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Five Times

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There was infancy, of course, but they both agreed that hardly counted. One did not yet possess full control over one’s faculties. Besides, it was merely chance that made Mycroft the elder brother—it could just have easily been Sherlock who watched him cry in the cradle.

The first time, officially, was the summer afternoon Sherlock exited a tree unexpectedly. Whether he fell or was pushed was never fully determined by the relevant authorities. Chalked up to boyish games, no one asked too many questions. Sherlock was no more than four years old, Mycroft, old enough to know better. The arm wasn’t broken so as to cause any permanent damage, but it ballooned to a tremendous size, turned all manner of interesting colors, and smarted worse than anything. Sherlock cried every night for a week. If Mycroft had a guilty conscience, it didn’t stop him from complaining loudly that the whimpering kept him up at night. That was the last tree Mycroft ever climbed.

Then there was Mother’s passing. So unanticipated, so transformative. They were both away at school at the time. The headmaster relayed the news—Father was too preoccupied with his duties—and asked that they prepare to return home in the morning. Long after the lamps had been put out that evening, Mycroft woke to a sudden jostling on his bed as Sherlock burrowed his way under the covers.

“If Williams catches you in here, it’ll be the rod for both of us,” Mycroft whispered, though he doubted very much that even the draconian Mr. Williams would cane them under the circumstances.

Sherlock’s only reply was to bury his face against his brother’s chest. He was trembling so hard he narrowly avoided slipping off the mattress. Mycroft had little choice but to put an arm around his shoulders, if for no other reason than to hold him in place. So small a gesture breached the dam. Sobs gushed out with great, choking breaths that pinged about the dormitory hall. Tears and snot soaked into Mycroft’s nightshirt. Some of the boys in nearby beds booed and shushed; one threw a shoe that hit Mycroft in the small of his back.

There were no more tears the next morning, nor ever again on that subject. At the service, Sherlock looked wan and terribly tired, but they both maintained their composure. Their father, as always, appeared stoic and unaffected. From then on, Father retreated into his work. The boys into their studies. All three invented excuses not to return home for holidays.

Next was the affair with the young man at university. Young men, actually, which was the crux of the issue. Sherlock was barely able to relay the facts from start to finish without dissolving into tears and cursing the fickle, cruel nature of Man. As far as Mycroft could make out, Sherlock, who rarely found himself in possession of friends unless there was a chemistry exam on the horizon, managed to attract two admirers at the same time. His understanding of emotive reactions being such as it was, Sherlock failed to consider that the two men might not like discovering they played, as it were, second fiddle. The resulting row was thunderous, unfortunately public, and rather humiliating for the younger Holmes, whom both parties resolutely rejected, only after telling half his residential college all about his most intimate habits.

“How could they both be so… vicious?” Sherlock composed himself enough to wonder, “It isn’t as if I lied to anyone.”

“You kept them secret from each other for nearly three months.”

“Not secret. They never asked—it never seemed relevant to mention. And I never intended to offend.”

Mycroft offered him his handkerchief. “I believe where jealousy is concerned, intent is rather immaterial.”

“Evidently.”

To make matters worse, losing both his paramours and being on rather precarious terms with his provost, Sherlock had no alternative but to return home at the end of the term, where he proceeded to mope about in the most aggravating manner. The whole situation was particularly taxing on Mycroft on account of their father. Like his sons, Holmes Sr. was a keen observer. Unlike his sons, he did not have so forgiving an opinion on inversion. As a result, it required more than usual duplicitousness and delicacy to explain Sherlock’s increasingly morose and melancholy attitude, his sudden negligence of his studies, and the very menacing, yet vaguely-worded letter from the university concerning ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Mycroft believed himself more or less successful in concealing his brother’s nature for nearly a decade, until disproportionate allotments in Father’s will suggested otherwise.

It was so many years until the fourth incident, Mycroft foolishly thought them done with such embarrassing displays. An oversight, or perhaps wishful thinking. And yet, news of a certain imminent engagement found Sherlock supine on Mycroft’s favorite divan, smoking his third cigarette in so many minutes, chuckling ruefully at himself as silent, hot tears rolled from the corners of his eyes. The sight caused Mycroft to finish his glass of brandy as much for fortification as for thirst.

“He doesn’t know, then, the depth of your affections?”

“Of course not.”

“Inevitable, in that case. You cannot have been so naive to think he would stay a bachelor indefinitely. Not without just cause.”

Sherlock draped an arm over his face and looked for all the world a young Werther in lament. That was confirmation enough. Mycroft ventured another splash of brandy and considered the problem.

“You must make yourself known,” he pronounced at last, turning his attention to the fireplace.

The sound of a head shaking against the divan’s leather. “I cannot.” A voice splintered and quiet.

“Then, if you love him, you must be content with his happiness.”

Silence swallowed up the hours. The fire burned itself down to cinders. Sherlock exhausted his supply of cigarettes and his brother’s patience. Near midnight, a clearing of the throat singled Sherlock to take his leave. A few months later, the day John Watson married, a note from Mycroft regretfully informed that urgent matters of state would prevent his brother from attending. It was accompanied with best wishes for the happy couple and so generous a wedding gift as to dissuade any disappointment.

On the final occasion, Mycroft had only his presence to offer as his small measure of comfort. Even this was muffled and far-away feeling. Yet now his little brother had grown grey and old; for old men, presence is enough.

It ought to have been raining, or at least bitter cold, some pathetic fallacy to match the solemnity of the moment. Instead, it was a glorious midsummer day, mild and bright. Not unlike the day so long ago when Sherlock broke his arm. The trees and grass throughout the graveyard glowed radiantly verdant. In the branches overhead, sparrows cheeped eagerly at one another. A collard dove hooted for a mate, his song like a child’s wooden whistle. There was a third somewhere further off with a call Sherlock did not recognize, though he thought it might be some species of thrush.

It was a nuthatch, but Mycroft was unable to correct him.

As the sun slid lower towards late afternoon, Sherlock produced his handkerchief, dabbing his eyes and blowing his nose with a great noise, which Mycroft would have noted sounded more like a thrush than that nuthatch did. The thought of brotherly chiding at his tears brought a smile to Sherlock's face.

"Here is one sight, at least, you will not miss."

The loamy scent of fresh earth was the only reply.