Author's note: There's no denying it – I write a lot of angst! Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I did want to see if I could write something funny for a change. I originally intended this to be a one-shot, but, like Topsy, it "just growed" (as so often happens with my stories) until it became seven chapters (six chapters and an epilogue). Hopefully people will find it a fun read. :-)
The premise for this story grew out of my head canon for How Sherlock Came to Have an Irish Setter Named Redbeard As a Child. I go into this in depth in the prologue to my story, "An Innocent Man." "Good Show" is a stand-alone story; there should be enough references to Redbeard's beginnings that you don't need to read AIM at all. If, however, you wish to go a little deeper into the background I personally envisioned for Redbeard, and how it pertains to a young Mycroft and Sherlock, you can read the prologue to AIM (which can also stand alone).
The cottage was quiet when Mycroft got home from the library. Daddy was working. Mummy, who at this time of day was normally in her study poring over some obscure maths theorem after a morning of teaching Sherlock, was also absent – over breakfast she had announced her intention to do the week's shopping after lunch; apparently, she had taken Sherlock with her.
Mycroft took advantage of the rare solitude to indulge his sweet tooth with an extra-large slice of homemade orange sponge cake and a glass of milk. (Mummy didn't object to afternoon snacks, but the portion she would have allotted to her son would have been considerably smaller.) He ate and drank standing at the kitchen worktop, a copy of last evening's newspaper tucked under his left arm, moodily glaring through the window at the copper beech in the back garden. His dour frame of mind spoiled somewhat his pleasure in the stolen treat.
Barely a week into the summer holidays and already he was bored nearly senseless.
Boredom was not a condition Mycroft was accustomed to experiencing (that was more his little brother's affliction). The older of the two prodigies' prodigious mind usually was more than up to the task of keeping its owner occupied – indeed, Mycroft's favorite way to spend summer mornings was in the reading room at the local library, immersing himself in political anthologies, memorizing historical tomes, and devouring every broadsheet he could lay his hands on cover to cover, from the Telegraph to the Guardian (he liked to imagine doing the same thing in an exclusive club someday). The real challenge consisted of dodging Mummy's and Daddy's efforts to engage him in more physically active pursuits.
But on this particular summer day, Mycroft was regretting not accepting Michael Bradley's invitation to accompany him and his grandfather on a field trial training weekend in Sussex.
Leaving his plate, fork and glass in the sink, Mycroft nicked a packet of his father's Wine Gums from a jar on the worktop (Daddy also had a sweet tooth, though he did not seem to feel the need to indulge it as often as did his eldest son) and stomped through to the sitting room, flopping down in an armchair with an aggrieved sigh and dropping the rumpled paper on the floor near his feet.
Mycroft used to think his little brother was an idiot. It was an easy mistake – for one thing, few people were as intelligent as Mycroft. For another, he'd had nothing else to go on until he was nine, when his brilliant but scattered mother got it into her head that the boys (whom she educated herself at home) might benefit from social interaction with other children and enrolled Mycroft in a number of local youth activities ranging from badminton to drama. After spending a tedious summer in the company of other eight-to-twelve-year-olds, Mycroft began to suspect his little brother might not be an idiot after all.
After his first term at secondary school he was sure.
Michael Bradley usually spent the summer holidays with his grandfather, a retired army officer, active member of the BASC*, and avid hunter who bred and trained Labrador Retrievers for field trials and showing. Michael had already attended a number of country shoots with his grandfather's gundog club, and this summer Colonel Westward had arranged for him to begin training to the gun with a trainer from his local field trial society.
The Colonel had told Michael he was welcome to invite the other eleventh-year boys in his house at school to come along on the trip. This included Mycroft, and, though he was at least two years younger than the youngest of these and already notoriously antisocial, Michael had dutifully extended the invitation as instructed.
Mycroft had recognized the offer for what it was at once, but since he could think of nothing he would prefer to do less than tramp across rough country terrain with the dull boys from his school, the sounds of popping guns and yapping dogs assaulting his ears, he had not felt the least bit put out at the half-heartedness of the offer – nor had he felt the least regret in declining it.
But that was before Mycroft had learned from the latest edition of the Press that Michael's uncle, also an avid gundog enthusiast, would be attending the shoot as well.
Brooding, Mycroft had just popped another Wine Gum into his mouth when he noticed suddenly that the house was not quite so devoid of life after all: on the hearth rug before the empty fireplace lay Sherlock's enormous and gorgeous red setter. Second to his little brother's side, this was the dog's favorite spot year-round, basking in the warmth of a fire during the cold months and catching a bit of a breeze during the warmer ones.
Mycroft studied the animal for a moment. Redbeard (ridiculous name!) had done no more than twitch his long, silky ears at Mycroft's entrance; he had not even bothered to open his eyes. Some watchdog, the boy thought contemptuously.
A voice at the back of Mycroft's mind grudgingly acknowledged this thought wasn't quite fair – though unusually placid for an Irish Setter, Redbeard had proven more than once that he could be quite formidable – even fierce – when he believed his family, particularly Sherlock, to be in any way threatened, or when strangers drew near to the home in a suspicious manner. His current nonchalance was likely due in a small part to the heat and in a large part to the probability that, owing to his sensitive hearing and keen sense of smell, he had known it was Mycroft coming before the boy had even reached the door.
Redbeard suddenly seemed to feel Mycroft's attention fixed upon him. Opening his eyes, he met Mycroft's gaze and, without lifting his head, acknowledged him with a single polite tail-thump before closing them again.
As far as canine welcomes went, this was less than heartwarming. Mildly insulted, Mycroft felt his mouth tighten. Wretched beast.
Leaning forward suddenly, he snapped his fingers. "Come!"
Redbeard raised his head and stared at him, making no move to rise. He looked baffled – as well he might, for, since his earliest days in the Holmes household when he had first shown his marked preference for Sherlock above all other human beings, Mycroft had assiduously ignored him.
"Come here," Mycroft insisted, hand still extended.
After a moment of (apparent) pondering, Redbeard rose languidly, stretched, and unhurriedly padded over to Mycroft, his toenails clicking against the tiles. He settled next to the chair and looked up at Mycroft with an inquiring expression.
Mycroft frowned. "You know, you wouldn't even be here if it weren't for me," he said crossly, reaching over to scratch the tangled red ears.
At this unusual attention, Redbeard shuffled his backside a bit closer; his jaws split in a doggy grin and he gently pushed the dome of his head up into Mycroft's hand.
Mycroft sighed. One couldn't expect gratitude from a dog, and it wasn't as though Redbeard had been a stray cur, threatened with euthanasia should he not be adopted. He was of champion stock, and had been quite expensive, too.
"But if you'd been bought by another family you'd have missed having Sherlock as your idol," Mycroft told him nastily.
Redbeard's ears pricked up at the sound of his master's name, then his eyes fastened on the packet of Wine Gums in Mycroft's other hand. He moved his tail back and forth on the rug, licked his chops, and adopted a soulful, hopeful expression. Grudgingly Mycroft gave the dog one of the blackcurrant ones, then sat back to enjoy the foolish spectacle the animal made of himself as he attempted to swallow the gummy candy that stuck to his teeth the moment he bit into it.
It was true – the Holmes household's very own soppy, boy-and-his-dog story would not have come to pass had Mycroft, at age ten, not asked his parents for a pedigreed puppy that he could show (a "sport" popular with influential people, and one of the few that Mycroft found at all palatable in terms of his personal involvement). Upon arriving home, however, the gentle, friendly red puppy had instantly become slavishly devoted to three-year-old Sherlock, effectively thwarting Mycroft's plot to get to know and, hopefully, to ingratiate himself with those who might improve his future prospects.
Mycroft hated sports. He was rather uncoordinated, more than a little pudgy, and completely uninterested in physical activities he felt were beneath him. But if feigning an interest in such unrefined pastimes could enable one to form alliances with goldfish, whose family members could, in turn, prove instrumental in advancing one's future career, well…
Mycroft had been at school barely three weeks when he came to the conclusion that he inhabited a world primarily populated with goldfish. Michael Bradley definitely was a goldfish – but he was a goldfish whose maternal uncle, Sir Geoffrey Westward, happened to be a civil servant for the Home Office.
Sighing again, Mycroft passed another of the blackcurrant Wine Gums to Redbeard and slouched back in his chair, glumly staring into the empty fireplace. He'd missed another chance to position himself where important people might see him, but it wasn't the fault of a dog or his baby brother this time.
He told himself sternly it was pointless to brood over the situation – he had already refused the invitation, and there was the end of it. His relations with Michael Bradley were not such that ringing up the elder boy to tell him he had changed his mind was likely to be met with receptiveness – though Michael had striven to remain polite in the face of Mycroft's refusal of his invitation, he had not been quite able to conceal his profound (albeit guilty) relief.
Redbeard gave a low whine. He nudged Mycroft's wrist with his cold, red-brown nose.
Absently, Mycroft gave him another Wine Gum.
Sherlock might be a target for bullies, but Mycroft's utter disinterest in his schoolmates, combined with his cool smile and a devastating courtesy that implied the recipient was unworthy of open rudeness, froze most would-be antagonists in their tracks. Like a well-fed wolf baring its teeth in casual warning, Mycroft offered just enough of a glimpse of his fearsome intellect and latent ruthlessness for his infinitely slower-witted peers to comprehend that making an enemy of him could be very detrimental indeed.
That was fine with Mycroft. He was content to leave them alone as he preferred to be left alone himself, and if a little fear accomplished that, so much the better. But it did mean invitations were few and far between. He could not afford to squander the ones he got – not when important people were involved, anyway.
Grimacing slightly, Mycroft popped another Wine Gum into his mouth, making room in the packet for his favorites by giving two more of the blackcurrant ones to the dog.
At times such as this he almost hated his own reasoning ability. As soon as he had read the announcement in last evening's Press that Sir Geoffrey would be acting as a judge in a charity dog show on the coast in late July and, while in the area, that he intended to take the opportunity to spend time with his family, Mycroft had put the dots together.
The dog show Sir Geoffrey would be judging was to be in Scarborough the weekend following the field trial training. Westwoods, where Michael's grandfather (Sir Geoffrey's father) lived, was located in one of the district villages – Mycroft could not recall precisely which, but he'd had to listen to Michael natter on about his visits to the seaside in between KCJO** events every September since he began school, so he knew it couldn't be far from the town.
Mycroft passed the packet of remaining Wine Gums to a delighted Redbeard and scooped up the copy of the Press he'd nicked from the library. Grimly, he again scanned through the article on the features page, then focused for the first time on an inset within the article about the dog show itself.
Redbeard gave a muffled whimper. "Shut up," Mycroft said impatiently.
The inset detailed a schedule of the classes offered at the event. Michael's grandmother, who preferred to compete in stakes and leave the field trials to her husband, would no doubt be in attendance with at least one of the Westwoods Kennel Labradors, but with her son acting as judge this would likely be only in a social capacity.
Redbeard scratched at Mycroft's arm with a tentative paw. Mycroft shrugged him off without looking up. "I don't have anymore, idiot dog!"
Not that it mattered if the Colonel's wife elected not to show any of the Westward dogs, Mycroft thought abstracted. Since this was a charity event it was an open show, not one where championship points could be attained to qualify a dog for Crufts. The important thing, though, is that the family would very likely be there anyway to support their son. Though, come to think of it, Mrs. Westward might want to take advantage of the puppy classes and classes for twelve-to-eighteen months offered to give some of her novices experience–
Mycroft's eyes suddenly fell on a blurb just under the last entry on the list of classes:
This show will hold Junior Handling Classes for 12-16 years and 17-24 years.
For a long moment, Mycroft stared at the blurb. Then, as an idea began to take shape in his mind, he raised his head to look at Redbeard.
And found the hapless animal staring mournfully back at him, expressive eyes woebegone above the empty Wine Gums packet stuck on his muzzle.
When Mycroft announced his intention to enter Redbeard and himself in the junior handling class for twelve to sixteen-years at the charity dog show in Scarborough over dinner that night, his family stared at him as though he had suddenly grown an extra head.
Sherlock, predictably, recovered first and expressed his humble opinion in no uncertain terms through his mouthful of garlic bread.
Mrs. Holmes, the full of her attention fixed upon her elder son, didn't seem to hear him.
"Really, son?" Daddy lowered his forkful of spaghetti bolognese to his plate untouched. "I thought you'd given that idea up when–"
"Yes, well," Mycroft said hastily. "Michael Bradley is going to be taking part, and he–"
"I said no," Sherlock cut in loudly. He swallowed the piece of bread in his mouth before continuing. "Redbeard is my dog, and you can't just–"
"Hush, love," Mrs. Holmes interrupted distractedly. Then, to Mycroft, "Who's Michael Bradley?"
"He's–" Mycroft grimaced, "a…a friend from school."
It sounded unbelievable even to him.
His parents looked utterly gobsmacked. Sherlock voiced what they all were thinking.
"You have a friend?!"
"Sherlock, hush," said Mrs. Holmes sternly. She beamed at Mycroft. "Are you really making friends at last, love?"
Mycroft gave her a pained smile.
Mr. Holmes was also delighted. "That's fine, son, fine. Putting the books aside for once and getting out in the fresh air will do you no end of good!"
Now Mycroft's smile became a bit sour.
"Is anyone listening to me?" Sherlock demanded. "Redbeard's mine, he belongs to me, and Mycroft hasn't even asked me if he can show him!"
The seven-year-old tended to speak in italics a great deal these days. He glared at Mycroft from across the large wooden table, hunched slightly forward, gripping the seat of his tall chair with both hands. Mycroft could tell by the way his shoulders jerked up and down that Sherlock was angrily swinging his feet, which did not quite reach the floor; they could hear his heels kicking the rungs. The child's curls were scattered over his forehead, his lips were pressed together, and his pale eyes snapped. There was a spot of spaghetti sauce on his chin.
Mycroft studied the smaller boy with the fond mixture of mild irritation, habitual impatience, deeply buried affection, and vague disgust common to all big brothers.
"Little brother, would you be so good as to allow me to enter your precious pet in a dog show?" He implored with barely concealed sarcasm.
Mrs. Holmes huffed impatiently. "Really, love, that's no way to–"
"No!" Sherlock said rudely.
Now Mummy turned to her younger son. "Sherlock. That's very unkind. Your brother isn't asking much. You must not be so selfish–"
"Son, you can't just show up to one of these things unprepared, charity event or not." Mr. Holmes, who appeared to have been thinking of other matters, suddenly spoke up. "I know you've read up on it, but you have no practical experience with handling, and Redbeard hasn't been trained for that sort of thing."
"I've thought of that, Daddy," Mycroft said quickly. "The dog is already on a Kennel Club register, so I should be able to join our local ringcraft club. I checked their schedule already…they have a number of junior handling training events lined up over the next few weeks. I know it isn't a lot of time before the show, but you know I learn quickly, and Redbeard doesn't have an excitable nature…I think he would take to it straight away."
The four Holmeses looked toward the object of their discussion.
The dog in question was currently stretched out on his stomach in the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room. He was not permitted in the kitchen during mealtimes, but he hated to have Sherlock out of his sight and so remained as close as he dared. So long as he was quiet and out from underfoot, Mrs. Holmes (for the sake of peace) pretended she did not notice the large red paws extending over the doorframe and onto her kitchen linoleum.
Mycroft saw Sherlock studying his pet with furrowed brows, seeming to notice the animal's uncharacteristic lethargy for the first time since he arrived home from his afternoon out with Mummy.
Redbeard had met Sherlock at the door with something less than his usual enthusiasm and a surprising lack of vocalizations, but Sherlock had been too anxious to return to the chemistry set his mother had dragged him away from earlier to spare his pet more than the most perfunctory of greetings. Now the dog lay with his head on his fore paws, but instead of being fixed alertly on the family as was usual for him, his eyes were cast down with the rather of preoccupied air he had assumed since Mycroft freed him of the empty Wine Gums packet earlier.
Probably sulking because I didn't give him the entire packet, Mycroft thought irritably.
Without asking to be excused, Sherlock suddenly climbed down from his chair and went to crouch beside his pet on the linoleum.
"What's wrong, Redbeard? What is it, boy?" he murmured softly.
Mycroft rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Well, sounds as though you've thought it all out, son, as usual," Mr. Holmes said happily. "It's good to see you trying something new. And Sherlock, you needn't worry about having to share your dog…we'll treat this as a one-off, just so your brother can try it out. If, after the show, he thinks he'd like to make a hobby out of it, why, we could get another dog–"
"Now wait just a moment!" Mrs. Holmes began in protest. (The dog may have been Sherlock's, but the young boy was not particularly conscientious about caring for his pet's needs and most of Redbeard's actual care fell to her by default.)
She was interrupted by a sudden cry of distress from Sherlock.
"Daddy! Mummy! Something's wrong with Redbeard! He can't…he can't get his mouth open!"
His parents and brother looked down, startled.
"What's that, son?" Rising from the table, Mr. Holmes knelt down next to Sherlock on the kitchen floor. Taking Redbeard's slim head in his hands, he tried to prise the setter's jaws apart to no avail. Peeling back the animal's lips, he frowned.
"There's some gunk in his teeth…what have you been eating, old lad?"
Mycroft suddenly wished there was another way out of the kitchen to his room.
Mr. Holmes looked up at his wife. "Love, hand me a spoon, will you?"
She was aghast. "You're never going to stick one of our spoons for eating in that dog's mouth!"
Mr. Holmes held his hand out insistently. "Cruel to leave him like this, now," he said mildly. "Pass me the spoon, please, love."
Sighing, Mrs. Holmes rose, retrieved a spoon from a drawer, and handed it over to her husband. "I'm binning that when you're done, I'll have you know!" She grumbled.
Mycroft and Sherlock watched (one nervously, the other anxiously) as their father pried the setter's jaws apart, then scraped a gummy black substance from his strong white teeth.
Mr. Holmes released Redbeard's head; the dog frantically worked his jaws for a moment as though relishing the chance to stretch the cramped muscles, then dashed to his water dish and began gulping noisily.
Mr. Holmes frowned down at the contents of the spoon. "What on earth–?"
Sherlock snatched the spoon from his father and, before his mother could stop him, raised it to his nose and sniffed. "Wine Gums!" He exclaimed, turning accusing eyes on his brother.
Mrs. Holmes put her hands on her hips and eyed her elder son narrowly.
"Young man, have you been at your father's sweeties again?"
Assuming an air of injured dignity, Mycroft attempted to prevaricate. "Mummy, why would you automatically assume it was me?"
Still looking stern, Mrs. Holmes smiled slightly. "Because you're the only one in this house who won't eat the blackcurrant ones, that's why…you boys aren't the only ones 'round here who can 'deduce,' you know!"
Sherlock snorted laughter.
"I'm not stupid, you know."
"Where do you get that idea?" Mycroft murmured without looking up from his book.
He was lying on his bed, reading. Near the door, his annoying little brother stood just inside the bedroom, Redbeard at his side.
Sherlock ignored this. "There are three things you hate above all others, Mycroft: exercise, fresh air, and people. So, why do you really want to put my dog in some idiotic show?"
"It's for a good cause," Mycroft said loftily.
Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "What cause?"
Mycroft froze. Bugger.
"Aha!" Sherlock cried. "You don't even know!"
"Of course I do," Mycroft retorted, lowering his book and raising himself on one elbow to glare at the younger boy. "It's for–" he wracked his brain and snatched a likely name from memory "–the Kennel Club Charitable Trust."
"No, it's not!" Sherlock was triumphant. "It's for Macmillan Cancer support, I looked it up!
Mycroft just barely resisted the urge to throw a pillow at him.
"That's all you know," Mycroft snapped. "I told you at dinner, my friend–"
"You don't have friends! And I saw the notice in the paper, Mycroft; I'll bet you didn't even know about it before today!"
Mycroft gritted his teeth as he attempted to rein himself in.
"I want to borrow your wretched hound for one afternoon, Sherlock. It won't kill you to lend him to me for four or five hours…or are you afraid he'll come to prefer me over you?"
Sherlock laughed outright at this, not even bothering to answer. His confidence infuriated Mycroft, the more so because he knew it was not misplaced – Redbeard adored Sherlock.
Suddenly weary, the elder boy leaned back against his pillow and raised his book again, blocking his view of his brother and his brother's dog.
"Tattle to Mummy if you like, Sherlock, but it won't make any difference," he said with an air of assumed indifference. "You saw them at dinner – they're delighted to think I'm doing something…extracurricular with one of those dullards from school, and they'll want to encourage that no matter what tales you choose to tell them."
Mycroft had him there, and, judging from the scowl on his face, Sherlock knew it.
"You may fool Mummy and Daddy, but you can't fool me, brother mine," Sherlock snapped. "I will find out what you're up to!"
And he stormed off to his own room as noisily as possible.
Noting the absent sound of clicking toenails trailing after Sherlock over the wood floor, Mycroft lowered the book again to see Redbeard still standing in the doorway, watching him.
"I fail to grasp why you chose to lavish all your devotion on that spoiled brat," Mycroft sniffed.
Redbeard looked at him with mournful brown eyes.
Then he apologetically vomited half-digested Wine Gums all over the bedroom carpet.
*British Association for Shooting and Conservation
**Kennel Club Junior Organisation, later changed to the Young Kennel Club.
Many thanks to englishtutor and Wynsom for their proofreading skills and encouragement!