to be quite all right with Lestrade.
The good news was that the fox was not lost. The spell had broken, the curse was lifted, but a twist of magic remained, and from that time on Mycroft was to be counted among England’s most skilled shifters. But it was never again against his will.
The two men lived together, happily. Sometimes the fox still rode with Sally and Lestrade.
And neither of them ever told Sherlock how it had all been resolved… after all, when they finally figured out that too-clever-by-half Mycroft had broken the spell by choosing, stupidly, to remain cursed rather than make Lestrade kill him…well…. As Mycroft said, they would never have heard the end of it.
So Mycroft was happily stupid with his beloved friend and love—and his friend and love was happy with Mycroft. And they lived happily pretty much ever after, and if you intend to argue about it go bother Sherlock, because no one else wants to hear about anything but joy and peace and contentment.