The message said only three words. It arrived at ten past eight, just as Greg was sinking back into the sofa with the remote control.
NEW MESSAGE FROM MYCR...
How are you?
Greg stared at the notification, astonished. A few seconds later it vanished from the top of his screen. He picked up his phone, unlocked it with his thumb-print and opened up his messages, wondering if he was imagining things.
Nope - there it was.
How are you?
This was new.
It was usually Greg who led with the ‘how are yous’ - after three months, he’d gotten very used to it by now. It was just one of the features of their arrangement. He didn’t want to call them ‘conditions’, because it wasn’t like that.
It was just the way that Mycroft did things.
He didn’t operate on wholly normal mechanisms - but Greg, who’d spent his life pinballing from one normal but unhappy coupling to the next, was happy to try something unusual for once. He didn't mind that Mycroft never started conversations. He didn't mind that it had to be Mycroft who picked the restaurants, and that Mycroft couldn't sleep staying over at his, and that Mycroft kept a shirt on in bed. He didn't mind that there was no word for this thing they had. He didn't mind that it was out of the ordinary.
It made it feel more real somehow. More authentic.
Mycroft didn’t know how the performance usually went - so he wasn’t performing.
Six years of Sherlock had been a sort of strange mental preparation for his brother. Greg hadn’t voiced this particular realisation to Sherlock. He didn’t think it’d be appreciated. The pair of them were far more similar than they knew - another thing Greg hadn't voiced - and as Greg had learned that patience with Sherlock was everything, so patience with Mycroft was the same.
He typed a message back quietly, glad that Mycroft didn’t know the ‘wait an hour before replying’ game, and so they didn’t have to play it - glad that Mycroft didn’t know the ‘number of kisses indicates depth of affection' game, and so they didn’t need to play that either.
It was just words. Just thoughts, back and forth.
Hey you. I’m good. Long day. Just sitting down. How was your day?
It was seen as soon as he’d sent it. Mycroft had their message window open.
Nonetheless, it took a while for the reply to arrive. The typing bubble appeared a few times, then vanished, indicating that a work-in-progress had been vaporised and started again.
Greg watched this happen for three or four sequences in succession. He wondered if Mycroft knew what he was unwittingly saying. It made Greg's chest hurt a little.
For all that the Holmes brothers were excellent readers of humans, they didn’t realise the humans could read them right back.
It was fine. Apologies for interrupting. I didn't realise you were busy. I'm glad you are well.
Greg smiled sadly as he typed his reply, not hearing a word of The Crystal Maze.
Mycroft didn't own a TV. ("We never had one in the house... I - suppose I simply learned to live without.") He didn't realise that texting was a perfectly acceptable add-on to the activity.
Something about that 'fine' didn't look right to Greg. When things were fine, Mycroft said 'acceptable'. It was just the word he used. More often, like Sherlock, he gave details instead of generals - events, people, places - he didn't hide it all away behind a little meaningless word, unless there was something to hide.
It's okay. I'm not paying attention, just relaxing. It's nice to hear from you. Did you have a busy day?
It was the gentlest way he could think to say: 'tell me what happened'.
You couldn't just lead a Holmes to water and expect him to drink.
I'm always occupied. Today was no less busy than any other... I suppose it was productive all in all.
Greg read the message gently, trying to figure out what wasn't being said. There was too much there - too much fact, too much honesty, no little fancy touches drawing attention away from what loomed in the background. He couldn't trace the negative shapes that Mycroft had purposely left. He couldn't yet see what they formed.
Before he could try some new line of questioning, the typing bubble popped up again. Greg paused, raising an eyebrow.
What are you watching?
"Holy shit," Greg murmured.
What the hell had happened to Mycroft? He was tempted to ask which hostile foreign power currently had him imprisoned under their embassy, and what Greg could do to help.
Instead, he replied with the gentle patience and amenability he would give to someone who'd witnessed a violent armed robbery.
The best thing to do here was to open up space, make it look quiet and calm and safe, and wait for Mycroft to fill it with something. This was new, but he knew the ground around it. He could see where this new piece would join what he knew.
The Crystal Maze. It's a game show. They have to solve puzzles in a team. It's fun to watch them get things wrong, while telling yourself you'd have nailed it. What are you doing?
Sometimes, Greg thought of it like texting someone from the past - some frightened soul jerked out of their proper place in history, who'd now been expelled through a rogue time hole and needed things explaining to them gently, or they would just clamp shut in a panic. He'd tried to make a football joke at Mycroft once. That hadn't ended well.
Mycroft typed and then nuked several responses, eventually settling on,
That sounds entertaining. Enjoyable whether they succeed or fail.
I'm at home.
A possibility occurred to Greg. He texted back as he retrieved a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps from the kitchen. He knew he shouldn't snack when he'd just finished a hefty portion of lasagne, but otherwise he'd smoke.
Do you want me to come round?
Mycroft tended to get quiet when he was horny. He didn't know how to voice that he wanted touch. It had led to a number of misunderstandings at the start, until Greg had taught him the word 'restless' - taught him this was okay whispered softly in a lover's ear, confessed like a secret - taught him the difference between a gentle touch of affection, and the slower, more intimate touch of interest - taught him that eye contact could say what words often couldn't.
Without touch - without eye contact - without Greg's ear in which to murmur, Mycroft had maybe fallen back on old methods.
Then his reply arrived, and Greg discounted the theory.
No, I don't think that would be best. It is kind of you to offer.
So it wasn't horniness. Greg finished his crisps, licked the last few specks of salt off his fingers, and began a new approach.
Weird feeling around today. Everyone seems tired. Weather maybe? Turning of the season? World seems a little gloomy and sad.
Mycroft didn't reply.
Greg let half an hour go past before he decided he couldn't relinquish The Mystery of Mycroft Holmes Texts First.
What are you up to?
Mycroft replied almost at once. He'd been watching his phone, Greg thought - wanting to reply but not being able to form a safe response, now seizing on this new topic.
Working. But it doesn't need my full attention.
Progress, Greg thought.
Where are you? In the lounge? Trying to imagine you.
In response, Mycroft sent a picture message.
It had surprised Greg, the first time this particular method of communication had been employed. Mycroft hadn't seemed the type to express himself in images. It was all a bit instagrammy. Then, as the weeks went by, Mycroft more and more often responded to 'how are you?' with a shot of an empty coffee mug, a grey view of the London skyline, a photo of new cufflinks on carefully-pressed French cuffs, or an upward angle of a gently-glowing bedside lamp, and Greg came to understand that he was a remarkably visual person. Really, the suits should have tipped him off - the gorgeous Belgravia flat, laid out like the world's ambassadors were about to arrive any moment; the carefully-chosen art in every room; the bookshelves kept not in alphabetical order but in a way that drew the eye towards the grand central fireplace. Mycroft matched his ties to his eyes. If they ate out, he matched them to Greg's. The visual world was everything to him.
The photograph that arrived at 21:11 showed the end of Mycroft's bed - the gentle lump of legs and feet beneath the winter duvet, a laptop resting on Mycroft's knee.
The screen was crammed with a number of windows, including a media player.
What are you listening to?
Mycroft sent a link in response. Greg opened it up, noting that less and less was being spoken as Mycroft said more and more.
The YouTube video that expanded onto his phone screen was called, Beautiful Relaxing Music: Romantic Music, Piano Music, Violin Music, Cello Music, Sleep Music. Greg supposed it covered all the bases.
As the video began, he was surprised by the music that came drifting from his phone speaker - little, fragile notes, playing a tune like a music box that seemed too gentle and too small to be okay on its own. It was slow; it was tiny.
It was desperately sad.
Pictures of autumn forests and fading blossom drifted across the screen as Greg listened, his mouth open a little. He felt his heart twist itself into a knot inside his chest.
He closed the video and texted back. His pulse thumped with agitation.
This seems really sad… are you sure it's helping you work? This sounds more like music for crying your eyes out to.
It was nearly ten minutes before Mycroft replied. It felt like much, much longer.
I'm sorry. I am a burden on you. I spend my life leaning on you. I shouldn't rely on you so much. It must be exhausting for you to deal with all my problems, constantly.
"Oh my God," Greg whispered. For a second, he wondered if he should call.
His instincts told him no. The last thing Mycroft needed was a voice to deal with, as well as his own emotions.
Greg typed in his reply, his chest tight. He wondered what the hell all these problems he'd supposedly dealt with were.
Hey… it's okay. I'm here all the time for you, you know that? Don't know where you've got the idea you're a burden but… seriously you're not… I like that you feel you can rely on me. Makes me proud. Did you have a crap day?
A few minutes later, the reply came.
A colleague's lung cancer has advanced.
His consultant has given him three months. He may see Christmas. He is my age.
He and I often talked in the corridor. He was always very friendly. Others usually are not.
I am sorry. You had a long day... I should let you watch television. I should not burden you with this. With me. I shouldn't leech you of your care. You have your own problems.
I'm sorry. I just wanted to see your voice.
Greg pushed the tears out of his eyes, struggling to see enough to respond.
Holy shit. I'm so sorry about your friend. That is awful. I am so fucking sorry.
And you should 100% tell me things like this. This isn't burdening, it's sharing. You can always always text me, you know that? About anything. Big and small. I want to know.
You are not a burden. You are not a leech.
I know I said I had a long day but holy shit, please tell me when you are sad. So I can tell you that I'm sorry and I can be sad with you.
Don't ever keep it to yourself.
Do you want me to come over? Not for sex. Just to hold you.
It's okay to share your sad times with me Mycroft. Please don't think I'm just here for the happy times. I want to care for you. This is more than that. You and me can be more than that, if you want.
By the time that Mycroft responded, Greg had his coat on and his car keys ready in his hand. He read the message, locked his flat and headed out into the night, turning his collar up against the driving rain.
Thank you. I would like that.
I'm sorry Gregory. I fear I'm coming to need you. I didn't mean for this to happen. I do not want to be a burden. You are wonderful and you have your own affairs to attend to, and I do not mean to tire you with my fragility.
But if it is alright… if it would be okay to need you, I would like that. I would like that very much.
I will unlock the door for you.