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The sun’s rays slanting through the window were still surprisingly warm for October. Mycroft levered himself up to bank the fire, the benefit of which was feeble at the best of times, with most of the warmth sucked straight into the chimney. Then he stood in front of the window and gazed through the small, opaque sheets of glass at his brother who was directing Billy in laying out new plots in the kitchen garden.

A gust of wind rattled the big chestnut’s branches which were mostly empty already with only a few leaves clinging to them in stubborn defiance of their fate. Mycroft sighed and returned to his accounting books. Their message was unambiguous; no matter how many hours and days he’d wasted refusing to accept the inevitable. They’d have to leave soon, before the winter storms that would have turned the journey into an even more dismal experience. At dinner he would break the news to Sherlock. The hateful news.

Mycroft balled his fists to quell the familiar anger and anxiety he felt swelling in his chest. Just two more, he reminded himself, maybe three, depending on how good a catch the next one would be. Just two and they’d be provided for. They’d live here, unencumbered by worries of money, status, prying neighbours.

Just two more for the two of them.

That evening Mycroft told Sherlock. His little brother lifted his gaze from the scrawny quail he’d been dissecting on his plate and sighed.

“Are you sure?”

Mycroft nodded. “There’s barely enough left for the tailor, the passage and an adequate hotel.”

A wry look twisted his brother’s beautiful features. “Oh well, the money wouldn’t last forever, obviously. Except, not such another dreadful bore, Mycroft. I still don’t know what was worse to endure, his conversation or those sweaty hands—ugh.” His shudder of horror was part theatrics, part genuine. The latter half tore at Mycroft’s heart and turned chewing his bite of undercooked quail into an even more unappetising venture.

Palm upwards, he slid his hand over the table, willing Sherlock to grasp his fingers. The boy clasped the stem of his glass instead, raised the heavy crystal to his lips, stared defiantly at his elder sibling over the rim as he sipped the wine that was the colour and viscosity of blood.

“Sherlock.” Mycroft’s voice was both a warning and a caress. He fought not to show he was holding his breath, waiting.

Smiling, Sherlock put down the glass and laid his hand on top of Mycroft’s. “Stop your fretting. I don’t mind. It means nothing to me.”

“I hate it,” Mycroft hissed.

Sherlock shrugged. “As do I. But it must be done.” With a deft motion he reversed their arms and brought Mycroft’s hand to his mouth to nuzzle the back with moist lips.

“Yes,” agreed Mycroft, heart veering wildly between relief and aching jealousy. “It must be done.”

***

Once the house was filled with light and gaiety and cheerful voices chiming in the hallways. Not a day went by without a barouche or coach depositing a fresh party of guests at the foot of the great stairs that wound down from the front terrace like halves of a cut through nautilus shell. They were welcomed by the picture of marital felicity that were Mycroft’s parents; man and wife offering the comforts of their home to whoever dared brave the rough roads through the inhospitable terrain that made up this part of the Queen’s domains. The valley where the house was situated was sunny enough, with a gentle brook murmuring amidst willowed banks and woods that provided plenty of sport for the gentlemen in autumn.

Mycroft often stood between his parents as they greeted their friends, rigged up in a thistle-hued velvet jacket and midnight blue pantaloons, their hands resting lightly on his shoulders. Mamma (Mummy, however he was only allowed to address her thus if no one else was present) on the left and Father on his right.

Every evening his mother sat down at the piano to divert the assembly with music, songs of Schubert and the works of Chopin, played from sheets that were sent straight from London. Father’s eyes never left his wife’s elegant figure and their gazes would lock as the sound of the last notes she’d played died away.

The hours Mycroft didn’t spend in the company of his tutor, Mr Talbot, he was busy practising the violin with his music master, fencing with his fencing master, dancing with his dancing master and riding his pony with the youngest stable lad. The happiest evening of his life arrived the night his mother imparted to her gathered friends Mycroft would accompany her. They’d been rehearsing together in secret, a recital of Beethoven’s Frühling sonata and though he made four mistakes it was evident nobody noticed save for his teacher and Mummy who played on nevertheless. At the end she bent over with some difficulty – her waist, which had always been so narrow Father could span it easily with his hands, had thickened lately – and the silk of her ebony tresses brushed his face as she kissed him on the top of his head.

***

If nowadays Mycroft wanted to remember what his mother had looked like he only had to glance at his brother around whose head eddied the same soft dark curls and whose skin was the same pale ivory – even at the height of summer. True, her face had been a perfect oval, but Sherlock’s eyes were hers as well as the shape of his mouth.

***

A few weeks later, on the morning of Twelfth Night, Mummy kept to her room. Soon after the guests were leaving, pressing Father’s hands and wishing him much joy in the tides to come, promising to return soon with their chases lumbering under the weight of presents. Father thanked each of them, insisting they visit again at their earliest convenience. He waited until the last carriage rolled down the drive before turning to address Mycroft, “Come, my boy. In a few hours you’ll be greeting your new baby brother.”

They waited in the library; Mycroft with his new atlas that had multi-tinted maps of every country in the world and Father with his newspapers, humming softly under his breath. Save for the occasional rustle of paper and the heavy ticking and loud chiming of the clock on the mantelpiece the house around them was as quiet as the snow-covered fields outside.

The screaming started late in the afternoon, a horrible noise of an agony too great to be borne. Footsteps clattered through the corridor and there were hurried commands, anguished whisperings.

Father was at the door in three strides. “What?” he bellowed at Wiggins, who had just raised his fist for a deferential knock on the ancient oak.

“It’s… it’s her Ladyship… My Lord…,” the butler stammered, straining his voice over the ceaseless wailing. Father shoved the man aside and loped down the corridor to the central stairs, which he took two steps at a time. Mycroft evaded Wiggins’ grasp and followed short on Father’s heels. They had just reached the top of the stairs when the howling stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

Father froze in his steps, as did Mycroft, the sudden silence booming in their ears. His hand sought the shelter of Father’s but the long fingers where clenched into fists and when Mycroft looked he saw a trickle of red running between the knuckles. That, he realised with shock, was blood. Father’s blood, drawn from flesh pierced by his own nails. It fell on the waxed floorboards in fat wine-coloured dribs.

Then, as unexpected as the silence had been, the air was ripped by a single piercing cry. Fast as an arrow Father shot down the corridor to Mummy’s room.

“My Lord, no.” The housekeeper tried to block Father’s passage but she was swept aside as if she were nothing but a scarecrow fashioned of last year’s straw.

Never before had Mycroft seen so much blood, the bedding was soaked with it. Mummy’s skin shone whiter than ever against the sodden crimson sheets and the deep black curls that rippled over the pillows and her bosom were like the shadow of death. Near the bedstead a strange woman was standing with a dripping red thing in her hands.

“It’s a boy,” she said. The thing opened its mouth and the same high-pitched squeal rang through the room. Legs shaking visibly in his tapered pantaloons Father stumbled towards the bed and collapsed beside it, clasping Mummy’s alabaster hand in his and kissing it over and over. His shoulders heaved.

“Darling,” he sobbed. “My love, my life, oh my precious violet.”

That was when Mycroft understood his mother had died.

***

The love they made that night was quiet and lingering, both of them aware they wouldn’t have the opportunity to savour the other for several months, perhaps as much as half a year. Mycroft felt Billy’s craving gaze through the keyhole, even as he thrust into his brother’s body and murmured endearments against his panting lips, but for once he ignored the servant, not bothering to show off Sherlock’s slender frame, the proud erection that sprang forth from its thatch of dark curls. Instead Mycroft screened the view with his back and when Sherlock tipped over the edge – arching on the sheets, his warm sperm spilling over the cup of their twined fingers – the knowledge his eyes solely were feasting on the riveting sight heightened the intensity of his release.

***

At the funeral Father shocked the congregation by leaping into the grave shortly after four men had taken pains to lower the coffin into the earth with the greatest possible care.

The women shrieked in horror while the men hollered at Father to bear his adversity like a man and berated him for the bad example he set his sons. Father clawed at the coffin lid, begging to be buried together with his beloved violet, his hair wild and tears streaking his face.

“The poor man has lost his reason,” Mr Talbot muttered. Yet it was he who coaxed Father out of the grave, together with Wiggins and the aid of a pair of sturdy lumberjacks. The small troupe slunk to a coach that had been summoned hastily and Father was whisked out of sight.

Two months later the situation hadn’t improved. The door to Father’s room remained stubbornly locked. The only ones allowed inside were Wiggins and Mr Talbot, who shook their heads and pursed their lips whenever Mycroft asked them how Father was doing.

“He’s got it bad, Master Mycroft,” Wiggins let slip one day to be reprimanded with a disapproving stare from Mr Talbot.

“Your padre moltissimo…ah… loved your madre,” the violin master, who hailed from Italy, sighed dramatically as they sat practising together and Mycroft wanted to hit the man over the head with his violin for he’d loved his mother just as much and he drenched his pillows with fresh torrents of tears every night.

The worst Mycroft had to endure was the mewling that rose from the cot near the fire in the schoolroom; each squeak from the thing that had murdered Mummy a fresh stab straight into Mycroft’s heart. The woman who had assisted at the birth had fled the premises once chaos erupted, together with the housekeeper, Mummy’s maid and – as they discovered soon after – the jewellery that hadn’t been locked in the strongbox. The cook and maids and the footmen were too busy to care for the baby so it was planted out of everybody’s way in the schoolroom. Billy, Wiggins’ eleven-year-old son, was allotted the task of looking after the little boy.

Billy had been born deaf. The other servants considered him stupid because he was dumb but Mr Talbot declared the lad clever enough. Father and child communicated with their eyes and a kind of sign language Mr Talbot had mastered as well. Being in such close proximity to the mute for so many hours every day Mycroft quickly copied the motions, effectively ordering Billy about and warning him to keep the hateful thing out of his sight.

The mute smothered his ward with attention, feeding him from a bottle of his own devising and never wrinkling his nose as he changed the soiled windings that stank to high heaven. So far the child hadn’t been named. Mr Talbot and Wiggins referred to it as ‘your baby brother’; the other servants never mentioned the thing that had disrupted their lives so abysmally.

“Your father won’t hear of your baby brother, let alone the need to christen him,” Mr Talbot sighed after another extended session in Father’s room.

“He’s right,” Mycroft asserted in hot tones. “It’s spawn of the devil and the final proof God doesn’t exist for He would have let Mamma live and killed that nasty thing instead.”

“Mycroft!” His tutor shook his head and laid a comforting arm around Mycroft’s shoulders. “My dear boy, don’t let grief cloud your mind as well. One of you must remain strong and alert. If you’d care to observe the babe you’d see he’s your dear mother’s child. Your baby brother is innocent of the crime you accuse him off. Every expecting mother knows her unborn child may be the death of her and yet she loves it as passionately as if she were already cradling it at her bosom.”

Gently but insistently Mr Talbot guided Mycroft towards the crib where the baby lay gurgling with Billy on his knees beside it, glowering mistrustfully from beneath eyebrows unusually thick for a boy his age.

“We’ll discuss your statement’s theological implications later,” Mr Talbot said. “But for now, please look at your brother, Master Mycroft. He needs you.”

***

“Well, what say you, brother dear?”

Sherlock pranced before the tailor’s man-high looking glass, regarding his reflection with a self-satisfied smirk. His pale hand smoothed over the waistcoat’s crimson satin.

This year’s fashion promoted an even slimmer cut of jackets, waistcoats and pantaloons. London’s dandies’ latest fancy was a boon to their finances for it meant they could get away with the order of just one new morning suit for Sherlock while the rest of his and Mycroft’s wardrobe was reworked to suit the new look. The style allowed Sherlock to flaunt his assets; a circumstance which appeared to delight him far too much to Mycroft’s liking. He found no amusement in the idea of strange eyes sweeping over his brother’s form, assessing him, imagining what was hidden beneath the clothes, picturing him without the jacket and waistcoat and the marble of his chest shimmering between the parted lapels of his half-open shirt… .

The pain of his own nails driving into his flesh shook Mycroft out of his nightmare. He pressed his handkerchief against the small wounds to staunch the bleeding.

“It will do,” he murmured between thin lips.

***

Spring arrived and still Father didn’t stir from his room.

“Perhaps we should find out about your family,” Mr Talbot said. “I’ve discussed it with Mr Wiggins. He doesn’t know of any living members but the name of Holmes is an ancient one Surely you must have some.”

“Do you have family, Mr Talbot?” asked Mycroft, gently sliding his finger out of his little brother’s grasp and using it to stroke at the wispy dark locks that crowned the baby’s head .

Mr Talbot’s elongated honest face with the small auburn moustache looked dejected even though he was smiling at Mycroft. “There’s always the exception to the rule. I had a mother and a sister I loved very much. The sweating sickness took them when I was seventeen years old. I never knew my father. The ship that was bringing him back from India sunk off the African coast.”

“Oh, Mr Talbot.”

“There’s no need for commiseration, Master Mycroft, though it’s very kind of you. It all happened a long time ago. Now we should go to the library and see if there’s anything to connect you and this little fellow here with people willing to care for you. Shall we bring him along? It’s his future as well after all.”

As they walked down the passages between walls hung with portraits of forebears that hailed back to the Middle-Ages, Mycroft’s spirits perked up a little. Perhaps there’d be an obscure uncle living overseas, serving the Queen’s interests in some exotic whereabouts like India or Singapore, who didn’t know of his cousins’ existence and would come hurrying over to remind Father of his obligations to his rank, his children and the people dependent upon him.

Billy carried the baby while Mycroft held the little stuffed ball and the silver rattle his brother entertained himself with when he wasn’t sleeping or eating or putting his foot in his mouth. If his foot was unavailable he’d put the rattle’s handle to the same purpose and chew at it with his toothless jaws. Mr Talbot had explained all babies did that because their mouth was their means of exploring their surroundings. Even Mycroft had once done so he maintained, an assertion Mycroft had dismissed on the grounds he had far too much dignity to engage in such a ludicrous act. He’d only accepted the possibility when the reedy and dry and six foot tall Mr Talbot ceded that – naturally – there must have been a time he had done so as well.

The library smelt musty and unused. They opened the shutters to reveal sheets covering the club chairs and display cases as well as the huge desks manning the window niches.

After helping Billy to make himself and the baby comfortable on the central rug in front of the mantelpiece Mycroft and Mr Talbot bent to their task.

“Now, what is our subject, Master Mycroft?”

“Genealogy, Mr Talbot.”

“Excellent.”

There was a whole bookcase dedicated to the study of family lineage and history. They made a neat little stack of The Complete Peerage, Burke’sPeerage, Debrett’s Peerage and Collin’s Peerage of England, those being the volumes most likely to provide them with the desired information.

To his astonishment Mycroft found his hand was trembling as he turned the leaves. He learned that Father’s name was Mycroft, and Mummy’s name had been Violet. So Father had been calling her name when he jumped into the grave, Mycroft mused. Father’s father had been named Mycroft as well but the name of Mummy’s father had been Sherlock apparently, as his father’s had been. As far as Mycroft could determine both Mummy and Father had been their parents’ only surviving children and the same held true for his grandparents and their parents before them.

A coppery tang furred Mycroft’s tongue. He’d bitten his lip so hard he’d drawn blood. The look on Mr Talbot’s face perfectly mirrored his distress.

“At least we now know of a name for my brother,” Mycroft forwarded.

“Yes,” Mr Talbot concurred. “That seems best. Your father will most likely approve so we might as well call the boy Sherlock until he’s properly christened.”

By the time they were celebrating Sherlock’s first birthday Mycroft was certain his brother would never be baptised. Father excepted, the whole household still undertook the six-mile-journey to the village every Sunday to attend church. With each week that passed the minister threw more disconcerted looks at Sherlock who sat squirming in the family pew throughout the service, understandably incapable of appreciating the word of God. He yet had to speak the first of his own. Otherwise he was perfectly healthy; already running quite fast on his short legs.

That summer Mr Talbot showed Mycroft Father’s address book.

“Mr Wiggins and I have spoken about this for a long time, Master Mycroft. It looks like the situation won’t improve so we’ve agreed I will write your parents’ friends to inform them of the state of affairs and ask for them to intervene.”

“And you think they will react? It’s been more than a year and we haven’t heard from any of them.”

“No doubt they are all busy and ignorant of the actual circumstances. At least one of them will come over once they’re aware of the lie of the land.”

“Perhaps,” Mycroft ventured cautiously.

For a week the variation of Mr Talbot’s quill scratching on paper enlivened the schoolroom’s daily tune, together with the screeches of chalk on slate from Sherlock who sat imitating the tutor with his tongue peeking out between his lips in concentration.

After that they waited. They waited for what felt to Mycroft like ages. Every now and then Edward, the third footman, came bearing a single sheet of paper with a great seal on a silver platter. Each time Mr Talbot would reach for the letter and start reading eagerly only for his face to fall shortly after.

“Viri infortunati procul amici,” he’d mutter, but he needn’t have bothered with the undertone for his countenance told Mycroft everything he needed to know.

***

“I’m bored.”

Mycroft sighed. They’d boarded the vessel less than twenty hours ago. If Sherlock was already tired of the ship and its diversions this shortly after embarking Mycroft could look forward to a sapping voyage.

“You can’t have deduced the occupations and extramarital affairs of all our fellow-passengers already?”

Sherlock sniffed and took up an inspection of his nails. “Dull. Not interested.”

“No? It amused you well enough last time.” Too much, in fact. The stunned silence that had descended on the Captain’s table after Sherlock’s loud revelation – complete with listed evidence –of the affair the lady seated in the place of honour at the Captain’s right was conducting with both her husband’s valet and her maid had vigorously rebuffed every weapon Mycroft subsequently prised from his arsenal of distracting conversation topics. Thankfully that had been their last evening aboard the ship.

“Oh lord, that again.” Sherlock threw his elegant frame over the sofa and lay simmering there, regarding Mycroft with a mixture of fury and exasperation and a demand for entertainment.

“Have you studied the American newspapers yet?” Mycroft suggested patiently. “Or you could start practicing those Paganini Caprices?” He sorted through the sheets of music on the music stand they’d put up in the corner next to the cabin’s small sideboard. Space was always so infuriatingly lacking aboard these vessels. Their home might be desolate and as warm and welcoming as an igloo ruin but at least it boasted plenty of room. Pulling forth the sought sheet he pivoted to summon his brother.

Sherlock had loosened his cravat and undone his collar and the buttons of his waistcoat. His fingers were smoothing the silky triangle of skin between clavicle and sternocleidomastoid. Slyly, calculatingly. Two crimson spots highlighted his cheekbones and added further lustre to his dilated pupils.

“No.” Mycroft willed his voice to sternness, inwardly relieved at succeeding admirably well.

Sherlock pouted, trailed his other hand over the inside of his thigh, eyes skimming over Mycroft for effect from beneath half-lowered lids. When Mycroft retained his stance he scowled and straightened to spit, “You’re as maddeningly dull as the rest. I’m bored, you’re bored, we’ve nothing better to do.”

“My sincere congratulations. With your eloquent speech you’ve outdone the Bard himself in phrasing the tender sentiment. Unfortunately I must decline. Remember where we are.”

“I know exactly where we are,” shouted Sherlock. “On a ship filled with dunces and nothing but water for miles around. No one we recognise, no one who cares!”

“They will care once they discover something to judge and condemn,” Mycroft hissed. “As you know very well. We can’t have them prying. It would mean the end of everything you’ve worked for, of us. Re-order your clothing. Now!”

Eyes spewing fire Sherlock capitulated nevertheless and began re-buttoning his collar.

“I hate you,” he spluttered for he was too stubborn to concede defeat with grace. “You and your fears. Nobody will notice for no one ever notices anything that doesn’t concern themselves. They’re stupid and irrational.”

Every word was a slash at Mycroft’s soul with a newly whetted sword, further deepening the gash of guilt already festering in his soul. If he were a braver man – a better man – he’d stride the twelve feet separating them to comfort his sibling with caresses and endearments. He could muss those delectable curls at the very least, trail his fingers through their silky softness and scratch the scalp to send Sherlock purring and scrunch shut his eyes in delight. Instead, Mycroft turned to the music stand to spare himself the pageant of his brother’s misery and the unpleasant reminder of his impotence.

“A concise if rather crude characterisation of humanity at large,” he offered. Sherlock’s answer to that observation was the faint susurration of silk fashioned into a knot a la Byron. It would have to do.

***

The summer solstices invariably brought sadness with them for the longest day of the year had been Mummy’s birthday. Six years ago on the very same day the house had been filled to overflowing with guests. They’d spilled out onto the garden’s many terraces to walk in pairs and admire the borders or lounge in chairs placed at advantageous spots, converse and play croquet or tennis on the lawns. Now the only people moving about the gardens were the gardeners and the little troupe of four for their daily turn after Mycroft and Sherlock had finished their lessons.

The window shutters of Father’s room remained closed, even on the hottest days.

One day they were playing a game, which consisted of Billy and Mycroft throwing a ball at each other over Sherlock’s head and Sherlock dashing from one to the other in attempts to secure it when Mycroft dared at last pose the question that had been brooding in his mind for ages.

“Father will never leave his room again, will he?” he asked Mr Talbot, his gaze lodged on the shuttered windows and launching the ball at Billy. Sherlock squeaked with excitement and waved his little arms.

Slowly, Mr Talbot shook his head. “No, I regret to say I don’t think he ever will.”

“He’s not interested in us, in managing the house. You and Wiggins do all the work.”

“And we do it gladly. Your father’s mind is very much occupied with other concerns, Master Mycroft. He’s still mourning your mother’s demise.”

Mycroft chewed upon that answer, catching the ball and holding it out to Sherlock in turn. Then he ventured the only logical conclusion. “You mean Father wants to die.”

Mr Talbot nodded. “Yes, that’s his most fervent wish. But he fears that in killing himself he’ll forgo his chances of seeing your mother in the Hereafter.”

“But that’s preposterous. Heaven and hell don’t exist.”

“Probably not,” confirmed Mr Talbot smilingly. “Though I strongly advise you to be less outspoken amongst others and never to share your opinion with the poor minister. But a tiny voice in your father’s head forcibly reminds him of the possibility there may be a life after death. The idea of incurring God’s wrath and being separated from your mother forever stays his hand.”

“Poor Father,” Mycroft said. He meant it. However Mr Talbot shook his head again. “Those were my sentiments for the first year, Master Mycroft. But I’ll be candid and confess my sympathy has been transferred elsewhere by now. Your mother was cut out of sterner stuff. Rather than bewailing her loss your father ought to be following the example she set him.”

Shortly after that conversation Mycroft devoted many hours to the study of law and equity. Mr Talbot kept silent and gestured for Billy to accompany Sherlock to the stables for his riding lesson.

“What have you learned?” he asked one day, after Mycroft had closed the last heavy volume with an ostentatious show of irritation.

“You already know, don’t you?” accused Mycroft. “Why didn’t you stop me?”

“Think, Master Mycroft.” The tutor consulted his little silver hunter watch that dangled from an old-fashioned short fob. “It’s time for your fencing lesson,” he said.

The frustration of his impotence kept Mycroft silently fuming for several months. The leaves were already turning colour again when the door to Father’s room suddenly opened just as Mycroft was crossing the corridor and a figure appeared on the threshold. With some difficulty Mycroft recognised the gaunt grey spectre looming in the doorway as his father. The man had lost three stone at least. Flaming eyes stared at Mycroft out of sockets as dark as the earth of Mummy’s grave.

“You,” the figure said roughly, his voice gravelly and unused. “Wiggins doesn’t answer the bell. Find him for me. And make sure this get posted.”

A sealed letter was thrust into Mycroft’s hand and the door shut into his face. Mycroft dashed to the butler’s pantry where he found Wiggins and Edward and the second footman, Michael, polishing the silver.

“The mice must have had a go at the bell cord again,” Wiggins complained after putting the right postage onto the envelope and sending Edward off to the head groom with it. “Apologies, Master Mycroft. The vermin is particularly persistent this autumn.”

An hour later the butler came staggering into the schoolroom, his already pale cheeks the hue of the chalk they used on the slates. “May I have a word?” he addressed Mr Talbot.

Their conversation’s substance soon became apparent. One after the other the staff were called to Father’s study to be dismissed and handed a letter of recommendation and the equivalent of ten years wages by Wiggins. They trooped past the schoolroom clutching the folded sheet of paper and small linen purse, the youngers’ voices loud in indignation, those of the elderly hushed in worry and dismay.

“What’s Father up to?” Mycroft enquired after he heard the voices of his violin master and fencing master arguing behind the firmly shut door. He wasn’t sorry to see the last of their backs, nor that of the dancing master’s. With a pang of guilt he reminded himself Sherlock might not share his feelings. His playing was already far more advanced than Mycroft’s and unlike Mycroft he loved all kinds of physical exercise. He cast his brother a quick glance. The boy sat hunched over his Aeneid translation, refusing to acknowledge Mycroft’s stare so Mycroft switched it to his tutor who still hadn’t answered his question.

“Hastening the journey,” the man now replied. “Your father’s patience is wearing thin. Don’t worry, Master Mycroft. Mr Wiggins and I will bide with you.”

“But who’s to wait upon us?” Mycroft was astonished at Mr Talbot’s easy acceptance of their plight. He remembered the months with the letters. Perhaps Mr Talbot had already foreseen this exact scenario. Knowing his tutor it was unlikely he would admit as much.

“No one,” the man was smiling angelically, as if they were embarking upon a grand adventure. “We’ll lock up the greater part of the house and look after the animals and the kitchen garden ourselves. There’s a whole library with shelves dedicated to farming. It can’t be too difficult.”

Never before in his life had Mycroft been so glad to see his bed in the evenings even though the sheets’ smell was decidedly less fresh after Billy’s promotion to head of the laundry as well as its sole employee.

One day they were harvesting string beans, and utilising the monotonous task to go through book twenty-two of the Iliad. Mr Talbot recited the dactylic hexameters and Sherlock translated them first into Latin and English, then Mycroft took over to set them into French, German, and Italian respectively before refashioning them back into Classical Attic, when they discerned the rattle of a great many carriages on the drive. Billy, who’d been spreading out sheets and shirts and underwear on the lawn, came running up at them, gesticulating excitedly and pointing back at the drive.

They rounded the left wing corner just in time to discern Father hovering on the terrace and see a long string of vehicles draw to a halt. Father spread his arms like he used to. For a few seconds Mycroft wanted to weep with joy for his parent had clearly come to his senses after all these years and sent for his friends to help him put his life back in shape. Then the first carriage’s door was thrown open wide and Mycroft’s hopes were dashed to the ground as he caught sight of the man’s attire. Mr Talbot’s shocked wheeze confirmed his assessment.

“LeFeuvre,” Father boomed in false bonhomie.

“Holmes, how delightful to meet again,” the lout’s cry rang equally artificial. “As you can see I’ve followed your injunctions to the letter. You demanded gay company and I’ve scoured the upper echelons of London’s premises for their crown jewels. They know every trick in the book and a few others besides.”

Though his cravat, the cut of his greatcoat and the shape of his hat proclaimed him the worst of riffraff the man’s accent was cultured; unlike that of the rabble that now spilled out of the rest of the carriages. Men and women were dolled up in garish clothes in gaudy colours, the women’s necklines so low their breasts were almost fully exposed, their cheeks rouged into a semblance of good humour that never reached their eyes. They engulfed the terrace and its immediate environs, squealing and commenting on the long journey, criticising the austerity of the house’s façade.

“This won’t do,” Mr Talbot murmured. His thin lips formed a red slash of disapproval beneath the auburn moustache. After hastily scribbling Wiggins a message in the small notebook he habitually carried he signed at Billy to fetch his father. Mr Talbot’s hands flew to give Billy further instructions while he talked to Mycroft. “Master Mycroft and Master Sherlock, you go up to the schoolroom, lock the door and open it only to Billy and me. Three short knocks, two long and a short one again.”

“But—,” protested Mycroft.

“Now!” The tutor’s tone brooked no argument.

The house outside the schoolroom was eerily quiet as if holding its breath in anticipation of a tempest. Mycroft brushed off Sherlock’s questions until the boy let off and installed himself in a corner to glare at Mycroft.

Suddenly the whole house seemed to shake with an uproar of terrifying laughter followed by explosions and a single high cackle. At this Sherlock started to cry. He held out his arms to Mycroft who lifted him off the floor and cradled his head against his shoulder. Mycroft’s knees were knocked against each other by the trembling of his legs as he stood watching the door.

At long last the agreed upon signal was pounded upon the door and Mycroft dashed forward to open it for Billy who was carrying a tray with bread and cheese and a jug of milk. All he did when Mycroft accosted him was slant his gaze away from Mycroft’s and start eating. The sight and smell of the food nauseated Mycroft. When Billy urged Sherlock to drink some milk at least the boy shook his head. His eyes were huge and liquid in the fast fading evening light.

Night had descended and Billy and Sherlock were asleep in a corner by the time Mr Talbot’s knock sounded on the door. To Mycroft’s consternation his tutor’s usually meticulous attire was in disarray and a gash ran over his cheek. The blood had dripped onto the linen of his cravat – which had until then retained a semblance of cleanliness in spite of Billy’s efforts – and stood out in bright ruby splotches against the stern black of his greatcoat. This garment’s right sleeve was hanging from the shoulder by a few threads only. The small watch no longer dangled from its fob.

“What I feared has come to pass,” he answered Mycroft’s query while warding off attempts at succour and refusing the offer of bread and milk. “Your Father has taken leave of his senses. That man you saw is the Marquess LeFeuvre. His name is a household word for everything vile and wicked. He was rusticated from Cambridge for… for reasons you’re too young to understand.”

A cold hand closed itself around Mycroft’s heart at those words. He had recently turned fourteen. For a while he had seriously contemplated applying to the Queen to strip Father of his responsibilities and install them in Mycroft, reasoning he was better equipped to manage a household than the living ghost that was its nominal head. What could be so nefarious Mr Talbot refused to tell him about it?

“But how does Father know this man?” he exclaimed.

“From Cambridge, I suspect. Every young man of means is granted a brief spell of tomfoolery to better appreciate the comforts of marriage after. Most men adhere to the pattern. Once your Father met your mother the Marquess Leighton LeFeuvre’s attractions must have paled into the insignificance they warrant.”

In trying to slip off the coat the sleeve came lose. It slithered to the floor from whence Mr Talbot picked it up with an air of distaste. He shook the dust loose from the sleeve and flattened the cloth on the lectern.

“Your father has found the perfect solution to his theological conundrum. If you want to meet your maker proclaiming innocence of the crime of self-murder the Marquess LeFeuvre is the man to hire and do the job for you.”

The hand squeezed and Mycroft felt the rush of blood to his head.

“You mean Father has hired that man to murder him,” he cried out.

Mr Talbot nodded, his expression grim. “I’m afraid so. It will be less quick than a stab with the knife though. Drink and dissolution will do in your father. Forgive me, Master Mycroft, but for your sake and that of your brother I hope his wish will soon be granted for that means not all the spoils will be gone once he breathes his last.”

Bile filled Mycroft’s mouth. The idea of Mr Talbot uttering such a sentiment was inconceivable. His next thought was for Sherlock, slumbering trustingly in the corner.

“Sherlock?” he said.

“Don’t worry.” Mr Talbot laid his hand on Mycroft’s shoulder. “Master Sherlock and you and Billy will come to no harm. Mr Wiggins and I have his word. Strangely, the man preserves an odd sense of honour.”

“But how?” Mycroft queried but all he got for an answer was a head shake.

“Don’t ask me, Master Mycroft. Just trust me, please.”

***

In Liverpool Mycroft had put his ear to the ground in the lobbies of the great hotels and the backrooms of the taverns and bawdy houses lining the harbour front before buying them passage to New York. It was a risk – their last quarry had hailed from New Orleans – but the former colonies were vast and the Southern families were rather disdainful of Northerners. No doubt the same held true the other way round; and Mycroft wanted to strike big this time. Besides, they’d be introducing themselves under yet another alias. This year they were Baron Milord Sigerson and his brother Sherrinford Sigerson, small landed gentry intent on acquainting themselves with the modern approaches of the New World.

New York loved them. Mycroft kept explaining to everyone they encountered that ‘Your Grace’ wasn’t the proper mode of address, a demure ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordship’ would perfectly suffice for him while his brother would respond to a mere ‘Sir’ but gave the job up as hopeless after a fortnight. Sherlock was all the rage with that year’s debutantes, even those who had already secured themselves a home and a life companion. There were a few incidents with girls fainting upon Sherlock entering a room. But they weren’t hunting for debutantes. Not of the sex that came in swirling skirts and fanning themselves with ostrich feathers.

Sherlock’s eye was the first to spot the young man Mycroft had put at the top of their list. The boy’s father – Mr Victor Trevor senior – was involved in unsavoury businesses concerning railroads of all things. Whatever the source of his money, the man was by all accounts rolling in it so he’d hardly miss a few wagons unhooked from his gravy train. When Mycroft intercepted the dark look the man shot his son across a ballroom filled with people pretending to amuse themselves he knew they’d hit a gold vein.

“Go,” he told Sherlock and took up position to observe the reaction of son and sire to Sherlock ambling over to loiter prettily in a spot five yards from where Victor Trevor junior was conversing with two other coxcombs, laughing and ostensibly despising every couple whirling past them.

It took all of three minutes before young Trevor was introducing himself, holding onto the hand Sherlock had proffered, with a faint quirk of his lips, for half a second too long. The disgust that flitted over the father’s face was a clear echo of Mycroft’s emotions. The man bent towards the man standing behind him, there was whispering and then the man’s gaze settled onto Mycroft. After a beat Mycroft raised one eyebrow. The wooing had begun.

Graciously losing at a rubber of whist was a time-proven opening bid. Having gained a foothold Mycroft led the railroad baron to the one topic of interest they had in common. Over cigars and some port wine so far below Mycroft’s standards he nearly choked on the first sip, the railroad baron disclosed his plans for branching out to England first, the Continent after. The fake Baron traded advice on typical British attitudes regarding business and the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the various European peoples.

After lighting his second cigar Trevor motioned for Mycroft to follow him to the salon; a disastrous affair rigged up by his wife, who was a Tudor devotee with an abundance of imagination and frightfully little sense. Whether she really believed a pianoforte came with the standard Elizabethan interior Mycroft hadn’t bothered to determine. It figured prominently in Mrs Trevor’s drawing room and currently her only son was sitting in front of it, hands hovering over the keys while his eyes were devouring Sherlock. The subject of his admiration had closed his to better concentrate on pulling the opening bars of Corelli’s first violin sonata from the strings. With his dashing scarlet neck cloth drawn into a particularly elaborate bow he embodied the very epitome of thespian elegance.

“Was your brother educated at one of your boarding schools, Your Lordship?” His usage of the proper form of address was a typical example of the elder Trevor’s quick grasp of situations and opportunities presenting themselves. Equally typical he didn’t beat about the bush. Fortunately, Mycroft had long ago learned how to handle such rough-and-ready creatures.

“No, we were both tutored at home,” Mycroft replied, anticipating the next question of his own volition. “Afterwards we studied abroad, at Paris and Bologna.” Universities in parts hardly famous for fastidious filing.

“So your brother never participated in… he didn’t experience—” The potentate chewed his cigar furiously, bushy eyebrows knitted tightly as he contemplated the tableau of his sole heir not quite swooning at Sherlock’s feet. Mycroft straightened his back and maintained a conspicuous silence.

“Damn you, man,” Trevor burst forth at last, in a fierce whisper. “You know perfectly well what I’m getting at. Is your brother an invert?”

“Pray, forgive me—,” began Mycroft.

“Cut the damned theatrics and answer me. Is he a sodomite?”

“Excuse me,” Mycroft replied in his archest tone. “I fail to see how my brother’s… ah, inclinations can be of interest to you and why you think I should be aware of them.”

“Why?” The railroad millionaire was almost shouting now. Sherlock obligingly increased the volume of his playing, inciting Victor to follow his lead. “Why? Because mine are perfectly normal, My Lord, as attested by the existence of that damned scoundrel over there making eyes at your brother.”

Obviously, rage had temporarily excised reason, Mycroft mused. “Your point being?” he asked, pointedly.

“Marriage, My Lord. The rascal adamantly refuses to fulfil his obligations and take a wife. His obnoxious behaviour hinders my girls’ prospects and my business opportunities. Several men in this city would consent to a match with any of the girls if it weren’t for the fact that they’d end up with that young reprobate intent on throwing himself at every pretty pair of legs fitted in trousers for a brother-in-law. ”

“Yes?” Despite the situation’s overall hatefulness Mycroft derived a mischievous satisfaction from witnessing the man’s struggle with this one aspect so gallingly beyond his control.

“You must understand—,” Trevor produced a handkerchief and started mopping his brow.

“Perfectly,” acceded Mycroft. “Shall we retire to your study?”

As if aware the deal was about to be struck Sherlock lifted his gaze from the violin to lock it with Mycroft’s over the honey-coloured strands artfully coiled around Victor Trevor’s head. Sherlock winked. That moment the boy hit a wrong key. The discordant note had several younger ladies cry out in alarm. Exasperation and distaste flitted over Sherlock’s face before he tilted his torso solicitously towards the distraught musician, encouraging him to continue.

The next half hour was distinctly unpleasant. Mycroft didn’t need a reminder he was essentially vending his brother to the highest bidder, his soul ached with the knowledge since the first time he’d done so, when they’d sailed for France. But Trevor was a fool if he expected Mycroft to sell his sibling cheaply. Besides, the father’s position was equally compromised. He had a problem on his hands and Mycroft was willing to relieve him of it. The man’s assumption that Mycroft would trade his brother for thirty pieces of silver was an insult. Now, three hundred and thirty thousand in gold; that was more like it.

Another handkerchief appeared. There was much grumbling, ranting and cursing in invective that lacked true imagination. Mycroft sipped the abominable port, sighed when Trevor named him ‘a whoremaster’ and objected politely when he called Sherlock ‘a trollop, a queer and a cheap slut’. He grabbed onto the last term to observe he didn’t understand why Mr Trevor was objecting to the price if he thought it a bargain. Was this how they did business in America? If so, he’d have a hard time negotiating a deal in the British Empire.

The rush of blood to Trevor’s cheeks turned them a rubicund hue so evidently unhealthy Mycroft briefly feared for the man’s life. The magnate’s big hands gripped the arms of his chair as he visibly controlled the urge to throw himself at Mycroft and wrap those same hands around Mycroft’s neck to strangle him. His face twisted in a horrible grimace of repugnance.

“All right,” he grunted. “Three hundred and thirty thousand pound sterling, to be paid by my bank in London in six weeks’ time. Here’s my affidavit. Just make sure I never have to set eyes on any of you ever again.”

“That,” Mycroft responded smoothly, “can be arranged.”

***

All the plagues of Egypt had descended upon them at once. The pack spread over the house like a locust-swarm, ripping the house apart and defiling everything they laid their grubby hands on. They hunted the deer and the pheasants in the woods and felled the trees for firewood. They slaughtered the horses and ate them.

The women paraded around the gardens in Mummy’s dresses – Mycroft noted with a malicious and simultaneously saddening satisfaction that none of the bodices fitted them – and squabbled over who got to wear her furs. The day Mycroft noticed the crimson flash of Mummy’s ruby necklace resting on a coarse bosom he nearly choked. Mr Talbot had to put a straining hand on his arm to keep him from rushing the woman and ripping it from her fat neck.

They chanced upon them fornicating out in the open, in the rhododendron grove, behind the stables, and once in an outrage particularly scandalous a veritable orgy amongst the frolicking nymphs and satyrs in the empty basin of the great baroque fountain. Men were wrestling with women, with other men and on one occasion, in the downstairs left wing corridor, they even ran into two half-naked women with their hands beneath the other’s skirts. Each time Mr Talbot would clap his hand over Sherlock’s eyes and drag them away from the scene.

To his horror Mycroft discovered his body’s stimulation frequently overrode the revulsion his mind told him such perversity ought to inspire in him. He’d concentrate on the hatred that smouldered inside him, his loathing for the weak wretch who had fathered him and his brother most of all, and his blood distributed itself evenly throughout his body again, leaving him drained and with a vague desire to weep.

Another morning Mycroft entered the blue morning room to discover a man smashing the Chippendale dining chairs and feeding the wood into the thickly smoking fire he’d started. He was a scrawny fellow and Mycroft had by now reached Mr Talbot’s height so he chased the man out of the room with the foulest curses in his repertoire and doused the fire.

The nights were the worst. The house would reverberate with a howling din that seemed to rise through the floors straight from the depths of hell accompanied by the high shrieking laughter of men and women the worse for drink. The first few nights Sherlock had cried until Mycroft could no longer stand the sniffling and his own cowardice and invited Sherlock to curl up in his bed. There Sherlock slept with his head on his elder brother’s chest while Mycroft lay listening to the awful noises produced by the filthy beasts his father had invited into their home.

Mr Talbot would vanish regularly and it seemed the pandemonium increased twelvefold on those nights. Several times Mycroft intercepted him as he returned, always looking much the worse for wear with his clothes torn and face cut and bruised, but he steadfastly refused to describe what had happened to him. In the morning he’d brush off Sherlock’s enquiries as well.

“You don’t want to know,” was all he said.

But Mycroft did want to know, though he dreaded the answer as well. On and off he discussed the issue with Billy over the course of several weeks, whenever Mr Talbot’s attention wandered elsewhere; their fingers flying fast but falling immobile again the instant the tutor shook himself out of his reverie. Apparently Wiggins joined Mr Talbot on those dreadful nights to reappear the next morning every bit as dishevelled and shaken as Mr Talbot and as adamantly refusing to divulge what took place during those hours. When Mycroft thought of the dapper little man who had been serving his family faithfully since before he was born staunchly undergoing unspeakable atrocities, the nature of which he couldn’t fathom, yet dread all the more, a crimson sheen of murderous rage veiled his eyes.

Oh lord! He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes in frustration. His ignorance of and certainty that other men were suffering the worst sort of heinousness on their behalf was too much to be borne. From what stock had he sprung if he allowed this to continue. The weakest, an inner voice told him when he thought of his father. But then Sherlock would look at him with their mother’s eyes to remind Mycroft half of them was flesh from superior flesh.

Thus, one night, shortly after Mr Talbot had taken leave of them again and Sherlock’s even breathing told him his brother was asleep Mycroft slipped into the anteroom where Billy slept and after shaking the servant awake motioned for him to guard Sherlock. Then he took the chamber stick and slipped into the servant’s passage; a huge maze of narrow corridors that ran through the whole house and along which the servants had once hurried to their tasks screened from the sight of family and guests.

The unholy clamour of fiendish carousing guided Mycroft to the door hidden in the panelling of the yellow drawing room. He extinguished the candle, but kept the chamber stick in his hand. With the other one he opened the door a crack and spied into the chamber.

A gasp of horror fled from his mouth before he could suppress it. He pulled the door shut and waited in the darkness, fighting to recompose himself while tears streamed down his cheeks. Most dreadful had been the glimpse of the creature he’d once addressed as Father.

As he struck sparks from his tinderbox to relight his candle the seed of a dreadful plan germinated in Mycroft’s mind. At first he shied away from the sprouting weeds that fed on the rotten acidity of his hatred with an abundance they could only hope for when it came to the carrots and parsnips they grew in the kitchen garden. He realised those roots actually kept them alive. But as Mycroft tended those very same carrot and parsnip beds, milked the two cows that hadn’t been butchered yet and bent over his volume of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations the desire for revenge poked tenacious roots deeper and deeper into the fertile soil of his anger.

It was easy, he pondered, to Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors if you were the most powerful man alive. But Mycroft had to live with the knowledge unspeakable things were happening behind closed doors and opened ones as well, only ten doors down from where his innocent brother was writhing in a sleep disturbed by sounds of the rape and torture of the only two grown-ups to have ever shown the youngster care and love.

The nature of Mycroft’s plot was crude, in accordance with that of the people he’d inflict it upon. He searched the library for books on anatomy and the workings of the human body. Sherlock was strangely attracted to the subject and eager to assist him. Together they read about the venous system and its organisation. With the books for guidance they palpated each other’s limbs in search of the muscles and bones and major arteries. They took each other’s pulse, Sherlock slowly and solemnly counting the beats with the aid of Mycroft’s watch.

At night, with Sherlock slumbering beside him, Mycroft lay whetting the blunt blade of his little clasp knife until it was so sharp it drew blood at the mere brush of his finger over the edge. The splatter had dried and turned a rust hue when the first morning light crept around the shutters.

Mycroft was ready. Now all he had to do was create an opportunity.

***

Vexingly, Victor insisted on bringing along his valet. ‘Vexing Victor’ was a remarkably complete resume of the boy’s character. No wonder his father had been prepared to pay a smashing sum to be rid of the thorn in his flesh.

“You can’t expect me to travel without William.” Beneath the honey-coloured mop of hair eyes as clear and guileless as an English summer day darted between them in genuine trepidation. “Every true British gentleman has a valet, hasn’t he? You must have.”

“Of course,” Mycroft beamed reassuringly in concert with Sherlock’s muttered, “Valet’s are boring.”

Mycroft shot his brother a quick glare and favoured Victor Trevor with his most benevolent smile.

“We’ve already booked the passage and there will be no room for another man in the suite. The line’s servants are perfectly adequate,” he said. Meanwhile, on the sofa, Sherlock had sidled closer to Victor and lifted the young man’s fingers to his lips.

“I’ll be your valet for the journey, sweetling,” he murmured, lashes fanning fetchingly while pressing a kiss to the fingers that dangled from his.

Mycroft watched in silence from across the room, fists clenched at his sides, the smile tacked to the corners of his mouth with nails forged in hell.

“Oh, Sherrinford,” Victor tittered. Bile rose in Mycroft’s throat and the scarlet veil of jealousy was draped over his eyes again. “Imagine you ironing my shirts. Would you even know how to go about it?”

As a matter of fact Sherlock would and he was doing a far better job of it than the man Victor apparently couldn’t do without. As Victor would discover once they’d transported him back to England and installed him safely at home.

“I know all about removing stains,” Sherlock answered, now toying with a tendril of yellow hair. “Coal smudges, wine, blood, and also the most persistent of all which is…” Staring at Mycroft he brought his lush mouth close to Victor’s ear and whispered.

Victor flushed – scandalised – and giggled. “Oh, Sherrinford. Oh, you shouldn’t say such things.” A possessive hand landed on Sherlock’s thigh, claiming him and Victor looked daggers at Mycroft, clearly considering his presence superfluous.

Another minute of this and Mycroft couldn’t be held responsible for the consequences. Quickly, he came to a resolution. Send Victor packing for now and have a conversation with his brother. There was only so much he could bear. Welcome aboard the damn’ valet. They’d dispose of him somehow.

“Please.” Mycroft arched an eyebrow at the pair on the sofa. “It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. There’s a proper time for everything. I suggest you go find your precious valet and tell him to ready himself for the voyage and take leave of his family and friends. We sail at eight this evening.”

***

He was ready.

He was ready but for a lifetime of rules and taboos implanted in his soul by the sternest and gentlest of humans. At night he lay quarrelling with the hateful voice of his conscience that spoke in tones just as mild as Mr Talbot’s.

‘What did it matter,’ he argued, ‘if at long last his hand committed the murder he’d already enacted a hundredfold in his heart.’

‘And who are you,’ his conscience countered, ‘to assume the position of God and determine the faith of your fellowman?’

‘Not my fellowman,’ Mycroft would protest, ‘a vile beast, nay worse, for at least the beast only follows its instinct and doesn’t willingly invent such wickedness.’

‘Oh, Mycroft. Don’t you see that in contemplating this most foul of deeds you’re lowering yourself to their level?’

‘Enough!’

His seventeenth birthday came and went and still his conscience stilled his hand. His thoughts frequently lingered with Octavian, who’d undertaken a far greater task at the same age. Perhaps he was a coward after all.

One evening they’d just finished reading act two of Macbeth, Sherlock reciting the part of Lady Macbeth with particular relish, when Wiggins entered the schoolroom after a light knock.

“We’re wanted,” the butler told Mr Talbot.

“Oh.” The consternation on Mr Talbot’s face showed the summons surprised him as much as Mycroft. The last time had been less than a week ago. Usually at least a fortnight passed between Mr Talbot temporary departures and so far Wiggins had never been sent to fetch him.

“Don’t go, Mr Talbot,” Sherlock pleaded.

Mr Talbot mussed his curls. “I must, child. But I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Sleep well.”

So Sherlock did, for the night was uncommonly quiet. In his lair outside their door Billy lay resting peacefully in Morpheus’ arms, unhindered by the absence of noise. Daylight was already extinguishing the stars when Mycroft fell into a wary doze, clutching his knife in his right hand.

A rough hand rocked his shoulder and the racket of persistent wailing assaulted his ears. He sat up, sheets sweaty with worry sliding into his lap.

“What?”

“Mycroft, oh, Mycroft.” Sherlock’s arms cohered around his neck and a tear-streaked face was buried in his shoulder. “Mr Talbot… and Wiggins…”

“What?”

Snivelling silently, Billy led Mycroft to the window, with Sherlock clinging to him like a small child. A long time ago Mycroft had convinced himself he was braced for the worst. But, he reflected later, after they’d washed their bodies of the stink of their miserable work, nothing on this earth could have prepared him for the sight that met his eyes.

In death, Mr Talbot’s countenance was as dignified as it had been in life, even with his clothes gone and his innards spilling out of the deep gash that ran from sternum to groin. The mutilation of Wiggins’ body was even more severe, the skin ripped to blood-soaked tatters. Crows had already had their fill of the poor man’s eyeballs by the time they’d rushed outside to scare the birds away.

Sherlock helped dig the graves behind the stables and held Mr Talbot’s hand while Billy and Mycroft dragged the cart that held their lugubrious cargo. His brother hadn’t spoken a word all day but then Mycroft’s lust for speaking was equally meagre.

“You’d better sleep,” he advised. For once, Sherlock did as instructed and retired to their bed without dawdling. Mycroft waited until he was certain Sherlock was asleep before detailing the plot that had been building in his mind for months to Billy.

To his shame and relief Billy didn’t demand why he hadn’t executed his plan sooner for that would have resulted in his father and Mr Talbot still being alive. Somehow, Mycroft would have to learn to live with that knowledge. But for now he couldn’t afford to waste time on remorse. He’d shed those tears later. Billy agreed they should act now for they were in serious danger of undergoing the same fate.

His expression fell when Mycroft disclosed Sherlock should assist them. At first he refused to continue their exchange, turning his back on Mycroft and warding him off when Mycroft tried to reengage him. Only when Mycroft threatened to carry on with or without Billy’s assistance did he consent.

After they’d gone over every aspect of the plan twice Mycroft sat listening to the sounds of the house for a long time. It was by now four o’clock in the afternoon. Normally the rooms and corridors would already be vibrating with the buzz of debauchery and depravity. Perhaps the sinners were still reeling from the audacity of their latest crime. Mycroft sincerely hoped so. Not for the sake of their souls, those could roast in hell forever for all he cared for none of them would be suffering as badly as Mr Talbot and Wiggins had suffered. As Mycroft was suffering now. He sat with eyes closed and knife lodged in the small temple of his hands in front of his mouth. Billy’s light touch roused him.

‘Praying?’ Billy signalled. Mycroft shook his head.

‘I’ll never pray again. I don’t believe in God. If He does exist I hate Him.’ There, it was out in the open now. Billy’s eyes lit up.

‘Me too.’

They grinned at each other.

***

New York’s solid buildings had barely evaporated into the low mist hovering over the Atlantic before Sherlock feigned seasickness. Victor’s face was almost as ashen as Sherlock’s from distress as he sat holding Sherlock’s hand in the cabin they had been assigned.

“Didn’t want to worry you,” Sherlock moaned between bouts of retching. “Was hoping…”

“Oh, my poor darling,” Victor ejaculated, regarding the flecks of dubious, faintly reddish matter Sherlock had spewed over his hand with distaste before letting go to wipe at it with a handkerchief. Without altering its nature he shifted his attention from the speckles to Mycroft who stood observing the tender tableau from the doorway.

“What are you still standing there?” he burst forth, indignantly. “Why aren’t you out looking for the surgeon?”

“Waste of time, money and resources,” Mycroft replied. “Dear Victor, your distress is commendable but uncalled-for. Sherrinford simply has no sea legs; a pleasure trip on the Thames’ waters has him green around the gills in no time. The moment we’ll dock at Liverpool he’ll be as fit as his fiddle again. Leaving him to his misery is really the kindest you can do. Isn’t it so, brother mine?”

“Get out, Milord.” Sherlock’s tone hit the perfect note of peevishness. A fortnight lying abed in the darkness pretending to be seriously ill was no bed of roses; Mycroft would readily endorse the point.

On the other hand, it was Mycroft who would have to stomach two weeks of the silly, amorous puppy’s atrocious company, as well as deal with the valet. Fortuitously, the servant was a puny little fellow with a wholly unremarkable face. No one would even remember him once Victor started the hullaballoo.

“I’ll order you some weak tea,” Mycroft answered, pulling a struggling Victor into the suite’s main room.

“Come Victor. How about a rubber?” he proposed.

***

“I desire an audience with the Marquess LeFeuvre,” Mycroft addressed the lowlife barring the door to Mummy’s bedroom in the haughtiest voice he could muster. Arrogance would be his fastest means towards gaining entry to LeFeuvre, he’d decided earlier.

“Whoa.” The man bared the few brown stumps residing in his mouth. “Yer couldn’t wait, could ye? Glad we offed those bores for ye?”

“The Marquess.”

“Easy, yer young cub. He’ll have ye bending over soon enuff.” The man made a lewd gesture with his hands, grinning and licking his lips. Stifling the urge to strike the man’s insolence from his leering face Mycroft drew himself a little higher and stared at him down his nose.

The man scowled and knocked on the door.

“No! Bugger off. What is it?” LeFeuvre’s educated voice rang through the door.

“It’s the young lord, Leighton,” the guard shouted back.

“Which one?” Mycroft felt his face blanch, grateful the guard’s back was turned to him. Surely LeFeuvre didn’t expect.... Sherlock was a child. Anger nearly choked him. His resolve hardened even further.

“The big one.”

“Why didn’t you say so straightaway, you fucking louse. Show him in.”

With a mock bow the man opened the door and Mycroft entered the chamber he’d last seen more than a decade ago. If today’s events had not numbed all his emotions the sight of his enemy lying in state in his mother’s bed with a couple of whores for his armrests was the last shove he needed for liberating torpor.

“Your Lordship.” Mycroft swept into a bow.

“Young Mycroft. How delightful to meet you at last.”

LeFeuvre sprang from the bed with unsettling agility, his handsome face twisted in a smirk. He wiped his hands on the none too clean muslin of his nightshirt. One of the trollops was dislodged by the unexpected movement and fell from the bed with a shriek. He kicked her in the belly repeatedly, grunting with the effort, simultaneously speaking to Mycroft, “I confess… I hadn’t expected you so soon.” He interrupted himself to shout at the prostitute, “There, you… stupid cow...” before redirecting his attention back to Mycroft, “In fact… I was sure you’d be… cowering behind the back of that stupid… servant but it seems… you’re made of sterner stuff. Saves me… the bother of dragging… you down here.”

The woman screamed and flung up her arms to defend herself. Ridges of dried blood caked under her nails. The image of Wiggins’ flayed skin flashed before Mycroft’s eyes. He told himself the woman’s hollering left him cold.

“I assumed… with Mr Talbot and Wiggins gone—”

The fiend beamed at him. “Fuck, aren’t you a clever little thing.” He kicked the whore again, between her legs this time. “Shut… your… trap… you dirty slut. Harry!”

The door opened and the guard stuck his ugly mug into the room. “Yeah.”

“Take her out. Take both of them out. I’m tired of their soppy cunts.”

The woman who had lingered in the bed rose and lifted one of Mummy’s morning gowns from the floor. It was nearly in shreds but the pattern of ruby violets was still vaguely visible beneath layers of dirt. The tart huffed and, carefully stepping over her luckless companion, swanned out of the room. The other one crawled on all fours. The door closed upon them.

“Come here, young Mycroft.” LeFeuvre patted the bed’s jumbled covers.

Eying the man warily Mycroft approached the bed. LeFeuvre’s arm snaked out and before Mycroft knew what happened he was face down on the bed with one arm wrenched behind his back. The crusted sheets’ fetor rushed up into his nostrils.

“No. Wait!” This wasn’t going as Mycroft had planned it all. He’d counted on LeFeuvre being sated and nearly insensate after a night and day of drunken carousal. The strong hand that pressed his head into the rancid bedding belonged to a different animal than that of his imaginings. A far more dangerous devil.

For an instant he was allowed to come up for air.

“You spoke, Master Mycroft.”

Repressing his shudder and the desire to scream Mycroft gasped. “You can’t… I don’t....”

LeFeuvre chuckled. “You didn’t, my lad. Lower those nice trousers for me.”

Refusal would be futile. In the half second he considered it his arm was wrested further out of its socket. Biting down on the pain and humiliation the trembling fingers of his free hand tussled with the buttons of his braces and his fly. Handicapped by the pressure on his torso and LeFeuvre’s proximity he managed to wrestle the fabric of trousers and underwear over his hips.

LeFeuvre inserted his knee to push the clothes down Mycroft’s legs until they pooled round Mycroft’s ankles. He kicked Mycroft’s legs apart as far as the trousers allowed him.

Tears erupted in Mycroft’s eyes at the searing red-hot pain that ripped him apart. He concentrated on keeping his dignity; he wouldn’t grant the brute the pleasure of crying out.
Flashes of Mummy’s face, Sherlock’s, Mr Talbot’s sustained him for the minutes his ordeal lasted, together with the wild hope that once LeFeuvre was satiated he’d let his guard down long enough for Mycroft to strike at him.

Triste est omne animal post coitum, praeter mulierem gallumque. With each thrust the cool bronze of the knife’s heft slithered past Mycroft’s heart, whispering its promise of revenge.

True to the philosopher’s observation Le Feuvre grunted and collapsed over Mycroft; a disturbingly heavy weight.

“Easy now,” he muttered in a drowsy voice when Mycroft tried to wriggle out from under him. There was the discomfort of his limp penis sliding out of Mycroft’s body. However, it allowed Mycroft to squirm free. The same instant he felt for the knife, sprang the lock.

Their anatomical studies paid off at least. It was over all too quick; the air gurgling out of the slashed windpipe providing an appropriate background noise to the blood spurting from the severed artery. Warm jets sprayed Mycroft’s face, his torso, painting them a deep crimson. He licked the blood from his lips, savouring the irony tang. He caught the last gush in his cupped hands and baptised his head with the liquid.

Et excommunicatum et anathematizatum esse decernimus.

From now on he’d forsake the world as the world had forsaken them.

After swiping with a cloth at the slush dribbling out of his body and reordering his clothes he dashed to open the servant’s door and admit Sherlock and Billy to the room.

“What took you so long?” Sherlock scowled, while Billy gasped, his eyes widening at Mycroft’s appearance. “Is he dead?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” The morning’s sniffling child had shape shifted into a fierce little demon over the course of the day. “Good thinking to cover yourself with blood, Mycroft. You’ll scare them to death.”

Gesturing for Billy to come closer and tip his head he ran his hand through the puddle of blood on the oaken floor and smeared it over Billy’s face as well as his own. Billy cottoned on to the idea and aided him.

When they bore a closer resemblance to a trio of infernal ghouls than actual human beings, Mycroft checked the pistols and rapiers Billy and Sherlock had collected from the armoury room while Mycroft had been entertaining LeFeuvre. “Right,” he said. “Let’s go. And remember, we stay together at all times.”

Howling, they dashed into the corridor. Mycroft ran his rapier through the surprised guard while Billy finished off the still naked whore he’d been ‘amusing’ himself with. Then they went back to collect LeFeuvre’s corpse. Billy dragged the cadaver along the hallway with Mycroft and Sherlock covering for him. Together they swung it over the balustrade of the landing that ran around the great hall; their declaration of war. The skull smashed into the black and white marble tiling with an audible thud.

The plan had been a good one after all. Their leader dead the posse lost what little sense it had, with most of them still inert from drink to begin with. Sherlock barraged brutally, his blade soon reddened to the hilt. They chased the few who’d managed to stumble outside through the park.

Mycroft found the slut who’d appropriated Mummy’s dress hiding in the stables. She lifted her clasped hands, begging him for mercy.

***

Mishaps occurred all too often on a ship. Especially when the seas collaborated and the boat rocked violently as its stern ploughed through tempestuous waves. A head could crash against a railing, then as the boat scaled the next roller, the larynx be crushed. Unfortunately, on a moonless night no one noticed when a poor wretch lost his footing and fell over the railing. The sound of the splash as his body hit the water was lost to the roaring storm, his waving arms soon tugged down by the currents forever milling around the bottomless ocean.

***

The man Mycroft had once addressed as Father was looming over LeFeuvre’s lifeless form, bottle in hand.

“What’s this?” he assaulted Mycroft, seemingly unperturbed by their savage visages. “What are you doing in my house?” Then he caught sight of Sherlock and fell to his knees reaching out for Sherlock’s bloodied hand from which the dripping rapier dangled.

“Violet, darling,” he cried. “At last. Oh Violet, dearest, my heart, what took you so long? But you look a fright. Molly must run you a hot bath at once.”

“What a fool,” scoffed Sherlock. “Mistaking people for flowers.”

“Oh yes, a great fool,” Mycroft concurred. His arm had never been steadier. The bottle clattered on the floor and rolled off. Billy held Mycroft as they watched the man’s dying throes. It wasn’t necessary; really, for Mycroft would have felt a deeper anguish if he’d inadvertently hurt a sparrow. However, it was kindly meant. Mycroft could appreciate that.

***

Unsurprisingly, Victor was distraught upon learning of William’s disappearance.

“But who’s to look after my collars now?” he wailed, darting to the door of Sherlock’s cabin before Mycroft could stop him to throw it open wide and dramatically announce his ungrateful servant’s departure.

“Oh darling, how dreadful, where can he have run off to?” Sherlock fed the stupid boy between two sprees of very convincing vomiting.

“I don’t know!” Victor’s hands were in his pretty hair, pulling it in despair. “He’s nowhere to be found. The whole crew is out searching for him.”

“Seedy little ingrate,” grumbled Sherlock. “Please leave, Victor. I feel even worse at the idea of you seeing me like this.”

“Poor darling.”

At Victor nearing the bed Sherlock paled and draped a fawning hand over his brow. “Please,” he pouted.

Mycroft was already levering the boy out of the small space. “Let’s find the captain and arrange for a servant while the search for William continues, Victor.”

“Oh, all right then.” Victor Trevor cast a last lingering look on Sherlock’s prone form but his devoted lover had already closed his eyes again and lay groaning in misery.

***

They spent months cleaning the house and its environs of years of despoilment.

Digging a grave deep enough to bury the remains took them a week. It was sweaty labour, with the fat flies that fed on the corpses buzzing annoyingly around their heads. They didn’t bother scaring away the crows and rats and foxes that came feasting while the bodies were lying out in the open.

Sherlock toiled as diligently as Mycroft and Billy, unperturbed by the occasional fights breaking out between rats and crows over the division of a particularly succulent piece. In the evenings, freshly scrubbed and looking like a young gentleman again he’d nudge Mycroft into plucking his violin from its case. Together they’d serenade the stars. During those hours Mycroft felt almost at peace.

The nights he spent tossing restlessly amongst the sheets, careful not to wake Sherlock, kept awake by fresh onslaughts of low craving which, unlike previously, were irksomely difficult to dispel. He loathed his body for betraying him. Surely after the rape it should wish to remain afar from such acts rather than desire them.

Countless were the times his hands sneaked downwards of their own accord, only for him to jerk them up and above the sheets again.

However, Mycroft was fighting a losing battle. Inevitably, the night arrived during which he gave in, turned his back on Sherlock and took himself in hand. White-hot light exploded behind Mycroft’s eyes, sweetness melted his veins. The shame rid hard upon the pleasure; only a pervert would masturbate next to a sleeping child, Mycroft berated himself. He was a pervert then, for his penis was already stiffening again and his hand reminding him how good it had felt to have the curiously soft skin whispering against the palm. Mycroft surged up from the bed, sank onto the floorboards and devoted himself to the rite again, adding his other hand to squeeze his testicles and oh… He gasped, pulling the air deep into his lungs.

The right wing appeared to be in the best condition so they decided to move into that part of the house. This wing also contained the kitchen, no doubt one of the most important rooms. They salvaged the best and soundest pieces of furniture from the wreckage. The rest was damaged so badly it would fetch them nothing if they tried to sell it and they chopped it for firewood. The desk in their father’s study was undamaged at least but after searching it for the account books Mycroft hacked that to pieces as well, he’d rather die than seat himself in front of it.

Basic comforts ascertained, they went combing through every nook and cranny for things of value to dispose of. They needed a new cow and at least two sacks of flour. The level of the cooking oil stood dangerously low. Candles were another necessity.

All they came up with was a pair of Mummy’s diamond earrings, a dozen silver candlesticks and a few plates of the antique Chinese eggshell porcelain, which were frankly the last things Mycroft would have expected to survive the tempest. Thanks to the accounting books Mycroft had at least an idea of their value. He would drive a hard bargain for them.

The prospect of entering the world outside the walls excited Sherlock greatly. Between fits of desperate crying he’d sit pouring over Mycroft’s old atlas with its maps of countries and England’s major cities wondering what a street looked like in reality.

“Very dirty,” Mycroft remarked.

“Spoilsport,” countered Sherlock. “Mr Talbot would be happy for me going out and about at last. All you do is pulling a long face.”

“Yes,” Mycroft sighed. “He would be. He would have given us a different life if he could. Please remember what I told you before, Sherlock. No one must ever know about us. If they find out what we have done they’ll hang Billy and me and place you in a workhouse.”

“Yes, you’ve said so a hundred times already though I think it’s stupid for they were bad people and they murdered Mr Talbot and Wiggins first.”

“I’m afraid the judge won’t consider that an exonerating circumstance. Not when they learn of the crime I’ve committed.” Mycroft shivered.

“It wasn’t a crime but justice,” Sherlock said. “Billy explained. You’re an idiot thinking I’d mind. I wish you had told me who he was so I could have spat in his face.”

“Sherlock!”

Mycroft legged off to find and berate Billy but discovered him unrepentant. Apparently Sherlock had been pestering him to disclose why Mycroft had seemed so flurried after killing that man in the hallway. Mycroft had just delivered a long reprimand when Billy astonished him by cupping his hands around Mycroft’s face and kissing him fiercely. When Mycroft froze he gentled the pressure of his lips, tickling Mycroft’s with his tongue.

Mycroft shoved at Billy, sending the servant crashing against the kitchen table.

‘What do you think you’re doing,’ he signalled.

‘You want it. I know. I watch you at night.’

‘What? How dare you?’

‘Through the keyhole.’ Billy’s gesture needed no words. ‘I like it, I like you. We could do it together. Please.’ His hand dove for Mycroft’s fly behind which counterevidence was straining to belie the motions of his fingers. The bulge in Billy’s trousers was unmistakeable.

‘No!’

‘Why not?’

Why not indeed? How to refuse such a reasonable enough request?

Because he abhorred his body’s base demands, despised his weakness each time he sought the rush of delight and his seed spurted out of his quivering penis. Because it wasn’t Billy’s face Mycroft envisioned when he pursued the pleasure. If anyone’s, it mostly resembled his mother’s. Another agonising aspect that should have lessened his hand’s zeal, not taught it to twist and stroke with more seductive competence at each new surrender.

‘I can’t.’ Caution advised him to mollify his rejection. Billy was docile by nature but, as Mycroft’s own tenacious yearnings indicated, the urges of his flesh might incite revolution. So, after a slight hesitation Mycroft added, ‘Sorry.’

Billy assessed his face. Mycroft met the scrutiny, unblinking; the servant’s gaze was the first to slant away, towards the crack along the tiled flooring.

Outside the kitchen window a robin was scratching at the soil, pulled a fat wriggling worm from the loosened earth.

‘You are free to go, if you want to,’ offered Mycroft. Considering the circumstances it seemed the most decent option. Still, it was a relief when Billy shook his head almost immediately.

‘No, where would I go?’ Sincere hurt shaded Billy’s eyes. ‘Who would have me?’

‘I would.’ For that was the truth. After everything they’d tackled together he’d confront the very gates of hell for Billy’s sake. ‘Just not that way.’

‘But you will let me look?’

Lord no, every fibre in Mycroft’s body rebelled against the idea. Yet, it furnished him with a perfect solution to the conundrum of keeping Billy satisfied and fulfilling Mycroft’s obligation to the man.

‘Fine,’ he motioned.

‘Tonight,’ Billy demanded.

‘No!’ Mycroft repeated the gesture thrice for emphasis. ‘No! No!’

More than a week passed before Mycroft succumbed. The knowledge an eager eye watched his every move sped his hand even faster and the white-hot light flashed brighter than ever before. The sound of Sherlock’s regular breathing behind his shivering back added to the shame.

The city welcomed them with its arms wide. Sherlock’s eyes were as big as saucers, his gaze darting from a fast-wheeled barouche transporting a gay well-dressed party to the multitude of beggars who’d gone to great lengths to display their impairments to best advantage. His nostrils sucked their fill with the stench of coal fires and the unappetising wares on the street sellers’ carts. In the evening he complained about the continuous noise. LeFeuvre’s reign had also consisted of long spells of silences.

A part of Mycroft had been looking forward to rediscovering the sights and smells and sounds that had excited him so as a small boy.

Then he’d believed the world a sympathetic place that existed solely to provide him and his family with joy. Now he found he trusted no one, not the maid at the inn who cooed over the little gentleman’s nice black curls, nor the jeweller who sat examining Mummy’s earrings through his jeweller’s loupe. The man complained about the old-fashioned bezel setting. Mycroft defended the stones’ quality (a quick cast around the jeweller’s wares told him the man had nothing remotely comparable on offer) and suggested the bevel yielded enough gold for modern prongs. In the end, after throwing in two of the candlesticks, he got an amount that’d supply them with five years of provision for them, provided they spent the money wisely.

“I like the city but not the people living there,” Sherlock announced on the return journey. “Most of them are stupid and crude. That dull maid groused about her wages and stole from the kitchen. And those people in the room next to ours were sniggering behind Billy’s back every time they thought we didn’t see.”

“Most people have a serious flaw to them.”

“Yes, I suppose so. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about Mr Talbot’s flaws.”

Indignation rose in Mycroft’s chest. “Mr Talbot,” he bristled. “Have you taken leave of your senses and forgot everything our tutor sustained on our behalf?”

“Of course not.” Sherlock’s pique matched Mycroft’s. “I love and esteem Mr Talbot and cherish his memory as much as you do. But you must admit his plan didn’t work. He must have acknowledged so early on and yet hung on to it mulishly. That’s deliberately foolish. He should have fled and taken us with him.”

Which too eloquently summed up Mycroft’s own reflections on the subject.

“Not another word,” he cut off the discussion.

Over next months’ course they established a pattern. Arise at dawn, breakfast, work the garden or at whatever task required to keep their part of the house functioning properly enough to shelter them. After lunch Mycroft and Sherlock would retire to the schoolroom to continue Sherlock’s education. Sherlock translated and studied history, geography, geometry and statistics under Mycroft’s direction. They fenced and played duets on their violins, often compositions of Sherlock’s devising. They danced, gravely counting the beats as they stepped and whirled around each other. Sherlock derided the fencing and dancing classes’ necessity but consumed his education avidly. His face radiated pure elation each time he performed a particularly deft counter riposte or entrechat.

In the evenings Billy patched their clothes or aided Sherlock in his experiments in the scullery they’d transformed into a provisional laboratory while Mycroft read yet another volume full of advice on whatever pest they were dealing with at the time.

Occasionally Mycroft felt compelled to ask both Billy and Sherlock whether this mode of life was sufficient, only to meet similar derision from both of them.

‘I knew what I let myself in for,’ Billy’s fingers flew in time to Sherlock’s, “you’re an idiot, Mycroft.”

Never his brother spoke words more true. Over the years the vision Mycroft conjured while he sought pleasure from his hand transformed itself from his mother into that of his brother. Sherlock had turned fifteen last winter and his body was no longer a child’s but all intriguing slants and angles. Flowing long limbs and firm flesh. His mouth grew wider, fuller. Mycroft studied it chewing, laughing, arguing, sipping water from a glass. What would it feel like against Mycroft’s? The sense memory of Billy’s lips sprang up, their desperate warmth. But Billy’s lips were razor thin and often chapped, nothing like the soft rose-hued petals that uncurled themselves at dawn to wish him a good morning after Mycroft had fantasised another night about bruising them. And he hadn’t wanted to kiss Billy. He wanted Sherlock’s mouth beneath his. So very, very much.

One day, while browsing the library for a book with a cure for the curious bleeding disease that had affected one of their apple trees Mycroft unearthed a stash of erotica from behind a false set of books. Mr Talbot’s sad “Every young man of means is granted a brief spell of tomfoolery to better appreciate the comforts of marriage after,” ran around his mind while he perused them, one eye guarding the library door. Their discovery nearly undid him, providing his imagination with a variety of alternative uses for Sherlock’s mouth.

His little brother’s mouth.

And yet, when Mycroft caught Billy one day in the kitchen surreptitiously rubbing his trousers while gaping at an oblivious Sherlock chopping wood outside he was onto him in an instant.

‘No!’

Billy’s face darkened as he pushed at Mycroft and signalled, ‘Only looking. You said I may look.’

‘At me, yes. He’s too young.’

Billy snorted. ‘You think so.’ He gave Mycroft another shove for emphasis, stalked to the stove and rattled various handles to announce the conversation was over.

‘You think so.’ The insidious expression that had accompanied the motions of Billy’s fingers.

Considering his impaired hearing the servant had an uncanny aptitude for stealthy movement, occasionally startling Mycroft who’d been so intent on whatever task he was busy with he’d been temporarily deaf to the world. Had he caught… Mycroft shut down that line of thought straightaway for the debilitating implications on his predicament.

The idea of Sherlock’s newly-matured body dictating his brother’s mind as Mycroft’s body dictated his’ was too harrowing to consider; if only for the inevitable outcome. For nature dictated that in a world of three, his brother’s attentions would settle on Billy, reducing Mycroft’s role to that of jealous outsider. He’d be the one perching with his eye at the keyhole.

Repugnant as the pictures were, yet those now crowded his fevered brain as he performed for Billy’s gratification. Self-loathing and jealousy guided him onto the floor to participate in the rite that left him sobbing in pain rather than moaning in pleasure. A part of him implored the servant’s initiative, reasoning the accomplished fact would be easier to bear than this prolonged waiting for the inevitable outcome.

***

“When will we arrive? We passed the last village ages ago?”

“I told you the house’s location is remote,” Sherlock spoke tiredly from the corner of the carriage.

“Yes, but I thought everything in Europe was small compared to America,” Victor retorted in a petulant tone.

Mycroft poked Sherlock’s shin with his boot’s pointed toe. His nerves were rubbed raw after two weeks of the boy’s inane company. A ‘recovered’ Sherlock ought to be making up for lost time, not sulking as far away from his lover as the conveyance’s small space permitted.

Hint taken Sherlock unbuttoned his gloves. The pale moonlight glimpsing through the small windows revealed pale fingers seeking Victor Trevor’s. He pulled, rather roughly, but Victor liked it as proven by that annoying high giggle of his as he collapsed against Sherlock’s chest, lingered there blissfully.

Sherlock blew into Victor’s hair, stroked his jaw, gaze steady on Mycroft who shifted in his seat and switched his attention to the silver-outlined landscape hurtling past, its few features appearing even more forlorn without the sun’s scarlet graze warming the scant trees and shrubs. His ears subverted the effects of his outward disinterest, fixed as rigidly on the rustle of clothes transmitted from the opposite seat as his eyes on the desolate swamp they were crossing.

Fell whispering; then the piercing giggle again, all the more jarring offset against the deep rumble of Sherlock’s baritone, enticing the boy into sighing. A quivering, high-pitched “oh my darling”.

Sloppy, moist sounds. They were kissing. Sherlock’s white hand settled on what must be Victor’s thigh, inched higher. A spider closing on its prey, tangled unaware of the danger in the silken webbing, moaning its consent.

It took several attempts for Mycroft’s trembling fingers to extract his handkerchief from his jacket pocket.

The boy was nothing but a fly. A fat writhing fly they needed to keep happy and alive for another four weeks. Only a month and the money would be deposited into their father’s bank account and they’d be free of the nuisance for the rest of their lives. Five months earlier they’d been in desperate straits. It was Mycroft who’d determined they’d go sailing the seas in search of fish again. And what a fish they’d caught. Three hundred and thirty thousand pound sterling of fish. If only its taste wasn’t so sour.

Sherlock was acting his part. Playing the boy as deft as his violin, in accord with Mycroft’s virtual command. The aching jealousy was uncalled for. Sherlock was Mycroft’s. Neither of them had ever partaken of another body but his sibling’s.

Then what was his handkerchief doing in Mycroft’s mouth? He bit it to stifle his snarl for Sherlock to quit. Another moan from the boy. His leg shuddered, touched Mycroft’s briefly, before raising itself to coil around Sherlock’s.

Mycroft screwed his eyes shut against the view. Victor Trevor’s sense of entitlement, he decided, was what irked him so. The cool assumption he warranted the devotion and attention of such a superior creature. Perhaps Mycroft ought to prepare him a small lecture on the benefits of true Christian modesty.

The sermon’s composition supported him for the duration of the ride. Still, he heaved a sigh of relief when the coach rattled past the high entry gates at last.

***

For months Mycroft’s days consisted solely of agonising and longing and waiting for Billy to place his opening bid. In the evenings he sat turning the leaves of his book with eyes as blind as Billy’s ears were deaf, listening for the sounds drifting out of the scullery. The tinkle of glassware, the creaking of the pump handle followed by the splatter of water in a pail. After his failure with Mycroft the servant would likely choose a less bold approach.

If only it were over and done with. Then he could sleep again at least.

Once, as they trudged up the stairs after another long evening Mycroft had wasted in a morass of jealousy and misery absolute certainty smote him like a bolt from the heavens he’d forsworn. Sherlock and Billy had already reached an understanding, behind his back. Modesty made them conduct the affair outside the house.

Except, Mycroft pondered as they sat waiting at the kitchen table for the servant to cut up the pair of rabbits he’d prepared, modesty wasn’t Sherlock’s strongest suit.

Billy placed the plate in front of Mycroft, and another in front of Sherlock before seating himself. The portions on each plate were equal in quantity and quality. If they were lovers surely Billy would deal Sherlock the best and most juicy pieces of meat.

Oh lord, the maddening jealousy. Mycroft wanted to pound his head against the table, smash the plate against the wall and watch the runny dark sauce dribble slowly down the newly whitewashed plaster.

And still the torture would have been endurable if his fevered brain hadn’t stoked the fire in his loins. The madness drove Mycroft from the bed relentlessly to shed his offer into the cup that never ran over, close to hating the body that drowsed in seemingly innocent sleep behind him.

One night, after a particularly exhausting session Mycroft was hauling himself back between the sheets when his searching hand encountered Sherlock’s. Quickly, he tried to pull his hand away but Sherlock held on.

“What are you doing?” he whispered, urgently. “Let me go.”

Instead of loosening his grip Sherlock tightened his fingers. “There’s no need to lower your voice, Mycroft,” he chuckled. “No one will hear you. No one but I.”

“Sweet lord, no.” Shame painted Mycroft’s back with sweat. “Sherlock,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll never touch you. I swear.” Despair sapped his strength. When he renewed his attempts to wrench himself loose Sherlock restrained him as easily as if he were a kitten.

“You’re an idiot, Mycroft,” he said. “A blind idiot.”

He yanked Mycroft’s arm to tug him closer.

Mycroft fell forward. Their foreheads would have collided if Sherlock hadn’t angled his head. Unlike Mycroft, he knew exactly what was happening.

“An idiot,” he repeated and engulfed Mycroft’s mouth with his to suck and lick without finesse, his hand clamping Mycroft’s arm to prevent his brother’s struggling. Which was fortunate the sensible part of Mycroft’s mind lectured him sternly for he ought to concentrate on shoving off his brother’s body, instead of relishing the inexpert sweep of his lips over Mycroft’s. Your own flesh and blood, his conscience reminded him. Stop this.

“Stop this,” Sherlock said peevishly when he broke the assault for a breath of air. “I’m giving you what you want. You haven’t exactly been quiet, you know.”

“Sherlock, forgive me,” stammered Mycroft. “I’ve been in the wrong, wronged you. You must see this can never be.”

“Why?” Sherlock queried and used Mycroft’s bewilderment over the question to clamber upon Mycroft and slot his front flawlessly along Mycroft’s, nearly undoing him as the evidence of his desire prodded Mycroft’s abdomen through their nightshirts.

“Why?” he reiterated, his hips quivering but not quite thrusting yet. The white of his eyes glistened in the shards of moonlight peeping through the cracks of the shutters as if he were truly desirous to learn Mycroft’s motivations.

“You said you didn’t believe in heaven and hell anymore,” he continued, his voice lilting, soft, the muslin shifting over Mycroft’s belly with each push and pull. “You’d abandoned the world. And yet you still cling to its arbitrary rules. Now if I were your sister I’d abide with your objections for we’d run the risk of you losing me in childbirth.”

Blood-soaked bedding. Sherlock’s skin, shining whiter than ever against the sodden crimson sheets and the deep black curls that surround his face like a halo and the shadow of death.

Mycroft shivered, moaned, scrunched shut his eyelids to dispel the dreadful image.

“You see,” Sherlock whispered. “Thankfully I’m not your sister. We can do whatever we want, Mycroft. For there’s no one to stop us.” He lowered his face to Mycroft’s to align their lips again, much gentler this time, and then they were kissing, tongues twining and breaths mingling. Sherlock loosened his grip on Mycroft’s arm and Mycroft used his hand not to push at his brother but cradle his head as his lips teased and pressed at Sherlock’s in an ecstasy of delight.

Sherlock moaned and then he was thrusting with quick drives of his hips, slanting his face to bury it into Mycroft’s shoulder. He spasmed. Mycroft kept kissing his sweaty curls, murmuring praise. Warm moisture sank through the muslin and glued the fabric to Mycroft’s skin. Such waste, Mycroft thought, his fingers rubbing soothing circles over Sherlock’s back, which was quivering with aftershocks. He would have liked a nip.

Except, Sherlock was right of course. There was no one to stop them and keep Mycroft from sampling every part of his brother’s body for the rest of his life if such was what his brother desired.

“No one will stop us,” he promised Sherlock, fingertips still caressing the long stretch of his quietly vibrating back. His brother’s limbs were so heavy and placid Mycroft concluded the boy must have fallen asleep on top of him, exhausted from exertion. It was enough for now, Mycroft thought, adjusting his leg to a more comfortable position. They could talk tomorrow if they needed to.

His eyelids were fluttering closed when the heavy weight slithered off him and came to a rest at his side. Then he prodded and nudged with his head until Sherlock’s head rested on Mycroft’s chest and both Mycroft’s arms were clasped around his waist.

“Mycroft?” Sherlock sounded wide-awake.

“Yes.”

“What do we do about Billy?”

Mycroft swallowed. “Billy?” he stalled for time. “What about him?”

“I’ve caught him at it one day, last summer, when I was swimming in the stream.”

“What?” Mycroft roused himself so suddenly he launched Sherlock onto the mattress. “What? What did he do? Did he touch you?”

“No!” Sherlock’s fist thumped the bed. “No, he didn’t. He didn’t even try to defend himself when I accosted him. He told me it was all right, that the two of you had an understanding. That he was allowed to look.”

“Yes,” growled Mycroft, “at me. That’s what we agreed upon. But not at you. He lied. For how long has this been going on?” Every muscle in his body was straining to jump from the bed, yank open the door and trash the servant for his brazen impunity.

“Oh, too long.” Sherlock shrugged. “All the time I sat waiting and waiting for the cows to come home and you to act.” He scooted to his knees and grasped Mycroft’s hands, turning them palm upwards. “You’re jealous, aren’t you?” he murmured, lifting each hand to press kisses on the fingertips and sweep his gaze upwards at Mycroft from beneath thick lashes. “Do you love me very much, Mycroft?”

“Yes.” Denial was useless, especially since Mycroft’s defence system had been defective from the start. “Yes, that’s why I never said anything openly, Sherlock. To protect you against me.”

“You’d rather I’d have taken up with Billy.”

“No.” Mycroft shook his head. “Sherlock, you are right, I was an idiot. All these objections I’ve been phrasing these past years until my head was filled with webbing and you’ve torn it away with the one argument that counts. I’d rather cut off my own hand than allow Billy to touch you and all this time I’ve been telling myself it would be best if he did for your sake, for his and for mine.”

“Well, that definitely proves both Billy and I are cleverer than you whatever you may think, Mycroft,” Sherlock said smugly. “But it only leads us back to the beginning of our quarrel. Do you think he’s looking at us now?”

“I don’t know,” Mycroft answered truthfully. Sherlock peered into the darkness at the door. “He isn’t,” he said at last.

“What? How can you know that? He’s very quiet.”

“It’s a full moon and plenty of light falling into the room. If he were watching now you’d see the glint of his eye behind the keyhole,” Sherlock explained.

“You mean—” Lord, this was too absurd. “Yes,” Sherlock said and they both burst out laughing.

“I think he didn’t know where to look just now,” Sherlock sniggered.

“Perhaps it would be best to just carry on and keep up the pretence,” suggested Mycroft. “Or do you think we should speak to him?”

“No,” Sherlock decided. “Billy will understand. Do you remember how Mr Talbot always said Billy was one of the cleverest boys he’d ever met?”

“That’s only because he never got the chance to see your full potential,” Mycroft said, drawing him close for a kiss.

***

Billy had been hard at work. The mahogany furniture in the yellow drawing room shone reddishly with beeswax, the chair and table legs reflecting the merrily leaping flames of the quickly laid fire dancing in the grate. He supplied their honoured guest with tea and toast with deferentially lowered eyelids before scurrying off to draw Victor a hot bath.

“How can you have only one servant?” Victor complained, while sampling the tea.

“Is it to your liking, dearest?” Sherlock queried anxiously, while Mycroft answered the question. “Unlike others Billy has little to distract him. That and his versatility lead to him doing the work of three in less time than it would have taken six men.”

“The tea is good,” conceded Victor none too graciously. “And I could do with a bath after that hideously long journey.”

“We all could,” Mycroft endorsed heartily. “I’m afraid we’ve only the one bathroom, Victor. Billy keeps it meticulously clean, of course.”

The idea of sitting in the same tub as Mycroft seemed to perturb Victor. Then his gaze swerved to Sherlock who hid the lower half of his face behind cup and saucer.

“In that case we might as well share,” the boy ventured. “You must feel like a bath as well, Sherrinford.”

“Much as Sherrinford might want to I’m afraid he can’t,” Mycroft cut that suggestion down sharply. He plastered an apologetic smile to his face. “We’ve been away for a long time, Victor, which means we’ve pressing business to attend to. You know how it works.”

Victor opened his mouth, the frown creasing his forehead evidencing he was about to object. Sherlock jumped in after a quick glance at Mycroft. “My brother is a slave driver as you can see. But he will spare me a few minutes to scrub your back, dearest. Go up to enjoy your soak.”

Momentarily free of the vexing urchin at last they stared at each other. Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Lord, what a moron. His puerility will do us in before we can lay our hands on him. Now that would be ironic.”

“You didn’t seem averse to having your hands wandering all over him,” Mycroft replied coldly.

“What?” Sherlock’s disbelief was hardly a match for his outrage. “It was you who told me to cushion the idiot. I have a bruise on my shin to prove it.”

“Since when is sweetening a synonym for making love? There was no need to bring the boy to completion before my eyes.”

For a maddening instant Sherlock looked proud of the accomplishment. Then his expression settled into a scowl and his hand slashed the air. “Nonsense. You know I did nothing of the kind. It’s hardly my fault you chose a lust-riddled reprobate this time.”

“There’s no need to stoke the fire.”

“My point exactly.” Sherlock was almost shouting, his voice only curbed by the severity of Mycroft’s glare. “I’ve four weeks of keeping the fellow's hands at bay without raising his suspicions to look forward to. Not the most rousing of prospects. It would help if you’d steer clear off your unwarranted jealousy in the meantime.”

Relief flooded Mycroft’s chest but he needed the reassurance, despising the restless and needful creature in his stomach that rebuffed Sherlock’s every gesture and word of proof he was Mycroft’s.

“Unwarranted,” he repeated. “I’ll hold you onto that.”

“For crying out loud!” Sherlock threw his hands into the air and stalked out of the room.

Mycroft lifted the poker from its rack and prodded at the flames until they nearly leapt out of the grate.

***

The sluice gates were open wide and they tumbled and played as happy as a pair of seals in the newly liberated waters. Sherlock was shameless and nearly insatiable, tackling Mycroft whenever the fancy overtook him, regardless of their surroundings. The need to rein in base appetite dispensed with Mycroft abandoned himself eagerly to Sherlock’s wantonness until he was convinced there wasn’t an area left on the grounds that hadn’t witnessed the consummation of their love.

The meaning of the dances they still studied finally revealed itself to Mycroft as they bowed their heads to each other from across the room, approached the middle with long solemn steps and aligned their right hands to gaze into each other’s eyes over the rim of their welded fingertips.

This must be what Ovid and Shakespeare hinted at, Mycroft thought, as they pivoted around the centre pole of their combined hands. This mix of joy and pain and achievement was what their father had known and lost and for a moment Mycroft felt almost inclined to pity the man.

Though no remorse. For if their father had lived Mycroft would have been forbidden to partake of this sweet fruit that now said in a peeved tone, “For heaven’s sake, that’s the second time you stepped on my toe. Watch what you’re doing.”

Such blessedness couldn’t last, naturally, Mycroft considered that winter evening shortly after Sherlock’s twenty-first birthday when the three of them sat nursing their rumbling stomachs and huddling close to the kitchen stove in an attempt to keep warm. The money from the last candlesticks and porcelain had long since been consumed, save for twenty pounds set apart for dire emergencies.

Billy stood up to pour them all another cup of tea. That, at least, they had still plenty of.

“There must be something we can do,” complained Sherlock. “If we part ways no one will ask questions we’d rather not answer. You could easily find yourself a position as a tutor to some thick-headed cretin, Mycroft.”

“Less easy than you’d think without a letter of introduction or proof of any formal education.”

“Then I could offer my services as a violin tutor. I’d only need to give a recital for a family to hire me.”

“No,” Mycroft decreed. “I won’t be separated from you.”

“Fat lot of good that will do us when it ends with the three of us starving,” snorted Sherlock.
“We can’t go on like this, Mycroft.”

“Yes, thank you very much for that totally redundant information,” Mycroft snarled and cut himself off, horrified by his tone’s ferocity. They were on the brink of their first proper row. Over something as vulgar as money.

“I have—,” he began, tentatively, for if they broke into their small treasury now their ultimate ending would arrive the sooner. However, Sherlock, cut in, his face lit with excitement.

“Listen,” he said. “If we can’t go out to the world why not bring the world here? We’ll go abroad together, Mycroft, and present ourselves as gentlemen of means. I’ll make someone fall in love with me and do it so well they’ll be desperate to follow me here. Then, once we’ve secured their money we’ll do away with them.”

“What?” Mycroft was appalled. As Billy caught sight of his astonishment and outrage he nudged Sherlock in the side to ask him for a translation of his proposal. Sherlock eagerly complied, outlining the scheme to the servant who first looked perplexed, then obviously grasped the essence of the plan and nodded his approval.

“You’re both mad,” Mycroft stated. “What you propose is we murder innocent people for money. That would mean we’re no better than a gang of pirates, or highwaymen. No better than LeFeuvre.” Much, much worse than that rapist debauched roué. They truly would be wolf unto men where formerly they’d only defended themselves. “We can’t,” he ended.

“It’s either that or one of us finding a position,” Sherlock countered. “Your choice, brother dear.”

A choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. But the devil was disguised as his brother – his breathtakingly beautiful brother whom he adored and whose body he hankered after even as pangs of hunger gnawed at his stomach, and the sea was filled with the anonymous visages of the people who’d let them rot when Mr Talbot pleaded for their help. It wasn’t much of a choice really.

“But it’s cold-blooded murder.” Mycroft’s conscience flickered briefly in a last attempt to ward off impending reality.

Sherlock snorted. “Thirty-seven degrees Celsius isn’t that cold. My feet are a lot colder I assure you.” His tone gentled. “They needn’t suffer, Mycroft. They’ll believe themselves loved. We’ll do it while they’re asleep.”

“The bedding will be horribly smirched.”

Sherlock laughed. “Thank god we’re experts at removing blood stains.” He translated the sentence for Billy’s benefit, who guffawed and pretended to engage in an enthusiastic bout of elbow greasing. Sickened with their callousness and the knowledge he’d already concurred with the scheme Mycroft leapt up and fled the kitchen.

He warded off Sherlock’s attentions that night but the next morning he joined his brother and the servant in shifting through their wardrobes for the pieces that with a little reworking would help Sherlock and him resemble a pair of gentlemen.

True to Sherlock’s predictions his feelings were remarkably calm as he angled the man’s head for Sherlock to sever the brachiocephalic artery with one quick slash. What helped was the hatred he’d nurtured for the man during the weeks of their acquaintance, reduced to observing the lout fondling his brother while his hands were tied at his back with invisible bonds.

The next one was easier and their booty more bountiful, but it had never been enough. Over the years they’d grown bolder. The first resplendence of Sherlock’s youth was dimming. He still turned every head walking into a room but they’d only a few years left to rake in the cash that would support the three of them for a lifetime.

Really, they’d been extremely lucky to encounter Victor Trevor. He was their treasure trove.

***

They buried the limp body next to the others. The flowers in this area of the grounds were more abundant than those in any other part. Mycroft told himself their profusion was just another unappetising aspect of the flowers themselves. He’d never been a lover of poppies, their blatant crimson colouring always vaguely nauseated him.

Thankfully the spot was hidden from sight, behind the orchard wall.

In the kitchen they washed their hands. Billy stoked the fire and put the kettle on while Mycroft laid the table and Sherlock cut the bread.

They ate and drank heartily, thankful to be free at last of the hateful intruder.

Afterwards Sherlock took Mycroft by the hand and led them to their bed. There they made love until the first tentative sunrays slanted through the window and painted Sherlock’s pale skin a glowing deep red.