It was going to be bad. Mycroft knew that; the minute he realized, as his car spun crazily before embedding itself firmly in a snowdrift and coming to a lurching halt, that he was going to have to (1) find alternate transportation; (2) arrange for this car to be towed to the nearest garage for repair; and (3) call the school again and notify them that he would be even later than expected, he started toting up the additional hours this trip would take, and his brother’s likely reaction. It made no sense to call until he knew his estimated arrival time, which meant even more delay in letting the little boy know when he’d arrive. Given that Lockie—Lock—was already under stress, this didn’t bode well for what he would find once he reached the school.
He found himself, well, sulking while he waited for the tow. It should have been Mummy and Da-Father making this trip. Home was less than an hour from Winchester, even in the worst traffic, whereas he, based in Cambridge, was more than two. Snow, and Friday-evening traffic, had swelled that number to nearly three, or would have, if he’d managed to complete the trip. But Mummy had called, frantic, from Warsaw: the airport was closed, buried under four feet of snow, and no flights would be leaving for at least the next 24 hours. Lock had been due to be picked up from school for the beginning of Christmas hols at 4, much later than normal but necessary because of his parents’ overseas trip. Mummy had rung at noon, when the last possible flight had cancelled, and it took more than half an hour for Mycroft to get her message (mobile phones, for the few students who had them, weren’t allowed in classes or seminars) so that he could call her back at their hotel.
“You’ll have to call the school as well,” she said. “I don’t have the number with me—I left my notebook in my other handbag. And Daddy needs the phone to speak with Brindle about the delay.” Then she rang off before Mycroft could point out that he had the number readily available, and— He swore, in three different languages, and stomped off to pack up his car.
He’d made the call, of course. He was informed that Lock was currently serving a disciplinary term in his house; there had been an ‘incident’ earlier in the day. That set off a distant alarm bell in the back of Mycroft’s brain, but no amount of polite probing on his part secured further details.
The first intimation of disaster came when Mycroft and his damaged car finally reached the garage (after more than an hour shivering in the stranded vehicle) and he begged the use of a private office to call the school. After speaking with the administrator, he asked that they put his brother on the phone—it would enable him to gauge the depth of Lock’s upset, and let Mycroft offer comfort in the form of someone to safely rage against.
There was a long, disturbing pause. “He’s with Matron,” the functionary finally said. “He had one of his spells, and she had to give him some of his medication.”
The breath whistled abruptly out of Mycroft’s chest. “Spell” was the school’s euphemism for “meltdown”. Lock had had a number of those, in his brief months at school; while the number and duration seemed to be slowly decreasing as he matured, he was still vulnerable to assaults on his senses, frustration, or emotional upset. “Medication”, though—a fast-acting sedative, suitable for pediatric use—was reserved for the worst of the worst of these. Lock hated it; it left him drowsy and irritable for at least a day after each application, and the school had been firmly cautioned against its overuse.
“Is he hurt?” Mycroft finally managed, working to keep his voice dispassionate and calm.
“Not really,” the drone said, just as calmly. “A bump or two. And his medicine calmed him right down.”
Mycroft knew better than to ask the trigger; even if this low-level assistant knew, he would never tell, at least not over the phone. One way or the other, though, Mycroft would find out when he got there. Though Mummy was more sanguine, taking the administrators’ reassurances at face value, Mycroft had suspected for some time that his brother was the subject of bullying. Lock, unfortunately, wasn’t inclined to share any information whatsoever.
It didn’t help, of course, that his brother was the youngest in his division by more than a year. While the normal standards for entry specified that boys be at least 13, Uncle Rudy (a Winchester alumnus and regular donor) had prevailed upon the Admissions staff to make special dispensation for his nephew, citing the boy’s staggering intellectual gifts. Lock, then, was shipped off to Winchester five months before his 12th birthday. He had been visibly apprehensive, fingers fluttering as he suppressed the urge to indulge in other stims, but excited nonetheless.
By the first time Mycroft saw his brother after that, however, things had changed. Lock was near-mute, refusing eye contact and spending 23 hours out of 24 hiding in his room. When Mycroft cornered his mother on the second day, she sighed and shook her head.
“He’s having some trouble adjusting, poor lamb,” she said. “But the school assures me that this will pass in time. All the boys are terribly homesick at first, and Lockie has never had to share space with other children before. They said they are giving him a great deal of support, and I have let him know that he can ask the school to call us at any time.” She paused, looking momentarily troubled. “I wish there were more to be done. But I’m treading a fine line here between too much intervention and too little. I want to give him time to develop his own coping mechanisms, Mycroft—we can’t keep him wrapped in cotton wool forever.” And with that Mycroft had to be content.
When Mycroft reached the front hall of Lock’s house, at just before 9 pm, the porter directed him to the Nursing Matron’s office, down a dark hallway to a cramped suite of offices at the bottom of a small staircase. There was no answer when he knocked, but he pushed an alert button set into the doorframe, and heard footsteps coming ponderously towards the door.
A tall, heavyset older woman opened the door, a frown on her face. “Are you here for the Holmes boy?” she said abruptly. And then, belatedly, “I’m Matron Hambry. I’ve been tending to him this afternoon and evening.”
Mycroft held out his hand. “Mycroft Holmes,” he said. “Lock’s older brother. I believe you were informed that my parents have been delayed in Poland, and delegated me to collect him.”
“Yes,” she said. “But I believe that was supposed to happen some hours ago.” It was clear how she viewed the delay.
“The weather caused considerable delay,” Mycroft said. “I believe you were informed of that as well, as soon as was practicable.” He wasn’t about to apologize to this battleax over something completely out of his control.
“Yes, I suppose so,” she sniffed. “It’s just as well you’re here, finally,” she said. “He’s not had a good day all ‘round. Spent the first half serving a term for discipline, then had his…outbreak, and ended up here.” Her tone held no trace of compassion or concern.
“What was the nature of his transgression that placed him in confinement?” Mycroft asked. “And what was the duration of his sentence? It seems unduly harsh to punish him on the day classes are released, so I would presume it was relatively severe.” He didn’t think that at all, actually; he suspected that the carers had become tired of dealing with an agitated, anxious Lock and found a pretext to place him out of their sight.
“I can’t discuss students’ disciplinary or medical status with anyone other than a parent or guardian,” she said sternly.
“Then may I ask my brother’s condition? Or would that, too, be a breach of confidence?” Mycroft snapped.
“William is awake, for the most part,” the woman said stiffly. “He was given a small dose of his sedative at three. I was reluctant to administer it, but he was quite violent and—”
“Violent?” Mycroft interrupted. “He attempted to harm someone?”
“No,” the nurse said, sour look still firmly in place. “He broke everything within reach, however, and began to bang his head against the wall. He fought when his house master tried to restrain him, though luckily without inflicting any harm. Tiny little thing like him, it’s not likely he could. William is far behind the other boys in size and physical development, even more than his age difference would normally dictate.” The last was pronounced as if it were a personal failing on Lock’s part.
“He was quite premature. His physician is confident he will eventually catch up to the growth curve,” Mycroft said. “And his name is Lock, or Sherlock if a full name is required. He has never been called ‘William’ in his life. I am surprised he didn’t tell you so.”
“We require that all boys answer to their proper names, regardless of what they are called at home. It prepares them for dealing with greater formality in the adult world,” she said sternly. Mycroft wondered idly what his mother’s reaction would be to being told that only one of Lock’s three names could be considered “proper”.
“I see,” he said, in studiously neutral tones.
The woman started momentarily, and patted her pockets before pulling out an envelope with a huff of satisfaction. She thrust it at Mycroft imperiously. “Here,” she said. “I have a note for your mother. Please make sure that she receives it.”
Mycroft reached out two fingers and accepted the envelope, allowing one eyebrow to rise enquiringly. “May I ask its contents?” he said, making no effort to hide his disdain.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” the nurse said stiffly. “You are not William’s guardian, despite your relationship.” She gestured towards the letter. “Let her know that I will be happy to discuss it with her, if she wishes. She can perhaps use it to work with William prior to his return.”
“I am sure my mother will appreciate your insights,” Mycroft said, making no attempt to sound sincere whatsoever. “Now, may I please see my brother?”
The woman huffed in irritation but gestured over Mycroft’s shoulder. “He’s back there. It’s not locked. You’ll need to turn the lights on—he was quite upset at them earlier, before I gave him his medicine, so I had to turn them off.” As if Mycroft wasn’t aware of Lock’s sensitivity. He ignored her, and went to the indicated doorway, the nurse following behind.
Mycroft had to suppress his initial reaction firmly when he first saw the wilting bundle of blankets and sorrow that was his brother. The boy’s spindly limbs protruded from beneath the covering in random spots, as if someone had simply tossed the blanket over the recipient, rather than carefully tucking him in. He wasn’t asleep, though he clearly hoped to convince any onlookers that that was the case; Mycroft knew Lock’s “tells” far too well.
Mycroft stopped at the entrance to the room, and gave a cordial, chilly dismissal to Matron, who hovered behind him. “I’ll take over,” he said. “Please see that someone has his things brought to the front entrance.” The woman lingered momentarily, but ultimately acceded to the power of Mycroft’s firmly turned back.
Once he was sure she was out of earshot, Mycroft quietly closed the door and approached his brother.
“She’s gone,” he said, quite softly. Loud sounds were contraindicated following a meltdown. “I know you’re not asleep. Sit up, so I can assess the damages.”
“Piss off,” the bundle hissed. “If you’re going to show up almost 5 hours late, you might as well not come at all.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Mycroft protested hotly, before he thought about it from his brother’s point of view. Then—“But I’m sorry, nonetheless.” He leaned over and gently nudged the blanket. “Come now, sit up and let me see.”
Lock considered silently, not moving a muscle. Finally, though, he heaved a great sigh and sat up, pushing the blanket away and exposing a tear-stained face and hair matted with sweat.
Both eyes were puffed and red, a sign of Lock’s agitation and distress during his meltdown. The right, though, was partly closed and swollen, with a bluish discolouration that matched a similar line running along his hairline and cheekbones on the same side. A scuffed, abraded area of skin peeked out from under his fringe. Mycroft reached out a finger and gently pushed on the swollen area, and was rewarded with a flinch and a tiny gasp of pain from Lock.
“Did no one give you an icepack for this?” he asked, looking in the blanket and on the floor to see if it had fallen. “It might have helped with the bruising.”
“I don’t remember,” Lock said, not looking up. “There was nothing here when I woke up.”
Because, Mycroft presumed, once Lock was sedated no one thought any more about him. One more thing to add to a lengthening list.
“Can you walk?” he asked now, looking about for Lock’s jacket and shoes, finding both tossed on a chair in the corner.
“Yes,” Lock said, and wriggled his way out of the blanket. He sat momentarily, squeezing his eyes closed; the sedative, and the aftermath of a meltdown, always left him with a headache.
“I have paracetamol in the car, and a thermos of cider,” Mycroft said. “Let’s get you out, and we’ll see to your head.”
Leaving was simple—no paperwork to sign, astoundingly, just a curt nod at Matron Hambry as they headed out the door. Lock leaned against his brother’s side slightly, but managed to walk well enough for them to manage. Mycroft parked him on a bench next to the outer door while he picked up the boy’s trunk and rucksack and placed them in the back, then came back and gently nudged his brother to the car.
“Are Mummy and Daddy coming home later tonight?” Lock asked, once they were underway, and he’d been plied with cider and his tablets.
“Tomorrow, more likely,” Mycroft said. “There’s four feet of snow on the ground in Warsaw.”
Lock hummed, and lapsed into silence, looking out at the snowy fields and sighing periodically.
They had been underway for perhaps ten minutes when his brother finally broke his silence, answering the questions Mycroft had managed to restrain himself from asking.
“They made up a song about me, about how weird I am, about how I have fits,” Lock said suddenly, in a tiny, miserable voice. “They said no one would come to get me at all, that you, or Mummy, would just leave me at school. And then when you didn’t come, and didn’t come, and then they came and told me you’d called, and still weren’t coming yet, and Brantham started singing that song again, I…” The boy took a long, shuddery breath. “I don’t remember,” he said finally. “I woke up when Matron Hambry came in and said she’d given me medicine, and that you had called and said you would be here eventually. But she also said that I really needed to do a better job of letting people know when I was getting too upset before I started breaking things and shouting, and that she was writing a note to Mummy about it. The one she gave you, I assume.”
Mycroft found himself intensely grateful for his early training with his uncle; he suspected that, without it, he would have instantly turned the car around and made a scene that would have had Lock’s meltdown receding far into the memory of his audience. As it was, he still found it difficult not to stop the car and pull Lock into his lap, as he had when his baby brother was small and silent and unhappy. When they still could do that kind of thing.
“Brantham?” he asked carefully. “Is that by any chance a relation of the Assistant Headmaster?”
“Son,” Lock said. “He’s one of the few that don’t go anywhere for hols, along with the international students.” He paused, took a hitching little breath, then continued. “Just my luck,” he said bitterly, and slid back into a brooding silence. Not long after, Mycroft looked over and found his eyes closed, head lolling against the side pillar.
When they reached the house, Lock was sound asleep, a frown still lingering on his bruised face. Mycroft sighed, carefully picked him up and carried him inside, up the stairs, into his room. He tucked him in bed and covered him up; Lock gave a tiny sigh and curled into a ball, but never woke. So Mycroft headed back down the stairs, collected his mobile phone from where he’d dropped it on the hall table, and called his mother. He wasn’t looking forward to this conversation.
By the time Lock padded into the kitchen, two hours later, everything was resolved (well, almost everything—the remainder still needed his uncle’s help, though he’d been assured that would be forthcoming) and Mycroft was just finishing up on dinner.
“Shepherd’s pie,” he said as he pulled the pan out of the oven. “Set the table, please.”
Lock went silently through the routine, pulling out silverware, plates and serviettes before dropping into his usual chair with a thump. Still no eye contact, nor any attempt to interact. Mycroft bided his time, serving up food and concentrating on his own plate while surreptitiously observing to see if the younger boy ate. He did, thankfully—not much, but some.
When they were finished, Mycroft picked up the plates and stacked them in the sink, and put the leftovers in the fridge before coming back to his brother, urging him gently up and towards the lounge. “Come on,” he said. “I have some things to tell you.”
Lock froze, shoulders rising.
Mycroft huffed. “Nothing bad, child. Please. Just… calm yourself. Sit down, and I’ll get tea. Well, cocoa for you.”
When Mycroft came back with their cups, Lock had installed himself in one of the armchairs, feet on the seat, arms wrapped around his legs and chin resting on his bony knees. He stuck out one spindly arm to take the chocolate and sniff appreciatively, but still remained silent.
Well, then. Unto the breach.
“You will not be returning to Winchester,” Mycroft said bluntly. “I have spoken with Mummy, and she, in her turn, will be contacting the authorities, both to remove you and to give them her considered opinion of their lack of due care, and insensitivity to students with…challenges.”
“Disabilities,” Lock said sharply. “I know what you meant to say. Don’t edit yourself for me.”
“Then don’t put words in my mouth,” Mycroft said calmly. “I was going to say ‘autism’, but I know how you feel about that word.” Lock made a disgusted moue, but didn’t say anything. Mycroft took that as tacit consent to continue.
“Mummy suggested that you return to home tutoring, but I managed to dissuade her. I presume that meets with your approval?” he said, raising his brows inquiringly.
Lock gave a jerky nod. “I hate school. But I hate being locked in the house for 6 hours a day even more.”
“Excellent,” Mycroft said. “Then I presume you will be pleased with the next bit. You will be enrolling at Caterham in January. That was my suggestion from the outset, in fact, but I was overruled by Uncle Rudy, who felt the round-the-clock structure at Winchester would be more conducive to the advancement of your social skills.”
They shared a smirk. While Mycroft appreciated their uncle’s attention much more than his brother did (in part because Lock, when you came right down to it, still found the older man somewhat alarming), they both knew that Rudy’s wish for Lock to attend Winchester had much more to do with displaying his family’s newest genius to the “right people” than any sentimental concern for his nephew’s welfare and development.
An issue had occurred to Lock, though. “But the Lower School only goes to age 13. What happens then? Do I just stay at Caterham, then, and go to the Upper School, and stay a day scholar? And what kind of curriculum will I follow? I’m miles ahead of any standard route.”
Caterham was a day school—a good one, and only five miles from home. Mycroft had attended for most of a year prior to his own departure for Harrow*, and enjoyed it. He hoped, very much, that this would prove a better solution for his little brother.
“I am quite sure they will follow the same approach they took with me, and develop studies based on your current level of achievement and interests,” he said. “And you have time—I believe this experiment has proven that there’s no benefit to your attending a boarding school early. I’m positive Da—Father can manage to get you a place at Harrow in due time; he went to Cambridge with several of the masters.” He gave his brother a teasing smile. “And, who knows? Perhaps the next 18 months will allow you to catch up in your physical growth as well.”
“And maybe your diet will actually work this time. We can both live in hope,” Lock sneered, but his heart wasn’t quite in it. Mycroft hoped, though, that his brother was at least somewhat pleased by the way things were turning out. The last bit, though, was still too up-in-the-air for him to share with the little boy at this juncture, though—the last thing Lock needed was another disappointment.
Their parents were home by lunchtime the following day—Brindle had managed to get them aboard a diplomatic flight that left at first light, as soon as the runways in Warsaw were cleared. Mummy gave Mycroft a warm but distracted hug, then tilted Lock’s chin up and observed his bruises with narrowed eyes. She gave her youngest a kiss on his bruised forehead before passing him on to Father, then held her hand out to Mycroft.
“I understand there was a note?” she said, using tones Mycroft remembered with dread from his childhood. He was very glad his mother’s fury wasn’t directed at him. He held out the paper, and watched as Mummy’s features grew from “stern” to “outraged”. As she finished, she held out her hand to Lock imperiously.
“Lockie,” she barked. “Come with me.” They marched together into the back parlour, where Mummy reached up to a box on the mantle and pulled out a fireplace match, then leaned over and lit it. Then she handed the match to Lock, and held out the letter. “Light it,” she said. “It’s your privilege, under the circumstances.”
Lock beamed and complied. Once the envelope was fully engaged, Mummy tossed it into the fire and wiped her hands theatrically. “There,” she huffed. “That’s the end of it.” She took Lock’s chin and forced him to look directly at her. “Are you content with going to Caterham?” she asked. “You’re not upset to leave Winchester?”
Lock wrenched his chin free (carefully) and nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I hated Winchester. And they hated me.” Which of course made his audience wince, but was, unfortunately, most likely true.
“Well then,” Father said cheerily from the doorway. “Sounds like all we need do now is enjoy Christmas!”
And they did enjoy it, somewhat. The food was good, the house was warm, and even carolling wasn’t too much of a chore, with Lock carrying the majority of the tunes in his beautiful, piercing treble. He complained bitterly about having to go, but was mollified by the liberal application of hot cocoa, mince pies and iced biscuits pressed upon them by the neighbors.
Mycroft noticed, though, Lock’s long absences—those hours once again spent in his room, doing nothing in particular. He would sometimes find the little boy sitting outside on his special bench, kicking his feet at the leaves with a somber expression. And he knew, without being told, that Lock was just as apprehensive about Caterham as he had been about Winchester—perhaps more, given what a disaster that first attempt had been.
Finally, on Christmas eve morning, Mycroft gave up and called his uncle, pressing for the help he’d been promised, and was ultimately rewarded. Once he hung up, he went in search of his little brother, finding him, as usual, lurking in his room. “Get your jacket and come outside,” he said. “I have something to tell you.” He leaned close and lowered his voice enticingly. “It’s a secret.”
Lock’s pale eyes lit up; he never could resist a secret. He hurried down the stairs and out the back door, with Mycroft following at a more sedate pace. Once they reached the bench, Lock thumped down and turned to his brother expectantly.
“Now, you understand, you can’t tell Mummy or Father about this,” Mycroft began, and Lock’s interest heightened further. “It’s just between you and me. Well, you, me, and Uncle Rudy, but he’s essentially a silent partner, if you will—providing background support.”
Lock bobbed his head, and fluttered his hands impatiently.
“All right, all right,” Mycroft huffed. “You and I are going on a mission together,” he said. “A secret mission. It will involve a bit of disguise,” he added, “one you might find a little embarrassing, but it’s necessary. Are you prepared to deal with that?”
Lock nodded warily. “As long as there’s a good reason for it,” he said. “Where are we going? And what kind of disguise?”
“You’ll have to wait on the details,” Mycroft said. “This is by way of being a Christmas present, so I’m not going to tell you much more. Just know that we’ll start on Friday—Mummy and Father are heading off to Grandmother Holmes’ party after breakfast, and won’t be back until Sunday morning, so we’ll have plenty of time. But you have to promise me: you will keep this a secret. Yes?”
And Lock nodded, head bobbing briskly up and down once again, eyes gleaming with excitement.
Christmas eve, and Christmas Day, went fine—better than the last few days, in fact, Lock participating in everything with an air of suppressed excitement. Even Father noticed his improved attitude, beaming as Lock tore outside with his new telescope. “I’m so glad we brought him home from that place,” he said. “It’s made such a difference.”
Mycroft managed not to look guilty. It required taking a very large bite of mince pie.
Come Friday morning, Lock was vibrating in his tracks as they waved their parents’ car out of the driveway. As soon as it pulled out of sight, he spun and grabbed Mycroft’s arm. “Are we going now?” he asked excitedly. “Where’s my disguise? Where’s yours? Where are we going?”
Mycroft felt a smile creep across his face. “As to the disguises, they’re in the guest room,” he said. “And as to where we’re going—all I’ll say is ‘you’ll see’.” Lock grimaced at that, but spun and tore back into the house, heading, no doubt, for the guest room.
Mycroft knew his brother had found the costumes when he heard a cry of outrage waft down from the upstairs landing.
“I’M NOT GOING AS A GIRL!” Lock howled.
He did, of course, go as a girl--quite a pretty little girl, at that. The delicate embroidered voile dress fit to a tee, and went well with the wig of red-blond ringlets held back by a velvety black ribbon. Hazel contact lenses completed the look, along with little black patent shoes with shiny buckles. A black velvet coat with red buttons provided both warmth and a spot of colour.
Lock’s scowl, however, did little to enhance his appearance. He sat sulking beside Mycroft in the front seat of the car, lower lip outthrust and arms folded militantly across his narrow chest.
Mycroft, on the other hand, was resplendent in a finely-made three-piece suit, complete with a gold watch and chain (both belonging to his paternal grandfather, and snuck out of Father’s dresser this morning). His red hair was straightened and flopped loosely across his brow, and he wore brown contacts which gave him a somewhat soulful appearance. The round-lensed eyeglasses were a finishing touch.
They turned onto a major road, roughly halfway to their destination, when Lock suddenly sat up with a gasp and turned to Mycroft, a look of betrayal on his face, bottom lip quivering. “You’re taking me back to school?” he croaked. “It’s all a lie to get me to go quietly?” His eyes filled, and he reached out to paw at the door handle before Mycroft could react. Mycroft managed, just, to grab his brother’s arm, and pulled the car roughly to the side of the road.
“No, of course not!” he said, holding Lock’s hand while resisting the urge to pull him into a hug. He should have known how it would seem to his brother—heading back on this road, in what must now seem like mocking secrecy. “I would never do that. Never,” he emphasized.
Lock gave a little hiccuping sigh, but relaxed back into his seat. “Then where are we going?” he asked, voice still a little croaky.
“We are going to Winchester, but not as ourselves,” Mycroft said. “It’s a mission, remember? We will be undertaking a spot of espionage. Nothing dangerous, but…” He left it open-ended, watching Lock carefully.
“Are we going to engage in sabotage?” Lock finally said, in a small voice.
“Of a sort,” Mycroft said. “But more in the line of subterfuge and intelligence gathering.”
“Ohhh,” Lock breathed, all hint of tears gone.
When they arrived at Winchester, Mycroft had Lock direct them to the main administration building. The bulk of the campus was closed for the holidays, of course, but a skeleton staff remained to maintain the facilities and care for the few students who stayed year-round. Mycroft parked, then turned to his brother, who was now vibrating with suppressed excitement.
“Now,” he said, “when we get inside, you must follow my lead—I will give you cues as to what’s needed. For this trip, you are Amelie Vernet, and I am your older brother Hillaire.”
“Our cousins?” Lock said, a little suspiciously. “Why them?”
“Because Hillaire attended Winchester, and will be in their records as such, if anyone asks. Yes, he’s a bit older than me—hence the suit, watch and glasses. I think it’s more than enough to be convincing, though he honestly looks more like you than me, so I hope we won’t encounter anyone who knew him. ‘Amelie’ is to provide a distraction where needed. All you need do is be little, cute and helpless,” Mycroft replied. “You would be astounded what people will do in the face of a cute, helpless little girl.”
“I know,” Lock said darkly. “Every time we go to France, Amelie makes me do all of her chores. If I don’t, she runs to Grandmere and lies about it.” He gave his brother a wry grin. “She’s better at it than I am.”
“Just so,” Mycroft said with a smile. “Those are exactly the talents you may need in this situation.” And then he proceeded to lay out why.
When they reached the administrative office, Mycroft pushed open the door and carefully held it for his brother, who blinked briefly before falling into character and prancing happily inside.
“Don’t overdo it,” Mycroft muttered quietly. Sherlock beamed back and gave his frilly skirt a fluff.
The tired-looking functionary at the tall front counter looked up in surprise. “We’re closed,” he said, startled at the appearance of two well-dressed strangers.
Mycroft gave him an apologetic look. “I know,” he said, in a lightly-accented voice. “But this is the only day we could come. My uncle had called Professor Grant and set up this luncheon. Is he back yet?” He looked around in a bemused fashion, as if expecting the absent administrator to suddenly appear.
The minion blinked. “Um…your uncle?” he said, while shuffling papers, presumably looking for a calendar entry that might explain this intrusion.
“Rudy Vernet,” Lock chirped, his eyes only just topping the edge of the counter, and the worker’s eyes swiveled to him. “Hillaire is his favourite nephew,” Lock continued, giving Mycroft a look of spurious pride. The worker’s face softened—as Mycroft had told his brother, such is the power of cute little girls.
Suddenly, though, the import of that name was borne in upon the man. “Mr. Vernet?” he asked carefully. “Who’s on the governing board?”
“The very same,” Mycroft said. “He and Professor Grant are old school friends. And since I was a Winchester boy myself, Uncle insisted that I check back in while I was in the country and take his friend out for a meal to collect all the gossip.” He leaned over confidingly. “Uncle Rudy lives mostly in France these days, you know, but he doesn’t want to take his finger off the pulse here. So I suppose that makes me a finger!” he continued, with a foolish titter. Lock played into his lead, adding a giggle of his own while bouncing sweetly on his toes.
The functionary’s face lit up momentarily, before sliding back into dour concern. “But…I don’t have anything on my calendar,” he said. “I mean…. Professor Grant was here for a bit this morning, but I didn’t think…” he trailed off, beginning to shuffle papers again as if looking for enlightenment.
In the background, Lock had wandered away from the conversation, and begun fiddling with objects he encountered on the tables stationed around the office.
The worker shuffled a few more papers, then looked back at Mycroft, still waiting patiently. “I really don’t think…” he began, the look on his face making his intention to dismiss them quite clear. Abruptly, though, there was a clatter, a gasp, and then the sound of “Amelie” bursting into floods of tears behind them, holding both hands clutched desperately to “her” chest.
“What’s wrong, little one?” Mycroft said, instantly moving to Lock’s side and attempting to pry the hands apart. He felt a momentary throb of real concern when he saw blood oozing out between his brother’s tightly-clasped fingers. Lock continued to sob, working himself up rapidly to near-hysterics.
The minion skittered out from behind the counter, hands fluttering in dismay. “Did you hurt yourself, sweet?” he asked, trying to help Mycroft urge Lock’s hands open. Lock’s howling continued unabated, but Mycroft finally managed to force his hands apart, exposing an ugly gash in the space between his brother’s left thumb and forefinger. Blood continued to pulse lazily from the wound, and Lock, looking down at it, swayed woozily on his feet. Mycroft, with a cluck of dismay, swept the child up and looked helplessly at the minion.
“Is there someplace I can put her?” he pleaded. “And perhaps a first-aid kit? I pray this does not require stitching.” That last was real, unfortunately—whether this wound was intentional or not, Lock had done real damage to his hand.
“Oh…yes,” the man stammered, over Lock’s heart-rending sobs. “Just through here—there’s a sofa, and I can go get the kit.” He pushed open the door to Professor Grant’s office, exposing a vast walnut desk, and a crimson leather sofa lying along one wall. Mycroft deposited Lock gently on it, and looked speakingly at the minion. “The kit?” he said finally, when the man showed no signs of leaving.
The man jerked, then bobbed his head. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I just need to run to the next building. I…if Matron is there, I’ll bring her back as well,” he added. Behind him, Lock froze, his sobs abating momentarily before picking up with renewed energy.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Lock’s tears stopped abruptly, as Mycroft hurried to look at the injured hand, then pulled a fine lawn handkerchief out of his pocket and wrapped it tightly. Lock flinched but didn’t pull away.
“What did you do?” Mycroft asked. “I understand your intent, but this is rather more damage than was wise. That will likely require stitching, in truth.”
“Paper cutter,” Lock said, cradling his hand to his chest. “One of those great guillotine types. I intended to just do a tiny nick, but my aim was off and it didn’t really hurt until it had gone too far.”
Mycroft strode over to the great desk and started riffling through the drawers. “I appreciate your initiative, my dear—that was very timely. But we must work on your methodology.”
Lock sniffled—it had really hurt, after all. After a moment, though, his curiosity took over. “What are you doing?” he asked. “And why did we need to be in this office?”
“Uncle Rudy,” Mycroft said, continuing to flip through folders. “He told me that all of the buildings, and the larger offices, have keypads for securing the doors now. Put in last year.”
“Yes?” Lock said uncertainly.
“Well, Professor Grant is the head of security, among his other duties. And somewhere in this desk is the list of codes. He’s a Luddite—doesn’t put anything on computers if he can help it,” Mycroft said. And, indeed, the only computer in the office sat on a back table, under a visible shroud of light dust.
“What are we going to do with the codes?” Lock asked, getting off the sofa and coming to look over Mycroft’s shoulder.
“We’re going to see if we can cause Matron Hambry a spot of bother,” Mycroft said, and gave a crow of triumph as he found the correct folder.
When Mycroft had spoken with his uncle and told him what had happened, the old hawk had given a bark of laughter.
“Hambry?” he sputtered. “Is that old hag still there? I remember her vividly from Hillaire’s school days. She hated the little ‘uns, but doted on the older boys—especially those with influential families.”
“In an inappropriate way?” Mycroft had asked delicately. “If so, that would make my task much easier.”
“Oh, God, no,” Rudy gasped. “No, I think that woman is asexual, if anything—like some sort of lizard that reproduces by parthenogenesis. What I meant was, I always suspected she collected things she thought she could use, things that slipped from the lips of those spoilt children she doted on. She does surprisingly well financially, for a school nurse—drove a very nice car, as I recall. It would be interesting to find out how, wouldn’t it?”
That conversation, then, had led them here—to Lock’s old building, where their helpful “assistant” had presumably come and hurried Matron away to deal with “Amelie’s” injury. That had been a great timesaver, actually—he made a mental note to commend Lock for his approach, even if his execution had been less than ideal. Mycroft had presumed they would have to set off the fire alarm to evacuate the building; this was infinitely tidier.
Lock shifted nervously from one foot to the other while Mycroft stood at the rear door and punched in the security code. As the lock clanked and they stepped inside, he caught Lock’s arm gently.
“Two things to remember,” he said in a near-whisper. “First, be as quiet as possible, and stay to the shadows where you can. I doubt anyone is around, but I’d rather our visit stay between us. It’s very unlikely anyone would recognize either of us, but we’d be hard-put to find a logical reason for our presence. And second, if I tell you to do something, you must do it instantly, without questioning, without delay. Is that clear?”
Lock huffed, but bobbed his head. “I’m not stupid, you know. I don’t want to get caught any more than you do.” He looked down at himself. “Particularly in a dress.”
Once they reached Matron’s office, Mycroft had to pick the lock; apparently Matron was diligent in locking it, even when called away for an “emergency”.
Lock bobbed his head again, the wig sliding just a bit before he pushed it back into place with a frown. “Let’s get on with it,” he said. “This thing is itchy, and my hand hurts.”
“Will it make you feel better if I allow you to blame me for the injury, when Mummy gets home?” Mycroft said, while beginning his search through Matron’s filing cabinets.
“I suppose,” Lock huffed, and went to poke through a drawer of his own one-handed.
It was a voyage of discovery. Lock was actually the first one to find something of interest—while poking fitfully at a cabinet next to the heat register along the windows, his shoe stubbed on an irregularity in the floor. When he prodded it a bit more, one edge popped up even further. “Myc?” he said. “Can you open this?”
Inside a small compartment wedged between the floorboards, they found a miser’s hoard—bankbooks from two separate accounts (with astonishingly high balances for a school nurse), a fine watch, and an expensive brooch wrapped in a silk scarf.
“Where would she get those?” Lock asked. “That brooch looks quite old, doesn’t it? Like a family heirloom.”
“Yes, it does,” Mycroft said. “But I suspect it isn’t from her family.”
From then on, it was just a matter of putting the pieces together. In addition to the jewelry and bank books, they found a file in the desk drawer that detailed the family relationships of a large number of the upper-form boys, including various family members with a red mark incised beside their name. A search of the nurse’s computer turned up a file, imaginatively titled “recipes”, that included lists of dates, events and people that, when cross-referenced against news clippings tucked into the “family” folder, gave a pretty clear picture of the tidy little blackmail operation Matron Hambry had been carrying on, likely for many years. Mycroft used the small portable camera he’d tucked into his pocket to take pictures of it all, then carefully returned everything to its original location. Then they re-locked the door, crept back to the rear door, and left.
When they got back to the car, Lock had gone from vibrating with excitement to drooping just a bit. His spirits remained high, but his hand was clearly paining him. Mycroft changed his plans on the spot.
“I think we must go to a surgery and get your hand seen to,” he said. “I know you’d like to get out of your costume, but you’ll feel more comfortable once you’re cleaned up and have had some medicine.”
Lock pouted, but saw the logic of it. “I’m definitely blaming you, though,” he said as a parting shot.
By two, they were on their way home, Lock draped drowsily across the back seat. He wasn’t asleep, but was too woozy from medication to sit up.
“So what happens now?” he said, his voice slurring a bit.
“Now, you go home and take a nap until dinner, and I send our findings off with a courier to Uncle Rudy. He will take it from there. He promised we would see results in no more than a week. Perhaps less, if the newspapers get involved—you know how voracious they can be,” Mycroft said.
“Let’s hope for that, then,” Lock sighed. “I can’t wait.”
Over the next few days, Lock maintained a relatively cheerful outlook; he was relieved to see the back of Winchester, though still a bit apprehensive about Caterham. Overriding all of that, though, was his burning anticipation for the conclusion of their “mission”.
Oddly enough, it was Father who saw it first—Mycroft hadn’t heard from Uncle Rudy, and had presumed that matters were proceeding behind the scenes.
“Will you look at that?” the older man said one morning at breakfast, gesturing to Mummy from behind his newspaper. “They’ve had a scandal at Winchester!”
Luckily no one was looking at Lock—his violent jerk might have given the whole plot away.
“What, then?” Mummy said, and came to look over Father’s shoulder. She read briefly, then made a disgusted huff. “That horrible woman,” she said. “I’m not surprised a bit. Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Mycroft felt a smile creeping over his face, and quickly turned his attention to his breakfast. Lock, though, couldn’t contain his impatience.
“What?” he said, launching from his chair to shoulder Mummy out of the way. “What happened?”
And there it was—a half-page spread, complete with a photo of Matron holding her cuffed hands in front of her face in a futile attempt at disguise, and a blaring headline of “Winchester Matron and Her Dirty Little Secrets.” Lock began bouncing around the kitchen in glee, before Mummy put a stern hand on his shoulder and shoved him back to his chair.
“Enough, child,” she said. “Though I will confess, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving candidate. That awful, sneering note she wrote—who ever entrusted that woman with the care of little boys? It’s certainly a black eye to the school as well—did it never strike anyone as odd that she vacationed in Bermuda every year?” She stopped and gave Lock another severe look. “Though you are not to read that article, Lockie,” she continued. “Some of the things in it—well, just not appropriate for children to see.”
Lock studiously ignored her, shoveling eggs into his mouth. After breakfast, though, he waited until Father had finished the paper before nipping back in to steal it from the kitchen bin and shove it under his mattress for later perusal.
After that moment of glory, the holiday settled back down into a normal mode. They pursued their own activities: Mycroft spent much time in his room, working to get a head-start on next term’s research requirements; Lock was outdoors from breakfast to sundown, rambling through the gardens and the nature preserve, coming back each evening filthy, exhausted, and content. The brothers saw each other relatively little; Mycroft found himself regretting that, but was unsure how to resolve it. His baby brother wasn’t, well, a baby anymore.
Sooner than he would have preferred, Mycroft was packing up his things to return to Cambridge. Classes didn’t start for another week, but he had promised to come back early to help his committee chairman put together lecture materials. Lock had another two full weeks before classes began at Caterham.
Mycroft was putting the last few books in his rucksack, at nearly eleven o’clock on his final evening, when he heard a light knock at his door. He opened it to find Lock, holding a finger to his lips for silence. Mycroft rolled his eyes and pulled his brother inside, closing the door before he spoke.
“You were supposed to be in bed an hour ago,” he said. “Mummy will have your head if she catches you.”
“I know,” Lock said, and rolled his own eyes. “As if I needed that much sleep.”
“Well, perhaps not,” Mycroft replied, going back to his packing. “But you could at least do some reading, and rest.”
Lock tossed his head. “It’s just…I had to…I wanted to tell you something, before you left,” he finished in a rush. He wasn’t making eye contact—something was making him anxious, then.
Mycroft stopped packing. “Is something wrong?” he asked. “You can tell me, you know.”
Lock’s head came up. “No,” he said. “I just—I wanted you to know. This year. The mission. Coming home from school. This was the best Christmas I ever had. And if you hadn’t—that’s you. And I wanted to thank you. So you knew, before you left.” His fair skin flamed, and he looked back at the floor, sidling back towards the door. Mycroft only just managed to catch him.
He put his hands on his brother’s shoulders. “I’m glad,” he said. “I’m glad I could help. I’m glad you’re happy.” He smiled. “And I’m particularly glad you wanted to tell me.”
Sherlock opened the door, started to leave, and then abruptly pulled back as if he’d just remembered something. “Oh, and Happy Christmas!” he said, and smiled as he darted away.
And Mycroft found himself looking at the closed door, and thinking. “Yes. It is happy, isn’t it?” he said slowly, and smiled.