Author's Note: This is a "what if?" fic. In other words, I asked myself a question: "What if Moriarty, in addition to framing Sherlock for the crimes committed in TRF, had chosen to implicate John Watson as well?"
The possible ramifications that that one, single change could have had on the events of series three fired my imagination, resulting in this story. I see it as a pure alternate universe; you'll see characters, events and dialogue from series 3 in this story, but in a completely different context from the way series 3 actually played out on screen. Thus, while I may alter one or two characters/situations from S3, all recognizable dialog/characters are from the show. The rest is entirely a product of my imagination.
"The greatest fear dogs know is the fear that you will not come back when you go out the door without them."
― Stanley Coren
When Mycroft Holmes came first in his exams, earning himself a place as the youngest-ever entrant in one of the country's most elite and prestigious secondary schools, his proud mother told him to name whatever he liked as a treat. She would never have made such a rash offer to her younger son (who, at three, was already demanding cadavers on which to experiment), but she expected Mycroft would request a new piano, or perhaps the expensive set of British political anthologies he had had his eye on for some time.
She was gobsmacked when her sensible, languid son instead asked for a puppy.
Mrs. Holmes could be forgiven for her lack of foresight. While the wish for a puppy might seem synonymous with boyhood, Mycroft was certainly not an ordinary boy. Along with his prodigious intelligence, he was endowed with a frightening emotional precocity. He had no friends; other children (including his own brother) bored him. He was careful with his diction, had a massive vocabulary, despised slang, and spoke like a seasoned solicitor, making it easy to forget he was only a child. He liked to dress well and abhorred getting dirty – at ten, he resembled nothing so much as a small accountant. He preferred reading to sports and, indeed, shunned physical activity as much as possible. He was a child who habitually moaned about being forced to accompany his parents and small brother on short Sunday strolls; he hardly seemed the type of boy to demand a rough-and-tumble puppy to play with.
In truth, Mycroft was not interested in the antics of a clumsy puppy. He had recently, however, become very interested in the history of the Kennel Club and dog showing. Already aspiring (at age ten) one day to move in circles of power among the elite, an intelligent interest in purebred dogs promised to be a dignified, correct, and worthy hobby, and one not requiring a disinterested owner to engage overmuch in "legwork" (there were trainers and handlers for that sort of thing).
Mrs. Holmes protested. She had enough to do, she declared, between trying to keep up with her hyperactive younger son, Sherlock, as well as seeing to the education of both very gifted boys. To Mycroft's argument that he would take on the whole of the responsibility for the hypothetical animal, Mummy had expressed considerable doubt, observing that a boy who abhorred sports and active play of any kind was hardly likely to offer the kind of robust lifestyle and vigorous exercise a sporting breed requires. But while she might have prevailed against her young son's rapidly progressing skills in debate with an inarguable "because-I-said-so," she could not prevail against her easygoing husband's amicable remark that a deal was a deal: she had promised the lad whatever reward he chose, and wouldn't it be nice to have a family dog 'round the home, anyway?
Mrs. Holmes conceded defeat and, shortly after Mycroft's summer holidays began, they brought home Tam O'Shanter of Knightscroft, a three-month-old male Irish Setter with an impeccable bloodline and a pedigree as long as young Mycroft's arm. When Mycroft expressed an admiration for the elegant, lanky beauty and deep, rich color of Irish Setters, Mr. and Mrs. Holmes had consulted the advice of a well-known breeder who helped Mycroft choose a puppy that showed promise not only of great physical beauty, strength, and size, but a tractable, genial nature and signs of intelligence. Even at this early age, Tam O'Shanter proved to be brave, friendly, gracious, and unusually dignified for a setter pup, displaying an affable yet somewhat detached approach to people that was not unlike Mycroft's own. It was as though the puppy was aware of his prodigious pedigree, and while friendly, was not overly emotional as many puppies are, carrying himself in a right royal fashion that suited the cool, polite and aloof Mycroft to a tee. The pup seemed a perfect fit for its new young owner.
Unfortunately, the one thing Mycroft failed to take into account was the fact that, while anyone can be a dog's owner, a dog chooses his own master. From the moment they brought him home, Tam O'Shanter's choice was as immediate as it was clear – and, ultimately, irrevocable: he was Sherlock's dog.
To Mycroft's infinite disgust, Tam O'Shanter, while perfectly friendly with Mycroft and his parents, attached himself to the three-year-old boy with the sort of fierce devotion and utter adoration that inspires the legendary dog stories favored by any child that has ever coveted a canine of his or her own. The puppy could not bear to have Sherlock out of his sight; he would sit by the hour, eager and alert, looking up into the little boy's face as he played with his chemistry set or practiced his violin, watching it with never fading attention, studying it, following with the keenest interest each fleeting expression, every movement or shift in feature, his heart shining out of his soft brown eyes with profound worship. He would follow Sherlock wherever the boy went, from the moment the boy woke to the moment he was put to bed, and did all he could to remain with Sherlock while the child slept.
Sherlock, for his part, was delighted with this attention. Neither he nor Mycroft had had the pleasure of childhood friendships. Their keen intellects set them apart from other children, making them objects of suspicion, jealousy and disdain. Mycroft coped by turning to his books and looking down on lesser intellects with haughtiness, considering himself above them. Sherlock tried to follow his big brother's example, but had rather a harder time of it…while Mycroft was content with his own company and possessed of the ability to blend in (or at least not stand out too much), Sherlock secretly desired friends, but his restless energy and outspoken behavior made him even more off-putting than his elder brother.
The puppy gave Sherlock the companionship the boy craved on his terms: Sherlock wanted to be adored and admired, the puppy adored and admired him; Sherlock wanted faithfulness and devotion, the puppy was loyal to a fault and trusting almost to the point of stupidity, following Sherlock into all manner of ridiculous adventures in direct opposition to his own instincts towards self-preservation; Sherlock wanted someone to listen to his long-winded, rapid-fire "observations," the puppy never grew tired of listening to Sherlock, sitting enthralled long after the rest of the family's patience was outstripped by Sherlock's prattling, his floppy ears pricked, head tilted to the side, worshipful brown eyes alight with the eagerness to understand.
Though Mycroft was disappointed and (secretly) hurt by this turn of events, he did what he usually did in such situations: he affected an attitude of superiority, pretending (and sometimes almost believing) that it all mattered very little to him – that he was above such things. And when Sherlock, newly enamored with tales of pirates sailing the high seas, renamed the puppy "Redbeard," Mycroft hid his bitter resentment behind a show of scorn for his younger brother's childishness.
Shortly before Mycroft left for school, Mummy had come into his room one night after he had gone to bed to talk to him. Sherlock had already been in bed for two hours (a small miracle at which the household had not yet stopped marveling – getting Sherlock into bed and keeping him there had been an hours-long operation before Mummy had finally given in to her boy's pleas and demands that Redbeard be allowed to sleep with him). Sherlock still didn't go straight to sleep – the family could hear him whispering to the puppy when they passed the bedroom door for as much as an hour after the light was put out – but he was definitely sleeping longer and more consistently, with fewer nightmares and restless episodes. And the improved rest was showing in Sherlock's behavior and ability to concentrate during the day: his attention span was better, he could sit still for longer periods, and he was less apt to melt down when he didn't get his way.
It was this that Mummy wanted to talk to Mycroft about while she sat on his bed, telling him how sorry she was that his hopes for a puppy of his own hadn't worked out as they had planned, but that she hoped Mycroft could be pleased along with his parents about how much happier, calmer and more focused Sherlock was now that Redbeard had come into their lives.
Mycroft, who was rather fond of his little brother, agreed, and assured his mother that, in truth, he was really too old for puppies. He acknowledged that he would have little time for such things from now on, and that it was best for all concerned that Tam O'Shanter – that is, Redbeard – be Sherlock's dog.
Deep down, though, he could not help feeling jealous of the affection and camaraderie Sherlock shared with this puppy, and wondering what it would be like to have something or someone as loyal to him, just for being himself, as Redbeard was to Sherlock.
When Mycroft Holmes came first in his secondary school exams, earning himself a place as the youngest-ever entrant in one of the country's most elite and prestigious universities, his proud mother felt another treat was in order. This one she chose herself, however: a six-week holiday traveling in America for the whole family.
Ten-year-old Sherlock had been delighted at first, regarding the whole thing as a glorious adventure – until he heard his father on the telephone making arrangements for their travel.
"But what about Redbeard?" Sherlock demanded imperiously.
Mycroft, who had been in the room at the time, looked down at the pair. The dog in question, firmly attached to Sherlock's side as always, with Sherlock's hand carelessly resting on the back of his neck, looked up and waved his plumy tale at the sound of his own name on his young master's lips. As predicted by the breeder who had helped in his selection, Redbeard had grown into a stunningly handsome specimen of the breed, with a deep chest, slender waist, and an abundant, fiery coat that gleamed like burnished copper in the sunshine. He could easily have been a champion if Sherlock had not insisted that dog shows would bore the animal – and him. Not that a layman would know it to see the brute as he was now, Mycroft thought critically. As their mother had predicted, Redbeard's primary care – bathing, grooming and feeding – had fallen to her. As much as he loved his pet, Sherlock could not be bothered with attending to his long-haired coat. (Indeed, the boy barely remembered to feed the animal or provide him with fresh water. Mycroft supposed this was to be expected, seeing as how Sherlock often forgot to come in for meals himself when he was otherwise engaged with conducting experiments or exploring the woods for specimens – the boy often seemed to resent the time meals took up when he could be doing something more interesting. Mrs. Holmes had a difficult time keeping up with her younger son and his pet, and like his youthful master, Redbeard often bore a distinctly tattered appearance, the feathers along his legs, tail and stomach as tangled as Sherlock's curls, his collar a battered reflection of Sherlock's thrown-together play clothes.
"Obviously the dog can't come with us to America, Sherlock," Mycroft sniffed, using his best shut-up-and-let-the-smart-people-talk tone that he had cultivated especially for his baby brother (it never failed to cause Sherlock to glower darkly at him from beneath furrowed brows). "Traveling abroad with an animal requires all sorts of tedious, complicated procedures, not to mention the fact that it's quite costly, and many hotels won't even welcome dogs."
"Then I'm not going, either!" Sherlock declared angrily, crossing his arms and lowering his brows. Sensing his distress, the beast at his side whined a bit.
"Now, Sherlock, be reasonable," Mr. Holmes said coaxingly. "We've chosen a lovely kennel for Redbeard where they'll take care of him beautifully. He'll be safe as houses, and looking out for you when we get back."
In the end, that was how it commenced: the Holmes' had kenneled Redbeard and set off on their adventures without him.
They had a lovely time in America, and Sherlock, Mycroft noted, had seemed to forget about his doting and doted-upon pet entirely almost as soon as they were on the aeroplane. Indeed, as much as the boy missed the dog, Sherlock seemed also to relish the freedom from his canine friend's overprotectiveness.
Mummy had declared more than once that she never had to worry about Sherlock when he was out on his own so long as Redbeard was with him. Among other thing the dog had diverted the attention of an angry bull that had taken umbrage when Sherlock had unwittingly invaded his field, tackled an oversized bully who had taken exception to Sherlock's observations that he was shoplifting in front of his mother, and on one occasion had pulled Sherlock out of a stream when the boy had missed his footing while trying to retrieve a specimen for his collection of marine life.
Sherlock could hardly remember a time when Redbeard wasn't at his side and had grown to fiercely love and depend upon the animal. But while it was true that the setter's guardianship had rescued Sherlock from many a scrape, and his tireless listening had helped his master work through many a challenging homework problem, Redbeard's presence could also be, Sherlock now discovered, a bit…restrictive. The dog had more than once stopped Sherlock from doing something it deemed too risky or dangerous by blocking the boy's path or holding him back by his coat or trouser leg with its teeth. Sherlock seemed to enjoy not being babied by a dog for a change…and not having said dog inadvertently thwart his plans. (Redbeard had accidentally given Sherlock away on more than one covert "spy mission" with an ill-timed bark, scratch or sneeze.)
It was, Mycroft supposed dispassionately, a sign of Sherlock's inherently selfish was greatness in his little brother – greatness and brilliance – but these qualities were not tempered by coolness and discipline as they were in Mycroft himself. Mycroft was careful in all he did; Sherlock was rarely careful at all. Part of the reason the younger boy did not have friends was due to the fact that he was as fierce and almost hurtful with his love as he was with this pride and sense of discovery…one needed only to look to Redbeard to see that. There wasn't much Sherlock wouldn't do for Redbeard, but there also wasn't much he wouldn't do to Redbeard in the name of science and curiosity. Sherlock would ride his bicycle for miles on self-appointed expeditions while Redbeard ran determinedly behind him, wearing his paws down until the pads were raw and bloody in his desperation to keep up with his thoughtless master. And Sherlock not only forgot to feed his pet when absorbed in composing a composition, he even experimented on him, once knocking the dog out for a day and a half with a sedative he had concocted himself.
But the great red setter seemed to have an unlimited source of patience where Sherlock was concerned, almost bursting himself trying to keep up with his young charge. Once, when Sherlock was five, Mycroft found the dog frantically attempting to scramble up the trunk of the Dutch elm in their garden. His little brother was sitting on a high branch, impatiently ordering his pet to follow him, and Redbeard probably would have hurt himself trying had Mycroft not put a stop to the exercise and explained to Sherlock that dogs simply don't climb trees. (At which point Sherlock descended, vociferously berating Redbeard for being "idiotic" and "useless" all the way down.)
Redbeard simply panted and waved his plumy tail happily because his idol was back on the ground.
For all that he had appeared to have forgotten about his constant companion while they were in America, however, Sherlock, during the family's return journey, became increasingly excited and eager at the prospect of being reunited with the dog. He shot out of the car before it had even come to a full stop when they reached the kennel, ignoring his mother's squawk of protest, and bolted toward the row of kennels where Redbeard was housed, eagerly calling his pet's name. But he was met with a wailing howl that sent shivers up Mycroft's spine, and a moment later there was a cry of distress from Sherlock that made the older boy and his parents quicken their steps to a run.
When they reached Redbeard's enclosure, the Holmes parents and Mycroft skidded to a halt, staring at a tearful Sherlock on his knees in front of the cage, reaching through to a dog they barely recognized: the once glorious, shining coat was dull and sparse, the mighty muscles were wasted, and the animal's ribs were showing.
Worst of all were the terrible, pitiful cries of almost hysterical ecstasy such as they had never heard the beast make is he flung itself at the door of the pen and tried desperately to reach Sherlock's face and hands with his tongue.
The owner of the kennel apologized continually as he fumbled for the key to Redbeard's prison, explaining that they hadn't known how to reach the Holmes family while they were abroad, and weren't sure they should even if they could, seeing that they were overseas.
"We did our best for the tyke," the kennel owner explained worriedly, "but he were pining for t'young man."
Redbeard recovered, but it was clear that, had he been parted from Sherlock for much longer, the family probably would have come home to find the dog had pined away to its death. Mycroft did not put much stock in intense attachments, but even he was not unmoved by the sounds Redbeard made when he was released from the kennel and at once bowled Sherlock over, wiggling desperately as though he couldn't get close enough, uttering frantic whimpers that sounded frighteningly akin to human sobs as he nuzzled the boy's chin.
For the next four months, Redbeard could not bear to be parted from Sherlock at all, even following his young master into the bath. Sherlock seemed but a little less traumatized than his pet, often electing to stay at home if his mother and father were going for errands on which Redbeard could not accompany them for one reason or another.
Mummy worried out loud more than once (never in front of Sherlock) about what would happen to the ridiculously devoted animal when her younger son went off to school – but as it happened, they never found out. The winter before that separation was to take place, Sherlock, lying on the floor in front of the fire reading a book, his head pillowed on Redbeard's satiny flank, idly reached up to twine his fingers in the long, red fur over the dog's shoulder as he so often did...only this time, his hand encountered a large lump that extended down over the animal's ribs.
The veterinarian tried her best, but she was not optimistic, and after a rapid decline over several months, Redbeard finally had to be euthanized.
To say Sherlock was devastated did not even begin to describe his grief. Their anxious and concerned parents finally resorted to taking their son to a doctor, who prescribed pills to help him deal with his despondency. Sherlock took the pills (which dulled his keen reactions and flying thoughts) for several weeks, then threw them away and refused to speak of Redbeard ever again. And from that time on, he took to heart Mycroft's adage that "caring is not an advantage," and became more solitary and aloof than he had ever been. The warmth and humanity that Redbeard had brought out in him dwindled, leaving behind a bitterly sardonic youth whose cutting tongue, combined with his keen insight, drove away potential companions. But Sherlock did not seem to care. Indeed, he seemed rather pleased.
Mummy had hoped Sherlock would get over it in time, but they all had to admit that he was never the same after Redbeard had gone. A wall had come up. Mycroft sometimes thought, privately, that perhaps it was just as well that Sherlock seemed unable to form meaningful attachments, if the loss of a mere dog could affect him so profoundly. Outwardly, it appeared as though Sherlock had "deleted" the dog from his memory...but Mycroft had his doubts.
Mycroft suspected that somewhere within Sherlock, deeply buried, a capacity for strong attachments yet lingered, waiting to resurface.