The cold water was like a sudden blow to the face.
Sherlock gasped reflexively, drawing it into his lungs. His hands slapped against the side of the bathtub, flailing desperately for a grip; finally he was jerked back upwards and able to take a breath.
"Enjoying that, Holmes?" Griffin sneered at him. It's certain that the other boys were enjoying it. No less than six were crowded into the first-floor bathroom to watch Holmes get a "ducking".
Sherlock knew better than to waste breath in responding. He needed every bit of air available to withstand the next ducking, which took place three seconds later. This time Griffin slammed him down so hard his nose smashed against the bottom of the tub. Another involuntary breath.
This was a fairly common Sunday-afternoon source of entertainment for the younger boys at Evenden Hall.
There were other boys who were half-drowned or beaten up every now and again, but "Holmes" was a favourite target. Partly this was because he was still in that weedy, growing-too-fast-for-his-strength stage; partly because he'd managed to stay on the bad side of just about every one of his classmates for his entire academic career thus far. This particular ducking had been prompted when he'd outed Edward Griffin as the thief of some exam answers; not because Sherlock cared in the slightest about academic principles or honesty, but because Griffin had beat him by a margin of two percent.
He's waiting for me to say please. He wants me to beg.
Sherlock was pretty sure he'd sooner drown than beg. The former was beginning to look more likely. When he was next dragged up to the surface he could taste blood, and the bath water was now tinged pink.
"Who stole those exam results, Holmes?"
Sherlock was torn between the factually correct answer - "Griffin" - and the answer that may well have abated the ducking - "I don't know."
"You did," he responded, bracing himself as Griffin shoved him under again. This time it was for a lot longer; the world was growing dim and Sherlock was clawing frantically at the sides of the bath, lungs burning, when there was a sudden miraculous reprieve: the declaration that most of the boys hated, and which Sherlock loved.
The bathroom could not have been evacuated quicker if it had been on fire, leaving Sherlock, weak, dizzy and soaking wet, slumped down on the tiled floor and leaning his head on the side of the bath. He was just deciding whether to pass out there or wait until he was back in his bed when there was a heavy tread on the floorboards outside.
"Holmes…? Oh God, what the hell? Again?"
Sherlock Holmes may not have endeared himself to too many of the students, let alone the staff, but he was a secret favourite of Mr Beamer, who taught chemistry and had a fondness for students who appreciated the finer points of it. Sherlock felt himself being picked up by the elderly man and set precariously on the edge of the bath.
"Who was it this time?" Beamer handed him a wad of toilet paper for his nose; it was only then that Sherlock noticed that his mad scrambling at the side of the bath had broken every one of his nails down to the quick and they, too, were bleeding.
"Nobody, sir," he muttered through the toilet paper.
"Right. Here you were, on your own, half-drowning yourself in the bathtub for entertainment... It was Griffin, wasn't it?"
Sherlock looked at him, not even trusting himself to shake his head.
"Oh, it's like that, then." Beamer sighed, realising that if Sherlock told him who was bullying him, it was probably going to make things worse. "Ever thought of learning boxing, Holmes? Martial arts?"
"No, sir." Sherlock, who weighed about as much as a kitten and with similar physical strength, had certainly never considered this in his life.
"Maybe you should. It might make you a less easy target. Shutting up every so often might help too, but I think that's beyond you. Come on. Sick bay. Again."
Sherlock had spent a lot of time in the sick bay since his coming to Evenden Hall. After having his nosebleed and nails sorted out, and being declared by the school nurse to be other-than-dying, he slept there all afternoon. It was the heaviest and most satisfying sleep he'd had in a long time. The sick bay was reached through a teacher's coffee lounge, so it was safe to fall asleep and not worry that you'd wake up to find yourself on the floor with someone's boot in your chin.
His chest hurt. His head hurt. Everything hurt this time.
Beamer was back in to wake Sherlock for dinner. He stumbled out to the dining hall, groggy and confused, and slumped down at the end table. He was four empty chairs away from the nearest other boy, a strange, pale child named Michael Barnes. Barnes cried himself to sleep sometimes and wet the bed almost all the time, although he was nearly twelve. Nobody spoke to him either.
"Looking good, Holmes," Kenneth Taylor sneered at him as he walked past and kicked the back of Sherlock's ankle, hard. Sherlock, wincing, knew the graze had drawn blood without even looking at it.
He put his head down, said nothing, and tried to force himself to eat at least some of the mashed potatoes in front of him.
"Hey, I was talking to you." Taylor had stopped nearby. "Answer me."
"You didn't ask a question," Sherlock muttered.
"You told me to 'answer you'," he said, still quiet and looking down at his roast beef and mashed potatoes. "But I can't. because you didn't ask me a question. I can reply, which is probably what you meant, or I can respond, which is what I did. I responded by ignoring you, because -"
He was cut off when icy fingers gripped him by the neck. He gave a choked cry; almost instantly, the world had become grey and fuzzy again.
"Taylor!" Beamer again. He'd come over to see what the fuss was about; the corner Sherlock and Barnes sat in was a notorious hotspot for boys like Taylor and Griffin to roam around, preying on weaker boys who'd been separated from their herd. "My office. Now."
"Sir, we were only playing around." Taylor drew his fingers back and roughed up Sherlock's dark curls; even so he was making sure to dig his nails into his scalp.
"Well, I'm not. My office. Now."
"I'll see you later, Holmes," Taylor hissed in Sherlock's ear before sauntering off to whatever punishment Beamer had in store for him.
There was no doubt in Sherlock's mind as to what that meant.
Sherlock barely touched the rest of his meal before finally being declared allowed to leave the table. Most of the seventh-grade boys retired to the common room; Sherlock went to the payphone in the hall outside, where he was spotted by Scottson, one of Griffin's cronies. Griffin used him to kick people when he couldn't be bothered doing it himself.
"Hey look!" he shouted gleefully. "Holmes is calling his mummy!"
"Shut up, I'm calling my brother for money," Sherlock growled, ignoring the laughter of the other boys and knowing from experience that he'd just lined up next Sunday's ducking for that one. He fed the pay phone and shakily dialled in Mycroft's home number.
Please be home… please…
"Mycroft, it's me," he blurted out. He'd tried not to sound too eager and utterly failed.
"Oh, good Lord," was the response. "What do you want now?"
Sherlock wobbled slightly, grasping onto the bench in front of the phone to steady himself for a second or two. The headache and dizziness were both getting worse, not better. I want to come home. God, please, let me come home. Please. Please, Mycroft...
"I, um. I need money," he muttered instead.
A beleaguered sigh, such as only Mycroft could exhale. "How much?"
"I don't know. A hundred?"
There was a slight pause on the end of the line. "Sherlock, what's going on?"
"Nothing, I'm fine. I just need money."
"You've been beaten again, haven't you? I can hear from your breathing that you probably have a broken nose."
Sherlock was silent. Mycroft sighed again.
"You know you have to learn how to fight back, Sherlock," he said. "I can't do much to help you when-"
"I'm fine and I just need money. Please send it right away."
And then Sherlock hung up on him.