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Dying Embers

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He looks down at his fingers, the smoke curling lazily up between them, blue and elusive in the dark.

 

He stares, mesmerised, following its meandering path, forever upwards, eyes straining to watch it for as long as he can before it dissipates into the frigid night air.

 

It’s a clear night, unnaturally still; even the busy London traffic having trickled down to the odd cab at this late hour. Sherlock usually loves nights like this, when the air is crisp; cold and biting, and the lack of cloud cover makes it seem like his mind could expand endlessly up into the featureless sky.

 

It’s foolish, but he feels like tonight the sky has replaced its clarity, the purity of its openness for something else.

 

Tonight it doesn’t make him feel enlightened, calm, or invigorated. Even the cold fresh air is oppressive and heavy, despite the low humidity.

 

The emptiness holds no prospects for him tonight, it doesn’t come with the promise of a chase, or an idea, it doesn’t motivate him, make him feel alive with the endless possibilities dancing before him, instead; it is simply nothing.

 

Logically he knows that this is always so, that this night sky is no different now than a thousand nights before it, or the next thousand to come.

 

He is not a spiritual man, not by any stretch, but just sometimes, the sheer vastness of the night sky, all that empty space, staring up into the face of infinity; well, that’s a powerful thing, enough to make a man believe in…something.

 

Or at least be a cause for inspiration, a catalyst for profound thought.

 

But not now. Perhaps it’s not the universe afterall; maybe it’s just him, something wrong with him. He certainly feels wrong, can barely remember a time when he didn’t.

 

The sky is accusing, because it knows, is probably the only one who truly knows what he’s done, the scale of it. He’s seen this sky from every corner of the world, but he’s home now, and it’s never felt more unwelcoming.

 

Is this guilt? Is that what this is? Is he seeking atonement in the heavens? That doesn’t much sound like him, but then, he’s never quite sure who that person is anymore.

 

Perhaps he has simply gone mad, his mind decaying under the onslaught of two years of hell, unable to cope with everything he’s seen and experienced.

 

Either way, the doors of the universe are closed to him, leaving him feeling cast out; forsaken, chastised somehow. He can’t bear to look for a second longer. He drops his gaze to the cigarette burning down in his hand; forgotten.


He suddenly doesn’t want that spark to be extinguished; he watches the orange glow, the tiny ember, flimsy paper and tobacco, burning at a set rate, burning; burning away, its grasp on existence so tenuous and fragile.


There’s no way to stop it now, he can’t un-light the thing, not without destroying it, and he can’t slow its pace.


That tiny light is doomed, he cannot save it.


It’s irrational, but in this moment, he desperately wants to.


He breathed life into a finite, weak object, for his own purposes, and in doing so, the death of his creation is automatically preordained, its end was written the moment he flicked the clipper, flint and oxygen colliding to create a spark.


What he offered was fleeting; in birth he decided its ultimate fate on the short path to nothingness. Creation, leading only to inevitable destruction.

 

He’d set out with good intentions; to protect and serve. But instead he’d set the world ablaze, having the audacity to stand and watch it all burn.

 

~

 

The door clicks shut quietly behind him, and he steps out cautiously to greet his brother, carefully making just enough noise to announce his presence without being too obtuse.

 

Sherlock’s instincts have been sharpened to a razor point, and he’s still somewhat unstable; fragile, but dangerous, and it would not do well to alarm him.

 

Mycroft observes his brother’s profile silently; sitting somewhat uncomfortably on the cushioned seat, ash tray overflowing on the table in front of him.

 

This furniture is teak mahogany; tasteful and expensive, but it rarely sees much use; in his line of work there is precious little time for appreciating the gardens of his estate.

 

Sherlock is no longer used to such luxury; the concept has become foreign to him. He has positioned himself nearest to the house, with his back against the wall, a vantage point where he can see all possible routes for approach, instincts still on high alert.

 

Sherlock’s face is blank, but he cannot read him. He looks so different now; hardened by the atrocities of war. He’s sharper, his features chiselled, gaze piercing, skin weathered and adorned with lines; aged beyond his years.

 

The man before him is accustomed to fighting for his survival, surrounded by chaos. He’s a hard man; toughened by experience, capable of fending for himself. He isn’t Mycroft’s baby brother anymore.

 

He steps up to the table.

 

“You don’t have to go back, you know.”

 

Sherlock turns to look at him with a neutral expression, and his eyes are so cold. It is a face so familiar to him, so much so that it scares him when he finds that he can’t see through its walls. He worries that he doesn’t know this person, this stranger wearing his brother’s skin.

 

Sherlock shrugs and turns away.

 

“Yes I do.”

 

It’s the expected response; he wants to go home.

 

Mycroft slides into the seat beside him, sharing his view across the darkened grounds, and wrinkling his nose at the stench of tobacco smoke pervading the air.

 

“But not necessarily straight away,” Mycroft proposes gently.

 

“You’re worried.” Sherlock monotones bluntly, not tearing his eyes from the darkness.

 

“Yes,” Mycroft admits; “I am.”

 

“I’m fine,” Sherlock dismisses coolly, and Mycroft wonders about the things he hasn’t told him; everything he’s been through, all the details he knows Sherlock left out, the hardships, the pain he’s suffered; private terrors to which he will never admit.

 

He will never know what it was like for him, alone out there on the battlefield, how he felt; he can never understand.

 

Mycroft sighs.

 

“You’re not fine, you’ve simply become habituated to living in this state; you adapted, by necessity.”

 

He hadn’t intended to be so direct, and he wonders if he’s pushed too far, overstepping his mark, but he needn’t have worried.

 

“Survival of the fittest.” Sherlock murmurs with a smirk, blowing smoke out in front of him, captivated by the tendrils catching the light, he follows them up into the sky before abruptly dropping his head.

 

What was that about?

 

“It would be alright, to rest for a while, you’ve earned that much,” he assures, “You could stay here.”

 

“And do what, exactly?”

 

“It doesn’t matter.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

It’s not a brush off, but nor is it a concession, and Mycroft is still on the back foot.

 

Sherlock is still eerily calm, not reacting with the same scorn as he once would have. Before he would have been prickly and irritable in the face of Mycroft’s probing concern; that he would know how to deal with, but this? This is new.

 

They fall silent, Mycroft watching Sherlock in his periphery as he smokes, hands trembling slightly; the only tell.

 

He soaks up his brother’s company, just immeasurably glad for his presence, so relieved to finally have him home and safe. Sherlock here, alive and in one piece, is everything he could have hoped for.

 

“I missed you,” Mycroft confesses quietly.

 

Sherlock looks down, concentrating on delicately stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. Mycroft knows he heard.

 

He says nothing, but his posture changes fractionally; diminishing his defences.

 

He’s beginning to open up; Sherlock is letting him in.

 

They say nothing for so long that Mycroft jumps when Sherlock finally speaks.

 

“I’m tired My.”

 

He swivels, so that they are face to face and oh; Mycroft can see him now. He looks so sad, so lost.

 

He has to close his eyes for a moment in order to recover, gently squeezing his brother’s shoulder.

 

“I know. And I’m sorry; I truly am. But it’s over now, and you must allow yourself to rest.”

 

Sherlock fiddles with his lighter, examining it in great detail. Mycroft expects him to light another, but he never does; they just sit there, side by side.

 

He finds himself wishing with everything he has that none of this had happened, that he’d never had to send his little brother into a warzone.

 

They’re in a bubble of time, removed from the world. No one knows where they are, Sherlock could live out the rest of his days here peacefully, and no one would be any the wiser.

 

Mycroft wants to give him that; a sanctuary, a place shielded from society, where he can make peace with himself and begin the recovery process.

 

Sherlock still thinks like a soldier, and after two years in the field that is understandable. But he is not yet equipped for a return to civilian life, and he must undergo a rehabilitation of sorts, just like any other ex-serviceman would.

 

His mind palace will require some restructuring, his psychological status a self-re-evaluation. He needs to stop thinking of himself as an elite operative; to let go of his persona, and all that added stress, the high-strung tension that makes Mycroft wary; afraid he might snap.

 

Sherlock needs to slow down.

 

Only…in doing so, Mycroft is concerned that his past actions may catch up to him; deeds that he had dissociated from coming back to haunt him.

 

His brother has a heart; a big one, no matter what anyone thinks, and though it may have been on pause for a while, Mycroft knows him; how susceptible to emotion he can be.

 

The last thing Sherlock needs right now is to be consumed by it; his own heart tearing itself apart in horror at what he has done.

 

If he stops to dwell on the trauma, taking pause to relive the agony inflicted upon his person, then who knows where that path might lead?

 

There is so much backlog for him to process, years of pain that his mind has repressed in order to cope, an endless stream of terrible memories he will need to sift through in order to heal.

 

Mycroft is reluctant to press play, but he knows that he cannot protect him forever; and he has let him down so much on that front already.

 

How much hurt can one man suffer before he breaks irrevocably?

 

Sherlock has never been innocent, not since he was a child, and even then not in the way an ordinary child might be, but the things he’s seen and experienced in the past two years have changed him, and it’s not something that Mycroft has the power to undo.

 

He knows Sherlock always resented his efforts to keep him safe, but that never really mattered, as long as it worked. But he’s well and truly failed this time, not in his professional capacity; but as a brother.

 

He should have seen the threat that Moriarty posed, recognised it for what it was and-

 

“Don’t do this to yourself Mycroft; we both know it couldn’t have gone any other way.”

 

It’s disconcerting; it is not usually this way around; Sherlock reading him like an open book, whilst he remains completely in the dark.

 

But he supposes it should not come as such a shock; Sherlock would have had to further hone his observational and deductive skills as well as his reflexes; to fortify his mind, to become smarter, more impenetrable.

 

He wants to argue; to say that they cannot possibly know this, that there could have been some way; if only they had found it. But they didn’t, so what would be the point?

 

“No,” he agrees instead, “we can’t change the past, but the future…the future will wait.”

 

He stands, buttoning his suit jacket, right hand lingering on his brother’s shoulder.

 

“Stay as long as you wish.”

 

The Ice Man.

 

If only the world knew how wrong they were. In truth, it was elementary; the answer is the simplest and oldest form of leverage on the planet; to cripple Mycroft Holmes, all one must do is get to his brother.

 

But he doesn’t need someone to cripple him, he’s already done it; all on his own.