Irene Adler was dead.
Mycroft cursed, low and long, his teeth biting off each word like they were tearing into flesh, and at this point, that's what it felt like.
Adler was dead. And she'd left her phone behind with Sherlock of all people. Sherlock, who had the best chance of anyone in the world at deciphering her locks, at getting into the damn thing and prying the information that they needed from it.
Sherlock, who would be incapable of doing that once he knew she was dead.
Sherlock, who already knew she was dead. Who was the one who'd told Mycroft about it.
He wasn't sure when this mess had slipped his grip, when he'd lost his control of the situation, but he blamed Adler. Adler, who should've been easy to control, who should've been handled long before now. Blasted interference from the Ministry and the goddamn Americans, and now he was standing outside the bloody morgue, wondering just what he could say to Sherlock.
Wondering what he should be saying to himself.
Wondering how long this singular act would haunt him.
"Who authorized you to set foot in 221 Baker Street?"
The man on the hospital bed was silent, expression morose under a thick layer drug-based confusion. His foggy eyes met Mycroft's, rimmed in deep bruises, the flesh swollen and angry. His nose was broken, his head bandaged, his lips split. He managed a faint smile, a smirk really, and that reopened the cuts, sending a fresh drop of blood oozing down his chin.
Mycroft didn't really care.
He snapped his fingers briskly in front of the CIA agent's face, the crack sharp and loud in the hospital room. There were machines beeping and whirring away in the background because, really, Sherlock had done quite the number on him, but the guards outside the door kept everyone away. It wouldn't take much for Mycroft to kill the overreaching bastard, and heaven knows he wanted to.
Or throw him out yet another window. Sherlock's solutions, while smacking of the dramatic, were usually quite satisfying.
With a faint and long-suffering sigh, Mycroft leaned in close. He waited until the American was focused on him, as much as he could, and smirked back at him. "I am Mycroft Holmes," he said, his voice silky. The agent's eyes went wide, just a bit beneath the bruises. "Ah, I see the name means something to you." He let his free hand lean down on the pillow, almost touching the agent's ear with the inside of his wrist, as close, as threatening as he could get without actual contact. "And that was my younger brother you were holding a weapon on earlier today."
For a long, fraught moment, he just watched the agent's throat work, desperately trying to swallow, or shout, or struggle, but all three were beyond him. He subsided back into the pillows, eyes shooting sparks at Mycroft. It was enough of an amusement that Mycroft let his lips curl up.
"That being the case, then you will understand when I say that the only reason you're still breathing is because you're completely incompetent and managed to allow a untrained civilian to get the drop on you twice." As much as he hated the idea of Sherlock with a gun pointed at him, he couldn't quite resist a flicker of proud amusement at the outcome. "That might be a record. Even for one of your kind." Mycroft let his hand curl up into a fist, leaning heavily against the pillow, an unspoken threat in the way his muscles tightened beneath the fine cloth of his suit.
"I've already spoken to your superiors. You will not be surprised, I'm sure, to find out that they've indicated they had no idea what you were attempting. They had the poor manners to insist that you were not acting on their behalf at all." Mycroft's teeth flashed. "In short, your mission has been disavowed, sir. They've hung you out to dry. Possibly they came to realize that one time of attempting to shoot my sibling was poor form enough, and almost something that could be forgiven. After all, no one expected him to be at Adler's rooms when you arrived. It was an unforeseen circumstance, and a regrettable one.
"However, breaking into his flat, taking his landlady hostage, and attempting to hold Sherlock at gunpoint was no mistake. Or rather, it very much was a mistake, but not in the way you'd think." Mycroft's eyes narrowed. "Who authorized you to set foot in 221 Baker Street?"
The CIA agent just stared at him, eyes flat and dark. Mycroft stared back. "You caught him on a very bad day," he said at last. "You're lucky you're still alive. Though that is a transitory state, life, isn't it? Not as if you have any right to it at this point. How many times did he throw you out the window?"
And that was foolish, Mycroft knew it was foolish, but the idea of Sherlock cheerfully walking down the stairs, prying the trussed up man out of the wreckage of the garbage bins, dragging him back upstairs and shoving him out the window again was so ludicrous that he had to be amused by it. He really didn't have a choice in the matter.
"I'm guessing he was excessive. He always is." Mycroft straightened up, a faint sigh sliding between his lips. "I, meanwhile, am far more subtle." He retrieved a pair of gloves from his inner jacket pocket, snapping them in place. "For the last time, who authorized you to set foot in 221 Baker Street?"
There was no reply. He hadn't really been expecting one.
It was little more than half an hour later when he stepped out of the hospital room. Anthea was waiting, her mobile ever at the ready. She held up a sharps box without even looking in his direction, and Mycroft dropped a small bundle, wrapped in a crisp white handkerchief, into the slot. She snapped it shut, and if she noticed the red stains on the linen, she certainly knew better than to mention it.
"Orders, sir?" she asked.
Mycroft was exhausted. "I have some calls to make," he said, his voice still and quiet. "To the office. For now." These calls were best made from the official lines. Any follow ups, he might have to make from a more secure, and private, source.
Someone would come to understand the rationality of obeying Mycroft in this. He didn't care if he had to rip through two thirds of the CIA, someone would come to realize that it was a fight they stood no chance of winning. As it was, as infuriating as he considered the whole disastrous situation, he was well aware that it could've gone much, much worse.
Apparently, the original plan had been to hold John hostage.
Lost in that mental nightmare, Mycroft stalked out of the hospital, leaving behind guards and clean up crews and politely duplicitous medical staff. It wasn't until he was safely slumped in the back seat of the car that he allowed himself to wonder if he could've cleaned up that mess. Bad enough that it was Mrs. Hudson being held down with a gun to her head. She was small, and elderly, and altogether harmless. They hadn't even bothered tying her up.
John would've fought them, and best case scenario, he might've been awake and cuffed to the damn chair when Sherlock arrived. Worst case, they might've shot him, or even killed him accidentally. They were rash enough, after all, to think they could control the backlash.
Mycroft shuddered, his entire body tightening with the thought. This must be completed. And swiftly. What he'd taken to be a pleasant little diversion, a quick recovery of sensitive data had spiraled into an international incident and a complete collapse on Sherlock's part.
"This was all your fault."
Mycroft had seen John in several moods. Amused, frustrated, content, stubborn, all of those, he'd encountered a time or two. For the most part, when he dealt with John, it was with a polite sort of detachment on both their sides. They let Sherlock deal with the dramatics and the overreactions, the childish fits and the yelling. John had never struck Mycroft as being a particularly passionate person. He'd decided, in the last year or so, that it was for the best; two people prone to being highstrung in the same flat was just asking for trouble.
Right now, he realized that John Watson might be controlled, but he did not lack passion. Right now, as he stared Mycroft down in his own study, John was wildly, passionately furious.
Mycroft set his case down. "Good evening, John. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
John was slouched low in the arm chair, his posture relaxed, but his jaw was a granite hard line. "This was all your fault," he repeated, and his voice was soft, an icy whisper.
"It's best if we leave the melodrama to Sherlock," Mycroft said, taking a seat behind his desk. "What brought this on?"
"Finding out some very interesting information from your brother," John said, his hands twitching on the arms of the chair. The knuckles were pale, sharp points of bone rising from the plush arms. "He is laboring under the impression that the mess with Irene was his failing." John's thin lips twitched up, macabre and sharp. "When in fact both you and I know that's the opposite of the truth."
Mycroft opened a file folder, considering the pages inside. "Do we?"
"I do, and you have a reputation for being clever. I'm not quite certain I believe that any longer," John said, one hand coming up to cradle his chin. "You set him up."
Mycroft's fingers tightened on his pen, and he set it down before he could do accidental damage to the delicate metal. "Don't be foolish," he snapped, head coming up, rare heat slipping into the words.
"I'm not the foolish one." John's eyes were laser sharp under his lowered brows. "The two of you spend so much time circling each other, playing these little games of yours, but you fouled up rather impressively this time."
Mycroft rubbed his aching forehead with a thumb and index finger, trying to ease the pain there. "John, as much as I enjoy these chats, we both know that Sherlock likes to twist events to make himself the martyr, especially when it comes to family matters. Whatever he said-"
John's tight smile parted just enough to let the words slip out. "'One lonely, naive man desperate to show off,'" he said, and it was an arctic, brutal cut of a sentence coming from him. "He was drunk, Mycroft, drunk enough to say all sorts of things to me that he would usually keep to himself. Bury. Repress. All those fun things you Holmes boys do with troublesome emotions."
Inwardly, Mycroft cursed, long and low and vicious. Not a hint of it showed on his face, but his mind was awash in the rawest curses he was capable of, most of them directed at himself. He met John's eyes without a flicker of reaction, his gaze calm and flat. "You weren't there, John."
"It's a very good thing for you that I wasn't. I would've torn you limb from limb." There was a soft, almost gentle note to his voice, a calm acceptance. This wasn't melodrama. This wasn't a threat. It was a man pushed beyond the limits of his mental endurance lashing out with everything he had.
Mycroft felt the first stirrings of something that might, in a lesser man, be classified as fear.
"No," John said, cutting him off. "No. You're done. We're done, you and me, our little discussions about Sherlock, our unspoken agreement of working together. Because you shoved him under the bus, Mycroft, and then you had the bloody gall to blame him for making a mess of the wheels."
"How dare you," Mycroft said, ice crystallizing on the words.
John's eyebrows arched up. "How dare I? Really? I think I have the right to tell you to go to hell at this point." He leaned forward, shoulders a hard line as he stared Mycroft down. "What were you thinking? Sending him in to deal with her? What the bloody hell were you thinking, Mycroft?"
"That he could get the information we needed," Mycroft snapped. "Not that it is any concern of yours."
"It is my concern!" John yelled. "It's my concern because I'm the one who has to deal with the fallout! Because you stride in, make a great mess of his life, of his mental state, and then leave me to pick up the pieces! You never stick around to see the damage you do, you just lob the bloody goddamn grenade and let him throw himself on it!"
Mycroft's teeth were gritted so hard that his jaw ached, ached all the way up his skull, the pain a constant companion by this point.
"He had no defenses against her. You couldn't have done a better job of sending him into an unmatched fight if you'd tried. I'm starting to think that you were trying. She's-" He cut himself off. "She was a master when it came to con games and trickery and sexual manipulation. Sherlock has no way to defend himself against any of that, and you chose him to go up against her!" John's eyes were furious beneath his lowered brows. "And then, when he failed, when he was just as caught up in her con as everyone else around her, you lashed out at him, in front of her!
"Jesus, Mycroft. Bloody..." John's face twisted. "Bloody hell, Mycroft. I don't understand the cruelty. That's what bothers me. I don't understand the cruelty, and I don't understand the logic. For all intents and purposes, he's a teenager. From what I've been lead to believe, his longest relationship has been with me!"
"Don't be idiotic," Mycroft snapped.
"Am I wrong?" John threw his hands out. "Please. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that there's been someone who loved him, someone who understood him, someone other than you or your parents. Anyone. Friend, lover, pet, anything."
Mycroft's lips twitched. "It's so pleasant of you to assume our parents loved him."
John's eyes slid shut. "Great. Wonderful. So you took a man with no emotional framework and sent him up against Irene Bloody Adler, the woman who's twisted half the commonwealth into knots and left the other half gaping in her wake." He rubbed a hand over his face. "There was no way Sherlock could cope. And you had to know that."
"It was the emotional detachment that I thought would carry him through," Mycroft snapped, and cursed himself inwardly. He did not have to explain himself to John Watson. Interloper. Stray. He had no place here, no cause for his wild accusations, it was unprecedented.
"He's still human, and she was a master," John snapped. "And every single thing you've done has set him up. You threw him in her path, you thrust him directly into her grip. Then, when he was up to his neck in it, you jerked him back, and you knew, you had to know, that it would only make him more desperate to prove you wrong, to solve your problems behind your back. And then you compounded the problem by taking a call in the flat, you let him hear, you knew he would hear, and it makes no sense.
"You set him in play, you forced him forward, and you leaked the information that allowed him to figure the whole thing out," John said, rage churning at the edges of the words. "And then you humiliated him in front of her for doing just exactly what you'd caused him to do." He paused. "What was it you said to him? All it takes is one lonely, naive man,desperate to show off?"
"How desperate were you, to get your brother's attention?" John asked. There was an instant of stillness as they both froze. "To show him how important you are? How many fingers you have in how many pies? Did you feel you were losing his focus? That he had finally gotten his own life, his own place in the world, and it had nothing to do with you? Is that why you shoved your business in his face, and then ripped his throat out when he did exactly what you had intended for him to do? When he focused all of his remarkable attention, all on you, all on your problems and your every word, did you get what you wanted?
"Did you intend to ruin him all along?"
Mycroft slammed a fist down on his desk. "Enough," he said, and it was a roar, a sound that ripped from his throat, a sound that he didn't even know he could make, he didn't know that he could yell at that timbre, with that force, everything in his background, in his upbringing, had denied him that. But this was primal, this was brutal, this was a word made not so much of sound but of emotion.
He sucked in a breath. And another, and another, until he felt that he could speak without screaming. Until he felt that he could form words with his usual skill, to wield his tongue as a scalpel and not a blunt installment. "I think you have said quite enough, Dr. Watson. I would ask you to take your leave now. We will discuss your relationship with my brother at a time when we are both more calm."
They stared at each other, and a faint smile flickered across John's face. "Oh, I think we should do it while we're both quite sharp-edged. More honest that way, don't you think?"
"So how does this work, usually?" John asked, his voice pleasant, almost amused. "And let's not pretend you haven't done it before. You're a bloody controlling bastard, Mycroft, and that is God's honest truth. I always thought that came from a real affection for your brother, but now..."
He stood. "I'm no longer sure. So, how does this work? Do you start with threats? Or perhaps bribery?" He nodded. "Yes, bribery. You tried that with me once, didn't you? Actually, you tried both. I assume that bribery comes first, easier to transition from there to threats, but perhaps it's threats first. And when the victim is sufficiently cowed, then you offer a gentler out with a bribe."
Mycroft's fingers were white knuckled on the arms of his chair. "Dr. Watson, you overstep yourself."
"I really don't," John said, soft and gentle. "Because you've made a rather large mistake. Really, you've made a series of them. Now, I'm the one who has to clean it up. I'm the one who has to deal with the fallout from the fact that you were so pathetically desperate to look important in front of your younger brother that you shot yourself, and him, and me, in the goddamn foot!
"So let's cut to the chase. I've lived a boring life, Mycroft. Pathetic, really, but there's nothing you can find on me to use as leverage, to use as a threat. I have no debts, no dark secrets, no great scandals, which I'm sure you've already figured out."
Mycroft kept his face still with a force of will, with all the effort available to him. His teeth gritted behind tightly pursed lips, he stared John down, and John stared back, a faint smile still there on his lips.
"Not much family, few friends, and you could get me fired, I'm sure, or get my pension cut somehow, I wouldn't put that past you, but I've got the skills to keep myself fed and clothed. A doctor's always got patients, Mycroft, and I'm sure you could ruin me with a few well placed lies, but you won't. Because Sherlock would see through that very quickly, and that would defeat the purpose of this whole thing, wouldn't it?"
John tucked his hands in his jacket pockets, relaxed, calm. "So threats are out, and bribery's out, and you could disappear me, I'm certain of that, but you'd have to be very, very careful about how you went about that. Sherlock's not easily fooled, and an accidental death would require a great deal of planning."
"You honestly think I'd have you killed?" Mycroft said, low and sharp.
"I think you'd do just about anything to protect Sherlock, and I think it would not take much to convince yourself that removing me would be best for him. You follow a very twisted logic, Mycroft, a dark little headspace that I'm not privy to, but I'd advise that you not force Sherlock to chose sides right now."
"Excuse me?" Mycroft stood, hands braced on the desk, shoulders hunched, fury barely under control.
"The ultimatum you're planning on throwing at him. The 'him or me' nonsense that you have as a last resort." John rubbed a hand over his face, looking tired. "Don't do it."
"Why shouldn't I?"
John's hand dropped to his side, fingers flexing. "Because you'll lose," he whispered, and there was pity in his voice, in his eyes when he looked at Mycroft, there in his face, and Mycroft had never wanted to hurt anyone so much in his life as he did at that instant. Judging by the faint, sad smile on his face, John knew it.
"You overestimate your importance, Dr. Watson," Mycroft said, and his voice was even and calm and collected. Precise. Controlled. Caring was not an advantage, he knew it was the truth. If he repeated it often enough, he might be able to convince himself.
"No. I don't, I just know that if you force him to chose right now, he will chose me. You'll lose him, if you do it, and I hate you right now, I hate you in a way that I didn't know it was possible to hate someone, but he is your brother. As messed up as your relationship is, you do love him, and he loves you even more, and I respect that. I can't stop you from hurting him, that's out of my control, but I can try to stop you from ruining whatever you've still got left of a relationship with him."
John leaned forward to brace his hands on the other side of Mycroft's desk, his posture mirroring Mycroft's. Jaw tight, he said, "Don't force him to chose, Mycroft. He'll chose me."
"Why do you think that?"
John's lips quirked up, just a little. "Because I would never ask him to chose. And you will. You'll force him into a corner and force his hand and just out of pure stubborn spite, he'll cut you off and walk away." John straightened up, one hand sliding through his already disordered hair. "It'd be a mistake, and you've made enough of those lately."
Mycroft's vision was actually white at the edges, his head throbbing with the force of it, but he kept his voice calm. "You insolent pup. When did you grow teeth?" he asked, the question offhand.
"Oh, I always had teeth," John said, flashing a wide, white smile. "It's not my fault if you didn't take me seriously enough to notice them. However, it's not my teeth you need to worry about. It's the grip of my jaw, because I'm a stubborn bastard, Mycroft, and if I decide to bite, I'm not going to be letting go."
He turned on his heel, stalking towards the door. "Do yourself a favor. Don't make it necessary. You and I have gotten along well enough, and I don't want you for an enemy."
John paused, glancing over his shoulder at Mycroft. His face was expressionless. "I don't want you for an enemy, either," Mycroft said, and he meant it. "But if it comes down to it, I will destroy you."
There was an instant of silence, and then John grinned at him, wide and sharp and predatory, and it was an expression that Mycroft was used to seeing on Sherlock's face, not John's, but it looked natural there. "You can try," John said. "Good night, Mycroft." He was out the door a moment later, pulling it shut behind him with a gentle click.
Mycroft stayed standing for another second or two, working on bringing his heartbeat back under control. At forcing his breathing back to the normal parameters. His knees went limp all of a sudden, and he collapsed back into his chair, eyes sliding shut as he slumped low, boneless.
And tried to ignore the overwhelming sense of self-hatred that was thick in his throat.
"That was rash."
"Most things I chose to do fall under the classification of rash, so you'll have to narrow the discussion down somewhat," Sherlock said, sounding pleased with me.
"Seeing to it that I visited Baskervilles today." Mycroft tapped a file folder with one manicured fingernail. "You have no idea the paperwork that resulted in that little jaunt, Sherlock."
"Mycroft, just being you generates paperwork. If you've discovered a sudden dislike for it, perhaps you ought to consider a lifestyle change."
"Perhaps I should consider letting them arrest you next time," Mycroft said, arching his eyebrows.
"That would be foolish. You'd just have to come bail me out." Sherlock sounded a bit manic, and Mycroft rolled his eyes. "And we both know how you dislike actually setting foot outside of the city."
"It is tedious," Mycroft agreed.
"Lazy," Sherlock said.
"You have no idea how my work piles up while I'm traveling. It's simply not worth the trouble or the effort." Mycroft opened the file folder and flipped through the classified files. It was unusual when he got paperwork with blacked out passages. With a faint snort, he stood and walked to the door. "Correct this," he said to Anthea, who glanced at the ages and gave an exaggerated eyeroll.
"Yes, sir," she said, taking the file from him.
Mycroft returned to his desk and collapsed into his chair. "Really, Sherlock? Chasing fictional monsters over the moors? What's next, haunted houses?"
"Should the case prove interesting enough, yes." Sherlock was almost dancing on the other end of the line and despite his best efforts, Mycroft felt his lips twitch.
"I shall remind you about the fascinating case of the disappearing bunny next time you attempt to decline to assist me," Mycroft said, staring at his laptop. Sherlock's website was perpetually a source of amusement. Especially the parts that he was not supposed to have access to.
"You're drawing a false conclusion, Mycroft. I decline your cases because you are an annoyance who attempts to control my life, not because the cases are lacking," Sherlock explained. "In fact, if anyone other than you were to offer them, I should be more than pleased to assist."
"It's always good to know that family holds that special place with you, Sherlock." Mycroft hit a few keys. "Your newest article on paper fragmentation in solvents is just pathetic."
"Just because you don't understand the big words doesn't make it pathetic." Sherlock sounded amused. "Your latest efforts to keep James Moriarty off the streets are just as laughable."
Mycroft froze, his fingers seizing over the keyboard.
As the silence stretched out, Sherlock sighed. "Do you think I wouldn't be aware? For heaven's sake, Mycroft, even for you, that's rather controlling, don't you think?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Mycroft said, trying to sound amused. "What rumors are you paying heed to now, Sherlock?"
"You've never been able to keep me out of your systems, Mycroft. We're too similar, you and I. Our brains work just a tad bit too close to each other for comfort. I know what you're doing." There was a pause, and he heard Sherlock let out a brief sigh. "It won't work, Mycroft."
"You can't hold him forever. We both know you have nothing on him."
"And when has that ever stopped any government in the history of human civilization?"
Sherlock gave a faint snort of amusement. "You can use him, Mycroft."
"Trust me, we're doing our best. As it turns out, he's only slightly less stubborn than you. Nothing has had the least effect."
"You're not offering him what he wants."
"And what would that be, Sherlock?"
Another pause, stretching out, and Sherlock took a deep breath. "Me."
The call woke him in the early hours of the morning, and Mycroft was halfway out of bed before he managed to fumble the connection through. "Sherlock?"
The breathing on the other end of the line was thick and strained, and Mycroft was moving towards the bedroom door. "Sherlock, what's wrong? Talk to me. Talk to me, right now, or I'm scrambling a recovery team."
"I'm fine. It's... Fine."
Mycroft paused, hand coming up to brace himself against the doorframe. His head fell forward, a shudder of relief rolling through him. "What's happened, Sherlock?"
"Nothing. Case... Isn't going the way it should."
Mycroft didn't trust himself to go back to bed. Too exhausted right now. Instead, he slipped into the hall and padded down the stairs on silent bare feet that were already picking up the chill of the polished wood. "What did you do, Sherlock, that John isn't speaking to you?"
Sherlock made a strangled sound of frustration. "Don't be idiotic."
"Quite the opposite. If the case wasn't going well, and you were on good terms with him, you'd be talking to him. You are not, you are calling me, Sherlock, and quite past the time for such things. So that means you've had a row with John, and it was your fault."
"How do you know it was my fault? It could well have been his fault." Sherlock sounded so petulant that despite the situation, Mycroft found himself smiling.
"Because if it was John's fault, you'd never let me know there had been a fight. You would never admit to me that he'd done anything wrong," Mycroft's voice was soft in the predawn hours as he set the kettle. "You are protective to a fault, dear brother."
Sherlock said nothing to that, and Mycroft fetched himself a teacup. "What did you do, Sherlock?"
Another long pause. "Told him I didn't have any friends."
Mycroft assembled the sugar bowl and the cream from the fridge, his heart sinking in his chest. "Well, that was foolish."
"Thank you for that sterling judgment."
"I do hope you didn't call me for sympathy, Sherlock, as that's unlikely to happen." He considered the tea canisters. "After all, that's the sort of thing that a friend does."
He could hear Sherlock breathing, but kept his silence until the other man burst out, "What do I do?"
Mycroft paused, considered how easy it would be to take Sherlock back. To let this minor break become a true rift. To twist Sherlock up, convince him that it was for the best, that he could return to his solitary existence now. To convince Sherlock that he didn't have to try, didn't have to struggle or grow, or become anything more. He could do it so easily. Sherlock would take the easy path, and it would hurt John, that wound growing deep and wide.
It would be so easy.
Except he knew full well that John would never leave Sherlock over something so petty. After all, if John was anyone other than John, he wouldn't have made it this long as Sherlock's flatmate and, well, friend.
"You could start by telling him the truth," Mycroft said to Sherlock, considering the possibilities of his tea collection.
Sherlock snorted. "I don't know what that is."
"Don't be foolish, Sherlock. Of course you do. You may not wish to acknowledge it, but you know full well what it is." He paused. "All you are doing now, all our plans with Moriarty, it is in fact to protect John." There was no response other than the aching silence. "You do all this to keep him alive, and now you're unwilling to speak a handful of simple words?"
"They aren't so simple."
"They become much more simple when you allow yourself to speak them. And when you allow yourself to believe them."
Sherlock gave a snort of disdain. There was something off about him tonight. Mycroft wasn't sure what, but he'd heard that unstable, grasping note in Sherlock's voice before. If he hadn't been certain that Sherlock wouldn't indulge during a case, he'd say Sherlock had taken something. Frowning, he filed that away to consider at a later time.
"Are you attempting to counsel me about feelings?" Sherlock was saying, and the final word was packed with disdain. "It wasn't so long ago when you were convincing me that caring was not an advantage."
"For the Woman? It was not." Mycroft paused. "For John Watson? Now, that's quite different, isn't it? Because whether or not you are willing to say the words, it will not change your heart. However, not saying the words could well change his."
Mycroft stared at the curl of steam that was settling around the mouth of his kettle. "Are you willing to lose him because you cannot bear to risk the words?"
"I won't lose him."
"He can stay, and you can still lose him. I rather think that would be worse, don't you? If he took you at your word, and stopped bothering you with all these petty, troublesome emotions. After all, if you have no need of his friendship, then he should cease to concern you with it." He made no move to pour the water. The act seemed like too much of an effort. "Do you understand, Sherlock, that many flatmates just live in the same space? They can go days without speaking. They certainly are under no obligation to eat together, or sit together, or, I don't know, solve minor crimes together-"
"Shut up!" Sherlock was breathing hard, panic chewing at the edges of the sound, and Mycroft feel obligingly silent. Letting Sherlock absorb that. Letting him come to terms with the reality of the knife's edge he found himself on.
As the silence stretched out, Mycroft watched the steam stop rolling up into the cool night air. "Could you bear that?" Mycroft said at last. "To have him there, but to no longer have him be your friend?"
There was a soft sound, and it might've been a moan, it might have been a 'no,' it might've been an animalistic sound of pain, and Mycroft was sure, sure now, that Sherlock was not fully in his right mind.
"Then you must try your best, Sherlock," he said, rubbing his forehead. "It won't take much. He understands you. Understands your... Limitations," he said, after struggling for the word. "But you must make the effort. Do it, because you will regret it if you do not. If you cannot tell him-"
He heard the line go dead, and paused only an instant, before he finished, "How very much you love him."
Mycroft wasn't sure if he was talking about Sherlock's feelings for John, or his own feelings for Sherlock.
He considered his mobile. Taking a deep breath, he dialed. "Hello, Lestrade," he said, his voice cool. "I am going to need you to check up on something for me."
"We can control this."
Mycroft's fingers bit into his mobile. "No. No, we cannot, Sherlock. This has spiraled out of our control." He hated pacing, hated the evidence of his lost control. He'd long since trained himself to sniper levels of stillness, to hold himself steady in any storm, but now, now...
He was lost to the winds.
"Fine." Sherlock sounded almost amused, as if he'd given up on Mycroft already. "I can control this."
"You escaped custody, Sherlock, you didn't-" He pivoted on one heel, breath hissing in his throat. "You couldn't just stay put, allow me to handle it, to let the system take due course, I could've had you free in hours, at most, they had nothing to hold you on!"
His voice was reaching dangerous levels, high and sharp, a note that he didn't recognize creeping in, and it was fear and anger and helplessness. None of which bothered him, he knew those emotions, he could control them, he could use them.
It was the desperation that made his stomach bottom out.
"I need you to come in, Sherlock, to come in and let us handle it from this point on, we have the files, we have the background to prove just who and what Moriarty is. This mess he's made is superficial, it's a great deal of sound and fury, and there is nothing beneath it, you know this, Sherlock. You must come in." He swallowed, forced his body to stillness, forced himself to take a chance.
"Sherlock. Let me handle this." He closed his eyes, let his head fall back, and begged. "Please."
The silence was overwhelming. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, drowning out everything, louder and louder, and he knew the answer before Sherlock verbalized it. "No."
Mycroft turned on his heel, aiming a brutal fist at the wall. He stopped a bare inch away from the surface, his arm jerking with tension. "Sherlock," he said, and not a bit of it showed in his voice, it was as cool and controlled as ever. "I need you to come home now."
"Sherlock," he started.
"I won't leave John."
The world whited out, his vision going blank, empty, and Mycroft gritted out, "Devil take John, Sherlock, he's not interested in John, what good will you be to him if you die now?"
"He'll be interested in John if that's all he can get of me," Sherlock said, and there was a note of aching resignation in his voice. "All of this, all of it, from beginning to end, has been to keep him from ever going after John again. I will not permit it."
"Sherlock, listen to me-"
"Good bye, Mycroft." The line went dead.
He was storming out of his office, he knew he was, issuing orders and snapping out demands, his voice roaring through the office, underlings scrambling in all directions, he knew it was happening, he could see it, could hear it, but it was as if he was observing the whole thing from a great distance.
He was aware of his movements. Aware of the futility of it all. Without Sherlock's assistance, he was going to fail. Without Sherlock working with him, he couldn't do this, he couldn't force the pieces into place, he couldn't do it, his reach wasn't long enough, wasn't deep enough.
He wasn't strong enough, smart enough, good enough to save Sherlock unless Sherlock was willing to be saved, unless Sherlock wanted to save himself.
He was going to lose.
He was going to lose everything.
Mycroft Holmes did not see the fall. But he'd been waiting for it, somewhere in some dark and desperate part of himself, since his brother had been old enough to know what death was.
Known that there was a choice, that living was not the only answer.
So it was perhaps a little more accurate to say: Mycroft Holmes did not see the end of the fall, but he was the only one who'd been there for the beginning, for that first, desperate step off the ledge, foot hovering in midair, body held by a force of will to a safe spot, to a point of balance so fleeting as to be non-existent. Sherlock Holmes had been on the knife edge of death for so long that the fact that he finally slipped free, giving way to gravity and boredom and the unending weight of his own life, should've come as no surprise.
Mycroft had been waiting for Sherlock to hit the pavement for decades, and still, when it happened, he found himself drastically unprepared.
Because until that moment, he'd truly believed he could control his brother's life. Only to find that he couldn't even control his own.
When your world has ended, when you are lost and alone and rudderless and half-mad with grief, a grief that wants to swallow you and choke you and dissolve the flesh from beneath your skin, you don't really think about checking your email.
For the first time, perhaps in his entire adult life, Mycroft did not answer his phone when it rang. It buzzed constantly, sedate and polite and precise. He didn't answer it; the only person he wanted to speak to is no longer capable of calling him. Sherlock's phone had been handed over, the police had collected it at the scene, and it lay on his desk, still in the sealed evidence bag.
He touched it, through the slick plastic bag, over and over and over, like a talisman, like he could feel Sherlock through the last thing he'd touched. Like some echo of his brother might remain there. The minutes, the hours since his death were agonizing.
Mycroft's phone buzzed again, and, listless and annoyed, he reached out to pick it up. He flicked through the incoming messages, one after another. Mostly sympathy messages, work information; he flicked through the emails, barely glancing at the content, just the titles.
He was about to shut the mobile down again when his sodden brain sparked to life. Eyes narrowing, he went back, looking for the strange email title, something that had seemed off.
There it was. "My puppy."
The email address was that of a colleague, a man of a certain age who almost always did his work by phone, or through a secretary, he wasn't one to send much by way of emails, or share forwarded chain letters about dogs. Mycroft stared at the email address.
Wondering if he was losing his mind, or just grasping at straws, he opened it.
The message text was simple. "I am sorry to bother you, in this, your time of grief. I am sorry for your suffering, Mycroft, I am, but I am desperate, and require your assistance. I have had to leave town unexpectedly, and do not know when I will be able to return. Could you please look after my puppy? I am afraid for what will happen to him if you do not."
The email was unsigned.
Mycroft stared at it, his heart pounding so hard that he could feel it in his bones, he could hear it in his ears. His fingers hovered over the keys, and he was terrified, terrified of answering and being wrong, of breaking this Schrodinger's box of simultaneous life and death.
His reply took far too long to compose.
"Thank you for your condolences; I have lost the best part of my life, the bright, warm heart of it. I would give anything to undo what has been done, but that is not within my power. As to your puppy, I will of course take care of him. He is dear to me as well, is he not? I do hope that we can speak again soon, so please complete your business as swiftly as possible. You would not be happy if your puppy came to be fully comfortable with me."
Closing his eyes, he hit send.
Pushing himself up on wobbly legs, he set the mobile on his desk and recapped the bottle of scotch. He'd been refilling his glass with such speed that putting the stopper back in had seemed pointless. Now, he studied the two fingers of amber liquid in his glass, ice cubes melting in their midst, and considered finishing it.
His mobile buzzed, and his weak knees went out from under him, dropping him back into his seat.
"What a wicked suggestion, that you would try to supplant me as his favorite! It won't happen, you know, he is loyal to a fault. As to my business, that may take some time. I hate these open ended problems, don't you? Until it is solved, everything is up in the air. The lack of concrete planning always makes for a tricky assignment. Perhaps, though, I can speak to you in a few days, I may require your assistance on a matter of some importance, some time before you set about to bury your brother."
Mycroft watched the condensation roll down the sides of the tumbler of scotch, the closest thing to tears that he was capable of shedding. He reached out with one trembling finger and felt the cold wetness on his skin.
"I should be so pleased to hear from you, whenever you can arrange it. I will always be available to speak to you, no matter what else is happening. Have no fear for your puppy, I will do everything in my power to keep him safe and happy, or as happy as he can be with his favorite person gone from his life. Please be quick, remember that puppies don't always understand that such separations are temporary."
The liquor burned its way down his throat, and he gasped, almost coughing at the force of it. Already dizzy and caught somewhere between fear and relief, he stared at his mobile. His fingers, still wet from the glass, reached out to rub against Sherlock's phone through the plastic bag. Over and over. Stroking, tracing, learning every inch of the damn thing.
Another buzz, and Mycroft almost fumbled his phone in his desperation to get it open.
"Puppies are smarter than you'd imagine. At least, mine is, and that's all that matters. Do you remember, Mycroft, asking me about my first pet, some time ago? I told you at the time that I didn't remember much about that stray I'd brought home, but that was a lie. A lie I told for no good reason, other than the fact that I didn't want to speak of it. I do remember, no matter how small I was. Don't you think it odd, what children remember?"
Mycroft's eyes narrowed. He bent over his phone, huddled over it like it was a source of warmth in the midst of winter, curled himself around it.
"Children remember things that alter them, for better or worse. But being so young, what could you possibly recall?"
The reply was almost immediate.
"That I loved him. That losing him broke my heart. And that my brother did what he could to soften the blow. I don't think I ever thanked him for that."
Mycroft was shocked by the painful burn of his eyes. He blinked, hard and fast as he composed his reply, each keystroke seeming to take far too long.
"I'm sure he knew. I seldom spoke of such things with Sherlock. I regret that now. I don't know if he died not ever knowing how much I loved him."
The delay was longer this time, but he refused to regret his words. Refused to regret being honest, for once in his life, refused to regret ignoring the family rules and every stupid thing between them.
"I'm sure he knew, too. Brothers always do, you know. I must go now. Please take care. It may be some time before I can speak to you again, but do not be concerned. I was trained by the best, after all, and will be careful. Thank you, Mycroft. Please stay safe, and keep my puppy safe and protected, because I will need him back, as soon as it can be managed."
Mycroft set his mobile down, burying his face in his hands, and if there was moisture there, against his palms, then he could tell himself it was just the damp of his skin, or the condensation from his glass, and not something foreign or embarrassing.
Something like tears.
It took him far too long to pull himself together, and when he did, he stumbled to his feet, his fingers shaking as he gripped the edge of his desk. He took a deep breath, and then another, and moved across the dark office, away from the single pool of light that his desk lamp provided.
He picked up the mostly empty bottle from the floor, ignoring the damp patch on the carpet near where it had fallen. Picking up the blanket while he was down there, he tucked the bottle under one arm so he could shake out the blanket and place it back over John Watson's sleeping form. John's eyes opened, and Mycroft gave him a lopsided smile.
"Is he safe?" John asked, his voice slurred at the edges with the effects of an entire bottle of whiskey, and for an instant, Mycroft didn't know if he knew what was happening, or if he was just so drunk that he'd started making things up. Either way, the answer was easy.
"You're safe. That's the important thing. That's what he would want."
John stared at him, eyes foggy and his expression relaxed. "He's alive," he said, on a drunken slur.
John's eyes closed again, a faint smile floating over his features. "You're... Crying. Grief wouldn't make you cry, his death wouldn't make you cry." He yawned, words stumbling over themselves. "But relief's a bitch, isn't it? You can brace yourself for grief. Prepare. Nothing you can do to soften the blow of relief. Relief... Will take the heart out of you."
Mycroft ignored the damp skin of his cheeks. "You are drunk. And talking nonsense."
John mumbled something that Mycroft couldn't make out, and he leaned over, just in time to hear,"Love... Him..."
His cheeks were wet in the low light, because he was right. Relief was a bitch.
Mycroft waited for John to go still again, and considered the small amount of liquid at the bottom of the bottle, and, with a shrug, took a slug without bothering with a glass. It burned all the way down, and he blinked against the sting of tears. Lowering himself into the nearby armchair, he toasted Sherlock with a grin and swing of the bottle. "To my brother," he whispered into the darkness. "And the puppy he once brought home."