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They have a ritual, he and Sherlock. Had, when they were younger.

Mycroft remembered quite clearly when they’d first realised Sherlock was having sensory problems. When something would abruptly bother him—when sound and light made him flinch and touching things made him look as though he wanted to crawl out of his own skin and he would freeze with a sudden panic that never seemed to manifest into spoken words. It had started getting noticeable sometime just before the “incidents”—as the adults had called it—with Eurus had happened. Noticeable to Mycroft, at least. He hadn’t understood it for a while; had sifted through the fragments of what he’d seen and tried to piece them together. Had been embarrassed that it wasn’t until a couple days before Eurus had...“left”, when she’d looked up at him with too-knowing eyes and said in a too-grown up voice “he feels everything too much”, that it had suddenly made sense. And then he could understand, conceptually, and learn how to respond.

Sometimes it was almost endearing.

Sherlock’s growing fascination with warmth and being wrapped in a comfortable weight had been almost adorable when it was related to catching him stalking imperiously into his room, thin arms straining to hold onto a heavy mound of blankets, too high for him to see over. Occasionally it was useful, as well. He remembered a Christmas party when Sherlock had nearly been nine—when everyone had been too focused on their friends and their gossip and their politics to pay attention to the children running about. He’d seen the exact moment Sherlock had gone from boredly disinterested to Too Much out of the corner of his eye. The tell-tale freeze, the abundant blinking as he tried and failed to process. It had been close. Mycroft had barely gotten him out of the crowd and into the bitter cold. Wrapped Sherlock, almost tightly, up in his own coat and tried to search for signs that Sherlock was slowly able to relax again. Started to lift his hands—

“No.”

Left his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders. Watched as the seconds drifted by, the tension seeped out of him like the slow dissipation of smoke. By the time Sherlock was relaxed and breathing slowly, Mycroft was shivering. It hadn’t mattered. Peering up at him from over the collar of Mycroft’s far-too-big coat, Sherlock had looked oddly like a baby bird with his fluffy curls and wide, pale eyes. But by his expression alone he’d been able to say I’m fine and let go (which Mycroft had done immediately) and do we have to go back?

“No.” At Sherlock’s curious frown, he’d amended, “Not yet.”

“Why?” Sherlock had asked, tone dipping slightly into petulance. Both had been normal features at the time—Sherlock had always sounded slightly petulant and why? had been his default response to everything.

Because it upsets you and you matter more than them. “It’s not as though they’ll miss us. Besides...dreadfully boring, wasn’t it? Come along, Sherlock.”

They’d had chips and hot chocolate in a little shop across the street, drawing word puzzles onto paper napkins for each other until Sherlock had fallen asleep, curled against Mycroft’s side. And it had been entirely worth the lecture on responsibility he’d gotten when their parents had found them at the end of the night.

Sometimes it was...odd, until he looked at the situation from another angle.

Some of his jumpers had gone missing. It wouldn’t have been a problem, but he was meant to be going back to university the following day and he’d wanted to be as close to ready as possible. Still, it wasn’t the end of the world; they were probably in the wash. But he made a point to ask Mummy about it at breakfast. Half-listened as she promised to have a look and chattered on about how some of Sherlock’s things had gone missing, as well. Felt himself frown.

“What have you done?” he’d sighed, standing in the doorway of Sherlock’s room a couple hours later.

“What have I done with what?” Sherlock snapped, sitting in the middle of his bed and not looking up from the pile of notes he’d been perusing.

“The jumpers, Sherlock—both yours and my own. The only consistent factor in both disappearances is you. What have you done with them?”

Maybe you just need to learn to take better care of your things.”

The deceptively light tone only served to strengthen Mycroft’s suspicion. It had to have been Sherlock’s doing—no one else would have taken both. The real question was why? Why would he bother? As petty as Sherlock could be, it seemed a bit far for him. Beyond that, what had he— Oh. “You put them in the rubbish bins, didn’t you?”

“What does it matter?” But stillness had stolen its way up Sherlock’s spine, and he’d frozen with a look of wide-eyed alarm on his face. All it took to get an explanation was a frown. Sherlock scoffed, rolled his eyes, and grimaced with the theatricality of a mediocre Shakespearean actor. “Yes. They were bad; obviously.”

They were...bad? Mycroft blinked, trying to understand. How could jumpers be...bad? Certainly some were poorly made and hideous to look at, but “bad”? How completely nonsensical. But Sherlock always had a reason for things he did, even if that reason seemed ridiculous to others. So what would Sherlock deem bad? Idiocy and banality. Failing to have things his way (his brother was a brat through and through). Too much in the way of stimuli. The reality of being alo—wait.

If he’d been on edge, the soft-sharp rub of unpleasant fabric might have been enough to start him on a purge. And abrupt mission to destroy anything that offended his senses, based more on the need to eliminate that which had annoyed him instead of actually seeking comfort. Mycroft nearly sighed, hoping it would never happen with any of his nicer clothes.

“Next time you might want to stagger your destructive urges further apart,” he offered, aware that any proper lecturing would get him nowhere.

“Goodbye, Mycroft.”

“Because it wouldn’t be very clever, would it, for Mummy to catch you. We both know how much you love to pretend to be clever.”

“Go away, Mycroft.”

But Mummy never mentioned any more missing articles of clothing and Sherlock was never caught. Mycroft supposed, in some way, it was good to know Sherlock had at least considered his advice on occasion.

And sometimes he felt completely lost in the face of him.

Sherlock had been hidden for the better part of two days now. Mycroft knew, logically, that he was fine—they’d found a half-eaten meal on the countertop that morning and a package of Sherlock’s favourite biscuits had disappeared from the kitchen; it wasn’t as though he were starving. He just wanted to be left alone. But their parents were worried, so Mycroft searched. He found Sherlock hidden in an armoire in his bedroom, refusing to come out with plaintive demands for Mycroft to go away.

Resigned, prepared to sit in wait for the rest if the day if he had to, Mycroft fetched some of his coursework and sat down in front of the armoire’s doors. He could wait until Sherlock was ready to say what was wrong. His brother could never resist an audience.

“Why are you still here?” he heard Sherlock complain an hour later, his voice strangely muffled by the cabinet’s depths.

“I’m here,” Mycroft began as patiently as he could manage, “because Mummy and Daddy are concerned about your wellbeing.” As am I, he thought. He knew better than to say it aloud.

Sherlock only snorted in response, sarcastic and unamused.

The silence began to press in anew, lapping at the walls of the room in waves. But, now that the quiet had been broken once, Mycroft found it was impossible to return to his work. It was too uncomfortable. The air too static. Resisting the urge to tap his pen against his notebook, he stacked up his coursework, set it aside, and slid closer to the armoire. There was no response.

“Why don’t you come out? We can discuss whatever is troubling you in a reasonable manner.”

“No.”

Mycroft sighed. “Sherlock—”

“No! It’s stupid. You’ll call me stupid,” Sherlock fumed, his words fading into a nearly inaudible, whining murmur as he added, “Everyone’s stupid.”

“As a rule, people generally are. This can’t come as a surprise to you.” But he recognised the tone. The way Sherlock flung disparaging observations as if they could distance him from feeling anything unpleasant; it was a method Sherlock had been employing with more frequency as he grew older. But he’d learned it from Mycroft. He hadn’t come to the conclusion that it made him safer on his own; he’d only adopted the behaviour. For the first time, Mycroft realised just how infuriating it felt to have such deflection aimed at him. He wanted to state that now wasn’t the time for theatrics—or to open the doors and demand a straightforward answer—but he knew neither would work. If he genuinely wanted to know, he would need to wait it out.

After what felt like an eternity, he heard the faint shifting of fabric and Sherlock finally enquired, “Why won’t they listen to me?”

And how many times had Mycroft heard that tone before—asking why a rule didn’t make sense or why the other children didn’t like him or why the adults no longer praised his cleverness? Too many times. Far too many. Thrown, Mycroft couldn’t quite summon up the words to ask for clarification.

“They know I’m right,” Sherlock continued, heedless. “I have to be right—there’s no other explanation! I did the work. I can almost prove it, too. And they laughed.

Incredibly slowly, Mycroft felt the pieces start to come together. He thought over Sherlock’s most recent letters and phone calls and— “Is this...about the Powers boy?”

“...they’re being stupid,” came the only, somewhat pitiful, response almost five minutes later.

With a heavy breath, Mycroft closed his eyes and rested his head against the armoire’s door. He could point out that police protocol wouldn’t allow the officers to search for missing shoes without evidence of actual foul play, but Sherlock had undoubtedly researched that before approaching the police to begin with. He could point out that disappointment was something that Sherlock would need to get used to—that people were never useful when they needed to be, that nothing ever went completely according to plan, that happiness was a fickle, fleeting thing—but… For the moment, Mycroft was keenly aware that his brother was just a child hiding from his humiliation in his closet.

How do I put this to rights? He knew better than to think he could make the police listen—not to mention that Sherlock would have been annoyed if they’d only listened because they had been ordered to. Now that he knew why Sherlock was upset, Mycroft understood why he’d chosen the armoire for a hiding place. The dark, the closeness of the walls, must have been soothing. And what, exactly, had driven him inside? Too many thoughts; too many...emotions, Mycroft thought, finally feeling like his thoughts were getting closer to his normal. Not enough stimuli. He made himself pause. Consider. There was a chance it could work...it had worked before, but was he too distracted this time?

“Sherlock,” he began slowly after an almost painfully long silence. He stopped, wetted his lips, and continued: “Tell me the difference between apis mellifera and apis dorsata.”

There was a brief beat of surprise. “Why? You know the difference.”

“I’m afraid I had to forget the finer points of both species to make room for statistics,” Mycroft lied almost gently, making an effort to keep from smiling.

Another long moment passed in silence. Sherlock finally accepted the distraction with an appalled huff. The next few hours had passed slowly—Sherlock’s voice gaining more enthusiasm until he finally opened the door to sit beside Mycroft. It hadn’t changed anything. Sherlock’s frustrations hadn’t magically resolved themselves. But, for the night, things were calm; at one point, Mycroft even thought he might have seen him smile.

But it had always circled back to their ritual.

He wasn’t entirely certain how it had begun, just that the requirements remained the same. Sherlock would find him when he was alone and the day had been bad. Almost soundlessly, he’d clambered up onto the chair beside Mycroft, uncaring if there was any room to do so. He curled in on himself, knees pressed against the back of the chair and arms wrapped around his own chest, before tucking his forehead into the crook of Mycroft’s neck. Sherlock never wanted to be touched in those moments. No touching and no speaking. Just silence, darkness, and a lack of stimuli beyond the scent of Mycroft’s clothing.

Sometimes Sherlock would sit there for a couple minutes and leave without a word. Those were only mildly annoying days, Mycroft eventually understood. Days when it was only school or a rude comment that had bothered him and failed to leave his head. Other days were different. Other days saw Sherlock sitting beside him for over an hour; his shaky, unsteady breaths shuddering against Mycroft’s shoulder as he tried to calm whatever seas he’d been cast adrift upon. Eventually he would relax and shift to sit more comfortably, turning his attention to whatever else had occupied Mycroft. Sherlock was never in a hurry to leave on those days.

He couldn’t help but remember that now, sitting on the edge of Sherlock’s hospital bed. It’s a dismal room. Despite the fact that almost every inanimate object in the room (including the room itself) is a shade of white or beige, everything felt grey and heavy—a mimicry of the storm clouds roiling outside the large windows. Mycroft had spent the last hour watching them roll in. He couldn’t look at the wires or the machines. Or at his little brother. But his mind was doing a fine job (horrible, horrible; he didn’t want to know) of filling in what he couldn’t see.

The beep and whirr of the machines told him Sherlock was fine for the moment—his heart rate was slightly elevated but he wasn’t in danger of dying presently. He could feel Sherlock shaking from where his knee leaned against the back of Mycroft’s hip, though whether the tremors were a result of the overdose or some repressed emotion Mycroft couldn’t say. He knew if he turned just so he could watch him surreptitiously. But he didn’t want to look. He told himself it would be kinder if he didn’t.

Sherlock had refused to lay back, half-curled in on himself as if his discomfort was a sign of penance. His over-long curls hid his grimy face from view, but Mycroft knew his eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed, pupils still irregular. And Mycroft knew he should be furious with him. That he should have started a lecture on responsibility and keeping promises by now, but he’s too tired. Too relieved that his brother is alive. For a moment, all Mycroft could see was a scared little boy who, one time, had possibly loved and relied on him when he needed something warm and dependable.

With a heavy sigh, he turned toward Sherlock. Carefully maneuvered him into leaning against him, forehead against Mycroft’s shoulder. Sherlock froze, clearly uncertain if this was some strange form of attack, before finally relaxing into it. Every fibre of Sherlock’s being seemed to be wordlessly shouting “failure”—that he hadn’t meant to start up again, hadn’t meant to overdose, hadn’t meant to be back here, in the same situation, yet again.

Mycroft desperately wanted to chide both of them for the sentiment of it all—to be annoyed at Sherlock for getting emotional, at himself for being so torn up about something he’d expected to happen. But he thought of Eurus, so far removed from the world that nothing could touch her, and how Sherlock was crumbling at the edges more and more every day. He thought of how his own reflection looked like a stranger these days—a dead thing in a well-tailored suit. He bit back the words and ran his fingers through Sherlock’s filthy hair. You’re not a failure, he thought, trying to ignore the tremors and how very small his brother felt. If anyone here has failed, it was me. I should’ve protected you. Helped you.

“Our current position does not mean that I’m not exceptionally disappointed in you,” he finally said, neither pushing Sherlock away nor removing his fingers from his hair.

The sound he got in response was somewhere between a self-deprecating laugh and a sob. “Mycr—"

“And you will be returning to rehab.” Silence followed his words, bleak and resigned. He made an effort to soften his tone just a touch as he went on, “You know I’m here for you. I won’t leave you to face this alone.”

Later, Mycroft knew, they would fight. He would be demeaning and Sherlock would be cruel and both of them would spend the rest of the evening sulking. All softness would be forgotten about. But, at that precise moment, Mycroft didn’t care. They sat in a poor replica of what had once been a position of trust and he made himself stay silent when Sherlock finally nodded in understanding. And a part of him longed for the days when sitting like this had been enough. For the days when their problems couldn’t stop them. He tried not to think about how much he wished they could go back to when they were all a little less broken.