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Remembering Redbeard

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The cottage was very pleasant, but it would never feel like home. It was warmer, certainly, and the plumbing a good deal more reliable, but Mycroft missed the grandeur of Musgrave, the feeling that generations of Holmeses had wandered its high-ceilinged halls, deep in thought. This place could have fit into it ten times over. It had once been Musgrave’s cart house and stables, but Grandfather had had it converted into a three-bedroom cottage for summer visitors. The night Musgrave had burned, its existence had saved them a desperate dash to the nearest village for shelter. Daddy, as always, had admired their tremendous good fortune, while Mummy, grim-faced, had set to bedding them all down in its musty rooms. Even after the rumble of departing fire engines had faded, they hadn’t been able to open the windows that first night, not with the ash and smoke still heavy in the air.

They’d been here a month now, and for much of it Mummy and Daddy had been busy with insurance and builders and legal complications. There were indications, the assessor had said, that the fire had been deliberately lit, a conclusion that surprised none of them. Even at fourteen, Mycroft was still considered a child, and not privy to most of the discussions over the manor’s remains, but he knew they wouldn’t be moving back anytime soon. Maybe not ever.

It wasn’t as though they needed such a big place now, anyway. Many of their possessions had been lost or irreparably damaged in the fire. In the aftermath a further three truckloads of valuables had been removed from Musgrave, awaiting restoration. That wasn’t all they had lost, either. Ten days after the fire, Eurus, too, had been removed. Awaiting restoration. The trundle bed in their parents’ bedroom had been quietly returned to the space beneath Sherlock’s bed, and a small, labelled cardboard box had been added to the pile in the cupboard under the stairs. Eurus’ room had suffered badly in the blaze, and little trace of her remained in the new house save for the silver-framed family photo in the living room, the one Mummy had seized on her way out the door. Under the circumstances, Eurus’ future seemed rather less certain than that of the antique grandfather clock and pianola.

Now seated cross-legged on the rug in Sherlock’s new bedroom, Mycroft watched with resignation as Sherlock’s small, slender fingers dipped the tweezers into the narrow space and emerged triumphant with a curved bit of plastic. The wishbone was his, and Mycroft had lost. Again. Naturally, this was the entire point of the exercise for Sherlock, and the basis for his enthusiasm for the game. Mycroft smiled and congratulated him, but immediately soured the victory by tousling Sherlock’s hair, something Sherlock hated. The wishbone fell onto the carpet during the ensuing scuffle, and had to be retrieved from beneath the dresser when they finally got around to packing up.

When all the pieces were once more safely stowed, Sherlock pulled a chair in front of the shelf, and stood on it to put the game away. Mycroft had already supervised dinner and shower time, and Sherlock was dressed in his old blue flannel pyjamas, the same ones he’d been wearing the night of the fire. His bare ankles now protruded three inches below the hem; Mummy had been too distracted to notice. From his perch Sherlock tilted his head towards the window and the long dark sweep of the driveway below, its surface dimly lit by the exterior lights of the cottage.

“They’ve gone to see her, haven’t they?” Sherlock said. He jumped down from the chair and returned it to his desk. Both pieces of furniture were pale, polished oak, new and unmarked.

Mycroft hesitated. “What do you mean? They just wanted to get away by themselves for a bit, that’s all. What with everything that’s happened. After all, I’m old enough to look after you, and we do have Mrs Innes down the road just in case.” Mycroft had received a fuller account of their plans, of course, but they’d all agreed that there was no need to tell Sherlock.

Sherlock made a short sound of exasperation, and drew himself up to his full height, arms folded, which might have been more impressive had he reached higher than Mycroft’s chest. “You know what I mean. If it takes them a day to get there and a day to get back, she must have been taken somewhere quite far away. Do you know where she is? You must do. Mummy and Daddy tell you everything.”

“Yes, Sherlock, fine. You’re right, of course. She’s in Middlesborough, in a place called St Jude’s. It’s a sort of… hospital. For troubled children,” Mycroft said, picking his words carefully.

The description wasn’t entirely accurate, but near enough to sound plausible. In truth it was a secure psychiatric facility for patients who, for various reasons, required physical isolation from each other. Social interaction was permitted through video intercom, but all physical movement through the facility was strictly monitored and controlled. It was effectively a form of solitary confinement, but one intended as treatment, not punishment. Eurus would be the only child there, but at least she would be safe from herself, and from others.

“She was crazy, wasn’t she?” Sherlock’s voice wavered despite the force of his accusation. “That’s why Uncle Rudy had to take her away.”

“That’s cruel, Sherlock. Eurus just wasn’t… she isn’t suited to a normal life.”

“She burned down our house. And…” he stopped, his mouth twisting. “And she killed Victor.”

“We can’t be sure of that,” Mycroft said firmly. “It could be that he went missing on his own, and Eurus only pretended to know where he was.” Technically, every word of that sentence was true.

“You know she did.” Sherlock glared at him.

Mycroft dipped his head, defeated. “All right. That does seem more likely, yes.”

“So…” Sherlock glanced at him, then away, staring sightlessly out the window, “…does that mean I’ll go crazy too?”

“Of course not, Sherlock. Why would you even think that?”

“Sometimes… my brain. It won’t stop. Especially at night, when I try to sleep. All I can think about is Victor, somewhere underground, calling for help. With everything all wet, and dark. Begging me to save him…” his voice cracked, and Mycroft leaned forward to offer him a careful embrace, which was accepted.

It had been difficult for all of them, but Sherlock had taken it the hardest. The fire had burned fiercest in the hallway between his room and Eurus’, and while Daddy had dragged him out in time, what remained of his room was a blackened mess. The loss of all his toys and games, following so hard on the heels of Victor's disappearance, had taken some of the light from his eyes. He’d become quieter, almost fearful, particularly around Eurus, who seemed entirely unaffected. By then, they all understood why.

“Shhh. You know it wasn’t your fault, Sherlock. You did your very best to find him. We all did.”

Sherlock shook his head. “Eurus always said it was my fault. And now she won’t stop, either.”

Mycroft frowned, immediately wary. Despite the age difference, from the moment she could speak it had been Eurus who took charge of Sherlock, and not the other way around. Mycroft had been at school much of the time, leaving them in the company of Mummy and a cheerful, rather vacant, nanny. Mummy had been distracted with writing her book, and Eurus had developed a subtle way of directing Sherlock with her voice and eyes that was difficult for an outsider to perceive. Mycroft quickly understood she had developed unusual influence over Sherlock, but Sherlock had never complained, and it did seem to keep him occupied.

“What exactly did she say to you, Sherlock? Before she left?”

Sherlock shrugged, not quite meeting his eye. “Just that. That I was never to forget what happened to… to Victor. She said that it was my fault for letting him be my friend, and that if I ever found another friend like that, someone more important than her, she would kill them too. But she can’t now, can she, Mycroft?”

“No. That’s why she was taken away.”

Eurus’ removal had come with a certain amount of subterfuge. Uncle Rudy was going to take her for a short trip away, Mummy and Daddy had said. Just for a few weeks, so that the doctors could talk to her and understand how and why the fire had started. Victor’s disappearance was not mentioned, but his ghost had hung heavy over the proceedings like a pall of smoke.

The lie had fooled none of them, not even Sherlock. Given the air of finality around Eurus’ departure, it was a wonder they’d managed to make her go at all. In the end, she’d been surprisingly compliant, although the men Uncle Rudy assigned to watch over the cottage while preparations were made might have had something to do with that. Even the smartest six-year-old in the world could be cowed by burly men with concealed weapons stationed outside her front door. Mummy had protested at the overkill, but it had been half-hearted at best.

With matters arranged, they had stood in the small front garden of their new home while Eurus bade farewell to each of them in turn. She shook Mycroft’s hand gravely, and then turned to Sherlock with an unsettlingly bright smile on her face. After they exchanged formal goodbyes, she bent forward to whisper a few sentences into Sherlock’s ear. His face flushed, and he nodded. Mycroft moved to put an arm around Sherlock’s shoulders as Eurus walked to the shiny black car, a pathetically tiny figure flanked on all sides. Uncle Rudy held the back door open, and shut it behind her. Tinted windows denied them a last glimpse as the car pulled away.

They trailed back into the house with drawn faces, not speaking. Mycroft knew that he ought to have felt a sense of loss, but he didn’t. There was only a shameful, sweeping sense of relief.

Now, looking at Sherlock’s anxious face, he thought he ought to have known that Eurus wouldn’t go quietly. He sat down on the bed and beckoned Sherlock to sit beside him.

“Sherlock, you know that Eurus has had… a great deal of influence over you. More than usual for a sister, I mean.”

Sherlock nodded solemnly. “She’s very bossy. But she had lots of good ideas. She was the one who wanted to play pirates. At the beginning. After Victor started coming over, she didn’t want to play anymore.“

“Well, yes, she was a bit bossy, but I think there might have been something more to it than that. You know what hypnotism is, don’t you?” The subject had fascinated Mycroft when he was younger, and he’d seen both Sherlock and Eurus going through his books.

“Yes, we played that as well. She liked that a lot. She didn’t use a watch or anything, though. She just asked me to look into her eyes for as long as I could, and then she said things very quietly, over and over. Then afterwards, she would see whether I knew what she wanted me to do without asking. Sometimes it worked. It was almost as though I could read her mind.” Sherlock frowned. “Or maybe as though she could read mine. I’m not sure.”

Mycroft nodded. “Did she try to convince you not to see Victor anymore?”

“A little bit. But whenever she started talking, I ran away. I wanted to play with him for a bit longer.”

“And how do you feel when I talk about Victor now?”

“All right. but…” Sherlock hesitated, looking away again. “She didn’t call him that. She said she hated his name. Victor. Like he thought he could win everything just by existing.”

“What did she call him, then? ‘Your friend’? ‘That little boy’?”

Sherlock tensed, his hand tightening on the bedcovers. “I don’t want to say it.”

“Why not? Does it make you feel…. Bad? Nervous?” There was no way Eurus should have been able to implant triggers into Sherlock, without experience or training, at the age of six. But then there was seemingly no end to things Eurus should not have been able to do.

“It was his pirate name,” Sherlock whispered.

Mycroft looked at him steadily, bracing himself for what he was about to do. “Redbeard,” he said.

“Don’t, Mycroft!” Sherlock put his hands to his ears, as though that would somehow block out the memory of his words. “It’s Victor!”

“Shhh,” Mycroft said, taking Sherlock into his arms. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. All right, I think I understand.”

Sherlock gazed up at him, blinking fiercely. “You do?”

Briefly, Mycroft explained what he thought Eurus had done, adding, “It was her parting gift to you.”

“It wasn’t a very nice gift.”

“No. But I suppose she didn’t want you to forget her.”

“Can you make it better?”

In years to come, the look on Sherlock’s face – earnest, pleading – was one Mycroft would always bring to mind when Sherlock landed himself in crisis after crisis. And throughout all those years, the answer was still the same.

“I don’t know, Sherlock. I’ll try.”

Sherlock waited with surprising patience as Mycroft thought through his options. He didn’t think he could entirely get rid of the associations Eurus had planted – he had the horrible feeling that despite the age difference, she had spent far more time in practical application, and her abilities far exceeded his. But perhaps he could change the associations – shape them into something less distressing. Death was generally too powerful a memory to be deleted altogether, so the best he could hope for was to alter the context. Perhaps Victor had fallen ill and died a natural death – unlikely, since he and Sherlock had been playing just two days before his disappearance. Or perhaps he had gone swimming in the river and drowned, a terrible accident that Eurus had merely witnessed. But that seemed almost as upsetting as the truth. Or perhaps… perhaps Redbeard hadn’t been a boy at all.

“Sherlock, I have an idea, but it means – it means forgetting about Victor. A little bit. You won’t forget he existed, or that he was your friend, but you’ll forget exactly what he was like. Do you trust me?”

Sherlock had already made himself comfortable on the bed, his head on the pillow, his thin legs nudging the small of Mycroft’s back. “Of course.”

That was part of Sherlock’s problem – he had always been too trusting by half. “All right then,” Mycroft said. “I’m not as good as Eurus, so I’m going to use grandfather’s watch. You just lie there, and try to relax. But don’t fall asleep. If you need to use the lavatory, do it now.” Sherlock stuck his tongue out in response, not moving.

Mycroft went down the hallway to his own room and opened the mahogany trunk, which had survived the fire with only slight scorching to its surface. If he rubbed its wooden surface hard enough, traces of soot still came away on his fingers. His old room had been at the back, overlooking the garden, and chosen for the express purpose of being well away from his younger siblings. This meant he had been fortunate enough to salvage most of his things, even some of his books. From the trunk’s interior he retrieved the antique pocket watch, which no longer worked, but was still fit for his current intentions.

He returned to the bed, and sat down beside Sherlock, holding the watch up by its chain. “All right, I want you to focus on this while I talk to you. It doesn’t really do anything except pull you down a bit quicker.”

“I know.”

Sherlock’s eyes traced the path of the watch intently as Mycroft spoke to him, low and gentle, soothing him into a trance state. During the peak of his earlier interest, he’d tried hypnotising some of his schoolmates, to the general amusement of the rest, but that had all been typically childish stuff – making people cluck, and limp, and temporarily forget how to recite the alphabet. He was uncomfortably aware that this time it mattered. Somehow he had to repair the damage that Eurus had wrought.

He talked on and on, taking far more time and care than he had with his schoolmates, and it was a good ten minutes before he ventured a beginning. By then, Sherlock’s eyes were closed, his breathing slow and deep.

“Sherlock, are you still listening to me? Say yes if you can hear me.”

“Yes.”

“And are you feeling completely comfortable and relaxed now?”

“Yes.”

“That’s very good, Sherlock. Now, today I want to talk to you about a friend of yours. He sometimes came over to play. Do you remember anyone like that?”

Sherlock frowned, but did not open his eyes. “I’ve only ever had one friend.”

“Yes, and who is that? Do you remember?”

“Victor.”

“That’s right, Sherlock. Good. You’re doing very well. Now, before we go on, I’m going to ask you to remember something that happened, but I want you to remember it as though it happened a long time ago. It’s a sad memory, and it’s all right to feel sad, but it’s all over done with. It’s already finished. Right now I am here with you, and you are perfectly safe. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember what happened to Victor, Sherlock?”

Sherlock shook his head, and his eyelids fluttered. His breaths became shorter, sharper. “No! No, I don’t want to.”

“Shhh, Sherlock, it’s all right.” Mycroft stroked the top of Sherlock’s soft little hand, over and over, until his breathing slowed again. “We can wait until you’re ready. I’ll stay right here with you and we’ll go look for Victor together, how does that sound? You know I’ll keep you safe. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

“All right, then. Now, I know something bad happened to Victor. What was it, Sherlock?”

Sherlock’s breath hitched, but his hand closed on Mycroft’s, and that seemed to calm him. “He disappeared. We couldn’t find him. No one knows where he is. Except…”

“Yes, Sherlock? Who knows where Victor is?”

“Eurus… oh!”

“What is it, Sherlock?”

“She doesn’t want me to talk to you. Not like this. She doesn’t like it. Only she can do this, that’s what she said, or she’ll hurt me, she can, she can hurt me if I don’t do what she says…” Sherlock sat up abruptly, and his eyes opened in fear, but they were vacant, unseeing. If Mycroft had any advantage over Eurus in this battle, it was that he’d probably taken far longer than she ever had to put Sherlock under. Despite his agitation, the trance state was holding. Sherlock still appeared to be suggestible.

“Shhh, it’s all right, Sherlock.” Mycroft placed his hand on Sherlock’s chest and gently pushed him back down onto the pillow. “You see, Eurus has gone away now. A long way away. She can’t hurt you from there. She can’t hurt anyone anymore.” In time, this would prove disastrously incorrect, but Mycroft spoke with absolute confidence. “And besides, she told me that I should take care of you while she was away. So really, I’m just doing what she wants. She can’t possibly be angry about that, can she? Now, Eurus used a different name for Victor, didn’t she? A name that would make you remember what she did to him, always. What was it?”

Sherlock shook his head fiercely. “I don’t want to.”

“Then I’ll say it for you. Would that be all right? I’ll say it, and then I’ll tell you a story, one that will make you feel better. You have to trust me, Sherlock. May I say it?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said, so softly it was barely audible.

“His name was Redbeard,” Mycroft said, and Sherlock winced, but his breathing remained steady. “And he was your best friend. But you’ve got it all wrong. He wasn’t a little boy, Sherlock.”

“He wasn’t?” Sherlock’s brow creased in concentration.

“No. You sometimes pretended he was, because you wanted another little boy to play with. But he was your pet. Your pet dog. An Irish Setter, almost half your size. You called him Redbeard because of the colour of his fur. It looked brown in the shade, but in the sunlight it glowed a deep, dark red. He followed you everywhere.”

“But Daddy’s allergic to dogs.”

“Yes, and that’s why Redbeard wasn’t allowed inside the house. You remember that. You wanted him to sleep in your room, but Mummy wouldn’t let him. He had to sleep in the kennel outside.”

“Oh.”

“And you always had to wash your hands after you’d been playing with him. Do you remember that, Sherlock?”

“I’m not sure.”

 It was clear that Sherlock wanted to remember now, more than anything. He’d always wanted a dog, and Mycroft was counting on this desire to help make his version of events stick. Hypnotism only worked if, deep down, the subject wanted to believe.

“Let me tell you a little more about Redbeard,” Mycroft said, and this time Sherlock barely reacted to the name at all. Instead he listened raptly as Mycroft laid down layer after layer of falsehood: the way Redbeard had chased his tail as a puppy, the places Sherlock used to take him for walks, his favourite stuffed rabbit chew toy, his fondness for beef bones. By now over an hour had passed, and Mycroft’s throat was dry from talking. But he didn’t want to stop for a moment, not even to get a drink of water. He felt that he was doing it. He was on the verge of breaking Eurus’ spell.

Sherlock asked question after question, and finally he understood that Victor had just been a name he’d made up, an imaginary friend, but that Redbeard had been real, and his most faithful companion. And it was true that Eurus had done something bad to Redbeard, and he’d had to be put down, but he hadn’t suffered. So Sherlock should not dwell on his death, but on how happy they’d been in the many hours they’d spent playing together.

“In fact,” Mycroft added, pushing as hard as he dared. “From now on, whenever you hear his name spoken, you’ll remember all these things – how much you loved Redbeard’s company. What a good dog he was. How he would follow you wherever you went, and how he was always there when you needed him. In future, whenever you are unhappy or troubled, Redbeard’s memory will be right here to comfort you. And if I say his name to you, you will feel the way you’re feeling right now. Calm. Relaxed. Safe. Knowing that I am here with you as well, and that I will do everything can I do to help you. Always. Do you understand, Sherlock? Tell me.”

“Yes, Mycroft. I understand.”

“Good. Now, let’s talk about Redbeard again…”

By the time he finally finished, Sherlock was asleep, and Mycroft was exhausted. He was under no illusion that a single session would be enough, but he was satisfied that he had laid a strong foundation, one that would support whatever flourishes he would add in future sessions. He sighed deeply, then stood up and stretched to his full height, such as it was. He still wasn’t that tall yet, only five foot six, but everyone said that in time he would be as tall as Daddy. Watching Sherlock’s sleeping face, he felt suddenly old, as though he were already an adult. In Sherlock’s eyes, he probably was.