Sherlock was covered in soot, his face draped in a petulant frown. Every inch of his tiny frame telegraphed a desperate attempt to convey that a fractious four-almost-five-year-old coated in chimney soot was an entirely normal thing to be.
“Sherlock,” Mycroft said, looking up from the makeshift desk he’d set up for himself in the corner of the sitting room as soon as he’d arrived home from school for the holidays. “Dare I ask?” Mycroft had piles and piles of essays and assignments and problem sets to complete before returning to school in January (adults seemed to understand “gifted” to mean “give this child additional schoolwork, since we don’t know what else to do with him”), and Sherlock stomping around, tracking sooty footprints across the floor, was distracting.
“No, you may not,” Sherlock snapped back, all precocious authority. “I’m doing research.” He still lisped, just a little, on his voiceless alveolar sibilants.
Mycroft sighed, pinched his nose the same way he had so often seen Daddy do in response to Sherlock’s strange fancies, and returned to his calculus equations. If his witless teachers were going to go the route of assigning him more homework than any child could possibly be expected to complete, then Mycroft was going to go the route of shocking them by finishing it all.
Beyond Mycroft’s peripheral vision, Sherlock was still stalking around the fireplace, muttering, “Not wide enough, though. Even without the reindeer and the sleigh.”
The kitchen door slammed open, followed moments later by the shockwave of Sherlock’s rage as he tore through the sitting room, past Mycroft’s desk and up the stairs, shrieking all the while, “NO, I WON’T GO I WON’T GO I WON’T GO YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”
The tempest that was his little brother left Mycroft’s ears ringing, even after Sherlock had audibly flung open his bedroom door, slammed it closed again behind him, and stomped across the room to fling himself onto his child-sized bed with such force that its protesting groan could be heard downstairs in the sitting room. Mycroft set down his pen and shook out his hand, which was cramping from hours of writing. He was training himself to write his essays with his non-dominant hand, and he’d nearly achieved his goal of handwriting that was indistinguishable whether executed with his left hand or his right.
Mummy drifted into the sitting room in Sherlock’s wake, with the tight expression that spoke of a migraine coming on, although strangely Mummy herself never seemed to notice the early indications that Mycroft could read so plainly in her face.
“All I did was ask if he wanted to visit Father Christmas at the shopping centre,” she mused in Mycroft’s general direction. “And he asked which shopping centre, and I said whichever one he liked, really, and then he threw a tantrum.” She sighed, then seemed to see Mycroft for the first time. “Oh, Myc, you don’t have to do your schoolwork out here where Sherlock will always be bothering you. You can use my study, I’ll just clear some of the papers out of the way, I’m sure I can make some room…”
“No, Mummy, it’s fine,” Mycroft said. “I don’t mind it here.” He would get more work done somewhere quiet, it was true, but then who would keep an eye on his brother?
Upstairs, Sherlock was howling, “BUT HOW CAN HE BE IN MORE THAN ONE PLACE AT ONCE?”
Mycroft was doing his history reading at the desk in the sitting room. Sherlock was slumped on the sofa, glaring suspiciously at the television, where a nature documentary was playing with the sound turned low.
Mycroft glanced over and noted a herd of reindeer traipsing across a frozen tundra, decided that a documentary about the fauna of the Arctic would be of less relevance to his future career than this biography of Nelson he was still only halfway through, and returned to his work.
“I just don’t think they can fly,” Sherlock muttered, his baby voice taking on a note of world-weary scepticism. “Their bones are too heavy.”
Then a frantic rustling of throw pillows told Mycroft that Sherlock had sat up on the sofa, suddenly alert and quivering with intention.
“No, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, without looking up from his book. “You’re not going to find a reindeer anywhere in England, and even if you did, Mummy wouldn’t let you bring it home and dissect it.”
“You’re no fun,” Sherlock pouted, and sulked on the sofa for the rest of the afternoon.
“Who wants to help trim the tree?” Daddy asked, full of naïve good cheer. He was holding a big golden bauble in one hand and a strand of tinsel in the other.
Sherlock, sprawled on the floor in the corner opposite Mycroft’s desk and furiously scrawling some sort of equations in his childish hand on a length of butcher paper Mummy had let him have, paused only long enough to shoot a mistrustful look up at Daddy and ask, “Why?”
“It’ll be fun!” Daddy said. Mycroft wondered if he would ever learn. Four years of Sherlock really ought to have been time enough.
“No, why a tree?” Sherlock clarified, sounding put out at having to express himself in such slow and explicit terms. “Why do we have to have a Christmas tree?”
“Well, Father Christmas needs somewhere to leave you two your presents, doesn’t he?” Daddy’s arms, with the bauble and the tinsel, drooped a little lower at his sides.
“Does he?” Sherlock countered. Then, under his breath, in an alarmingly worldly tone, “I doubt it.”
Mycroft looked at Daddy’s crestfallen expression, sighed at the time that would be better spent completing his French translations, and got up to help his father trim the Christmas tree.
“Biscuits or mince pies, love? What do you think Father Christmas would like this year?”
Sherlock looked at Mummy sardonically. “Maybe you should just leave him whatever you like.”
Mummy smiled. “Mince pies it is, then!”
Sometimes Mycroft admired Mummy’s ability to let Sherlock’s Sherlockness simply wash over her, leaving her unchanged by the encounter. At eleven years old, nearly a teenager, nearly a grown-up, Mycroft still hadn’t learnt how to keep Sherlock from getting under his skin.
“And some carrots for his reindeer?” Mummy suggested. “In case they’re feeling a bit peckish after flying all over the world?”
“A selection of lichens and grasses might be better,” Sherlock proposed haughtily.
“Lovely!” Mummy agreed. “You and I can go out and gather a nice bunch of grass from next door’s meadow, I’m sure they won’t mind. Oh, and let’s say hello to their ponies, while we’re at it. We can bring them some apples.”
Sherlock blinked up at her with consternation on his small face, as if he’d just realised he’d been tricked into agreeing to participate in a mortifying farce.
A door creaked; Mycroft woke.
Had the noise been downstairs? No, Sherlock’s bedroom. Mycroft strained his ears and heard small feet padding along the hall, past his door and towards the stairs. He sighed, disentangled himself from his blankets, and followed.
He found Sherlock sitting on the bottom stair, staring across the sitting room at the Christmas tree, his arms hugged around the knees of his one-piece pyjamas, which were pale blue with pictures of little, fluffy sheep.
Carefully, feeling gangling and awkward next to his tiny brother, Mycroft settled himself beside Sherlock on the step.
“I did the calculations,” Sherlock said, an incongruous statement in his piping child’s voice. “It doesn’t work. He’d have to visit a whole bunch of houses every single second. He’d have to travel faster than the speed of sound.”
Mycroft blinked. For goodness sake, he’d only just got used to the idea that Sherlock could read to himself now, instead of needing to be tucked in at night and read a bedtime story, as he had done when Mycroft had left for school in the autumn. He wasn’t quite ready for a baby brother who could do advanced mathematics.
“And I checked the chimney and it’s not big enough for a grown-up to climb through, it barely even fitted me,” Sherlock went on, his words tumbling out faster now. “And all those Father Christmases you see in town, they can’t possibly all be real, because then how could there be more than one of them, and reindeer can’t fly, that’s just stupid, and it’s not Father Christmas who brings the presents and eats the pies and everything, is it?” He looked up at Mycroft accusingly.
“No,” Mycroft said. “It’s not.” It hurt in his chest, somehow, watching Sherlock figure that out. Which was funny, because it hadn’t hurt at all when Mycroft himself had figured out the same thing, and he’d been younger even than Sherlock was now.
“Then why do Mummy and Daddy lie about it?” Sherlock no longer sounded angry about the deception; his tone simply said he wanted to understand this baffling adult practice, of lying about pointless things.
“It makes them feel good,” Mycroft tried, feeling this out as he went along. Mycroft was good at mathematics and history and geography and languages and…pretty much everything, actually. But here, he was out of his depth. “It’s something parents have done for their children for generations, created this story about a nice old man who brings you presents if you’re good. It’s a pleasant childhood memory for them, and they like to think they can recreate the same thing for us.”
“They’re not doing a very good job of it,” Sherlock sniffed. “Do they really expect me to believe nonsense like that?”
It did seem unlikely. Mummy and Daddy had had four years already, nearly five, to figure out just how clever Sherlock was. Not to mention seven additional years before that of Mycroft being much, much cleverer, albeit less ostentatious about it. To expect their sons to believe a fiction as blatantly absurd as Father Christmas was really asking a lot.
“Maybe you could pretend, though,” Mycroft said. “For their sakes. They’re having such a good time pretending about this Father Christmas thing for you, don’t you think it would be nice to play along for a while?”
“Why?” There was bafflement in Sherlock’s voice.
“It would make them…happy, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be nice to do something that makes Mummy and Daddy happy?”
“I suppose so,” Sherlock sighed, sounding unconvinced. “It’s just so childish.”
“Just for this year,” Mycroft suggested. “Just this year, you could pretend to believe it, and then next year you can amaze them with your brilliant deductions about it, how about that?”
“Suppose,” Sherlock said, scuffing at the floor below the stairs with one toe of his pyjamas.
Mycroft looked at him, then looked over at the Christmas tree, gaudy and golden and bright. He thought about the essay he still needed to write for his Classics course, and then he thought about how he would be going back to school soon and wouldn’t see Sherlock again until Easter. He wondered how Sherlock would possibly survive when he started primary school next year. Sherlock was too rarefied for school, and too strange. He didn’t understand how to fake the things grown-ups wanted to see, like Mycroft did.
Frankly, he wondered how Sherlock managed to survive at all, now that Mycroft wasn’t here to interpret the world for him.
“That’s good,” was all he said. “It’s a little thing, Sherlock, but it will make them happy.”
Sherlock tossed his head, like he disagreed, but couldn’t be bothered to argue.
“Hadn’t we better get to bed, then?” Mycroft asked. Mummy and Daddy were terribly predictable, and always came downstairs right around midnight to set out the presents and scatter biscuit crumbs to make it look as though Father Christmas had been there, feasting on the snacks they had left for him. Sherlock was looking at Mycroft with his Why? expression, so Mycroft said, “Because it’s almost time for the presents and all that. You wouldn’t want Father Christmas to catch us sitting here watching, would you?”
Sherlock laughed, a rare, actual laugh. “No,” he agreed. “We don’t want Father Christmas to catch us.”
Mycroft smiled back at him. “Up you get, then.”
“Carry me,” Sherlock said, flinging his arms in the air like he did when he was feeling lazy and wanted Daddy to pick him up. Mycroft sighed and smiled, and stood, then leaned down to collect his brother’s bony weight in his arms – Sherlock was all angles. Pointy little angles in fluffy sheep pyjamas. He lolled his head against Mycroft’s shoulder, bumping against him as Mycroft bumbled up the stairs, thrown clumsily off balance by Sherlock’s unaccustomed weight.
He nudged Sherlock’s bedroom door open with his foot, crossed the room and deposited Sherlock on the bed, dropping him the last foot and a half of the way down, so that Sherlock squawked indignantly.
Mycroft smiled in the dark. “Remember,” he said. “No matter what anybody else might tell you, Father Christmas is real.”
“Yeah,” Sherlock yawned, burrowing down into his blanket. “Father Christmas is real.”
“And he comes down the chimney, and eats mince pies, and leaves presents under the tree.”
“Mm-hm.” Sherlock sounded sleepier by the moment. “And his reindeer can fly, and they travel around the world really, really fast, but they don’t catch on fire from the air resistance.”
“Exactly that,” Mycroft agreed. Sherlock’s breathing was already evening out, sliding towards sleep, so Mycroft retreated to the door as silently as he could.
“Mycroft,” Sherlock mumbled, and Mycroft paused, one hand on the doorknob.
Sherlock yawned again. “It’s good he doesn’t come down the chimney, ‘cause it’s really squashy and uncomfortable in there.”
Mycroft smiled. “Good night, Sherlock.”
Mycroft closed the door gently behind him and returned to his own room, walking quietly so as not to rouse Mummy and Daddy. Someone in this house, at least, ought to be allowed their peaceful illusions.