Colonel Westward was beside himself.
"Ruined!" He howled. "Ruined – you!" He flung an accusing finger at Mycroft, who flinched. "You bloody young fool, why didn't you hang onto that brute?!"
Even if Mycroft had known how to respond, he couldn't have because he was far too busy trying to keep a panting, squirming Redbeard from returning to his ladylove at the far side of the ring. He might not have managed it at all had the ring steward (bless her) not knelt down in the wet grass beside him to help – Mycroft winced to see her smart suit all streaked with mud, and thought he'd have no end of apologizing to do before the day was done (the ring steward herself seemed unfussed).
Sir Geoffrey (desperately trying to look serious but unable to quite keep his mustache from twitching) put a placating hand on the Colonel's arm.
"Now Dad, the boy's not at fault…he was unprepared, the ground's very slippy, and that's a solid animal he's got there–"
"Feather-brained as well as feather-tailed!" the Colonel roared. "Just like his master, I don't doubt–"
"That's quite enough," Mrs. Holmes said severely. Though nearly as mortified as Mycroft by this disastrous turn of events, she had, in her own words, a tendency to "turn absolutely monstrous" when it came to defending her family. "I'll not hear my boy called a fool by anyone, and not by you, who should know from your grandson that he's easily the most brilliant boy at their school!"
Mycroft couldn't keep back a small groan at this. Had his hands been free he would have buried his face in them. The ring steward released her two-handed grip on Redbeard's scruff just long enough to give Mycroft a sympathetic pat on the shoulder; then hastily resumed her grasp when the dog took advantage of the movement by making an extra effort to break free.
"My grandson!" The Colonel leveled a severe glare at Mycroft's very chagrined-looking schoolmate, who, with his grandmother, was currently engaged in holding Perry back from rejoining the new object of her affections. "How can I trust the word of a sentry who abandons his post?!"
Michael cringed. As it happened, the aroma of Mycroft's fish and chips had inspired him to seek out a helping of his own and, with Perry locked securely in her kennel, he had seen no harm in slipping off and leaving his family's bench unattended for a few minutes so he could fetch some. (He had not, of course, counted on Sherlock's lock-picking skills.)
From Perry's other side, the Colonel's wife gave an exasperated sigh.
"Really, Henry – 'abandoned his post?' Don't you think you're overreacting?"
"Overreacting?! When that young man's negligence led to our prize bitch being accosted by that little hooligan, then defiled by that – that mongrel–"
Mrs. Holmes' eyes snapped dangerously. "I'll thank you not to refer to my youngest as a hooligan. And as for our dog being a mongrel, I'll have you know he comes of champion stock. Why, his pedigree–"
"Madam, I don't give two damns if that over-sexed hound of yours is descended from the ancient kings of Ireland – he's not a Labrador, and he's spoiled Westwood Kennel's finest bitch!"
Perhaps the Colonel's situation might have been met with more sympathy from the onlookers had the incident taken place at an official conformation dog show, but the spectators attending this casual, family affair were more inclined to amusement – amusement that increased still further when Mrs. Holmes stated her opinion that the Colonel could hardly blame Redbeard for "defiling" Perry when Perry was clearly no better than she ought to be, judging by the way she had shamelessly thrown herself at their blameless pet.
This was perhaps an unfair assessment, as it was quite clear that Redbeard would like nothing better than to make an honest dog of Perry by bringing her home with the family as his mate. And from the way she was ignoring the entreaties of Michael and his grandmother and straining mightily to escape them, Perry showed herself more than willing to leave her own home and family behind to follow Redbeard wherever he went.
This disloyalty incensed the colonel even further, and he assuaged his wounded feelings by declaring there was no way Redbeard could be expected to improve the Westward stock since it was common knowledge that Irish Setters are "too stupid to find their way to the end of the leash."
Since it was apparent that emotions were running too high to allow for a reasoned, amicable discussion, Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Westward drew their respective spouses away before any further inflammatory remarks could be made. Colonel Westward took his wife's place at Perry's collar and ordered his grandson to help him drag her back to their bench.
Both dogs protested vociferously at being thus parted, but their combined noise did not prevent Mycroft from overhearing Colonel Westward heatedly informing his grandson that his pocket money would be stopped for the next fortnight, and that he could expect to spend the rest of the summer on "kennel-cleaning duty."
Mycroft winced – as dull as Michael was, he was much kinder than Mycroft had realized, and it had been unexpectedly…nice to not feel like an outsider for a change. A tiny part of him had hoped that the feeling might even extend to next term, but that was out of the question now, of course.
Mr. and Mrs. Holmes used every towel they brought with them (in addition to the cloth from the hamper) to protect the car seat as well as possible from its three muddy occupants. Instead of sticking his head out of the window this time, Redbeard nearly smothered Sherlock by cramming as much of himself as possible into the boy's lap and, in a pathetic litany of small whimpers and moans, spent the entire journey home telling his boy about his star-crossed love affair.
Mr. Holmes kept glancing back at them in the rearview mirror. He tried to maintain a sober expression out of deference to his silently fuming wife and humiliated elder son, but he was a philosophical, easygoing man who had little difficulty in seeing the humor in life's twists and turns, and he couldn't help finding Redbeard's present misery rather comical.
"Desperate," Mycroft heard him mutter as he attempted to use his handkerchief to cover a laugh poorly disguised as a cough. "Bloody Romeo and Juliet!"
He did not laugh three days later when the bill for the champion stud's unused semen sample arrived in the post.
Following dinner the day after the show, Mr. and Mrs. Holmes informed Sherlock that, in addition to having his pocket money docked until he had earned his brother a new suit, he would have to write three very correct, very sincere letters of apology (one to Colonel and Mrs. Westward, one to the show secretary for disrupting the event, and one to Sir Geoffrey for interfering in his handling class). He was to be kept in until the letters were completed and sent, and they would not be sent, Mummy assured him sternly, until they had passed muster with her.
He was also told that his set of fine tools would be taken away "until such time as he could demonstrate he was mature enough to warrant the privilege of having them."
Sherlock was quiet following this pronouncement – an unusual occurrence, for his normal response in such situations was to argue his case like a seasoned lawyer (though this rarely worked in his favor).
"Well? Anything to say, young man?" Daddy finally prompted.
Sherlock swallowed, then said in a small, rather timid voice, "I didn't mean for it to happen…I tried to hang onto her. Truly I did."
He looked so sincerely crestfallen, even Mycroft couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for him.
Mr. Holmes sighed. "Son, no one could have expected you to keep hold of that dog," he said gently. "She outweighed you by at least a stone, and she was responding to her instincts…I don't think she was even aware of you just then–"
"But you wouldn't have had to hang onto her if you hadn't broken her out of her kennel to begin with," Mrs. Holmes cut in sharply, shooting a quelling look at Mr. Holmes to prevent him from further pursuing the subject of instinct just then. "You knew full well you weren't supposed to be in the Westwards' bench."
"And you're plenty old enough – and more than intelligent enough – to know that a locked door to which you haven't been given a key is one you're not meant to open," Mr. Holmes added in an unusually serious tone, "not to challenge your lock-picking skills."
Mummy huffed out an exasperated breath. "I should say not! How do you think your father and I felt – our youngest displaying the prowess of a first-class burglar? We were quite ashamed of you, young man," she finished severely.
Sherlock blinked rapidly and his small white face twitched.
Mr. Holmes took pity on him. "Best go on to your room for a bit now, son."
Without a word, Sherlock climbed down from his chair and left the room, shoulders slumped and head hanging. Redbeard, sensing his misery, fell in step beside him with his own tail drooping, and Sherlock automatically took hold of the dog's left ear in his right hand, hanging onto it for all he was worth.
When Mycroft passed the half-open door to Sherlock's bedroom an hour later, he saw his young brother lying on the bed with Redbeard stretched out alongside him. The child had one arm draped over the dog's side, and his face was buried in the furry shoulder nearest to him.
Mycroft again felt an unwilling tug of pity. It had not escaped his attention that Sherlock had been behaving in an unusually subdued manner since the show. The boy had been badly frightened by the row that had erupted. He hadn't cried (he seldom did), but the mixture of shouting (from Colonel Westward) and laughter (from the observers) had bewildered him. Worse, his usual first choices for comfort and protection – his dog and his brother – were unavailable: Redbeard, desperate to stay with Perry, seemed utterly unaware of the humans around him – including Sherlock. This had never happened in Sherlock's memory, and it had shaken him badly. During the altercation that followed with Colonel Westward, he had stayed behind his father, clinging to the back of Daddy's belt with both hands and trying to make himself as small as possible.
As for Mycroft, he had been too angry even to look at his brother, let alone speak to him – even to insult him. As the summer holidays drew to a close, however, he began to think perhaps it had been too much responsibility to put on Sherlock to begin with. Mycroft knew he was wont to do that sometimes, forgetting that the boy's maturity did not match his intellect. He even felt slightly ashamed of himself for forgetting that, seeing as how he of all people should know better. After all, the adults in his life – including his own parents – continually did the same thing to him. Deep down, he thought he should probably forgive the brat, for it was clear he was miserable. When he wasn't working on his apology letters, Sherlock spent those last days of Mycroft's holiday moping in his room, clinging to Redbeard in a way that made his elder brother's heart ache. But Mycroft could be proud and stubborn, and though his anger cooled, his feeling of humiliation over the whole thing did not.
It did not help that the boil hadn't apologized to him until prompted to do so by Daddy.
Shortly before he returned to school, Daddy drew Mycroft aside and assured him that, while he sympathized whole-heartedly over the dog show going pear-shaped, life was too short to carry a grudge. He also suggested that incidents that seem enormous when one is fourteen hardly seem worth the bother when one is quite grown up. Mycroft might even come to see the funny side of it, one day. (It should be noted here and now that, though nowhere near as intelligent as the rest of his family, Mr. Holmes possessed more life wisdom than all of them put together and was usually right about such things. In this instance, however, he was patently wrong.)
Mycroft listened, but did not respond. He was fonder of his little brother than he liked to admit and in many ways wanted to forgive him – particularly when he observed the child's persistent subdued manner. Then he would remember his ruined suit, the look on Michael Bradley's face when his grandfather told him off, and the calendar showing the end of summer approaching.
Mycroft had many fine qualities; however, a readiness to forgive was not among them. It was March before he and Sherlock mended their relationship, and several things had to happen first before he was ready.
It was with no little trepidation that Mycroft approached his dormitory on the first day of the new term. He had lingered downstairs as long as he could, dreading meeting the other boys, whom he was sure would have been well-briefed regarding the disastrous dog show by a vengeful Michael. His parents hadn't been very accommodating regarding his fears; Mummy had said flatly that he could put the idea of moving to a new country and changing his name straight out of his head since he couldn't do that without permission, which she most certainly did not give.
Ever optimistic, Daddy had predicted that Michael would have "forgotten all about it by now." As it happened, Michael hadn't forgotten, and he had already filled his housemates in on the events of the show – but not in the manner Mycroft had been expecting.
When Mycroft, with a deep breath, pushed open the door to the common room, he nearly fell over in shock at the cheer that went up from the boys – a cheer that all but pushed him off his feet. He blinked bewilderedly as they grouped round him, all grinning and talking at once.
A slap on the back from Richard Carson, a burly, rugby-playing twelfth year who had never before given Mycroft the time of day, nearly sent him flying into a table.
"Bradley was telling us about the prank you pulled off at the companion dog show in Scarborough, Holmes," the elder boy said approvingly. "Wish I'd been there – it sounds brilliant. Never knew you had it in you!"
A small, second-year boy whose name Mycroft couldn't recall stood staring, wide-eyed and impressed. "I couldn't have pulled off something like that – all the trouble you could get into, and in front of Sir Geoffrey Westward, too! Weren't you scared?"
Mycroft literally did not know how to respond. Before he could think of anything to say, a bracing voice called out, "'Course he wasn't! You should have seen it – ring steward all covered in mud, the dogs going at it in front of everyone…it was brilliant!"
Michael stood by looking pleased with himself for his part in the tale. He seemed to be basking in being the one who had discovered Mycroft Holmes' previously unsuspected depths of humanity, humor, and daring rebellion.
Mycroft cleared his throat awkwardly. "Er – Bradley. I'm – I was sorry you got told off because of–"
"Don't be, it was totally worth it," Michael cut him off happily. "It can be a bit dull staying at Gran's whilst my parents are away, and that was the most exciting thing to happen all summer. I'd do it again!"
Mycroft was the man of the hour. He was too stunned to take it in, but fortunately everyone was having too good at a time at the start-of-term party to notice his bemused reticence.
The admiration of Mycroft's housemates continued throughout the term. The boys all seemed to fall into one of three camps: the ones who believed he had been forced into showing the family dog by his parents, causing Mycroft to deliberately sabotage his class in retaliation; the ones who believed he had done it on purpose as a colossal joke, and the ones who believed he had been the unwitting victim of the antics of an annoying younger sibling (these tended to be the ones who had younger siblings themselves). In any case, Mycroft had gone from being that odd, scarily brilliant Holmes kid who made the rest of them uneasy to someone – well, if not someone cool, at least someone more human and approachable, regardless of whether he was a rebellious champion for adolescent rights, a master prankster, or a tragic, put-upon hero.
It was all very bewildering. Mycroft was used to thinking of his classmates as the dullest, most ordinary set of young people in the western world, and had been frustrated by his inability to forge connections with them – connections he knew he needed to make if he was to get on in life. Try as he might, he had been utterly unable to impress them with his superior intellect and scholastic brilliance. That they were impressed because he had a wretchedly annoying little brother, was a failure at dog handling, and had fallen on his face in the most humiliating way possible was beyond astonishing. He had expected their ridicule – had been prepared for it – and instead he had their utmost admiration.
He knew he should be pleased – he supposed he was pleased, in a way, but Mycroft hated mysteries, and he couldn't help feeling a bit disgruntled as well.
The second morning after Mycroft arrived home for the Christmas holidays, a grim-faced Colonel Westward arrived at the cottage with a cardboard box containing four adorable but entirely unacceptable mixed-breed puppies. To Mrs. Holmes' protestations he said tersely, "They're your problem now…many happy, bloody returns!"
And, spinning in his heel, the Colonel marched to his car and drove off without another word.
Mycroft, still in his pyjamas and dressing gown, stared down at his brother who, with a crow of delight, had already liberated the puppies from the box and was now sitting on the floor as they crawled all over him, yapping and licking. Their father stood among them, looking down at his brood with great interest, ears pricked and feathered tail waving gently.
Groaning, Mrs. Holmes went to find some old blankets. "I'll make a place for them in the laundry, and find something for them to eat…but we're not keeping them."
Mycroft suddenly felt a hand settle on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw his father, smiling as he watched his youngest with the puppies. He pulled his eyes away to meet Mycroft's.
"You know, Mike…if you'd like to keep one of these little tykes, I'm sure I could talk your mother into letting you have one for a Christmas present."
At that moment Mycroft felt a tug on his left pyjama leg. He looked down at the fat, red-gold ball of fluff that was trying to get his attention. She sat back and looked up at him hopefully, wiggling her little tail back and forth rapidly over the linoleum. The puppy, like her siblings, favored her mother to the extent that a layman might mistake them for Labs if he didn't look too closely. But Mycroft could see plainly that Redbeard was her father, the litheness of the setter adding slimness and delicacy to the burly frame of the Lab, the ears a bit too long, the tail a bit too feathery, and a distinct reddish cast and silkiness to the golden coat. As the puppy's eyes, dark brown like Perry's, met his own, Mycroft felt a brief yearning – then remembered how disappointed he had been when Redbeard had preferred Sherlock over him.
"No, I don't think so, Daddy…thanks all the same."
The morning after Colonel Westward's visit, Redbeard's day began as it always did, with the dog carefully extricating himself from beneath a deeply sleeping Sherlock's out-flung arm, then padding towards the kitchen.
Mrs. Holmes and Redbeard were always the first up in the Holmes household. When the dog arrived in the kitchen he would find the woman sitting at the breakfast table in her dressing gown, enjoying a morning cuppa while, more often than not, leafing through a maths journal. Upon seeing the dog, she would speak kindly to him, setting down cup and journal as she rose to let him out. By the time he returned, she would have prepared his breakfast.
On this particular morning, however, Redbeard found the Holmes matriarch fully dressed, shoes on, handbag tucked under one arm, standing by the door as though she were waiting for him. Before he had a chance to wonder at this, the woman seized the bewildered animal by the collar and dragged him from the house.
When her husband and sons wandered, one by one, into the kitchen over the next hour and a half, they were astounded to find it empty with no indication as to where woman or dog may have disappeared. Mrs. Holmes doing an early shopping might explain the absence of the car, but an exhaustive search failed to turn up Redbeard.
When Mrs. Next Door spotted Mr. Holmes in the back garden whistling for the setter in vain, she was able to inform him that she had seen the lady of the house driving towards town wearing a very grim expression, while a miserable Redbeard howled nonstop in the back seat.
Back in the kitchen, a still-smarting Mycroft told his younger brother spitefully, "That's it – the puppies have sent her 'round the twist. She's probably taking your precious dog to the vet's to have him put down."
"That will do, lad," Mr. Holmes said sharply. He rubbed his temples with his thumbs, looking harassed.
Sherlock was frantic. "Shut up!" He turned to their father while the puppies, forgotten, tumbled over his ankles. "Mummy wouldn't have Redbeard put down, would she, Daddy?"
The anxiety in the boy's wavering voice caused Mycroft's conscience to twinge.
"Of course not, son," Mr. Holmes soothed. "Your mum knows you think the world of that dog, and even if she didn't, she would never do such a thing."
He looked a bit worried, though.
By late afternoon Sherlock was just about ready to hop on his bike and head into town to look for his beloved pet when Mrs. Holmes came through the kitchen door, a slightly groggy, deeply chagrined Redbeard cringing at her heels. When he spotted Sherlock he went straight to him; Sherlock had already knelt on the tiled floor, and the setter pushed his head into the boy's hands, whimpering.
"Redbeard, you're alive!" Sherlock cried softly, ruffling the dog's ears. "Good boy, clever boy…"
Redbeard whined, trying to communicate to his master the horrible thing that had happened to him.
"Well, of course he's alive, silly child," Mrs. Holmes said impatiently, firmly setting her handbag down on the table. "Such a simple thing – should have done it ages ago."
"But Mycroft said you'd taken him to the vet's–"
"And so I did." Mrs. Holmes was brisk. "A right baby he was about it, too, the wretch – I was ashamed of him," she added, glaring at the dog in question. Redbeard immediately pressed himself closer to Sherlock. "He's perfectly fine. More to the point, though – he won't be fathering any more puppies!"
Her husband and sons gaped at her. Then Mr. Holmes winced in sudden understanding.
"Really, now, love, was that strictly necessary?" he said reproachfully.
He spared Redbeard a sympathetic look. "Hard luck, old lad."
"Oh, for pity's sake!" Mrs. Holmes exploded.
If ever a dog looked mortified, Redbeard was that dog as he shrunk under Mr. Holmes' sympathetic gaze. Pulling away from Sherlock abruptly, the afflicted setter scuttled out of the kitchen.
"Redbeard, come back!" Sherlock cried. But for the second and last time in his life the animal ignored him, instead making a beeline for Sherlock's bedroom. Sherlock hurried after him, but no dog was in sight when he arrived. He looked first under the bed, then in the closet. In the latter place he spotted the tip of a feathery red tail sticking out from under a pile of dirty laundry.
A seven-year-old genius is still only seven, and while Sherlock may have known more about the mechanics of the male anatomy than most boys his age, still he wasn't yet quite capable of grasping fully the grievous blow that had been dealt his pet's masculine pride. Even so, a rare flash of sensitivity prompted him to leave the undignified huddle in his closet be, where it remained until late the following afternoon.
Redbeard sulked for a fortnight, during which time he allowed no one but Sherlock to come within five feet of him. (He showed a particular horror of Mrs. Holmes, cowering and hastily slinking from any room she entered with a firmly tucked tail (upon witnessing one such retreat, Mycroft thought sourly that it was a bit late for that to do him any good.) Then he seemed to forget about it and returned to the placid creature he had always been, though perhaps a bit soberer than formerly.
Sherlock's sullenness, however, persisted through the remainder of the holidays, in part because he had been tasked with finding homes for the puppies. Mycroft thought he was being something of a baby about it – the puppies may have been worthless in the eyes of Colonel Westward and the Kennel Club, but they were also irresistibly cute and promised to grow into very attractive crossbreds, combining the best features of both their parents. This, along with the fact that Christmas was fast approaching, meant Sherlock had no trouble finding suitable homes for them all in relatively short order.
Mycroft had assumed Sherlock would protest the puppies' relocation, but once again – and it was happening more and more often as his little brother grew older – the younger boy surprised him.
"I already have a dog," he said in reply to Mycroft's rather snide prediction that Sherlock would lament the loss of the puppies. "Redbeard's my best friend…I don't need another one. It might hurt his feelings were I to keep the puppies."
It was clear by his tone that he thought Mycroft unutterably thick for missing something so obvious.
Mycroft's taunt died on his lips before this unexpected revelation of deep devotion on the part of his outwardly selfish young brother. He'd already known the dog was attached – ridiculously so – to Sherlock. He had not realized just how much Sherlock reciprocated those feelings.
Suddenly, Mycroft thought of the perfect Christmas present for Sherlock.
On a blustery day in January the entire family (sans Redbeard) accompanied Mycroft back to school for the Lenten half. Mycroft was on his second trip retrieving items from the car to take to the dorm when his heard someone call his name.
"Ah, Mr. Holmes. Good to see you again."
Shifting his hold-all from one hand to the other, Mycroft turned, then froze in surprise. Before him, well wrapped up against the keen wind, stood Sir Geoffrey Westward, redder-cheeked and more cheerful-looking than ever in a green-and-black plaid scarf.
For once caught wrong-footed, Mycroft took a moment to find his tongue. "Sir Geoffrey," he finally stammered, his cheeks warming as the events of last summer came to the forefront of his mind. "I didn't think – that is, I hadn't expected–"
"I decided to spend Christmas with my parents this year, and stayed on through New Year's. My brother and I are both returning to London today, and decided at the last minute to join our sister and her family taking Michael back to school. I went here, too, you know," Sir Geoffrey added, casting a fond look over the courtyard. "Good to get a look at the old place again. It never changes."
"No, I suppose not." Mycroft looked around vaguely, hoping that the flush on his face might be attributed to the wind.
Hearing something in his tone, Sir Geoffrey shot him a sharp look from under his bushy eyebrows. "Not quite recovered from last summer's fiasco, then, are you, Mr. Holmes?"
Mycroft opened his mouth to reply, then saw that, though the man's expression was sober, his eyes were twinkling. He suddenly found himself grinning – an honest, boyish grin quite different from his usual shark-like one. "Not quite, sir. Almost, though. I was thinking about taking up wine-tasting."
Sir Geoffrey shouted with laughter, drawing looks from his own family as well as Mycroft's and some other students'. Mycroft found that, for once, he didn't mind a laugh at his expense.
"There's no doubt about it – a life spent with animals offers plenty of opportunities for making a chump of yourself from time to time," Sir Geoffrey commiserated. "How did you enjoy Perry's whelps? A likely looking litter of five, I thought…I admit my dear father doesn't quite share my opinion..."
"Then he and my mother have something they can agree on after all," Mycroft said ruefully. "She tasked Sherlock with finding proper homes for them all by Christmas."
"Ah, yes…your little brother." Sir Geoffrey nodded towards a small group of people off to the side, talking animatedly. "Do you see that lanky berk over there talking to my nephew, Mr. Holmes? The one that looks a bit like a shoestring?"
Mycroft looked. Michael Bradley was standing next to his mother, who had one hand on his shoulder. She was smiling and chatting with a tall, rather thin man wearing a dark blue overcoat. The man's hands were stuffed in his coat pockets and his shoulders were hunched slightly forward. He seemed to sway a bit in the wind like an unwieldy pond reed. The tangled mop of curls that seemed about ready to fly off his head was the same ginger shade as Sir Geoffrey's.
"That's my younger brother, Reggie," Sir Geoffrey explained. "I'm very fond of Reggie…yes, very fond indeed. But he's the reason I believe in God, you know," he added seriously, looking at Mycroft.
Mycroft raised his brows. "Sir?"
"Yes," Sir Geoffrey said soberly. "Because it's nothing short of a miracle that I didn't murder him in his sleep before he reached his majority!"
For a moment Mycroft goggled at him. Then, seeing the mischief in the man's eyes, he glanced over to where his mother and father stood with Sherlock, talking to some of the other parents. He looked back and Sir Geoffrey, whose moustache was twitching, and – he couldn't help himself – he laughed. Sir Geoffrey positively roared.
"Yes," said Sir Geoffrey finally, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. "Tremendous restraint on my part, indeed – which I assume you share in common with me, dear boy, seeing as how your own little affliction is still walking around after that debacle last July," he added, glancing over at Sherlock. Mycroft's little brother looked bored beyond measure, but their mother was holding his hand firmly to prevent him from sneaking off.
Sir Geoffrey turned his eyes back to Mycroft's. "A bright lad, I take it. But then, you are as well, aren't you? My nephew told me you're first in your class."
Mycroft couldn't think of anything to say to this that wouldn't sound self-serving, so he said nothing. Sir Geoffrey smiled slightly.
"Brilliance is very desirable, but brilliance coupled with restraint especially so – in some lines of work, at any rate," Sir Geoffrey went on, giving Mycroft a shrewd look.
It took a moment, but when Sir Geoffrey's words sunk in Mycroft looked up at him, wide-eyed and disbelieving.
Sir Geoffrey nodded, as though Mycroft had answered a question correctly.
"I was impressed with how you handled yourself at the show, young man. Yes, most favorably impressed." He rummaged through his pockets, pulled out a card, and handed it to Mycroft. "I do hope you'll contact me when you leave school? I'm always interested in speaking to sharp young people who possess discretion and restraint."
Mycroft took the card numbly. For a moment he was too stunned to speak. "I–I will, sir, thank you," he managed finally, and it could not have been clearer that he meant it. Sir Geoffrey nodded again.
"Well – that's settled. Have a good term, Mr. Holmes."
As the man turned away to rejoin his family, something he said that had been niggling at the back of Mycroft's brain suddenly clarified. "But there were only four," he exclaimed aloud.
Sir Geoffrey paused and glanced back at him. "Eh? What's that?"
Mycroft, flushed, wishing he hadn't spoken, but it was too late now. "Er…you said Perry had five pups, sir. The Colonel only brought us four."
"Oh yes." Sir Geoffrey was complacent, and Mycroft wondered if he had slipped the clue in on purpose to see if Mycroft would pick up on it. "I kept one. Sturdy little fellow. I know quality when I see it, and something in his eyes – parents like he's got? Yes, a fine litter. I have a feeling about this one…something about him…"
Mycroft goggled at him. "But…but they're crossbreeds," he stammered. "Your – that is, the Colonel – he was so angr– er, I mean, disappointed–"
Rarely did Mycroft have such difficulty in formulating his thoughts.
The corners of Sir Geoffrey's eyes crinkled. "My father places a great deal of importance on breed purity, Mr. Holmes. Well, no harm in that – I respect him, and he's a responsible breeder. But I look for quality elsewhere. Here, for instance," he said, tapping his temple with two gloved fingers. "And, even more importantly, here." He used the same two fingers to tap his breast, right over his heart.
The pup bore out Sir Geoffrey's faith. When Mycroft went to work for the Home Office ten years later, Sir Geoffrey – now nearing retirement – had been the one to introduce him around. To every person they met, the elderly man ended his recitation of Mycroft's many accomplishments by laying his hand on the younger man's shoulder (having to reach up to do it, for by now Mycroft had grown taller than he) and adding, "It's through this young man that I came to have the best dog I've ever owned; his red setter sired my Aegis*."
Even when he was quite an old man Sir Geoffrey would remark on this whenever he and Mycroft met – indeed, he continued to do so long after the handsome, lion-hearted Aegis had finally gone to his rest after sixteen years of unwavering devotion that included rescuing his master's beloved two-year-old grandniece from a pond into which she had fallen.
If Mycroft could not quite relate to the quiver of emotion in the old man's voice when he spoke of the animal, at least he was grateful that Sir Geoffrey never shared the story of the ill-fated dog show.
On Mycroft's third night home during the Easter holiday, he was awakened some time after midnight by a soft sound– a pair of small, bare feet padding over a hardwood floor, combined with the faint click of animal toenails.
Rubbing at his eyes, Mycroft half-sat up, clicked on the bedside lamp and saw Sherlock standing in his doorway with Redbeard beside him.
"Sherlock." Mycroft glanced – his alarm clock read 1:24. He sighed as he dug his knuckles into his eyes in an attempt to blot out the spots dancing before them from the sudden change from dark to light. "It's too early…what do you want?" He couldn't help feeling exasperated.
Sherlock was quiet for so long Mycroft finally looked up. Squinting in the warm yellow light, he saw that Sherlock was wearing blue-and-white striped pyjama bottoms, an orange t-shirt, and a rumpled, purple cotton dressing gown. He needed a haircut – his unruly curls were hanging in his eyes and sticking out over his ears. Waking up a bit more, Mycroft studied him more closely than he had in months. He saw that the child's face was pale and pinched, and he had an odd expression on his face – half embarrassed, half…defensive? As though he might be waiting for Mycroft to tease him or start a fight.
Sherlock had grown taller – in his legs especially, which looked long in the rumpled pyjama trousers. The feet below his bony white ankles looked big. He was going to be a tall man, Mycroft thought – as tall as Father, perhaps.
Suddenly, Mycroft remembered Sherlock as a toddler, his legs that now seemed so long once short and chubby, but sturdy as he followed along determinedly after Mycroft, striving to keep up. As though he were flipping through a photo album in reverse Mycroft let his memory take him backwards until he came to the vague image of the tiny baby Mummy and Daddy had brought home from hospital.
Because he was the eldest, Mycroft had been responsible for Sherlock. It was he who had distracted him with board games when Mummy became lost in her theorems and Daddy his home projects. It was he who had set him back on his feet and given him peppermints when the child, always so eager to explore, got ahead of himself and tumbled down. It was he who had, at the four-year-old's request, helped him to memorize all the elements of the periodic table, carefully correcting the younger boy's pronunciation. And he was the one whom Sherlock had splashed, laughing, while he had read to the small boy from The House at Pooh Corner when Sherlock was in the bath. He remembered the toddler shouting idiotic! as he slapped the surface of the water with his chubby hands, his eyes laughing as water splashed the pages.
Sherlock's eyes weren't laughing now. They looked flat and gray, the green and blue and gold hues that often shot out of them curiously dimmed. He and Mycroft had been painfully cordial since the latter got home from school, but that was all.
"What's wrong?" Mycroft asked finally.
Sherlock shuffled uneasily. Redbeard, looking up at his face and whimpered, and Sherlock started to reach for the dog's left ear before catching himself and forcing his hand down. "I had a bad dream," he mumbled, not looking up.
Mycroft blinked. Sherlock suffered night terrors with fair regularity (though not quite so often in recent years), but he had stopped coming to Mycroft for comfort after the elder boy had gone off to boarding school.
Mycroft hesitated; then, with a sigh, shifted over to the edge of his bed, leaving an empty space between himself and the wall. "Come on, then."
Sherlock, eyes lighting up, didn't wait to be asked twice. He crossed room in two bounds and leapt into the bed, setting the springs creaking and almost sending Mycroft bouncing to the floor. "Settle down, you boil," Mycroft ordered impatiently.
But Sherlock was still half-sitting up. "What about Redbeard?"
Mycroft saw that the setter was now standing on the rug beside the bed, looking at the two boys imploringly. He whined.
"There's not enough room in this bed for you, me, and that hairy monstrosity," Mycroft said crossly.
Sherlock gave him his most devastatingly pathetic lost puppy look. Against his better judgment Mycroft weakened. "Fine," he grumbled.
Sherlock brightened at once. "Come on, Redbeard!"
With a great leap, Redbeard launched himself over Mycroft and landed with a huge bounce between both boys, nearly sending them both to the floor. Mycroft affected a scowl as he was pushed to a precarious position on the edge of the bed.
"Comfortable?" he asked sarcastically.
"Very!" Sherlock happily responded. Mycroft huffed a sigh, turned out the lamp, and settled back onto his pillow.
He was almost asleep when Sherlock said is a quiet, tentative voice, "Mycroft?"
"What for?" Mycroft mumbled, not opening his eyes.
"For what happened last July – at the show, I mean."
Mycroft snapped his eyes open in the dark, instantly wide-awake. He didn't move or speak, but Sherlock must have observed the sudden tension in his elder brother's muscles because he said, rather nervously, "I didn't mean for it to happen."
Mycroft remained still for several beats; then, with a deep sigh, he turned over onto his back. "I know."
"I really didn't – I didn't go to do it," Sherlock went on as though Mycroft hadn't spoken. He raised himself up on one elbow, and Mycroft could make out his gemstone eyes gleaming in the moonlight. "I thought I could hold her, and that Redbeard would do what I wanted. He's always done what I wanted, before." He sounded forlorn.
"Don't worry about it," Mycroft said. Then, grudgingly, "You wouldn't even have tried baiting him with Perry if I hadn't thrown his ball away."
Sherlock lay back again. The silence that followed was long, but companionable.
"Sherlock – why were you so bothered about me showing Redbeard? It was just one show," Mycroft asked suddenly.
He expected Sherlock to childishly reiterate Because he's mine, but there is something about late-night darkness that lends itself to confidences, and Sherlock surprised him by seeming to think it over before answering with rare honesty.
"Redbeard's my friend. My – my only – my true friend." Sherlock's brow furrowed as he struggled to put words to his feelings. "My real friend who doesn't think I'm a freak because I collect animal hair samples and do experiments. He doesn't get cross with me for knowing things other people don't. He goes with me on adventures…he likes me," Sherlock finished, a trifle defensively.
Mycroft stared at him. Sherlock was glaring now, obviously expecting Mycroft to taunt him, and likely preparing a queue of insults to fire back once the name-calling began.
But taunting was the last thing on Mycroft's mind. He suddenly remembered the night that Mummy had come to sit on his bed and talk to him about how much better Redbeard made Sherlock, as though Sherlock were ill in some way and Redbeard a sort of medicine, and how that was a Good Thing. Mycroft hadn't fully understood it at the time, but even he had to acknowledge that the animal had a calming effect on his little brother that was better than any pharmaceutical – that he somehow enabled Sherlock to channel his restless energy and erratic behavior into more appropriate outlets.
Mycroft had always known that he and Sherlock were different, somehow set apart from the other children. Thanks to Sherlock and Redbeard, Mycroft had learned a great deal about how to get along with his so-called peers, and even – at times – to find their company faintly pleasurable. But they weren't friends – Mycroft had none, nor did he feel the need for any.
But Sherlock did want friends, Mycroft suddenly understood – he wanted an audience for his brilliance, a sounding board off which to bounce his ideas, a companion who would help his flying thoughts stay grounded in the here and now. Unlike Mycroft, his books and experiments weren't enough. Mycroft himself wasn't enough, though Sherlock did depend on him – the difference in their ages was too great, there was too much competition between them, and, most of all, they were too much alike in some ways – and too different in others.
Redbeard truly was what Sherlock needed at this time in his life, Mycroft realized. But, looking into this brother's almost-defiant face, he suddenly felt an urge to warn him that forming attachments was dangerous. He opened his mouth to remind Sherlock that, though Redbeard currently was in the prime of his life, he would likely not see Sherlock into adulthood.
Instead, he said, "I wasn't really going to sell him, you know."
Sherlock's defiant look evaporated at once to be replaced with a more vulnerable one. "Truly?"
"Truly. In fact…" Mycroft hesitated.
Making up his mind, Mycroft rolled over, reached under the bed, and pulled out a flat box. "Here – I got you a Christmas present."
Sherlock stared at him, not taking it. "But we never give each other Christmas presents!" He sounded almost accusing.
"Well, there's a first time for everything."
Slowly, Sherlock took the box. "But…Christmas is long over."
"I know that. I thought of it right before Christmas, but I had to send away for it and it wasn't ready in time."
Bemused, Sherlock opened the slim box and pulled out a thick, green-and-white sheet of paper with a thin gold border and the Kennel Club Crest. He squinted to make out the typed characters in the moonlight. There was a great deal of information on the paper – breed, date of birth, color, sex, breeder, etc. – but the important information, Mycroft knew, was right at the top:
OWNER REGISTRATION CERTIFICATE
CURRENT REGISTERED OWNER:
William Sherlock Scott Holmes
Sherlock raised his eyes, which were now almost round. "Is this–?"
Mycroft smiled slightly. "He was always your dog, Sherlock. But now it's official. I even changed his name – they were properly horrified at the registration office, I can tell you– oof!"
He got the breath knocked out of him when Sherlock pounced on him and did something he hadn't done since he was four: gave Mycroft a loud, smacking kiss on the cheek.
"Blergh!" Feigning crossness, Mycroft shoved him off and made a great show of wiping his cheek. "Now I'll probably turn into a boil!"
Grinning unrepentantly, Sherlock carefully placed the Kennel Club certificate back in the box, kissed Redbeard on top of his silky head, and flopped back down onto the mattress. With the box clutched to his chest he rolled over and, in that peculiar way he had, fell asleep instantly.
Exasperated, amused, and touched all at once, Mycroft studied his softly snoring little brother for a moment.
Sherlock hadn't grown so tall after all, he noted in some relief, measuring the younger boy's length against his own body. Not up to Mycroft's shoulder yet. "Well…you'll always have me, at any rate," he murmured gruffly.
With a long-suffering sigh, the elder boy lay back on his own pillow, closing his eyes. After a moment, however, an uncanny feeling of being watched made him open them again.
Redbeard was regarding him intently with his head raised and jaws slightly parted in a light pant that resembled a grin, the tip of his tongue just showing. Mycroft didn't hold with people who anthropomorphized animals, but he could have sworn the expression on the dog's face appeared to be one of tacit approval.
"Well?" Mycroft demanded, keeping his voice low so as not to wake his little brother. "Are you planning to blow your putrid breath in my face all night, then?"
To Mycroft's infinite astonishment, Redbeard responded by laying his beautiful head in the crook of his elbow. His tail thumped against the mattress, and his expressive eyes seemed to speak.
We do try to take care of our boy, don't we?
Mycroft swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat.
"Ridiculous creature," he muttered huskily, giving Redbeard's long ears a quick scratch with his free hand. The setter huffed a happy sigh through his nostrils and closed his eyes.
I'll never be able to sleep with this daft dog lying half on me, and Sherlock the Boil pushing me to the edge of the bed, Mycroft thought resignedly, but he didn't try to shift either of them.
It was the best night's sleep he'd had in months.
*Aegis: guardian, protector, shield. In Greek mythology, "Aegis" refers to the bronze shield of Zeus and Athena, polished to such a high shine it reflected light quite easily. So in a way, aegis can also be said to mean "conductor of light." :-)
Many thanks to englishtutor for proofreading this for me!