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Et in Arcadia Ego

Chapter Text

He’s running, flying high as a kite on the adrenaline that’s being pumped into his system by the thrill of the chase and the knowledge he’s cracked the case once again.

The double murder was committed by the son-in-law as he had deduced twenty minutes after entering the bedroom where the slain couple had been found. The cocky git had been hovering in the background, playing his role of shocked, loving husband quite convincingly, but it took more than a little acting to disprove the evidence that was scattered freely all over the room. If one knew where to look, that is. Why Anderson is still a part of the force is a puzzle he is never going to solve. The moment Sherlock instructed Lestrade to arrest the son-in-law, the bastard made a dash for it. His legs are at least as long as Sherlock’s and he’s obviously in very good shape as Sherlock and John have by now been giving chase for ten minutes, weaving in and out of the throngs of shoppers and tourists in busy Oxford Street and they’re only slowly gaining on him. John’s close behind, keeping up on a heady combination of sheer willpower and army combat training but Lestrade and Anderson have already given up. He really can’t blame Lestrade as the man is nearer fifty than forty but Anderson is his age and by throwing in the towel this easily he has just handed him another reason for calling him a pathetic useless idiot, thank you very much.

If Anderson had only one ounce of the stuff John Watson’s made of in his body he would actually be of some bloody use to the force he is supposed to be serving. Sherlock slightly turns his head in order to smile his affection and gratitude upon his friend and nearly grinds to a halt. His gaze has travelled over the glass façade of the building he was passing and it hits him with full force, straight into his abdomen. The face that is about to throw the look to John is his father’s, the exact image of his father’s. He staggers for a moment, recovers himself and quickly scans their surroundings to find their murderer has made the fatal mistake of stopping for a traffic light. He pounces.

***

Back at the flat he stands looking in the mirror over the mantelpiece for a long time. Of course he knows he has Daddy’s face, Daddy’s figure, Daddy’s hair. He’s almost an exact replica, as if he were a clone produced in the sterile settings of a laboratory instead of the result of an embrace in the parental bed. He saw the same face in the bathroom mirror only this morning, slowly emerging from underneath the shaving foam as he was scraping away at his cheeks and throat. So why this startled reaction in the midst of an exhilarating chase?

He collapses into his chair, steeples his fingers against his lips, pondering. Was it the sprinting? No, the fastest movement Daddy ever displayed in front of his eyes was a kind of hurried walking – his body very upright and exuding dignity – so that possibility is written off. The flowing coat doesn’t come into consideration as well, as the cut of Daddy’s coat had been quite narrow, in order to set off his slender figure no doubt, added to the fact that he never had to make a run for it. This leaves out the possibility of the image of the wildly bobbing whorls pulling up memories as well.

The only evidence remaining is the expression on his face. Now he remembers it was different from his usual scowl of disgust at the utter dullness of the whole human race – with the exception of John of course. In fact it’s the expression that immediately crops up in his mind at the thought of Daddy’s face. A look of quiet benevolent fondness, not cast around without discrimination but almost always there while looking at his mother, Mycroft, himself.

His index fingers have started thrumming against his lips of their own volition, endless variations on variation number twenty six of the Goldberg-variations. He startles, fights the exhaustion that’s pulling at him, somehow this is important, he must think it through. His hands fall into his lap. He gazes down on them, he knows these hands so well. After all they’re the first objects he ever properly studied.

***

Autumn is nearing its end. In the park the last leaves are desperately clinging to the branches, awaiting the gust of wind that is to defeat them and lay them to rest on the ground. He has been busy all day with his chemical experiments and has had tea afterwards in the kitchen with Cook and Nanny and John. Cook had made the pear tartlets Mummy (and he) like so much and she had laughingly allowed him to wolf down two of them.

Now he is detecting. Sleuthing is his favourite game ever since he found the little plastic magnifying glass in Daddy’s desk, and ever since he endured the severe scolding Mummy gave him afterwards as he’s not supposed to enter either Daddy’s or Mummy’s study if they’re not in, and certainly not supposed to go snooping in their desks. Luckily Daddy intervened, telling Mummy not to work herself into a state over such a small matter and telling him he could keep the magnifier. He scurries across the house, the glass in front of his right eye, changing the angle, bringing it closer to his face or nearer to the object he’s scrutinising.

He examines the windows and doors for fingerprints, the floors for dog hair – and human hair, he’s found most people apparently lose an appalling lot of hair every day – the floor under the table in the dining room for traces of their meals. He has found Mycroft is a messy eater as the carpet under and around his chair is sprinkled with crumbs of toast, bits of scrambled egg and small pieces of pastry crust. The space around and under Mummy’s and his chair is meticulous (apart from some hairs) but he has discovered Daddy apparently feeds the dogs on the sly while he’s having dinner as the carpet near his chair is quite greasy. Small wonder the beasts are always lying faithfully on either side of him when it’s just the four of them eating together. He wonders how Daddy manages to do the feeding without Mummy noticing, for he’s sure she wouldn’t let it pass if she knew about it.

The sleuthing has taken him to the blue morning room. The lights are on as it’s already getting dark outside. Daddy is lying on the sofa in the customary position he adopts whenever his body is in contact with a long horizontal surface, giving off an air of total relaxation, long legs thrown over one of the sides, the head resting on a pillow, one hand holding a book, the other trailing on the floor. The book, Sherlock has noticed, is Chekhov’s collected stories part 4. Chekhov is Daddy’s most beloved writer so as long as Sherlock doesn’t make a sound Daddy won’t heed him.

He’s trying to determine when the room was last cleaned. The surfaces of the furniture are covered with specks of dust that are still wide apart. He has found little hairs, only a few long ones in a shade of ginger that tells him Brenda has probably been the one that did the cleaning and some that could have been on his head or Daddy’s as there’s no telling their hair apart and he has been in the room this morning as well to look for his book on geology.

The surface of the light blue rug that gives the room its name has only been disturbed by three different pairs of feet (and the paws of three dogs) since it was hovered. Brenda’s, his and Daddy’s as can be easily deduced from the facts that: a) Sherlock knows he was here this morning, b) Brenda has been the one doing the hoovering (hair evidence), c) Daddy is lying on the sofa and he had to walk in the room to get there, d) his shoes are beside the sofa, e) his shoes are a very large size as Daddy has very large feet.

So the room was done last Friday at the latest, as today is a Sunday and Brenda and her mother, Mary, are around to do the housekeeping from Monday till Friday only. What puzzles him though are all the traces of mud the carpet is showered with as these belie the thorough going-over the room has obviously been given earlier.

Now he has crept truly close to the sofa and is investigating his father’s shoes. His father didn’t deign to untie the laces apparently but has jerked them off his feet and thrown them near the end of the sofa, which explains their somewhat disheveled appearance. Before that he was out in the park as there are traces of mud on the soles and on the instep of the left one. This fits nicely with the traces of mud all over the rug so Sherlock decides Daddy has been pacing the room at random after having been outside before collapsing on the sofa with his beloved author.

He edges slowly towards his father’s hand and applies the magnifying glass. Like his feet, his father’s hands are large. However they are also extremely narrow, with slender tapering fingers crowned with rather long nails that are always meticulously clean and shiny so the overall effect is one of feminine elegance. To top it all off the skin is very soft, with an almost creamy richness, the tone one of ivory, come summer or winter. The skin is flawless, the inside of the hands almost as soft as the outside. (This is where Sherlock’s own hands differ from his father’s as the skin of his hands is now covered with scars from cuts and bruises and chemical experiments that went awry.)

These are the pampered hands of a man that doesn’t have to use them to make a living, except to draw his signature with a flourish under documents others have drafted and typed for him. Sherlock loses himself in the almost translucent webbing between the fingers for a while, then becomes distracted by the faint flowery scent the hands exude, from the lavender soap bars Nanny boils for all the family members each year at the end of summer. He sniffs; underneath the lavender he smells a sweeter perfume.

Suddenly Daddy’s hand is cradling his face, his thumb tracing his cheek.

“Find anything interesting?”

He looks up. Daddy has laid the book aside and is smiling down on him, slate-grey eyes beaming.

“You’ve been outside.”

“Yes. And … ”

He smells the hand again. The sweetness under the lavender is all-consuming and suddenly he knows.

“You’ve been outside together with John at the apiary to check whether the honey is ready for harvesting yet. Afterwards you washed your hands in the scullery, then you came here. I guess you and John had an argument about the harvesting as you were still upset. I can tell because you walked all over the room. Brenda will be angry because she has done the room only last Friday.”

His father ruffles his hair.

“Well done, my boy. You are extremely observant. It’s obviously a talent you have and a most fortuitous one. And I thank you for the warning. Seeing as I’ve apparently incurred her just wrath I’ll try to circumvent Brenda for the next few weeks.”

He chuckles and Sherlock chuckles along with him as the idea of Daddy trying to avoid running into Brenda for fear of a castigation is ridiculous.

Daddy keeps on moving his thumb over his cheek and they gaze quietly at each other.

“Daddy … ,“ he doesn’t know how to proceed.

“Yes my darling boy.”

“You … you really do like John, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. Don’t we all?”

“Yes, but you really like him … you like him the most. More than Nanny or Cook. I know Brenda and Mary and David don’t really count. And Mr Talbot, I don’t know whether there is anyone who likes him.”

“I’m sure Mycroft recognises Mr Talbot as the best educator any boy could wish for, as you will find out for yourself very soon. And Brenda, Mary and David are part of our household too, even if they don’t live here. We are fully dependent on them for our comforts and they are fully dependent on us for earning their living. So there is a mutual benefit for both parties and they do, as you express it, count, Sherlock.” He pauses. “And yes, John and I grew up together on this estate, Mummy brought Nanny when she married me and we hired Cook ourselves, so I’ve known John all my life and can’t imagine him not being around.”

His voice has risen, just the tiniest amount, a stranger wouldn’t hear it but Sherlock does.

“I’m sorry Daddy,” he says, “I had no intention of upsetting you.”

Daddy pats his head.

“No, I’m the one that should apologise, Sherlock. My response to your question was exaggerated.”

He smiles, but now there is no mirth in his eyes, the grey has turned dark and watery. Sherlock finds himself falling into a deep well as he looks into them.

“I do hope you will find a John of your own one day Sherlock, because we all need a John. Just promise me one thing, if you do find him make sure you treat him better than I did mine.”

His voice is choked. He sighs and turns his back to Sherlock.

“Now make yourself scarce will you? I want to be alone for a while.”

He tiptoes out of the room. He’s never seen Daddy so truly upset before.

***
“Sherlock! For God’s sake!”

He bolts back into reality again. John stands in front of his chair – in his bathrobe, wet hair plastered to his skull, a thoroughly annoyed look of exasperation on his face – proffering a steaming mug of tea.

“Christ, you were miles away. If you’re that exhausted go crash on the sofa, will you? At least you won’t ruin your back if you’re lying on a flat surface. I wouldn’t dare offer the sensible option of actually going to lie in your bed. Whatever you do, you’re going to drink this tea first. The level of dehydration you’ve submitted your body to today must have reached an all-time high.”

Sherlock lets the stream of angry-sounding words wash over him, extends his hand for the mug, smiles his gratitude.

Surely he’s found his John. And he’s going to keep him.

Chapter Text

He hasn’t been to the house in ages. Since the Christmas shortly before he turned twenty-three to be precise, and precise he always is.

He only has to close his eyes to see it rise in front of him. Nestling inside the two-metre high solid wall of local stone that runs around the park, the sandstone pillars flanking the ornate wrought iron gates crowned with gilded tips shaped in the form of arrowheads. The long winding drive through the luscious parkland landscaped around the house, created by ‘Capability’ Brown himself in days of yore. Past the artificial lakes, over the bridge to see the house standing on top of the gentle slope, quietly unassuming after the spectacular entrance except for the stairs that flow down in a grand sweep from the front door, the local sandstone glowing with a soft golden hue. All shy innocence concealing the dark tunnels filled with rankling rage and resentment buried deep under the meticulously kept green turf spread out in front of the house.

He won’t go there ever again. Mycroft can have it once his mother dies. Keep it, or sell it off to pay for the death duties – he doesn’t care, he’ll never put another foot in those grounds.

He was very happy there once. But he was a child in those days. He didn’t know any better.

The warning signals had flashed at him, but they signified nothing as he was too young to understand. But now he remembers standing in one of those endless hallways, fear pooling at the base of his spine.

Not every day, though. They were only incidents. Surely every child has to endure those in order to grow up.

***

The two years with Victor, those had been good. A brief respite he was allowed in between the boredom, and the horrors. Christ, Victor. His own beautiful Victor, gliding next to him with such graceful ease through the greenish water underneath the weeping willows, the rays of the light singling out golden glints in the wet hair plastered against his head as it rose out of the thin veils of mist clinging to the river surface. The sweet scent rising from his scrubbed-dry skin as they lay on the grassy bank after their swim, basking in the early morning summer sun. Lazily trawling his hand through Victor’s aureate locks, spreading them.

***

He was so sure he had deleted it all. Most of it of his own free will, to create storage space on his hard drive. The drugs must surely have done some cleansing work as well, swabbed the last invisible dirt out of the hidden corners in his brain. But now he finds he didn’t delete a thing, just wrote everything away on a memory stick – hah, quite the metaphor – that can be plugged straight into his mind, filling it to overflowing. His head hurts with it. All the bad memories he thought he had got rid of, deciding to let go of the good ones as well.

***

His very first memory, he discovers, is beautiful and features a bee. Now the remembrance is floating there in his mind he wants to reach out and touch the idea, feel its precious fragility as it flutters between his fingers. It was the height of summer back then, and the sun beat down upon him out of a glorious blue sky. He can feel the warmth on his face, even though it’s quite chilly in the flat as it’s another rainy day outside.

***

He’s almost dizzy with the smell of Nanny’s soap. The scent bursts forth from the small purple flowers of the high bushes in front of him. A soft breeze wafts the heavy aroma over him as it ripples between the stalks. He’s drawn by the deep, dark colour of the flowers; it brings his eyes and nose ever closer to the exclusion of all else. Suddenly in front of his eyes this little fluffy thing is flying in its brown and yellow dress, dancing from flowery stem to flowery stem, smirching its coat with yellow stuff. He wants to have a proper look so he reaches out to grab it.

“Sherlock, no!” Nanny’s voice, sounding anxious, shouting.

His own hand is covered by a big brown one, the pressure of the callused palm bending his fingers into a fist. John’s voice, next to his ear: “Better not do that, Sherlock. She’s going to have to prick you in order to defend herself and she will hurt you. But even worse, she will lose her sting and die as a result. Bees are best admired from a distance if you don’t know how to handle them. In time you will know all about them and then you can let them crawl over your hand.”

He lets go of Sherlock’s hand and waves the bee away with a lazy, practiced movement.

***

Imagine Mycroft being his hero. And yet he was, once. The end of every morning finds him sitting outside the schoolroom, waiting for the moment the door is thrown open by Mr Talbot and Mycroft is finally allowed to go and spend his time with Sherlock. To lead him through the ever-changing wonderland of the house and the park.

***

The house and the park are both so big.

Descending by the stairs from the terrace at the back of the house they end up in the flower gardens. Daddy made John lay out the blue garden for Mummy when he married her as blue is Mummy’s favourite colour and she can overlook it from her study. Then there are the kitchen garden and the hothouses. Stretched around the gardens lies the park.

This is where the fun really starts. The big clover field with the high grass and the wild flowers, buttercups, poppies, corn flowers and countless others and the apiary behind it. He loves running there, arms held wide away from his body, his nose hit by a dozen different smells and the bees and all the other insects buzzing around him. If he closes his eyes he can pretend he’s flying. From the field they go into the orchard. Daddy is very proud of this as they grow “all the fine old varieties here. Not that modern vapid rubbish they have the gall to call a fruit.”

The best climbing tree in the whole park stands in the middle of the little copse. Mycroft and John have built him a tree house on one of its lower branches. The structure doubles as a pirate ship, an outpost in the Mid-West of the USA or a Wat in Cambodia, whatever has taken his fancy at that particular moment. While he’s busy living his fantasies up there, Mycroft sits on the soft moss beneath, back against the tree trunk, reading a book or pondering over a chess problem. Sometimes Sherlock does do nothing but spy on his brother, his eye close to a gap between two planks of the floor.

***

Mycroft isn’t very up to running, or climbing or just chasing around. The only activity he really likes is swimming. He’s a very good swimmer, shooting himself through the water with long, confident strokes. So most days they end up at the enchanted place that is the small lake, a greenish-brown body of water hidden among weeping willows and rushes.

Beneath the surface Sherlock comes upon a new quiet world. Small fish darting over the bottom, hiding between plants that weave with the ripples he creates in the water. John and Mycroft have penned off the shallowest part of the lake with the help of a rope that bobs on the surface thanks to the little buoys they’ve attached to it. Here Sherlock can practice at staying afloat as Mycroft can’t start to teach him to swim till he can lie on the surface on his front and his back for at least two minutes. So far the most he’s managed is one minute on his front. Floating on your back is very difficult. “You must keep your hips at the surface,” Mycroft tells him. But whenever he does that he arches his body too much and dips his head and feet under.

***

Mycroft was always so patient with him. He’s sure managed to wear that equanimity very thin. He doesn’t know which look he covets more on his brother’s face, the exasperated one or the one of barely controlled seething anger. Either makes him feel on top of the world once it flashes up on Mycroft’s features.

***

Mummy is always locked in her study, writing her history books. Sherlock is never permitted to go in there.

Every year she has to fly around the globe to promote yet another book. She grumbles about this a lot, which always ends with Daddy laughing at her and telling her “it’s all part of the great game”.

***

Did he ever get to know her? No, she liked Mycroft the best. Always. She’s never understood him. He’s sure she’s tried. She must have. She’s his mother, for God’s sake.

He can’t ask her.

***

Wherever she goes, she takes Nanny with her.

“I can’t do without her,” is the only argument she ever uses as his father protests against leaving Sherlock behind without Nanny to look after him. In fact, Sherlock secretly enjoys these spells without Mummy and Nanny. Now Daddy, or in case of his absence, Mycroft, is the one to put him to bed at night. They always take longer at reading him bedtime stories and they don’t want to pamper him. They never stroke his curls the way Nanny does, as if he’s some kind of doll.

***

He spends a lot of time in and around the crowning point of John’s domains, the garden shed. It’s so spacious, it could almost be a barn.

He’s fascinated by the tools John stores at the right side of the barn, rows and rows of sharp knives and scythes and saws and scissors, all meticulously cleaned and stored away and each with its own use which John patiently explains to him. Even more spellbinding is the plank way up over the door where John stores the cleaning liquids, acids and poisons he needs for maintaining the garden and his instruments.

On one side is John’s workbench. At the end of it are stacks of boxes holding all the small tools and instruments, hooks and nails, the Bunsen burner for soldering and the glasses John puts on his nose when he has to pay particular attention to the repairs he’s doing.

Sherlock is not allowed to touch anything in there so he looks on with his hands clasped behind his back while John’s deft hands fly over the bench.

***

Sitting next to Mycroft, leaning back against Daddy’s legs while the music wafts over them out of the speakers of the expensive stereo set. Daddy wriggles his fingers through his hair, drawing and pulling and he’s holding Mycroft’s hand, squeezing it as the emotions invoked by the music build up in his chest, threatening to choke him. Mycroft squeezes his fist in return to tell him it’s all right, he understands. He doesn’t have to be ashamed of the tears the music sends up to his eyes.

***

Beethoven is Daddy’s favourite composer. “He’s the master,” he tells Sherlock, violin under his chin, bow ready, “the glittering Olympus of music. One will never tire listening to him. Here …” and he starts scraping, shaping the notes into the Spring sonata, a piece Sherlock has heard so often his mind can fill in the piano parts with ease. He sits enraptured as his father’s left hand flies over the strings, right hand guiding the bow.

***

Rain lashes against the windows.

He’s thrashing about on the floor, thumping his head against the boards, screaming his lungs out. He’s so BORED. A great black darkness crowds in on him, crushing him. Screaming is the only way to prevent it from smothering him.

Mycroft has gone to stay with some boring people of Mummy’s set and all the grown-ups have told him to go and amuse himself as they don’t have time for him right now.

He tried to do some sleuthing but it’s no fun when there’s no one to impress with his deductions and applaud him. He has looked through all his books, throwing them on the floor, but the pictures don’t interest him and he doesn’t know enough letters yet to be able to read them. He ran up and down the stairs in the hall ten times. He has done everything he could think of to fight off the inky cloud of emptiness hovering over him but finally he had to give in, he is at his wit’s end, and it crashes down, engulfing him.

He’s so bored out of his skull, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. The screaming was a last resort. Soon he finds the hollering isn’t enough anymore and he jumps up and starts tearing up his stuffed toys – they’re ridiculous anyway – taking care to shred them into neat small pieces. This reduces the room to a satisfying mess that will teach Nanny a lesson but the exercise quickly loses its appeal as well. He tries some more screaming, lies wailing and thumping his fists until his throat is raw and his face a sodden mess of tears and slobber.

A strong hand on the back of his neck startles him. He’s picked up from the floor. Nanny.

“Sherlock. Goodness, whatever are you doing? Creating such a scene, what for? Can’t you be left alone for five minutes?” A tip of her apron is wiped over his face with some roughness. She shakes him. “You’ve really gone and done it now, Sherlock. Mummy won’t be pleased once she hears about this. No dessert for you tonight, young man, even though we’re having French beans for dinner. I don’t care. I’ll make sure you’ll finish your plate, whatever it takes. Now you can go and stand in the corner and think about what you’ve been doing for five minutes before you start tidying this mess. And I’m not going to help you.”

He stands in the corner fronting the wall. A grin spreads itself over his face, it’s marvelous. He isn’t bored anymore. Nanny has scolded the boredom away. She came and it fled back into the corner where it had been lying in wait, jumping out at the chance to possess him. Now he’s been given a task, something to do. And he’s freed himself of those stupid stuffed toys.

***

Christmas is supposed to be terribly exciting but he thinks it’s terribly dull. The whole house is in an uproar and the guests just keep arriving. Sherlock gets sick and tired of being told he’s ‘such a sweet little boy’, ‘so handsome in his velvet purple jacket with his black satin bow tie’, ‘such a darling’, ‘looking every bit as dashing as his father’. Both Mummy and Daddy keep shaking hands and smiling at strangers and Mycroft joins them with a beaming face. He’s actually enjoying himself.

That’s when the betrayal began.

***

He makes his escape to the shed where he finds John grumbling that the guests are trampling all over the grounds and the grass will be in a terrible state come spring. John isn’t all dressed up for Christmas, instead he’s wearing the same old scuffed jeans and striped turtleneck he always sports in winter.

He starts making them a cup of tea on the Bunsen burner before asking if Sherlock can keep a secret. Opening a cupboard he comes up with a plate of mince pies. Sherlock claps his hands in delight while John stands there grinning, offering them to Sherlock’s greedy hands.

“Nicked them,” he says, mouth full, crumbs appearing at the corners of his lips. “Cook went haywire making them, she must have produced at least a hundred or so. These few won’t be missed, I dare say.” He does some more munching. “Of course I’m setting you a very bad example here Sherlock. Please try to remember you’re not supposed to steal mince pies … or anything else for that matter.”

“No John,” he chimes happily, grabbing another one. “They’re delicious, John.”

“Yes they are, aren’t they?” John says. “Too bad we can’t compliment Cook on them. Mind Sherlock, don’t compliment Cook on her mince pies or you’ll give the game away.”

He lights a candle. “Merry Christmas, Sherlock.”

“Merry Christmas, John.”

***

“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy yourself, Sherlock. You really should try. It’s one of the obligations we have to the world.”

“Why?”

“Because Daddy is one of the most influential men in the realm and we’re to follow in his steps.”

If their father wields so much power then surely he can do whatever he likes. Then why didn’t he send all those boring people away?

***

Just a few more days after all the guests have left and it’s the sixth of January, his birthday. This is a far better day then any of the Christmas holidays as he’s being given more presents and no one is invited to come and celebrate, it’s just the seven of them.

Cook has made him an enormous birthday cake, all chocolate and cream, with his name written in icing on top and four candles and Mummy says he can have two pieces.

John presents him with a book on bees and Nanny has bought him a chemistry set. Mummy throws Nanny a look as he pulls the last piece of the wrapping paper away from it and starts whooping with joy but he pretends not to have seen that and awards Nanny with the big kiss she deserves for giving him such a wonderful present.

Mycroft hands him an enormous stiff rectangle that turns out to be a huge chart he can hang on the wall of his room. Mycroft explains it shows the periodic table and promises they will go through all the elements in the coming months, ending with: “I propose you don’t open the chemistry set until we’ve finished this specific journey. Then we can have a proper look at it together.” This earns him a nod of approval from Mummy and a quiet hiccupping sound from Daddy.

Both of them present him with the best gift of all. He recognises the shape straight away, even though it’s swathed thoroughly in loads and loads of packaging.

“Why don’t you give it to your father so he may unwrap your present for you, Sherlock,” Mummy suggests, but Daddy interrupts.

“Let the boy be,” he tells her. “He knows what it is and will handle it with all the customary care, won’t you, my darling?” He augments his words with a smile and a wink.

“Yes Daddy. Oh, thank you Daddy, thank you Mummy,” his voice rings and he cautiously puts the small bow and violin back into the case before throwing himself around their necks and covering their faces with kisses to express his happiness.

“I have engaged my own teacher, Mr Mancini,” Daddy says. “David will take you and Nanny to him five mornings a week. And I want you to practice at least two hours every afternoon. If you don’t apply yourself seriously you’ll simply never learn.”

“Oh, I will Daddy, I will,” he promises, tucking the instrument under his chin the way his father does and plucking the strings. He’s going to be the best violinist that has ever lived.

***

David is the son of Mr Murray, the local garage owner. Daddy hires him to drive them around in the family car as neither Daddy nor Mummy ever learned to drive. David worships the Rolls and the bespoke suit Daddy wants him to wear while he’s at his duties.

When he’s at the steering wheel the car becomes a vessel, gliding softly over the undulating waves of the country roads, guided by the unerring hand of its captain. Sherlock sits in the back, a small prince reconnoitering the world as it unravels itself.

***

Daddy accompanies him and Nanny for his first lesson.

“What have you brought me, Sherlock?” Mr Mancini addresses his father. “Your youngest, is he? Well, no doubt who his father is. I do hope he’ll prove himself to be different from you in one aspect at least: diligence. I guess you spent the week busily dreaming away with your Beethoven again instead of attacking those Paganini exercises I gave you. That way your fingering will keep going downhill. Not that it matters now, does it?”

Sherlock gapes. He’s never before heard anyone address his father in that tone of voice, he can hardly believe his ears. Daddy doesn’t seem to mind, he just shrugs his shoulders.

“Paganini, dull,” he huffs, “all showmanship and no feelings. He’s so boring. I really don’t see why I should put up with that.”

“No, I guess you don’t. That’s why I’m so disappointed in you,” comes the rejoinder, “now you, come here.” These words thrown at Sherlock with a beckoning move of his hand.

Sherlock decides Mr Mancini doesn’t seem to be a very friendly man, completely belying the impression his round boisterous figure inspires at first sight. With reluctance he stands in front of the violinist who grabs his left hand and pulls his fingers apart, snapping them, twisting and turning his hand as he’s holding it up to the light, bringing it close in front of his eyes and pulling it down again until Sherlock is squirming in his place.

“Good fingers,” comes the verdict at last, “but no patience. He held out longer than you did however so I guess there’s no reason to give up all hope yet. Show me your instrument, boy.”

He holds it out. Mr Mancini gives it one look before speaking to his father again. “It will do. She made you buy this, I guess. Why waste money, eh? I’ll show her.”

***

Back in the car Daddy puts his hand on his knee. “You’ll find his bark is worse than his bite, Sherlock. Let’s call it the southern artistic temperament in him. Just ignore that.”

“I thought him a horrid little man,” Nanny declares from the front seat.

“I’d assumed as much. I’ll tell Valerie we can expect the happy announcement at the end of the year.”

Nanny puffs up her cheeks with indignation. Sherlock laughs up at Daddy, but his smile freezes when he sees his eyes. The pale irises are dark and swirling, the dark lashes wet.

***

“How was your lesson?” is Mycroft’s first question as he enters Sherlock’s room.

“I don’t know,” he confesses, “it was very confusing.” He looks out the window, decides to ask anyway. “Mr Mancini made a scathing remark about Mummy. Why would he do so? Daddy was hurt by his remark. Why does Daddy put up with him?”

Mycroft puts a hand on his shoulder. “That’s the way it works, Sherlock. The three of them have a history we know nothing about, and if they don’t care to tell us we shouldn’t want to know anything about it. If Mummy and Daddy decided they want Mr Mancini to teach you to play the violin, you should let him do just that. And leave Mummy and Daddy to fend for themselves. They can, you know.”

A squeeze of his shoulder accompanies the last sentence. He sighs. “It’s just, I don’t understand.”

“Now here, brother mine, you find yourself in the good company of almost every living soul on this planet. Welcome.”

***

Was that a hint of condescension in Mycroft’s tone? No. The exasperated superiority didn’t creep in until the first bout at the clinic.

***

On his father’s desk a huge photograph in an ornate silver frame takes pride of place. It was taken very long ago, when Daddy and Mummy were still in University. Daddy is standing behind Mummy with his arms around her. He smiles into the camera but Mummy is gazing up at him. She’s very petite, in a little black sleeveless dress with an ornate silver brooch. She looks impossibly young. Daddy is very smart in a white dinner jacket and rather tight black trousers. He looks like himself, except in the photograph his hair is quite short.
Sherlock studies the photograph for hours. How come Mummy changed so much and Daddy didn’t change at all?

***

His mother fought like a lioness. She bared her fangs at everyone from Daddy’s past, convinced they wanted to reclaim him, coax him away from her. She got him and he was to be hers and hers alone.

***

He has a schedule to work through every day now. Mr Mancini mellows towards him during the next few weeks, praising his efforts and the fact he applies himself with such earnest dedication. Every afternoon Mycroft joins him, enduring with a comical face the not always melodious sounds he lures out of the instrument. Sherlock stands in front of the full length mirror on his cupboard, checking whether he’s holding the violin at the right angle. Sometimes Daddy walks in and ruffles his fringe before slightly adjusting his grip on the bow.

After the two hours of compulsory practice Mycroft teaches him the rest of the letters of the alphabet. He sits wondering at the abstract beauty of it. Twenty-six different symbols that can be added together in every possible combination to represent every word in every language. How clever the people inventing such a system must have been.

“They were, Sherlock, and very good traders. That’s what it was invented for, to confirm to people living far away that what they were being told by the unwitting captain delivering the goods was the actual truth.”

“But you can also use this to tell lies to everyone.”

Mycroft looks at him with amusement. “Yes. The written word was the most dangerous weapon humankind ever learned to wield.”

Numbers are even better. The zero in particular. His mind reels with the heady implications of that number that’s not a number at all. Representing nothing and yet everything. His finger traces the flawless form Mycroft has drawn on the sheet lying in front of them, the perfect roundness, no beginning, no end.

***

Now he will never have to be bored again. Whenever it’s there, lurking in the corner, waiting to unfold itself he can take out his violin, or read a book or start multiplying any number until the boredom gets bored of waiting and decides to slink off with its head hanging between its paws, back into its cage. Then he will lock the door and throw the key away.

***

An infinity of zeroes is needed to cipher the distance between Earth – where he’s standing in the garden together with Mycroft gazing up into the night sky – and the stars. Mycroft teaches him how to recognise the asterisms, the Big Dipper, Orion, Gemini. He’s shivering with the cold, plastering himself to Mycroft for warmth, while gazing at these cold flickering lights that Mycroft tells him are actually hot big exploding balls of gas. All controlled chaos.

“The whole universe is expanding continually, Sherlock. And yet it’s all governed by rules. Once you know the rules you can govern them yourself. Redefine them and bend them to create something better. That’s what we’re here for Sherlock.”

Mycroft’s fingers thread through his hair before he’s pulled a little closer against his bigger, warmer frame.

“That’s the obligation we have to this country because we’re the sons of our father and our mother and our grandparents,” Mycroft continues. “Few people enjoy the advantage of birth we have. Our ancestors ruled this country, Sherlock. Our father rules it now. We owe it to both our parents and this land to improve ourselves and thus improve the world we’re living in. A huge responsibility we’ve been given. You can’t understand that yet, I still barely have grasped the concept myself. But together we’ll be such a formidable force, Sherlock. You and I.”

***

“Look John. What is that?” He stares at the long supple naked line wriggling in the earth.

“That’s an earth-worm, Sherlock.”

He probes it with a searching touch. The thing feels cold and slimy, it shies away from his finger. He masters his revulsion and grips it between his thumb and index finger. The thing wriggles in his grasp. He closely scrutinises it. The thing doesn’t have eyes, it’s nothing but a thick thread come alive, like a stalk of spaghetti. He puts it back on the ground. The thing buries itself in the earth straight away.

As he looks up he finds John is observing him with his big green eyes under the shock of bright ginger hair, a curl of amusement on his face.

“Strange little blighter isn’t it, Sherlock? You know, if you accidentally cut them in half the two sides just continue, each going their own way. They’re not very appealing but I’m glad to find them in abundance.”

“Why’s that?”

“It means the earth is alive and fertile. The more worms there are, the healthier the soil. Good soil is the basis for growing these flowers your mother admires so much.” He gestures at the high stalks of blue delphinium with the towering purplish climbing rose behind them, before continuing: “And without her, this wouldn’t be here.”

“Because Daddy asked you to lay out this garden for her?”

“Oh no, Sherlock. Because if it weren’t for your mother, your Daddy would never have had the money to pay for the blue garden.”

Sherlock stares up at John. John frowns and bites his lip, furrowing his brow in embarrassment. He takes a deep breath.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you all this. I’m very sorry but I thought you already knew. Seeing as you are so smart and Mycroft and your Daddy are always explaining everything to you. Surely you must have been read plenty of stories and histories – or read them yourself, you can read now, can’t you? – in which the firstborn son is always named after the father. Have you never wondered why your parents decided upon the name of Mycroft for Mycroft, rather an unusual name, as unusual as your Daddy’s and yours? Do you know who Mycroft was named after?”

Sherlock shakes his head.

“Your Daddy was as poor as a church mouse when his father died. He would have to sell the estate to raise the money to pay the inheritance tax. His only solution was to quickly find himself a rich girl to marry whose money would allow him not to have to sell the family home. And he found your mother. Her father was immensely rich, something in industry I believe, and he provided the money that allowed them to settle here and restore the place to its former glory. It had all become a bit run down, I’m afraid.”

He coughs.

“Of course they were obliged to name their firstborn after the man who had provided the money. So that’s why Mycroft is called Mycroft and you are called Sherlock and not the other way around.”

“I think this is better. Mycroft wouldn’t be a very good Sherlock and I could never be a Mycroft.”

John looks startled, then he starts laughing.

“You’re right, Sherlock.” He chuckles. “Anyway, I’m deeply grateful to your mother because without her I would have had to leave as well of course. Find myself a job elsewhere.” He looks around him. “Not living here, it would have broken my heart.”

He shivers and appears to reassemble himself.

“Okay, we’re done here. Shall we go and collect your dinner? Cook said she wanted carrots and a salad. Those aren’t too bad, are they? And she wants me to collect some more strawberries. I’m sure you won’t mind helping me gather those.”

He slips his hand into John’s big brown one extending from the sleeve of his checked shirt. “Can I pull out the carrots, John?”

“Of course you may if you want to. And you can have as many strawberries as you like. There’s plenty of them this year and they’re the best straight from the plant.”

***

He’s floating on his front. Mycroft has told him he’s made a huge progress and they’ll start the swimming lessons next week. Last time Sherlock checked he was in the middle of the lake, crawling on his back with lazy easy strokes. John is nearby, cutting the reed.

Sherlock comes up for air and dips his head under again. From far away the sound of Mycroft’s arms pulling through the water wafts into his ears but that’s the only connection between him and the rest of the world. He’s bobbing high above the shifting sand locked in his own paradisiacal domain.

The next moment peace and tranquility are ripped to pieces as the water is invaded by a great splashing body, screaming above him and a hand starts jerking at his neck with clumsy movements, pushing him down into the water. He gulps and swallows, the water sloshes down his throat. He wants to cough but he can’t, he has to swallow, fighting the panic he feels as the cold liquid mass enters his lungs. Suddenly he’s wrenched out of the lake and pulled tight against a surface that he recognises as his mother’s chest. He coughs and splutters while she’s nearly smothering him, shrieking over his head: “Oh God, oh Sherlock, my boy, my own sweet little boy. No, please don’t be dead. You bastard, you filthy lousy mean bastard! Letting him drown, standing by. Did you enjoy it? You’ll go to prison for this! This is your revenge, isn’t it? But he’s his child too, don’t you see? Are you really that stupid? Oh Sherlock, oh my boy, my sweet, sweet boy.”

She’s in hysterics. Sherlock tries to tell her there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s fine but he’s still coughing and she doesn’t pay attention to him at all, doesn’t notice he’s trying to wriggle free of her close grasp. She sits on her knees holding him, screaming at John who’s standing between the reeds, his face drawn and white underneath the healthy sunburn as he undergoes the lashing stream of invective she whips out at him.

“Mummy.” Mycroft, also on his knees at her side, pulling at her arms to set Sherlock free. “Mummy, please be quiet. Stop it. There’s nothing wrong, Sherlock was trying to float on his front. Look. Go stand, Sherlock.”

Sherlock manages to escape from her clasp and pull himself up in front of Mummy. She claps her eyes on him and now it’s her turn to lose all colour. “Oh,” is all she says before she puts her hands to her face and starts vehemently crying, her shoulders heaving with spasms.

“Come, Mummy,” Mycroft says, “come out of the water and into the house. We’ll have Nanny put you to bed. Will you help me, Sherlock?” Together they manage to raise Mummy until she stands swaying on her legs, rivulets of water streaming from her clothes.
“I’m so very sorry, John. I’m sure you’ll understand she was delusional while she said those things to you and you won’t hold it against her. Nor will it reach my father’s ears, I trust. Come Sherlock.”

Mycroft doesn’t wait for John’s confirming nod but Sherlock turns round before they start the trek to the house. John stands between the reeds like a forlorn little waif. Their eyes meet., John’s are always so sharp and bright green, now they look faded and sad between the wrinkles. Then John slowly raises his right hand and sends him a small wave.

***

He’s hovering outside his parents’ room. Mummy has been put to bed and the doctor has been called. He’s in the bedroom talking with Daddy and Nanny and Mycroft. Sherlock can hear the soft murmuring of their voices through the door.

The door is opened and Mycroft enters the hallway. “Sherlock, really, what are you doing here?”

“Is Mummy all right, Mycroft?”

“The doctor gave her a sedative and she’s asleep now. You can go see her if you want to.”

He nods and they enter the room together. Mummy is lying on her back, very quiet, while his father is seated on the edge of the bed, holding her hand. Nanny is in the corner with the doctor. Daddy smiles when he sees Sherlock, extends his hand to draw him near and plants a firm kiss on his cheek.

“Hello, my dear boy. You gave each other a fright, didn’t you? But everything’s fine now. She’ll be up and about and in no time, you’ll see.” He squeezes Sherlock’s hand before looking down on Mummy again.

“Come, Sherlock.” Once out in the hallway again Mycroft turns to him. “This must all be highly confusing to you. Daddy asked me to do some explaining. Let’s go to my room, shall we?”

After they’ve seated themselves in the windowsill, Mycroft starts. “Mummy’s mother died shortly before I was born. She got sick suddenly and the doctors couldn’t help her. She was dying with Mummy, her husband and Nanny beside her. She was dead within a week. The shock made Mummy go into labour straight away and she had an extremely difficult delivery as I was a rather big baby. That’s why Daddy and Mummy waited such a long time before they decided they wanted me to have a little brother.” He puts his arm around Sherlock and pulls him close. “I’m glad they did.”

He stares straight ahead before continuing. “She couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral because she was too weak. And then after two months, when she had recovered a bit, she and Nanny went to visit grandfather and Mummy found her father floating in the pond behind his house. He had drowned himself, walked into the water in a heavy coat with stones in all the pockets. The police didn’t understand how it was possible for the dead body to have dislodged itself from the coat as the water in the pond was quite still. Anyway, it was the last straw. First her mother dying of a horrible disease while she was pregnant, then the delivery and finding her father dead, face down floating on the surface of the pond to top it all. Mummy was severely ill for a very long time. So Daddy and the doctor suppose seeing you lying there re-awoke a bad memory. The mind is a strange dwelling place, Sherlock. This is all just an extremely unlucky accident, nothing more. Please don’t let it distress you.”

Sherlock nods. He contemplates what Mummy had to live through, both her Mummy and Daddy dying in such a short time. He tries to imagine how he would react if the same happened to him and finds he can’t. Death is when you never wake up again, John explained to him when they found a dead robin together. He can’t imagine Daddy never smiling at him anymore. Never, that’s always, that’s beyond the sun, beyond the stars, that’s infinity. Unimaginable.

“But why did Mummy have to scream like that at John, Mycroft? He was just standing there cutting the reed. And what did she mean? Why did she say he wanted revenge, what for?”

“I don’t know. She was in hysterics. She was shouting nonsense.” Mycroft looks thoughtful while saying this and Sherlock gets the idea Mycroft finds himself on a sticky wicket. But how can he tell Mycroft he doesn’t believe he is being completely honest? His thoughts are confirmed by the next words Mycroft speaks.

“I’d prefer you don’t breathe a word about this to Daddy, it would merely upset him.”

***

What age was Mycroft then? Nearly twelve. Did he know the truth? At that age? Oh yes, he’s certain now Mycroft did. John would say that would be a bit not good, to cover their past so carelessly a child could easily unearth their secrets. Especially such an observant one as Mycroft.

But Mycroft has never been a child, has he? He’s always been Mycroft. Omniscient Mycroft.

***

Chapter Text

He can’t help but smile at the look on Mrs Hudson’s face when she discovers the bag with the feet experiment in the right-hand bottom drawer of the fridge. He’d really thought she’d be used to it by now. He and John have been flatsharing at Baker Street for six months and she’s already given up on complaining about the blood drops he leaves on her carpet as he heaves his latest trophies from Bart’s up the stairs. The feet are a nasty sight though, he’ll admit that. The skin has turned into an interesting colour and they emit a squishy sound at the touch. John’s at work so it falls to him to help her into John’s chair and provide her with a de-stressing cup of tea. She sits inhaling deep gushes of air, not actually hyperventilating but it’s a close call.

He seats himself in his own chair to put a steadying hand on her knee.

“You look just like Nanny did when she unearthed the dead mole in my cupboard,” he tells her. She looks daggers at him but luckily she’s still incapable of wagging her tongue.

“I had found it in the park,” he continues, “it had probably been dead for a few days but the fleece was still soft. Have you ever touched the hide of a mole? The feel is wonderful, like brushed silk.”

Mrs Hudson face is a study in evident distaste. He goes on regardless: “I took it up to my room and hid it in my sideboard to stroke it whenever I felt like it. After a few days the novelty wore off and I forgot all about it. A week later Nanny started complaining about this strange smell in my room, hunting everywhere for the source. It really was rather awful, I remember it now. She opened the drawer in which I’d put the mole and out came this huge swarm of buzzing flies, engulfing her.”

He laughs at the memory. “She went totally ballistic, straight through the roof. Poor Nanny. Oh, the tongue-lashing I got. She really had a way with words if she wanted to. She made me scrub out the whole cupboard myself. And I was denied dessert for a week. It was the height of summer so I missed out on at least two rounds of ice cream.” He chuckles.

Why is he telling her all this? The image of Nanny so vivid all of a sudden in front of his eyes, wheeling her arms, screeching with the horror of the insects buzzing around her.

“Serves you right, Sherlock,” Mrs Hudson says. “All the agonies that poor woman must have endured because of you. And you’re going to chuck those feet into the bin right now. Or I’ll contact Mycroft. Just so you know.”

“They’ll have to mature for one more week before I can start the experiment I want them for. They’ve been lying there for six weeks already, a few more days won’t hurt you, especially now you know they’re there.”

“No Sherlock, I want them out.”

He swallows, puts on his most beseeching look. “Please, Mrs Hudson.”

But she’s adamant. He decides he won’t ever tell her about the chemical experiment that went awry, ending in a three centimetre thick layer of black soot on every surface in his room. That really had Nanny fly off the handle. Well, he had just turned six then and made a mistake in the set-up. Since then he had obtained a degree in chemistry. He isn’t entirely sure Mrs Hudson will allow for any extenuating circumstances though. Better safe than sorry. He really couldn’t do without his chemical equipment right there on the kitchen table.

***

He gazes down at his plate. The Brussels sprouts stare back at him. They’ve got horrible little troll faces, each one different, and they’re jumping on his plate, daring him to spear one and eat it as they know he’s never going to be able to.

“Sherlock.” Mummy’s voice, a sharp, warning tone in it.

He nods. He knows she wants him to eat the sprouts but it’s impossible. He loathes the taste and the texture of the things, they make his gorge rise, he’ll be unable to keep them down if he does actually manage to swallow them.

He remembers what happened three weeks ago (is it really only three weeks?). He had left them lying on his plate and Mummy hadn’t commented so he had quietly congratulated himself on wriggling out of the situation this easily only to find them waiting on his plate at breakfast the next morning, cackling and dancing like a bunch of witches preparing for All Soul’s Eve.

Every meal they had made their reappearance and he had refused to eat them. It had ended with him fainting from hunger after three days, being put to bed and given a bowl of chicken soup to recover. That was quite good, actually.

He can’t imagine Mummy is willing to participate in this charade all over again. Surely she understands he’s simply never, never, never going to eat the things. He has won the last time so why should he give in now? He won’t eat for a week if that will get him out of eating this horridness ever again.

He sighs. He knows tomorrow they’re having apple bramble tart for dessert and that’s one of his favourites. He’s sorry to miss out on it but he will if he has to.

He feels Daddy’s gaze resting on himself and looks up. Daddy’s eyes fall down on Sherlock’s plate, come back up again, followed with a quick quirk of the lips. Sherlock quietly mouths back: “no”. Now Daddy looks at Mycroft, the same small tug at the corners of his mouth. Then he turns to Mummy: “Know who I encountered today, darling? ‘Tibby’ Heatherby. He apparently has taken up this …“

Mummy is so much taken with the antics of Mr Heatherby she doesn’t pay attention to him and Mycroft anymore. She sits enraptured by the story Daddy is spinning her. Quick as a snake Mycroft spears Sherlock’s sprouts and eats them, the mount disappearing at an astonishing speed. Admiration and adoration battle in the look Sherlock gives his big brother first and Daddy next. Mycroft looks a little bloated, Daddy wiggles his eyebrows at him, barely noticeable.

“Look darling,” he says after a while, “Sherlock has eaten his sprouts. Now you have both made your point concerning this vegetable. May I suggest Sherlock gets served an alternative anytime the sprouts make their reappearance on the menu in the future? I gather a child doesn’t have to like everything it is served and I remember Brussels sprouts weren’t exactly my favourite.”

As Daddy is asking in such an agreeable tone of voice Mummy can’t but give her consent.

“Thank you, Mummy,” he pipes.

***

Maybe he had been a bit too triumphant. She didn’t look particularly pleased. Mycroft warned him once they were upstairs in his room. He was not to provoke Mummy in this way. What with the burning of the garden shed only last week, although they all understood that had been an accidental outcome of an experiment, he must understand he was skating on thin ice as far as her patience was concerned. Very thin ice.

The shed wasn’t supposed to burn down to the ground. He was trying to start a fire near it, using only dry reeds and John’s glasses – he had whooped with excitement once the first flames started to lick at the fodder – and considered the exercise a definite success. The Scouting for Boys book he has found stashed away at the lowest bookshelf in Mycroft’s room is a treasure trove of exciting experiments. He’ll ask Cook for a plastic sheet to start collecting the dew tonight.

***

His fifth birthday comes and passes. Finally he’s allowed into the schoolroom. Mr Talbot stands holding the door. “Good morning Mycroft. Good morning Sherlock.”

“Good morning Mr Talbot,” they answer in unison, Sherlock’s chest swelling with pride.

The classroom is large and almost completely empty. Set in the middle of the room are two small writing desks with chairs. Near the wall fronting the desks a large escritoire stands on a platform. This is the only furniture in the room. The walls are whitewashed. Light is provided by bare tubular lighting attached to the ceiling. The floorboards are painted a dull dark grey.
On the wall over the escritoire hangs a big clock. No other room in the house is this empty.

Mycroft goes to stand behind the small desk near the door so Sherlock walks to the desk near the window. He glances at Mycroft for instruction and adopts his pose, right hand on the edge of his chair.

Mr Talbot stands behind the escritoire. Silence reigns. Sherlock can hear his own breathing humming in his ears.

“You may be seated.”

With a short controlled movement Mycroft pulls the chair from underneath the desk and installs himself on the seat. Sherlock imitates his movements. He looks at Mr Talbot next. Their tutor is sitting behind the escritoire with a book in front of his face. His sinewy narrow wrist rises out of the neat white cuff of his shirt ending in long thin fingers splayed to support the Penguin Classics paperback. The grey Harris tweed of his jacket sleeve stands sentinel, barring access to the man burrowed behind The life and times of Tristram Shandy.

On his left, Mycroft has drawn a stack of papers in front of him and is now busily scribbling away, intense concentration on his features. He uses a fountain pen, the nib scratching over the paper. Sherlock looks down on his desk to find a single sheet lying there, next to a pen identical to the one Mycroft is using and a small bottle of black ink.

‘Copy this letter a hundred times’ is written on the sheet in an elaborate hand in light blue ink. Below the writing an ‘A’ is drawn, three simple clean strokes of the pen. Beneath the ‘A’ a ruler and pencil have been used to create a neat grid of one hundred empty squares.

Indignation rises in him. He knows his letters full well. Has known how to read and write for almost a year now. And Mr Talbot does know this. For his instructions are written down. He takes a peep at Mycroft again, tries to engage his attention, it takes ages before he succeeds by resorting to whispering. Although he tries to keep his voice as low as possible it positively rings through the room.

“Mycroft. Why does Mr Talbot want me to write the same letter a hundred times?”

Mycroft glowers at him, taking him aback, before indicating he should be quiet and returning to his own work again. He tries waving at Mr Talbot next. Either Mr Talbot doesn’t see him or pretends not to see him. Which is it? Sherlock ponders his next possible actions. He decides against walking up to Mr Talbot in order to explain he should be given a different task. Mycroft’s anxious expression has told him he really should stay put and silent. Fine. He sighs. He’ll give Mr Talbot his honest opinion on this ridiculous work that’s way beneath him at the end of class. Now he’ll write the bloody (bad word, expressly forbidden by Mummy) letter if that is what is expected of him. A hundred times.

How does this pen work? He focuses on Mycroft again, observes his hurried movements refilling the old-fashioned implement. Then he dips the pen into the bottle and draws up a small amount of ink into the reservoir.

As he touches the sheet with the nib the ink splatters, marking the first empty rectangle with a blot. He scratches an ‘A’ into it nevertheless. The next one is better, the one after that almost perfect in his opinion. He quickly tires of the exercise and starts reshaping the ‘A’s into long ones, rounded ones, narrow and wide. He tries to draw as many different shapes as possible. After a while he’s finished. He puts the pen down. It’s a quarter to eleven

Mycroft is writing with frantic haste now, every part of his body exuding anxiety. The furious scratch of his pen and the occasional turning of a leaf by Mr Talbot are the only sounds in the room. Sherlock looks out the window. At the edge of the turf John is walking, no doubt on his way to the shed. Which would be such a better place to be than this alarming schoolroom that provides him with utter boredom while Mycroft is on the edge of his seat.

At least he has a violin lesson to look forward to this afternoon. He’s sure Mr Mancini will be most pleased with the progress he has made with Purcell’s gavotte.

The moment the clock strikes twelve Mr Talbot shuts the book, rises and announces: “Lay down your pens.” Sherlock is certain he pretends not to have seen that Sherlock’s pen has been lying down for more than an hour. Mr Talbot steps down from the platform and extends his hand. Mycroft walks up to him and hands him his stack of papers with a little nod of the head.

“Thank you, Mycroft.” He flicks through the papers, turns and deposits them on the escritoire. “Excellent work, as always.”

Mycroft glows with pride, beaming worshipful happiness. “Thank you, Mr Talbot.” His voice is flustered, un-Mycroftlike.

Now it’s Sherlock’s turn. Mr Talbot doesn’t even look at the paper he puts into the projected hand. He starts tearing the sheet up into small pieces before sending them fluttering to the floor. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Sherlock takes a gander at the shredded waste of his efforts then up at Mr Talbot, who is staring down the long thin nose that cuts his face into two long thin halves. “Yes?” His eyebrows are drawn up in a display of weary amusement.

He balls his fists. “I know the alphabet already. I want to be given real work, like Mycroft.”

“And that’s what you’ve been given. But you didn’t see the point of it. That’s obvious. Tomorrow we’ll try again. Good day, Sherlock.”

“No! You can’t do this. I’m going to tell Daddy. You can’t make me write ‘A’s. You have to teach me proper things!”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft hisses. He tries to take his arm but Sherlock fights him off. Mr Talbot looks down on the scene with a curl of mirth under his moustache.

“Thank you for defending your tutor against your younger sibling, Mycroft,” he says. “But it’s really not necessary. I’m convinced Sherlock will take a fresh tackle on his little problem after a night’s quiet sleep. Although I must say I’m delighted with his approach.”

The quiet aloofness infuriates him. He longs to kick Mr Talbot in the shins and to his horror he finds he’s doing just that while he screams: “I hate you!”

“Sherlock!” Mycroft grabs him and drags him out of the schoolroom while divulging with anxiety: “I do apologise Mr Talbot, please forgive my little brother. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“Indeed,” is Mr Talbot’s only comment before closing the door behind them. In the passage they find Nanny waiting for them.

“Now what was all that racket? Mummy sent me to ask how your first day at school went.”

“I hate school!” he screams before tearing himself loose from Mycroft and running away to his room.

***

Half an hour later Nanny enters. Her light eyes are watery, red rims fiery amidst the wrinkles.

“Your violin lesson for this afternoon is cancelled, Sherlock,” she says. “Mummy is furious with you. You’re to stay here till Mummy comes to collect you tomorrow morning. You’ll have a tray for lunch, dinner and breakfast here in your room. No dessert. I’m very sorry, Sherlock. But why did you have to kick Mr Talbot? You really shouldn’t have done that. That’s not the way I raised you.”

Her voice has risen and she’s literally wringing her hands.

“Oh Sherlock, whatever is to become of you if you go on like that? I’ve told you time and again you should try to restrain yourself a bit. Now everyone’s upset. Mycroft has been forbidden to come and look you up. Cook will bring you your tray now. I’m so very sorry, Sherlock. I tried to plead on your behalf but Mummy couldn’t be talked out of it. She exploded when I tried to reason with her. I’ve never seen her so angry before. Oh, do come here, my boy.”

She hugs him tight against her apron – the one with the big brown and orange flower pattern – before leaving without looking at him, her shoulders hunched. He tries to sniffle but finds he’s still so furious he can’t work up any tears. He goes to sit in the windowsill and rests his head against the glass.

***

After an hour a piece of paper is pushed under the door. He retrieves it from the floor.

I’m very sorry about this, it reads in Mycroft’s hand. I’ll try to plead with Mummy. Nanny did but she struck the wrong note for Mummy is even more furious now. I tried contacting the Office but they told me Daddy can only be disturbed for matters of state this week.

He tears up the paper and puts the pieces one by one into his mouth. He chews, swallows. With every piece he swallows his fury increases. He’s not angry with Mr Talbot anymore he finds. In fact he understands now what Mr Talbot wanted him to do. But Mummy denying him his violin lesson. And he had been practicing so hard, had so looked forward to playing for Mr Mancini.

***

He’s already lying in bed when Cook comes to fetch the dinner tray. He hasn’t touched it, even though the veggies are carrots and he doesn’t mind those too much.

“Weren’t you hungry?” she asks before perching herself on the edge of the mattress. “I guess I’d better eat this myself then.”

Out of her apron pocket she whips up a pear tartlet. He scurries over to her and she hands it to him with a laugh and a pat on his head.

“Thought so. I know I’m not supposed to say it but I really think it’s a disgrace. Shutting you in here with nothing to do. Not even your violin. Nanny told her this wouldn’t do, absolutely wouldn’t.” A disgusted noise rises out of her throat. Sherlock is stashing away the tartlet with a ravenous appetite while he listens to her.

“Nanny is the only one around now to tell her,” she goes on. “But she’ll never truly stand up against her little darling. Sometimes I think she’s afraid of her, the child she raised herself. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she entered my kitchen after she’d given you that chemistry set for your fourth birthday. Still smarting from the dressing down she’d got. Still, you’ll agree with me it wasn’t a very smart move, kicking Mr Talbot in the shins. Seeing as he’s such a nice gent, especially.”

She ruffles his hair. He gazes up at her, crumbs in the corners of his mouth, eyebrows raised in disbelief at her calling Mr Talbot a nice person.

Cook laughs. “Just goes to show you should never rely on first impressions. He looks like nothing but a dry husk, but that man is every bit as nice as your dear father is. And he’s the nicest gentleman I ever worked for.”

She scratches absentmindedly at her neck beneath the big fake pearl clip on her earlobe before continuing: “And you should see the painting Mr Talbot does. He’s painted that blue garden of your mother’s at least ten times, all at different times of the year and it’s every bit as beautiful on the canvas as it is out there. He’s also made these little sketches of me. Real nice they are. He’s travelled all over the world and the stories he can tell, he …”

She breaks off because Sherlock puts his finger against his lips. Outside in the corridor he’s heard a door close. She nods and picks up the tray.

“Your Mummy won’t be very happy when she hears about you not eating your veggies,” she says in a loud voice before turning and leaving the room.

He’s alone again.

***

Next morning finds him washed and dressed at an early hour. He sits reading at his desk when Mummy enters his room and wishes him a good morning.

“Are you ready to ask Mr Talbot for pardon?”

“Yes Mummy.”

“Come on then.”

Together they walk to the schoolroom. Both Mr Talbot and Mycroft stand waiting at the door.

“Good morning, Mr Talbot,” Mummy says pleasantly.

“Good morning, Mrs Holmes. Good morning, Sherlock,” Mr Talbot replies.

They all stand waiting.

“I believe Sherlock has something to say to you,” Mummy says at last.

He understands this is his cue.

“Please forgive me for kicking you in the shins yesterday Mr Talbot,” he recites. “I shouldn’t have done that. But I still think you should’ve given me a proper task instead of those stupid A’s. I’ll do them if you want me to but I don’t think it’s fair.”

“Sherlock! Whatever are you saying? That’s not a correct apology at all. Me and my husband are very sorry about this Mr Talbot. Sherlock, I want you to tell Mr Talbot unequivocally you shouldn’t have behaved in the manner you did yesterday and you don’t dare doubt his teaching methods. Say it!”

Beneath the moustache the right hand corner of the mouth quirks.

“It’s fine, Mrs Holmes. Sherlock did apologise for the acts he thinks he should excuse himself for and he did so handsomely. We are of a different opinion on some small details in his education, that much is obvious to me. We’ll fight a heady battle over it in the classroom but I don’t see the need for Sherlock to admit guilt for thinking independently. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we have a rather busy schedule this morning.”

With those words he closes the door in Mummy’s face.

Sherlock goggles with a mixture of apprehension and admiration at the audacity of the gesture. He can’t believe anyone other than Daddy taking a stand against Mummy in this way. Mr Talbot rises in his esteem.

The three of them take up positions behind their chairs.

“You may be seated.”

Now it’s two hundred times. Two hundred empty squares drawn by the ruler and pencil.
He studies the ‘A’ with deliberate extensiveness, imprinting the length of the strokes and the width between the legs in his mind. He takes a grip on the pen and dips it in the ink.
With the utmost concentration he draws two hundred ‘A’s that are an exact copy of the one written by his tutor. He’s just finished the last one when he hears: “Lay down your pens.”

Mycroft’s thick stack of closely scribbled paper is given a perfunctory glance before the verdict is announced: “It will do, Mycroft, but you’ll agree with me this isn’t up to your usual standard. You’ve let your little brother’s problems upset you. That’s all good and well but you haven’t helped Sherlock with your empathy and done yourself a disservice. I guess that’s the best lesson you’ve learned today. I’m disappointed in you, gravely disappointed.”

The crestfallen look on Mycroft’s face on hearing these words makes Sherlock grab his hand in sympathy. Mr Talbot affects not to notice, inspecting his work in turn with slow deliberateness. At last he looks up and sends his eyes travelling over Sherlock, from the top of his head down to his shoes.

“This is very good, Sherlock,” he declares. His voice sounds odd, like there’s a lump in his throat. “Very, very good.”

He turns away from them both with an abrupt motion. Now it’s Sherlock’s turn to drag Mycroft out of the room.

***

Mycroft continues to look unhappy through lunch. “He’s right of course,” he keeps moaning. “I see now where I went wrong. Oh, he’s right.”

Sherlock sits eating his soup in silence. “Are you angry with me?” he asks Mycroft after a while.

Mycroft smiles at him. “No, of course not. It was my mistake. I made it of my own volition. You can’t help that you were the cause. Indeed, I thank you, for you helped me to bare my weakness. I can search for a means to fight it now.”

He holds out his hand for Sherlock to grab. “Let’s only care about things we can change from now on.”

***

Mr Mancini listens to Nanny’s explanation why they didn’t come down yesterday with a stony face.

“Sherlock isn’t at home,” is his only comment.

Nanny looks confused. “No, Sherlock is here in the room with us.”

“You know whom I’m referring to,” Mr Mancini growls. “But never mind. There’s nothing I can do about it. Pray, Sherlock, let me hear Mr Purcell’s lovely gavotte.”

He poises himself in front of the music stand, angles the violin under his chin, closes his eyes for a second to concentrate and starts playing. He concentrates on his fingering and the guiding of the bow. Those are the basics. The most important aspect, and the one he finds the most difficult, is to let the music transport him to another sphere. Easy enough to do while he sits listening to Daddy’s records or violin playing but nearly impossible when he handles the instrument himself. Each sheet of music is a mathematical problem to attack. Mr Mancini assures him in this respect he’s accelerated at an inconceivable speed.

“But technical prowess isn’t the only army the true violinist marches up to the theatre of war that is the concert hall. If you want to smash them, wipe them out, your playing will have to drag them through the mud, catapult them into heaven. Don’t play the notes, live them.”

The first time Mr Mancini explained this to him three months ago he was rather surprised, recalling the scorn Mr Mancini had shown Daddy regarding his love for Beethoven.

“Your father chooses to live under the mistaken impression that the increasing slackness of his fingering won’t be heard if he adds enough layers of refinement,” Mr Mancini had said after some thinking.

“For most people that holds true. The public doesn’t give a hang about music. When your father plays for his friends all they hear is a handsome man pulling notes that sound pleasing to the ear out of his instrument like a wizard. He smirks and makes love to them all while he wields his bow and dazzles them into believing they hear more than they actually do. You’ve fallen for the trick as well. But you’re a four year old and he’s your Daddy so you may be excused. For another year. Worst is, he fully realises that’s what his playing has been coming down to but refuses to admit it. Does it to protect her, I understand that. I love your father, Sherlock, love him dearly but he’s the bane of my life. He could have been so much more but he chose not to.”

At these last words Mr Mancini had pulled a big red handkerchief out of the pocket of his worn tweed jacket and dabbed at his eyes before blowing his nose with vigour.

“Like I said, there’s too little discrimination in your playing. That’s what we’ll have to work at, my boy.”

He has done so, he’s worked at it so hard. With this gavotte, for the first time, Sherlock feels he’s fathomed what the notes want him to convey. The profound exhilaration he’d felt the moment he’d grasped their meaning. Freedom within boundaries, allowing him to break the rules and lay down the law in his own domain that’s he’s weaving out of the travelling sound waves.

He’s exhausted once the last note is dying away, his arms shake as they hold violin and bow near his chin for the prescribed thirty seconds before he lets them drop to his sides and curtsies to thank Mr Mancini for his attention. Mr Mancini remains resolutely quiet. Sherlock lifts his eyes to see the red handkerchief busy at work again in the upper regions of Mr Mancini’s face.

“That, my child,” his voice arrives at last with a tremble, “was very, very good.” A happy smile establishes itself on his rotund features. “We’ll make a great violinist out of you. Oh Sherlock, you will astound the world. Come here.”

Before a shocked Nanny can prevent, he’s pulled Sherlock towards him and rewarded him with a big wet kiss on his forehead. Revulsion mingled with pride flows through Sherlock. The day that started so bleak has turned into one of the best days ever. If only Mycroft and Daddy could have heard him playing just now.

***

“I really like that piece. It’s happy and yet sad at the same time. What was it again?”

“I must have told you a hundred times already, John. You could at least try to do me the courtesy of actually remembering. It’s the middle part of Vivaldi’s Winter. You’re sitting by the fire while outside the wind is howling across the field, lashing the snow and hail against your windows.”

“Yes, now I remember. It really does feel that way. Could you play that other one now, please? The dah dahdah dahdah dahdah dahdah, dah dahdah- …”

“Your ‘dahdahing’ refers to Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto?”

“I suppose, you’ll have to play it for me to be sure, I’m afraid.”

***

John Stuart Mill has argued that ‘the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings’. Write an essay in which you explain his reasoning. You may use five hundred words. The less words, the better.

It’s his third day in school and he’s been given ‘proper’ work. He’s spread out the four maps he found in the little stack of papers on his desk. The first map shows the Persian Empire in 500 BC, the second map is a representation of the positions the Greek and Persian army had taken at this place called Marathon in 494 BC, the third map shows Eurasia in 300 BC, the last one is a view of the Mediterranean world around 200 AD. Lying next to it is a photograph of an enormous statue underneath which is written: The Farnese Bull is the largest single sculpture from antiquity. Pliny the Elder identified a version of it as the work of Rhodian artists Apollonius of Tralles and his brother Tauriscus, stating that it was commissioned at the end of the 2nd century BC and carved from just one block of marble. It was imported from Rhodes, as part of the collection of artwork and sculpture owned by Asinius Pollio, a Roman politician who lived during the years between the Republic and the Principate. The group was unearthed in 1,546 during excavations at the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

He recognises the story that’s being told by the statue from the Greek myths he’s read. He’s heard of Marathon. But what does the battle of Hastings have to do with a battle that took place more than fifteen hundred years earlier? There’s has to be a connection. He’s been given little dots, all he has to do is to join them. Surely he can do that. Mr Talbot is not going to help him. He’s hidden himself behind Tristram Shandy again. Mycroft is bent over his desk, red in the face. He closes his eyelids, steeples his fingers in front of his mouth.

Silence.

A blinding white light brightens up in his eyes. Oh, yes, of course. He wants to shout with joy, this is wonderful, he sees the solution to this puzzle so clearly now. His hand dashes for the pen and the answer flows forth from him. Three hundred and fifty words of pure pleasure. Neat and concise he explains how a battle that took place almost twenty five hundred years ago made it possible for him to sit in this schoolroom with Mr Talbot. His mind soars above the room, the house, the estate, the Earth.

***

“This is very good, Sherlock. Very, very good.”

***

‘Copy this letter a hundred times.’ A neat B glares up at him from the sheet.

***

He’s been waiting near the gates for ages. Finally the deep glossy black of the Rolls comes into view. He jumps out onto the road, yelling and waving with his arms above his head.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

The Rolls glides to a halt. The back door is thrown open and Daddy leaps out with easy agility, sweeps him up into his arms.

“Hello, my darling boy. Don’t say you missed your old Daddy so much you came out all this way to greet me. And jumping in front of cars. That’s dangerous, you know. I do hope you’re not intent upon turning that into a habit. How’s school? Have you and Mr Talbot become fast friends yet? Come on, sit in the back with me and you can tell me all about it.”

“Oh yes, Daddy,” while he clambers into the car. “I really do like Mr Talbot. Although I kicked him in the shins the first day.”

“You did what?” Daddy laughs. “Strange way of getting to know one another. I wouldn’t recommend it for daily use. Although I must confess I’ve felt like kicking some of these people I’ve had to deal with the past week quite hard in the shins.”

He pulls Sherlock close, kisses him on the top of his head once more.

“Why did you feel the need to physically abuse your honourable and beloved tutor? What else have you been up to?”

***

“Really Valerie, darling, I just don’t understand what induced you to conceive of this punishment. Don’t you see how cruel it was, to shut him up in his room and deny him his violin lesson? You know he enjoys those so much and he’s been making such progress. Mr Mancini told me two weeks ago he had the feeling Sherlock was just inches away from grasping what music is actually about. Right now he needs all the encouragement we can give him.”

He’s standing in the hallway outside Mummy’s study, head quite close to the door. He passed the study on his way to the yellow drawing room and was arrested by Mummy’s raised voice. She answers Daddy’s rumble in heated tones: “No I don’t. He’d misbehaved. I was thoroughly annoyed with him and justly so. Making such a racket, kicking people.”

“Yes, I don’t want my sons to run around deliberately hurting people. But you’ll agree with me Mr Talbot is not ‘people’. He’s our sons’ tutor and quite able to handle our sometimes rather headstrong children.”

He can hear his father’s amused chuckle. “Yes, don’t look like that. Mycroft does have a will of his own as well. If I remember correctly at the beginning of his career in the schoolroom he wasn’t very happy with Mr Talbot’s methods, same as Sherlock. Now he fully understands the advantages he’s been given in being shaped and educated by that man instead of being sent off to a dull school with dull teachers and dull classmates. Sherlock has confessed to me he likes Mr Talbot. We both know Mycroft has a more suave, less direct way of expressing himself than Sherlock. You should have given Sherlock time to adjust. If only I’d been at home … ”

“Yes, if only. But you weren’t.”

“Valerie, please. We’ve been through this before. You know I enjoy being away this often as little as you do. I’d much rather be working at home, with you and the children near me. But the ship of state is facing some heavy weather right now. It needs me at the helm and I can’t direct her properly while I’m here, whiling away my time with you and my sons.”

Silence. Or does he hear Daddy marching up and down the room? His voice resumes:
“Please darling, don’t make this harder for me than it already is. You knew what you were letting yourself in for. Need I remind you that you and your father both are the ones that practically chose this career for me? Your father wouldn’t consent to the marriage unless I followed in my father’s footsteps. And you decided to abide with him against my wishes. You know what I gave up in order to be allowed to love, honour and obey you. You didn’t want to hear the music, now you’ll have to face it.”

“Oh Sherlock, how can you?”

His father sighs. “I’m sorry, darling. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t mind my occupation that much. On the whole I’m having a ball, wheeling and dealing and charming people into agreeing to treaties against their wishes. I’d never have surmised to be such an expert smoothie boy. It’s a plum job actually. It really is. Come here.”

No sounds can be detected through the door for a very long time. He resorts to bending and looking through the key hole. Daddy and Mummy are kissing. Mummy has raised her arms all the way up to embrace Daddy’s neck. Daddy’s eyes are closed, one hand is lying on her back, pulling her near to him, the other one is stroking Mummy’s behind, his long fingers groping her skirt.

Sherlock draws his eye away. His heart is thumping so loud in his chest he’s sure they can hear him.

Daddy and Mummy do kiss a lot in front of him and Mycroft. Daddy’s always touching Mummy, tickling his fingers along her arm or teasing her hair. Just like he ruffles Mycroft’s or Sherlock’s or draws them close and kisses them on their forehead. His fingers are always so gentle, and he always smells so good through all the layers of lavender and honey. But this embrace is different. Dangerous, like … like Daddy and Mummy are animals. He stands fighting for breath, rooted with the door against his back. Every instinct in him screams he should flee now, go outside and play but he stays.

Thank goodness Mummy’s voice sounds after a while, smothered: “Oh Sherlock, please do forgive me. It’s just … everything is so difficult whenever you’re not here by my side. Nanny and Mycroft are a great help of course, but Sherlock … He’s always stirring up trouble, seeking to aggravate me. I don’t know what’s wrong with that child. But really, sometimes I’m frightened of him. The uncanny way he scrutinises me with those eyes that are so much yours and yet so different.”

He can hear her heavy breathing. “I … I know I should love him, I want to love him but he’s making it really hard for me. Why does he have to resemble you so much? He’s like a clone and sometimes I feel each day he lives he saps your strength. He’s going to make you die on me.”

“Darling, what nonsense. Whatever are you dishing up in that pretty little head of yours?”

“No, don’t laugh at me. You always laugh everything away. But I’m serious. Do you think I like being afraid of my own child? Every day I’m fighting a battle, telling myself not to be ridiculous. But with him … I never know what mischief he’s planning to do next. I just can’t take it anymore. Please, let’s send him to boarding school together with Mycroft after the summer.”

“Definitely not. Valerie, if I remember correctly we’ve discussed this matter when Mycroft turned five. I positively hated school at that age. I want my boys to grow up at home, in surroundings where they can feel safe. I don’t want them to have to experience what I had to go through as a small boy. I thoroughly hated every day of my life in that school. Can you imagine what it must be like at that age, to be constantly homesick, to be constantly on the alert? To be away from your home at that age? I did miss the house so, and the park. Once people have grown up they forget how cruel children can be. I have nothing to reproach my father with but I do reproach him with sending me off to that school at such an early age.”

He pauses. As he starts speaking again Sherlock can hear his urge to control his voice. “Sherlock is so much like me in so many respects. I know he’ll have to go out into the world once he’s turned twelve but until that time I want him to have a happy and secluded life here with us. To provide him with a stable basis he can mentally return to whenever he’ll find himself in dire straits. You’ve had a private tutor, you don’t understand.”

Daddy’s voice has risen despite his struggle to remain calm. He’s speaking haltingly, unlike his usual smooth flow with the secret revelry shining through. Sherlock can hear him heaving a few deep breaths. Inhaling and exhaling with slow deliberateness.

“Valerie. I … you know I don’t want to ask this but is it possible you are facing another relapse? Shouldn’t you go and see that specialist in London again? I’ll come with you if you want me to.”

“No,” Mummy shouts. He hears her moving away from Daddy, flinging herself towards the door.

He doesn’t wait for her to pull it open. He breaks into a run. His legs set him flying across the passage, through the hall, out through the French doors at the back onto the terrace, down the stairs, through the park until he ends up in the little copse in his tree house. There he sits with his knees drawn against his chest hugging himself, heart hammering away inside.

***

With a desperate need he wills himself to wipe his mother’s words from his memory.

Mycroft has caught him in the act of eavesdropping a few times. He’s been quite severe with Sherlock on those occasions, stressing he shouldn’t, it’s impolite and not fair, a reprehensible act. Sherlock has protested he was sleuthing but Mycroft told him off. “That’s not sleuthing, it’s spying. Spying without a purpose always causes harm, either to the people that are being spied upon or to the spy. Mostly to the latter in fact. For what are you going to do with information you didn’t seek and can’t handle? If you must spy only do so when you know what knowledge you’re looking for and how you’re going to use it.”

Oh, Mycroft was right, once again he was right. He slams his head against his knees a few times in anger and frustration at the debilitating fact that Mycroft was, and always would be, right.

***

He must be a one huge enigma to Mycroft now if his brother has resorted to offering people money to spy on him. What a laugh.

***

Later Mycroft had come to look for him. In his mind’s eye Sherlock can see the small boy sitting on the planked floor, shivering against the cold, eyes raw and wet from crying, nose running but determined not to answer, to remain locked in the private hell his mother’s words have drawn up for him with the utmost care.

He had known Mycroft knew he was sitting up there. But he never breathed a whispering confirmation of his presence. Mycroft kept calling up at him for a long time, alternately cajoling, begging and threatening. He had tried to cry out, to descend and throw himself into his brother’s arms. But a devil held him close against his chest, covering his mouth with his scaly long-fingered hand. Finally he had heard Mycroft walk away, his footsteps receding on the ground that was dry and crackling with frost.

He had had to wait until dusk descended before the demon had let go of him.

***

He creeps back to the house, determined to rid himself of the remembrance, of the impact of his mother’s words. He instructs himself not to have heard them. They have simply never hit the membrane in his ear. Erase them. And he succeeds. He vanquishes the sentences and tramples on them until the words lose their meaning and he throws the rubbish away.

***

Both Mycroft and he stand on the terrace in front of the house looking down on John and a small boy exchanging a football between them.

The boy is the son of some boring people that have come to spend the weekend with them. Sherlock has been designated as the boy’s host as they’re the same age.

He’s earnestly made an effort in order to please Mummy. He’s taken the boy to the tree house but the boy has declared himself to be afraid of heights. He proposed swimming in the lake but the boy told him he can’t swim and anyway it’s March and the water is too cold. How about a game of chess? The boy confessed he didn’t know the rules. He’d tried to explain them, same as Mycroft had done to him a year earlier but the boy didn’t understand; he kept making the same stupid mistakes. He took no interest in Sherlock’s collection of different tree barks and wasn’t interested in the model Sherlock has made of a beehive interior. He doesn’t like music. He looked unimpressed when Sherlock proved to him his mother had walked together with Mummy from the blue morning room to Mummy’s study in order to look at the proofs of Mummy’s new book. The boy is hideously stupid and dull and Sherlock has had to constrain himself from pushing the boy out of his room and closing the door in his face before the condition turned out to be contagious.

That moment the last resort of the rebuilt shed sprang up in his mind. Even though the boy is duller than the dullest dullard surely he’ll take an interest in all the implements John has stashed in newly ordered neat rows there.

Utterly defeated, he’d apprehended the boy couldn’t have cared less about the shed’s wonders. With his customary shrewdness, John had noticed his forlornness. “How about a game of football, Charles,” he’d asked, retrieving a football from the big sideboard. Sherlock had rolled his eyes in contempt but Charles had become enthusiastic for the first time since Sherlock got stuck with him. Sherlock turned around and marched back to the house, feeling utterly weary with the whole world. If this is what other children are like he’s very happy Daddy will make sure he doesn’t have to go to boarding school for a good many years yet.

“Yes,” Mycroft confirms his thoughts. “Most people are horridly dull, Sherlock. Yet I propose you join in the fun. You can save yourself further agony by pretending you’ve sprained your ankle after about five minutes. People want to be sold a lie, Sherlock. Even Mummy.”

He sees the force of Mycroft’s argument. He runs down the stairs that lead from the terrace to the driveway. “Hey, I want to join in,” he shouts.

Five minutes later he’s lying on the turf, moaning and crying, holding his right ankle, a concerned John on his knees bent over him, Mycroft sent off by Nanny to fetch some ice for his ankle. The boy Charles is crying as well, clinging to his mother’s skirts.

Ten minutes later he’s come up roses, seated on the sofa in the yellow drawing room with his leg on a footstool and a piece of fruitcake and a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream next to it on a little table, Mummy holding him while stroking his hair.

***

He’s already put out the light when the door opens and Daddy enters his room.

“Are you asleep yet?” he asks. “No? I just came by to let you know I’ve contacted the Royal Shakespeare Company and they’re very eager to meet you. We’ll go down to Stratford tomorrow for your audition.”

He sniggers at this. Daddy plunks himself on the edge of the mattress, lays his hand against his cheek.

“You and Mycroft were very naughty today. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”

“Yes Daddy.”

“Well, one doesn’t have to be a mastermind to conceive the boy must be as boring as his parents are. I quite envy you. It’s horrible to be a grown-up. It means you have to keep smiling and hawing at people you actually want to throttle because they’re so tedious.”

“I’ll never do that Daddy.”

“Yet I heartily recommend you do so. You followed Mycroft’s advice today and found that changed the face of what must have been a bleak day for you. Total honesty won’t get you very far in life, Sherlock. Now you’d best go to sleep. I don’t think playing the sprained ankle card is going to help you through the whole day tomorrow so you’d better think of some other things to do. Ask Nanny for some games like ‘snakes and ladders’ or the ‘flea game’. Those must be lying around somewhere in the attic. It’s just one more day. We must pull each other through it somehow. Please help your Daddy, will you? Goodnight now, my darling. Sleep tight.”

“Night Daddy.”

***

Chapter Text

Oh God, he is bored. He’s lying on the sofa with his eyes closed, fingers steepled, tips of his index fingers resting on his chin in an air of utter concentration. John is shuffling around in the kitchen, filling the kettle, opening the cupboard to retrieve two mugs, hunting down the tea caddy next. He looks on his watch, two thirty-three and twenty-four seconds. At two thirty-six and fifty-four seconds, John will present him with a mug of tea. He closes his eyes again, re-assuming his ‘I’m- deep-in-thought-don’t-you-dare-disturb-me’ pose. The mug is gently placed on the coffee table with a plate of ginger nuts beside it. His eyes fly open, check his watch – three and a half minutes have passed, exactly like he’d predicted to himself.

“For God’s sake, can’t you be quiet,” he snaps. “I was thinking, you know.”

John considers him with a faint smirk of amusement around his lips.

“No you weren’t,” he states. “What would you be thinking about right now? You’ve got no cases, nothing interesting has popped up in your e-mail all day and Mrs Hudson has put a ban on all experiments till next Wednesday. You don’t fool me anymore lolling around on that sofa looking mightily mysterious. You could actually go and clean the bathroom after you’ve drunk your tea. Earn yourself another plate of ginger nuts.”

He walks over to his chair and plops down, grabbing a pen and the paper from the small table next to it.

Sherlock glares at him for two minutes straight but John affects not to notice, intent on the crossword and sipping his tea.

With a momentous sigh he throws himself over, turning his back on John, drawing his robe closer around him as a shield between himself and the base hardened creature on the other side of the room. He hugs his favourite cushion with the fleur-de-lys-pattern closely against his chest for comfort. The faint beige colour of the leather of the sofa cushions sickens him. He closes his eyes against it. Oh, the tediousness of it all.

The sound of the doorbell rings through the house. Downstairs he can hear Mrs Hudson go to open the front door. He sharpens his ears to catch Lestrade’s voice greeting their landlady. He leaps up from the sofa, taking the hurdle of the coffee table in his stride as he makes a dash for his bedroom, shedding his robe on the way. In his room he dons jacket, socks and shoes. Thirty seconds later he’s seated at the table in the living room, googling away on his laptop. Lestrade and Mrs Hudson have reached the landing by now, fully engaged in pleasant banter. He can feel John’s amused glance pricking in his neck.

“The Detective Inspector has come to see you, boys.” Mrs Hudson enters the room, Lestrade hovering in the doorway behind her. Sherlock glowers at him.

“What have you got?” he asks, deliberately adding a hint of stressed brusqueness to his voice.

Lestrade clears his throat. “Eerm, well, nothing at the moment,” he answers, taking a few steps inside. “Finally got a chance to clear away some of the paperwork. You certainly don’t hear me complaining.”

Disappointment strikes him like a lightning bolt. “So, what are you coming here for then?” he says, returning his attention to the laptop.

“Sherlock!” John and Mrs Hudson exclaim in unison. Mrs Hudson puts a comforting hand on Lestrade’s arm before turning round and leaving the room.

“What? When did we start entertaining New Scotland Yard Detective Inspectors that should be busy writing down the cases I’ve solved for them? Maybe learn something from my methods!” he yells at her disappearing backside.

“Just ignore him, Greg,” John reassures Lestrade. “That’s basically what I’ve been doing all day. Do you care for a cuppa? Have a seat.”

“That would be lovely, thanks,” Lestrade answers, depositing himself in Sherlock’s chair. “In fact I came by to invite you two. The secretaries have organised a picnic in Hyde Park next Saturday and I thought it would be nice if you’d come along. Seeing as you’re both practically part of the unit.”

His contemptuous “of course not, Lestrade. You must be an even bigger idiot than I’d always reckoned you to be if you thought we’d consent to such a preposterous proposal” coincides with John’s sincere “of course we’ll come. Thank you for inviting us, Greg.”

Now it’s John’s turn to be glowered at. “I won’t go.”

“Yes, you will Sherlock. Here you are,” John hands the tea to Lestrade before walking over to the coffee table to collect the plate of ginger nuts and present them. “Want one?”

Sherlock snorts his disapproval at the proceedings. This induces John to hold the plate in front of him. “You left them standing before. But of course you can have one. Special offer at Tesco’s. They’re quite good, aren’t they, Greg?”

***

After Lestrade leaves, the day takes a better turn. At first he stays put, grumbling on the sofa, voicing his vexed incredulity at John’s acceptance of the invitation in loud tones. Does John really expect him to dawdle his precious time away, enduring the indignity of sitting on a blanket and being forced to make conversation with that profound idiot of a Dimmock – the first syllable of his last name rather a giveaway as to the rate of his intelligence, the second surely an invitation to do just that – while Anderson and Donovan are dillydallying in front of them, a sight he’d rather not wish to have to contemplate?

He keeps this up for half an hour, secretly delighting in his revenge – the increased signs of a growing annoyance John does his utmost not to display – until his phone chimes with an e-mail alert. He checks, fully expecting yet more boredom and feels excitement creep upon him as he reads it through. Upon finishing he surges from the sofa and bolts for his laptop, ignoring John’s silent heave of relief.

Two hours later his index finger taps the enter key with a flourish to send the solution to the neat little problem that has rescued him from a fruitless afternoon of utter dullness hurtling through digital space.

“Had your fun then?” John asks. The crossword lies abandoned – given up in quiet desperation no doubt – next to his chair.

He picks up the newspaper and finishes it while stating, “I feel like Chinese. There’s a new takeaway in York Street that does deliveries as well. It’s my treat, you order.”

***

Now John’s handling the chopsticks with fierce ineptitude, stabbing at a piece of chicken in the sweet and sour sauce. Sherlock deftly picks it away with his own chopsticks, depositing it on John’s bowl of rice.

“Why do you care so much about being properly dressed whenever you meet Greg?” John asks, finally managing to grip it between the sticks himself and shoveling it into his mouth.

“Do I?” Sherlock plasters an innocent expression onto his face.

“Yes you do. I do notice things, you know. Not like you do obviously but I’m interested in sports and this afternoon you set a new world record for fitting oneself up in no time.”

With the dress sense John’s got he’s never even going to make it through the preliminaries but Sherlock’s definitely not going to be the one to ever spill that because he quite likes the sight of John in those ridiculous cardigans and sweaters.

“A good shirt and a neat pair of trousers do wonders for a man, John.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, Sherlock. Don’t try to change the subject.”

“I just want to look presentable. I honestly can’t see anything wrong or suspicious in taking a professional interest in what one is wearing. Besides, according to some at the Yard I’m nothing but an amateur. It wouldn’t actually help me if I dressed in an amateurish way.”

“As if you care one whit what people think of you. Least of all Donovan, Anderson and all the rest of them. Besides, you know Greg doesn’t consider you to be an amateur. The only reason he’s never proposed hiring you is because he knows you’d refuse.”

Yes, well, that’s true, isn’t it?

John sighs, starts wrestling with a piece of pepper.

“Oh well,” he says. “You’re not willing to answer, though God only knows why ever not. Go ahead and enjoy yourself then, play Mr-Mysterious-Consulting-Detective to your heart’s content. I’m certainly not interested enough to go sleuthing for the reason. Knowing you I gather it’s probably some childish spiteful argument you managed to spring upon an unsuspecting Greg. Sorry to have bothered you.”

The pepper has nearly made it to John’s mouth at the end of this speech, before wriggling itself loose and falling but John’s quick soldier reflexes ensure it lands on his bowl of rice instead of his trousers.

“Damn,” he mutters, eyeing the pepper with a disconcerted look. “Oh yeah, Doctor Who’s on tonight by the way and I don’t want any, and I mean any, comments from you during the whole episode. I’m serious about this, Sherlock.”

He rolls his eyes, adding a snort for good measure. Secretly he’s pleased John has decided not to try and coax his secret out of him. Not that he’d give the game away but it could lead to a new argument and unpleasantness. He doesn’t want that. Not while he’s still glowing with contentment from having solved a challenging puzzle so quickly.

He feels certain he’ll never be able to explain the extreme importance of always being immaculately dressed whenever he meets Lestrade. Because then he’d have to divulge to John the state he was in when Lestrade first set eyes on him. Sharing a flat doesn’t mean one has to share all of one’s history, does it? John is always carrying on about boundaries and personal space. John unearthing this part of his history is a boundary he definitely isn’t willing to cross. Not yet.

***

He goes the whole nine yards to stay close to Mycroft, racing through the water, but he has to concede. Mycroft is so much stronger than him. Sherlock loses him. He falls back, ends up next to Mycroft’s legs, his toes, until the churning water in front of him as it is stirred by Mycroft’s thrashing feet is the only means of contact between them. Gasping for breath, he reaches the other side of the pond where Mycroft already sits sunning himself on the grassy bank.

“How did I do?” he asks.

Mycroft smiles. “Excellent. I quite look forward to racing you once we’re both grown-ups. I suspect I’ll always be stronger physically but you’ve got a certain agility that is quite an advantage in a serious swimmer. It will be an exciting match.”

***

Somehow they’ve never got around to that race. Maybe because of all the flab Mycroft has managed to accumulate over the years. A better explanation is easily provided though. By the time he was finally strong enough for a proper match their relationship had already disintegrated into one of mutual resentment and bitter fighting. Challenging one’s enemy doesn’t bring any real pleasure. Beating him even less.

***

One day, Mummy addresses Mycroft during dinner. Daddy’s once more not at home for dinner because of ‘boring matters of state.’

“We’ll go down to London together this coming Saturday, darling,” she says. “We’ll have to go to the outfitter’s for your school uniform. The school sent down an endless list with necessities we’ll have to purchase for you. I thought we might turn it into a little fun weekend. Work our way around the shops on Saturday and visit the British Museum on Sunday.”

London. He’s never been there yet. He knows Daddy’s office is in London and Mummy travels down to London a lot to meet her publisher and other people she needs to be pleasant to in order to promote her books. He’d love to see the city where Daddy spends so much of his time, to visit the British Museum together with Mycroft. Only last week Mr Talbot wanted him to solve the problem of how the Egyptians actually managed to build the pyramids. He’d love to study a mummy, even if it’s lying in a glass display case and he can’t actually touch it and sniff at it. He giggles. There’s a Mummy at the other side of the dinner table, throwing him a stern look.

“Those are green peas, Sherlock. They’re sweet. I want you to eat them.”

“Yes, Mummy.”

“Can Sherlock come too?”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea, Mycroft. What with all the fitting we’ll have to do.” Her smile is apologetic. “It will be quite boring for you, Sherlock. Hanging around on a chair at an outfitter’s.”

“We can bring Nanny.”

“I said no, Mycroft. It’s awfully good of you to think of your younger brother but taking him along simply isn’t possible. He’s only five, whatever would Nanny do with a five-year old in London? We’ll go together, just the two of us.”

***

Three weeks later a big packet arrives with Mycroft’s name on it. Out comes an endless array of shirts, trousers, jackets, sweaters, cardigans, T-shirts, socks and sports gear, all with the school’s crest on it and a little label with Mycroft’s name on it sewn on the inside. There’s also lots and lots of underwear marked in the same way.

The little label is there to ensure Mycroft’s clothes don’t get lost in the laundry room between all the clothes of the other boys. Sherlock summons up mountains of shirts and trousers in his mind and a strong woman like Cook – arms bared up to the elbows – shoveling the piles of dirty clothes into a gigantic washing machine. He imagines running up to a huge heap of shirts really fast and jumping straight into it, like the time he jumped into the enormous mud puddle that had been lying stagnant and inviting behind the apiary. It will be a bit smelly though. Mud is better, makes for better splashing as well. One dab of mud had actually landed on his forehead, as he leapt into the pool time and again.

***

Add together all the numbers from one to hundred. Explain in ten words at the maximum how most people would approach this problem.

The answer is five thousand and fifty of course. One hundred and one is one hundred one, ninety nine and two is one hundred one, eighty nine and three is one hundred one. So all you have to do is to multiply the number one hundred one with the number fifty. What a disappointingly easy puzzle to solve. Anyone can see that. Or can’t they? He sits staring at the second sentence for a long time. At long last the answer dawns on him. He can’t really believe it but he writes it down anyway. Most people would add the numbers.

***

This morning it’s ‘H’s. One hundred ‘H’s.

***

The loss of Mycroft. That’s what the school uniform signifies.

After the summer Mycroft is going away. He won’t be living at home any more, he’ll come down for the holidays but he’ll be spending most of his time at school. He will live a life apart from Sherlock. He won’t be there to help and advise him, to listen to him practicing his violin lessons, to engage Sherlock in a game of chess, to go swimming together.

Sherlock doesn’t know what’s worse. The fact that Mycroft will be off, leaving him behind. Or the fact Mycroft’s so terribly excited about it. Or the fact that he tries to hide his excitement from Sherlock.

He spends lots of time up in his tree house, squirming with sickening glee in his anger and resentment, resting his arms on the sill of the small window and gazing off into the far distance, back to the house where Mycroft’s busy preparing his new life without Sherlock.

Every now and then John walks up to check up on him. “Everything all right with you up there?”

He never answers. John shrugs his shoulders. Sherlock can hear him mumble “stubborn little devil” before he ambles off again, bumping his shearing scissors against his thigh.

At Mycroft’s approach he ducks and flattens himself on the floor. ‘Go away then, you’re going anyway. Don’t come now to mollify me. You’re leaving’ his mind keeps whirling over and over again, a dark sly voice whispering seductively in his head.

“Sherlock? Are you up there? Won’t you come down and help me to decide which books I want to take with me to school?”

He most definitely doesn’t want to do that. He remains resolutely quiet. He’s becoming very good at doing just that.

***

The only one to understand him is Daddy. He never says a word but he doesn’t have to. Sherlock spends a lot of time on his lap, reading his books on Icelandic mythology and English history and the Roman emperors to him while Daddy’s hand skirts his back with long reassuring strokes of his warm hand and his soothing dark voice asks a question every once in a while.

***

His first Glyndebourne festival. He lies in the grass, looking up between his lashes into the vast expanse that is the sky. Not the faintest trace of a cloud mars the precious spread of the tinkling blue that knows no beginning and no end. The quiet, courteous murmuring in the background turns the heavens into the gently undulating waves of an equally endless sea.

Of course Daddy and Mummy are constantly being approached by people that come smirking and driveling and hee-hawing and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

They both greet everyone with a bedazzling smile, appearing to be overjoyed in welcoming them. Sherlock doesn’t understand how they can endure this constant onslaught of new faces, new people. How they can keep on repeating the same meaningless phrases expressing a delight they don’t feel. After one hour his face hurts from all the smiling and he’s grateful to Daddy for drawing him apart and telling him to pretend to be asleep. He gives Sherlock a quick wink every time some people have turned their boring backs on them while the next couple are already approaching for their audience.

“Remember the great game, Sherlock,” Daddy guffaws. “All for the greater good. Of course each and every one of them is too horribly dull but we have the music to look forward to. And the strawberries are wonderful this year. Strawberries and cream are the best bricks in the wall between oneself and boredom.”

“Oh Sherlock, the nonsense you talk,” Mummy giggles.

“Nonsense? The fountain of wisdom is spouting away. You just misinterpret because you’re not paying me the proper attention a loving wife should always bestow upon her husband. I’ll do the bestowing then.” He kisses Mummy’s hand while exaggeratedly fluttering his eyelashes at her. She starts to laugh but in throwing a look over his shoulder the laugh disintegrates into a frown.

“Oh my God, those dreadful Hargraves have spotted us, they’re heading our way.”

“Give them your best smile, my dearest. David, dear chap. Yes, splendid, splendid. Janet Baker, yes, we’re a pair of lucky devils I’m sure … “

***

Later he sits between Daddy and Mycroft. The music bears down on him, irresistible, he allows the sweet sounds to attach a pair of multispectral wings to his back and accepts the hands that help him rise, rise, rise into the sky, soaring up into the heavens, passing through the ceiling and the roof of the opera house as he’s overwhelmed by the celestial notes. He feels the tears welling up behind his eyes and finds he’s unable to stop them. Big wet drops coursing down his face. He jabs with his hand but they keep bubbling up, his eyes have turned into flowing fountains and he concedes. The music is simply too much for him to bear and he feels so light, so buoyant.

Mycroft hides behind the program but Daddy doesn’t have any qualms about sharing the sentiments the music invokes in him. He dabs his eyes openly with his handkerchief.

“So I was crying,” he admits once they’re seated in the car on their way back home. “Nothing to be discomfited about. I should be embarrassed if I hadn’t been sobbing openly because that would have set me off as one incapable of being moved.”

“But Daddy, you have to work with all these people. They only know you in a professional capacity.”

“All the better, Mycroft. The next time I have to berate them for the slapdash results they’ve been giving me they will remember and tell themselves I’m just a man as well. That will make them strive harder. They wouldn’t fly for me if they were labouring under the illusion I’m more than just a man, that I wouldn’t need them to solve those delightful little problems running a country confronts one with on a daily basis. I can’t bear to think of all the grinding I would have to commit myself then. All the bother. I’m far too lazy for that.”

“Yes, you’re lazy, Sherlock.”

“See, Mummy heartily agrees with me. As we agree in anything and everything, don’t we darling?”

Sherlock nods off, leaning against his father’s frame while the bantering goes on over his head. He’s sure he’s missing something very important Daddy is trying to tell Mycroft but he’s so tired his eyelids keep falling shut.

***

The dinner gong has sounded three times. They’re seated at the table waiting for Daddy. Mummy’s mouth is a thin stripe. She’s looking down on her plate, her cheeks almost as white as the porcelain.

Sherlock sits shuffling on his seat. He doesn’t understand what’s taking Daddy so long. Daddy is always so very punctual.

Mycroft clears his throat. “Maybe Sherlock should go have a look, Mummy,” he suggests. Mummy flicks up her eyes and stares at him as if she’s seeing him for the first time.

“Y-yes,” she stammers. Slowly she turns to Sherlock. “You go and run to Daddy, tell him he’s wanted here.”

Sherlock nods and runs off. He halts in front of the door of his father’s study. He can hear the rumble of the television set inside, then he hears Daddy’s voice but he hardly recognises it, the tone is so different from the warm humourful caress he’s used to. What he hears is tightly controlled anger.

“I warned you but you wouldn’t heed my advice. Yes, thank you. I do have a television set. No, I’m not very happy either, believe me.

“It’s no use shouting at me. I told you to stay put, but you refused to listen. Instead you chose to provoke them and if memory serves I predicted something like this would be the result — Yes, I know it looks bad, you don’t have to tell me. I won’t discuss this any further right now. I’ll see you tomorrow when you’ve managed to calm down and hopefully regain some of your senses. I strongly advocate you do not change a word of that press statement. Go home and sit tight and let others take care of the damage. Your meddling won’t do any good.

“— No, you listen to me, even if just this once. My people are better equipped to handle this situation than that bunch of confounded idiots you insisted on bringing in. Go home, go to bed and take a sleeping pill. Tomorrow will be even worse, I promise you, so I want you to have a proper rest now. Good evening.”

Sherlock hears Daddy slam the receiver onto the cradle. He knocks and opens the door, peers inside. Daddy is sitting behind his desk with the heels of his palms pressed into his eyes, elbows leaning on the surface. On the television screen a lot of people covered in what Sherlock recognises to be blood are wailing and shouting, sitting immobile on the pavement of a street or wandering about while medics are trying to attend to them and a man with a big microphone in front of his face is looking earnestly into the room and explaining what’s happening behind his back. Sherlock walks up to Daddy.

“Daddy, Mummy’s waiting for you. The dinner gong has sounded three times.” He touches Daddy’s arm.

Daddy heaves a few deep breaths before looking up. He looks haggard, the pale skin that stretches over his cheekbones ashen and crumpled. He gives Sherlock a weak smile.

“Yes, of course. I do apologise, Sherlock. You go and run and tell her and Mycroft I’ll join you in five minutes. Will you do that for me, darling?”

“Yes Daddy.”

“All right.” Daddy stands and walks over to the television set and flicks it off. “Off you go then.”

Sherlock pivots on his heel and starts the long journey back to the dining room. He finds he’s shaking all over. He wills himself to look composed as he enters the room.

“Daddy will be here shortly,” he announces. He seats himself and lays his hands on his legs to keep them from trembling. Mycroft mouths ‘what?’ Sherlock just blinks and stares back. He tries to but finds he can’t bring himself to mouth ‘nothing’.

“Thank you,” is all Mummy says. As usual she doesn’t notice what’s happening around her.

Half a minute later Daddy enters, looking crisp and fresh. He walks over to Mummy and picks up her right hand, bestows it with a kiss and uses it to slap himself on the head a few times.

“Bad Sherlock. You’ve forfeited dessert,” he growls in a mock-angry voice.

Mummy giggles. “If you promise to behave maybe you can have dessert after all,” she laughs.

“You’re simply too good for me, Valerie. Whatever would I do without you?”

Now Mummy looks even happier. Sherlock casts a glance at Daddy as he seats himself but Daddy deliberately slants his gaze away from him. Sherlock wants to reach out to him, to lay his small hand on Daddy’s big long-fingered one to tell him it’s all right, he won’t tell Mummy what he’s seen.

***

The inevitable Monday arrives that sees Mycroft entering and seating himself in the Rolls. His luggage has been stowed in the back. Mummy will accompany Mycroft to his new life.

A soft rain drizzles from a sky that’s as closed and grey as an oyster. Mycroft raises his hand. With his free hand Sherlock waves and waves at the visage as it is borne away by the Rolls, becoming smaller and smaller until Sherlock can’t really distinguish Mycroft’s features any more. The Rolls turns the bend in the drive and is lost from sight.

“Come, Sherlock,” Nanny pulls his arm. “Mr Talbot will be awaiting you. You’re already ten minutes late.”

***

He deliberately elaborates upon the sigh. The arm with the book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is lowered. Mr Talbot’s gaze comes to rest upon him; the moustache doesn’t quite hide the quirk of amusement in the corners of his lips.

“I do actually think the ’O’ will be a great challenge, don’t you? Or a distraction at least. It looks so perfectly simple, just one fluid movement but to be able to draw the same circle time and time again, over and over requires a good eye and a steady hand. You’ll find it to be an extremely difficult task once you start. Catching infinity.”

He stands and walks over to Sherlock’s desk. “I understand you miss Mycroft, Sherlock. Nothing like a dull task full of drudge to relieve one’s mind from sad musings. You may find it helps.”

***

It does. And his violin lessons bring some comfort as well. John also allows him more extensive usage of his implements and invites him into the tending of the beehives.

But all the extra attention just isn’t enough to dispel him from the fact that Mycroft isn’t around. The correspondence they keep up is an inadequate replacement and Mycroft’s letters, full of excitement about this new phase in his life he’s entered, inviting Sherlock to understand why he’s so happy about having joined the school debating club, the drama club and the swimming team together with the long lists of names of useful acquaintances he’s acquiring make Sherlock feel like they’re separated by more than just distance. Mycroft speaks to him from another world. A domain apart from Sherlock and he’s locked out, he doesn’t understand the rules that reign those parts, he doesn’t want to understand the rules.

He sits struggling to find the words as he composes his letters to Mycroft, the right sentences to build the bridge across the chasm that’s separating them. How can he magic Mycroft back into Mycroft again? His Mycroft. All these people Mycroft keeps prattling on about, he isn’t interested in those. Why does Mycroft refuse to see that?

The only real contact they have is through the games of chess they play by letter as well. Sherlock spends a long time every day pondering his next move after he has placed Mycroft’s piece on the designated square. After he’s made his decision he notes down what Mycroft’s next move might possibly be. He feels a certain elation every time Mycroft confirms the most likely choice he’s decided upon. As if two bodies, aimlessly orbiting in space, briefly collide before floating off again in different directions to continue their lonely drifting.

***

The boredom hits him so hard now. A visceral body visiting him, inspiring him to bouts of frenzied repetitive activity – one afternoon he wakes up out of a state of transport to find himself slashing with a knife at the bark of a beech tree, upon counting he comes to 572 slashes – alternated with hours wasted away lolling in his tree house, lying on the bare planks, eyes blinking, and sighing with exhaustion and weariness.

***

One day he’s up there luxuriously wallowing in his misery again when John calls up to him.

“Hey, Sherlock!”

He sucks in his breath, willing himself to absolute stillness.

“I know you’re up there, Sherlock! Look what I’ve got. I’m sure it will amuse you. Why don’t you come down and have a look?”

He ignores this. Beneath him John starts chuckling.

“God, you’re so bloody pig-headed. Determined little twat. Well, you’re not the only one around here with a will of his own. I want you to come down to me and if you won’t descend of your own free will I’ll come and get you.”

Sherlock can hear him swearing and grunting. He peeks down through a gap between the planks to see John climbing the tree, precariously searching for a foothold on the branches. After a few minutes his head and upper body appear in front of the entrance.

“Happy now?” he asks. “Here, look.”

He lifts his right arm to show two pairs of thick padded mitten’s dangling by their laces. One of them big, the other one rather smaller.

“I found my old boxing gloves. I used to box when I was younger. I was a mid weight. Won me some local matches. Started out at an early age, that’s why I’ve still got the small ones. They’ll do for you. I thought it would be fun to teach you to box. You’ve got so much energy in that small frame of yours and you’re enjoying too little exercise now.”

“No, go away!”

“I’m not going unless you come down with me. Come on, Sherlock. Moping up here isn’t going to conjure Mycroft back to us. I discussed this with your Daddy. He agreed something new would be good for you, help you set your mind on something else. It will be fun, I promise.”

“No,” he whines.

“All right,” John says. “You have it your way then.” He lunges himself forward and before Sherlock knows what is happening John has grabbed him by the ankle and started pulling him towards the entrance. He screams and hollers and kicks with his free leg but this only results in John taking a hold on his other ankle as well. He tries clawing and holding himself onto the floorboards but he’s dragged slowly but relentlessly towards the entrance.

“I told your Daddy I would teach you how to box, Sherlock,” John hisses, “and I’m not one to break his promises lightly. So willing or unwilling you’re coming with me now.” He gives a final tug and Sherlock finds himself submitted to the utter indignity of being hoisted under John’s right arm like a bag of sand before John starts the laborious descent down the tree.

***

He gives John a hand to help him rise from the floor of the warehouse. John’s face exhibits a mixture of relief, awe and curiosity. He stands on wobbly legs, leaning quite heavily on Sherlock’s supporting arm, looking down on the massive bulk of Brian Richards – their current criminal of the week – where he lies crumpled in obvious pain, all two hundred and forty pounds of him, clutching his frame with tears streaming down his face, the iron chain that dangled threateningly over John until a few seconds ago lying in a heap next to him.

“Wherever did you learn that?” John asks, not bothering to keep the admiration out of his voice.

Sherlock shrugs. “Our gardener. He taught me. He gave me my first boxing lessons. He was a thoroughly decent man and insisted I should never resort to tricks this low. He just wanted me to be aware other people wouldn’t always fight fairly and showed me what to expect. However, I’m sure he would agree with me in cases like these necessity breaks law. Are you all right, John?”

John lets go of Sherlock’s arm to gingerly pat his torso and legs. “Yeah, I think so. Nothing broken. A few bruises. You arrived just in time, Sherlock.”

“I was stupid, John. I made a stupid mistake.”

John laughs. “I’d almost say it was worth it if it got me to hear the great Sherlock Holmes admitting he isn’t actually infallible. I won’t spread the word though, your secret is safe with me.”

He pulls a wry face and starts texting their exact location to Lestrade. On the floor next to his feet lies a stretch of rope. “You’d best bind him,” he instructs John. He finishes the text to Lestrade and pushes the button for a text to their favourite Italian restaurant.

“Angelo will be expecting us in an hour,” he announces. “I’ve most specifically stressed we don’t want a candle on our table.”

John looks up at him with a smile of gratitude, his narrowed eyes bright amidst the wrinkles. He tugs at the rope to tighten the knot around Richards’ wrists.

“Actually I’m so hungry right now I wouldn’t mind if the table was decorated with dozens of candles. As long as there’s a space left for my plate.”

“Quite,” he murmurs. “Let’s go then. Lestrade must have found the right spot by now. Better find him before he gets lost in this warren.”

***

“The boxing lessons are going really well, John tells me.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“I knew you’d like it. John was a very good boxer when he was younger. He still is, I suppose.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Learned your lesson now?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

His father laughs and picks him up. Sherlock nestles his face in the crook between Daddy’s neck and his shoulder, against the soft silky fabric of one of the bright-coloured scarfs Daddy sports when he isn’t dressed for the office. He extends his hand to play with the tasseled knots of the scarf’s fringe while Daddy kisses him on the cheek.

“You’re such a liar, Sherlock. Of course you haven’t. Why listen to other people’s advice or accept other people’s invitations to do something for you, that’s not your style, isn’t it?”

“No, Daddy.”

***

Mycroft returns for the Christmas holidays. He’s much longer and also broader in the chest. He kisses Mummy on the cheek and gives Daddy a handshake. Over his head Daddy winks at Sherlock.

Mycroft turns to Sherlock next, proffering his hand. Sherlock stands fighting the tears that threaten behind his eyes. To his horror he feels a drop start its slow torturous roll out of his right eye, over his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles and wipes it away with an angry fist. Mycroft takes one step forward and he finds himself swept up in Mycroft’s clasp, holding him tight.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispers in Mycroft’s ear. “I’ve missed you so much.”

***

He gasps at the shock as his legs hit the cold water, icy pellets being splashed up to his abdomen.

“Come on,” Mycroft shouts. He has already dived into the water and started swimming to the middle of the pond. Sherlock closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, pinches his nose and lets himself fall forward. His body is engulfed by a sheet of ice, he jerks his head up and splurges, fighting of the attack of the overwhelming chill that threatens his body, intending to devour him. He gives a few tentative strokes with his arms and starts thrashing his feet in the water. Mycroft swims up to him.

“You’re doing fine,” he encourages.

Sherlock nods, blinking back the tears, biting his lip to stop his teeth from chattering. “It’s cold though,” he shivers.

“Yes it is,” Mycroft admits. “But you’ve no idea how good it is to swim out here in the open again.”

***

“I told you it would be cold,” Mummy says as they enter the hall, wrapped up in their bathing robes. Sherlock is indeed so cold he started crying while still out in the water and hasn’t been able to stop the tears since, despite Mycroft rubbing him dry with force.

“Oh Valerie. What good is telling them the obvious?” Nanny relieves Mycroft of their wet towels. “You boys go upstairs, the bath is hot and ready for you both.”

Mycroft squirms in his place, casts a look at Nanny. “Eerm,” he says. “I’d rather not. I’d prefer taking a shower by myself.” His voice croaks.

Mummy drops her eyes. Nanny laughs and holds her hand out to Sherlock. “Come on, my boy. We’ll let big brother have his shower in privacy. You’d better go and use the nearest guest’s bathroom, Mycroft. I’ll bring you a towel in a moment.”

Sherlock tries to hide his disappointment. He’d thought the easy intimacy between him and Mycroft fully restored but apparently Mycroft isn’t prepared to share everything with Sherlock again. Yet. Maybe. Maybe ever again.

Nanny notices his worried frown as she enters the bathroom again after having brought Mycroft his towel. She sits herself down next to the bath and dabs some shampoo onto her hand.

“It’s got nothing to do with you, Sherlock,” she soothes, massaging his hair and his scalp, whipping up the foam as she shapes his hair into two funny little horns for him to admire in the reflection of the faucet. He notices his lips are still blue even though the hot water has already defrosted the numbness in his toes and fingers.

“Mycroft’s body is changing very fast now. He’s growing into a man. He’s started sprouting hairs everywhere I gather and haven’t you noticed his voice is a little funny every now and then? That’s what happens when you reach Mycroft’s age. It’s happened to your father and to John and Mr Talbot when they were young. In a different way it’s also happened to Mummy and me.”

She chuckles. She dabs at the drops of steam that have settled on her glasses with the corner of her flowery apron. “Well, that was a long time ago. I remember being terribly afraid and self-conscious. Of course times were different then and one was being reminded constantly the body was nothing but the reprehensible temporary deposit of the soul. The nonsense I had to endure when I was younger.”

Nanny’s aimless rambling and the hot water almost lull him to sleep. He starts at Mycroft’s voice telling Nanny he’ll take over from her. He blinks up at Mycroft as he seats himself on the edge of the bath.

“I feel a little awkward.”

“You don’t have to. Nanny explained to me. You’re becoming hairy and you’re ashamed. You shouldn’t though, it happens to all of us.”

Mycroft pulls an awry face. “I guess that’s an adequate assessment of the current situation in Nanny’s own inimitable style. Do you want to have a look, Sherlock?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

Mycroft sighs and stands. He opens the robe, stretching his arms wide holding onto the panels. He’s indeed sprouting hairs everywhere. Sherlock hadn’t noticed before, Mycroft had been so quick to hurl himself into the water and afterwards his eyes had been blurred by the tears that kept welling up. And it does look funny. Sherlock feels the need to giggle rise in him but he keeps a straight face nevertheless.

“Does it itch?” he asks instead.

Mycroft shakes his head. “It’s just … awkward.”

Sherlock looks serious. “I understand.”

“Do you now?” Mycroft lets the robe drop and makes to step into the bath. “Move over, will you?”

Sherlock shuffles backward on his haunches. Mycroft sits down, a gulf of water splashes over the side.

“Shall I rinse your hair? Here.” He hands Sherlock the washcloth to hold in front of his eyes as he aims the hot spray at his hair, Mycroft’s other hand pulling and sorting through the wet strands.

“Thank you, Mycroft.”

“I’m glad to be home again, little brother.”

Sherlock nods vigorously. He would like to say he’s so very happy to be with Mycroft again but his throat is constricted somehow, blocked. He’s unable to say the words. Instead he launches himself around his brother’s neck, causing even more of the soapy water to splash over the side of the bath.

“Sherlock!” Nanny’s voice admonishes him from the doorway but for once he doesn’t care.

Chapter Text

He hasn’t played any Corelli for a long time, but after the completion of their latest case he feels a sudden yearning for that elegant, whimsical music, the arty deceitfulness of the tunes. At first they seem so perfectly bland and elegant, mere ditties unworthy of one’s attention. But probe deeper, delve below the deceptive airs and whole new creations unfold themselves – worlds of dissonants, ornaments and cadenzas awaiting his fresh exploration.

Playing this music may be just transport but what a delightful mode to convey oneself.

In pulling these sounds from his violin he can let his fantasy run wild. Carefully, he prepares the bow, waxing the hairs with resin.

His body’s still aching from the plunge his nerves – grinding in feverish overdrive for four whole days – have taken after their latest case. The hit of his epiphany had been exceptionally gratifying this time as his conclusion proved Donovan’s risible suppositions to have been wide of the mark. Her hostile face as she had spun away in infuriated disgust had been the sweetest revenge for all the times she’s called him ‘freak’. No one will ever know how much it rankles him every time the insult is hurled at him. The almost casual drop of the jibe, the pretense this is the proper way of addressing someone, no slight intended.

A true sociopath wouldn’t even heed the blatant aggression. So he always feigns not to have noticed. He hasn’t thanked John the few times he’s told Donovan to her face he won’t bear with this derision of his friend. On those occasions he pretended not to hear as well.

He dislikes her with a passion that borders on his amount of disdain for Anderson. The way she sniggers with gleeful ridicule whenever it’s proven he’s not aware of the latest unimportant trivia that doesn’t relate to the work and is yet deemed to be more important by shallow people like her. She’s a stupid idiot and at least he can declare in all honesty he’s never told her so to her stupid annoying face. He manages to swallow the biting remark every time her insistent jeering tempts him to spit it out. Her decision to hit it off with Anderson is simply the final proof he’s correct in his assessment of her. She’s an embittered spiteful person, full of grievances against the world, blaming her sex for the fact she doesn’t rise in the ranks, refusing to see she might not be smart enough. And she thoroughly lacks Lestrade’s plain human decency, the one trait that turns him into such a surprisingly able policeman.

He sighs and wills himself to resolutely draw a line. He isn’t going to reminiscence on his justified chagrin at Donovan’s treatment of him, their prime asset at New Scotland Yard. The music will help him to get a grip on himself again

He’s unearthed his old sheet music from the bottom of the pile next to the sofa and set it on the music stand. He runs his fingers over Mr Mancini’s curlicue scrawl – all exhortations and advice on how he must interpret the notes – jotted down in aggressive haste as he sat listening to Sherlock’s playing. In his mind’s eye he sees his old tutor sitting at the chaos that was his desk, one finger welded to the play button of the cassette recorder, furiously pressing and releasing, muttering to himself ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’, his eyes closed in a spasm of artistic suffering.

His satisfaction is as great as it must have been twenty years ago – sitting in the dorm room he shared with Fyfe-Rief – upon deciphering the enthusiastic excellent!!!. He studies the passage. All dissonants. Well, those are his specialty, being off-key sums up his life pretty accurately. He chuckles and turns to retrieve his violin from its case. He flows his fingers over the lacquered wood with deliberate care. Mr Mancini’s gift to him on his twelfth birthday.

He recalls the old man lifting the instrument from the velvet-lined case with trembling hands, the knotted thick veins on the backs palpitating with excitement, his face transformed into a mask of reverent worship.

“Guarneri. My Guarneri. And my father’s before that. It was going to be your father’s though he never knew. I had forgiven him, I had bequeathed her to him in my will. Still …” He blinks rapidly a few times before continuing: “I want her to be yours now. You’ll find the sound to be a little darker than your own and my other violins. I’ve only played her for myself and my wife after your father had made his fateful decision. Please hand me that sheet of music, my boy.”

It had been Corelli. The second part of the first violin sonata, his teacher standing in the bow window, specks of golden dust swirling about him in the shafts of shy spring sunlight that fell through the paneled panes, the eerie light bouncing of his bald pate and burgundy velvet jacket. His beloved teacher had been transformed into a medieval sorcerer, weaving his wand of music around Sherlock, luring him along to his enchanted grotto where all would be revealed …

He had gasped at the abrupt ending.

“Do you hear?” Mr Mancini had kissed the instrument with solemnity before handing it over to Sherlock. “I understand once again you haven’t had a happy birthday. I hope this gift will make up for the lack of proper festivities, at least a little bit. Treat her with all the loving care you can muster, Sherlock. You’ll find she’ll be the best mistress you’ll ever encounter. Not all of us enjoy the good fortune of meeting a Mrs Mancini, God bless her soul.”

***

How true those words have turned out to be. The violin has been his beloved companion all these years, offering diversion, consolation and – in those instances he’s been racking his brain over the work so hard, attacking an exasperating puzzle from all possible sides – concentration.

The wood is warm and pleasant in his hand, the curvatures yielding to his touch as he nestles it under his chin. He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment to focus his attention, and then he lets go.

Oh God yes, this is so … no it’s not sweet, this music can never be sweet but really the man was aptly christened when his parents decided his first name was to be Arcangelo. And now here – oh beautiful – why hasn’t he played this music for such a long time? He wields his bow over the strings, the fingers of his other hand flying up and down along the neck. I’m very sorry, Daddy, but much as I love your Beethoven even you must admit that this music is … ah, the dissonants, oh yes, well nothing wrong with elaborating a bit. It’s not as if he’s playing for an audience, now is he?

Behind him someone scrapes his throat. He starts. His transport by the music has been such he hasn’t heard anyone entering the flat. He whirls around to be confronted with Mycroft, a smile hovering on his lips.

“So. Another case cracked,” he asks, jiggling his umbrella in his right hand.

Sherlock lets the violin and bow drop to his sides but doesn’t answer.

Mycroft cocks one eyebrow before walking into the room and positioning himself in John’s chair. He points the tip of his umbrella in the direction of Sherlock’s.

“Pray be seated, dear brother. I’ve something of importance to discuss with you.”

Sherlock stays put near the music stand and snorts. “In my experience our definition of substance does tend to vary. I very much doubt I’d be interested in whatever you have to tell me so I suggest you take your leave.”

“Charmed, certainly,” Mycroft murmurs. “This concerns our nearest relative, Sherlock. You’re bound to be interested.”

“I’m most decidedly not. Anything having to do with our mother can’t concern me in the least. You would make life so much easier for both of us if you could just accept it.” He gnashes his teeth in frustration.

Mycroft sighs. “Why do you always have to display this unmitigated belligerence whenever the subject of Mummy is brought up? We’re her sons. She’s the one that brought us into this world.”

“I didn’t ask her to, did I? She’s most certainly never done anything to help me once she’d ditched me here.”

“Oh please,” Mycroft says with a sneer. “Now you’re whining. Stop it at once, will you, and I’ll do you the favour to pretend not to have heard. Mummy’s sixty-fifth birthday is coming up. I’d like to celebrate this happy occasion with a little concert followed by an agreeable dinner with some of her closest friends. Nothing elaborate. I want you to play some Beethoven in remembrance of our father and attend the dinner. You can bring along John if that would help. Mummy has assured me she would be delighted to meet him.”

Sherlock fights the gasp that threatens to be wrung from his throat at the sheer audacity of his brother’s words. He wouldn’t have felt more assaulted if Mycroft had decided to pound him in the chest. This is way past the boundaries they so carefully negotiated during his last weeks at the rehab clinic after he’d agreed to Lestrade he would see Mycroft again.
Mycroft had extracted Sherlock’s promise to attend the yearly Christmas dinners then, provided they were to take place at the anonymous ground of a London hotel. In return he had sworn that was all that would ever be asked of Sherlock, a shallow pretence of them being a normal family.

He takes a deliberate swallow to quell the urge to scream at Mycroft, throw a tantrum, attack him. He heaves a deep breath instead, steadying himself.

“How very gracious of her. Dearest, dearest Mummy,” he murmurs, heavy sarcasm dripping from his voice. “Listen, Mycroft. I honestly don’t see why you bothered to come down here and annoy me as even someone as deliberately obtuse as you are will understand this is not going to happen. I won’t play for her and I won’t attend your stupid dinner party. As to John, I’ll take my own measures to ensure he will never have to meet her.”

“Sherlock, really. I think even you should be able to appreciate you’re too old for this childish behaviour. She is your mother and her sixty-fifth birthday is a special occasion. The suggestion that you wouldn't attend is simply intolerable."
“Too bad, because I’m not going. All the King’s horses wouldn’t be able to drag me to the festivities. Now, this discussion is beginning to give me a headache. Please leave.”

Mycroft stays put. He scrutinises Sherlock’s face with close deliberation.

“Why?” he asks at last. His tone expresses genuine curiosity. “Why do you insist on nursing these grievances so? Do you intend to remain spiteful towards Mummy for the rest of your life? Can’t you forgive and forget? What happened in the past is such a long time ago. She’s ill, can’t you see that? In fact I’d hoped having John at your side would have helped you to ... acquire some perspective.”

Sherlock grinds his teeth. He finds he’s digging the tips of his fingers into his palms so hard, the nails are all but piercing the flesh. He uses the pain to try and steady his voice, eyes squeezed shut so he won’t have to look at his brother.

“I’ve never seen the need to discuss with John the misfortune that was my childhood. Who’s the one that has been unreasonable all these years? You’ve always shielded her, defended her, whatever she did. But you were there, Mycroft. You’ve been a witness. Anyone looking at the whole story wouldn’t consider my present stance to be that unreasonable. Now, for the last time, go!”

Against his intent he finds he’s shouting. His legs are shaking, barely able to bear his weight. He staggers. Downstairs the loud thud of the front door being thrown shut reverberates through the house, followed by the sound of John’s feet hurrying up the seventeen steps.

“Sherlock! What … “

“Hello, John,” Mycroft cuts him short with smooth tones. “What a happy coincidence. Sadly, I was just leaving. No, don’t worry, I’ll manage to find the way to the front door on my own. You stay here and make Sherlock a nice cup of tea. He could do with one.”

He walks up to Sherlock. “I’m very disappointed in you.” His tone is flat, yet the sound is the closest to a hiss it could get in Mycroft’s posh mouth. Sherlock screws his eyes closed even tighter. If he doesn’t have to look at his brother he believes he’ll manage now John is here to support him, even though John himself doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. Him just being here in the room provides Sherlock with the mental help he so desperately needs. He fights and finds the energy for a cutting farewell.
“Goodbye, Mycroft. Don’t give my regards and don’t bother to visit for the next half year or so.” He hurls the words at his brother but Mycroft has already turned and started retreating. He feels his ribcage expand on a deep sigh, relief invading him in a rush. John stands staring. He makes an effort to pull up the corners of his lips into a smile, gives up when he feels it won’t work.

“Actually, I could do with a cup of tea.”

John throws him a hard look before nodding.

“Right, okay. You’d better sit down though. You look a bit pale, well, paler than usual that is.”

“Yes, I …” He feels his frame collapse on the sofa. He holds up his hands in front of his face to stop the tremors shooting through them. His body is under his command again once John returns from the kitchen with two mugs in his hands. Being the good friend he is, he doesn’t ask the questions Sherlock can read from the set of his jaw and the worried look in John’s eyes as he hands Sherlock his tea. Gratitude floods his chest. He would honestly like to provide John with some clues, some answers. But really, if he were to, wherever would he begin?

***

He sits staring in amazement at the amounts of food John is stashing away. Compared to Daddy and Mr Talbot, John is a very small man. Yet, he has just affirmed for the third time that he would indeed like another helping of bangers and mash. Mr Talbot is still slowly working through his first plate and his plate was only half as big as John’s to begin with. Bangers and mash is delicious. He wouldn’t mind having to eat this for dinner every day. When he says so, Cook just laughs.

“Not exactly your mother’s favourite, this one. But if you like it so much we shall eat it every day while she and your Daddy are away.” She swivels her upper body towards Mr Talbot. “That’s, provided you don’t mind?”

Mr Talbot’s mouth curls upwards into his slow smile. “I’ll make do. I agree with Sherlock – good, honest English cuisine is often hugely preferable to the more elaborate French-styled fare. What’s your opinion on the subject, John?”

John chews and swallows his mouthful. “I say Cook is simply the best cook that’s ever been employed here. Mr Holmes’ father worked himself through a host of them and it always turned out the next one was worse than the former. That poor man must have eaten so much burned toast in his life I’m sure that’s what did him in at such a young age.” He blushes and throws Sherlock a discomfited look. “I’m sorry, Sherlock. No disrespect intended. Your grandfather was a thoroughly decent gent. But he knew sod-all about food even though my father maintained one of the best orchards and kitchen gardens in England for him.”

Cook looks so pleased at John’s words that Sherlock asks for an extra serving of carrots to encourage the flow of good feelings in the kitchen. It’s really quite nice to have his dinner together with Cook and John and Mr Talbot who keep up a pleasant prattle between the three of them without any of the prone silences that are likely to fall at the dinner table upstairs, the little shell holes Daddy has to gloss over with a laugh and a jest.

Mummy is away with Nanny on one of her book promotion tours. They’ll be away for six weeks of which just three have passed now. The first two weeks have been wonderful with Daddy home early every day. They spent their time together listening to Bach, Daddy explaining the intricate patterns that govern the notes, or playing duets on the violin, standing next to each other and Daddy turning the sheets. Once upstairs in his bed he read Daddy a fable by Lafontaine and they discussed the moral of the story before Daddy kissed him goodnight.

Their sojourn in paradisiacal companionship ended abruptly one week ago. Daddy told him he would have to go abroad for the next two weeks. He had looked utterly distraught at his disclosure so Sherlock had told him he would get by very well with Cook and Mr Talbot and John to look after him. Daddy had ruffled his hair with a smile.

“I know, my darling boy, but still I feel awfully bad about it all. This whole crisis couldn’t have come up at a worse time. I’ve discussed it with Mummy but for her to break off the tour now will mean she’ll have to disappoint so many people … That’s simply not an option. I’m honestly so very sorry Sherlock, I’ve racked my brain for another solution but …” He had hugged Sherlock very close. “I know I’m leaving you behind in the best hands and I will call every evening, same as Mummy.”

Mummy does indeed call every evening to ask if all is well with him. After he’s affirmed he’s doing fine and has given her an account of his day she hands the phone to Nanny. He has to promise her he won’t start any experiments with his chemistry set without proper supervision and won’t bring anything he finds outside in the garden into the house and he will eat all his vegetables and rinse his mouth after he has brushed his teeth.

The list of do’s and don’ts is longer every day. But she always ends the call saying he’s a dear and she misses him.

Dessert is apple crumble with custard cream. He can have as much as he wants.
“It’s fruit, isn’t it?” Cook says.

After dinner he helps her clear the table. She pats him on the shoulder and tells him he’s a sweet little boy. He drags a chair near and stands upon it so he can kiss her on the cheek. She’s so big and soft everywhere, he can’t feel her bones, only surprisingly firm flesh covered with an endless stretch of skin that always smells faintly of peaches.

Meanwhile John installs himself into the armchair on one side of the big fireplace with his whittling knife and a block of wood. Sherlock has been watching him, observing how John works the knife into the wood, steadily chipping and cutting away. On one side of the straight block of willow wood a round shape has emerged, a kind of globe bedecked with crests and whorls, like a primitive drawing of a churning sea.

“What is it you’re making, John?” he asks every evening and every time, John provides him with the same confusing answer: “My world, Sherlock.” Then he smiles and asks Sherlock to read him a story – he’s professed an interest in the myths of King Arthur – or play his violin for them. He always asks so nicely Sherlock can’t refuse.

Both Cook and Mr Talbot listen attentively to either the reading or the playing but John doesn’t even hear it. Sherlock knows because he scans John’s face through his eyelashes while he’s busy performing and notices John’s body is indeed occupying the chair but his mind is far away. The moment his voice or the last notes of the violin die away John looks up, blinks and beams vaguely in his direction. “Thank you, Sherlock. That was beautiful.”

It’s strange. Especially as both Cook and Mr Talbot act as if John is not behaving in an extraordinary way, so absent-minded, quite unlike his usual self. He wonders whether he should ask Mycroft what he thinks about it all but Mycroft has never been very interested in John’s business. He asks Daddy one evening on the phone. Daddy starts laughing.

“Oh Sherlock, darling, you can’t do that. Please leave poor John alone. Ask Mr Talbot for an explanation of the term ‘privacy’, my boy. It’s obvious John doesn’t want to talk about this with you so you shouldn’t try to coax him into answering questions he doesn’t want you to ask. You’re trespassing against all the basic rules of polite interaction amongst human beings. Promise me you will apologise to John tomorrow.”

He promises and he makes his excuses to John the next afternoon at the beginning of their boxing lesson. John stares at him before answering: “Well, thank you Sherlock, but …” His eyes shift and a look of acute pain wearies the set of his mouth. “It’s just a hobby, you see?”

Sherlock nods his understanding. He knows John is lying to him. John, who is always so patient and explains everything and has never lied to him before. Why?

***

“So you noticed it too,” Mr Talbot says. “Well, of course you did. But John’s answer shows us very clearly he doesn’t want to share this secret with us. Everyone has secrets, Sherlock. Secrets are very important to most people; they add to the spice of life. Problem is, most secrets are rather dull.”

“Do you have secrets, Mr Talbot?”

“Well, I’m not going to tell you, now am I? Or they wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

“I can try and find out what they are.”

“Good idea. Still, I think I have a better one. I suggest I set up a chessboard in the classroom and we play a game every evening for an hour before bedtime. That will be a more worthwhile occupation than annoying John with importunate questions. What do you think?”

“Oh, I’d like that very much. Thank you, Mr Talbot.”

“It will be a challenge for it compels you to play two games at a different speed at the same time. Mycroft spoke very highly of your progress in his last letter.”

“Do you and Mycroft keep up a correspondence then?”

“Still searching for secrets? Well, our correspondence is certainly not as regular as yours. But I’m happy to read everything he wants to disclose to his old tutor and send him my thoughts on the subjects he discusses.”

“I’d like to correspond with you, Mr Talbot.”

“I don’t really see the need yet as we see each other six days a week anyway and will continue to do so for the next five years, holidays excepted. However, I’ll give your request all the consideration it’s due.”

***

Sherlock squeals with delight when he finds the envelope lying on his desk the next morning. The address on the envelope reads:

To Sherlock Holmes
The Schoolroom
Copperbeech Hall

Upon opening the envelope he finds an envelope addressed to Mr Talbot for his use and a letter:

Copperbeech Hall
21st April, 1983

 

Dear Sherlock,

How are you today? I do hope you enjoyed a good night’s rest and ate a hearty breakfast. They do aid in providing you with a sharp eye and a steady hand and you’ll find you need those for this morning’s exercise. Yes, my dear boy, the time has arrived for the letter ‘S’. One hundred times as usual and I expect you to give it all the respect it’s due, i.e. your utmost.

When you’re done, please ponder this little problem for a second: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 … Elegant, isn’t it? Will you do me the kindness to continue this sequence until you reach the 10,000 limit?

That will be all for today.

Yours sincerely,

Edmund Talbot

***

Copperbeech Hall
21st April, 1983

 

Dear Mr Talbot,

I’m fine, thank you. I slept well and Cook made us pancakes for breakfast. I love those. You saw me eat three of them. One with strawberry jam, one with maple syrup and one with caster sugar. I would have liked a fourth but Cook told me I would be sick if I ate another one. She made me drink two glasses of milk. You said I should eat an apple too, so I did.

Enclosed you’ll find the ‘S’s. I hope I have done you proud. The other sheet is filled with the rest of the sequence. What one has to do to continue it is to add the last two numbers. Once one has grasped this principle it’s actually quite easy.

I’m looking forward to our game of chess this evening.

Yours sincerely,

Sherlock Holmes

***

Daddy has decided they’ll all go to the seaside during the summer. Mummy came back coughing and exhausted from her tour, Nanny grumbling and complaining about the travel conditions and stating Daddy should have a long talk with the publisher about the abject treatment of one of their biggest-selling authors.

Mummy protested weakly every time Nanny started a new variation on her endless lament. Daddy endured the scolding by screwing up his face into a mask of absorbed attention. Meanwhile Sherlock was instructed to go and find another cushion to put behind Mummy’s back.

A week before Mycroft’s end of term Daddy announces he’s booked a hotel on the South coast of Cornwall.

“You go and soak up the sun, darling. Get yourself a proper rest. The boys can look after themselves on the beach and I’ll come over every weekend, I promise.” He walks around the dinner table to embrace Mummy and tousles Sherlock’s curls when he makes his way back to his chair.

“I was even older then you are now when I first set my eyes on the sea, Sherlock. I remember it was such an adventure.”

***

He fully understands what Daddy meant by that remark once he sees the sea.

It is huge. This must be what infinity is like, it’s even more impressive than the firmament. And it is so very blue.

He and Mycroft lie together side by side on an air mattress on the gently bobbing waves, wearing the snorkels and goggles Daddy bought them. Together they try to spot fish, lacking those they study the patterns that are created in the sand as it shifts over the sea bottom. They build a grand fortified castle and decorate it with shells they collect on the beach. The next morning the castle is gone and they start on a great project of dams and canals. The sea dissolves that as well and they start on a town. They go searching for small crabs and shrimps in the rock pools under the cliffs. Nanny keeps beckoning him with her bottle of suntan lotion to slather him all over with the sickly-sweet stuff and adjust his hat on his head. From the moment the sun reaches its zenith she wants him to wear a long-sleeved vest. It’s no use protesting.

“I don’t understand how such a dark-haired child can have such pale skin,” she huffs every time.

Mycroft has to endure the treatment as well. He’s spared the comment because persons with red hair are supposed to have pale skin. Sherlock is the exception to a general rule apparently.

Mummy does nothing but lounge in a chair all day, her eyes closed and face turned towards the sun or staring at a book in her lap. Next to her Nanny can’t sit still. If she isn’t busy ordering Mycroft and Sherlock around or distributing sandwiches and tea she pours from a hot flask to them all, she picks up her knitting needles to continue work on the cardigan she’s knitting him for the winter. Sherlock doesn’t know whether he will like wearing it. He sits munching his bread, his molars grinding on the sand that somehow invades the sandwiches no matter how carefully Nanny packs them and watches the fabric grow beneath her hands. The wool is a hideous bright green colour and it tickles his skin even through the vest each time he has to come over and stand very still in front of her so she can measure whether the panels are long enough yet.

Every afternoon he nestles himself at Nanny’s feet. Nanny spreads a towel for him and folds another towel into a little cushion for his head. Once he’s lying she tucks him in with yet another towel from the stack hidden beneath her chair. The sun’s warmth makes him feel heavy and drowsy after his swim. The distant noise of the surf that keeps rolling onto the beach, never ceasing, adds to the good lazy feeling. Above them the seagulls wheel around against the blinding light of the sun, their screeching louder than the sounds of the other people on the beach who are talking, laughing, playing games. One moment he’s watching Mycroft who sits leaning against Mummy’s knees, toying with the sand while he stares out over the sea, the next he feels his eyelids sink closed and all existence ceases for a while.

Daddy arrives every Friday evening and Mummy is always so very glad to see him. She runs out of the lounge where they’re taking their tea to throw herself around his neck once the Rolls glides into view at the entrance of the drive. Sherlock would dearly love to run to Daddy as well but Nanny contains him, telling him he should allow them a moment of privacy.

But once they’re on the beach nearly all Daddy’s time is for Sherlock. He stands in the water and lifts Sherlock high above, way over his head. Sherlock screeches with excitement, arms and legs flailing wildly in delicious torment. Because he already knows what’s coming. Daddy’s strong arms fling him away with a mighty sway into the sea, like he’s a human rocket, for a few seconds he whirls through empty nothingness, and then the bright cold waters open up to receive him and close itself above his head. He swims back to Daddy who stands laughing and holding his arms out to him.

“Again, Daddy.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, please.”

“All right then.”

He’s hauled out of the water, lifted high into the sky, he squirms and screams and giggles and then he’s flying again. And again and again and again and again and...

***

It’s the last day of the holiday. How he’s going to miss the sea. He already knows swimming in the lake back home will feel like such a disappointment after the heady rush of being one with the ocean.

He enters the water and starts swimming and the sea stretches away in front of him. The endlessness never lessens, no matter how far he swims and for how long he swims and he keeps swimming away from the beach. He bobs up and down on the waves that roll towards him, his body riding each new crest effortlessly, the undulating movement of the waves ahead merging with the blue of the sky above and around him. When he looks back both Nanny and Mummy have been reduced to ridiculously small puppets jumping up and down on the golden yellow sand of the beach. He waves back at them and continues to swim.

The heady quietness is suddenly broken by a splashing sound behind him, interlocked with snorts and gasps. He turns around to see it is Mycroft swimming towards him with all his might. Sherlock forces his arms and legs to churn even faster through the water. He dips his head into the salty liquid, brings it back up to taste the brine on his lips.

“Sherlock, stop. Please stop,” he hears Mycroft gasping. “What do you think you’re doing?”

He rotates and starts swimming back towards Mycroft. “I’m swimming,” he yells, the exhilaration coursing through his veins.

“Yes, I had surmised that much. But this isn’t our small lake, Sherlock. You’ve gone too far. The sea can be dangerous. Look at Mummy and Nanny, they aren’t jumping up and down for joy. Let’s return.”

Sherlock laughs and turns to float on his back, enjoying the gentle sway of the waves supporting his torso. The water is cold but the sun is gloriously warm. He closes his eyes. He wants to stay here forever, out here with nothing but the gentle touch of the salty liquid caressing his limbs and the rays of the sun ghosting over his skin. Weightless, limitless, experiencing nothing but an empty golden blue that knows no beginning, no end. His mind completely empty, no thoughts, no feelings, just being.

“Come,” Mycroft tugs on his hand and he wants to cry out for Mycroft to cease his worrying, to let him be. The look on Mycroft’s face freezes the words in his mouth and with a start he realises how cold he is. He can’t feel his fingers and his toes anymore, they’re numb and useless in the frigid water. This is worse than the pond in winter. But in the pond the shore is nearby, just a few strokes and he can stand. He feels his feet reach for the security of firm ground. Nothing. Suddenly he’s afraid, the cold around him transforming into a hand that grips his gut and shakes him. He’s unable to see the beach over the tops of the crests that block his view, their rise never ceasing, nothing but ocean around him. He fights the panic he feels bubbling up in his throat.

Come on.”

He closes his eyes and nods and starts swimming next to Mycroft. Each accidental brush of their arms or legs is a token of reassurance and an encouragement to keep moving. The seawater sloshes the salt into his eyes and turns into tears that course over his cheeks. He sobs and gasps. He fights the cold grasping fingers that rise from the depths to grab him by his ankles – the ankles he knows are there at the ends of his legs, though he can’t feel them anymore – and drag him under, through the glassy dome of the water to go roam the sands at the bottom of the ocean.

The air around them is filled with a loud clicking sound. Next to him Mycroft’s frown of worry deepens.

“Just keep swimming, Sherlock.”

He understands the clicking sound is caused by his teeth which are chattering wildly inside his mouth, the automatic movements of his jaws beyond his control. And now he’s shivering as well, the tremors shaking his limbs, tampering with their ability to keep pushing him forward through the medium he rode so effortlessly until just a few minutes ago. He’s exhausted, he can’t move any longer. His extremities have turned into lead, it has become an impossible task to drag them through the molten ice the sea has turned into. Maybe if he rests a bit now …

Keep it up, Sherlock. Damn you! Keep moving! Don’t you drown on me!” Mycroft’s anguished shouts reach him from far away. He can’t really hear Mycroft because his ears keep filling with water, rushing against his eardrums. Softly, softly the waves whisper, a sweet enchanting sound beckoning him and he stops swimming to better concentrate on the subtle melodies that wrap themselves around and into his ears, his whole being.

Suddenly he’s manhandled onto his back and he feels Mycroft strong body slithering itself beneath him.

“I told you to keep moving. Please, Sherlock. Why are you being so difficult? Why don’t you listen? Can’t you see you are further endangering us both. Now help me!

His head is held in a grip of iron, held high above Mycroft’s panting chest, and he’s pulled through the water with great force. After a few seconds his legs start moving again of their own accord and now they’re shooting through the water together at great speed.

“All right, Sherlock. You’re doing fine. We’re nearly there.”

“Hold me, Mycroft. Please.”

“I’ve got you, Sherlock. We’re going to make it.”

Finally he can feel the sand under his feet and they stumble through the surf, onto the beach. They’re both coughing and shivering and Sherlock falls down on the sand, all-consuming exhaustion denying him the use of his legs.

Mummy and Nanny come running towards them, both shouting and crying hysterically. Mummy is faster than Nanny and arrives first. She clasps Mycroft into her arms.

“Oh God, Mycroft. Are you safe? Please tell me you’re both well.”

Before Mycroft can start assuring her they are, indeed, both safe and well she wields towards Sherlock and yanks him up form where he’s clinging to the glowing sanctuary of the golden sand. Her arm shoots out and she smacks him in the face with her open hand: once, twice, thrice. He can feel the diamond on her ring cut his cheek.

“You utterly wicked little demon! How dare you? How dare you?” she screams. She gives him a hard shove and he falls backwards into the sand, his hand hugging his cheekbone where he can feel the blood welling up, its warm thick viscosity a different sensation from the cold water still clinging to his skin. The sea salt stings in the cut.

Behind Mummy Mycroft’s face is a study in fear. His arms and legs are shaking. He puts his hands against his upper thighs in an effort to stop their trembling.

“Mummy,” he stammers. Sherlock echoes the word, staring up at the frenzied creature looming dangerously above him.

She falls down on her knees and hugs him tight. “Oh Sherlock, my boy. I’m so sorry, I’m so very, very sorry. But how could you? Why don’t you ever think? You had me so worried.”

He swallows hard to fight the nausea he can feel rising up in his throat. He forces himself to stay still, absolutely still.

“Valerie, what are you doing? Let the child be! What’s gone into you?” Nanny has arrived at last, gasping for breath. She latches onto one of Mummy’s arms and tries to pull it loose.

“Let him be. Let me have a look at him.” Nanny’s voice has risen to a violent height and a tussle over Sherlock starts between the two women.

“Mummy, Nanny, please. Stop it! Let Sherlock go. Give him some breathing space.” Mycroft tries to wrestle the two of them apart.

“Oh, for all the bloody …” Mummy shrieks. She lets go of Sherlock abruptly, causing him to fall backwards onto the sand, jumps up, runs to her chair, grabs her dress and hoists it over her head. She throws the three of them a furious look and stalks away into the direction of the hotel.

“Valerie, what… ”

“Mummy?”

Sherlock sits in the sand, his hands hugging his heaving stomach, soiling the pristine sands of the beach.

***

Back at the hotel Nanny cleans the wound and puts a plaster on it. His cheek is swollen, the veins in his temple throb painfully. Nanny makes him drink some water to clean his mouth but it comes straight back up again after which she gives up and decides upon a hot bath to tidy him up.

Mummy doesn’t come out of her room for dinner. For once he’s allowed not to take a bite. He manages two small sips of water. Neither Nanny nor Mycroft dare cross the threshold of Mummy’s door. It glowers at them from its frame when they return to the small sitting room of their suite. An invisible dragon has perched itself in front, ready to singe with its fiery stinking breath anyone who’ll attempt to approach. Sherlock curls himself tight in Nanny’s lap and clings to the protective warmth of her bosom. She kisses his forehead, pulls her fingers through his hair over and over again. He doesn’t want to go to bed, his empty dark bed where empty dark thoughts are lying in wait for him. He just wants to be held close, his hand resting in Mycroft’s dry grasp. Neither of them has said a word since their return to the hotel, but Sherlock can read on Mycroft’s face he’s been shutting himself off from Nanny’s constant nervous chatter as well.

Now the gentle roll of the surf is the only sound in the room. They sit and watch the sea darken as the sky morphs from a light dusky blue to flaming orange with streaks of bright yellow and lime green to a deep bloody red while the sea transforms into a heaving mass of purple. The stars reveal themselves as the crimson gauze is lowered, cold icy sparks, thrilling points of distant light, shining in eternal indifferent beauty.

“You really should be in bed, Sherlock,” Nanny murmurs.

“No!” he cries, and grips her tighter. He can’t bear the idea of being left alone now, to lie alone between the sheets, even though he knows Mycroft will be lying in the bed on the other side of the room they’ve been sharing the past few weeks.

Nanny tuts and makes to rise. She halts as the door to Mummy’s room is jerked open. Mummy stands in the door frame, her slight silhouette stark against the glaring light in the room behind her, every lamp switched on. She takes five steps into the sitting room. Her face is a mask, with a profound pallor beneath the healthy tan. The silk of her rose-pink robe rustles with a faint whisper as she holds out her arms to Nanny.

“Give him to me.”

Nanny hesitates.

I said: Give him to me.

Nanny glances at Mycroft, a quick sideways slant of her eyes and Sherlock can barely discern Mycroft’s affirmative nod. He doubts whether Mummy has noticed, though. Her eyes are huge and wide, the blue of her irises completely consumed by the deep glossy black of the pupils but they don’t seem to register anything at all.

He wants to protest as Nanny hands him over but decides against it as the full force of Mummy’s gaze falls on his face. It’s … spooky. A moment ago she wasn’t there and now suddenly he has to endure the blazing intensity of her scrutiny. He lets his eyelids fall half-closed to shield himself. His body clamps down on the shiver welling up at the nape of his neck.

Carefully Mummy lowers herself into a chair, drawing him close, nestling her chin in his curls. Next to his ear he can hear her sobs racking her chest. He wills himself into absolute quietness. Even as he feels the tears glide down his hairs, onto the skin of his scalp.

“Oh Sherlock, my wayward little waif. Why must you always be so naughty, so aggravating? Why can’t you just be calm and gentle? Be like Mycroft. Don’t you understand how much it hurts me?”

Her breath rasps in her throat. “I love you. I want to love you. But you’re making it so hard for me. You’ve always rejected me, right from the start. You didn’t want my milk … You squirmed away from my breast with a look of disgust on your tiny face. Your lovely tiny face. And whenever I bent over your cot to pick you up … you were just lying there … looking at me with his eyes … but no kindness … “

“Now Valerie, please stop it, will you? You can’t burden the child with this, with your doubts. Besides, we’ve talked about this … “

“Shut up!” Sherlock nearly falls from Mummy’s lap as she whisks herself around to face Nanny. “I want to explain, can’t you see that? I want to clear up what happened this afternoon so he will understand why his behaviour is unacceptable to me. So he will learn to avoid annoying me in the future.”

“But Mummy,” Mycroft comes to Nanny’s and Sherlock’s defence. “Sherlock is only six years old. He’s impulsive, he can’t appreciate danger yet. You can’t hold that against him. He didn’t swim out that far on purpose. You’re being most unreasonable.”

“You too, Mycroft Holmes,” Mummy warns before turning her full attention back to Sherlock again. She pulls him closer against her, pushing his head against her breasts so hard he feels like suffocating. “Shut the hell up. Both of you…”

The room quiets. Nanny and Mycroft have locked their eyes on the floor. All Sherlock hears is the ragged breath in Mummy’s lungs and the insistent quick beat of Mummy’s heart, measuring the throbbing of the pain in his cheek.

“I’m …” Mummy chuffs. “I’m sorry Sherlock. I’m truly sorry. You must believe me. It won’t happen again. I promise you.”

He’s allowed to raise his head.

“Yes, Mummy. It’s all right, Mummy.”

“Good.” She wipes her hand over her face a few times and looks down on him, an uncertain smile flickering on her lips.

“Now let me have a proper look.” She turns his face towards the light. “Oh God.”

“It hardly hurts, Mummy.” Not true, the pain wells up sharply with every movement, straight from the marrow in his cheekbone, but he will say anything to help her.

When she speaks next her voice has darkened, like she’s ready to weep once more.

“Oh, my poor darling. And you so brave, you’re my gallant little hero, aren’t you? And now … oh my God, whatever is Sherlock going to say?”

They stare at each other, he almost shrugs his shoulders. Her pupils have narrowed to tiny pinpoints, tinier and colder than the stars that are still looking down upon the scene through the window. The iridescent blue of her irises freezes him into obedience. He finds himself nodding to her next words.

“He’s not to know. He’s got enough worries as it is, what with that horrid woman thinking she can order him around because she happens to be the Prime Minister. We’ll tell him you ran into a door, Sherlock. That’s not that unlikely a supposition, seeing how you’re always tearing around with that magnifier of yours in front of your face.”

He hears Mycroft’s sharp intake of breath.

“No,” Nanny protests. “No, you can’t do that. That’s utterly morally wrong. It’s not fair to Sherlock, and not fair to little Sherlock and you’re corrupting yourself if you tell a lie like that. Can you see that, child? Please, I … What would your parents say if they heard of this? You don’t have to consider me, I’m nothing but your old Nanny, but surely you must realise this would make your Maman turn in her grave if she heard about it.”

“Don’t be silly, Nanny,” Mummy huffs. “And leave Maman out of this. My reasoning makes perfect good sense. This … that situation down at the beach, is simply never going to happen again and there’s no reason to upset Sherlock. He needs all the peace and quiet he can have at home right now. Too bad Sherlock here had to bump into that door but there’s no reason to make such a fuss over it. Don’t you agree, darling?”

She beams down at him.

“No, Mummy. I should have been more careful. I should have noticed the door to the suite was standing open when I came running out of my room.”

“Now there.” Mummy shoots Nanny a look of triumph. “Sherlock understands so why don’t you? Here, take him to bed.”

She kisses the top of his head. “Let this be a lesson to you to pay better attention to what you’re doing, my dear boy. Now good night.”

“Oh.” Nanny tugs at his arm to draw him of Mummy’s lap, nearly wrenching the limb out of its socket in her anger.

“Whatever got into you? I didn’t raise you this way,” she spits at Mummy between her teeth.

Mummy just smiles at her. “I gather it might be way past Mycroft’s bedtime as well.”

Mycroft rises and walks over to Mummy to kiss her on the cheek.

“Good night, my boy. Be kind to your dear little brother. His cheek must be hurting him so.”

***

That night he had crept into Mycroft’s bed to be close to a body he could trust to do him no harm.

He flicks his gaze over towards where John is sitting at the table, hitting the keys of his laptop with his stubborn two-finger system. What would his comment have been if he had been a witness to that scene. A bit not good??

John endures the scrutiny of his backside for five minutes before he turns around and raises his eyebrows at Sherlock.

“Everything fine?”

“Yeah, fine.”

“All right then.”

He swivels around again and resumes his typing. Sherlock reaches over to pick up his violin from the floor and starts plucking the strings, random notes at first that shape themselves into a pizzicato version of a Brahms’ waltz. John turns around again.

“Are you sure?”

Her first instinct was to hug Mycroft closely in her arms and to slap me in the face. For God’s sake, stop it, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Sentiment, dull, stupid, delete it!

On the coffee table his phone starts buzzing. He picks it up and swivels his legs onto the floor when he reads the caller’s name.

“Sherlock Holmes.”

Lestrade bursts into an exposé about a body found in a skip in Barking.

“We’re on our way. Text me the details.” He jumps up and heads towards his bedroom to dress. Behind him John is already shutting down the laptop.

***

Daddy comes hurrying out of his study as they enter the hall.

“Hello, my darlings. Did you have a good last week? Glad to be home again? Did you have a good journey? Valerie, John has picked you such a delightful bouquet from the flowers in your garden. Brenda has put it in your study. You really should go and have a look. I thought maybe we should place it in the blue morning room instead.”

He beams around generally until his eye falls on Sherlock. Dismay and disbelief alternate on his features, he drops on his knees and grips Sherlock by the shoulders.

“Sherlock, my boy. What happened to you? Valerie, what … “

“He ran into a door, Sherlock. Yesterday, he didn’t watch out. It looks awful but it doesn’t hurt that much anymore,” Mummy’s voice smoothes over his mumbled: “I ran into a door, Daddy. I didn’t look what I was doing. It hardly hurts, not anymore.”

“My God, Sherlock. How that must have hurt. Did you cry a lot? No? But then you’re my brave little boy, aren’t you? Now please, oh my darling, Daddy’s here.” Sherlock has thrown himself into Daddy’s arms. His father’s soothing kind voice calls forth the tears he hasn’t shed, has refused to shed so far, big bubbling sobs welling up in his chest. Daddy pets him on his back, drawing him close, murmuring comforting nonsense into his hair.

Oh, he’s a liar. Sherlock is lying to Daddy. Daddy doesn’t know why Sherlock is crying so, indeed he must never know what happened and the idea that he’s responsible for a shameful secret which has to be hidden from Daddy makes him cry all the harder.

He’s not interested in secrets anymore. He wishes his secret was dull, not this burning ache inside his chest.

“Stop it, Sherlock,” Mummy snaps. “We all had a wonderful holiday. Please don’t spoil it. Nanny, why don’t you take him up to his room and clean him up a bit? He can’t go into dinner like that, there’s snot all over his face.”

She turns her attention towards Daddy.

“You too, my darling. He slobbered all over your shirt.”

“Valerie, you’re too harsh. Sherlock is upset. He must have had quite a shock. I don’t understand how this could happen. He’s always so careful.”

“Darling, he’s a child. Children are wild.”

“Yes, but still …”

“Oh Sherlock, please. Not you too. I’m tired and really not up to a conversation about the antics of our youngest.”

She walks over towards them and puts her hand on Sherlock’s head, bends to kiss him on his curls. “Let go of Daddy, darling. Go up with Nanny.” She smiles towards Mycroft who’s been keeping himself in the background. “You too, my dear.”

Sherlock notices the dash of Daddy’s gaze towards Mycroft and Mycroft’s signalling of an all-clear by his quick nod. Daddy unfolds himself in a supple movement of knees and elbows, away from Sherlock, his hand squeezing Sherlock’s shoulder. “Yes, yes, of course. You must be tired, you must all be tired. I’m sorry darling.” He fingers the silk of his scarf.

Mummy raises her smooth delicate arms to latch them around Daddy’s neck.

“You haven’t even properly kissed me yet,” she pouts.

***

Love or lust. Either of those must have befuddled Daddy’s judgment. Or a strong, unsavoury alliance of the sentiment and the passion. After all, in those respects Daddy was decidedly different from him and Mycroft both. The sharp mind was too easily tempted by a promise of temporary obliviousness, however transient. Looking back he has no difficulty interpreting some of the glances Daddy and Mummy threw each other, the whisperings, the trailing brush of fingers up a sleeve.

Love and lust then. Not languor. Even though Daddy was at heart one of the most languorous persons he’s ever known. But if he would have had an ounce of an inkling of the truth he would have spoken with Mummy, taken measures. Of that Sherlock is utterly convinced. Daddy honestly didn’t know what had happened. The gossamer veil Mummy had woven in front of his eyes was too enchanting. And nobody told him, Nanny nor Mycroft nor he.

***

Mr Talbot’s gaze isn’t bedazzled by Mummy’s slender figure and perfectly heart-shaped face.

“I see,” he says when Sherlock explains the colourful bruising on his face to him. “Try to pay better attention to your surroundings in the future, Sherlock.”

As Sherlock comes out of the yellow drawing room the same afternoon he sees Mr Talbot knock on the door of Mummy’s study and enter without waiting for a reply. Fifteen minutes later he walks out again, an odd little smile twisting beneath his moustache as he passes the door behind which Sherlock is standing with his face pressed to the crack between the door and the door frame.

He would dearly like to tiptoe towards Mummy’s study to hear what she’s doing but he doesn’t dare. He decides it’s better not to hang around in the house now and hurries outside to his tree hut instead.

That night he lies waiting in his bed for her arrival, long after Daddy has come to wish him a good night. The digits of the little alarm clock on his night table indicate it’s eleven o’clock before he allows himself to fall asleep. Whatever Mr Talbot and Mummy have discussed in her study, he must have been most convincing.

Chapter Text

The stench rising from the skip is almost enough to make Sherlock gag. He clasps his handkerchief over the lower half of his face and darts a glance into the waste bin. Next to him John mutters before uttering a profound: “Jesus Christ!” Sherlock silently agrees with John. The exclamation sums up his sentiments at the sight to a tee.

Safely upwind, the Yard’s finest stand observing them. Anderson looks positively green about the gills. Sherlock motions to Lestrade to come over. After a slight hesitation the DI ambles near, his gaze resolutely slanted away from the skip and its grisly contents.

Sherlock carefully lowers the handkerchief. His nasal cavities have adjusted themselves to the smell by now. “When was she found? Who warned you?” His eyes skim over the corpse again. He has assumed it must have been a female because of the skirt clinging to its legs. Skinny legs. A young girl’s legs. He wonders at the intensity of the smell. Can just one corpse exude such an intense stink?

“Some kids playing around here found it two days ago. They told their parents who didn’t think it was important enough to phone us apparently. We only got a call this morning,” Lestrade says, voice strained with the effort to hold his breath while answering.

“Jesus Christ,” John swears under his breath again. The curse falls from his lips with even more sincerity this time.

“You’re repeating yourself, John. Do try and add a little variety to your blasphemy. Has anyone spoken to the children or the parents yet?”

“Yeah, but nobody came up with any information we could actually work on. We’re not exactly popular around here. See no evil, hear no evil and speak a lot of evil behind our backs, that pretty much sums up the attitude.”

Sherlock doesn’t respond but looks around him. This whole area is nothing but a wasteland. Nettles and brambles claim the ground, the grey waters of the canal behind them flow eerily silent, barely disturbed by the bobbing plastic bags which litter the surface. Tiny rows of houses stand in the distance. The skip, even though it’s obviously no longer a part of the London recycling and rubbish collection services, is clearly visible from the small upper windows of the nearest row. As he scans the mean buildings he notices the drop of a curtain which had been lifted to better observe their doings.

An echo of John’s pat phrase floats over his lips. What a dreadful place to grow up, to pass one’s life. He’s lived in some pretty awful places but that had been his own choice … more or less. The image of his tree house pops up, high amidst the abundant greenery in summer, transported straight out of a fairytale all covered in snow in winter. He eyes the skip again, quite a different play area. He shakes his head to focus. Reminiscing about the past won’t help him solve the case.

“I’m afraid I will have to ask you for one of those ridiculous blue coveralls,” he tells Lestrade while he pulls a pair of latex gloves out of his coat pocket and starts wriggling his fingers into them. “Here.” He hands his coat and scarf to John. Both John and Lestrade stare up at him, their mouths fallen open in the same expression of horrified astonishment.

“You’re not actually going … ,” John starts.

Sherlock rolls his eyes.

“Somebody has to do it. Anderson would only wreck the crime scene. And Lestrade very kindly informed us just now no one is going to supply us with any information willingly. We’ll need to burrow for clues among this mess. Do you know of anyone else more likely to find any indication how this body ended up here and who the murderer is?”

“Well … no,” John admits. His eyes slide up and back down over Sherlock’s figure. The corners of his lips tug into a wry laugh. “I know you enjoy a little skip-hopping every now and then. But this one? I don’t think the drycleaners are going to be very happy to have your suit shoved over the counter once you clamber out again.”

“As long as I pay their bill I’m sure they’ll be delighted with the patronage,” he snaps. He starts hoisting on the ludicrous blue monstrosity and the matching shoe covers. He gives the contents of the skip a quick inspection to decide on his preferred point and mode of approach and opts for a careful lowering from the side onto a garbage bag that’s filled to overflowing. He tries to stand. The sea of rubbish beneath his feet starts undulating, he wobbles precariously until the mass comes to a rest and he’s sure of his footing. The whiff of overpowering stench rising up from the putrid waste beneath his feet sets the bile rising in his throat. He clamps his mouth tightly shut.

“Watch out for needles,” Lestrade warns.

Sherlock doesn’t even deign to answer that. In order to imprint the view properly in his mind he stands absolutely still, maybe longer than strictly necessary. He’ll have to drop down on his knees if he wants to study the remains of the body closely. The idea of voluntarily sinking into the malodorous fumes makes him blink his eyes for a moment. At one side of the skip a stack of MDF board planks is leaning against the side, weatherbeaten and soaked through, but a better protection than the blue suit against needles and whatever else is buried beneath his feet. He hoists the smallest one up and lowers it next to the body with great care so as not to further disturb the arrangement of disposed waste it’s resting on. Once on his knees he whips out his magnifier, takes a deliberate deep breath and dives down to have a good look at the wrist.

“How can you stand it?” John exclaims.

He hardly can, he feels like he’s suffocating, but to admit that would look bad so John’s remark actually helps him to make it through his first rough examination.

It’s a child, no more than twelve, maybe fourteen. The discolouring on her wrist must be a tattoo but not one she has chosen at a tattoo shop to spite her parents.

After he’s done examining the body he cautiously lifts the bag lying nearest to him, than the next one. A checked shirt and a pair of jeans with an expanse of blotched swollen skin in-between. The removal of the next two bags reveals a flowery summer dress over a belly that’s so big and bloated he imagines he can actually hear the gases and liquids leaking inside it.

“What is it?” Lestrade asks, still at a safe distance.

Sherlock shakes his head, finds his legs again and clambers out of the container.

“This skip is a graveyard,” he announces. “A child smuggling ring decided some of their commodities had become too much bother. Maybe they had grown too old to satisfy the needs of the clientele, or they had started to strive against the conditions they were forced to live in. I’m one hundred percent sure these aren’t English children, they were smuggled into the country. We won’t find any dental records to identify them by.”

Lestrade pulls a hand over his face. “Christ.” John is silent but his face is an eloquent representation of his emotions at hearing Sherlock’s words.

He starts lowering the coveralls from his shoulders.

“You’d best send them over to Bart’s, Lestrade,” he says. “The girl on top had a tattoo on the inside of her wrist. I’m sure the others will have one that’s identical with some minor variations. This skip here is not going to provide us with anything to work on. They won’t have made a mistake as simple as that.”

Gingerly he sniffs the elbow of his suit and wrinkles his nose in disgust.

“I’d greatly appreciate if you’d lend us one of your police cars for our journey back to Baker Street,” he continues. “The chances of finding a cab here are about nil and I guess the stench will further lessen our chances of getting us a ride. Your man can drop us at the corner. We don’t want to upset Mrs Hudson. I suggest you open the window if the smell should prove to be too much for you, John.”

“So, what are we going to do now?” John asks once they’re seated behind a thoroughly disgruntled looking chauffeur.

“Homeless network,” he answers. “Hopefully those tattoos will ring a bell with someone. Someone who’s either brave enough or desperate enough to raise the curtain for us a little.”

“I do hope so. Children, they were just children. Jesus Christ.”

John’s words are heartfelt. Sherlock flicks his eyes at him. What an extraordinary creature he is, this army doctor that invaded Afghanistan. He must have seen so much gore and injustice and yet he will never accept the idea of the world as a place where people are constantly ready to inflict the worst upon each other. Quickly he looks out the window, out on the streets filled to overflowing with seething humanity.

“We will find the people who did this, John. We will dismantle their organisation and they will be brought to justice.”

John inhales audibly. “Yeah, I know, of course, but Sherlock … Christ, imagine willingly doing that to a child?” He shakes his head.

Sherlock remains resolutely quiet.

***

Mycroft hasn’t breathed a word to Sherlock about the incident on the beach. They’ve been mostly silent together during the days that remain of Mycroft’s holiday.

The evening before he’s off to his boarding school again he knocks on the door to Sherlock’s room and lets himself in. Sherlock sits bent over his desk, gluing together pieces of cardboard for the model of the DNA-molecule he’s building.

Mycroft seats himself in the windowsill.

“That looks really impressive,” he nods at the part Sherlock has managed to paste so far. “I see you’ve applied more care to it than I managed to give it when Mr Talbot inspired me to build my model. What does that imply and is it important?”

Sherlock guesses these aren’t actual questions but an attempt to hide an embarrassment bothering Mycroft. He turns his upper body away from the desk to look at his brother. Mycroft’s gaze flitters towards the window. He clears his throat with some deliberateness.

“Sherlock, I want to say … I still don’t know … I’m highly confused by what happened. I utterly failed you. I should have protected you and I didn’t.”

Sherlock stares at his brother. What is Mycroft trying to tell him? Why should Mycroft be the one to protect him?

“Mummy is … “ a flash of pain twists Mycroft’s mouth into ugliness, “not well. Our father knows, I’m certain he does, but, for whatever reason, I suppose he can’t – or maybe he feels he would intrude upon her privacy if he did, he both loves and respects her too much for that, yes, he does – he’s not going to do anything about it. Like insist she goes to see a psychiatrist, obtain assistance. She doesn’t want help. I … she’s ill, not mad or anything, she just needs to talk with someone about what ails her, get the right medication. I fear I’m speaking in riddles, please understand this is all highly confusing for me as well. I …“

He falters. Sherlock pushes himself back from the desk and walks over to Mycroft. He grabs Mycroft’s left hand. Mycroft raises his head and attempts a reassuring smile in his direction. His voice, when it comes, is urgent.

“Promise you will write to me every day and will tell me everything that happened to you. Everything! Promise me for your sake as well as Mummy’s.” He gives Sherlock’s hand a tight squeeze. Sherlock sees he’s reluctant to ask, to lay bare his misgivings, torn between loyalty to Sherlock, to Mummy, to Daddy even.

Sherlock searches for the phrases needed to word his gratefulness to Mycroft for his display of discomfort. Mycroft’s awkwardness and uncertainty perfectly mirror the whole messed-up jumble of conflicting emotions he has been living with the past week. At least he’s not alone in this. If Mycroft has difficulty grasping, analysing, facing why Mummy is acting the way she is towards him, he may be excused for not understanding it either.

Watching Mycroft’s uneasiness he understands why Nanny plays at being unaware of anything being wrong as well. He tangles his fingers between Mycroft’s. Mycroft blinks in surprise, flits his other hand briefly above their entwined knuckles.

Should Sherlock tell Mycroft about that conversation between Mummy and Mr Talbot? Tell him Mycroft needn’t worry because Mr Talbot will be looking after him when Daddy is away? But no, he decides he can’t share that information with Mycroft because then he would have to admit he’d been spying again and Mycroft would be upset to hear so. Oh, why does everything have to be so difficult?

“I will write to you every day, Mycroft. Same as last year.”

“And you will tell me everything? Please, even if Mummy makes you promise not to tell anyone?”

“I will tell you everything, Mycroft. I always will.”

There, he has lied again.

***

Mummy tries very hard to be kind to Sherlock. He can see that she does. She lowers her voice to a tone of coaxing softness in addressing him. She invites him for walks around her garden, just the two of them holding hands.

One day they sit next to each other on the sofa in the blue morning room discussing the various causes that led to the Romans final victory during the Punic wars. Sherlock listens entranced while Mummy exults on her esteem of the ancient Romans, showing him pictures of the various ships that were put to use during the sea battles and her earnest enthusiasm invites him to share her admiration for Roman ingenuity and daring.

“They were so smart, Sherlock,” she enthuses. “In the beginning, compared to the Carthaginians, they were basically nothing but a community of landbound soldiers. But they didn’t think it beneath them to copy a good idea when they saw it and then improve upon it. They were fast learners. Here …” and she hands him a book with a drawing of a terrifying device the Romans invented to ease the boarding of the ship of the enemy.

He imagines he’s a rower on a Punic ship of war, pulling at his oar next to the other unfortunates seated all around him. Suddenly above his head there’s the sound of wood splintering, men screaming and this immense pointed tip made of wood plated and strengthened with hardened iron, comes crashing through the ceiling of the deck above him. He cowers in terror. And then he doesn’t have to row anymore, because despite all their efforts they’re being pulled ever closer to the ship of the enemy, where the Romans are waiting for them …

“Exactly.” Mummy pats his head and draws him close to flutter a kiss on his nose. “It’s so satisfactory to study the past, to sketch the big story for people to read and to translate the past into the world we’re living in today.”

“Like a detective?”

She slants her head sideways in coquettish contemplation, drawing her pretty small mouth into a moue.

“Well, yes. I guess you could say I’m deducing the distant past. I want to understand what happened. We can only learn from the mistakes we made in the past.”

At her last words she stiffens and the smile drops from her face. With an abrupt motion she shifts away from him and rises. Her hands start picking at her skirt, removing invisible flecks of lint.

“I really must go, Sherlock.”

She avoids looking at him and hurries out of the room, pulling the door shut with a violent jerk of her arm.

What has he done now?

***

The sheet on his desk glares up at him, empty and accusingly. The pen is poised in his right hand, hovering above the stretch of white. ‘Everything’, that was what he was going to write, wasn’t it? But what should he write? ‘I asked a question and Mummy got upset.’ He’s certain Mycroft would read lots of meaning into Mummy’s dramatic departure from the room.

On the other hand, nothing really happened, she raised herself and told him she had other business to attend to. Grown-up people always have ‘other business to attend to’. Only two days ago Nanny literally told him so, adding not to bother her as she was busy making soap and had to help Cook produce enormous quantities of strawberry jam and prune chutney.

This is just the way Mummy works. With him that is.

He swivels around on his chair, stands and walks over to the window. Outside an early autumn storm is lashing out at the beech trees still dressed in their summer finery that line the far end of the turf. The green leaves are ripped from the branches and sent on a wild, mad chase in the air. Up and down they whirl, swirling and twirling, brusquely inviting each other for a brief waltz that’s just as suddenly ended. His eyes settle on a leaf mottled with golden specks and follow it as it dashes between its thousands of fellow leaves until it is laid to rest in the bird bath in the rose garden.

He latches his stare onto another one but decides to let go of it after a few rounds. If he stays standing and stalling here in front of the window his letter to Mycroft is never going to be written. That really would not do. He sighs and seats himself at his desk again, takes his pen in hand and gazes up at the chart of the periodic table on the wall in front of him for inspiration. He’s not going to write about Mummy.

Dear Mycroft,

Today Mr Mancini gave me a most difficult piece for practice.

***

“Valerie. Listen to me, I … “

“NO!!! Why should I listen to you? You’re lying to me. I know you are! You’re cheating on me. Having it off with one of those secretaries of yours. They’re sluts, all of them! Who is it? Oh, you don’t have to tell me. I know it’s that Miss Lewis. She was practically pushing her … her tits in your face last Christmas and you couldn’t keep your eyes off them.”

“Valerie! What do you want me to do? Want me to say? Do you want me to deny your ridiculous accusations? I’m not going to because they’re not true.”

“Liar! Liar! Liar! Liar!” Mummy starts chanting. Her voice taunts and challenges, rising to a high-fevered pitch.

“Darling, please? Stop this, stop this! What’s wrong with you? No! What … “

A loud crash followed by the sound of breaking glass culminating in silence.
A silence so absolute Sherlock is sure they can hear him breathing where he’s standing in front of the door to their bedroom.

The next sound to hit his ear through the wood is a small mewl, its desperate loneliness sending a shiver of horror running down his spine. He presses his eye to the keyhole and detects Mummy slumped on the floor against the four-poster, Daddy rising above her looking at something he’s holding in his hand. The whimpering swells in volume till Mummy is sobbing, elbows on her knees, fisting her hands in her hair.

“You broke my mother’s tortoiseshell mirror,” Daddy says in a dead tone of voice. “Her grandmother’s wedding present. It’s one of the few memories I have of my mother, me sitting on her lap while she was letting me play with the finery on her dressing table, catching the light in her hand mirror. And you threw it …” His gaze flits from the broken pieces to Mummy and back again. “Why?”

Mummy scrambles to her knees and clasps her arms around his legs, pressing her wet face against the corduroy of his trousers.

“Oh Sherlock, please. I don’t know. I don’t know what came over me. Oh, I’m so tired. My head hurts with being so tired. And … it’s just … it’s hateful, your being in London all the time! The bed is so empty without you … and when I lie alone at night I start imagining things. I … of course I know I’m being unjust and you would never start an affair with one of your secretaries, with anyone. I know you’re too decent to be unfaithful to me and … it’s … I miss you so. God, can’t you see I need you, I need you to be beside me?”

Daddy lays the pieces of the mirror on the bed in order to coax her upward, wrapping his arms around her and drawing her shuddering body against his.

“I miss you too, dearest,” he tells her. “Believe me, that camp bed in my office feels even more lonely than our bed must feel to you because it doesn’t carry any memories. But it’s the way it is. Much as I would like it to be otherwise, it’s beyond my control ... ” His voice trails off.

Mummy’s head sags against his chest. Next her arms snake upward and she starts flicking open the buttons of Daddy’s shirt with slow and deliberate fingers.

“Valerie? Now isn’t … “

His mother’s voice is low and husky. “Hush Sherlock, hush. Let me. I know you want this as much as I do. It’s –“

A hand is clasped over Sherlock’s mouth and he’s dragged away from the door.

“A bit not good, Sherlock,” Mr Talbot’s voice hisses in his ear. A hot flood of shame rises in his chest, he can feel it ghosting up his throat and spread over his face. He’s forced-marched through the hallway to his own room and pushed inside, Mr Talbot enters as well and closes the door behind him.

“This is what you looked like, Sherlock,” he says, holding out his sketchbook for Sherlock to inspect. “Not a sight to gladden one’s heart, wouldn’t you agree?”

Sherlock glances at the sketch Mr Talbot has made of him in just a few quick lines of charcoal, bent over with his face pressed close to the door in order not to miss anything. He appreciates the faithful depiction of himself and resents the despicable picture he presents.

He gazes up at his tutor towering above him, fighting the urge to cry. A mixture of misery and anger engulfs him. How has Mr Talbot managed to catch him unawares? How has he been able to observe him spying on Daddy and Mummy and creep upon Sherlock without him noticing anything? He was right that first day in school to consider this man to be a formidable figure.

Yet once Mr Talbot starts speaking he doesn’t sound angry. His tone is one of weariness, with maybe a hint of disappointment.

“If they wanted anyone to be a witness to the business they were conducting behind that door they would have started the proceedings in one of the drawing rooms. What you were doing is very wrong, Sherlock. Reprehensible in fact. You must be fully aware of that.”

“I am, Mr Talbot,” he mumbles.

“Good. This wasn’t the first time you were playing at that game, that much is obvious. If memory serves we did have a conversation only last spring about respecting people’s privacy, Sherlock. In the current situation I can hardly make you apologise to your parents so you may apologise to me instead.”

“I do apologise, Mr Talbot. I shouldn’t have done it. I know it’s bad. It’s just … “

“Yes, Sherlock.”

“I don’t understand Mummy,” he bursts forth. “I don’t know what she wants me to do. One moment she’s all sweet to me and the next moment she’s angry with me and I really don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

Mr Talbot seats himself in the windowsill and beckons him over. He lifts his hands and lays them to rest on Sherlock’s shoulders, an oddly comforting pressure. The expression in his eyes is one of gentle concern.

“No one understands your mother, Sherlock. Least of all herself. Don’t blame yourself, your mother is a very difficult person to live with. Snooping on her won’t help you find the right way to approach her. Better learn to read the signals so you’ll know when to make yourself scarce. If you want to help your mother you should always remember she has to live with herself every day, which must be harder than any of us can imagine.”

“Are you saying she’s mad, Mr Talbot?” he asks, recalling the talk with Mycroft a few weeks ago.

“No, Sherlock. Whatever gives you that idea? She’s not mad. In fact your mother sports one of the fiercest and sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered. But she carries a lot of issues with her. She’s far too dependent upon your father for her happiness. Basically, she lacks the ability to be content with life.”

He huffs a strong gust of breath through his nose.

“You’re too young to understand all this. Just remember, it’s not your fault, Sherlock. Whatever happens between the two of you, you will never have done anything wrong. She’s your mother and she’s the one who should know better.”

The pressure of Mr Talbot’s hands on his shoulders increases, ever so slightly. “Promise me you will never spy on her again, Sherlock. In doing so you’re belittling yourself, it’s unworthy of you.”

“I promise.”

“Good. End of discussion then.” The mouth beneath the moustache quirks. “Would you like to save my little sketch as a reminder or shall we burn it?”

He wants to burn the horrid thing. But won’t Mr Talbot mind? But then, if he would he wouldn’t have proposed it. So he really won’t be offended if Sherlock confesses he longs to be rid of the drawing.

“Burn it.”

Mr Talbot laughs and claps his hand on his knee. “Excellent decision.” He walks over to the fireplace. “Come on, you may use my lighter.”

They kneel together in front of the grate. Mr Talbot squashes the paper into a neat ball and pulls it apart again. He hands Sherlock his lighter. Five seconds later all the evidence of his shameful act is gone.

***

Mummy doesn’t come down for dinner that day. Sherlock sits in the yellow drawing room playing with one of Daddy’s dogs when Mr Talbot enters.

“Ah, Sherlock. Your father would like a word with you.”

Together they walk to Daddy’s study. Inside, Daddy is standing in front of his desk.

“Sherlock.” He holds out his hand to Sherlock and draws him close.

“My darling boy. I want you to know I’m very sorry for what I’m about to tell you but believe me, in the long term this is all going to be for the best.”

He hesitates a moment, a quick brush of his fingers against Sherlock’s jaw before he continues: “Tomorrow morning Mummy will be leaving together with me, Sherlock. You see, Mummy is very tired at the moment. You all had a wonderful holiday together but it appears the rest wasn’t enough for her to really get well again. Today we resolved she will retire for a few weeks to a clinic for some final recuperation. I will be coming home during the weekends and as often as I can in between but Mummy will have to stay there, we don’t know yet for how long.”

Sherlock nods to indicate he understands.

“Me and Mummy regret this whole situation, Sherlock. We feel we’re letting you down but to be frank, there’s no other way. We’ll all have to improvise a bit, like last spring. Except now Nanny will be here with you as well for Mummy can’t take her with her to the clinic, much as she would like to.”

He’s pulled even harder into Daddy’s embrace. Daddy’s trembling, barely perceptible, but Sherlock discerns it through the soft brush of the wool of Daddy’s jacket against his face. He apprehends Daddy is seeking comfort with him under the pretence of providing it.

“She won’t be allowed to call us either.” Daddy swallows visibly. “The people that run the clinic think it’s best if no one of us has any contact with her for a while. They’ve assured us that will be the quickest route to have Mummy back with us again. So you won’t be able to see Mummy or talk to her for weeks. But it’s all for the best, darling. You do see that, don’t you?”

Sherlock bobs his head up and down in affirmation. Daddy smiles at him.

“There. I knew you would. You’re so smart. Mummy and I wrote a letter to Mycroft this afternoon to explain. We consider … we’re certain she’ll be dismissed from the clinic before the holidays. So we’ll all be together this Christmas at least. That’s a good thing to look forward to, isn’t it?”

He needs to be reassured so Sherlock nods again. “Yes, Daddy.”

“Yes. Only … Sherlock. I’m so very, very sorry. Of course you’ll want to say goodbye to Mummy as she will be going away for such a long time but Mummy told me she couldn’t. She doesn’t want to say goodbye to you, she’s feeling guilty for leaving you behind and well … considering the circumstances … “ His voice breaks off.

Sherlock’s eyes dart over to where Mr Talbot is standing in front of the mantelpiece. The expression on his tutor’s face is one of careful neutrality. Mr Talbot may be the only grown-up present conscious of the scope of Mummy’s feeling of guilt; he’s not going to inform Daddy unless Sherlock indicates he may do so. Besides, he’s not here for Sherlock’s sake. Sherlock recognises Daddy needed Mr Talbot to be a witness in order to be able to tell him Mummy has finally consented to be treated for whatever ails her.

“It’s all right, Daddy.”

A wry smile tugs at the corner of Daddy’s lips. “Actually it’s really not, but it’s what we have to work with right now, I’m afraid. Do come here.” He’s hauled up properly into Daddy’s arms and he clasps his own arms tightly around Daddy’s neck. Daddy starts kissing him wildly, on his hair, his forehead, his cheeks, his eyes and Sherlock kisses him back on whatever part of Daddy’s face he’s able to apply his lips to.

“There, there …” Daddy murmurs.

“Shall I read a night time story to you, Daddy?”

“Yes, my darling. What a sterling idea. What will you read me?”

“I’m reading Beowulf right now.”

“Beowulf eh? God, I loved that story as a boy. You know what Sherlock, you go up and prepare for bed and I’ll be with you in ten minutes, all right?”

Sherlock is lowered to the floor again. He makes for the door.

“Yes, Daddy. Goodnight, Mr Talbot.”

“Goodnight, Sherlock. Sleep well.”

***

Dinner the next day is bangers and mash. Nanny looks down upon her plate with a look of distaste on her face but he asks Cook for two big portions.

***

Nanny’s eyes are red-rimmed all day. On Tuesday he catches her weeping while she’s re-organising his closet for the winter.

“Oh my, Sherlock. I didn’t hear you. You’re always so quiet. Like a little mouse. I’m …” She stutters to a halt.

“I came to find the green cardigan you made for me, Nanny,” he lies. “I’m feeling a little cold.”

She swipes her right hand over her face to wipe away the traces of her tears. She reaches into the pocket of her apron, pulls out a Kleenex and blows her nose.

“Well, the weather has definitely taken a turn for the worse. Where is it, I had it in my hands just now. Ah yes, here.”

She hands him the hideous garment. He puts it on and smiles bravely at her.

“There now. I just knew that colour would suit you down to the ground. And it’s good merino so it’s bound to keep you nice and warm.”

Nanny looks a little happier, proud of her work. She sighs and with slow painful movements clambers up from her knees onto her feet again, holding herself onto the closet for support.

“It’s so hateful to imagine your Mummy in that clinic, Sherlock,” she says. “She was such a happy, carefree child. That’s why I was crying just now. I’m a little upset, you see?”

Well, he has got eyes in his head but he decides not to aggravate her further so he just nods.

***

“So the lady of the land has been locked away.” Mr Mancini says in a puzzled voice. He hasn’t commented on the state of Nanny’s eyes the day before but after having endured a lot of little sniffs from Nanny as an accompaniment to the exercises Sherlock has been playing for him he has asked what is wrong with her.

Nanny looks daggers at Mr Mancini. “What an absolutely hateful thing to say,” she snarls.

The befuddlement on Mr Mancini’s face increases.

“Is it now?” he asks. “It’s nothing but a statement of the facts, I gather. She was holding you all prisoner with her eccentrics until Sherlock decided he had had enough, both in the interest of his own sanity and that of his sons. Well done, I say and he should have done so a long time ago.”

Nanny’s face has become blotched with excitement and anger.

“You are a horrid person,” she hisses. “Need I remind you that your pupil is the son of the woman whose name you’re dragging through the mud right now. Sherlock, go outside for a minute, would you?”

“No, Sherlock stays. He’s supposed to be enjoying a violin lesson. I suggest you go and seat yourself in the kitchen till the lesson is finished. It’s nice and warm in there. Feel free to make yourself some tea, you’ll find all necessities on the counter.”

“Oh.” Nanny stands with abrupt fury. “You haven’t heard the last of this.”

“At least I’ll have heard the last of your distracting sniffing. Come on, Sherlock. Play me those last notes again. A little less vibrato this time, keep it concise and clear.”

***

Mycroft’s letter to him next Wednesday is all concern, exhorting him to be honest and tell him everything he hasn’t written earlier. But nothing has happened, nothing he can write about to Mycroft at least. So he writes back he really doesn’t know why Mummy consented to enter the clinic all of a sudden. Every day he’s given a truthful account of his bearings, Mycroft must believe him, and he has noticed nothing out of the ordinary during the weekend.

He adds he doesn’t feel hurt by Mummy’s decision not to say goodbye to him for good measure, hoping this will reassure Mycroft.

Besides, it’s true.

***

He watches in horrid fascination. Behind him he can feel John shuffling nervously.

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Hush, John.”

Next to him their informant giggles. “Not a nice sight,” he offers.

Sherlock looks down at him past his nose. “No, definitely not,” he agrees. He looks around the corner at the pair in the narrow alley again.

By now the man has fisted his hand in the boy’s hair and is using his throat as an inanimate object to reach completion. Sherlock can feel his own throat constrict in sympathy with the boy’s plight.

“I’m not watching this,” John whispers.

“You can go if you want to, John,” he says gently.

“No, what? No way. What do you propose we are going to do now?”

You aren’t going to do anything. I will be the kid’s next customer.”

“Jesus Christ, no. Not with that watchdog at the other end of the alley keeping guard. I don’t have the gun with me.”

“The customer approach will be the quickest way to contact these children. Don’t worry John, it’s a perfect cover. I’ll be talking nine to the dozen but some customers do apparently, especially the ones with a wife and kids at home. They need to reassure themselves it will only be this one time, never happen again.”

“All right, but … just don’t do anything rash or stupid.”

“Really, John. Have a little faith in my methods.”

***

Daddy doesn’t arrive until late in the evening. The lights from the Rolls are visible between the trees as the car sweeps up the driveway. Sherlock glances at the alarm as he creeps into his bed. Half past twelve.

The next morning Daddy’s already seated with his newspaper at the breakfast table as Sherlock enters the room.

“Daddy!” He throws his arms around his father’s neck.

“Sherlock, my boy. How are you?” Daddy beams at him yet Sherlock can’t help noticing the pallor of his skin and the crease of tiredness around his mouth.

“I’m fine, Daddy. I finished my model of a trireme. Mr Talbot said it was very good. Mr Mancini and Nanny had a bit of an argument but he was most pleased with my Bach exercises.”

“Oh dear, and I had such high hopes for them hitting it off together. Poor Nanny, promise me to be sweet to her, Sherlock. She loves Mummy very much, as much as we do.”

Daddy pulls Sherlock onto his lap and nuzzles his hair with his nose. “I’ve already spoken to John this morning. He told me he could use some assistance gathering the walnuts and hazelnuts and picking the last of the apples. Shall we help him after you’ve finished school today? I’m desperate for a little exercise. My week has been nothing but people boring me to death.”

“That would be fun Daddy. Maybe Cook can make us a picnic as well? And we should ask Mr Talbot whether he wants to join.”

Daddy looks a little doubtful.

“Mr Talbot is rather attached to his privacy,” he says.

“Yes,” Sherlock agrees. “But he’s my friend and John’s as well so I’m sure he would like to join us.”

“Is Mr Talbot your friend, Sherlock?”

Sherlock looks up into Daddy’s face, into the warm smoky-grey of his irises.

“We like each other and he wants to help me,” he offers cautiously. “That’s what friends do in all the books.”

Daddy laughs. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Well, you’d better have breakfast then and go off to the classroom to enjoy your friend’s lesson of the day. I’ll talk to Cook about that picnic and will come to fetch you both at twelve o’clock. Is that fine with you?”

It sounds like it will be one of the best weekends ever. Such a pity Mycroft isn’t there as well.
Thinking of Mycroft reminds him he should ask after Mummy.

“I haven’t heard anything from her,” Daddy answers his unasked question. “She’s screened off from any contact, remember? But I’ve called the doctors yesterday and they told me she’s reacting very well to the treatment. So she should be with us again in no time.”

“Thank you, Daddy.”

“All right, Sherlock. You’d better finish quickly now or you’ll be too late and I wonder whether Mr Talbot will be very friendly towards you then. And have yourself a glass of milk. I know you don’t like it but Mummy would severely scold me if she found out I didn’t check properly on your dietary habits and justly so. With an exception for the Brussels sprouts of course.”

***

It’s the second week of December and Mummy is still at the clinic. Daddy has grown increasingly silent as the weeks and months pass by. Every Sunday he goes for a long walk in the woods behind the estate. He doesn’t want Sherlock to accompany him during these ramblings, stating the walks are too long for Sherlock’s legs to carry him.

In the kitchen Cook is already anticipating for an extensive Christmas. “It would be helpful if your Daddy made up his mind what he actually wants to do this year,” she grumbles. “Still, I guess he’s got other concerns right now. But I have to be prepared if all of a sudden he decides he wants to entertain eighty people, like he did last year.”

John is busy cutting the mistletoe and fir branches to decorate the house. He hammers the fir branches on the wall over every doorway with a small nail and heaps them with tinsel. In the hall he’s put up a big tree like he does every year and Sherlock is allowed to help him and Nanny decorate it.

That evening Sherlock can hear Daddy is very excited as he calls.

“I’ve had such good news today, my boy. Mummy will be coming home this weekend. The doctors have finally consented to let her go. She’s made a big improvement since last week. The medicines they’ve been trying have apparently caught on at last. So I will go and fetch her this Friday after we’ve collected Mycroft from school. We’ll all be together again for the season.”

Downstairs again Sherlock finds Cook is talking to someone on the phone in the kitchen.

“Yes, of course I do. I’m not daft, you know. – I assure you I’ve organised many a Christmas do in this household and Mr and Mrs Holmes have never found any reason to complain about the quality nor the quantity of the fare I’ve prepared for their guests. – Fifty people may seem daunting to you, young lady, but to me it’s nothing out of the ordinary. – And a good evening to you too.”

She throws the horn onto the receiver. The colour of her face matches the shade of her plastic red earclips to perfection.

“The presumption,” she bristles. “That child can’t have been more than thirty years old. To have the gall to tell me how to organise my kitchen. Oochh! Your Daddy must have the patience of a saint in heaven, Sherlock, if he has to deal with such arrogance every day.”

“The poor girl won’t dare touch her phone for the next hour,” Mr Talbot says mildly.

“Maybe I’ve taught her some manners then,” Cook answers him. “Her parents sure never did.”

***

He’s just had to concede his second castle to Mr Talbot when the headlights of the Rolls lighten the darkness outside.

“They’re here,” Mr Talbot says and stands. In a burst of anxiety Sherlock grabs his tutor’s hand.

“Don’t be afraid, Sherlock. Remember, this is going to be more difficult for your mother than it will be for you. Besides, you should be happy because Mycroft will be home for two weeks as well.”

“Yes, but … what if it turns out she’s angry with me all the time now?”

“Frankly, I consider that to be a highly unlikely result of your mother’s stay at that clinic. But should that be the case I guess that would leave you and Mycroft with no option but to be completely honest with your father.”

He squeezes Sherlock’s hand in encouragement. “Let’s go. You’ll have to face her so better have it over and be done with it. Besides, David kindly offered to drive me to the station and I don’t want to keep him waiting.”

***

He can’t do this, too many memories. But he must in order to solve the case.

The tattoo on the inside of the boy’s wrist is clearly visible beneath the cuff of his shirt. His English doesn’t consist of more than a hundred words at the most, all to do with money and the services he has on offer. Sherlock attempts to start a conversation in several languages, all the while screening the kid from sight with the tails of his coat and wiggling his eyebrows in an attempt to convey he should trust Sherlock and not raise the alarm. He repeatedly swats at the boy’s hands that keep returning to start undoing the clasp of his waistband. Finally he just grabs the kids wrists through the lining of his coat pocket to stall his endeavours.

To his utter relief Russian seems to do the trick at last. In a mix-up of English, Russian and Ukrainian the boy tells him he lives with fourteen other children in an empty warehouse. He’s got no idea of its location however. He and his co-workers are driven to their allotted streets and alleys every day in a small minivan with blacked-out windows. Recently he made an attempt to escape hence the constant surveillance. He tried to flee because suddenly eight other children disappeared. He’s afraid they were murdered because they didn’t bring in enough money.

He can’t risk endangering the kid any further so he gives a show of moaning in orgasm, trashing his head against the wall at his back for maximum effect.

“We’re going to get you out of this,” he tells the boy. “You never had this conversation.” He presses five tenners into the boys’ hand and walks away, moving his elbows in a pretension of adjusting his trousers.

***

Nanny determines who he should embrace first as she clasps Mummy to her feeble breast the moment Mummy enters the hall, crying and hugging and laughing, kissing Mummy over and over again. This leaves him plenty of time to nestle himself in the protection of Mycroft’s arms. Mycroft is bigger than Mummy and Nanny now, almost as tall as Daddy and Mr Talbot. His voice has darkened. He sounds like a grown-up.

Mycroft cradles him close, hunkering down on his knees. “It’s so good to see you again,” he murmurs in Sherlock’s ear. “The reason for Mummy being away was awful but to me it was a blessing in disguise. Her consent was such a relief, for her sake as well as yours”

He releases Sherlock and sits back on his haunches. “My, but you’ve grown,” he exclaims. “I bet you’ll end up taller than Daddy. But first of all I want to say I’m disappointed you haven’t been playing fairly in our latest match. I don’t know who helped you and I don’t have to know. I’m still going to beat you, Sherlock. We’re going to finish the game tomorrow and nobody will be around to help you then.”

“But Mycroft,” Sherlock stammers, reddening at the accusation. “Nobody helped me, I entirely agree with you that wouldn’t have been fair. I know it looks bad for you but you made a fatal mistake when you decided to move your knight from E5 to F7 six moves ago.”

“Did I now,” Mycroft asks, eyeing him suspiciously.

“You must have,” Daddy says. Sherlock notices Daddy’s countenance has transformed during Sherlock’s exchange with Mycroft. The flaring radiance lighting up his face at their entrance has been replaced with the tired weariness that has been increasingly manifesting itself lately. Daddy keeps darting quick covert glances in Mummy’s direction. He reaches out his hand for Sherlock to take.

“Come on Sherlock, let’s attempt to rescue Mummy out of Nanny’s clutch before she’s smothered to death with affection.” Daddy bravely strives to sound light-hearted and easy, to sound like Daddy.

Mummy looks more beautiful than Sherlock can remember ever having seen her before. Between her thick lashes her eyes are reminiscent of the dazzlingly blue summer sky over the sea. She gazes down on him with a gentle calmness before bending down and kissing him on top of his head. Her kiss is as empty as the expression of her eyes.

“My dear little boy,” she lisps. He tangles his arms around her narrow waist, and presses his head against her abdomen.

“Mummy, I’ve missed you.” She bears his hug with the appreciation a marble statue awards its admirers but the corners of her lips are drawn upwards in a travesty of delight and she pats and nuzzles him some more before drawing herself up to announce she’s really tired from the journey and would like to withdraw now.

She isn’t better at all. Nothing has changed.

***

“What I don’t understand is what made her suddenly consent to the intake?”

It’s the sixth day after Mycroft’s return. The last of the guests left this morning and they’ve got the house back to themselves again. Mycroft is standing in front of the window in his room with his hands in his pockets. Sherlock is sitting on Mycroft’s bed. He presses his lips even more tightly shut to ensure he won’t start blabbing his observations to Mycroft. His hands are drawn into fists beneath his thighs, pressing his nails into the palms to keep himself from spilling out his clandestine information.

“Something must have happened that committed him to have her treated. But what? I can’t for the life of me accept you didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary going on?”

“I didn’t, Mycroft,” he pipes up.

Mycroft throws him a weary look. “Didn’t you?” he says. His voice is thoughtful, his right hand flutters up to his neck to adjust the collar of his shirt. “You were eavesdropping again, weren’t you? I told you not to.”

Sherlock closes his eyes in order not to have to contemplate his brother’s gaze as it rests upon him. He can feel it though.

“No matter,” Mycroft remarks after a minute of silence. “I don’t want to know what you heard.”

Sherlock flicks his eyelids up again.

“The worst is she isn’t better, not at all. She managed to fool Daddy during the ride home, but the moment she entered the hall he recognised his misconception. How has he been, Sherlock?”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“So, not well I take.”

Sherlock shrugs his shoulders some more.

Mycroft heaves a deep sigh. He studies Sherlock for a while, before starting on an extensive deliberation of the pattern of the rug on the floor.

“What is Daddy going to do now?” he says finally. “Find another clinic?”

He tugs at his lower lip. He seems to reach a decision next and turns towards Sherlock.

“This whole situation didn’t keep you from beating me at chess,” he remarks. “Frightening when one thinks of it. Beneath that innocuous exterior of a sweet little boy – don’t look at me like that. You’ve had the phrase thrown in your direction to excess the past few days – you must be capable to detach yourself quite severely from your surroundings. You’ve got a sharp eye for your opponent’s weaknesses and you unscrupulously make play with any advantage you manage to wriggle out of the situation. Those are remarkable accomplishments for an almost seven-year-old. You’ll make a formidable enemy once you grow up.”

Sherlock can’t decide between glowing with pride or shame at Mycroft’s words. Surely they’re meant as praise, not a disparagement.

Mycroft chuckles. “Still, you’ve made one rather fatal mistake. You should have held back and lulled me into a false sense of security instead of tripping over your toes to beat me. Now you’ve given me insight into your great frailty, Sherlock. I promise you I’ll wrangle that information to the utmost.”

“Should I thank you for the warning, Mycroft?”

Mycroft smiles. “Cheeky. I’ll show you yet.” He lays his arm around Sherlock’s shoulders.

“The weather looks rather mild,” he says. “Care for a wintry swim?”

***

“Sherlock, Sherlock, wake up, darling.”

The soft voice is whispering close to his ear, dragging him awake. He groggily blinks his eyes in the deep darkness that shrouds his room. Now he recognises the voice.

“Daddy?” he asks. His own voice is still thick with sleep.

“None other, my boy.” He can hear Daddy’s smile in the words. “I’m sorry to wake you, Sherlock but I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to be the first to wish you a very happy seventh birthday. The office called and it seems I’m urgently needed. Another boring crisis, everyone in an upheaval. There’s nothing to it but to go down and try to massage some common sense into them. I’ll try to be back in time for tea at the latest for I don’t want to miss out on a piece of your birthday cake. I hope you don’t mind if we wait with handing you your presents until I’ve returned. I’ll really be back again at four at the latest, when you come home from your violin lesson.”

Daddy hugs him tight against his chest. He smells of scrubbed-clean skin and lavender. The brushed cotton of his shirt is soft and warm against Sherlock’s cheek, the sleek silk of Daddy’s tie ghosts over his cheekbone.

“Try to sleep some more, darling. It’s still far too early but I had to wish you a very happy birthday. Goodbye, see you in the afternoon.”

A rustle of fabric as Daddy rises and walks over to the door. He opens the door and a flash of light from the hallway briefly flickers over the ceiling before he pulls it shut behind him and the room is submerged in darkness once more.

***

Mr Mancini presents him with a sheet of Bach’s first violin sonata signed by none other than the great Yehudi Menuhin himself. Back home, Sherlock storms into the yellow drawing room to show this treasure to Daddy. Seated in one of the chairs in front of the mantelpiece is Mummy with a book in her hands. Mr Talbot and Mycroft occupy the sofa with a chessboard between them. Sherlock’s birthday cake is prominently situated on the sideboard, a big cutting knife lying next to it.

“Where’s Daddy?” he asks.

Mr Talbot raises his eyebrows in silent disapproval. “And a good day to you too, Sherlock.”

Mummy looks up from her book. “The office called just after you left for your lesson,” she says. “There’s been a slight delay.” She flicks her eyes up towards the clock on the mantelpiece. “He should be here in another two hours. You’ll have to wait a little longer for your piece of cake, darling.”

“Yes, Mummy. Thank you, Mummy,” he mumbles.

“What was it you wanted to show, Sherlock?” Mr Talbot asks.

Sherlock walks over to his tutor. In the hall the telephone starts ringing.

“I’ll get it,” Mycroft says.

Sherlock shows Mr Talbot his wonderful gift. “Look, Mr Talbot. Mr Mancini gave me some sheet music that was signed by a very famous violinist. We listened to a record where he played Franck’s violin sonata. If only I could play like that some day.”

“Yehudi Menuhin, eh? Well, I’ve certainly always enjoyed his playing. I remember … “

In the hall they hear Mycroft’s raised voice, clipped and imperious. “Speak up, man. I’m the eldest son. What is the reason you called?”

Mr Talbot’s head jerks up, his eyes shift in the direction of the hall. Sherlock follows his gaze.

“I’ll inform my father about your refusal to speak to me. I assure you, he will be most displeased,” Mycroft sounds both exasperated and very angry now.

Mr Talbot jumps up from the sofa and strides out of the room, Sherlock following on his heels.

In the hall Mycroft is just finishing: “You can speak to our tutor if you insist.” He hands Mr Talbot the receiver.

“Some exasperating non-entity of a minion from Daddy’s office,” Mycroft sighs to Sherlock. “Probably announcing Daddy’s car is trapped in a gridlock somewhere. The man insists on talking to an adult.”

Mr Talbot speaks into the receiver. “Talbot here.”

Sherlock pricks up his ears to hear what the person on the other side of the line is saying.
Mr Talbot doesn’t say a word, just bobs his head up and down in acknowledgement to what he’s hearing. Whatever he’s listening to, the words have a most profound effect on him. All colour, the muted darker and lighter grey tones of his skin, drain away from his face, up into his hairline and down his throat into the collar of his shirt.

“I see. We’ll await your men. Thank you,” is all he says before carefully placing the receiver back into its cradle. He lets his hand rest there a moment before turning to gaze at them both. Sherlock feels his hand instinctively grabbing for Mycroft’s.

Mr Talbot closes his eyes, just a brief flutter of his eyelids, before opening them again. He clears his throat. His voice, when it comes, has travelled around the earth at least three times before the sound reaches Sherlock’s ears, it’s so weary and exhausted.

“Boys, you must be strong. Especially for your mother. No one is sure yet what exactly happened. … “ He falters, stares down at them both with colourless eyes. “England has been dealt a heavy blow today. A bomb exploded as your father entered the car that was to take him to the station. They suspect the IRA. Boys, my brave boys … I regret I have to inform you your father, your dear father, is dead.”