Betwixt and Between
This is usually where I say, "This one started like they all do." Except this one didn't. Usually we have a bit of warning. The police come by or someone calls or emails, and Sherlock decides whether he's going to be bothered. But maybe it's not so early days any more, because people are starting to show up at the door looking for help. I've been around Sherlock for dozens of these cases now, maybe even a hundred, and none of them are quite the same. Kidnappings, murders, thefts, whatever. The only thing they all have in common is that they're all bloody odd. He only takes the weird ones. This one certainly fit the bill.
The phone goes off at three-thirty-two in the morning. The event is startling only in its abrupt loudness. Mycroft Holmes has already been awake for several hours; in point of fact, he has yet to sleep at all tonight, despite the fact that he lay down in bed what seems like a very long time ago. The shrill reverberations of the ring tone echo harshly in his ears and cut across the deep, heavy stillness of his bedroom. He blinks a few times as the room comes into depth of focus before his absently staring eyes. Abstract swaths of texture reshape themselves into the frame of the door, the particular fall of shadow off the far side of the bed, the tall stack of folders on the window seat.
The phone rings again, and Mycroft forces himself upright. The thing is in his hand before his nerves register its weight in his palm. His mind begins to clear, though his head feels heavy. He waits until his vision sharpens, and he begins to process data at a more satisfactory rate. The sheets at the corner of the bed are rumpled from where his legs have twisted through them in his sleepless rotations. He reaches out to smooth them automatically, and their soft drag against his fingertips anchors him into the moment.
Mycroft lifts the phone to his ear on force of habit. The sides of his throat stick together, scratching, and he tries to clear it by coughing. When he answers, his voice is even and devoid of exhaustion only because his conscious mind no longer allows him signs of weakness. "Yes."
In the years to come, when he thinks back on this moment, Mycroft will recognize his critical error, a sign of exhaustion and preoccupation and perhaps mere complacency. The mistake is this: it is the middle of the night, and it is his personal line, and so he assumes that the call is work-related. He doesn't check his screen for the identity of the person on the other end.
It wouldn't have changed anything. Still, there are times when he will wonder if half a second to prepare, to brace himself, would have made the rest of it more bearable.
He misses the chance. He answers the phone, and the voice on the other end says, "Mr Mycroft Holmes? This is Doctor James Leeson. I'm calling from Dorset County Hospital. I'm sorry to tell you this, but Miranda Holmes..."
"Oh," he breathes. Something in his chest disconnects. Oh.
The rest is lost in white noise. Mycroft hears his own voice asking the relevant questions and dearly hopes that the answers are stored somewhere for later. His breathing seems very loud. Finally the other voice cuts off, and Mycroft blinks, surfaces as if from a dream to the press of the warm air against his skin. The phone is heavy in his hand, and his lungs are struggling to expand.
The shadows in the room seem stark and sharp and cold, where before they were familiar and even comforting.
His mother is dead.
The corner of the quilt still isn't smooth. He thinks he should reach out to straighten it, but he can't seem to make his hand move.
No. In reality, having time to prepare wouldn't have helped at all. In this moment, alone in the dark of his bedroom, Mycroft has the brief impression that he is the only person awake in the entire solitary world. He feels very much like he has been unmoored, cast adrift to float away into the dark.
It is a sensation that will hover at the edges of his subconscious for years to come. Just now, he brushes off the notion as best he can and reaches for his clothes, movements precise and deliberate and very, very carefully controlled. He bundles into a jumper and makes one call to his assistant for a car. He does not cry. His fingers barely shake as he buttons up his coat.
Mycroft goes straight to Baker Street. He is, after all, only human.
It's hard to know where to start with this one, really. If I ask him, Sherlock would tell me that human minds favour linear progression, which allows for the logical presentation of events and their causation and effects. Or something like that. Anyway, starting at the start. And the start of this one, I think, was when I woke up from a night of bloody awful sleep and found Sherlock standing at the foot of my bed, all put-together and with that mad glint in his eyes that meant something interesting had just walked in. I told him it was five in the morning, and something better be on fire. He looked at me and smiled that irritating, adrenaline-inducing smile of his, and he told me it was something better. It was a client.
Mycroft hesitates on the front step of 221; the air is freezing cold, biting against his nose and wrists, but he has just realized that it really is quite early in the morning. There's lamplight shining steadily from the window above him, which means someone is awake; at this time of night, the probability of it being Sherlock instead of John is high. Decorum would generally dictate that he ring the bell, but that would wake Mrs Hudson. He makes judicious use of his spare key instead and takes care to close the door quietly behind him. The central heating is up high; the warm, close air settles in around him, snug and a little claustrophobic. Mycroft sheds his coat and scarf in the entryway, suddenly glad to be rid of the constricting layers. Then he takes the seventeen stairs up to his brother's flat, deliberately counting each one.
When he reaches the top of the stairs, the air evens out a bit, growing mercifully cooler. He comes up short at the door to the sitting room; he is surprised to find John Watson at the small table at the far end of the room, surrounded by a sea of papers, backlit by the single lamp that Mycroft had seen from down on the street. His head is resting on his left hand as he stares blankly at the screen of his laptop; the blue-white light of an open writing document reflects in his eyes, paints them opaque. He doesn't react to Mycroft's entrance in the slightest.
There is no sign of Sherlock anywhere, and Mycroft realizes abruptly that he hasn't thought this through. He feels rather uncertain around the edges. He had planned to interact with as few people as possible, until...well. This scenario is unexpected. When John still doesn't notice him, Mycroft resorts to clearing his throat.
John looks up, blinks, jerks his head like he's shaking off sleep. "You have a key," he says with an enviable grasp of the obvious at four in the morning. His complete lack of alarm or surprise would be encouraging, in other circumstances. His eyes focus suddenly on Mycroft's face, and his brow creases. "What's happened?"
Mycroft pauses to process this. The circumstances are unusual, and in context, John's response is perfectly reasonable, even without knowing the details. "I..." He feels very tired all at once. His head feels like someone is pressing it in a vice, and it makes him less inclined to play the word games that John usually expects of him. "I need to speak to Sherlock, I'm afraid."
"All right," John says carefully.
Mycroft attempts to school his expression into something businesslike. But John Watson is not, in fact, an idiot, and as one of four people in London who actually appreciate that fact, Mycroft declines further comment.
John sighs heavily and runs a hand over his face. "All right," he says again. "Well, I suppose we'll have to wake him. He just went down about an hour ago. This last case was a nightmare." He stands, winces, puts a hand to the small of his back when his spine realigns before moving toward Sherlock's bedroom.
Mycroft feels a sudden grip of intense emotion, something like panic. "No."
John stops, one hand on the back of the sofa, and raises an eyebrow.
Mycroft takes a breath; he'd been intent on getting to Sherlock up until this point, but now that he's on the threshold, he's not sure... He isn't at all sure that he's ready to say what needs to be said. Surely another few minutes won't hurt. "No," he says again, more conversationally. "I...can wait. Let him rest."
John gives him an even, considering look that causes Mycroft's respect for him to increase by several measures. "Fine," he says at last. "Best have some tea, then. You're welcome to clear yourself a seat." He diverts to the kitchen.
"Thank you," Mycroft murmurs.
Most of the room is covered in the whirlwind debris of Sherlock's machinations in the midst of a particularly difficult problem. Mycroft's familiar eye picks out a few details from the photos strung up along the mantel, the piles of newspapers that John has obviously consolidated into stacks near his chair. In the end, Mycroft relocates a tottering mound of journals from the opposite end of the table to a clear spot of floor near the sofa. He collects the forest of empty mugs and glasses from the table as well, and brings them into the kitchen to deposit them by the sink. John nods at him in thanks and hands over a cup of tea in exchange.
Mycroft lets out a long sigh he hadn't realized he'd been holding in. He curls his palms around the warm mug in his hands, lets the chamomile-scented steam clear some of the compression from his temples.
John gives him a wan half-smile. "I'd offer you milk, but the last bit we have's gone off."
"This is perfectly fine, thank you."
They return to the table and Mycroft pulls his chair out far enough to cross one leg over the other, carefully angled to keep from bumping John's feet under the table. He cradles his cup in both hands again and lets his eyes close for a moment. The smell of chamomile and vanilla is strong in his nose; it hits him with a pang, and he lets it settle. His mother had a perfume that smelled very much like this; Mycroft has distinct memories of it, from when he was very small, and she still held him close on her lap. She stopped wearing it after Sherlock was born—he was so sensitive to strong smells, so easily over-stimulated in those early years—and Mycroft hadn't realized he remembered it. He takes a sudden breath and forces his eyes open.
Across from him, John blows out a breath of his own and taps his fingers against the keyboard, stares at the screen without typing. Mycroft takes a sip of tea and tries very hard to bring his mind back to the reality at hand. He takes advantage of the other man's preoccupation to do a bit of observing.
John is clearly exhausted. His skin is grey, almost sickly in the sparse light of the room. The circles beneath his eyes are well on their way to being permanently carved into his skin. Despite the hour, he is fully dressed; he is either avoiding sleep or has given up finding it for the night. He looks rather less...centred, than Mycroft has come to expect from him in the daylight hours. He is back to resting his chin on his hand again. He clicks his teeth together, goes back to drumming the fingers of his free hand aimlessly on the keyboard.
Mycroft has written enough reports over the years, confidential or otherwise, to recognize the typical symptoms of writer's block. He leans forward and sets his mug down, considering, until he gives in to the distraction and asks, "What are you working on?"
John sighs and scrubs a hand through his hair. "This," he says, gesturing at the computer and the piles of papers around his chair, "is supposed to be a write-up of the case we just finished. I've been trying to take notes and get things down quicker when we've finished, so the details are fresh, but..."
"It's just..." He waves one hand in a vague gesture; the movement is uncontrolled and a little careless.
Mycroft is momentarily surprised to see John with his guard down to this extent. It's a new experience, and one he feels he rather intruded on.
"What do you have so far?"
John looks up in surprise, and Mycroft realizes that he just crossed a line he has been very careful not to cross in his interactions with John up until this point. He really is unforgivably lacking in self-awareness tonight.
He dismisses his own question with a wave of his hand and reaches out for his mug again. "Apologies. I don't mean to pry." He truly doesn't, at least not at the moment, though he hardly expects anyone in this flat to believe him when he says it.
But John just tilts his head at him, thoughtfully, and Mycroft feels like he is being measured up. He is not at all used to being the one under scrutiny, but he bears it well.
Abruptly John nods and says, "Actually, that would be... Do you mind? I never get a second opinion on these things, and I'm well and truly stuck. Want to take a look?"
Mycroft stares at him, waiting for the punch line. To be fair, he's had a rather trying evening. But John holds his gaze steadily, and...well. That is a rather humbling display of trust, and Mycroft is not so out of sorts that he won't accept it. "Yes," he says, in a perfectly normal tone of voice. "I would be happy to. What do you have so far?"
John clears his throat and shoots Mycroft a wry grin, the most sincere expression Mycroft's seen from him today. "This is a bit odd, actually, I never read these things aloud, but...all right. Here it goes." He clears his throat again and begins, "'This is usually where I say, "This one started like they all do." Except this one didn't. Usually we have a bit of warning. The police come by or someone calls or emails, and Sherlock decides whether he's going to be bothered...'"
Mycroft is absorbed despite himself. When John trails off after the second paragraph, Mycroft tilts his head, considering. "It sounds like a good start. What seems to be the problem?"
"There's too much," John sighs.
This, Mycroft understands. He leans back in his chair and rests one ankle over the opposite knee, gestures with his half-empty cup. "In my experience, sometimes it helps to just tell the events like a story, out loud, and then write it as you go."
"That...would help, actually." John tilts his head, considering. He clearly thinks through the pros and cons before asking, "Do you mind?"
"Not in the slightest." It will make an adequate distraction for a few minutes. He gestures with his tea again. "Do go on."
John nods slowly, leans back in his own chair. It strikes Mycroft then that if someone walked in on them sitting like this, talking like this, they might mistake them for friends. He's not entirely sure what to make of that thought, and for now he lets it be.
"I got down to the sitting room and there was this woman sitting there, on the only end of the sofa we had cleared, watching Sherlock pace around the room like he was a lion at the zoo. Helen Stoner." He leans forward and reaches out for the keys again, as if unable to control the impulse to get the words down as he says them.
I know that a lot of the tabloids have been saying things about the Roylett family, and there's especially been a lot of talk about Helen Stoner, after the whole wedding mess. Part of the reason I decided to write this down is for her sake, and with her permission. She deserves better. That woman has a backbone. The first time I met her she was sitting in the middle of the flat like it was normal for the kitchen table to be covered in chemical spills, and she didn't even give the skull a second look. Most of the police officers don't manage that their first visit here, thank you.
"What did she look like?"
"Too old for her age," John says, mostly to himself. He looks thoughtfully at the screen as he continues, "She was in these bland colours, all greys and browns, and I thought she was cold because she was shaking."
She sat up straight, and her hair had grey in it, even though she had to be a few years younger than me. Helen was lovely, with brown eyes, and she'd be beautiful if she wasn't half-withered with worry. And she was shaking. I thought she was freezing, but when I offered her a cup of tea, she said she wasn't cold. She said she was shaking because she was afraid. But she said it right to me, didn't dodge it at all, and Sherlock was right in on it. It's hard to tell sometimes, but I think he liked her straight off. We both did. Hard not to, in the face of that. Especially when she told us the rest of it.
Mycroft ducks into his tea, smiling a little. John catches the expression and stops narrating, raises an eyebrow expectantly. Mycroft hesitates for a moment, knowing Sherlock would hate him for even considering it, but...well. It was his childhood too, after all, and he feels rather close to those boys they used to be, tonight. "Sherlock's first violin teacher fits your description of Ms Stoner there," he admits. "She only lasted a year, I think, when Sherlock was six. I always thought that Sherlock was rather taken with her, though he'd never admit it. She had quite beautiful posture."
John blows out a breath and shakes his head. It's Mycroft's turn to raise an eyebrow.
"Nothing," John says. "I just have a hard time imagining either of you doing anything a normal kid would. No offence."
"None taken." It is almost refreshing to hear it stated so bluntly. None of Mycroft's subordinates—he refuses to call them colleagues in his own mind—would dare. "And so?"
"Right. So she starts in on this story about her twin sister and how close they were—"
"What else? And this is where the strange part comes in..."
And strange it is. It has all the elements of some supernatural thriller: the foreboding stepfather; the impending freedom of the sister's wedding, three years ago; the inexplicable construction at the hotel, which Roylett owned; the sudden mysterious death in the honeymoon suite; the sizable inheritance; the sudden advent of Helen Stoner's own engagement, her increasing dread of the stepfather who bruised her behind closed doors.
"And she couldn't go to the police?"
"Too vague," John sighs. "And nearly three years after the fact, suspicion is pretty much impossible to prove. Sherlock was a last resort, I suppose."
John pauses several times to let his fingers catch up with his voice, and during a longer break Mycroft gets up to refill their tea. He allows himself a moment of completely fabricated pleasure in being able to take the liberty of navigating the kitchen in Sherlock's home, even though his brother would never allow it if he were awake. Mycroft is amazed to find that he is actually enjoying himself, as long as he doesn't think too hard about why he came to begin with. John and his blog are proving a wonderful distraction that he is loath to lose at present.
He is adding a dollop of honey to his tea when John's typing halts again. "Right, sorry about that. I'll fill the family inheritance bits in later when I can look the records over again. Where was I?"
"You and Sherlock agreed to meet Ms Stoner back at the hotel, out of sight of the stepfather, and investigate the wing of rooms mysteriously under construction."
"Right. So Helen is barely out the front door for five minutes, and all of a sudden this man the size of a bloody bulldozer comes barging in on Mrs Hudson's heels when she comes back from the shop."
Mycroft turns around in surprise, leaving both mugs on the counter. "Mr Roylett, I presume."
"Exactly. He'd been following her all day. And he was furious, let me tell you. Apparently, he web-searched Sherlock while he was lurking on the corner outside."
"And what happened?"
A sudden grin appears on John's face, and Mycroft is genuinely at a loss on how to process it. The usual mental files that he accesses to interpret normal human emotions are buried under the heavy gloss of memory tonight, and Mycroft feels slow on the uptake without them.
Then John leans back in his chair and threads his hands behind his neck and says, "We haven't moved anything since he came in, really. Can you figure it out?"
Mycroft stares at him, because honestly. John stares right back, utterly undeterred; really, the man's total lack of intimidation is disconcerting. "Are you attempting to convince me to deduce something you already witnessed, simply to compare my possible skills in that arena against my brother's?"
"Yes," John admits without apology. The grin on his face is exactly the one that Mycroft has come to expect from Lestrade, when he catches the Inspector in a particularly off-centre mood.
Mycroft seriously considers being offended. He is not eighteen years old, trying to compete for Mummy's attention because eleven-year-old brilliant Sherlock seems to get all of it now that Mycroft is off at school. They are not those children anymore,and thanks to his mother's death tonight they never will be again.
The thought brings him up short, and the whole middle of his chest seizes up.
His mother is dead. He'd forgotten, for several minutes.
Mycroft takes a careful, measured breath. He moves to the door of the sitting room on muscle memory alone. When he turns around again, he reaches out both hands and traces his fingertips against the door frame. He casts his mind into the room and lets his senses collect the data that Sherlock finds such comfort in. Perhaps it will allow him the same, for a moment or two.
"Quite a tall man," he murmurs, brushing a scuff where Roylett's elbow hit the door frame. He steps into the room and pauses at a particularly deep indentation in the carpet. "He stood...just here, I think. I assume there was shouting involved."
"Quite a bit of it," John agrees, clearly enjoying himself now. He starts typing again.
Roylett came busting into the sitting room like a mad grizzly bear, demanding to know what his stepdaughter had told us. He was shouting at the top of his lungs right off the bat. If you have ever met Sherlock, or read anything else on this blog, you realise that Mr Roylett didn't stand much of a chance of getting what he wanted, after that.
Mycroft smiles a little despite himself. "Sherlock was sitting there in his chair, and answered back with some biting, sarcastic remark."
"He talked about the weather, actually. Roylett was looking fit to murder someone. And then he called Sherlock a 'Scotland Yard Jack-in-Office', which didn't help matters."
"I would imagine not." Lestrade would enjoy that insult; he hopes that John puts it into the blog. Mycroft scans the room and then sees, quite abruptly, how the rest of the scene played out. He navigates over to the fireplace and leans down to pick up the poker laid across the empty grate. "Now that is rather impressive," he says, hefting the solid weight of the bar in his hand. "Did he really bend it in half?"
"Like a horseshoe."
Mycroft traces the indented thumb print in the alloy, shaking his head. "What a terrible temper. And then he threw it down and—" The laugh escapes him entirely without his consent. "Oh, dear. Sherlock is a terrible show-off. He bent it right back again."
John finishes his line of type with a triumphant flourish. "You should've seen the look on his face. It was like he'd just bested someone at throwing rocks in the schoolyard."
Mycroft shakes his head affectionately and leaves the deformed poker in its place before returning to the table with their tea. "And how did I measure up, Doctor Watson?"
"As good as Sherlock says."
Mycroft snorts and settles once more into his chair. "I doubt he spends much time singing my praises, John."
"First time I met you, he called you the most dangerous man I would ever meet. I've learned to hear the things he means, as much as the things he says."
The most dangerous man you'll ever meet. Mycroft can see him saying the words, can feel the weight they'd have in Sherlock's melodramatic delivery. The statement echoes oddly in his head in ways Sherlock would never be aware of.
His mother had called him dangerous, in a much more honest and resigned tone of voice, and she had said it exactly twice. Once when he came home fresh with a new job he could not say a word about. Once more only two years ago, when he removed Sherlock to a detox facility entirely against his will, and she seemed unwilling—or perhaps unable—to characterise his decisive actions any other way.
It had absolutely saved Sherlock's life and, in the end, it hardly mattered that neither Sherlock nor Mummy ever forgave him for it. Still, the regret he felt at her expression that second time—not fearful for him, but of him—has never entirely left him. Perhaps no child entirely recovers from a parent staring at them like they have become a total stranger. He stifles the familiar press of feeling down, a motion so well-practised that it has long ceased to perturb him. And yet he is left feeling emotional and raw in a way he is entirely uncomfortable with. John does him the courtesy of pecking at his keyboard until Mycroft has taken another sip of tea and corralled himself into decency again. "And so Mr Roylett stormed out again, and you and Sherlock were left with the task of getting to Surrey and investigating the mysterious construction at the honeymoon hotel, without Roylett knowing what you were up to."
"Exactly. We talked about it, and in the end we decided to take the train down to Leatherhead—"
"Oh, dear," Mycroft says, unable to hide his smile this time.
John points at him, accusatory. "Yes. Oh, dear. A bit of warning would have been helpful. I called Lestrade to reschedule our weekly pub crawl, and he made some cryptic smart-arsed comment about enjoying myself on the trip down. He didn't tell me your brother is a bloody menace to society when you put him on a train!"
Mycroft often considers what it must be like for John, to be exposed to Sherlock as an adult with none of the context which has made the man that he is. Even Lestrade has a better grasp of it than John does, and Mycroft wonders how much of that is deliberate on Sherlock's part. "What did you learn?"
"The woman two rows behind us had terminal cancer, and she was trying to decide whether to tell her mother. One of the businessmen who got on with us was here on a forged work visa, which Sherlock deduced from the way he tied his shoelaces. And the 80-year-old man behind us was trying to work up the nerve to tell his long-term domestic partner that he was actually straight. Apparently."
"Quite the eventful trip. We used to play that game as children, you know."
"No. I didn't."
"Our mother abhorred it." The memory shifts through him, its path made easy by all the other half-painful moments that have come before it in the last few hours. Mycroft remembers the rhythmic thrumming of the train in the base of his spine, the press of his mother's warm-scented curves on one side and the sharp jab of Sherlock's bony knee and elbow on the other. He remembers leaning in to duck their heads together, whispering into his brother's ear, "Do you see? The woman just stepping off. Her belt."
"That's nothing." Sherlock's voice laced with unholy glee. "Wait until the boyfriend sees the shoes."
They always ended up dissolving into giggles, and inevitably their mother would shush them with a stern look and a low murmur of, "Quiet now. Not in public."
Mycroft wonders now if he is imagining the affection camouflaged in her voice on those occasions, projecting the emotion there because he feels he needs to hear it. He cannot imagine asking Sherlock. For all the time they shared together, they remember their childhoods—and their parents—very differently.
Mycroft surfaces abruptly from his musings. He is getting unforgivably lost in his own head tonight. Dangerously so. He needs to get hold of himself at once. Mourning is one thing, regret another, but loss of control is entirely unacceptable. He decided long ago that he could not afford it.
And John is watching him, even as he types with more confidence, mind half-occupied with the case unfolding beneath his fingers. Mycroft supposes he will have to read most of it later.
"Thank you," John says quietly, as his typing finally drifts to a stop.
Mycroft blinks at him, bemused. "Whatever for?"
"For...well. The memories, I suppose. It's easy to fall into thinking that he just grew out of a test tube somewhere. If you hadn't kidnapped me and threatened me in an abandoned warehouse, I'd probably still think he was some kind of permanent orphan."
John is still unaware that his friendship, his continual support and encouragement and basic presence, is the single, vitally significant context which has permanently and irrevocably changed Sherlock into the man he is going to be. The thought is more of a comfort to Mycroft than anything else, these days. He is man enough to admit his own failures in that regard.
The thoughts weigh heavily on him when he replies, more honestly than he intends, "None of us are without our contexts, John, as much as Sherlock would like to pretend otherwise."
Another question most people would not dare ask. John's hands are still, and his gaze is steady, and for the twenty-seventh time since meeting him, Mycroft finds himself impressed.
There were entire weeks, during holidays especially—when Mycroft was an uncertain, increasingly heavy young man and Sherlock was eight, ten, twelve, thirteen—when Mycroft and Sherlock would leave the house early in the morning and spend all day rambling. They would investigate things in the woods or people-watch in town, or spend entire days buried in the shelves of the public library because it was far more interesting than the remains of their father's books at home. There were just as many nights, fewer and fewer as Sherlock grew older, when Mycroft would shift in the middle of the night and find his brother standing at the corner of his bed. They would make a tent under the blankets with a book, and Sherlock would press a pillow over his head, and they would recite the periodic table at each other to drown out the sound of their mother screaming at their father downstairs. Eventually, they employed the same methods to block out her sobbing, with rather less success.
There were entire years, important ones, when Mycroft measured days and hours and successes between the polar boundaries of his brother and his mother and himself.
"No," he says at last. "Not me."
There is a long silence, then, and John types steadily without any input from Mycroft. He reads the keystrokes sporadically from across the table, catching occasional sentences and filling in the rest with educated guesses.
—The telephone in the suite wasn't connected to anything, and someone had soundproofed the walls. Sherlock didn't point any of this out until later, but it was sinister, to say the least.
We were going to have to break into the house to see—
That fiancé of Helen's was awfully cavalier, considering—
—Indian animals, though the baboon is actually African, so how Roylett ended up with that one is anybody's guess.
—and there it was, right on the shelf, in a neatly labelled vial. Very professional of him.
Eventually the silence grows slightly tense and awkward, and Mycroft finds himself reluctant to let that tension solidify, considering the rest of his visit. "How did he do it, in the end?"
John looks up from his screen, startled. "Sorry?"
"Roylett. How did he kill the sister, and threaten Helen? I'd assumed some type of poison."
"Yes," John agrees. He leans back and sighs heavily. It says something about the man that he has fought wars, tolerated an alcoholic sister, been shot in cold blood by another person, and twice been put in mortal peril by the most dangerous criminal of the century, and yet his face still shadows with the knowledge that other human beings can be terrible.
Mycroft doesn't envy him that.
"It was the wedding bands," John says at last. "Roylett spent years in India, and he came back with some type of snake venom. Rare, virtually untraceable. Painted onto the insides of the rings, it killed the girls slowly. Simple, really. And the fiancés were in on it."
"Ah." Of course. That explained it rather nicely. "He feared losing the inheritance to the stepdaughters, and so he conspired with the young men in question to keep the fortune in the family, as it were. But that required the daughters marrying off first, so that the men legally had a share, and then they split the profits, so to speak."
"Mm. And Sherlock left it to the last second, of course. We just made it to the wedding on time, and the tosser actually waited until the priest reached the 'Does anyone have a reason to object to this sacred union' bit until he stood up and dumped the whole thing on them. Typical."
Mycroft drains the last of his tea; his headache has returned, throbbing gently at the back of his head. "There's something else, though. Something that struck you." John tilts his head, and Mycroft offers a small shrug. "Your usual admiration of Sherlock's show-stopping deductions is somewhat dimmed. What did he say?"
"It's just..." John glances off into the corner, the light from the computer and the lamp mixing oddly on his face. "We were in the cab, getting to the church to stop the wedding, and he said...well. We were talking about Roylett and the poison, and he said something along the lines of, When a doctor goes wrong, John, he's the worst of all criminals. Or rather the best. He has the nerves, he has the knowledge, he has the sense of risk. Dangerous, to the bone."
"Do you disagree?"
John looks at him in surprise, unblinking. "No," he says, very calmly. "Just the opposite. And I think a year ago, that fact would have surprised me."
"No," Mycroft tells him with certainty. "No, I don't think it would have."
"Really. And how did you deduce that?"
Mycroft stretches in his chair, and all at once he feels grounded into his own skin again. The beat of his pulse, the faint smell of chemical acid in the air, the familiar gesture of reaching out to gently press his palm against the fingers on John Watson's hand.
"I know because right now, your hand is just as steady as it was a year ago, and it's now long after you've had the chance to walk away from Sherlock and the cases he takes on. And only a man who is very aware of the bottom depths of his potential ability is so certain when he chooses to use the better parts instead."
It is, perhaps, the truest thing that Mycroft can find to say to him. Most importantly, it is a truth that he finds entirely unchanged in this moment from when he went to bed, what seems a lifetime ago.
His mother is dead.
But the world turns on, and Mycroft with it, and it seems that most of the important things haven't changed one iota. The world is still full of terrible people, but it is also still capable of producing a man like John Watson, who is steady and remarkable and worth considerably more than the sum of his experiential parts.
"Just so," a familiar voice rumbles from the direction of the bedroom.
The odd extended atmosphere that he and John have been cultivating for the last hour breaks apart.
Mycroft looks up to see Sherlock standing half-inside the sitting room. His hair is ruffled and his robe is askew off one shoulder. His eyes are narrowed, uncertain.
It reminds Mycroft so much of when they were children, and Sherlock would stand just like that at the side of Mycroft's bed, seeking comfort with his brother from the picture-perfect nightmares that haunted both their nights. Sherlock never realised that Mycroft took comfort from it as well, from having someone who understood, like no one else, not even their mother, ever did.
Something in Mycroft's chest pangs horribly at the sight, and now, finally, he has to fight back tears. It was such a short time, considering; a few spare years when both of their constitutions allowed the closeness and even welcomed it.
When Sherlock was six and Mycroft was a far-too-old thirteen, they spent an entire rainy October day constructing a pirate battle in the upstairs hall. They got out every model ship they could find, painstakingly arranged blankets and pillows for currents and islands. Just as the Queen's Navy was forced to retreat to the nearest encyclopaedia port, their mother came up the stairs and found them like that, in the middle of a giant mess, still in their pyjamas from the morning even though their dinner guests would be arriving in less than an hour. Mycroft remembers the sting of the floorboards on his knees, the sudden awareness that he'd never even brushed his hair that morning; he remembers the splash of dying sunlight drifting gold across his mother's face as he looked up at her from the steep angle; he remembers the way he shifted, just a little, to keep Sherlock from her view, even though she could hardly miss him where he was sprawled stomach-down on the floor, pushing a pirate galley into the breach.
He remembers how she smiled at them, the way she brushed Mycroft's hair away from his face with gentle fingers, and then left them to play without a word. She reached out with her foot and nudged one of Sherlock's schooners into position with the fleet on her way out.
Of all the things to remember, Mycroft has no idea why he lands on that, but he finds himself grateful for it all the same.
Sherlock reads every bit of it on Mycroft's face. Of course he does. He sucks in a gasp like he's been struck and puts out a hand to touch the door frame, an uncontrolled movement to keep himself standing despite the fact he hasn't moved an inch. Mycroft closes his eyes against the sound, thinking of the lilt of their mother's voice and the gentle press of her cool hand against his brow, and the half-sad, half-knowing smile that characterizes so many of Mycroft's memories of her.
Gone now. Though perhaps not dead, entirely.
Mycroft stands and pads across the floor. He ignores the unwelcoming expression on Sherlock's face, disregards the stiffened shock of his arms. He reaches out and puts a hand on the back of Sherlock's neck and reels him in, until they stand straight and rigid and uncompromising, two parallel lines of Holmes-tempered humanity separated by scant inches and a perpendicular hand. Mycroft closes his eyes and feels the beat of his brother's pulse beneath his palm, and he waits.
Mycroft's mother is dead, and he loved her, deeply and sometimes despite their differences. And he is still half-convinced this is a nightmare he will wake up from, and so he came to Sherlock because even after all these years, that bit of truth between them has gone unchanged. In this, at least, Mycroft takes comfort, when he can take it nowhere else.
And eventually, after a lifetime, Sherlock leans in and rests his head on Mycroft's shoulder, and both of them close their eyes and try to breathe.
The world will pick back up tomorrow. Mycroft will return to work, and John will post his finished account with some overly-dramatic title like The Speckled Bands. Sherlock will go on to solve another case, and another, and another, and he and Mycroft will go back to being proud and prickly and distant.
But for now they just stand here, leaning into a central point of balance, and close their eyes, and just at present Mycroft finds that he doesn't need anything else.
"Sherlock," he whispers against his brother's temple.
"I know," Sherlock tells him.
And he does. And so did she. And that will have to be enough.
By the way, in case you were wondering about Roylett, he never made it out of the church. Unfortunately for him, he was in a rush when he applied the poison to Helen's ring. He caught himself under a fingernail. Hardly anything, but just enough, and by the time everyone else noticed, he was flat on his back in the middle of a seizure in the vestibule. Sherlock admitted later that he suspected Roylett might have nicked himself. He didn't say anything; there wasn't really time, and Roylett was a goner anyway, but it hardly matters, in the end. Sherlock isn't about to lose sleep over it, and neither am I.
Death is a standard thing, especially when you're a doctor. Roylett knew it as well as I do. It's natural and unavoidable and usually ghastly, but some deaths are just more terrible than others. We have to deal with them anyway, one way or another.
And at the end of the day...well. There's another day after that. And another, if we're lucky. And I suppose that's the point, isn't it, whether you're Roylett or Helen Stoner or the ruler of the free world or anyone else. Sherlock will lambaste me for tacking a moral on at the end there, but I suspect it's one that he just might agree with anyway.
Worry about the living part. The dying will take care of itself.
Author's Note: I originally wrote this story for the 2012 Pyramids Press Science of Deduction zine, and now I'm thrilled to put it up where everyone can read it! I've got another longer story coming in the summer, so if you liked this one, stick around. The title comes from van Gennep's ideas about rites of passage, and Arthur Conan Doyle does a much better job with The Speckled Band than my little remix of it here. In the meantime, you're welcome to drop a line and tell me how I did! As always, your reading time is a great gift, and your comments are a great pleasure. Cheers.